Penn Libraries Events & Exhibitions

The homes or the graves of great writers; descriptions, portraits, or death masks that indicate their physical appearance; the places in which they lived: these kinds of remains, and more, long ago achieved an odd sort of iconic status. They show no signs of losing that status with the passage of time. Indeed, their attractions for literary pilgrims may now be as great as, perhaps even greater than, those of Canterbury or Compostela for pilgrims of a more traditional sort. Visitors to Mantua or Naples (the birthplace and tomb of Virgil), Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare country), Salem, Massachusetts (the house of seven gables), or Camden, New Jersey (Walt Whitman's house), all participate in rites of literary veneration. Gullio, a character in an anonymous play called The First Part of the Return from Parnassus, exclaims, "O sweet Mr Shakspeare, Ile have his picture in my study at the courte" (3.1.132-3). That play was performed no later than 1603, well over a decade before sweet Mr. Shakespeare had been laid in the ground at Stratford's Church of the Holy Trinity. Its author probably intended to be read ironically. But time has been ironic with the author and Gullio now speaks for all readers who hope that images will allow them to imagine what their favorite writers looked like and where they lived.

The printed objects displayed here fill just these kinds of needs. Here are represented Petrarch and of Laura. Did they "really" look like this? What would that notion mean? — and does it matter? A reader who may never get to Arquà can look at another of the books displayed here and "see" the tomb that houses Petrarch's mortal remains. Its image appears in a guidebook for travelers fortunate enough to actually visit the site — and for readers who may never get there personally. A sixteenth-century edition of the Italian works that contains a schematic map of Avignon and Vaucluse feeds this same "lust of the eye" (as 1 John 2:16 calls it) characteristic of readers who wonder what the places in which Petrarch lived, or the poet himself, might have looked like.

The writer's "true" milieu may be the books in which his works continue to be printed and read. But the ordinary human appetite for ways in which to contextualize, perhaps even to "humanize," those writers we continue to read makes such evocations of them and their world a fitting place to start this exhibition. This is especially so for a writer who, aged 700 this year, is in many respects very far away from us, no matter how close to him our familiarity with his words may make him feel.




Le rime del Petrarca, con brevi annotazioni.
Firenze: Presso Giuseppe Molini, 1822.
University of Pennsylvania Library.

The Petrarchan iconographic tradition emphasizes, not surprisingly, the poet and his love. The engraved title-page to this early nineteenth-century Italian edition of Petrarch's poems, fancily printed on pink paper, depicts Love triumphant over his captives.


Jacopo Filippi Tomasini, 1597-1654.
Petrarcha redivivus, integram poetae celeberrimi vitam iconibus aere caelatis exhibens . . . Editio altera cor. et aucta. . . .
Padua: Typis Pauli Frambotti, 1650.
University of Pennsylvania Library.

Jérôme David and Giovanni Georgi made the engravings for this heavily-illustrated mid seventeenth-century book. One copy is open to a portrait of Laura Sada, or Laura de Noves (1308?-1348). Laura was an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), whose family were related to the royal house of Condé.

Page 1.

The Marquis was well aware of his "Lauresque" ancestry, and in a chilling inversion of her symbolism, related a dream in a letter to his wife:

"My sole consolation here is Petrarch...Laura turns my head; I am like a child. I read about her all day and dream about her all night. Listen to what I dreamt of her last night...It was midnight. I had just fallen asleep with those biographial jottings by my side. Suddenly she appeared to me...I could see her! The horror of the grave had not changed the brilliance of her charms, and her eyes still had the same fires as when Petrarch sang of them. She was completely draped in black muslin, her lovely fair hair flowing over it. As if to make her still beautiful, love tried to soften the essentially gruesome form in which she appeared to me. "Come and join me. No more ills, no more worries, no more trouble in the vast expanse where I live. Have courage and follow me there." When she said this, I flung myself at her feet and addressed her, calling her "my mother," and sobs shook me. She held out her hand to me and I covered it with my tears. Then she too wept. "When I dwelt in that world which you loathe, I used to look into the future, multiplying my descendants till I reached you, but I did not see you so unhappy." Then I was completely engulfed in my despair and affection, and flung my arms round her neck, to keep her with me, or to follow her and to water her with my tears. But the phantom vanished. All that remained was my grief."

(Correspondance inédite du Marquis de Sade: de ses proches et de ses familiers publiée avec une introduction, des annales et des notes/ par Paul Bourdin. Paris: libr. de France, 1929).

Page 140.
Page 141.

These two pages from Tomasini's work illustrate sections of Petrarch's first canzone, the allegoric "Nel dolce tempo de la prima etade" (RVF 23 In the sweet season of our spring), also known as "Petrarch's Metamorphoses." Petrarch, as the anonymous narrator, is attacked by Amor, the god of Love, in a series of mythic transformations. The narrator "sings" of his woes perché cantando il duol si disacerba (verse 4, "Because song removes all bitterness from pain"), as he finds himself, for Laura, changed from a youth into a laurel (Daphne), a swan (Cycnis), stone (Battus), a spring beneath a beech (Byblis), into an echo, and finally a stag "chased by fierce dogs" (as Actaeon).

The image on page 140, showing Petrarch and Laura in various stances along the banks of the Sorgue, illustrates verses 138-139: "mi volse in dura selce; et così scossa | voce rimasi de l'antiche some" ("and turning my body to solid flint, I remained but a voice shook free from its ancient form"). On page 141, Laura removes Petrarch's heart, as in verses 72-75:

"Questa che col mirar gli animi fura,
m'aperse il petto, e 'l cor prese con mano,
dicendo a me: Di ciò non far parola.
Poi la rividi in altro habito sola,"

("She who robs souls with but her gaze
opened my breast, removed my heart by hand,
and warned me in verse: Say not a word of this.
Then I saw her, alone, in different guise ...")


Pietro Chevalier, 19th century.
Una visita ad Arquà
Padua: Presso I Fratelli Gamba, [1831].
University of Pennsylvania Library.

Sites associated with Petrarch became literary shrines. This book, open to a view of Petrarch's tomb, is a descriptive guidebook for travelers to Petrarch's Arquà. Now called Arquà Petrarca, the town — located in the Euganean Hills a bit southwest of Padua — preserves the poet's home and tomb. He died here in 1374.


Jacques-François-Paul-Aldonce de Sade, 1705-1778.
Oeuvres choisies de François Pétrarque, traduites du latin et de l'italien en françois; avec des mémoires sur sa vie . . .
Amsterdam [i.e., Avignon]: chez Arskée et Mercus, 1763, 3 vol. (vol. 1 not shown).
University of Pennsylvania Library.

Headpiece, vol. 2.
Petrarch at Vaucluse.
Headpiece, vol. 3.
Laura and Petrarch.

The Marquis de Sade was not the only member of the Sade family proud of its descent from Petrarch's Laura. The Marquis' literary uncle, Jacques-François-Paul-Aldonce de Sade, wrote often about Petrarch. His Mémoires pour la vie de François Petrarque were translated into English by Mrs. Susannah Dawson Dobson (d. 1795). The lavishly-produced volumes exhibited here present J.-F.-P.-A. de Sade's anonymous translation of Petrarch's poetry into French.

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