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Among the numerous Ovidian references and images underlying the Rime sparse, Orpheus stands as one of the most constant and influential figures from the Metamorphoses, as both a mythic muse and a poetic “father figure” for Petrarch. Petrarch explicitly casts himself in Orpheus’ image in sonnet 187, in which he writes that Laura is “d’Omero dignissima e d’Orfeo / . . . / ch’ andassen sempre lei sola cantando” [“worthy of Homer and Orpheus . . ., worthy to have them always singing only of her”], 1 and parallels between Petrarch and Orpheus on the one hand, and Laura and Eurydice on the other hand, are clearly drawn in poem 332:

Or avess’ io un sì pietoso stile che Laura mia potesse torre a Morte come Euridice Orfeo sua senza rime, ch’ i’ viverei ancor più che mai lieto!


[Would I had so sorrowful a style that I could win my Laura back from Death as Orpheus won his Eurydice without rhymes, for then I would live more glad than ever!]

Furthermore, Laura and Eurydice emerge veiled and silhouetted against each other’s shadows in poem 323, in which the mythic death of Eurydice, bitten by a snake, signals Laura’s death. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid writes about Eurydice’s unhappy fate that, “nupta per herbas / dum nova naiadum turba comitata vagatur, / occidit in talum serpentis dente recepto” 2 [“while [End Page 226] the new bride was wandering in the meadows, with her band of naiads, a serpent bit her ankle, and she sank lifeless to the ground”]. 3 And we read the subsequent verses in Petrarch’s poem:

  Alfin vid’ io per entro i fiori et l’erba pensosa ir sì leggiadra et bella Donna che mai nol penso ch’ i’ non arda et treme,   umile in sé, ma ‘ncontra Amor superba; ed avea in dosso sì candida gonna, sì testa, ch’or et neve parea inseme,   ma le parti supreme eran avolte d’una nebbia oscura. Punta poi nel tallon d’un picciol angue come fior colto langue lieta si dipartio, non che secura: ahi nulla altro che pianto al mondo dura!


[Finally I saw walking thoughtful amid the flowers and the grass a Lady so joyous and beautiful that I never think of it without burning and trembling,

humble in herself, but proud against Love; and she wore a white garment so woven that it appeared gold and snow together,

but her highest parts were wrapped in a dark mist. Pierced then in the heel by a little snake, as a plucked flower languishes she departed happy, not merely confident: ah, nothing but weeping endures in the world!]

The female figure in these lines is a double, bifrons creature who is Eurydice and Laura at the same time. Just as Eurydice’s / Laura’s “white garment” is “so woven that it appeared gold and snow together,” the Rime sparse and the Metamorphoses are so tightly intertwined that Petrarch’s lines transform under the reader’s eyes, alternately revealing Ovid’s text and Petrarch’s own poetic project. Thus the Rime sparse often functions as a palimpsest, as a deeply original poetic work but which constantly discloses, when lightly scratched by the reader’s eye, an Ovidian subtext (among other subtexts). Moreover, these lines from poem 323 highlight the central role played by the poet’s gaze in the Rime sparse: “Alfin vid’ io . . . “ [“Finally I saw . . . “]. While Orpheus sends Eurydice back to the lower world when he looks at her, the Rime sparse similarly foregrounds the poet’s obsessional desire to gaze at a constantly evasive and disappearing [End Page 227] Laura. Furthermore, both Orpheus’ gaze and Petrarch’s gaze are informed by a specific aesthetic—poetic, but also musical and visual—agenda as much as they are sustained by love and desire. Indeed, the gaze of Ovid’s poet/musican Orpheus is also directed towards Pygmalion, whose tale is told by Orpheus and who in turn mirrors himself in the statue he carves. When gazing at Orpheus, Petrarch therefore also gazes at Pygmalion and at his own poetic creation. By disentangling and scrutinizing the crisscross trajectories of these refracting gazes, I want to examine how Petrarch’s use of Ovid’s Orpheus and Pygmalion both complicates and sheds light on his erotic, narcissistic and aesthetic projects in the Rime sparse.

Orpheus “kills” Eurydice by turning back on their way to the surface of the earth, thus confining her, a second time, to the underworld where he had descended to fetch her. Rather than as a woman of flesh and blood, Eurydice appears in Ovid’s story as the poetic double of her husband, as a mute shadow deprived of autonomous agency:

bracchiaque intendens prendique et prendere certans nil nisi cedentes infelix arripit auras, iamque iterum moriens non est de coniuge quicquam questa suo . . . supremumque “vale,” quod iam vix auribus ille acciperet, dixit revolutaque rursus eodem est.


[Orpheus stretched out his arms, straining to clasp her and be clasped; but the hapless man touched nothing but yielding air. Eurydice, dying now a second time, uttered no complaint against her husband. . . . With a last farewell which scarcely reached his ears, she fell back again into the same place from which she had come.]


