“Solea lontana in sonno consolarme
Con quella dolce angelica sua vista
Madonna; or mi spaventa e mi contrista;
Né di _duol_, _né di téma_ posso aitarme:
Ché spesso nel suo volto veder parme
Vera pietà con grave dolor mista;
Ed udir cose, onde’l cor fede acquista,
Ché di _gioja e di_ speme si disarme.
Non ti sovèn di quell’ ultima sera,
Dic’ ella, ch’i lasciai gli occhi tuoi molli,
E sforzata dal tempo me n’ andai?
I’ non te’l potei dir all or, né volli:
Or te’l dico per cosa esperta e vera;
Non sperar di vedermi in terra mai.”
How well one understands why it is that the South has produced so much
art and so little philosophy! We found ourselves spending hours basking
in this delicious sun, while we idly wondered how often the beautiful
Laura crossed the square, exactly how she looked, and spoke, and smiled;
above all, how she felt: the real truth about that mysterious romance.
The customs of the day, the universal habit of love-making as part of the
necessary accomplishments of a gentleman, make it difficult to recognise
the genuine love-story when one finds it.
Barbara was much interested in these immortal lovers, much more so than
in Rienzi’s tower or old churches; and we managed to glean a good deal of
desultory information on the subject, which brought us to the conclusion
that Laura was a real person and Petrarch’s a real passion. The fact
that in his prose writings he scarcely ever alludes to his beloved one
seemed to us to support our views. He did not care to talk to all the
world of what he felt so deeply. Sonnets were more impersonal. In his
favourite copy of Virgil he records his first meeting with Laura, and
her death twenty-one years later. Barbara considered this conclusive.
“Laura, who was distinguished by her own virtues and widely celebrated
by my songs, first appeared to my eyes in early manhood in the year of
our Lord 1327, upon the sixth day of April, at the first hour in the
Church of St. Clara at Avignon.” In the same minute way he records her
death while he was at Verona, “ignorant of his fate.”
“I have experienced,” he adds, “a certain satisfaction in writing this
bitter record of a cruel event, especially in this place where it will
often come under my eyes, for so I may be led to reflect that life can
afford me no farther pleasures.”
He appears all through his career to have been struggling between his love
for this unattainable lady and the monastic view of life as inculcated by
St. Augustine. No wonder his was a tempest-tossed and melancholy soul!
Among his published works the imaginary dialogue between himself and
the saint lays bare the curious combat of a nature essentially modern
in its instincts, while intellectually under the dominion of mediæval
theories. His sentiment was noble in character: a noble love for a noble
woman; but the pitiless saint will not accept that as an excuse for the
soul’s enslavement. The monitor does his utmost to prove that it is a
chain utterly unworthy of a rational being, whose thoughts should be
fixed on things eternal. It does not occur to Petrarch to make high claim
for the sentiment itself, still less to number it among eternal things,
as probably it would have occurred to a mind of that idealistic type
had he lived a few hundred years later. But his feeling and his mental
outlook are evidently not at one. He feels ahead of his thought by many
centuries, and never all his life does he succeed in harmonising the two
parts of his being, and that is probably why he was always unsatisfied,
sad at heart even at his gayest; unable to fully enjoy the savour of
life in spite of his extraordinary fulness of opportunity and his ardent
[Illustration: VALE AND SOURCE OF THE SORGUE, VAUCLUSE.
_By E. M. Synge._]
As for the theory that Laura was merely a symbol for _Laurea_, the crown
of poetic fame, it is not easy to accept the view in face of a letter
of Petrarch to his friend, Giacomo Colonna, in which he speaks of this
supposition: “Would that your humorous suggestion were true; would to
God it were all a pretence and not a madness!”
His defence of this passion, in the “Segreto,” is described by a writer
of to-day as “purely modern.”
“Petrarch was modern enough to grasp, and even defend against
the perversions of monasticism and the current of theological
speculation, one of the noblest of man’s attributes.”
