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'Volto di Medusa': monumentalizing the self in Petrarch's Rerum vulgarium fragmenta.


Scholarship on Petrarch has generally intepreted the figure of Laura-as-Medusa as a projection of the poet's internal conflict between sacred and profane love. Such a reading takes Medusa as a threat to Petrarch's agency. Yet Petrarch's Laura-Medusa is suggestively figured as only her disembodied head, a weapon ultimately manipulated by Perseus. This reversal of agency has an impact on Petrarch's complicated theory of poetic inspiration, and reaches beyond the relationship between poet and beloved to encompass another fraught paradigm of power: the relationship between poet and patron. By recalling the disembodied head of Medusa in the figure of Laura, and recovering the political symbolism of the appropriation of her petrifying gaze, Petrarch creates a model of poetic agency that he uses to stage his relationship to patronage in the Latin Africa and a poem addressed to his Colonna patrons.


Medusa, patronage, Petrarch


L'ombra sua sola fa '1 mio cor un ghiaccio, et di bianca paura il viso tinge; ma li occhi anno vertu di farne un marmo. (Petrarca, 2001: 197, 9-14) (1)

In 1962, Kenelm Foster published one of the first and most often cited articles on the figure of Medusa in Petrarch's Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (RVF), one which continues to influence scholarship on the subject. (2) By investigating whether or not Petrarch's Laura functioned as a Dantean beatrice (conduit to God), or as a Medusa (obstacle to God), Foster argued for a binary opposition between the figures of Beatrice and Laura that would have the former guide Dante towards the Beatific Vision while the latter's beauty competed with it and put Petrarch's soul in danger. For Foster, Laura-as-Medusa represents Petrarch's moral arrestment, particularly in the three so-called Medusa poems (3) wherein the beloved is a 'mere image of the lover-obsession, almost without moral overtones' (Foster, 1962: 52-53). He reads these three poems as the obstacle that Petrarch finally overcomes in the Hymn to Madonna at the end of the lyric collection (Petrarca, 2001: RVF, 366). In other words, Petrarch's final turn toward the Virgin, his proclamation, 'Medusa et Terror mio m'an fatto un sasso' (2001: v. Ili), 'Medusa and my error have made me a stone' (1976: 582), signifies his repentance and overcoming of Laura-Medusa, the final obstacle in his salvation. In the end, for Foster, the figure of Laura-Medusa represents the crux of a penitential theme that primarily characterizes the latter half of the lyric collection, and that permeates the Secretum and Triumphi.

Over the half-century since the publication of Foster's article, Italian scholarship has witnessed several theoretical approaches to the figure of Medusa within Petrarch's poetics, all of which ultimately come back to the same penitential theme highlighted in 1962, and almost always in comparison to Dante's beloved Beatrice. From theological and Dantean-inspired readings of the letter versus the spirit, to the psychosexual approach in Freudian studies, and feminist critiques of the silent, yet menacing, beloved, scholars have tended to emphasize a singular episode involving the Gorgon--her ability to turn men into stone, and deprive them of life, like the fallen warriors Perseus encounters in her cave. (4) The fixation on Medusa's gaze, and emphasis on its arresting qualities has, in part, been due to our taking Petrarch's fiction at face value: when in Rerum vulgarium fragmenta 129 Petrarch refers to himself as a 'pietra morta in pietra viva' (v. 51), he creates a pun on his name (Petra-, rock), applying the Dantean maxim 'nomine sunt consequentia rerum' (Vita nova XIII, 4) to create a (super)natural relationship between himself and LauraMedusa. (5) We have generally linked the pun to its logical counterpart in the figure of Laura-Medusa, since the notion that Petrarch's name identifies him as rock legitimizes his relationship to the beloved by presenting her as uniquely destined to be his beloved. (6) Yet this brings up a host of issues that are not easily resolved. If Petrarch's name is already associated with rock, then it would seem that Laura-Medusa's petrifying powers would be at best redundant. What is his fear of being turned into stone when he was always already a rock? In order to assess the paradigm of power between Petrarch and Laura-Medusa, we must go to Petrarch's source for the Medusa myth, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and consider closely how Petrarch adopts and deviates from it.

Critics have long privileged the encounter between Perseus and Medusa as the primary source of Petrarch's figure of Laura-Medusa, overlooking details in his poems that would indicate otherwise. When, in poem 197, cited in the epigraph of this article, Petrarch claims that Laura's eyes 'anno vertu di farne un marmo' (v. 14), 'have the power to turn it to marble' (1976: 342), he describes a power that is only associated with Medusa after the slaying: while alive, Medusa has the power to turn men into stone, but it is Medusa's disembodied head, in the hands of Perseus, that has the ability to turn men into marble. The material difference between stone and marble is perhaps less important than the way the semantic difference hints at a change in Medusa's power when it is appropriated by Perseus. That is, if Medusa-as-Medusa turns men to stone, and later Medusa-as-wielded-by-Perseus turns men to marble, then the difference between stone and marble signals an alteration in Medusa's power itself by the fact of its appropriation. The implications thus lead us to an examination of Medusa's agency, intact during life, and appropriated by Perseus in death. A closer look at Petrarch's Medusa poems reveals a repetition of the detail concerning the beloved's gaze and marble and Petrarch's understanding of the difference appropriation makes in Ovid's Medusa. Readers of Petrarch vis-a-vis Ovid rarely distinguish between the scenes of Medusa's power in the myth: the encounter between Perseus and Medusa in her cave, the Perseus and Atlas episode, or the battle in Cepheus's palace. They have all traditionally been interpreted as different means towards the same end: petrification and death. While acknowledging that Petrarch knew his Ovidian subtext well, scholarship has not paid close enough attention to the ways in which he engages with the differences between the Medusa myths that are recounted over the course of the Metamorphoses. In other words, where both Ovid and Petrarch see a multifaceted Medusa, we, as modern scholars, have seen a one-dimensional character: a morally damning figure, the idol in Foster's 'cult of Laura-laurel' that Petrarch ultimately rejects for a Christian salvation.

The distinction between Medusa's agency in turning men to stone and Perseus's agency in using her head to turn men into marble is most explicit in the description of Perseus's political exploits in Cepheus's palace. There, Medusa's disembodied head is used as a weapon to immortalize Perseus's opponents as cowards in the form of marble statues. By turning his opponents into statues, Perseus creates dual-purpose monuments: they are a warning to others who might challenge him (from the Latin moneo, monere), and they are reminders of Perseus's victories, visual markers of his self-aggrandizement. This second point plays an important role in Petrarch's poetics, not only in the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, but also in the Latin Familiares. As shall be explored in this article, attributing to Laura-Medusa the power to monumentalize the poet in marble denies the beloved agency and power over the poet-lover since she becomes, like Medusa, a tool in the hands of the poet. As Perseus before him, Petrarch defeats Laura-Medusa and appropriates her agency in a move towards his own self-aggrandizement. In this light, the Medusa poems help elucidate Petrarch's complicated theory of poetic inspiration, something that reaches beyond the relationship between poet and beloved (source of poetic inspiration in the lyric collection) to encompass another fraught paradigm of power: the hierarchy between poet and patron (another source of poetic inspiration). That is, by recalling the disembodied head of Medusa in the figure of his own beloved, Petrarch is able to stage his relationship to patronage by recovering the political use of Medusa in the Perseus myth, and recalling the issue of agency inherent in the myth. Though Petrarch often presents himself as subservient to the beloved (who has the power to deny him love, thereby ensuring his salvation), and the patron (who supports the poet financially), through the Medusa myth he aggrandizes himself by making them both reliant upon him for their immortality in verse. This paradigm shift--from the poet serving the beloved and patron, to controlling them-will first be analyzed in the Medusa poems within the context of the Ovidian subtext and Petrarch's musings on marble in the Familiares. I will then examine how Petrarch appropriates this model to political patronage in the Latin epic Africa, the vernacular poems addressed to the Colonna patrons, and, finally, the Collatio laureationis. Through the working-out of his relationship with the figure of the beloved-as-Medusa, Petrarch shows his many faces: the political prosatore latino, the apolitical love-sick poet, and the independent 'agent' (from the Latin agere). As we shall see, Petrarch's alignment with the figure of Perseus after the slaying will result in the auto-construction of Petrarch as a semi-autonomous agent indebted to no one but posterity.