It is thus interesting to note that, as John Block Friedman points out in his Orpheus in the Middle Ages, 4 Eurydice is interpreted in many medieval treatises on Ovid’s Metamorphoses as merely one side of Orpheus, as either his “good” or his concupiscent part rather than as an independent figure or allegory. Similarly, Petrarch seems to transform Laura into a shadow when he looks at her or thinks of her. Laura indeed appears in the Rime sparse mostly as a shadow, even as a veiled shadow or as the shadow of her own veil—thus made twice more shadowy and flimsier by Petrarch’s representation of her: “volsimi et vidi un’ ombra . . . “ [“I turned and saw a shadow . . .”] (110.5). Laura shows only “l’ombra ria del grave [End Page 228] velo” [“the bitter shadow of the heavy veil . . . “] (122.8), “pur l’ombra o ‘l velo o’ panni / talor di sé, ma ‘l viso nascondendo” [“only her shadow or her veil or her garment, but hiding her face”] (119.20–21). Petrarch also writes: “ . . . quanto in più selvaggio / loco mi trovo e ‘n più deserto lido, / tanto più bella il mio pensier l’adombra” [“in whatever wildest place and most deserted shore I find myself, so much the more beautiful does my thought shadow her forth”] (129.46–48). Significantly, Petrarch’s movement of looking back is recurrent in the Rime sparse: “Io mi rivolgo indietro a ciascun passo / col corpo stanco ch’ a gran pena porto . . . “ [“I turn back at each step with my weary body which with great effort I carry forward . . . “ (15.1–2). “ . . . che pur dietro guardi / nel tempo che tornar non pote omai?” [“Why do you still look back to a time that can never return anymore?”] (273.1–2). “Quand’ io mi volgo indietro a mirar gli anni / ch’ ànno fuggendo i miei penseri sparsi . . . “ [“When I look back to gaze at the years that fleeing have scattered all my thoughts . . . “] (298.1–2). Petrarch thus leaves the silent shadow of Laura behind him, confining her to what seems to be a silent and solitary poetic underworld. He writes in sonnet 123: “Chinava a terra il bel guardo gentile / et tacendo dicea, come a me parve: ‘Chi m’allontana il mio fedele amico?’ “ [“She bent to earth her lovely noble glance and in her silence said, as it seemed to me: ‘Who sends away from me my faithful friend?’ “] (12–14). Although Laura “officially” dies only in sonnet 250, Petrarch seems to be perpetually engaged in a nekyia, in an invocation to Laura’s ghost taking place in his own subjective world, peopled by the multiple shades of Laura’s immaterial presence. As several critics have pointed out, Laura is a both absent and obsessional referent, whose historical existence has even been doubted.

Both Eurydice’s and Laura’s absence and death appear to be necessary for Orpheus and Petrarch. Looking at Eurydice for Orpheus and at Laura for Petrarch is indeed the cause of dangerous metamorphoses, and first of all of petrifaction. Ovid writes:

   Non aliter stupuit gemina nece coniugis Orpheus, quam tria qui timidus, medio portante catenas, colla canis vidit, quem non pavor ante reliquit, quam natura prior saxo per corpus aborto, quique in se crimem traxit voluitque videri Olenos esse nocens, tuque, o confisa figurae infelix Lethaea tuae, iunctissima quondam pectora, nunc lapides, quos umida sustinet Ide.

(X.64–71) [End Page 229]

[At his wife’s second death, Orpheus was completely stunned. He was like that timid fellow who, when he saw three-headed Cerberus led along . . . was turned to stone in every limb, and lost his fear only when he lost his original nature too: or like Olenus and hapless Lethaea, once fond lovers, now stones set on well-watered Ida. . . . ]


Literally, Orpheus is thus petrified (stupuit), turned into a stone (gemina). As John Heath notes, “The collection of ideas behind stupeo—paralysis, shock, amazement, silence, petrifaction—has become Orpheus’ trademark, as he produces stupor in those who listen to his lament . . . “ 5: “ . . . nec Tantalus undam / captavit refugam, stupuitque Ixionis orbis . . . “ (X.41–42) [“Tantalus made no effort to reach the waters that ever shrank away, Ixion’s wheel stood still in wonder . . . “] (226). It is thus ironical that Orpheus himself should be petrified. Furthermore, as Heath also writes, “Taken literally . . . Eurydice becomes the hellish denizen who turns onlookers into stone and must be returned (like Cerberus) to her infernal home. At whom did Orpheus glance, after all, to find himself shell-shocked and petrified?” (363–64). Both Laura’s presence and absence similarly entail Petrarch’s petrifaction. Petrarch largely draws on Dante’s Rime petrose in his comparing the cruelty of Laura to the painful hardness of a stone. As Robert Durling notes, “The study of Provençal poetry . . . had had a profound effect on Dante, provoking . . . a series of radical experiments, the rime petrose (stony rhymes), so called because the central theme is the hard, unyielding cruelty of the lady.” 6 Petrarch writes:

ed ella ne l’usata sua figura tosto tornando fecemi, oimè lasso! d’un quasi vivo et sbigottito sasso.   Ella parlava sì turbata in vista che tremar mi fea dentro a quella petra . . . .


[ . . . and she to her accustomed form quickly returning made me, alas, an almost living and terrified stone.

She spoke, so angry to see that she made me tremble within that stone. . . . ]

Laura is also compared to Medusa several times in the Rime sparse, which further stresses Petrarch’s painful, both somatic and semantic petrification: “ . . . andrei non altramente / a veder lei che ‘l volto di Medusa, / [End Page 230] che facea marmo diventar la gente” [“I would not go to see her otherwise than to see the face of Medusa, which made people become marble”] (179.9–11). “L’ombra sua sola fa ‘l mio cor un ghiaccio / et di bianca paura il viso tinge, / ma gli occhi ànno vertù di farne un marmo” [“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”] (197.12–14). “Medusa et l’error mio m’àn fatto un sasso / d’umor vano stillante” [“Medusa and my error have made me a stone dripping vain moisture”] (366.111–12).

Just as Orpheus is lacerated by the stones that the Thracian women throw at him, Laura is compared to a stone that threatens Petrarch with laceration and dismemberment. Referring to “the fabulous account of the magnet [in] the elder Pliny’s Natural History” (Durling 274), Petrarch writes in poem 135:

  Così l’alm’ à sfornita (furando ‘l cor che fu già cosa dura et me tenne un, ch’ or son diviso et sparso) un sasso a trar più scarso carne che ferro. . . .


[Thus a stone has robbed my soul (stealing my heart which once was a hard thing and held me, who now am divided and scattered), a stone more greedy to draw flesh than iron.]

And also:

  I’ piango; et ella il volto co le sue man m’asciuga, et poi sospira dolcemente, et s’adira con parole che i sassi romper ponno. . . .


