Petrarch and the unbearable thought of life without the wines of Burgundy

From the “Sunday poetry” department…

Above: In this Renaissance illuminated manuscript (painted book), Petrarch and Laura appear on the banks of a river. Laura, the river (the Sorgue), and the laurel tree (also depicted) are central to Petrarchan iconography. Petrarch knew the wines of Burgundy well but he liked the wines of Italy better.

Petrarch (1304-1374) knew the wines of Burgundy well. He spent most of his early life in and around Avignon, where his father followed the Babylonian exile of the papal court, and where the wines of the Côte d’Or already enjoyed considerable fame. It wasn’t far from Avignon where he first saw Laura, for whom he would write 366 poems, later gathered in his Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Fragments of Vernacular Things, the title he gave to his Canzoniere or Song Book). Their first meeting took place in Vaucluse in 1327 (according to his own mythology).

Petrarch spent much of the latter half of his life trying to bring the papacy back to Rome. After one of his appeals to Pope Urban V, some of the cardinals argued that a return to Rome would be unthinkable: how could they survive, they told the pope, without the health-enhancing properties of the wines of Burgundy? Petrarch responded with one of his most famous political letters and a passage, often cited but seldom revisited, in which he chastises the gluttonous cardinals. But in the same stroke, he invites them to experience the wines of Italy:

    Is it not a puerile ambition to malign the many types of wines, so plentiful, found in all parts of Italy? … Let them come and see for themselves — all those for whom life would be unbearable without the wines of Burgundy! They will find copious amounts of grain, olive oil, wines, plants, and fruits. Here there are fruits unfamiliar to you and unknown in your [colder] climate. The woods, beasts, wild animals, game, and food and spices are so abundant that no one dies of hunger…

    Seniles 9, to Pope Urban V, August 1366 (translation adapted from Aldo Bernardo)

In last week’s Sunday poetry post, Petrarch flowed the rivers of the world together in verse. Laura is absent and he longs for the river where she appeared: no other river, he cries, could quench the fire burning in his soul.

In this week’s post, he happens upon Laura by a river, innocently washing her veil. She is more beautiful than the huntress goddess Diana who turned Acteon’s dogs upon him when he happened upon her bathing nude in a river.

Magridal 52 is one of the most exquisite compositions in Petrarch’s Rerum. As summer temperatures rise here in Texas, there is a someone special in my life, too, who can still make me “tremble with a chill of love.”

    Not so much did Diana please her lover when, by a similar
    chance, he saw her all naked amid the icy waters,

    as did the cruel mountain shepherdess please me, set to wash a
    pretty veil that keeps her lovely blond head from the breeze;

    so that she made me, even now when the sky is burning, all
    tremble with a chill of love.

    (translation by Robert Durling)

    Non al suo amante più Diana piacque
    quando per tal ventura tutta ignuda
    la vide in mezzo de le gelide acque,

    ch’a me la pastorella alpestra e cruda
    posta a bagnar un leggiadretto velo
    ch’a l’aura il vago e biondo capel chiuda;

    tal che mi fece, or quand’egli arde’l cielo,
    tutto tremar d’un amoroso gelo.

5 thoughts on “Petrarch and the unbearable thought of life without the wines of Burgundy

  1. Jeremy – you are very interesting. As much as I “know” Petrarch I don’t really KNOW him. I enjoy these posts – they provide fodder for interesting conversations with my Italian. thanks =)

    • @Texasespresso thanks for reading! My dissertation was on Petrarch, medieval script, and Renaissance transcriptions of the Rerum so I spent a lot of time reading Petrarch… I’m so glad that people are enjoying Sunday poetry. Buona domenica! :-)

      P.S. I know you and S know about “la gatta del Petrarca.” ;-)

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