The Cambridge Companion to Petrarch

9780521185042Deirdre Serjeantson at The Dublin Review of Books:

When modern readers reach for a great Florentine poet, their hands tend to light on a volume of Dante. Dante had been enormously popular in the late middle ages, and if his overtly Catholic subject matter made him less visible during the English Renaissance, his great revival in the nineteenth century assures his fame in modern times. There is even a computer game based on the Inferno. Petrarch is less accessible: a considerable number of his works, including his Penitential Psalms and many of his letters, have never been translated into English. He survives most prominently as an adjective attached to sonnets by the great writers of the sixteenth century, but the term “Petrarchan” only acknowledges the tradition which built up around the love poetry and ignores the bulk of Petrarch’s achievement. And yet, he is ubiquitous in early-modern literature – a knowledge of Petrarch has the power of bringing a host of more familiar works suddenly into focus. From throwaway jokes about young lovers to political iconography in paintings of Elizabeth I, his writing is one of the keys to reading the Renaissance.

All of this is not to say that Petrarch is neglected. The tradition of scholarship around his works, which began even before his death, continues today. The seven-hundredth anniversary of his death in 2004 saw a number of important international conferences, and their proceedings join other recent books in re-evaluating and celebrating his legacy. These publications, however, constitute a professional literature: the British Academy’s excellent collection of essays, Petrarch in Britain, sells for around €95, which is quite an obstacle in the way of the general reader, no matter how interested he or she might be. This is where the new Cambridge Companion to Petrarch, edited by AR Ascoli and Unn Falkeid, and retailing at closer to €20, comes in.

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