[I weep, and she dries my face with her hands and then sighs sweetly and grows angry with words that could break the stones. . . .]

Petrifaction and sparagmos are the two metamorphoses that Orpheus undergoes in Ovid’s text. Ovid describes Orpheus’ dismemberment by the Thracian women in the following terms: “structoque utrimque theatro / ceu matutina cervus periturus harena / praeda canum est . . . “ (XI.25–27) [“It was like the scene in an amphitheatre when, for a morning’s entertainment in the arena, a doomed stag is hunted down by dogs”] (246). [End Page 231] Orpheus’ death thus recalls that of Actaeon, hunted down and torn by his hounds after being transformed into a stag by Diana as a punishment for his having looked at her naked in a spring. In Ovid’s description of Orpheus’ death and, by analogy, of Actaeon’s death, the sparagmos of these two figures who suffered the fatal consequence of a forbidden gaze—a too private gaze in the case of Actaeon—is metaphorically and ironically submitted to the spectators’ public gaze in an amphitheater. Similarly, Petrarch exposes his crumbling, scattered state, entailed by Laura’s ruthless attitude towards him, to the reader’s gaze: “Non spero del mio affanno aver mai posa / infin ch’ i’ mi disosso et snervo et spolpo, / o la nemica mia pietà n’avesse.” [“I do not hope ever to have rest from my labors, until I am disboned and dismuscled and disfleshed or my enemy feels pity for me”] (195.9–11). Laura becomes similar to Diana or to the Thracian women by producing in Petrarch an alienating, self-splitting feeling that finds its physical equivalent in the poet’s bodily fragmentation and dismemberment: “Non ò medolla in osso o sangue in fibra / ch’ i’ non senta tremar pur ch’ i’ m’apresse / dove è . . . “ [“I have no marrow in my bones or blood in my tissue that I do not feel trembling if I even approach where she is . . . “] (198.5–7). “Così li affitti et stanchi spirti mei / a poco a poco consumando sugge, / e ‘n sul cor quasi fiero leon rugge . . . “ [“Thus little by little she consumes and saps my afflicted, tired spirits, and like a fierce lion she roars over my heart . . . “] (256.5–8). And Petrarch explicitly casts himself in Actaeon’s image when he describes his both psychological and physical metamorphosis after seeing Laura naked in a spring: “ . . . i’ senti’ trarmi de la propria imago / et in un cervo solitario et vago / di selva in selva ratto mi trasformo . . . “ [“I felt myself drawn from my own image and into a solitary wandering stag from wood to wood quickly I am transformed . . . “ (23.157–59). Moreover, just as Orpheus’ words “had no effect” on the Thracian women whom “he failed to move . . . in any way by his voice” (247), and just as Actaeon transformed into a stag has become unable to speak to his dogs and to make himself recognized as Actaeon, it is similarly silence, aphasia, a scattering of the poetic process that Petrarch’s obsessive love and desire for Laura threaten to produce: “ . . . perché pria tacendo non m’impetro?” [“ . . . why do I not first turn to stone in silence?”] (37.56). “Quante lagrime, lasso, et quanti versi / ò già sparti al mio tempo . . . “ [“How many tears, alas, and how many verses / have I already scattered in my time!”] (239.13–14). According to Durling, Laura’s absence is for Petrarch “an experience of scattering, [her] presence one of synthesis” (21). Reversed, this statement is equally true: it is Laura’s absence which allows synthesis and her presence which entails sparagmos. [End Page 232]

Because Eurydice and Laura appear as potential sources of physical threats and dangers for Orpheus and Petrarch, their death can be read as a vital condition for Orpheus’ and Petrarch’s survival. Significantly, as Friedman shows, in medieval allegorical and moral interpretations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses Eurydice is often described, in opposition to a virtuous and often Christ-like Orpheus, as having fallen into vice and as the concupiscent side of Orpheus’ nature. In his Allegoriae super Ovidii Metamorphosin (1125) for instance, Arnulf of Orléans describes her as “poisoned by the serpent, that is, misled by the deceits of this life, when she judged the false and transitory things of this life to be durable and true” (qtd Friedman 119). For John of Garland in his Integumenta Ovidii (about 1234), Eurydice “was killed by a serpent, that is, by the fragility of her sex, and he [Orpheus] gave her back to earth, that is, he gave her back to hell” (qtd Friedman 121). In Petrarch’s Rime sparse, Laura often appears as cruel and poisonous: she is “a wild creature” who “crouches and flees” and “destroys” him (50.40–42), who has a “tiger’s or she-bear’s heart” (152.1) and whose face makes him suffer “cruel tortures” (96.7). Thus Petrarch is seeking medicines which “can heal the wounds [he] received in that wood / thick with thorns . . . “ (214.22–23). Just as Eurydice in medieval texts, Laura is the snake which turns Petrarch away from God by making him constantly burn in the fire of passion and of an earthly hell. He writes in poem 360, where he addresses the Holy Virgin to complain about his “old sweet cruel lord” (1):

  ”Così ‘l mio tempo infin qui trapassato è in fiamma e ‘n pene; et quante utili oneste vie sprezzai, quante feste, per servir questo lusinghier crudele! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   ”Cercar m’à fatto deserti paesi, fiere et ladri rapaci, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . mille lacciuoli in ogni parte tesi . . . .

