LRB · Charles Nicholl · On the Sixth Day: Petrarch on the Move


Francesco Petrarca, known in English as Petrarch, is one of the tre corone – the ‘three crowns’ – of early Italian literature. There was a brief period when all three were alive: Dante died in 1321, when Petrarch was 17 and Boccaccio eight; the younger writers worked in his shadow. They were all Florentine, and in the phrase’s first coinage they were the ‘three crowns of Florence’. This was both a statement of civic pride (conveniently forgetting that both Dante and Petrarch had troubled relations with the city) and a celebration of their role in making Tuscan the pre-eminent language of Italian culture and scholarship.

Francesco Petrarca

Francesco Petrarca

Of the three Petrarch is the most prolific, the most eclectic, the hardest to pin down – and, nowadays, the least read. He is chiefly remembered as a love poet, and particularly a sonneteer, though this represented only a fraction of his output. His masterpiece in this field is a mesmeric sequence of 366 sonnets, songs, madrigals, ballads and sestine – one a day in a leap year is the recommended dosage. Its date of composition is disputed, though internal evidence suggests it was begun in or shortly after 1327. If its title is not on the tip of the general reader’s tongue, in the way that The Divine Comedy and the Decameron are, this is mostly because it has three different names, all still in use. Scholarly purists prefer the laconic Latin title Petrarch himself gave it: Rerum vulgarium fragmenta. The adjective vulgaris is a lexical description, referring to the fact that the poems are in Tuscan rather than Latin, so the title translates roughly as ‘Fragments of Things in the Vernacular’. The more obvious meaning, ‘Fragments of Everyday Things’, is also present, and perhaps ironic – to be disappointed in love is indeed a common experience, though when viewed through the distorting lens of 14th-century poetry it becomes something complicated and metaphysical. After Petrarch’s death in 1374 the collection acquired more aptly Italian titles. Rime sparse (‘Scattered Rhymes’) is taken from the opening lines of its first poem: ‘Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono/di quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ’l core’ (‘You who hear in scattered rhymes the sound of those sighs I fed my heart with’). The most popular title is even simpler: Il Canzoniere (‘The Songbook’), which seems to express a sense of the work’s definitiveness as a collection of lyric poetry. The first printed edition of the poems appeared under this title in Venice in 1470, published by Vindelino da Spira. Prior to that they had circulated in manuscript versions, often finely illustrated. Images of the author nestle in historiated initial letters, reading in a garden or writing in his study, typically with a dreamy, abstracted air. Marginal illustrations depict, with faintly comic Ladybird book fidelity, the metaphorical events of the adjoining poem: Petrarch shot through the heart by an arrow; Petrarch metamorphosing into a laurel tree; Petrarch shipwrecked. Another genre of illustration shows him reading or discoursing to a group of listeners. His cat is often present, curled up asleep on the floor. After Petrarch’s death this companion of his later years was embalmed, and displayed at his house on a plinth bearing the words ‘Petrarchae Murilega’ – ‘Petrarch’s mouser’.

More familiar than the name of Petrarch’s great songbook is that of its principal subject, Laura, the cruelly unattainable mistress. The theme of unrequited love, refined by abstinence into a cultish worship, was not Petrarch’s invention. Its roots lie in the Provençal tradition of amour courtois, and in the Sicilian-influenced dolce stil novo of the 13th century. It has a precedent of sorts in Dante’s hymning of Beatrice in La vita nuova (1295), though in the conventional chronology Beatrice was only nine when Dante first saw her, whereas Petrarch’s fateful encounter with Laura is a coup de foudre which certainly includes sexual desire, variously expressed as a ‘burning’, a ‘sickness’, a ‘poison’, a ‘wound’ and an ‘arrow’ passing ‘straight into my innards’. These hints of physicality almost feel like something he’s failed to airbrush out of the story, but nothing in a Petrarch poem is there by mistake. He lets us see that the long aftermath of mournful idealising – the classic trope of courtly love – retains a lingering eroticism, that it is in part a kind of stalking.