In the singular dialogue between the poet and the saint, the poet, while
making a brave stand for the unconquerable sentiment, finally allows
the saint to have the best of the argument.
Barbara flatly refused to listen to the theory that Petrarch and Laura
never exchanged so much as a word in their lives, but it is believed by
many. The poet is said to have worshipped the lady at a distance across
the golden shadows of the Church of St. Clara at Avignon, where she
used to come for the celebration of Mass. Her family–if to the family
of de Noves she really belonged–owned a château in the neighbourhood.
She married into the house of De Sades (or so runs the story) and she
was a niece of the famous Fanette, who was President of the renowned
Court of Love at the Château of Romanin in the Alpilles: those strange
little limestone mountains that we saw to the south as we looked over
the country from the Rocher du Dom.
Some writers, on the other hand, speak of a passionate history,
clandestine meetings, tragedy and despair. But of this there is not a
hint in the poet’s own writings. Nothing certain seems to be known about
the matter, and it is even regarded as entirely fabulous by some sceptics
who would banish from history all its charming stories, the mere fact
of a romantic flavour seeming to them to prove a legend untrue. As if
real life were constructed on such dull and unimaginative lines!
If, however, the story of Petrarch and Laura be well founded, he must
have been the very prince of lovers, for his love was well-nigh untiring,
although seemingly hopeless, uncheered by even an occasional meeting;
and it remained in his heart obstinately and irrevocably, in spite of
the most persistent efforts of his intellect and his religious sense to
oust it; in spite of a life among the Courts of Europe the most brilliant
and varied that can be imagined.
Petrarch possessed also the genius of friendship, and had swarms of
friends. When Pope Clement VI., one of the number, lay dying in his
fortress palace, the poet sent a message: “Remember the epitaph of the
Roman Emperor Hadrian: ‘Turba Medicorum Perii.'” And he wrote a letter
to the Pope in the same strain: “What makes me really tremble is to see
your bed surrounded with physicians who never agree.”…
One likes to picture him in these old halls and to know that he possessed
the genial faculty of making people feel the happier for his presence.
Yet it is recorded that “deep remorse and profound melancholy afflicted
the poet’s soul.”
Perhaps his hopeless love may have clouded his spirit, for this does
happen in exceptional natures; or is it that, in truth, there are untold
agonies, late or soon, in the hearts of all who have the power to move
and to delight?
Certain it is that Petrarch possessed an immense attraction for almost
every type of mind and character. He must indeed have been a man of
infinite charm. He was the friend of kings, scholars, Popes, princes,
soldiers, statesmen. He ardently championed the cause of Rienzi, and of
the Emperor Charles IV.; for the idea of keeping up the succession of
the Holy Roman Empire appealed powerfully to his imagination, and when
that monarch gave up his campaign before he had made good his imperial
claims on Italy, Petrarch wrote bitterly reproaching him for abandoning
so sacred a heritage.
In Avignon, among hosts of devoted friends, were the Princes of the House
of Colonna; and the friendship was not destroyed even when Petrarch sided
warmly with Rienzi against the turbulent nobles of Rome, among whom the
Colonna were pre-eminent.
But in spite of his popularity in the Papal city, Petrarch heartily
detested this Gallic Babylon, as he called it, and loved to retire from
its splendours to Vaucluse, not far off, where he tried to regain serenity
in the silence of that strangely romantic spot. A sad-looking little house
is still pointed out as the home of the poet; with a shady, wild garden
running down to the waters of the Sorgue as they rush foaming from the
narrow vale, whose stupendous cliffs are as gloomy and hope-destroying
as St. Augustine himself!–St. Augustine as represented in the “Segreto”
at any rate.
Here, in his beloved retreat, the poet seems to have perpetually tormented
himself with reflections about the vanity of life and the folly of human
affections, as if the stern figure of his monitor were indeed still
shadowing his spirit. But the saint, for all his arguments, cannot conquer
the poet’s nature, or free him from what he calls the adamantine chains
that bind him to Love and Fame.
