Human suffering. Unrequited Love. Not likely the first two descriptions you’d think of when identifying the Italian town lauded for the best prosciutto and Parmesan cheese in the world, I bet! Though I enjoyed more than my fair share of these gastronomic marvels during a trip to Parma, one of my greatest pleasures was spending three days channeling the despondent state of mind for which Petrarch, one of the town’s most famous former residents, is known. Credited with inventing the modern sonnet and responsible for the second longest love obsession in the history of mankind—only Dante’s pining for Beatrice eclipsed Petrarch’s infatuation for Laura—the fourteenth-century literary heavyweight lived in Parma off and on as an adult.
Stalking Petrarch in Parma
Petrarch’s connection to Parma was an intermittent one because his residence there was one of a handful across the region to which he had access as the Canon and the Archbishop of the diocese, a career choice he made so he could spend as much time writing as possible. He could have had far greater material rewards in his choices of positions but he refused appointments that would have taken him higher in the church’s political pecking order so that he could concentrate on his literary works. The heights to which he did rise were strenuous enough, requiring a fair amount of travel, and demanding he be a confidant to and a sounding board for popes, bishops, emperors and kings. The fact he was on the church’s dole gave him enough financial support that he was able to carve out a fair amount of time for crafting poetry, but it also meant he was expected to live a celibate life.
One of the most intriguing things I’ve learned about the man behind the great Laura obsession is that he sucked at abstinence! He didn’t give in to his libido a handful of times, but over and over again, repeatedly losing his battle with the “sins of the flesh,” as he called his slip-ups when he recorded his grief over his inability to resist his physical urgings. This fallibility, his protracted fascination for a woman whose hand he never even held, and the fact he was an influential poet of his day and a seriously tortured man coalesce to explain why I am including him in a book of sonnets I’m writing. I traveled to Parma to compose as many of the sonnets as I could, knowing, of course, that poetry always has a mind of its own, so to speak! I honestly didn’t know if the modern city Parma has become would provide me with enough concrete details where Petrarch’s life was concerned because the last time the poet lived in the town was during the fourteenth century. I was thrilled to find there were greater traces of his era remaining than I had imagined.
Parma’s Piazza del Duomo
My strongest excitement surrounded the Piazza del Duomo—a stone-studded plaza flanked by the city’s Cathedral, the Baptistery of Parma and the Bishop’s Palace—because Petrarch would have physically visited two of the three buildings that still contain interior elements extant from his time. I felt a thrill when I pulled the door of my hotel room closed and set out for the piazza with my writer’s notebook in hand. I spent several hours feeling the mists of time swirl around me, settling myself on a marble bench fastened to an exterior wall of the Bishop’s Palace to soak in the atmosphere.
The seat was pocked with wear. The grime settling into the fissures that had formed along some of the stone’s veining was a testament to its age. It was cold beneath my clothes, moist from several days of steady rain, but I didn’t care. It actually seemed fitting that a retreating cold front’s moisture surged around me because the ghostly haze connoted the “mists of time” I was contemplating.
The most ostentatious building of the triad surrounding the plaza is the Baptistery, a heavily ornamented architectural bon-bon clad in Creamsicle-pink and off-white marble that was mined in Verona. Built between 1196 and 1307, it is newer than the Cathedral, which dates back to 1059, though portions of the church had to be rebuilt after being heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1117. Considering the bell tower was swathed in construction netting during my visit, it’s clear the Cathedral still requires some significant propping up, which is not a surprise given its current incarnation was completed in 1178.
The crouching lions flanking the main entrance, created by Giambono da Bissone, are surprisingly primitive given the Italian mastery with anatomy that would show itself a mere 200 years later when Michelangelo finishes his “David.” The big cats guarding the door 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.
I studied the primitive statuary and the Cathedral’s façade from across the stone courtyard for quite some time, wondering what the astounded felines would tell me of Petrarch if they could. A shiver drew me back to the present, a sign it was time to move. I hurried through my last stop in the piazza—the courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace—walking through the graceful archway into the compound with the river rocks knotting into the souls of my shoes.
It thrilled me to think they could have been in place when Petrarch scurried along doing his churchly duties as quickly as he could so he could get back to his poetry. Did he marvel at the freshness blooming in the frescoes of the chapels in the Cathedral? I wondered as I left the courtyard. Did he revel in the reliefs, honed by Benedetto Antelami in 1178, as he entered the sacristy in search of supplication? The dates whirring through my mind were staggering given how far back in time they extended.