Petrarch gives some precise-seeming pointers to the identity of Laura, though even they may only be another layer of the mordantly playful mythologising which is one aspect of the Canzoniere. The best-known source of biographical clues is a handwritten inscription on the flyleaf of the ‘Ambrosian Virgil’, Petrarch’s cherished and much annotated codex of Virgil’s works, now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan:

Laura, illustrious through her own virtues, and long famed through my songs, first appeared to my eyes in my youth, in the year of our Lord 1327, upon the sixth day of April, at the first hour, in the church of Santa Clara [Sainte-Claire] at Avignon; and in the same city, in the same month of April, on the same sixth day, at the same first hour, in the year 1348, that light was taken from our day, while I was by chance in Verona, ignorant, alas, of my fate. The sad tidings reached me at Parma, in a letter from my Ludovicus [the Flemish musician Ludwig van Kempen], on the morning of the 19th of May, of the same year. Her chaste and lovely form was laid in the church of the Franciscans, on the evening of the day she died.

One’s reaction to this is divided. The symmetry of the dates sounds suspicious, especially as 6 April 1327 was Good Friday and 6 April 1348 Easter Sunday, but Petrarch’s slightly finicky precision about how and when he got the news of her death sounds authentic. That he first saw her in Avignon in 1327 ties in with his own biography: his family was part of the community of Italian exiles in that city, and he had recently returned there after the death of his father, the notary Ser Petracco, the previous year. That she died in 1348 makes her a probable victim of the Black Death.

According to a venerable tradition Laura was a Provençal woman called Laure de Noves, born in about 1310. She married Hugo or Hughes de Sade, of a landed family from Le Thor, a few miles south-east of Avignon. The marriage contract is dated 6 January 1325. They had at least 11 children. Correlated with Petrarch’s datings this would make her a married woman in her later teens, possibly already a mother, when their paths first crossed. Her will was drawn up on 3 April 1348, suggestively close to his date for Laura’s death. These documents were found in the 18th century, but the idea that Laura was a member of the de Sade family is much older: a manuscript dated to the 1440s records it as a local tradition. In 1533 a French poet called Maurice Scève, a disciple of Petrarch, announced that he had discovered Laura’s tomb in Avignon. It was unmarked but allegedly contained a casket in which were found a handwritten sonnet in the style of Petrarch (albeit on an off-day) and a medal stamped with the initials ‘M.L.’, which Scève interpreted as ‘Madonna Laura’.

The general view is that this was more of a publicity stunt than a genuine discovery, but it fanned interest in the question of her identity, and though various families in and around Avignon hurried to claim her, the de Sades remained the chief claimants. An engraved portrait published in Padua in 1650 is captioned ‘Laura Sada Avinionensis’ and is said to be based on a painting in the possession of the family. The abbé Jacques-François de Sade proudly discussed his family connection with her in his Mémoires pour la vie de François Pétrarque (1764). He discovered those documents – the marriage contract and the will – which gave her a precise identity, though the originals are no longer extant, leaving a chink of doubt as to the veracity of his transcriptions. The marriage contract also added a new twist, as it had been supposed that Laura was an unmarried member of the family, which fits better, or at least more literally, with Petrarch’s descriptions of her as ‘chaste’. The abbé’s notorious nephew, Donatien Alphonse de Sade, was also enthusiastic about the notion that he was a descendant of this famous muse. ‘Laura turns my head,’ he wrote. ‘I am like a child. I read about her all day and dream about her all night.’ In a letter to his wife he recounts a dream in which Laura appeared to him ‘draped in black muslin’:

I flung myself at her feet, and addressed her as ‘my mother’, and sobs shook me. She held out her hand to me and I covered it with my tears. Then she too wept, saying: ‘When I dwelt in that world which you loathe, I used to look into the future, multiplying my descendants till I reached you’ … I flung my arms round her neck to keep her with me, or to follow her, and to water her with my tears. But the phantom vanished.

It is piquant to think that Laure de Noves occupied the dream life of both Petrarch and the Marquis de Sade, but the identification is much debated. Many question whether there was an actual woman behind the artificial construct of ‘Laura’. Others argue that if there had been one she wouldn’t have been called Laura, as the convention was to veil the identity of the inamorata.

The name ‘Laura’ has a wealth of connotations which are exploited relentlessly through wordplay. One cluster centres on lauro, the laurel, whose leaves formed the wreath (laurea) adorning laureate poets (Petrarch was himself thus crowned, in 1341, though for his Latin poetry). The laurel also links Laura to Daphne, the river nymph of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who was transformed into a laurel to escape the amorous god of poetry, Apollo. The laurel referred to is the sweet-scented variety we know as the bay tree, hence the joke in one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks: ‘Why was Petrarch so madly in love with Laura? Because it tastes so good with sausage and thrush.’ Another wordplay is on l’aura, meaning ‘breeze’ or ‘breath’ and thence ‘spirit’ (Santa Aura is old Italian for the Holy Ghost). A series of puns in Canzoniere 239 begins conventionally with ‘dolce l’aura al tempo novo’ (‘the sweet breeze in springtime’); then becomes rather weirder, ‘col bue zoppo andrem cacciando l’aura’ (‘with a lame ox we will go hunting the breeze’); and finally arrives at one of those lines of pure lyric dynamite that lurk throughout the collection: ‘in rete accolgo l’aura e ’n ghiaccio i fiori’ (‘in a net I gather the breeze and in the ice flowers’).