“These charm while they destroy,” he makes the saint declare.
“What have I done to you?” Petrarch exclaims, “that you should deprive
me of my most splendid preoccupations and condemn to eternal darkness
the brightest part of my soul?”
It is in the grip of his splendid preoccupations that one sees him
Petrarch’s parents were forced to leave Florence, where his father
was a notary, by the same revolution that exiled Dante, and after some
wanderings they fixed themselves at Avignon, sending the poet to study
jurisprudence at Montpellier, close at hand. It was on his return to
the Papal city, after the death of his parents, that he saw Laura for
the first time.
Judging by the sonnets, he met her fairly often afterwards in Avignon,
but never with any hope of a return for his passion.
A glance, a word of greeting at most, were all his reward, but out
of these he appears to have woven a sort of painful joy. His was an
unquiet spirit. One feels it as almost a relief to read of his death
and of his peaceful tomb at Arqua in the Euganæan hills above a clear
and beautiful river. “It stands on the little square before the church
where the peasants congregate at Mass-time–open to the skies, girdled
by the hills and within hearing of the vocal stream.”
It is a pathetic picture that is left in the mind at the last, as the
poet writes from the sweet solitude of his garden at Parma, whither he
had retired towards the end of his days, drawn, doubtless, to his native
land, for which he had always a profound attachment.
“I pass my life in the church or in my garden,” he says. The words are
so simple and quiet, and yet they are infinitely pathetic. When one
remembers what a centre of emotion and longing and sorrow the human
heart must be from its very nature, and what a stormy, ambitious, loving
and suffering spirit Petrarch’s had always been, the quietness of those
words and the picture they call up is more touching and significant than
a hundred homilies. One knows a little now what sort of thoughts used
to pass through the poet’s mind, as he bent his steps towards the great
painted chambers where his entry brought to all quick nerves a touch of
sunshine and a wave of harmony.
* * * * *
Barbara gave a little laugh as we ascended the broad whitewashed
staircase, once rich with colour, that led to the endless galleries of
this leviathan of a palace.
“I wonder what our friend would say to this!” she exclaimed.
“Not a rag of ornament,” I quoted sadly.
“Not Gothic or anything,” Barbara complained.
“Wait a minute,” I warned, as we entered a vast room with a vaulted
ceiling, which revealed by one small corner of the huge expanse the
magnificent canopy of rich frescoes that had once overhung the assemblies
of the Popes. “If it is not Gothic, at least it’s–_any_thing!” I cried,
with enthusiasm. And truly anything and everything that is sumptuous,
mellow, exquisite in wealth and modulation of colour this great hall,
with its painted vaultings, must have been. But the splendour had been
desecrated by some Vandal, careless of his country’s pride. Instead of
leaving the great audience chamber to tell its own eloquent tale, the
unpardonable one had cut it up into a couple of rooms–lofty indeed
even then–by dividing its height, and now the dinners of the troops
are cooked irreverently below, while the men spend their leisure in the
vaulted upper half of the Hall of the Frescoes; painted, perhaps, by
Giotto, if the faint tradition may be believed.
The hall is filled with carpenters’ benches, turning-lathes, tools which
lie scattered among wood shavings, glue-pots, and various disorderly
Through the enormous window at the end of this haunted chamber of history
there is a dazzling view of the plain of the Rhone and the circle of
mountains enclosing it, Mont Ventoux, richly blue, rising magnificently
in the centre of the amphitheatre.
We thought of Petrarch’s famous ascent of the mountain, and of his
reflections on the vanity of all things when at last, after a hard
scramble, he reached the summit.
“No doubt he was tired,” said the practical Barbara.
It was just what she would have said about one of her own brothers with
a similar excuse for pessimism.
