Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, April 6, 2015

Petrarch's "Laura"

Laura de Noves (died 6 April 1348)

So many anonymous women, beloved, idolized and unknown. How many women, names now lost, have "inspired" poets to write about them? Well, to be fair, those poets weren't really writing about all these "beloved" women--they were more concerned with demonstrating their own literary prowess and wallowing in their own emotions, despair or ecstasy, despair and ecstasy.

A fifteenth-century imagined Laura
And who better to represent all these objectified women that Petrarch's Laura, who inspired his rime sparse, his "scattered rhymes"? His 366 poems about Laura actually tell us very little about her, except in a general sense (she is lovely and modest)--they are all about him. She remains utterly elusive, both unreachable and unknowable.

Not that I don't recognize Petrarch's brilliance and appreciate the influence of his lyrics (his sonnets inspired generations of writers in their imitations, adaptations, recreations, and new creations). But I do think a great deal, as well, about women, objects of desire, like Laura, who had little say about becoming the focus of all this attention.

According to Petrarch, he first saw Laura on 6 April 1327. She died twenty-one years later, on 6 April 1348. Petrarch recorded a note on her death in his copy of Virgil: 
Laura, who was distinguished by her own virtues, and widely celebrated by my songs, first appeared to my eyes in my early manhood, in the year or our Lord 1327, upon the sixth day of April, at the first hour, in the church of Santa Clara at Avignon; 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 unhappy news reached me at Parma, in a letter from my friend Ludovico, on the morning of the nineteenth 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 upon which she died. I am persuaded that her soul returned . . . to the heaven whence it came.
I have experienced a certain satisfaction in writing this bitter record of a cruel event, especially in this place [that is, in his volume of Virgil] where it will often come under my eye, for so I may be led to reflect that life can afford me no farther pleasures; and, the most serious of my temptations being removed, I may be admonished by the frequent study of these lines, and by the thought of my vanishing years, that it is high time to flee from Babylon. This, with God's grace, will be easy, as I frankly and manfully consider the needless anxieties of the past, with its empty hopes and unforeseen issue.
Laura de Noves of Avignon, if she is Petrarch's Laura, was born in 1310, was married in 1325, gave birth to eleven children, and died when she was just thirty-eight years old. 

The only Laura we have is Petrarch's Laura. What Laura de Noves might have thought and felt, who she might have loved, whether she herself might have liked to write--all remain unknown.