Medusa's gaze(s)

Scholars have long recognized that the Petrarchan persona that emerges from the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta is one that speaks with a distinctly different tone than the one encountered in the Latin works. The authoritative ego of the Latin epistles and epic is virtually forgotten in the naive, wounded, fragile, and admittedly fragmented io of the lyric. (7) Much like Dante's Beatrice in the Vita nova, Laura is presented throughout the poetic collection as haughty and cruel. Yet her cruelty takes on many forms depending on her association with mythological figures. As Daphne, her cruelty is in her refusal to return love--a refusal for which she pays dearly when she is metamorphosed into a tree. (8) As the Medusa, she has the power to turn men into stone with her gaze. Through her association with the gorgon, Laura appears to wield power, and enact it, over the poet-lover: she has power over his fate. When the two myths are presented together, as in RVF 191, 'L'aura celeste che 'n quel verde lauro,' the power of Laura's gaze becomes more powerful in its comparison to the submissiveness of Daphne: (9)
   L'aura celeste che 'n quel verde lauro
   spira, ov'Amor feri nel fianco Apollo,
   et a me pose un dolce giogo al collo,
   tal che mia liberta tardi restauro,

   po quello in me che nel gran vecchio mauro
   Medusa quando in selce transformollo;
   ne posso dal bel nodo ornai dar crollo,
   la 've il sol perde, non pur l'ambra, o l'auro. (1-8)

   (The heavenly breeze that breathes in that green laurel, where Love
   smote Apollo in the side and on my neck placed a sweet yoke so that
   I restore my liberty only late,/has the power over me that Medusa
   had over the old Moorish giant, when she turned him into flint; nor
   can I shake loose that lovely know by which the sun is surpassed,
   not to say amber or gold.) (1976: 342)

The series of Ovidian self-identifications in the quatrains presents a conflicting portrait of the relationship between Petrarch and Laura. The initial identification with Apollo in the first quatrain recalls the theme of unrequited love that has come to define the poetic collection as a whole. The appropriation of the Daphne-Apollo myth is directly linked to the poetic process through the double-reference to the laurel: the 'verde lauro' ('green laurel'; 1) through which the breeze/beloved blows, and the 'dolce giogo al collo' ('sweet yoke on my neck'; 3), the laurel crown figured around his neck. In this case, the power of the beloved is analogous to a constant wind of inspiration, one that is uncontrollable and that incessantly touches the poet. In both readings--her analogy to both Daphne, who metamorphoses into a tree, and also the wind--the beloved is deprived of life. Although the poet suffers from unrequited love, as does his Apollonian counterpart, he is not figured as being harmed; rather, he is deified.

The transition to the second quatrain, however, recalls a second Ovidian myth which seemingly reverses the consequences that emerge from the analogy to the Apollo-Daphne myth: as Medusa, Laura is given the power to petrify Petrarch and deprive him of life, as she did to Atlas. The reference to the gorgon Medusa portrays Laura in a much different light to the veiled association with Daphne. Petrarch aligns himself with Atlas, the strongest mortal turned to stone by Medusa in Book IV of the Metamorphoses: (10)
   viribus inferior (quis enim par esset Atlantis viribus?) 'at,
   quoniam parvi tibi gratia nostra est, accipe munus!' ait laevaque a
   parte Medusae ipse retro versus squalentia protulit ora. quantus
   erat, mons factus Atlas: nam barba comaeque in silvas abeunt, iuga
   sunt umerique manusque, quod caput ante fuit, summo est in monte
   cacumen, ossa lapis fiunt. (4.653-660)

   (At length, finding himself unequal in strength--for who would be a
   match in strength for Atlas?--he [Perseus] said: 'Well, since so
   small a favor you will not grant to me, let me give you a boon';
   and, himself turning his back, he held out from his left hand the
   ghastly Medusa-head. Straightaway Atlas became a mountain huge as
   the giant had been; his beard and hair were changed to trees, his
   shoulders and arms to spreading ridges; what had been his head was
   now the mountain's top, and his bones were changed to stones.)
   (Ovid, 1916: 225)

Petrarch apparently models his relationship with his beloved on that between Atlas and Medusa: both Atlas and Petrarch are mortals subject to the supernatural powers of mythic women. Thus, in recalling this second myth, Petrarch bestows upon Laura the ability to control his fate and to transform him into something unrecognizable. Yet the parallel is not quite as clear as it first appears. The Ovidian episode Petrarch recalls in the second quatrain comes after Perseus has slain Medusa, when the gorgon has lost her own agency. In fact, Atlas is the first man to be turned to stone by the sight of the disembodied head of Medusa in Book 4 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, when he refuses to offer Perseus hospitality in his kingdom. In this episode, Medusa's head is used as a weapon by her slayer, whose physical strength is no match for Atlas, a detail that significantly alters our understanding of Petrarch's appropriation of this Ovidian scene. At first, it would appear that Petrarch is aligning himself with Atlas, the one who is turned to stone by Medusa. But when we recall that it is not Medusa herself who petrifies Atlas, but rather Perseus bearing Medusa's head, then it would seem that the compliment is backhanded. For if Laura's power is like Medusa's in this episode, then it is like that of her disembodied head: powerful, certainly, but ultimately directed and appropriated by another.

Petrarch's Medusa is less a living, threatening, powerful female agent, and more a manipulated and severed head of a prior conquest. When Petrarch returns to the Medusa myth in the tercets, he figures her always in the same terms that Ovid does after she is killed, and her power appropriated, by Perseus. As we have seen earlier, it is only when her head is used as a weapon by Perseus that it turns men into marble. So when Petrarch rhapsodizes about Laura-Medusa's petrifying gaze, we should pause when we notice that it turns him to marble rather than stone:
   dico le chiome bionde, e 'l crespo laccio,
   che si soavemente lega et stringe
   l'alma che d'umiltate e non d'altr'armo.

   L'ombra sua sola fa 'l mio cor un ghiaccio,
   et di bianca paura il viso tinge;
   ma li occhi anno vertu di farne un marmo. (9-14)

   (I mean the blond locks and the curling snare that so softly bind
   tight my soul, which I arm with humility and nothing else./Her very
   shadow turns my heart to ice and tinges my face with white fear,
   but her eyes have the power to turn it to marble.) (1976: 342)

Laura's 'chiome bionde' ('blond locks'; 9) are in stark contrast to the classical image of Medusa with her frightful, serpentine hair. Although at first the use of 'vertu' ('virtue'; 14) to describe the power of her eyes to deprive men of life through a transformation into marble seems misplaced, perhaps even ironic, it clarifies, through Ovidian intertext, that the episodes Petrarch recalls in this sonnet concern Medusa after the slaying.