(16–19, 46–51)

[“Thus my time until now has been passed in flames and suffering; and how many virtuous paths did I disdain, how many joys, to serve this cruel flatterer!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“He has made me search among wildernesses, wild beasts, rapacious thieves, . . . among . . . a thousand snares spread everywhere. . . .] [End Page 233]

Both Eurydice’s and Laura’s absence and death can be read as necessary not only because of the dangers they represent, but also because both poets need their disappearance to fully realize their aesthetic agendas. While proclaiming: “quodsi fata negant veniam pro coniuge, certum est / nolle redire mihi: leto gaudete duorum” (X.38–39) [“ . . . if the fates refuse her a reprieve, I have made up my mind that I do not wish to return either. You may exult in my death as well as hers!”] (226), Orpheus chooses to come back to the world of the living instead of staying with Eurydice in the underworld. As Heath notes, “Orpheus’ sentimental and daring claim that he would die rather than be separated from his wife has been proven to be no more than sophistic posture” (366). Rather than as an act of cowardice, Orpheus’ decision can be interpreted as his choice of artistry over love and death, especially since his songs and lyrical mastery over beasts and stones may be largely inspired by his own tragic fate. It is a similar refusal to follow Laura into death in spite of his mourning and proclaimed desire to be reunited with her, that characterizes Petrarch’s attitude in the Rime sparse. In poem 54 already, Petrarch seems to turn back halfway to his katabasis:

Allor mi strinsi a l’ombra d’un bel faggio tutto pensoso, e rimirando intorno vidi assai periglioso il mio viaggio; et tornai in dietro quasi a mezzo ‘l giorno.


[Then I drew myself to the shadow of a handsome beech, all full of care, and looking about me I saw my path to be most perilous; and I turned back almost at midday.]

Petrarch thus simultaneously creates and exiles Laura in order to inspire and sustain his poetic progression. He deliberately confines Laura to absence and silence, and finally sentences her to death in order to fulfill an eminently narcissistic poetic agenda and to achieve his literary autonomy. In sonnet 318, where the dead Laura is described by Petrarch as “al Ciel translato” [“translated to Heaven”] (12), his use of the linguistic term “translated” can be interpreted as his own poetic translation of her into death rather than as her “natural” death, just as Eurydice’s second death is the “unnatural” consequence of Orpheus’ turning back to look at her.

In other words, only if Laura is lost for ever and only if he is condemned to mourn her hopelessly can Petrarch fully identify with Orpheus. He writes: “ . . . cantando il duol si disacerba . . . “ [“ . . . singing, pain [End Page 234] becomes less bitter . . . “] (23.4), and also: “ . . . la cetera mia rivolta in pianto” [“ . . . my lyre is turned to weeping”] (292.14)—a line which echoes Job 30:31: “My harp also is turned to mourning, and my organ into the voice of them that weep,” thus adding a touch of Jobian stoicism to the Orphic sorrow. Furthermore, Petrarch’s songs of loss, helplessness and suffering figuratively endow him with a power over nature similar to that held by Orpheus. Just as Orpheus “was drawing the woods and rocks to follow him, charming the creatures of the wild . . . “ (246), Petrarch has sought refuge in the woods, and exerts a magical, taming influence over the natural world: “Nulla al mondo è che non possano i versi: / et li aspidi incantar sanno il lor note, / non che ‘l gelo adornar di novi fiori” [“There is nothing in the world that cannot be done by verses; / they know how to enchant asps with their notes, / not to speak of adorning the frost with new flowers”] (239.28–30). Petrarch also writes: “di rime armato ond’ oggi mi disarmo, / con stil canuto, avrei fatto parlando / romper le pietre et pianger di dolcezza” [“armed with the rhymes of which today I am disarmed, with a mature style I would speaking have made the very stones break and weep with sweetness”] (304.12–14). While some late antique authors, influenced by Platonic thought, see in Orpheus’ lyre an instrument “constructed according to the pattern of the universe” and to which harmonies the “soul, attuned to the music of the spheres from which it had descended, was believed to respond instinctively” (Friedman 80)—and this, according to Macrobius for instance, explains the origin of Orpheus’ story as well as his power over wild animals and nature in general—Petrarch represents the entire creation as moved by the pleading and desperate harmonies of his songs:

Non è sterpo né sasso in questi monti, non ramo o fronda verde in queste piagge, non fiore in queste valli o foglia d’erba,

stilla d’acqua non ven di queste fonti, né fiere àn questi boschi sì selvagge, che non sappian quanto è mia pena acerba.


[There is no shrub or stone in these mountains, no branch or green leaf on these slopes, no flower in these valleys, or blade of grass,

no trickle of water comes from these springs, nor do these woods have beasts so savage that they do not know how bitter my sorrow is.] [End Page 235]

Besides raising them to the mythic status of supernatural, titanic poets capable of moving the whole universe by their laments and songs, Eurydice’s and Laura’s absence and death allow Orpheus and Petrarch to expand and refine their artistic skills by prompting them to create aesthetic substitutes for their lost and impossible loves. As several critics have suggested, it is the death of Eurydice which inspires Orpheus with the tale of Pygmalion, thus allowing him not only to compensate symbolically for her absence by casting her in the image of Pygmalion’s statue, but also to take control over his destiny by fancying himself as a sculptor creating and vitalizing his own erotic object. From being a tamer of stones, Orpheus symbolically increases his power over nature by identifying with the figure of a sculptor. As Heath writes:

In Orpheus’ ideal world, art and passion combine so powerfully that they can bring the dead to life. . . . Nowhere is this more clear than in the famous tale of Pygmalion, where Orpheus carefully recreates his own story, but this time with a happy ending . . . . Orpheus usually brings life to rocks when he sings, as he in fact is doing even as he sings of Pygmalion, for we learn in Book 11 that his song vivifies the rocks in his audience . . . . Ovid, however, has uniquely stupefied Orpheus, transformed him into a rock to mark his heroic failure. Orpheus, now writing his own tale, puts things back in order, with the master artist animating stones again . . . : dum stupet et dubie gaudet fallique veretur, / rursus amans . . . [(X.287–88)] [“The lover stood, amazed, afraid of being mistaken, his joy tempered with doubt . . . “ (232)]. Orpheus, the magical quickener of stone, is symbolically turned to stone as his wife reverts from flesh to corpse. Pygmalion is symbolically turned to stone as he vitalizes the ivory statue of his wife-to-be.


