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ART. VII.-PETRARCH'S LAURA. 1. Le Rime di Franesco Petrarca corrette sovra i testi migliori.
Roma, 1821. 2. De Lade Memories pour la vie de Francois Petrarque.
History in her records is too often partial, marking with the utmost minuteness the acts, the deeds and sayings of men whose lives she leaves unwritten. As a general rule every particular of their greatness is familiar to every one save that which, perhaps, might have made them great And this, because unfelt, unknown save to themselves alone, dies with them, or survives in fable, whose every vanity and extravagance moves doubt, even as to the every existence of those it would render immortal.
Poets, it must be granted too, are frequently mysterious, sometimes from choice and sometimes from necessity, yet in the passionate expression of extreme wretchedness or bliss, when feeling becomes too strong for concealment or deceit, and the lips utter what the heart should keep, the true histories of their lives are written; intense happiness or misery cannot be well feigned, and poets after all are nothing more than mortals.
It is here, then, in the simplest interpretation of unguarded words and expressions, without any distortion of meaning, whose very fieedom from all reserve and dissimulation bears the stamp of truths, we must look for facts, it were vain to look elsewhere; nor should we suppose them less true, for sometimes not bearing the sober garb of prose, since good poetry is inseparable from deep feeling, emotions must be felt forcibly to be expressed well.
No woman, perhaps, has ever lived about whom there has been a greater variety of opinion than the subject of Petrarch's muse. As if to prove the variations of one sex, the fickleness of the other has represented her under every variety of character and form, rivalling even Proteus himself, until the world ceased altogether to believe that she had ever existed, and Laura's flesh and
blood is sublimated at last into religion, virtue, philosophy and the soul. *
Nor does this seem strange when her very existence was doubted by one of the poet's most intimate friends, even while she lived. “Your Laura," writes the Bishop of Lombes to him in 1335, eight years after the poet had seen her for the first time, “ is only a name which your imagination has created for your pen; but a dream of the laurel crown for which you sigh. Your living, breathing Laura is but ideal, and your songs and sighs are fictions."
To silence, however, the critic's doubts contemporary authority is not wanting to prove the actual existence of Laura, “and even," says an ecclesiastical writer whose inedited MSS. is quoted by Tiraboschi, “Messer Francesco Petrarca, who is now living, had a spiritual mistress called Laura, and it is she that he names in all that he has written and through her came, he tells us, every honor he has received in the world, and would I not be ungrateful, says he, if I did not make her known who has made me all that I am, not only while she is living but when dead? Wherefore, when she died he became more faithful than ever, and has given her a fame that would make her immortal. But this as to the body; for he has given so much to the poor, and has had so many masses said with such devotion for her soul, that, had she been the worse woman in the world, she would have been rescued from the hands of the devil ; but they say, however, that she died well." I
If we add to this the minuteness with which the poet describes her—when and where met—the thousand incidents of his passion, from the wildest hope to the darkest despair-his appeal to his paleness, sighs and tears that his passion was real—we can as little believe that a love of twenty years could be feigned as that the being itself for whom it might be conceived could be wholly ideal.
* De Lade Memoires de Petrarque, tome 1. p. 22. preface, who says some went so far as to believe she was nothing more than the virgin.
† The Bishop's letter is unfortunately lost, but we have it quoted in the poet's answer, de Epist Tamil, lib. 11. Epist ix. ed. Geneve.
| Tiraboschi Storia della Lelleratura Italiana, tome v. page 449, note.
Nor yet is it less true that the object of our affections possesses always attributes more or less fancied; the deepest impressions are never impartial, and only those we love are perfect. It is to the fancied creations of the brain rather than the truthful reflections of the eyes that we are ever indebted for our strongest attachments; and this imaginative love which makes the object of its adoration the fairest, the most perfect of mortals is the more beautiful as it is the most endearing of all passions, because neither time, disease or death can end it.
It was on Monday of Holy Week, at the first hour of day, on the 6th of April, 1327, that Petrarch saw Laura for the first time. * Passages in the poet's works put this date beyond the reach of dispute, although the place at which the meeting occurred has unfortunately been the subject of interminable controversies.
A note which purports to be in the poet's hand, written in a copy of Virgil, once, it is said, the property of Petrarch, distinctly states that this meeting took place in the church of St. Claire, at Avignon, but the note itself is pronounced to be a forgery, and the opposite theory is as boldly maintained, that the lovers first met in the country.t
* The first hour of the day answers to our 6 o'clock, A. M.