By figuring Laura as Medusa after the slaying, Petrarch seems to be reserving a measure of control over her influence and her power. The change in her power's effects, from stone to marble, furthermore draws attention to the reversal of what her power represents: from the history-less void of her cave from which no man ever returns, to the monumentalized fame of Cepheus's banquet. When Perseus describes the fallen warriors he sees in the gorgon's cave as he proceeds to his encounter with her--'passimque per agros/perque vias vidisse hominum simulacra ferarumque/in silicem ex ipsis visa conversa Medusa' ('On all sides through the fields and along the ways he saw the forms of men and beasts changed into stone by one look at Medusa's face'; Ovid, 1916: 232, 779-781)--the implication is that the names of the men, linked directly to fame, die with them since the only one to learn of their fate is himself about to die. It is only in Perseus's hands that the Medusa becomes a tool of immortality, as illustrated by the wedding banquet scene in Cepheus's palace in Book 5 of the Metamorphoses, where petrification into marble is explicitly linked to fame and exemplarity in the case of Phineus. (11) Perseus's encounter with Phineus is particularly relevant to Petrarch's appropriation of this scene because it is the first time that Medusan petrification is linked explicitly to fame. Before Phineus turns to marble, Perseus tells him:

'quod' ait, 'timidissime Phineu, et possum tribuisse et magnum est munus inerti, pone metum! tribuam: nullo violabere ferro, quin etiam mansura dabo monimenta per aevum, inque domo soceri semper spectabere nostri, ut mea se sponsi soletur imagine coniunx.' dixit et in partem Phorcynida transtulit illam, ad quam se trepido Phineus obverterat ore. (5.224-5.231)

('Most craven Phineus, dimiss your fears; what I can give (and 'tis a great boon for your coward soul), I will grant: you shall not suffer by the sword. Nay, but I will make of you a memorial that shall endure for ages; and in the house of my father-in-law you shall always stand on view, that so my wife [Andromeda] may find solace in the statue of her promised lord!' So saying, he bore the gorgon-head where Phineus had turned his fear-struck face.) (Ovid, 1916: 253, 255)

Perseus promises him immortality through monumentalization, yet to an unexpected end: Phineus will be immortalized as a most timid and submissive warrior, as an example for others to see:

... saxoque oculorum induruit umor, sed tamen os timidum vultusque in marmore supplex submissaeque manus faciesque obnoxia mansit. (5.233-5.235)

(... the very tears upon his cheeks were changed to stone. And now in marble was fixed the cowardly face, the suppliant look, the pleading hands, the whole cringing attitude.) (Ovid, 1916: 255)

Even though Phineus is the last warrior standing, so to speak, implying that he was the most courageous and talented of his cohort, he will forever be remembered as a coward, and will serve as a reminder of Perseus's victory over him. Whereas Medusa's lair is hidden, the stone statuary a silent testimony to the warriors' failure to defeat the female monster, the wedding banquet is public, and Phineus is turned into a monument of Perseus's victory for Andromeda's significantly female gaze. By defeating Medusa, Perseus turns her passive power into an active one, turns her power to erase men by turning them into earth (stone) into his power to immortalize men by turning them into public sculpture (marble).

Petrarch's reference to this specific episode has far-reaching discursive consequences for it echoes Petrarch's writings on poetic immortality in the Latin Familiares 24.10, the famous Ode to Horace, where Petrarch privileges the poetic plume over the tools of a sculptor: (12)
   Sculpunt que rigido marmore durius
   Heroas veteres sique firent, novos,
   Eternarti mentis et memoram notam
   Affixam calamo, nequa premat dies. (30-33)

   (Your pen carves ancient heroes in something
   harder than marble, and, if there be any, new heroes as well
   in words of everlasting and eternal praise
   such as time cannot erase.) (Petrarca, 1975: 336)

By telling Horace that his pen carves ancient heroes into something harder than marble, Petrarch compares military power and poetic power. This is similar to what we witness in the Ovidian scene: military power (Phineus) confronts and loses to the power of art (Perseus with Medusa's head). In his final moments of life, Phineus is immortalized as a coward; his past military accomplishments cease to define him, and no longer carry meaning. At the heart of the Ovidian episode, and Petrarch's use of it, is exemplarity: both Perseus and Petrarch are given the power to confer immortality and create monuments. The key to the ode is recognizing that Petrarch does not make an equal analogy between writing poetry and sculpting, meaning that poetry, the written word and the page upon which it is written, is even more immortal than a sculpture.

The privileging of poetry over sculpting as an artistic medium recurs in RVF 104, a sonnet addressed to Pandolfo Malatesta, and calls into question the power of the beloved as Medusa:
   L'aspectata vertu, che 'n voi fioriva
   quando Amor comincio darvi bataglia,
   produce or frutto, che quel fiore aguaglia,
   et che mia speme fa venire a riva.

   Pero mi dice il cor ch'io in carte scriva
   cosa, onde 'l vostro nome in pregio saglia,
   che 'n nulla parte si saldo s'intaglia
   per far di marmo una persona viva. (1-8)

   (The hoped-for virtue that was flowering in you at the age when
   Love first gave you battle, now produces fruits that are worthy of
   the flower and make my hope come true./Therefore my heart tells me
   I should write on paper something to increase your fame, for
   nowhere can sculpture be solid enough to give a person life through
   marble.) (Petrarca, 1976: 206)

In this sonnet, Petrarch assumes the power he initially seemed to grant Laura through her association with Medusa by explicitly telling Pandolfo that he will honor him in verse. His power is to grant everlasting life since in the second quatrain he claims that nowhere other than 'in carta' ('on paper'; 5) can a sculpture be hard enough to give someone life through marble. Sculptures proper are frail in comparison to the poetic word, as he explains in the tercets:
   Credete voi che Cesare o Marcello
   o Paolo od Affrican fossin cotali
   per incude gia mai ne per martello?

   Pandolfo mio, quest'opere son frali
   a llungo andar, ma 'l nostro studio e quello
   che fa per fama gli uomini immortali. (9-14)

   (Do you believe that Caesar or Marcellus or Paulus or Africanus
   ever became so famous because of any hammer or anvil?/My Pandolfo,
   those works are frail in the long run, but our study is the one
   that makes men immortal through fame.) (Petrarca, 1976: 206)

Again, military power (represented by the sequence of great rulers, beginning with Caesar) is given significance only by way of the poet's pen, not the sculptor's tools. The distinction made between the two arts elevates poetry as a living monument. That is, before the slaying, Medusa purveyed a pure mortality: her gaze turned men into stone returning them to an elemental earthiness. Her severed head, used as a tool by Perseus, allowed Perseus to fulfill the role of sculptor, yet even marble is not as durable as the poetry written by Petrarch using Laura (under the guise of Medusa's head) as a tool.

Through a series of Ovidian references, Petrarch undermines the power of Laura as Medusa by figuring her as Medusa's severed head, and presenting her as a tool used in his own poetic process. Leonard Barkan (1986: 209) has noted: 'the Medusa, like the Daphne myth in Petrarch's hands, becomes an emblem of poetry,' yet it is the nuances of the myth that have gone unnoticed by scholars; nuances, moreover, which are central to Petrarch's concerns about the power of poetic agency in fixing and altering reputation for history. That is, Laura's role in the so-called Medusa sonnets is as her severed head, a disembodied body part that lacks agency and becomes a tool in the hands of the poet. It is not Medusa's power of petrification that characterizes Petrarch's appropriation of the myth, it is his ability to harness and wield her power.