Just as Orpheus re-creates what he has lost by identifying with Pygmalion, Petrarch sculpts and immortalizes Laura within his imagination and poetic representations of her:

   Misero me, che volli quando primier sì fiso gli [occhi miei] tenni nel bel viso per iscolpirlo, imaginando, in parte onde mai né per forza né per arte, [End Page 236] mosso sarà fin ch’ i’ sia dato in preda a chi tutto diparte!


[Miserable me! What was I doing when for the first time I kept them [my eyes] so fixed on her lovely face, to sculpture it for imagination in a place whence it would never be moved by any art or force, until I become the prey of Death, who separates all things?]

“Nulla posso levar io per mi’ ‘ngegno / del bel diamante ond’ ell’ à il cor sì duro, / l’altro è d’ un marmo che si mova et spiri” [“With my own wit I can take away none of the lovely diamond with which her heart is so hard; the rest of her is a piece of marble that moves and breathes”] (171.9–11). When Petrarch’s gaze does not transform Laura into a shadow or make her disappear, it petrifies her by aesthetizing her. And Petrarch, like Pygmalion, falls in love with his aesthetic re-creations of Laura which, rather than simply compensating for her absence, supplant her in the poet’s eyes. Furthermore, as Simon’s painting (in sonnet 78) or as an image sculpted in his heart and imagination, he can gaze at her at will since she is now the artifacts of his own making, just as Orpheus can gaze at Galatea-Eurydice through Pygmalion’s eyes without having to fear her immediate and “stunning” disappearance.

Petrarch’s metaphoric kinship with Pygmalion is made even stronger by the fact that his own artistic project is eminently narcissistic and self-referential. In sonnet 78, Petrarch uses a second person form to address Pygmalion: “Pigmaliòn, quanto lodar ti dei / de l’imagine tua . . . “ [“Pygmalion, how glad you should be of your statue . . . “] (12–13), and as Lynn Enterline notes, this “‘lodar ti dei’ casts Pygmalion in Petrarch’s image, reminding the reader that Petrarch is indeed the poet of praise, the one who derives his poems and the name of his object from the same word: lodare, or the Latin laudare, is the etymological and literal basis for the changes on laura . . .” 7 Petrarch’s Pygmalion-like, both narcissistic and fetishistic relation to his poetic re-creation of Laura is made especially clear in the following lines: “I’ temo di cangiar pria volto et chiome / che con vera pietà mi mostri gli occhi / l’idolo mio scolpito in vivo lauro . . . “ [“I fear I shall change my face and my locks / before she with true pity will show me her eyes, / my idol carved in living laurel . . . “ (30.25–27). Thus, as Enterline further remarks, for Petrarch Laura is “that (enabling) absence that is the ‘positive condition’ of the poetic ‘speaking’ subject. The absence of Laura—but also of Eurydice—always informs the [End Page 237] fantasy of Pygmalion’s love for a nameless, living idol” (139). Orpheus’, Pygmalion’s and Petrarch’s narcissism is further underscored by their all shunning, to various degrees, the company of women. After Eurydice’s second death,

. . . omnemque refugerat Orpheus femineam Venerem . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ille etiam Thracum populis fuit auctor amorem in teneros transferre mares citraque iuventam aetatis breve ver et primos carpere flores.


[Orpheus had shrunk from loving any woman. . . . [He] preferred to centre his affections on boys of tender years, and to enjoy the spring and early flowering of their youth. . . .]


It is Pygmalion’s disgust with “the many faults which nature has implanted in the female sex” (Ovid 231) which prompts him to create Galatea. Finally, as Enterline suggests, what is “most vile” to Petrarch and is “prize[d]” by “others” (6) in sonnet 78 may be understood as “other women, particularly in a poem that ends with an apostrophe to the artist who was ‘disgusted’ with the female mind” (131). Thus all three artists seek flawless, both erotic and aesthetic objects cleansed of common human vulgarity, worthy of their refined artistic tastes and capable of satisfying and stimulating their need for beauty. It is therefore a reflection of their own aesthetic and creative skills that may be sought by these three artists. Petrarch polishes his artistic ego by gazing at himself in his mirror-like representations of Laura: “o fiamma, o rose sparse in dolce falda / di viva neve in ch’ io mi specchio et tergo . . . “ [“O flame, O roses scattered on a swift drift of living snow, in which I mirror and polish myself . . . “ (146.5–6). As Enterline writes: “In the Secretum, Petrarch makes amply clear that for him Pygmalion’s fixation on the ivory image of his own making recapitulates the predicament of Narcissus, captivated by the ‘image’ of his own ‘form’. . . . The precise symmetry of these two stories . . . anticipates the mirroring reversals that characterize the relationship between Laura and her author (126). Thus both Pygmalion and Petrarch are mesmerized and petrified—Pygmalion is literally described by Ovid as petrified when his statue comes to life—by their own works. Orpheus’ and Petrarch’s aesthetic egotism is especially highlighted by the fact that they are not only mirrored in their own creations, but also in other artists’ [End Page 238] personae: Orpheus in Pygmalion, Petrarch in Orpheus and in Pygmalion. Their songs and texts themselves are thus perfectly self-reflexive since they are duplicated by their intertextual references. Pygmalion and his statue can be seen ultimately as sculpted and brought to life by Orpheus’ voice since their story is invented and sung by Orpheus himself, just as Petrarch revitalizes the figures of Orpheus and Pygmalion in his own poetry. Thus Orpheus’ and Petrarch’s best acoustic mirrors are their own voices and poetic texts. Durling comments on Petrarch:

The lover is fascinated with the complexity of his own psychological processes; the image that turns him to stone in the Rime sparse is a projection of them onto the outside world. The idea that the lover’s fixated gaze on the beloved turns him into a statue is emphasized in Ovid’s account of Narcissus, who stares at his image in the pool:

. . . vultuque immotus eodem haeret, ut a Pario formatum marmore signum. (Metamorphoses 3.418–419) he stares unmoving on that one face, like a statue formed of Parian marble.

