A decorated manuscript of Petrarch’s Canzoniere produced in Italy in the 15th century. The manuscript goes on auction today at Christie’s in London.

One of the most beautiful collection of love poems ever written was the Canzoniere by the Italian humanist poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca.

But Petrarch didn’t title it as we refer to it. Instead, he called it ‘Rerum vulgarium fragmenta’, which could, poetically, be rendered something ranging from ‘Shards of Spoken words’ to ‘Fragments of things written in the vulgar tongue’. Ok, not so poetic, but not vulgar either. The poems were written in Italian, the vulgar, vernacular language of the people. Non-Latin, period.

Humility was one of the most potent literary tropes during the medieval period. Authors would protest their unfitness to describe, narrate or make a metaphysical or moral claim. The greater the claim, the stronger the humility disclaimer. The most showy writers were also the most humble. Apparently.

Medieval virtue-signalling was as powerful as it is today. The human capacity for irony is endless. Saying one thing but meaning another.

Petrarch later repented for the poetry he wrote in his youth. An accomplished scholar, he distanced himself from the vulgaritas of his mindless youth. Funnily enough, it is that poetry that made him famous and worth reading through the ages. While a handful of medievalists and historians remember Petrarch for his age-shattering role as a proto humanist, most readers come back to him for his Rime, love and lovely lines for Laura, the woman who, just like Dante’s Beatrice, is engulfed in a shroud of mystery.

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