If Petrarch is comparing himself to Perseus, then the traditional view of Petrarch as being threatened by the power of the female beloved must be significantly revised. To understand how Petrarch figures his conquest, like Perseus's, by appropriating and instrumentalizing the power of the beloved, I turn now to Petrarch's exchange with Geri Gianfigliazzi. (13) Again employing Ovid's Medusa myth, and again turning on the distinction between Medusa as agent and Medusa as instrument, Petrarch's advice to Gianfigliazzi lays out the strategy for the poet's conquest of the beloved's agency through a matter of reflection.

In the first sonnet of the exchange, Gianfigliazzi seeks advice on how to survive the battle of love--a war he claims Petrarch has already won:
   Messer Francesco, chi d'amor sospira
   per donna ch'esser pur vuoigli guerrera,
   et come piu merze grida, et piu gli e fera,
   calendogli i duo sol' che piu desira. (1-4)

   (Messer Francesco, he who sighs in love for a lady who still wills
   to be his enemy, and the more he cries mercy the crueler she is to
   him, hiding from him the two suns that he most desires.) (Petrarca,
   1976: 608)

Gianfigliazzi begins with a description of unrequited love that summarizes the power dynamic of Petrarch's entire poetic collection: Petrarch is inspired by the love of a woman who wages war on him, yet the more he is spurned, the more he desires her. Gianfigliazzi claims he is unable to win his love battle and attributes his defeat to his inability to 'ragionare' like Petrarch. As we see in the tercets, Petrarch is figured as an intellectual, rather than a love-sick poet:
   Voi ragionate con Amor sovente
   et nulla sua condition so v'e chiusa
   per l'alto ingegno de la vostra mente;

   la mia, che sempre mai co llui e usa,
   et men ch'ai primo il conosce al presente,
   consigliate, et cio fia sua vera scusa. (9-14)

   (You speak often with Love, and I know that no condition of his is
   hidden from you, thanks to the high wit of your mind./My mind,
   which has always been with him and understands him less now than at
   the beginning, do you counsel; and that will be my true excuse.)
   (Petrarca, 1976: 608)

Petrarch's habit of speaking, or reasoning, with Love seemingly protects him from perishing. The intellect is figured as Petrarch's weapon against the beloved in the war of love--a detail that recalls Perseus and Minerva's shield. Indeed, Gianfigliazzi says it is Petrarch's 'alto ingegno' ('high wit'; 11) that distinguishes him as a poet-lover, and sets him up as an exemplar for other love poets--a model of behavior.

Petrarch's response in RVF 179, 'Geri, quando talor meco s'adira,' continues the thread concerning wisdom ('alto ingegno'). In this poem, Petrarch recognizes the power of his beloved, under the guise of Medusa, only to then strip her of that which has heretofore defined her. In response to the question of how Petrarch manages the cruelty of his beloved, Petrarch replies:
   Ovunque ella sdegnando li occhi gira
   che di luce privar mia vita spera
   le mostro i miei pien' d'umilta si vera,
   ch'a forza ogni suo sdegno indietro tira.

   E ccio non fusse, andrei non altramente
   a veder lei, che 'l volto di Medusa,
   che facea marmo diventar la gente. (5-11)

   (Wherever she angrily turns her eyes, who hopes to deprive my life
   of light, I show her mine full of such true humility that she
   necessarily draws back all her anger./And if that were not so, I
   would not go to see her otherwise than to see the face of Medusa,
   which made people become marble.) (Petrarca, 1976: 324)

Petrarch's eyes serve the same purpose as Perseus's shield: they deflect the harm of the gorgon's gaze. At the end of Book 4 of the Metamorphoses, Perseus uses the shield of Minerva--symbol of wisdom--to avoid looking at Medusa directly (Ovid, 1916: 4.779-4.785). Thus wisdom is understood to mediate Perseus's sight during the fateful scene: his ability to look beyond Medusa deflects the gorgon's power long enough for him to slay her. Yet, in Petrarch's response, the detail concerning marble in the tercet ("l volto di Medusa,/che facea marmo diventar la gente,' 'the face of Medusa, which made people become marble') suggests he is speaking of Medusa's severed head, when she lacks her own agency. Furthermore, what is striking here is the implied repetititon of the scene--he would not otherwise go to see her face if he were not certain that he was immune to her gaze--which suggests that Petrarch's power, and his immortality, rests in his ability to look at her and remain alive. He figures himself as a living marble monument, the Perseus who slays Medusa and can look at her. The consequence of this for Laura's representation as Medusa is one of agency, since Petrarch can choose when to look at Laura-Medusa. At the root of this statement is a conflicting view of poetic inspiration: despite Laura's paronomastic presence throughout the landscape, and her portrait which Petrarch carries in his heart (RVF 90), the poet figures himself as able to seek out and refute poetic inspiration. Thus, Laura becomes the means through which Petrarch monumentalizes himself only when he sees fit. (14)

Petrarch finalizes his self-aggrandizement in the closing tercet of the sonnet where we encounter his explicit advice to the lovelorn Gianfigliazzi:
   Cosi dunque fa' tu: ch'i' veggio exclusa
   ogni altra aita, e 'l fuggir vai niente
   dinanzi a l'ali che 'l signor nostro usa. (12-14)

   (You therefore do the same; for I see all other help cut off, and
   flight avails nothing against the wings that our lord uses.)
   (Petrarca, 1976: 324)

Petrarch sets himself up as an example to be followed. He urges his friend not to flee, as has presumably been his custom, but to instead confront and slay the beloved-Medusa. The implication is that Gianfigliazzi's own 'ingegno,' like Minerva's shield, can protect him and allow him to gaze upon the Medusa without fear of death. As a result, the figure of the beloved no longer possesses the petrifying and threatening power she seemed to have as Medusa. Laura is stripped of her agency, and Petrarch's conquest over her, through wisdom, becomes the example he provides Gianfigliazzi in the final tercet.

Petrarch's advice to Gianfigliazzi imparts the knowledge of how to harness the negative power of the beloved-Medusa into poetic productivity. Here, we confront the authoritative voice of a mature poet who has finally come to the realization that his 'ingegno' could conquer the beloved and grant him the power to confer and deny immortality, much like Perseus. The sonnets about Medusa, thus, become the monuments of the poet's conquest. This sense of authority is a parody of Dante's distinction between the letter and the spirit in the Medusa episode of Inferno 9, since Petrarch's lesson to Gianfigliazzi (and, presumably, to the reader) is, essentially, to look behind the veil. Whereas Dante needed Virgil to cover his eyes to protect him from the vision of the Medusa, Petrarch looked at her, emerged victorious, and continued to look at her. Petrarch's use of Medusa points to a deliberate rejection of Dante's eschatological concerns embodied by the Medusa of the Commedia, passing directly to that other kind of immortality sought after by both poets: self-monumentality and poetic immortality.