Perhaps if Petrarch had had a Barbara to look after him he would not
have made so many reflections about the vanity of things. She would
have treated him as a charming child, whose fitful moods have to be
allowed for and soothed. It is indeed a rare man whom women do not feel
called upon to treat more or less in that way! However, Petrarch has
the support of a modern very different from himself when he complains of
the disillusions of mountain climbing. Nietzsche remarks the same thing,
but he accounts for it by the fact that the whole charm and spell of the
country has come from the mountain which draws one to it irresistibly,
but once we are there, the sorceress is no longer visible, and so the
It was in this fortress-palace that the Anti-Pope Benedict XIII. (Pierre
de Luna) withstood the attacks of Charles V., whose religious sentiments,
outraged by the schism in the Church, prompted him to send one of his
generals to drive the pretender from his stronghold. The siege continued
for months, and ruined many houses in Avignon and killed many of the
people. At last, when the place was stormed the Pope took refuge in the
tower and finally escaped out of a secret door.
[Illustration: MILL IN VALE OF THE SORGUE AT VAUCLUSE.
_By E. M. Synge._]
We lingered for some minutes at the great window in the Hall of the
Frescoes studying the landscape, and trying to find out the direction
of Petrarch’s romantic Vale of the Sorgue and the site of the Castle of
Romanin and Les Baux in the Alpilles. Near to the window to our left, as
a stern foreground to that radiant picture of Provence, stands Rienzi’s
tower, bare and bald indeed. And there the last of the Tribunes passed
days of one knows not what anguish in his dark little prison, while
the sunlight beat and beat without upon its ruthless walls. There is a
touching story, showing the honour in which the troubadour’s profession
was held in those days: that the people of Avignon interceded for the
condemned patriot, pleading for his life on the ground that he too was
a singer of songs. One is relieved to remember that at least he did not
end his days in this miserable dungeon, but met his death in the streets
of Rome, at the foot of the Capitol itself.
Alexandre Dumas says of this palace: “We find some sparks of art shining
like gold ornaments in dark armour! These are paintings which belong to
the hard style which marks the transition from Cimabue to Raphael. They
are thought to be by Giotto or Giottino, and certainly if they are not
by these masters they belong to their age and school. These paintings
ornament a tower which was probably the ordinary abode of the Pope, and
a chapel which was used as a tribunal of the Inquisition.”
The young woman who showed us over the Palace with sustained hauteur,
told us that it was the custom to execute papal prisoners by throwing
them from the top of Rienzi’s tower. This was the only subject that
seemed to interest our guide, a young lady of very modern type, and
aggressively “equal.” In case we should have any doubt on the matter
she adopted an abrupt gait and an extremely noisy and resolved manner of
inserting the keys in the locks of the various doors through which she
admitted the sightseers. Barbara and I would fain have hung back among
the strange little passages hidden in the thickness of the inner walls,
ominous little mole-corridors suggestive of plot and passion such as a
Court of mediæval Popes could well be imagined to harbour. But our guide
fretted impatiently at the exit, eager to hurry us out, and she would
scarcely vouchsafe an answer to the meekest of questions. In fact, by
the time she had given us a very much foreshortened view of the Palace
(I am convinced that she did us out of more than half of the appointed
round), most of us felt more or less trampled upon–her equality was such!
* * * * *
It is perhaps a paradox, but it is none the less true that one does not
fully realise the character of a scene till one has left it.
Under the shadow of that terrible building we were held by a spell,
wandering bewildered from dusky corridor to darker chamber, scarcely
able to take count of our own impressions. They were so strong and they
came so fast.
But once out again in the sunshine, we found that the images grouped
themselves into gloomy pictures, and all the crime and all the splendid
misery of that wonderful stage of mediæval drama seemed to crowd before
the mind’s eye, re-peopling the melancholy place with brilliant figures,
filling it with voices and all the indescribable sound and murmur of a
stirring centre of human life.