L'ora prim 'era il di sesto d'Aprile
Trionfo della Morte, cap. I.
Son clxxv. part 1. Sonnets 11. and xlvii. part I would seem to place this meeting upon Good Friday, their meaning, however, is highly enigmatical, while, besides it has been proved by two astronomical calculations that the 6th of April, 1327, fell not on Friday, which was the 10th of the month, but on Monday as above stated.
† For example, de la Bustie tells us that the discovery of Laura's tomb was made in the church of St. Claire, and on the authority of this most ingenious blunder of his own, he doubts the authenticity of the note, because it says
Both theories cannot certainly be correct; any reconciliation of them would be equally hopeless ; it remains only to make choice of the most probable.
In a canzone, undoubtedly written for Laura, while speaking of scenery that can only be applicable to the country, the poet says, “the air was pure, serene, where Love with fair eyes his heart unclosed."* He calls the time when this occurred blessed, an expression which Petrarch invariably uses to designate the day when first he saw Laura, and therefore it might possibly be supposed to have reference to this precise occasion.
The strongest proofs, however, for assigning a rural character to the meeting, are to be met with in a madrigal, which, as far as we have been able to judge, has not been sufficiently noticed by commentators.
In this our poet tells us he saw, while coursing the banks of a rivulet, an angel descend from heaven, and while gazing at the sight transported, he was taken in a net spread upon the verdure at his feet.† The angel, it may be contended, can signify none
that Laura was buried in the church of the Franciscan friars, at which precisely the discovery was made. D’Israeli classes the note among literary impositions upon a similar blunder, informing us that, according to the note itself, the meeting took place upon Good Friday, when nothing of the kind is to be found in it. Les Memoires de l'Acad. des Inscrip., tom. 17, fol. 416, and Curiosities of Literature, art. Literary Forgeries. Among the manuscripts in the possession of the writer is a singular letter of de la Bastie's to d'Orville, Professor of Belles Lettres in Amsterdam, in which he bitterly complains of the liberty that had bean taken with some of his dissertations, French as well as Latin, inserted in the Thesaurus novus veterum inscriptionum of Muratori. He says, in the publication of these pieces, not only his words were changed, but even entire passages had been left out; that his opinions were constantly perverted, frequently obscure, and concludes, if some one wished actually to turn his writings upside down, they could not have suceeeded better, as there is not a single line without a blunder. The letter is without date, and never having seen the Thesaurus above mentioned, we are unable to say whether the Memoir of the Baron de la Bastie sur la vie de Petrarque is to be found in it.
* “ Aer sacro sereno
Canzone xiv., part i † Madrigal 111., part 1. In particular note the pesca, viva. See also sunother than Laura, and the poem must undoubtedly allude to the time when her lover first saw her. But a single fact against a thousand probabilities is sufficient. The character of both these pieces, it should be especially remarked, are in the highest degree enigmatical, and any particular interpretation of them, however plausible, must not be considered as certain.
Still stronger objections may be urged against another poem.* The verdure and ice in this may allude to Laura's treatment of her lover, like winter and spring; or else, if we discard an emblematical meaning, we are even more unfortunate, as the rivers may mark the position of Avignon, which lies precisely between the Lorgue and the Durance.
All positive proof in favor of the other hypothesis lies in a note, written, it is said, by Petrarch in a copy of Virgil, once in the Ambrosian library at Milan. What are its claims to being authentic ?
To enumerate these briefly, we have numerous transcripts of this document, with dates, which range up to the year 1390, only a few years after the poet's death, and in almost every instance the transcribers have explicitly stated that the original was written by Petrarch himself. Besides this, upon a careful examination, the writing of the note was found to resemble other specimens of Petrarch's hand-writing preserved elsewhere, while the separation of the book from its binding within the last century, disclosed other memoranda' undoubtedly written by the lover of Laura, which must place beyond suspicion the authenticity of the note, and establish the fact that the Virgil was the property of the poet. † net cxlvir., part I., which we would suppose refers rather to a number than any single occasion, and less to the time when, than the means by which the poet fell a victim to his passion. All it unquestionably proves is that the poet had some very tender feelings when near Laura, naturally enough ; and it may possibly have reference to an occasion when he heard her sing. Of the absurdity of forming any particular theory from mere allegory, the reader may satisfy himself by reading son. CLVI., part f., on the authority of which it might be contended that Laura died in an open field, under a laurel tree.
* Sestina mil., part 1.