Patrons, beloveds and poetic inspiration

The previous section has shown us the way in which Petrarch undercuts and appropriates the very power that he would grant to the beloved. This strategy of reflection and instrumentalization, of turning the passive and captive beauty of poetry into an active tool of immortalization and political statement, suggests Petrarch's conception of the real political power of poetry. We should not be surprised, then, when we discover the same strategy of appropriation and reversal in Petrarch's neo-Latin humanist works. Mastering that which he would appear to be mastered by, Petrarch turns to his own masters, the moneyed and powerful patrons, and enacts a Perseus-like critique and reversal of their power.

Petrarch's relationship to political figures, and his involvement in a system of patronage involving families viewed by several of his contemporaries as tyrants, was a concern even in his lifetime. (15) For example, Boccaccio criticized his decision in 1351 to remain under the patronage of Giovanni Visconti instead of returning to Florence to not only officially establish himself there, but, most importantly, to receive the patrimony confiscated from Petrarch's father upon his and his family's exile. (16) For Boccaccio, Petrarch's decision to remain with the Visconti implicated him in their political tyranny. The discomfort Boccaccio felt regarding Petrarch's political ties has been echoed in modern scholarship, as well. Victoria Kirkham's recent examination of the five speeches (c. 1353-1373) to 'promote the politics of ruling despots' takes as its subject something that Petrarch scholars have usually ignored since these speeches sharply contradict the carefully constructed image of the apolitical poet. (17) Scholars have preferred to take Petrarch at his word, believing in the separation between his public and private personae, as well as politics and poetry. But, as Kirkham notes, 'Although they [the speeches] contradict our mythic picture of Petrarch, they reflect a system of courtly patronage that would flourish in the Renaissance. "Rhetoric was the coin that paid for his keep," permitting him leisure for serious literary projects' (2009: 10-11). Kirkham's presentation of Petrarch as a courtier avant la lettre is a most significant contribution to Petrarch studies because it recognizes how integral a public figure Petrarch had been for several of his patrons, despite his claims to the contrary. But she, too, falls into the trap of the poet's apparent 'politics of the language'--that he uses Latin to engage in politics, and the vernacular to distance himself from it--by not connecting the implications of these speeches to his larger ars poetica. The appropriation of the Medusa myth in his poetry offers one angle by which this connection between Petrarch's poetry and politics can be viewed. Though Petrarch had several patrons, it is in the patronage of King Robert of Naples and the Colonna family that he employs a strategy of poetic appropriation in his political rhetoric. That is, Petrarch plays Perseus to his benefactors, turning them to marble in order to mark his own victories.

The framing and narrative structure of Petrarch's Latin epic Africa--in particular, the opening dedication to King Robert, and Petrarch's self-inscription into Book 9 complicates the presentation of Petrarch's relationship to his patron through its examination of the nature of poetic inspiration and immortality. (18) At the onset of Book 1, Petrarch addresses the monarch in a lengthy aside (72 verses) that praises the poet as much as it does the dedicatee. (19) Petrarch assures the king that the epic will bring him solace, and that if the reading proves to be burdensome he will be rewarded in the end with a great reward, '... nam cunta legenti/Forsitan occurret uacuas quod mulceat aures/Peniteatque minus suscepti in fine laboris' (1.24-1.26); 'and should you find the reading burdensome, the ending may reward you for your pains'; (1977: 2). This initially begs that the epic be read through an Augustinian hermeneutic, as established in De Doctrina Christiana, by likening it to Scripture: the more laborious and difficult the reading, the sweeter the reward that is reaped in the end. Although this further glorifies the content, the life of Scipio, as well as the Republic, Petrarch does not claim himself to be a scriba Dei, as does Dante, for example. Yet, the authorial voice is strengthened in its alignment with a 'higher cause,' a moral authority or exemplum rather than a Christian eschatological one. Although Petrarch, unlike Dante, does not claim to be concerned with the souls of his readers, or even of King Robert, by adopting this stance Petrarch is able to make himself eternal. Both of these aspects decisively inform the way in which the life of King Robert is depicted in the dedication. Petrarch provides a series of reasons for which he has not undertaken to write the epic about his patron:
   Ipse tuos actus meritis ad sidera tollam
   Laudibus, atque alio fortassis carmine quondam
   Mors modo me paulum expectet! non longa petuntur
   Nomen et alta canam Siculi miracula regis,
   Non audita procul, sed que modo uidimus omnes
   Omnia. (1.40-1.45)

   (For with the praise that you have merited/I shall extol your
   exploits to the stars,/in a day to come perchance I may sing of the
   King of Sicily, his fame/and his miraculous deeds, not yet well
   known/abroad but which we all have witnessed.) (Petrarca, 1977: 2)

Initially, it appears as though Petrarch is praising his patron: he has merited praise, he is famous, and his deeds are miraculous. So praiseworthy is King Robert that someday Petrarch will laud him in an epic (carmine; in a song). Yet, in praising Robert of Naples, Petrarch simultaneously undermines his accomplishments and, most importantly, renders him mortal. That is, the hyperbole used in characterizing his deeds as miraculous (miracula) is undercut by Petrarch's claim that Robert's fame (a direct result of these miraculous deeds) is not known abroad. His fame is limited to his court, thus it does not matter that those around him might be able to attest to these deeds; King Robert lacks an epic, and, by extension, immortality.

Petrarch goes on to explain that it is the practice of poets who undertake the writing of an epic to turn to ancient times for their subject matter. The excuse seems valid enough, were it not for the third reason given: that Petrarch's novice hand could not do justice to King Robert's greatness. The topos of humility employed here is a common rhetorical device, one that implies the poet's subservience to his patron, as well as a lack in accomplishments compared to his. However, when we examine Petrarch's reasoning more closely, we begin to question whether or not it is King Robert who is lacking in the greatness required to become the subject of an epic, and especially, what role he plays in Petrarch's poetics, when the poet writes:
   Nunc teneras frondes humili de stipite uulsi,
   Scipiade egregio primos comitante paratus:
   Tunc ualidos carpam ramos; tu nempe iuuabis
   Materia, generose, tua, calamumque labantem
   Firmabis, meritumque decus continget amanti
   Altera temporibus pulcerrima laurea nostris. (65-70)

   (For the nonce I pluck/the tenderest foliage from a lowly bush/and
   choose famed Scipio to share my course./One day I'll gather
   sturdier boughs, and you,/most generous King, will help me with
   your deeds/and lend more power to my faltering pen./Another crown
   of laurel, the most fair/of all our times, will justly then
   reward/with honor one who holds your person dear.) (Petrarca, 1977:

Initially Petrarch seems to place Robert above him: he claims that his talents are not great enough to write an epic in honor of the king, so he has instead chosen Scipio from a 'lowly bush.' Yet, as the passage continues, we see that Robert has not yet reached the 'sturdier boughs,' and his lack of epic is due to his lack of accomplishments, not Petrarch's novice pen. Only his future deeds will enable Petrarch's supposedly 'faltering pen' to rise to the occasion, implying that the king's future fame is beholden to Petrarch's future writings about him.

