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No writer is immune either to censorship or (to what is not always easily distinguishable) angry response from his readers. Petrarch was not the exception who proves the rule. The 1549 Sonnets seen below is a magnificently bound volume but the splendor of its dress has not preserved its contents from the destructiveness all too clearly wreaked upon it, the work of a person deeply serious about making the text unreadable. He has not drawn dutiful but inoffensive thin lines through the text to indicate offending passages while nonetheless leaving them legible for the delectation of the venturesome reader. Pieces of paper pasted over crossed-out passages, found elsewhere in the volume, as well as the furious ink curlicues that cover both text and occasional lines even of commentary, make vividly clear that the perpetrator wanted these passages permanently effaced.

Stefano Colonna’s 1552 edition also shows defacement. The cause for these acts of censorship — both the 1549 and 1552 volumes exhibit what is unambiguously that, not mere anger — is obvious. Indeed, the same poems in each edition are defaced. Three of them are easier to see in the 1552 edition than in 1549: they are numbers 136, "Fiamma dal Ciel" ("Flames from heaven"), 137, "L'avara Babilonia" ("Greedy Babylon"), and 138, "Fontane di dolore" ("Font of sorrow").

Each criticizes the decadence of the papal court at Avignon, which Petrarch even compares to the Whore of Babylon — a pejorative whose sixteenth-century adoption by Protestants he could not have foreseen in the fourteenth century, when no Protestants existed. But Counter-Reformation censors clearly thought contemporary reformers likely to read Petrarch's criticism as prefiguring their criticisms of the Roman papacy of their own era, and they sought to eliminate these poems from the printed record. The uncensored state of a second copy of the 1552 edition however, indicates why the censor's life was unlikely to be an entirely happy one: you could never be certain that you had caught them all.

with facing portraits of Petrarca and Laura.

Francesco Petrarca.
Il Petrarca.
Lyons: per Gioanni de Tournes, 1550.
University of Pennsylvania Library.

Jean de Tournes printed this lovely pocket edition of the Sonnets, the Canzone, and the Triumphs in Lyons. The text may be Italian in language but, from its title-page depiction of Petrarch and Laura within the frame of a lover's heart, through the double set of woodcuts (displayed here) that open the Triumph of Love, to the delicacy of its small size , the book is decidedly French in appearance and feel.

In contrast, Petrarch's sentiments layed far from France. One of his four invectives is hurled against "A Detractor of Italy" (Invectiva contra eum qui maledixit Italie); in it, Gallia, Roman France, is the frequent target of the Poet's verbal missiles. It was inconceivable for Petrarch that the Papacy be anywhere but Rome, and the Holy See "held captive" in Avignon. The following sonnet, presented here in translation, summarizes in full his disdain for the Avignon Papacy with a critical vehemence that, for later generations, bordered all too dangerously on heresy.

Sonnet, RVF 138
"Fontana di dolor, albergo d'ira"

Font of sorrow and inn of wrath,
school of error, and temple of heresy,
once Rome, now Babylon of perfidy,
the source of our many tears and sighs.

O forge of deceipt, oh dire prison,
where goodness dies, and evil's bred and nursed;
of the living a hell, and a miracle indeed
should Christ's own ire not finally wax against you.

Founded in chaste and humble poverty,
you raise your horns now, shameless whore,
against your founders? Where lies your hope?

within your wantonness? In your ill-born wealth?
Thus Constantine shall not return; may he be wrenched
from this wicked world that bears him.


Francesco Petrarca.
Sonetti Canzoni e Triomphi, con la spositione di Bernardino Daniello da Lucca.
Venice: per Pietro & Gioanmaria Fratelli de Nicolini da Sabio, ad instanza di M. Gioambattista Pederzano, 1549.
University of Pennsylvania Library.

Fol. 86v.
Fol. 87r.

Stefano Colonna, d. 1548.
I sonetti, le canzoni, et i triomphi di M. Laura in risposta di M. Francesco Petrarcha per le sue rime in vita, it dopo la morte di lei. Pervenuti alle mani del magnifico M. Stephano Colonna, gentil'huomo romano . . .
[Venice: per Comin da Trino di Monferrato,] A San Luca al segno del Diamante, 1552.
University of Pennsylvania Library.


Colonna, in the persona of Laura, to whom the work is "attributed", engages Petrarch in a lengthy tenzone, a literary joust, played against Petrarch's own poems, verses, and words. The poems so effectively censored here (and utterly illegible) are based on the order and words of the "Babylonia" sonnets (RVF 136-138), as can still be seen in the commentary.

This Stefano Colonna is not the Roman senator of the same name, Stefano Colonna the Elder, the father of Petrarch's early patrons in Avignon: Giacomo Bishop of Lombez, the Cardinal Giovanni, and Stefano the Younger. Petrarch's sonnet "Gloriosa columna" ("Glorious column" RVF 10) is dedicated to the elder Stefano, who outlived all his sons, living to the age of 100 (also of note the letter of consolation that Petrarch wrote to him in September 1348, following the death of his sons, Familiares VIII, 1). Giovanni Colonna was among the many of Petrarch's close friends to die in the plague of 1348, for whom (with Laura) the elegiac sonnet "Rotta h l'alta colonna e 'l verde lauro" [RVF 269, "The lofty column, the green laurel, felled . . ."] was written. Stefano the younger died in battle in 1347, while fighting the troups of Cola di Rienzo. Petrarch's association with the Colonna family goes back to his days as a student in Bologna, where he befriended the young Giacomo, who would be elected Bishop of Lombez in 1328 by Pope John XXII, in recognition for having nailed the excommunication of the emperor Ludwig of Bavaria to the door of a Roman church.

The Stefano of this work, Lord of Palestrina and "Roman Gentleman" as the title states, was a 16th century descendent of the same Roman family. He was a mercenary who served Cosimo I de' Medici as lieutenant general of the Tuscan army. Also a member of the Florentine Academy, he was the subject of one of painter Angelo Bronzino's most celebrated portraits (1546, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome).

Exhibition Introduction | Petrarch and His Milieu | Petrarch in Manuscript | Petrarch in Print
Petrarch and Censorship |Petrarch in Translation | Petrarch and Music