In a letter written in Latin to his friend Giacomo Colonna, Petrarch responded vigorously to the charge that Laura was a fiction:

What on earth are you saying? That I invented the splendid name of Laura? … That there was no Laura on my mind, except perhaps the poetic one to which I have aspired [i.e. the laurea]? … That the truly living Laura whose beauty captured me was completely made up, my poems fictitious and my sighs feigned? How I wish you were joking, and how I wish she really had been a fiction and not a madness.

But like the poems themselves, these letters are layered with ironies and postures, and readers cannot rest on any firm ground of interpretation.

*

Complexities of interpretation are food and drink to Petrarchan scholars, and Christopher Celenza tucks into them with quiet determination in his short life-and-works overview, Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer. The subtitle is taken from one of Petrarch’s verse letters, where he describes himself as ‘peregrinus ubique’ (more precisely translated as ‘everywhere a pilgrim’). He was indeed a restless traveller. We find him in Avignon, Montpellier, Lombez, Paris, Ghent, Liège, Basel and Prague, as well as all over Italy. A learned marginalium suddenly becomes a snapshot when he apologises for his handwriting – he’s writing while on a boat. But the peregrination he describes is more a metaphysical restlessness, as he moves among different interests, disciplines, languages and political allegiances; between different versions of himself – a man of no fixed abode, ‘without earth or sky to call his own’. This also has a bearing on exile. His father was of the conservative or ‘white’ wing of the Guelph party, whose members opposed papal influence, and (like Dante, whom he knew) had been banished from Florence in 1302; Petrarch was born two years later in Arezzo and spent his boyhood and youth in Provence. ‘A sense of exile,’ Celenza says, ‘permeated Petrarch’s psychology’ and ‘inflected his writing’. It also, paradoxically, fostered in him an early sense of ‘Italianness’, in place of the regional identity denied him by exile.

His life is well documented, though our sense of it is mostly derived from his own writings. He had an almost obsessive interest in self-portrayal. The Canzoniere is a kind of emotional autobiography; the Posteritati (‘Letter to Posterity’), which gives an account of his life up to 1351, is no less carefully tailored. As a young man he studied law in Montpellier and Bologna, but swiftly abandoned it after the death of his father. He describes his youth as full of the usual ‘vanities’ – fashions, feasts, amorous dalliances. These, we are led to believe, took place before he first saw Laura, but at least two illegitimate children were born in his middle years: Giovanni in 1337 and Francesca in 1343, their mother or mothers unknown. He never married. A curriculum vitae traces a successful public career in the humanist mould: scholar, orator, part-time diplomat, absentee cleric. His coronation as poet laureate, at the age of 37, was only the second such award in Italy since classical times (the first was to a Paduan poet, Albertino Mussato, in 1315). The event, entirely stage-managed by Petrarch, took place on Easter Sunday 1341, in the audience hall of the Roman Senate on the Capitoline Hill, and featured a long oration, the Collatio laureationis, which has been called ‘the first manifesto of the Renaissance’. He had many patrons, among them the Visconti of Milan, the Colonna of Rome and the Gonzaga of Mantua. They lent him houses, sent him on embassies, and awarded him nice fat church benefices – his chief source of income – and in return received presentation manuscripts and beautifully honed verse letters, sometimes accompanied by a gift: for Luchino Visconti some pear trees, for Guido Gonzaga a copy of the Roman de la rose. He also had connections with some more dubious figures, like the condottiere Azzo da Correggio and the populist Roman agitator Cola di Rienzo.

