Written by wanderluster on 09 Aug, 2004
When I visited with a couple girls from the Igo writing workshop, we knew that Italian poet Petrarch had frequented this scenic spot to write love poems. What we didn't know, was that he built a house along the riverbank seeking solitude, nature, and his…Read More
When I visited with a couple girls from the Igo writing workshop, we knew that Italian poet Petrarch had frequented this scenic spot to write love poems. What we didn't know, was that he built a house along the riverbank seeking solitude, nature, and his precious Laura–whose affection he never won.
Laura, the woman he admired, loved and desired for 21 years, was still a teenager when he met her in an Avignon church on April 6th, according to a scribbled note found on the cover of his worn Virgil. Instantly smitten, he wrote poems glorifying her beauty, character and grace. Then coyly circulated them for her to see.
Imagine this young Italian man, versed in classical literature and later crowned the poet laureateship in Rome, sitting in a shaded box canyon on the edge of an emerald pool, casting aside his Latin epic to write and dream about Laura.
Diana never pleased her lover more
when just by chance all of her naked body
he saw bathing within the chilly waters,
than did the simple mountain shepherdess
please me, the while she bathed the pretty veil
that holds her lovely blonde hair in the breeze.
So that even now in hot sunlight she makes me
tremble all over with the chill of love.
Surely the beauty of the tranquil place enhanced his romantic feelings expressed so freely in what became known as Petrarchian sonnets. Remember high school English? The 14 line poems about love, fleeting passage of time, and fragility of life that were adapted by Chaucer, Shakespeare and countless others? Ironically, Petrarch thought of his poems as mere "trifles" and hoped they would stay unknown to the world, assuming that his imitation of Virgil would be his greatest achievement.
Yet his religious and political views are not what we remember. His name conjures up sonnets and the elusive Laura. Whoever she was.
Speculation circulates about her identity. Some claim she wasn't real. But mounting evidence suggests she was the Laura who married Hughes de Sade, lived in his castle between Avignon and Fontaine and did her darndest to avoid Petrarch's adoring eyes. Or did she?
He worshiped her and wrote hundreds of love sonnets. And admitted in his memoir, Letter to Posterity, "I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love-affair–my only one–and would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames."
Laura died unexpectedly at age 38 during the Black Plague. Petrarch had just moved to Parma the previous year. Still in mourning three years later, he returned to Fontaine's poetic springs and wrote the following sonnet:
Inside that very grove a sparkling fountain
sprang from a rock, and its fresh, loving waters
it poured forth with a gentle murmuring.
To that secluded place so fair and shady
no shepherds and no boor would come, but only
muses and nymphs singing to that clear flow.
I sat down there, and while
I took more sweetness from such harmony
and from that sight, I saw a chasm open
and sweep it all away,
fountain and place, and I am still left grieving,
and just the thought of it fills me with fear.
After her death he only stayed two years. Then moved to Italy, where he died at age 70.
When I learned that he had a home here, and a museum on the property, I hired a taxi and revisited at the end of the week. An intended hour lengthened to an entire morning.
The taxi driver parked near the bridge spanning the blue-green river. Cafes and souvenir shops, just beginning to open, lined the walkway across from the paper factory and cave museum. I began walking to the springs. Loud shivering noises belonged to my taxi driver, Martin, who'd rushed up behind me.
"Want me to go with you, to show you the way?" I was touched by his gesture but told him he didn't have to–knowing the straightforward path up the hill. But he accompanied me, enlightening me about French culture while we walked...proud of the plentiful wine, relaxed pace and sunshine so plentiful in Provence. Trim at 44 years old, he didn't enjoy walking for exercise sake. He struggled to keep up a decent pace. I couldn't help teasing him about walking faster to keep warm, as he rubbed his long sleeves and complained about the brisk temperature.
We walked along the river interspersed with small rapids. Such a vivid green. Clear water caressed long strands of dark-green plants twisting in the river, cascading over mossy jade-colored rocks and limestone boulders. Steep rocky bluffs in the backdrop were chiseled with troglodyte caves hundreds of feet high, although no one likely ever lived there. After ten minutes or so we ascended a sharp incline, and came to the end of the trail overlooking the source of the river.
A poetic place indeed. Shaded by plane trees, an emerald green pool glistened against variegated grays at the base of a rocky cliff. No wonder Petrarch came here to write. Where was my journal?
As I straddled the fence to approach the springs, my taxi driver complained that the cold air had made him sick. I chided him good-naturedly about the old wives tale. But he turned back. "Take your time. I'll wait in the car," he said coughing.
I clambered over mossy wet boulders and rough bald ones and just sat for awhile absorbing the scenery. The pool was inviting, but I knew differently.
During my last visit, the girls and I had chatted with scuba divers preparing for their annual pilgrimage into the icy waters to collect scientific data. At great risk. This limpid karst pool–a collapsed cave system–habitually traps and swallows lives, and turns watery caves into graves. Yet speleologists continue to search in vain for it's source. In 1985, a robot submarine went down 315 meters and still didn't reach bottom.
We waited to watch the three divers submerge, their dog barking furiously as their headlamps disappeared in the darkening dusk beneath darker waters. A newspaper the next day reported of their successful water purity testing. I was just glad they were okay.
I wandered around a bit, then made my way back to the village square. I passed the taxi and saw the sign indicating Petrarch's home and museum down the street. Martin jumped out to accompany me. He led the way through a tunnel and led me around the former grounds where Petrarch lived 700 years ago before leaving me to roam on my own.
Petrarch grew up 20 miles east in Avignon but grew to abhor city life. After visiting his friend, Bishop Philippe de Cabassole who lived in the lofty castle above the Sorgue in Fontaine, he escaped to this "charming place" and built a home on the riverbank at the convergence of two streams shaded by limestone mountains, mottled planes and cypress trees. Inspired to produce "almost every bit of writing I ever did," according to his memoir, he returned to his "transalpine solitude" four times between stints in Parma, Rome and Verona from age 23 to 49.
Intense green grass, fragrant pines, and crystal clear water surround the spot where Petrarch's home once stood. I wandered over to the former courtyard bordered with trees and spotted a bust of Petrarch staring out toward the river. Peering at his facial features, I jumped when a deep voice interrupted the silence.
An old man, perhaps 70, with piercing blue eyes, a long gray ponytail, and a worn red fannypack walked toward me with a stick. Speaking rapid French, and gesturing toward the statue, he attempted conversation, then indicated that I should follow him. I was frustrated with my poor French, incapable of comprehending his words and the significance of what he pointed at with his stick. At the river he bent down and showed me a remnant of an old stone canal arched over the stream. He eyed me silently for awhile, then plucked a purple flower and presented it to me with a little bow.
Martin told me that early villagers concentrated the water by creating canals and waterwheels to power mills to make bread. He also said, "That old man was crazy and came looking for me so he could ask where you were from, where you were going and what you wanted." I thought he was kidding. Surely the old man didn't seek out my taxi. "Yes! I told him, no, no, no her husband's in the village you keep away."
I laughed. I liked ‘crazy man' and thought he had a certain charm. A like-minded loner, appreciative of nature and the poetry of Petrarch. Hey, maybe even his ghost!