The dedication of the poem is meant to glorify King Robert, yet as we have seen, Petrarch praises him while at the same time pointing out his flaws. After describing the victories of Scipio Africanus in the eight books that follow, Petrarch closes the epic by crowning himself (under the guise of the character 'Franciscus'), and makes several moves that demonstrate the power of poetry over that of military or political power, and the way in which poetic agency is negotiated and appropriated. If in Book 1 he claims the king is not ready to be immortalized in an epic, in Book 9 Petrarch shows that he has already reached the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment by inscribing himself into the epic. There we encounter Petrarch's epic hero Scipio and his biographer Ennius (20) on a boat leaving the African shores after his victories. Noting the poet's silence on the boat, Scipio implores Ennius to lift their weary hearts with sweet verse. Surprisingly, Scipio's biographer has no tale to tell, despite having, one may assume, witnessed the exploits documented in the previous books of the epic. Instead, Ennius describes his dream vision of Homer who appeared to him while the outcome of the war was still in doubt to deliver two prophecies concerning the future of Latin arms and literature. First, he assures Ennius that Latium would ultimately succeed in the battle. (21) The second prophecy concerning letters is prompted by Ennius noticing a young man in the distance who uncannily resembles Petrarch:
   Hic ego--nam longe clausa sub valle sedentem
   Aspexi iuvenem--'Dux o carissime, quisnam est,
   Quem video teneras inter consistere lauros
   Et viridante comas meditantem incingere ramo?
   Nescio quid, nisi fallor, enim sub pectore versat
   Egregiumque altumque nimis'. (216-221)

   (There in the distance I could see a youth/seated within a valley
   closed by hills./I asked: 'O cherished guide, disclose, I pray,/who
   is it I behold taking his rest/under the tender laurel? Lo, he
   seems/about to bind his locks with those green fronds./I know not
   what he ponders in his heart, but surely it must be, unless I
   err,/some high and noble purpose.') (Petrarca, 1977: 230)

Though the young man in the vision is not yet named, there are several clues that point to Petrarch: the youth is seated 'within a valley closed by hills,' an allusion to Petrarch's preferred haunt Vaucluse, whose etymology means, precisely, a closed-off valley; he is preparing to crown himself with laurel fronds, a foreshadowing of Petrarch's own upcoming laurel coronation by King Robert. The reader's suspicions that the youth might, indeed, be Petrarch is soon confirmed by Homer's response:
   Francisco cui nomen erit; qui grandia facta,
   Vidisti que cunta oculis, ceu corpis in unum
   Colliget: Hispanas acies Libieque labores
   Scipiadamque tuum: titulusque poematis illi
   AFRICA. (9.232-9.236)

   (He will be called Franciscus;
   and all the glorious exploits you have seen
   he will assemble in one volume--all
   the deeds in Spain, the arduous Libyan trials;
   and he will call his poem Africa. (Petrarca, 1977: 231)

Homer is figured as an Adamic figure, whose power of language calls Petrarch into being. His prophecy inscribes Petrarch not only into the landscape of the epic poem, but into Italian history as the poet who returns the Latin muses from exile and who documents the life and travails of Scipio, the new Aeneas, in an epic poem which we, as readers, have nearly completed reading. By inscribing himself into his epic of origins, Petrarch constructs his own fame as the poet of a new Republic and Golden Age; the age when the muses return to Italy. The self-aggrandizement of such a metafictional move claims Petrarch for epochs that do not exist: both the past age of Republican glory and an unknown future time of glory. That it will be a poet who ushers in this new age privileges the poetic over the military crown, thereby making King Robert reliant upon Petrarch for his fame, but figuring the poet as the agent behind his own immortality.

For writing Africa, Petrarch would receive his poetic laurels from King Robert, to whom he had dedicated his epic poem, in a public ceremony on 8 April 1341 atop the Capitoline Hill, symbolic seat of Roman military power. A closer look at Africa, however, shows that Petrarch is playing a sort of Perseus, enlisting the king's power to help his own claim for renown while at the same time denying the king self-agency. The self-coronation by Franciscus essentially refutes the symbolic necessity of the patron in the immortalization of the poet. By immortalizing himself, Petrarch emphasizes the notion that it is the poetic pen that bestows immortality upon the poet, not necessarily the patron. Hence, although the patron and the epic hero both require a poet for immortality, the poet does not require either. From the classical auctores the poet receives eloquence, from patrons and heroes the subject matter. This discursive power play, so to speak, can be read as a critique of King Robert's own politics as practiced in his Neopolitan court. Historians have long been fascinated with the prominence of patronage in King Robert's court, and, as Samantha Kelly has noted, 'its function as an engine of royal propaganda' (2003: 25). Robert's rule, it should be remembered, happened only by default. The death of his brother, Charles Martel, heir apparent to the Angevin dynasty, put Robert in power and required, in a sense, legitimization. It is here where Kelly's recent scholarship elucidates a reign in which the patron-poet relationship became so essential. Kelly catalogues the various ways in which Robert attempted to legitimize his rule: from the numerous sermons he wrote, to the attempt at having his deceased brother Louis of Anjou canonized, to filling his court with secular men of letters. As the historian notes, '[a]s for the men who did attract royal patronage, their humanism turns out to consist largely of their friendship with Petrarch--a friendship which, in any case, started with Petrarch's visit and not in the 1320s' (2003: 40). Thus, Petrarch's treatment of Robert in the dedication of the Africa, in comparison to his self-coronation as poet laureate at the end, seems to acknowledge Robert's attempt at legitimizing his political rule through artistic patronage, while simultaneously reminding him that it is the poet that crowns the king with immortality, revealing Petrarch's upcoming coronation by the king as purely ceremonial.

The issue at hand is one of agency and the way in which Petrarch turns inside-out the relationship between those who have passive rule (Medusa, King Robert) and turn men to stone and those who turn that passivity toward their own purposes (Perseus, Petrarch) and turn men into marble monuments. Petrarch's discursive treatment of Robert in the Africa is similar to the examination of political power versus poetry in RVF10, addressed to Giacomo Colonna in c. 1337-1338. (22) In this poem, Petrarch plays with the Latinized form of the Roman Colonna family name, attributing to them powers traditionally associated with laurel, as a way to eventually deny them agency in the construction of their fame, much as he did in the case of Robert and the Africa. Thus, the vernacular lyric space initially carved out for the poet's self-reflection becomes a political stage where power is negotiated.

As Santagata has aptly noted, references to the Colonna in the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta are never explicit: the family is only ever referred to by its Latin surname, or as figurative 'columns.' Because these references have seemed so tenuous, criticism has been hesitant to read too deeply into the shadowy presence of the Colonna in the poetic collection. However, these references are considerably strengthened by the fact that the Colonna coat of arms prominently features a column in the center of the shield. Petrarch opens the poem by using the figure of the column as a way of praising the family:
   Gloriosa columna in cui s'appoggia nostra
   speranza e '1 gran nome latino,
   ch'ancor non torse del vero camino l'ira di
   Giove per ventosa pioggia. (1-4)

   (Glorious Column on whom rests our hope and the great renown of
   Latium, whom even the ire of Jove in the windy rain has not yet
   turned aside from the true path.) (Petrarca, 1976: 44)

Petrarch mixes the sacred and the profane in his exaltation of the Colonna family. He initially pays homage to his patron's family by emphasizing the Roman roots of the blood line: he refers to them by the Latinized form of their name--Columna--which he connects directly to Latium. (23) This appeal to their civic and familial pride is tempered by the allusion to Christ and the pillar of Pilate when Petrarch claims that 'nostra speranza' ('our hope') rests on the 'gloriosa columna'('glorious column'). 'Columna' here evokes the scene of Christ's flagellation on the column before the crucifixion: the hope of mankind resides in the man tied to the column by the Roman guards. Thus, the Colonna are figured as the saviors of mankind, in whom the hope of humanity resides. This reading elevates the family to the status of moral exemplars, pillars of strength. The power of the Colonna seemingly derives from the etymology and connotations of their name, implicitly confirming, again, Dante's assertion in the Vita nova that 'nomina sunt consequentia rerum' ('names are the consequences of things') since not even Jove can make the Colonna stray from the 'vero camino,' ('true path') (Alighieri, 1999: 4).

