Italian literature was born thanks to the contribution of distinguished figures of the 12th century. Among these, Francesco Petrarch who was a poet, philosopher but above all one of the greatest writers of his time, a pioneer of Humanism and the rediscovery of the great Latin and Greek classics. Among his journeys, aimed at achieving the deepest and most varied culture, Petrarch went to Naples to visit the places described by the poet Virgil. Numerous and contrasting are the witnesses of the writer who came twice in the Neapolitan city and his love and hate towards the fascinating Naples, so imperfect as rich in history.Petrarch visited many Italian cities and became known for his deep erudition.He was offered a poetic coronation in Paris and Rome. So, following the advice of the Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, he accepted to receive the honor in the capital.At the Campidoglio Petrarch was crowned Supreme Poet in 1341.
Petrarch in Naples before the poetic coronation
Shortly before his poetic coronation, Petrarch was invited to Naples to the court of King Robert of Anjou, known as the Wise, probably in the regal halls of the Maschio Angioino. The monarch had in fact to examine the young man of letters before conferring on him the laurel crown, symbol of the poetic degree “ad honoris”. The poet was fascinated by the grandeur of the Angevin court and his name and fame were strengthened by the sovereign’s approval. In Naples Petrarch met the most important Neapolitan writers of the time, such as Barbato da Sulmona, Giovanni Barilli and Nicolò Alunno d’Alife.<>He returned to the city two years later, in the summer of 1343 at the behest of Pope Clement VI.Hosted in the princes palace Colonna di Stigliano, Petrarch remained in the city for three months.King Robert of Anjou had died and the teenage Giovanna Durazzo reigned on the throne. The Angevin period was now over and the discontent for the succession was great. The queen, in fact, was the niece of King Wise and his only descendant. Her reign was characterized by disorder and countless court intrigues.When Petrarch returned to Naples, therefore, he found a completely different situation from that of his first trip. First of all it must be said that the author came to ask the young queen the liberation of some political prisoners, accused of rebellion and locked up in the prisons of Castel Nuovo. The outcome of the request, however, was negative and a great bitterness pervaded Petrarch who began to have a mixture of conflicting feelings about the city of Naples.Disappointed, he began to notice disorder and injustice even among the streets. He was struck in particular by an event he witnessed personally. Near the Church of Santa Caterina in Formello, in fact, the writer witnessed a fight between two men that resulted in a shocking cold-blooded murder of the young man.On the one hand the historical and social events of the city frightened and disappointed him, on the other Petrarch could not resist the charm of the landscape and culture of Naples. He frequented the symbolic places of the city going to the Maschio Angioino and visiting the many cloisters and gardens. The great man of letters continued his cultural research also in the rich libraries and in the fascinating Neapolitan archaeological sites.As witnessed in Petrarch’s work Seniles, the scholar followed Virgil’s footsteps among those places in Naples that the ancient author mentioned in his great works. Amazed by the great beauty of the Gulf of Naples, he made many explorations in the company of his Neapolitan friends, Barilli and Barbato. Among these adventures it is memorable an excursion in the area of Campi Flegrei where he could visit the wonders of Baia and Pozzuoli, going up to Miseno and Cuma. He also visited Lake Avernus, enraptured by the myths and stories of the ancient “entrance to the underworld”, and that of Lucrino exploring, finally, the esoteric Antro della Sibilla.
The tsunami that hit Naples in 1343
In 1343 a frightening and terrible event hit the city of Naples. It is said that Petrarch himself notes between his lines the storms that in those days hit the city.So the night of November 24 of that year, there was a terrible seaquake. The earth trembled between roars and the high splashes of the stormy sea while huge waves hit the boats of the port, damaging everything and swallowing even the lighthouse. The flooded streets became a dangerous place, so the people rushed to the highest points of the city. The sewers burst and many were killed by the devastating natural event. Francesco Petrarch, who was still in Naples, was traumatized and horrified by the fury of the tsunami. So he took shelter at first in the spaces of the Church of San Lorenzo, where the monks welcomed him and other wounded fellow citizens. Meanwhile, the sea continued its work of destruction until the next day. Petrarch, then jumped on a carriage and fled away to Gaeta where he took the first available ship that would take him to Livorno and then to Parma. In short, his already terrible opinion was blackened by this fortuitous event that shook him deeply and of which he tells among his Familiares epistles.
Biographical notes about Francesco Petrarch
Francesco Petrarch was born in Arezzo, Tuscany in 1304. Both his parents were originally from the city of Florence, but with the arrival of Charles of Valois who exiled all White Guelphs from the city, Mr. Petrarch and his family were forced to move elsewhere. The first years of the young Petrarch’s life took place between Italy and France where his father, notary of the Papal Court, worked. In that historical period Avignon had become the new seat of the Church of Rome. In Italy he formed important friendships as it is testified in the work of the same Petrarch, Familiares XXI. In the epistle addressed to his friend Boccaccio, the author tells about his meeting with the Supreme Poet Dante Alighieri. During his cultural journey he got to know French novels and Dante’s literature and he also dedicated himself to religious texts. In 1320 the young man attended the University of Bologna where he studied law, rediscovering ancient authors including Horace and Virgil, who inspired him in his poetic compositions, while he modeled his works in prose, following the style of Seneca and Cicero. A few years later, in 1327 he saw Laura. The meeting took place during one of his stays in Avignon and, as the author himself describes, it was love at first sight. The deep feeling for this already married French noblewoman inspired most of Petrarch’s poems in his major work: the Canzoniere. However, he lived as a lay cleric, taking his vows and befriending the Colonna family.<>In the last years of his life, Petrarch had fled from the Neapolitan life taking shelter in Parma and then in Valchiusa. In 1348 arrived in Italy the Black Death and with it the dramatic news of the death of his beloved Laura, struck by the disease. Despite the sad news Petrarch continued to travel living for two years in Provence and then returning to Italy, in Milan. He then went to Padua and Venice, finally returning to Arquà in 1370 where he died suddenly four years later.
Legend about the death of Petrarch and the mystery of his Tomb
It is said that death surprised the great Petrarch on the night of July 19th, 1374. He was sitting at his desk in the canonical house assigned to him in Padua, when, while studying Virgil’s texts with the intention of further perfecting his literary art, he was struck by a syncope from which he never awoke. His remains seem to have been buried near the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta in Arquà. However, even after his death, Petrarch continued to travel. Six years after the burial, his remains were exhumed and moved in a sarcophagus. At the behest of his son-in-law, in fact, was erected a sepulchral monument in red marble from Verona, similar to the ancient Roman sarcophagi. On it you can read an inscription, which seems to have been composed by Petrarch himself before his death, which reads: “This stone covers the cold bones of Francesco Petrarch, welcome or Virgin Mother, his Soul and you, son of the Virgin, forgive. May it, weary of earth, rest in the heavenly stronghold.” Due to these moves, however, the bones contained in the monument were analyzed in 2004. The examinations testify that the skull in the tomb, does not belong to Petrarch but to an unknown woman who probably lived in ‘200. A mystery surrounds the story and we still wonder who, among the many who desecrated the tomb of Petrarch, took away the skull of the writer.