This is an ultimate form of the Medusa, a perception that hovers over the Rime sparse, that endlessly polished mirror of the poet’s soul.


According to Martina Lauster, petrifaction, especially when it seizes the artist himself, can foster a freezing, paralyzing melancholy. She writes on Petrarch’s stone imagery: “The transformation into a sculpted poetic self, a process of painful detachment from life and organic matter (laurel is replaced by stone, tree by rock) is a lonesome, ‘titanic’ business linked to the temperamental condition of melancholy which requires stasis within flux, death within life.” 8 However, just as Orpheus evades melancholy by creating and animating Pygmalion and his statue, and just as Pygmalion avoids sinking into a brooding narcissism by having his statue become a breathing, living woman instead of remaining a purely egotistic reflection of himself, Petrarch escapes a melancholic poetic petrifaction by transforming his narcissistic “self-statufication” into an inherently dynamic driving force of his poetic creation. As the story of Narcissus suggests, a narrowly egotistic and artistically sterile self-mesmerization ultimately leads to death. On the contrary, Laura’s aesthetic non-referentiality, and the self-referentiality of Petrarch’s poetry, allow the free play of Petrarch’s poetic elaboration and variations on the theme of [End Page 239] the laurel, as well as the fulfillment of his poetic autonomy. Furthermore, beyond revealing their fascination with their own status as artists, both Orpheus’ and Petrarch’s identification with other artists highlights the breadth of their artistic projects. By identifying with Pygmalion and sculpting Galatea by means of his own voice, Orpheus becomes a poet-musician-sculptor whose voice and gaze are equally and powerfully creative. Even more than a combination of artistry and passion, as Heath suggests, it is a total aesthetic and erotic project that Orpheus envisages, that of uniting passion, poetry, music and sculpture. It is a similar “total” aesthetic agenda that can be read in Petrarch’s Rime sparse, a desire of matching voice, writing and gaze. It is this aesthetic project, first the union between poetry and music in the image of Orpheus, then the union of poetry and sculpture in the images of both Orpheus and Pygmalion that I want to examine now.

Because of “the blending harmony of voice and lyre” (Ovid 246) conveyed by his songs, Orpheus stands as a mythic emblem of a perfect union between poetry and music. The term “to charm” often used by translators of the Metamorphoses to describe the magical and taming influence of Orpheus’ songs over the deities and shades of the lower world and over beasts and stones, derives from the Latin noun carmen, which means altogether “tune,” “song,” “sound,” “verse,” “poem,” “incantation,” “magic formula:” “tunc primum lacrimis victarum carmine fama est / Eumenidum maduisse genas . . .” (X.45–46) [“Then for the first time, they say, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears, for they were overcome by his singing”] (226). “Carmine dum tali silvas animosque ferarum / Threicius vates et saxa sequentia ducit . . . “ (XI.1–2) [“By such songs as these the Thracian poet was drawing the woods and rocks to follow him, charming the creatures of the wild . . . “] (246). Furthermore, Friedman writes that Fulgentius, who in the sixth century

provided the first and most widely imitated etymological interpretation of the legend [of Orpheus] in his Mitologia, . . . derived the name Orpheus from oraia phone, “that is, best voice,” and Eurydice from eur dike, or “profound judgment.” These two, in Fulgentius’ opinion, represented two aspects of the art of music—the power of words to move the listener, and the more mystical harmony of tones. . . . From this interpretation of the myth . . . several notable descendants can be traced which make Orpheus a champion of eloquence or of music.

(89) [End Page 240]

Orpheus’ powerful, both poetic and musical, eloquence, must have been deeply fascinating for Petrarch who in the Rime sparse desperately entreats Laura to listen to his lament and endeavors to sway her by the amorous, urging and pleading eloquence of his rhymes. Moreover, Orpheus’ inseparably poetic and musical art can be seen as a paradigm for Petrarch’s own attempt at creating an intrinsically musical poetic form. Herman Gmelin writes that “in that land of the troubadours [Avignon, where Petrarch grew up after his father’s exile], [Petrarch’s] ear was trained in the melodies of their songs,” and that he “conceived the notion of reading the Latin authors for the first time as well with that musical sense of the troubadours. . . . “ 9 James Anderson Winn further notes: “Petrarch and his followers came to believe that their emphasis on the sonorous qualities of classical poetry constituted a recovery of the aesthetic principles upon which that poetry had originally been written . . . “ (157–58). The canzone, a poetic form frequently used by Petrarch in the Rime sparse, was originally used by troubadours and trouvères, and then taken over by secular Italian poets but without “the musical part of the tradition” (Winn 85) from about the thirteenth century on. However, the search for musicality, for sounds and rhythms, remains a central concern for Petrarch, whose verses brilliantly illustrate Dante’s definition of poetry as “fictio rhetorica musicaque poita,” “a product of imagination expressed with the aid of rhetoric and music,” “a work of art defined by the ways it organizes sounds” (Winn 85–86). Petrarch thus writes: “che volendo parlar, cantava sempre . . . “ [“ . . . wishing to speak, I sang always . . . “] (23.62), and frequently refers to the sound of his verses: “ . . . solo del suo nome / vo empiendo l’aere che sì dolce sona” [“ . . . with her name only I fill the air which so sweetly sounds”] (97.10–11).

Quando io movo i sospiri a chiamar voi e ‘l nome che nel cor mi scrisse Amore, LAU-dando s’incomincia udir di fore il suon de’ primi dolci accenti suoi


[When I move my sighs to call you and the name that Love wrote on my heart, the sound of its first sweet accents is heard without in LAU-ds.]