The claim that the 'columna' cannot even be destroyed or deterred by Jove's thunderbolts (his wrath) recalls an important property of the laurel tree, rather than an actual column: according to mythology, the laurel is indestructible, impervious to even Jove's fury. Thus, the Colonna are defined by a characteristic unique to the laurel, symbol of immortality and poetic inspiration. This figuration of the Colonna as a laurel-like column introduces the role of the poet in transforming ordinary objects into sources of poetic inspiration, a theme that he develops in the second quatrain where he transforms the urban domestic space of the Colonna family into a pastoral landscape:
   qui non palazzi, non theatro o loggia, ma 'n lor
   vece un abete, un faggio, un pino tra l'erba
   verde e '1 bel monte vicino, onde si scende
   poetando et poggia. (5-8)

   (here are no palaces no theater, no gallery, but in their stead a
   fir tree, a beech, a pine--amid the green grass and the nearby
   mountain where we climb and descend poeticizing.) (Petrarca, 1976:

The civic space occupied by the Colonna is turned into a pastoral retreat that inspires poetry. The Colonna palaces, theater and loggia are transformed into the fir, beech and pine trees situated near a mountain which Petrarch climbs and descends while writing poetry. The culmination of images presents the poet's ability to transform the symbols that represent the civic power of the Colonna--the column, now laurel-like, and their property--into the natural elements that inspire the poet. The transformations do not end there, however, since Petrarch also transforms himself into a nightingale who occupies the same space as his Colonna patrons:
   levan di terra al ciel nostr'intellecto;
   e 'l rosigniuol che dolcemente all'ombra
   tutte le notti si lamenta et piagne,

   d'amorosi penseri il cor ne 'ngombra:
   ma tanto ben sol tronchi, et fai imperfecto,
   tu che da noi, signor mio, ti scompagne. (9-14)

   (all these lift our intellects from earth to Heaven; and the
   nightingale that sweetly in the shadow every night laments and
   weeps/burdens our hearts with thoughts of love. But so much good
   you alone cut short and make imperfect, for you keep yourself, my
   Lord, far from us.) (Petrarca, 1976: 44)

The initial description of the Colonna as a laurel-like column among pastoral surroundings not only inspires the poet, raising his intellect to the heavens, but, most importantly, provides him (the 'rosigniuol' of verse 10) with shade. This image of a poet resting in the shade recalls the description of the laurel tree in Petrarch's coronation speech. (24) Delivered from atop the Capitoline Hill, seat of Roman political, not poetic, power, Petrarch discussed the significance of the laurel as crown to both Caesars and poets, in an attempt to delineate the role of the poet in the modern city, claiming that:

Et preterea arbor hec umbrifera et quieti laborantium accommoda unde est illud [Horace] oratii XLIIII oda 'Spissa ramis laurea fervidos/excludet ictus solis' et illud eiusdem oda XLVI 'Longaque fessum militia latus/depone sub lauru mea,' hoc secundum. Neque hec proprietas incongrue ad cesares refertur ac poetas ut illis post bellorum his pro laboribus studiorum requies promissa videatur. (Petrarca, 1874: 324) (25)

(In the second place, the laurel tree is shady, and affords a resting place for those who labor. Whence comes the lines of Horace in his 44th Ode: 'Spissa ramis laurea fervidos/ excludet ictus solis,' and in his 46th 'Longaque fessum militia latus/depone sub lauru mea.' Not inappropriately is this property of the laurel associated with Caesars and with poets: for it may symbolize the rest that is in store for the former after their toils in warfare, and for the latter after their toils in study.) (Wilkins, 1955: 309-310)

In the coronation speech, the laurel tree is figured as providing shade for the political leader and poet, both of whom are rewarded with immortality for their respective labors. In RVF 10, however, the poet-nightingale is shaded by the 'columna' and the various Colonna civic spaces that are figured as trees. Thus, the position of the patron in the analogy has changed in the poem: the Colonna patron is not figured as residing under the shadow of the laurel with the nightingale (Petrarch), rather he is the source of shade. On the one hand, presenting the patron as a symbolic laurel tree figuratively acknowledges his role as Petrarch's protettore and implies a natural relationship between the poet- nightingale and his patron; on the other hand, the patron is denied the immortality associated with the political laurel crown through military triumphs, and is transformed into a source of inspiration that enables poetic production.

By attributing laurel-like attributes to the patron-as-column, the Colonna patron is aligned with the figure of Daphne, and by extension Laura in that he is granted the same properties bestowed upon the beloved through paronomasia (lauro-- Laura). Thus, just as a poet needs a beloved, so too does he need a patron, yet both figures are presented as tools of inspiration, lacking in their own agency. Petrarch does not describe the accomplishments of the Colonna in his verses; rather, he describes what they have to offer him: the means and place to write his poetry, and the raw materials for his subject. Though in this poem the Colonna patron is denied a place under the laurel tree, and the immortality associated with the political laurel crown, Petrarch does immortalize him by transforming him into a source of poetic inspiration.


As has been explored in this article, the figure of Petrarch's Medusa is as multi-faceted and as complex as she is in Ovid's Metamorphoses. I have argued that the key to Petrarch's Medusa poems is recognizing Petrarch's alignment with Perseus after the slaying when the disembodied head of Medusa becomes a poetic tool of self-aggrandizement. That Laura- Medusa has the ability to turn Petrarch into marble, rather than stone, points to the beloved's lack of agency. That Petrarch can look at her repeatedly, and at will, nuances the paradigm of power between poet-lover and beloved that has generally characterized his lyric collection. There is no denying that the religious and eschatological implications of petrification that have been argued by several scholars elucidate an important aspect of Petrarch's writings about religion and his own battle with the double aspect of gloria. Indeed, it is an integral part of the myth the poet himself creates, not only within the lyric collection, but also in the Secretum and Triumphi. However, reading Petrarch's Medusa as solely an obstacle to Paradiso limits our understanding of the multi-faceted dimension of Petrarch's larger cultural project and oeuvre. In particular, the traditional approach to Laura-Medusa has taken for granted both how close a reader Petrarch was of his favored classical authors--in this analysis, Ovid--and also the often intersecting trajectories of his vernacular and Latin cultural projects. By denying Laura-Medusa the power of agency in his vernacular poems, Petrarch is able to figuratively harness the power of immortalization, emphasizing the poetic process as a means toward this end--a preeminent topic in his Latin works. Petrarch's denial of Laura-Medusa's power over him mirrors the way in which he treats his patrons in the two examples presented from the Latin Africa and Colonna poem. Thus, the poet's encounters with Medusa, and his recovery of the political use of Medusa in Ovid, allows him to stage his relationship to his patrons and present patronage and love as similar systems of power ultimately controlled by the poet's ability to bestow or deny immortality upon others.

