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  • The Site of Petrarchism: Early Modern National Sentiment in Italy, France, and England
  • Richard Helgerson
The Site of Petrarchism: Early Modern National Sentiment in Italy, France, and England. By William J. Kennedy. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xiv + 383 pp. $45.00.

A decade ago, in Authorizing Petrarch, William J. Kennedy studied the chief fifteenth- and sixteenth-century commentaries on Petrarch's vernacular poetry "in the light," as he put it there, "of subsequent poetic practice in Italy, France, and England" (4). In his new book, The Site of Petrarchism, Kennedy reverses the emphasis. He is now studying poetic practice in those same three countries in the light of the same collection of commentaries. The difference is subtle and leads inevitably to much repetition, particularly concerning the commentaries. But the cast has changed. Where Authorizing Petrarch gave greatest attention to Pietro Bembo, Vittoria Colonna, and Veronica Gambara in Italy, Pernette de Guillet and Louise Labé in France, and Edmund Spenser in England, The Site of Petrarchism has a new set of authors. For Italy it sticks with Petrarch himself and a scattering of commentators and imitators; for France it concentrates on Joachim du Bellay; and for England it picks the Sidney family, especially Philip, his sister Mary, and their niece Mary Wroth. The result is a book that complements its predecessor and extends its findings without significantly altering them. [End Page 240]

The new book begins with two premises: first, "that the Petrarchan sonnet . . . provides a site for early modern expressions of national sentiment" and, second, "that Petrarchism unfolds amid critical commentary appended to early modern printed editions of the Rime sparse and that it acquires a protonationalist density through this commentary" (1). Without quite saying so, these premises, which it is the business of Kennedy's book to test and support, respond to what remains one of the great questions about the extraordinary popularity of Petrarchan poetry in the sixteenth century: How did the seemingly solipsistic poetry of frustrated erotic desire manage to become a major vehicle for early-modern national self-assertion? That Petrarchan love poetry did, in fact, play such a role is the claim of Kennedy's first premise, and he finds plenty of evidence to support it. That Petrarchan commentaries enabled this process by lending "a protonational density" to early-modern Petrarchism would seem to be the claim of the second, but here the evidence is a good deal thinner, as one might guess from Kennedy's equivocal "unfolds amid." Does this mean that the commentary actually influenced sixteenth-century poetic practice in some fairly profound way or just that it was around and available when the practice was happening? Unfortunately for Kennedy's evident wish to link commentary and poetic practice, only the latter, weaker formulation fits his evidence. With at most one or two debatable exceptions, the various analogies he cites between the two are never quite close enough to prove that French or English poets read the commentaries or were influenced by them.

What then remains of Kennedy's argument? The answer is quite a lot. The commentators may not have exercised the influence on the poets that Kennedy imagines, but simply knowing what they say adds a valuable dimension to our understanding of sixteenth-century Petrarchism. Kennedy's own reading of Petrarch is brilliantly insightful and often eloquently expressed. I particularly like his argument that to make up for his family's exile from Florence, Petrarch invented for himself (and eventually for all of Italy and much of Europe) a new patria based on ancient Rome. "In this narrative," as Kennedy writes, "Petrarch is no longer the despised offspring of a fractious Florentine city-state but the inheritor of a grander, nobler, more virtuous, and more enabling civilization. His true parentage is neither Guelph nor Ghibelline, but a Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, sometime republican, sometime imperial culture" (5). This seems to me just right, and Kennedy's subsequent discussion of how Petrarch's vernacular poetry discovered a way to unite the "mother tongue" of the emerging early modern nation with the "father tongue" of the revived Roman patria and the ancient [End Page 241] classics...


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