On a mission to Prague in 1356 Petrarch was created a count palatine by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV. But increasingly such advancements meant little to him. He turned down a professorship in Florence and an appointment as a papal secretary. The Virgilian urge to solitude and rustic reclusion was powerful: much of the Canzoniere was composed in Provence, in the depths of the Vaucluse. His last years were spent in well-appointed retirement in a ‘small but pleasant’ house in the village of Arquà (now Arquà Petrarca) in the Euganean Hills south of Padua. Here he lived with his daughter, Francesca, and her family, cultivated his garden and enjoyed a crotchety reputation which kept unwanted visitors at bay. A man with a ‘noble spirit’, he wrote, ‘finds repose nowhere save in God, who is our end, or in himself and his private thoughts’. What may be the only authentic likeness of him dates from this period. Attributed to Altichiero da Zevio, who was working in Padua in the 1370s, it appears on the opening folio of his collection of classical biographies, De viris illustribus, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. It is a simple line drawing: a head and shoulders in profile. Much is concealed by the close-fitting hood and gown; the concealment, one feels, is part of the portrayal – nothing is given away. We see the rather patrician profile, the alertness of the eye, a hint of double chin. The upper torso beneath the gown has a settled, bulky look. The later pictorial stereotype – as seen in portraits by Andrea del Castagno and Giorgio Vasari, among others – does him few favours. In contrast with Dante, whose features are stern and craggy, he is depicted as plump, melancholy and faintly epicene.

Celenza’s book introduces us to the breadth of Petrarch’s intellectual world. Lyric poetry is only one corner of it: the Canzoniere and the other major sequence of Laura-inspired poems, the Trionfi (‘Triumphs’), run to around ten thousand lines, but are dwarfed by his prose and poetry in Latin. This includes more than five hundred letters, polished up and collated into multi-volume anthologies: the Familiares (‘Familiar Letters’), the Seniles (‘Letters Written in Old Age’) and the Sine nomine (‘Unnamed Letters’ – deemed politically sensitive, their recipients are unidentified). The letters constitute a long-running, multilayered conversation (or one side of it) with a wide circle of humanists and scholars. Correspondence was slow and unpredictable. Letters were lost or stolen; routes were severed by provincial wars; replies were scribbled hastily while the courier waited: ‘I might go on, but your messenger is hanging over me, watching every stroke of my pen, counting the minutes when it pauses.’

Other Latin texts include an acerbic collection of dialogues, De remediis utriusque fortunae (‘Physicke against Fortune, as well Prosperous, as Adverse’ in the Elizabethan translation by Thomas Twyne); ‘invectives’ such as the anti-Aristotelian De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia (‘On His Own and Many Others’ Ignorance’) and the Contra medicum (‘Against the Doctor’, which identifies his opponent only as ‘a certain man of great status but no wisdom or virtue’); the enigmatic Secretum (‘The Secret’), framed as a dialogue between Petrarch and St Augustine; and the unfinished epic Africa, which finds a rousing example for Italian military resurgence in the story of the Roman general Scipio Africanus and his defeat of Hannibal. A later enthusiast of this poem was Machiavelli, who quoted from it in The Prince – ‘l’antico valore/Negli italici cuor non e ancor morto’ (‘The ancient valour is not yet dead in the Italian heart’).

Petrarch’s intense and scholarly engagement with classical literature is another of Celenza’s themes. In a letter to Boccaccio he wrote:

I have read Virgil, Horace, Boethius and Cicero. I read them not once but a thousand times; I did not run by them, but lay down beside them. I brooded over them with every effort of my intelligence. I ate in the morning what I would digest in the evening; I imbibed as a boy what I would ruminate on as an older man. I have ingested those things in such an intimate way that they have become fixed not only in my memory but in my marrow.

Petrarch saw this as another aspect of his own restlessness. ‘I have dwelled single-mindedly on learning about antiquity,’ he says, ‘because this age has always displeased me.’ He wished to ‘graft’ himself ‘to other ages’. Yet his belief in the wisdom of antiquity was tempered by a stubborn residue of scepticism: ‘I once believed learned men, now I believe myself … I have no need of poet or philosopher. I am my own witness and my own sufficient authority.’

Petrarch was famous in his time not only as a classical philologist and editor, but as a tracker of lost manuscripts. His greatest find was an unknown collection of Cicero’s letters in the cathedral library of Verona. His transcription of these in 1345 motivated him to collect his own letters. His sleuthing in libraries and monasteries was recognised by the great manuscript hunter of the following century, Poggio Bracciolini. Petrarch was the pioneer, Poggio said: he ‘opened the path’, and ‘with his labour, industry and watchful attention, called back to life those works almost brought to destruction’. But even as they rescued these remnants of antique literature, they realised how much had irretrievably disappeared: they were like archaeologists picking up shards among the ruins. In an essay, ‘On Fragments’, the philosopher Glenn Most writes of this sense of loss:

The ancient world … was henceforth separated from their own by an unbridgeable historical caesura. It was this historical shock … that lies at the basis of the modern search for ancient fragments, and endows the very term fragment with an emotional tone connoting loss, injury and deprivation … It was Petrarch who first extended the use of the word fragmentum to encompass with deep pathos all that was left over from the fall of Rome.