While Petrarch’s poetry was deeply influenced by music, new Italian Renaissance musical forms such as the madrigal were in turn shaped by Petrarch’s poetry. Winn writes: [End Page 241]

the frequency of such figures as oxymoron [in Petrarch’s poetry] encouraged composers to seek for a musical equivalent, a similarly compressed grammar of contrast which ultimately found expression in harmonic and contrapuntal terms . . . . The search for a musical style more appropriate for Petrarchan poetry led to the adoption of the text-setting techniques that characterize the madrigal: chromatic harmonies, highly decorated vocal lines, contrapuntal imitation, and witty rhetorical “word-painting.”


“In the hand of the Italian madrigal composers,” Winn further writes, “the techniques of polyphonic counterpoint . . . became ways to dramatize, with irony and wit, the multiple personae of the Petrarchan speaker” (149).

Thus Petrarch appears as a worthy heir to Orpheus’ exemplary combination of poetry and music within a magical art which, because it allowed Orpheus to recover, at least momentarily, Eurydice, the Other and the Beloved, has always obsessed both poets and musicians. Both Orpheus’ reunification with Eurydice and separation from her can be seen as poetic symbols of music’s and poetry’s separation from, and search for, their lost and beloved half in an attempt to redeem the reciprocally mutilating divorce which happened at the very moment when, dismembered by the Thracian women, “through those lips to which rocks had listened, which wild beasts had understood, [Orpheus’] last breath slipped away and vanished in the wind” (Ovid 247). From Jacopo Peri’s Euridice in 1600—which wants to promote a perfect harmony between poetry and music by rejecting the idea of the text as only an accompaniment for music—to Darius Milhaud’s Les malheurs d’Orphée in 1925, including Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 1607 and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762, opera in particular has been haunted by the paradigmatic figure of the primitive poet. And it is the painful awareness of the divorce between the two arts which in part explains the extraordinary enthusiasm aroused among both poets and musicians by Wagner’s attempt to reconcile poetry and music within a dramatic form. Just as poetry for music, music is for poetry a coveted and cherished other, an ideal partner for poetic silence. Petrarch writes: “In silenzio parole accorte et sagge / è ‘l suon che mi sottragge ogni altra cura, / et la pregione oscura ov’ è ‘l bel lume” [“In silence, words skillful and wise are the sound that takes every other care from me, and the dark prison where there is a lovely light . . .”] (105.61–63), and Mallarmé echoes him when he states that silence is “le seul luxe après les rimes” [“the only luxury after rhymes”] 10 and that, “La Poésie, proche l’idée, est Musique, par excellence—ne consent pas d’infériorité” [“Poetry, close to the idea, is Musique par excellence—does not consent to any inferiority”] (381). [End Page 242]

While Petrarch’s musical poetic techniques recall Orpheus’ mythic artistry, his use of visual and minutely crafted poetic forms evokes Pygmalion, or Orpheus looking at Pygmalion’s art as the ultimate fulfillment of his desire for an art that would make visible what he has lost. While Orpheus’ songs fail to charm Cerberus a second time and to redeem his forbidden look, telling Pygmalion’s tale allows him to make Eurydice visible again by animating her in the form of Galatea. Interestingly, in Le Roman de la Rose (that Petrarch had read and commented on) Jean de Meun describes Pygmalion’s lustful attempt to seduce his cold creation by singing to her and inviting her to dance:

  Alors, tout plein d’une grande gaieté, il chante d’une voix haute et claire, en guise de messe, des chansonnettes parlant de jolis secrets d’amourettes et il fait sonner si fort ses instruments qu’on n’entendrait pas Dieu tonner . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . il “espingue,” fait de petits sauts, de petits bonds et frappe du pied à travers la salle; il prend la statue par la main et danse . . . . 11

[Then with uplifted voice he sweetly sings, Expressing all his happy-heartedness, In place of masses, pretty chansonettes Of lovers’ secrets; and the instruments, Of which he many owned, he makes resound Till one had thought the gods were back on earth. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . See how he capers, dances, clogs, and trips, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Seizes her by the hand, and begs a dance!] 12

Singing becomes similar to sculpture, the gaze follows the voice and is sustained by it. Similarly, Petrarch’s poems, because of their sculpted quality and because of Petrarch’s use of ekphrasis—for instance in sonnet 78 where Laura appears as Simon’s painting—which introduces the gaze into writing, are made visible to the reader’s eyes. Winn thus writes: “Petrarch’s poetry, however expressive and sonorous, also employs techniques learned from the recondite virtuosity of the Middle Ages, including anagrammatic distortions of Laura’s name. The sensorium is a continuum, not a dialectic, and the general motion toward the sense of hearing did not require abandoning entirely those aspects of art connected with sight, the formalism [End Page 243] and abstraction which had been a part of music and poetry throughout the later Middle Ages” (127). Drawing on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s metaphor of the sonnet as a “moment’s monument” (qtd Lauster 147), Martina Lauster also writes:

“monument” . . . stands for the architecture of the sonnet, its time-resistant, stone-like structure which encloses the transitory poetic moment. . . . If Rossetti’s sculptural metaphor of the sonnet as a monument or memorial can be accepted as a key to the critical approach to the genre as such, then one could go a step further and tentatively argue that any sonnet containing imagery of stones, monuments, or sculptures is in some way dealing with the hard form in which it is itself cast and therefore offers a condensed form of reflection on poetic matter.


In sonnet 104 Petrarch writes:

. . . mi dice il cor ch’ io in carte scriva cosa onde ‘l vostro nome in pregio saglia, che ‘n nulla parte sì saldo s’intaglia per far di marmo una persona viva.


[ . . . 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.]