Though it is not the music I would have chosen for the soundtrack were I filming a documentary of my adventure, the haunting strains of an old man’s Bandoneon wafted through the piazza while I lingered there, the refrains doubling back on themselves in an eerie sort of echo that felt oddly appropriate. His playing followed me along the Strada Duomo until I ducked into a bookshop, the slamming of the heavy wrought-iron and cut-glass door abruptly ending his poignant melody.
I was in search of a fitting souvenir given the pilgrimage I was on, and I found it: a tiny, elegant copy of Petrarch’s Trionphi in Italian, which I bought even though I can’t understand the Italian words printing within it. As I paid the polite shopkeeper and reentered the brisk air of late morning, I promised myself I would make my way back to Italy frequently enough to learn the language. My reward would be reading Petrarchan sonnets in the poet’s native language. I wanted to be able to understand for myself the fact that the tapestry above represents the third subject in this poem cycle by Petrarch—as it unfolds Love triumphs first; then Love is overcome by Chastity, Chastity by Death, Death by Fame, Fame by Time, and Time by Eternity.
The Palazzo della Pilotta
I tucked the treasure into my backpack and took off along the swirling pavers that create textural flourishes on the streets in the old part of town, absorbing as many details of the surroundings as I could. I had carefully mapped out the day and my next turn would take me to via Dante, a short passage lined with clothing boutiques and crowded cafés. The homage to another of Italy’s greatest poets was worth the extra bit of time as I wove my way along the warren of streets to the Palazzo della Pilotta where the library and part of the University are housed.
When I stepped from the close-knit maze of veining avenues onto the wide main thoroughfare skirting the massive complex, I was stopped in my tracks by the sheer scale of the architecture. The height of the façade holding the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the Biblioteca Palatina, and the University of Parma’s Department of Philosophy and Letters gave me an entirely new frame of reference for the word awe.
I was glad I hadn’t counted on seeing inside the university because the gates were locked. It wasn’t relevant to my literary adventure because Petrarch had never attended school there. The library wasn’t of interest either because it hadn’t existed during his time. But the ragged aesthetics of the mammoth façade struck me in a place for which I had no language; it felt remarkably ancient to my eye, even though the building was new compared to the other architecture I’d seen. It wasn’t actually built until the sixteenth century, but the fact I was quibbling about dates so far in the past made me realize how relative time becomes when seen through a bygone lens. Even though the complex was so “new,” I felt compelled to sit for a while to absorb all that I could of its bearing! As I did, staring through the fence at the graceful courtyard attached to the college, I thought about the time I’d ambled along the colonnaded streets toward the University of Bologna where Petrarch had attended school.
Petrarch Studied Law in Bologna
I’d done so during a trip to that bustling town four years earlier, almost to the day, making my way to the classics department so I would have a sensory reference for the atmosphere he moved through during three years of classes beginning in 1323. It was my last day in Bologna, and I was pleased I’d made the effort to visit the school because I felt so soothed by the rich patina coating the classical proportions of all the buildings, my admiration heightening each time I pulled open a doorway to witness the cool, calming dignity of stone.
Petrarch left the university in Bologna after those three years to attend his father’s funeral and he never returned to the law degree he’d been earning—a happy circumstance for him because he despised the career choice he’d been forced to select. I was glad several years had passed between my excursion to Bologna and the one to Parma because I had had time to learn more about the man who is celebrated as the founder of Renaissance poetry.
Writing Poetry and Buying Antiques in Parma!
And just innately, I knew there would be something powerful about my escapade into the heart of Parma that day. I was right. After venturing to the Piazza del Duomo and the Palazzo della Pilotta on that damp morning, I returned to my hotel room and wrote 26 sonnets I will include in the book, the poems musing Petrarch and Laura’s story serving as the opening chapter of seven so far. Each of these explore different periods in history during which significant shifts in relationships between men and women took place. Petrarch’s story represents a forceful one.
My outpouring of poems was thrilling to me considering Petrarch had polished some of his most famous works, including Il Canzoniere, in his study at his home nearby. I felt buoyed by the knowledge he had labored over his words not far from where I had toiled over mine, and I left Parma feeling simultaneously drained and wired from the experience of tapping into such powerful energy.
And I close today expressing gratitude for my career as a design journalist, which afforded me the opportunity to travel to Europe on an antiques shopping excursion with Toma Clark Haines, The Antiques Diva, to Mercanteinfiera. If you ever have the chance to go, it’s a remarkable opportunity to see some of the finest antiques and vintage furnishings in the world. Take a look at my Pinterest boards from the fair and from Parma and you’ll see how luscious a trip this was!
The Modern Salonnière and Stalking Petrarch in Parma © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.
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