Between 1336 and 1374 Francesco Petrarca wrote the 366 poems that make up the Canzoniere. Their alternate title is Rerum Vulgarum Fragmentum, humbly: Fragments in the Vernacular. While some of the poems are political, religious or epistolary, the vast majority are dedicated to Laura, his unrequited love. Any way you look at it, he is ranting. But he does this all with quick-footed juxtaposition in his language, a technique Shakespeare later lifted for his own sonnets.
Poem number I is an introductory note to the entire book. He writes:
Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ‘l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand’era in parte altr’uom da quel ch’i’ sono,
del vario stile in ch’io piango et ragiono
fra le vane speranze e ‘l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.
Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;
et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è ‘l frutto,
e ‘l pentersi, e ‘l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.
You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes,
of those sighs on which I fed my heart,
in my first vagrant youthfulness,
when I was partly other than I am,
I hope to find pity, and forgiveness,
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.
Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;
and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world’s delight is a brief dream.
At the very beginning of his poem he directly addresses his readership. Though at the time it would have been quite a small number of people from his own upper class, he is aware that the book will reach them; there is a notion of ambition. He goes on to talk about the errors of his youth, much like his hero St. Augustine, with whom he imagines an imaginary conversation in his cleverly named book of prose, My Secret Book. Petrarch sets the reader up for a confession in this first sonnet, but by the end of the 366 poems it is questionable if he actually feels remorse. What is truly important, we readers discover, is his own personal salvation. The line, “I hope to find hope and pity” is the one that really gets at the overshare quality. He is simultaneously begging for pity, admitting his vanity and getting on with his book. Over 366 poems. He obsesses over another man’s wife for years and years, until he dies. He fails in his good manners for public ranting. Excess adds to the level of modesty while it is reduced; a madman cannot be blamed for his ranting. This phenomenon of writing books was limited to very few upper class men during the middle ages, men who came from lands with writing systems and traditions. Now this mode of communication is available to nearly everyone on earth. The line between our private fantasies and our outward desires is blurred completely. According to Slavloj Žižek Petrarch is part of the problem, that is the problem we have now with our “overt/subvert/I want to be modest but I don’t really know how to anymore” use of social media. In his book Event, Žižek writes,
It is often said today, that with our total exposure to the media, culture of public confessions and instruments of digital control, private space is disappearing. One should counter this commonplace with the opposite claim: it is the public space proper which is disappearing. The person who displays on the web his or her naked images or intimate data and obscene dreams is not an exhibitionist: exhibitionists intrude into the public space, while those who post their naked images on the web remain in their private space and are just expanding it to include others.
Petrarch is taking his private thoughts and turning them into public confessions. This is something writing does on a regular basis, but the space for this style of confessional writing continues to grow. Private space creeps into public spaces and makes permissible all sorts of behaviors and voices once kept intimate. Žižek employs Kant’s definition of public and private here. Public space, being space in which people allow for a performative level of social order or authority. People suspend some aspects of their free thinking in order to function with others, no matter their respective social position. For this to function well, however, their needs to be a certain level of respect amongst diverse groups of people. Therefore, as our own culture slides into the privatization of public space perhaps the hypothesis that we are actually losing our ability to respect difference as we move towards monoculture gains credibility.
Petrarch’s poems can and should be taken as a metaphor for his attempts to reach divinity, in the form of God and the Virgin Mother. This doesn’t really change things for contemporary readers and what can be appreciated of this medieval author today. He makes his struggle public while somehow managing to show that he is, nonetheless, ten steps ahead of everyone else on their own spiritual journey.
Whether it is a woman or a god he is after, Petrarch falls into the Marxist definition of commodity fetishism: Laura is an embodiment of an abstract-universal notion and as close as Petrarch gets to the embodiment that is Laura he can never arrive at the abstract notion. Even if he knows this he keeps talking. He can’t stop. This non-stop writing about one idea runs parallel to our own social media lives; there is a constant influx of information and voices but the final result remains intangible.
(poem and translation from Petrarch: The Canzoniere)