Thus words are considered by Petrarch as more enduring than sculpture itself. Commenting on sonnet 51—“Had it come any closer to my eyes, the light that dazzles them from afar, . . . I would have changed my every form. . . . I would be today whatever form is hardest to cut, either diamond, or fair marble . . . or a crystal . . . and I would be free of my heavy, harsh yoke . . . “ (1–12)—Lauster further notes: “If . . . the poet’s art could achieve the hardness of sparkling and translucent gemstones or of smoothly sculpted white marble, it would forever seal off and encapsulate, and thereby free him from, his unfulfilled worldly desire, the ‘yoke’ of his passion” (149–50). Petrarch’s poetic art recalls the precision and resistant hardness of sculptures. Lauster remarks: “Similar to the assonance of ‘lauro’ and ‘Laura,’ the word ‘petra’ establishes a link to the poet’s own name. This indicates his determination to harden himself by perfecting his poetic skill” (149). A yearning for immortality and an “immoderate desire for glory” (Durling 5) are indeed in the heart of Petrarch’s [End Page 244] poetic project, and as Durling also notes: “Perfect integration of a life or a book comes only when the mutable and imperfect is caught up into eternity” (26). Commenting on Petrarch’s politico-rhetorical exploration of the myth of Orpheus in the Canzoniere, Giuseppe Mazzotta writes: “It is even possible to suggest, in effect, that Petrarch attempts to write political poems, but as their rhetoric fails, the failure gives him the alibi to retreat from a ghostly, unrealizable world of history to the obsessive absorption with his own private self . . . .” 13 Petrarch’s poetic project can be interpreted, along Lauster’s, Durling’s and Mazzotta’s comments, as the sculpture of his own posterity, as the erection of a poetic monument which, however, would not be petrified nor frozen in melancholy but would become alive and autonomous in the manner of Pygmalion’s statue and would silently and seductively speak like Baudelaire’s Beauty: “Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre, . . . / . . . / Car j’ai . . . / De purs miroirs qui font toutes choses plus belles : / Mes yeux, mes larges yeux aux clartés éternelles!” 14 [“I am as lovely as a dream in stone; . . . / For I . . . / Have pools of light where beauty flames and dies, / The placid mirrors of my luminous eyes”]. 15

Thus both Orpheus and Petrarch can be seen as attempting to achieve artistic projects of aesthetic “correspondences,” to use a Baudelairian term, an art of immediate sensuous presence, engaging all senses, uniting voice and gaze, gaze and touch, touch and writing, writing and music, music and silence, silence and visibility, visibility and invisibility, an art in which writing acquires a gem-like quality and sculpture is animated by poems and songs. Orpheus belongs to the ancient pantheistic world in which aesthetic forms were not strictly categorized and art—sculpture especially—was, as Hegel showed, immediately sensuous, human and divine. Petrarch’s poetry also testifies to a time when aesthetic forms were embedded in a fluid system of cosmic correspondences. Leonard Barkan writes that one of the modes that “dominate in the artistic portrayal of the pagan world during the Ovidian pre-Renaissance” is “the strong continuity of medieval cosmology and cosmography. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witness a massive interest in the system of correspondence—microcosm and macrocosm variously interpreted—that link the earth to heavens.” 16 As Giuseppe Mazzotta also writes, “Petrarch’s modernity, which scholars almost formulaically acknowldge but never define with any great precision, lies in his steady interest in the artistic experiments of his day. The traditional arts of the trivium and quadrivium are rigorously rethought by him, but he supplements them with the new arts such as painting and music” (142). Both Orpheus’ and Petrarch’s creations thus reflect a mythic world inhabited by artists who do not suffer from [End Page 245] any “anxiety of influence” but are bound by a deep kinship and construct their works against the separation and scattering of aesthetic forms and genres. Just as Petrarch can be metaphorically seen as gathering the scattered parts of Orpheus’ dismembered body and, Pygmalion-like, re-shaping them into his own Orphic alter-ego, the reader has to develop a synthetic, syncretic gaze in order to re-assemble and fully grasp the kaleidoscopic intertextual fragments scattered in the Rime sparse (literally “Scattered Rhymes”).

Thérèse Migraine-George
University of Colorado, Boulder


1. Petrarch’s Lyric Poems. The Rime sparse and Other Lyrics, trans. and ed. Robert M. Durling, 8th ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1976) 187.9–11. All references to the Rime sparse are from this text.

2. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1916) 2: X.8–10.

3. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Mary M. Innes (New York: Penguin Books, 1955) 225.

4. John Block Friedman, Orpheus in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1970).

5. John Heath, “The Stupor of Orpheus: Ovid’s Metamorphoses 10.64–71,” The Classical Journal 91.4 (1996): 362.

6. Robert M. Durling, “Introduction,” Petrarch’s Lyric Poems 9.

7. Lynn Enterline, “Embodied Voices. Petrarch Reading (Himself Reading) Ovid,” Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. Valeria Finucci and Regina Schwartz (Princeton: Princeton UP: 1994) 127.

8. Martina Lauster, “Stone Imagery and the Sonnet Form: Petrarch, Michelangelo, Baudelaire, Rilke,” Comparative Literature 45 (1993): 150.

9. James Anderson Winn, Unsuspected Eloquence. A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music (New Haven: Yale UP, 1981) 157.

10. Stéphane Mallarmé, Œuvres complètes (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1945) 310.

11. Guillaume de Lorris et Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose, trans. André Lanly, 4 vols (Paris: Editions Champion, 1975) 4: 176–77.

12. Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, The Romance of the Rose, trans. Harry W. Robbins, ed. Charles W. Dunn. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962) 447–48.

13. Giuseppe Mazzotta, The Worlds of Petrarch, (Durham: Duke UP, 1993) 139.

14. Charles Baudelaire, Œuvres (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1931) 33–34.

15. Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, trans. F. P. Sturm, ed. Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, 3d ed. (New York: New Directions Book, 1963) 24–25.

16. Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven: Yale UP, 1986) 173.

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