This brings one back to the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, the original title of the Canzoniere – the ‘fragments’ of poetry which are all that’s left from the emotional wreckage of the Laura affair.

*

Petrarch’s Italian love lyrics, and what Celenza calls the ‘dreamy, haunted persona’ he adopts in them, had a huge influence on English poetry. This is somewhat ironic, as he doesn’t seem to have thought very highly of the English. A passing reference to ‘British barbarians’ (barbari Britanni) suggests he associated them with the Germanic vandals who sacked Rome. Even worse, they are ‘timid barbarians’ – a reference to the slavish scholastic admiration of Aristotle in Oxford and Cambridge.

For the Anglophone reader, the Canzoniere and Trionfi are blueprints for the great outpouring of late Tudor love poetry. But the first English response to Petrarch came in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – begun a decade or so after Petrarch’s death – when the ‘Clerk of Oxenford’ tells the story of ‘patient Griselda’, and in his prologue claims he was taught the tale, in ‘Padowe’ or Padua, by ‘Fraunceys Petrak’. (This is the first appearance of the rather clunky bisyllabic English form of his name, probably deriving from the French form Pétrarque.) The Clerk calls him ‘the lauriat poet’ and a ‘worthy clerk’ – a fellow scholar, in other words. His ‘rhetorike sweete’, Chaucer writes, has ‘enlumynd al Ytaille’. The acknowledgment of Petrarch as the author of the tale is surprising, since it was originally written by Boccaccio – it is the last of the hundred tales of the Decameron, a work Chaucer certainly knew. Petrarch’s version is shorter, and in Latin, and survives only as a letter he sent to Boccaccio, later included in the Seniles. It seems, on the face of it, a less plausible source – though it is, of course, just right for the scholarly Clerk to prefer the more refined and obscure Latin version, and to impress his fellow pilgrims with talk of his travels to the great university city of Padua.

Chaucer himself visited Italy at least twice, on diplomatic errands, and it has been thought that the Clerk’s prologue might reflect a real meeting with Petrarch during his first mission in 1373. This remains conjecture. Petrarch was indeed in Padua at the time – hostilities with Venice had made Arquà temporarily unsafe – but Chaucer was in Genoa and Florence, negotiating trade treaties. A more recent discovery offers a new hypothesis. Five years earlier, in July 1368, Chaucer was issued with a passport out of Dover, and with two horses and money for expenses; he may have been out of the country for three months. His destination is not stated, but it could have been Milan, where his frequent employer Prince Lionel, son of Edward III, was enjoying the hospitality of Galeazzo Visconti, whose daughter he had married. This would place Chaucer in striking distance of Padua, where Petrarch was living at the house of Francesco da Carrara, working on the De viris illustribus.

Earlier than The Canterbury Tales, and more prophetic of the Petrarchan influence on English poetry, is Chaucer’s charming version of Canzoniere 132, which is inserted as a standalone ‘Song’ in Troilus and Criseyde. It is a loose translation in that it expands the original’s 14 lines to 21 – Chaucer cannot match the compression of Petrarch’s style – and also because some of its readings are a bit dubious. The Elizabethan translator Thomas Watson takes him to task for this, noting rather sniffily that his own translation of the poem ‘varieth from that sense which Chaucer useth … which he doth upon no other warrant than his own simple private opinion’. This sort of editorial quibbling, not to mention long glosses and commentaries, are a feature of the Petrarchan tradition: the apparent simplicity of the poet’s diction reveals knotty ambiguities. One can compare their translations of the poem’s famous last line, ‘et tremo a mezza state, ardendo il verno’. Chaucer gets rather tangled up in the oxymorons: ‘for hete of cold, for cold of hete, I dye.’ Watson’s version is sleeker, and closer to the original: ‘in summer freeze, in winter burn like fire.’

