Petrarch and Laura

Shadowing Petrarch in Parma

This essay is included in my new book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and traveling with intention. 

Shadowing Petrarch in Parma

Saxon Henry visits the Parma Cathedral. Image © Saxon Henry.
Parma Cathedral. Image © Saxon Henry.

The haunting strains of a bandoneon were wafting through the drizzly air, compelling me to follow the sound to a corner of a Piazza. An old man was creating the refrains that doubled back on themselves in an eerie sort of echo; the chords squeezed from his instrument, which seemed oddly appropriate in the fog, creating a soundtrack for the journey I was taking into the fourteenth century. I was stalking a poet whose state of mind for so much of his life was despair. As I trod the same paths he would have walked across the stone-studded plaza on his way to the cathedral, I wondered if the beautifully uneven rocks were in place to act as knotty nuisances as they invaded his thin-soled leather shoes. 

Saxon Henry traces Petrarch's steps in Parma, Italy.
Parma Cathedral. Image © Saxon Henry.

I studied the mottled stones sprinkled with grasses and tiny-leafed plants that resembled thyme with the moisture-laden air swirling around me. The mood created by the mist felt as ancient as his name, Francesco Petrarca. In the frame of mind that had taken over the morning, the billowing moisture that clung to the buildings convinced me the haze had been hovering against the façades since the poet spent several stints living in Parma during the 1300s. I took a seat on a marble bench attached to the Bishop’s Palace that hemmed Parma’s Piazza Duomo so I could study the worn exterior of the cathedral, which dates back to 1059. 

Medieval lions guard the Parma Cathedral. Image © Saxon Henry.
Medieval lions guard the Parma Cathedral. Image © Saxon Henry.

There’s a ragged Romanesque beauty to the church’s façade, its tattered personality the result of so much patching of the marble cladding its exterior over the centuries. This doesn’t take away from the primitive beauty of its countenance, an ancient feeling enhanced by the crouching lions flanking the main entrance, which were originally carved from marble by Giambono da Bissone. Though the big cats are supposed to be guarding the door, they give the impression they are stupefied, their eyes blank and mouths open in what seems more a sucking-in of breath than an effort to roar. 

Medieval lions guard the Parma Cathedral where Petrarch once trod. Image © Saxon Henry.
One of the medieval lions that guard the Parma Cathedral. Image © Saxon Henry.

These naïve harbingers of medieval might perfectly echoed the depth of my sojourn, moodiness I was seeking because I was working on a series of sonnets to serve as a dialogue between Petrarch and Laura, the woman with whom he was obsessed for much of his adult life. The unrequited love he poured into his poetry that made him famous compelled me to want to give Laura a say because the only story that has ever been told is so one-sided. But it occurred to me as the bench grew colder beneath my clothes and water began to soak through the soles of my shoes that I’d come to the wrong place. Laura’s life was lived in Avignon, a place Petrarch found himself needing to escape when the sight of her grew too painful. 

An ornate gate to the entry of the Bishop's Palace in Parma. Image © Saxon Henry.
An ornate gate to the entry of the Bishop’s Palace in Parma. Image © Saxon Henry.

I decided that the longing Petrarch would have felt when he was away from her would be enough to spur me along, as there must have been at least one time he thought of her as he walked through the ornate gate to the courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace I was entering. The building, which began to rise in 1045, has a long façade overlooking Piazza Duomo that wasn’t completed until 1234. Considering the range of realities within the church when Petrarch was embroiled in the pecking order, he would likely have gone from stints in papal palaces drenched in opulence to sparer quarters tucked into buildings like this fortress-like structure. 

The courtyard of the Bishop's Palace in Parma. Image © Saxon Henry.
The courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace in Parma. Image © Saxon Henry.

How often was he wet? I wondered as I left the plaza, the unrelenting moisture chilling me to the bone as I headed for the intersection of Borgo di San Giovanni and Vicolo di San Stefano, and the dwelling he’d called home. “In his garden at Parma he raised choice fruits, and he took pride in the specimens of his horticulture that he sent to Luchino [Visconti], the lord of the city,” wrote James Harvey Robinson in his introduction to his translation of Petrarch’s letters. 

Petrarch’s Former Home in Parma.
Petrarch’s Former Home in Parma.

Despite the garish yellow paint on its façade, his former home at 7 Str. Petrarcha had a regal look about it that seemed fitting for a man of his stature, the ornamentation around the windows reminiscent of motifs you might find decorating the opening page of an important book of Renaissance poetry. Petrarch penned his “Italia Mia” from Parma, the poem ending just as poignantly as it begins: “My Italy, although talking does not serve to heal the mortal wounds which I see so thick on your fair body, it pleases me at least that my sighs are such as the Tiber hopes for, and the Arno, and the Po, where I now sit heavy with grief.” 

A drawing of Petrarch, creator unknown.
A drawing of Petrarch, creator unknown.

He was writing of the warring factions and continual coups that made life a living hell during his era. Though he survived, skirmishes would take the lives of many of his friends. Robinson claims that during Petrarch’s time in Parma, a crisis of affliction and bereavement took hold of him and he would never fully recover from it. “This year, 1348,” Petrarch declared long afterwards, “I now perceive to have been the beginning of sorrow.” While living in Parma, he would learn that members of the Colonna family, his benefactors and friends, were slaughtered at the gates of Rome. He was also in town when the plague swept over Europe, which took the life of Laura. 

A stone bench attached to the Bishop's Palace in Parma where Saxon Henry contemplated Petrarch. Image © Saxon Henry.
A stone bench attached to the Bishop’s Palace in Parma. Image © Saxon Henry.

“Life is but one long agony,” he lamented as death after death was announced to him. When local unrest and the plague grew to be alarming dangers, he was finally forced to leave his beloved garden in town. Setting off on February 23, 1345, with several companions, he didn’t get very far. He wrote to friends about the harrowing account of being ambushed by rogue marauders, an incident during which he was injured badly enough that he had to spend several months in Bologna recovering. I walked through the rain thinking about the strength it must have required to make such a journey to Vaucluse. He would have traversed more than 400 miles of rugged terrain on horseback, climbed through mountain passes, and endured a stint on a ship from Genoa to Nice. To put it into perspective, the trip that eventually winds along the coast-road through France’s tony Cote d’Azur takes seven hours by car today, the same amount of time my plane ride from Parma to New York City took when I returned home.

Petrarch and Laura de Noves by an unknown Venetian artist featured in a 15th-century Tuscan manuscript, circa 1510. Image courtesy the Ashmolean.
Petrarch and Laura de Noves by an unknown Venetian artist featured in a 15th-century Tuscan manuscript, circa 1510. Image courtesy the Ashmolean.

The idea of making the trip in so few hours would have been as foreign to Petrarch as the thought of so many hours in a saddle through such dicey circumstances was to me. I’d made a wide circle around Parma, returning to the Piazza with the hope I would hear the bandoneon bruise the air again but the man was gone. I returned to the bench at the Bishop’s Palace and followed the fissures snaking through the seat into which grime had settled, my fingers tracing them seeming to make an ancient map. Maybe the idea that any historical figure can be reached by visiting a place they once called home is folly, but I doubt I’ll ever give up the excursions because of how deeply they feed me. Proving there is value in the exercise, the sonnets I had hoped to write came pouring out of me as my body grew warm in my hotel room that afternoon. And, to my great surprise, Laura showed up in spades that day. The lady certainly had plenty to say!  

Shadowing Petrarch in Parma © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. This essay is included in my latest book The Modern SalonnièreSaxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose other books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promiseand Four Florida Moderns

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