Albert R Ascoli has noted a similar use of Medusa in Coluccio Salutati's appropriation (or rather, allegorization) of the myth in his De laboribus Herculis, noting that, 'He [Salutati] allegorizes the shield [of Jove, upon which appears the head of Medusa] as well as Medusa herself, as poetic eloquence, the power of rhetoric to both illuminate and control' (1987: 166). The connection made between Medusa's head and the double-nature of rhetoric, as both a force that illuminates (makes clear) and controls, is palpable in the figure of Petrarch's Medusa. The poet's deliberate comparison between the art of poetry and the art of sculpting is more reminiscent of Petrarch's discussions of military power than that of neo-Platonic love. Military heroes, not beloveds, are immortalized in statues as visible examples of admirable behavior. Yet, both are immortalized in poetry, something more durable than marble, since it is the poet's retelling of a hero's story that grants him fame and immortality; the image of the hero requires a narrative for exemplarity to take effect. The privileging of poetry and the poet's pen that begins in the Medusa poems and is restaged in other works, both Latin and vernacular, thus emphasizes a theme that recurs throughout Petrarch's Latin works: that military power is transient and the poet's pen immortal. A more comprehensive understanding of Petrarch's ars poetica, one that takes into account the intellectual intersections between his Latin and vernacular works, points to an emerging theory of the causality exerted by human art that informs his larger humanist project.


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or non-profit sectors.

DOI: 10.1177/0014585813497334


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Aileen A Feng

University of Arizona, USA

Corresponding author:

Aileen A Feng, Department of French and Italian, Modern Languages 549, University of Arizona, PO Box 210067, Tucson, AZ 85721-0067, USA.



(1.) All citations from Petrarch's vernacular poetry are taken from Santagata's critical edition (Petrarca, 2001). Translations are by Robert Durling (Petrarca, 1976).

(2.) See Brand et al. (1962).

(3.) Namely, RVF5\, 179,and 197. Petrarch dedicates two verses to Laura-Medusa in RVF366 (vv. 111-112).

(4.) Although beyond the scope of this article, Petrarch's portrayal of Laura as Medusa seems to echo certain aspects of the 'stony woman' in Dante's Rime petrose, as has been well noted by Antoni (1983) and Durling (1975; Petrarca, 1976). The most comprehensive study of Dante's so-called 'minor' poetic collection is Durling and Martinez (1990), but see also Fenzi (1966). For Dante's appropriation of the figure of Medusa, see especially Ascoli (1987); J Freccero (1979, 2003); Mazzotta (1979).

(5.) For Petrarch's punning on his name, see especially Cesarini's seminal article (1987). 1.

(6.) It is interesting to note the reversal in Petrarch's application of the idea that 'names are the consequences of things.' Whereas Dante famously uses this phrase to explain why his beloved Beatrice was thus named (Beatrice, she who blesses), Petrarch applies the maxim to himself, rather than Laura.

(7.) For the representation of Petrarchan subjectivity, see especially Greene (1968). See also Mazzotta (1993: Chapter 3); Scaglione (1989); Trinkaus (1970).

(8.) For the importance of the Daphne-Apollo myth in Petrarch's poetry, see Sturm-Maddox (1983, 1992); DellaNeva (1982). For general discussions of Petrarch's appropriation of Ovid's Daphne, see C Freccero (2001); Enterline (1994); Hardie (1999).

(9.) This is the second of the three 'l'aura' poems that present the beloved as the wind: RVF 196, 197, 198.

(10.) The Atlas episode is Met. 4.621-4.663. All references to and translations of the Metamorphoses are taken from the Loeb edition (Ovid, 1916).

(11.) Although in this book Perseus uses Medusa's head to turn other warriors into marble--Thesceleus, ('utque manu iaculum fatale parabat mittere, in hoc haesit signum de mar-more gestu,'5.182-5.183), and Astyages ('naturam traxit eandem, marmoreoque manet vultus mirantis in ore,' 5.205-5.206)--Phineus is the only one set up as an examplum, and a monument.

(12.) All citations from Petrarch's Familiares are taken from Rossi's critical edition, Le Familiari (Petrarca, 1933). Translations are by Aldo S Bernardo (Petrarca, 1975).

(13.) See Santagata (Petrarca, 2001: 790) for a full transcription of the poem by Gianfigliazzi, to which Petrarch responds with RVF 179. Translation by Durling (Petrarca, 1976: Appendix 1, p. 608).

(14.) See William J Kennedy's reading of this sonnet as a Horatian configuration of art as mechanical and technical skill, in line with medieval economic theories of labor and utility value (2011).

(15.) The most general discussion of Petrarch's relationship to the various tyrants of his day continues to be that of Ernest Hatch Wilkins (1963). For more recent critical studies see Ascoli (2011: Chapter 4); Simonetta (2004); Wallace (1997); and Wojciehowski (1995).

(16.) The letter, dated 18 July 1351, is Epistle V in Ricci's edition (Boccaccio, 1965).

(17.) Introduction, p. 10, Kirkham and Maggi (2009). See especially Kirkham's chapter, 'Petrarch the Courtier.'

(18.) Scholarship devoted solely to Petrarch's Africa is scarce. Most recently, Simone Marchese (2009) has highlighted the work as the centerpiece of Petrarch's larger project of self-fashioning and self-promotion as the leading poet- historian of his age. See also Bernardo (1962); Colilli (1988: Chapter 3); Fenzi (2003); Ferra (1984); Festa (1926); Velli (1965).

(19.) Latin citations from the Africa are taken from Nicola Festa's critical edition (Petrarca, 1998). Unless otherwise noted, English translations are from the Bergin and Wilson translation (Petrarca, 1977).

(20.) It is important to remember that Petrarch's choice of Scipio as his epic hero is an odd one, since he had already been immortalized in the Annales of Ennius.

(21.) 'Nec cura future/ Solicitet casus. Quoniam lux crastina campos/ Sanguine Penorum Latio victore rigabit' (1998:212-214); 'Be not moved/by thought of misadventures yet to come;/ under the light of morn the fields will run/with Punic blood as Latium rules the day.'(1977: 230)

(22.) Although the specific identity of the Colonna patron in this poem has been contested by scholars, I follow Santagata's theory that Petrarch sends the sonnet from Valchiusa to Giacomo Colonna in Rome between 1337 and 1338. As Santagata notes, Carducci identified the addressee as Stefano Colonna il Vecchio, arguing that Petrarch sent it on behalf of his son Giacomo and the family in the summer of 1330, urging Stefano to join the family in Lombez (where Giacomo was bishop). Durling appears to follow this hypothesis, noting that Petrarch had spent the summer of 1330 with the family in France (Petrarca, 1976: note on p. 44).

(23.) This is at odds with the way in which Petrarch will later describe his patrons. For example, Petrarch attacks the legitimacy of Colonna power by exposing them as foreign-born tyrants in Variae 48 of 1347, the hortatory letter sent to Cola di Rienzo and the Roman people after the former's coup (Petrarca, 1996). Although RVF 10 was written in the late 1330s, Santagata notes that it was re-ordered as the tenth poem in the collection in the early 1350s, which would coincide with the years immediately following Cola's fall.

(24.) For a discussion of the structure, manuscript tradition, publication history and textual variants of Petrarch's Collatio laureationis see especially Feo (1990). More recently, Dennis Looney (2009) has read the coronation speech as Petrarch's earliest theorizing of the revival of the poet as an integral part of an emerging modern city.

(25.) Citations from the Latin Collatio are taken from Petrarca (1874). English translations are by E Wilkins (1955).
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Author:Feng, Aileen A.
Publication:Forum Italicum
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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