The English craze for Petrarch began to take hold in the 1530s, at the court of Henry VIII, where Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Thomas Wyatt were the ‘two chieftans’ of a ‘new company of courtly makers’. They had, the Elizabethan literary historian George Puttenham wrote, ‘travailed into Italie, and there tasted the sweet and stately measures and style of the Italian poesie’, and so ‘greatly polished our rude and homely manner of vulgar poesie’. Wyatt’s sonnet ‘Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind’, which is almost certainly about Anne Boleyn, plays brilliant and dangerous variations on ‘Una candida cerva sopra l’erba’ (Canzoniere 190). By the last decades of the century a whole choir of sonneteers was tuning up. Petrarch was their master, his ‘speaking voice’ – melodic, melancholy, intimate – their ideal. A selective list of Elizabethan sequences alla Petrarca would include Watson’s Hekatompathia (1582), Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (written in the early 1580s, published posthumously in 1591), Spenser’s ‘Visions of Petrarch’ in Complaints (1591), Samuel Daniel’s Delia (1592), Michael Drayton’s Idea’s Mirror (1594) and Robert Tofte’s Laura (1597). Tofte is included for his title, but also as a representative of the many inferior warblers troubling the presses at this time. The glut of sweetmeats provoked a predictable backlash of anti-Petrarchan satire and parody. Among the London types lampooned by Thomas Nashe in Pierce Penniless (1592) is the second-rate sonneteer: ‘All Italianato is his talk … He will be an Inamorato poeta, & sonnet a whole quire of paper in praise of Lady Swinesnout, his yellow-faced mistress.’ In Joseph Hall’s Satires (1597) there is a similarly disenchanted view of poets who ‘filch whole pages at a clap, for need,/From honest Petrarch, clad in English weed’. He notes that they begin each stanza with ‘big But Oh’s!’ in imitation of the maestro’s complaints, and imagines the ‘spright’ or ghost of Petrarch returning to remonstrate with these ‘plagiary sonnet-wrights’.

How much Shakespeare contributed to the sonnet boom of the 1590s is unclear. The deliberately winsome sonnets in Love’s Labours Lost are essentially Petrarchan caricatures. And there are those ‘sugared sonnets among his private friends’, mentioned by Francis Meres, a well-informed observer, in 1598. Some of these probably appear in the full sequence of 154 sonnets Shakespeare published in 1609, though individual dating is difficult, and in its final form that collection cannot usefully be described as Petrarchan. Shakespeare’s only reference to Petrarch by name is in Romeo and Juliet, where Mercutio makes fun of the lovelorn Romeo – ‘Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his lady was but a kitchen wench.’ It’s a jokey comment, but critics have noted a strong Petrarchan tinge to the play. ‘In the Verona of Romeo and Juliet,’ Jill Levenson writes, Shakespeare ‘imagines a city where everyone speaks or enacts the Petrarchan idiom … [The] poetry overflows with the conventions of Petrarchan verse, their abundance contributing to the vitality of the lines.’ Thus Shakespeare ‘releases sonnet conventions from their traditional frame of reference’ and brings them into the playhouse.

Nashe does something similar, but with satirical intent, in his picaresque proto-novel The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). The story, set in the time of Henry VIII, is narrated by a roguish pageboy called Jack Wilton; one of his masters is the poetic Earl of Surrey, with whom he travels in Italy. In a brilliant vignette Nashe imagines Surrey paying elaborate Petrarchan court to a beautiful young Venetian woman, Diamante: he would ‘take her white hand and wipe his eyes with it’; where she walked, he would ‘kneel & kiss the ground as holy ground’; ‘he praised, he prayed, he … besought her to pity him that perished for her.’ This too is a ‘releasing’ of Petrarchan conventions from their traditional poetic context, but done in order to show how absurd they are when presented as actual behaviour. Nashe (or rather Jack Wilton) adds a telling comment about the essential egotism of courtly worship: ‘I persuade myself he was more in love with his own curious forming fancy than her face.’

The final twist is that while the earl is wrapped up in his idealised vision of Diamante – his ‘entranced mistaking ecstasy’ – the opportunistic Jack takes advantage of the situation and seduces her. ‘My master beat the bush, and kept a coil and a prattling, but I caught the bird.’ One of the secrets of his success, he implies, was seeing her as a real person and talking to her as real people do: ‘Simplicity and plainness shall carry it away … A holy requiem to their souls, that think to woo a woman with riddles.’ The ghost of Petrarch would no doubt dismiss this as another instance of British barbarism, but one cannot help feeling that Jack has a point.