a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Rescuing the childhood home of Francesco Petrarch

Posted on the July 13th, 2012

 View from childhood home of medieval poet Francesco Petrarch in Incisa, Tuscany

The medieval poet-theologian Francesco Petrarch is grandly known as the “Father of Humanism” and creator of the Petrarchan sonnet. For ordinary mortals, however, it’s more endearing that he could well be the patron saint of the lovelorn and broken-hearted.

As the story goes, while at church one day the 20-something Petrarch’s gaze fell on a beautiful woman named Laura. Though not a word was exchanged between them, he fell in love. Unfortunately for the young poet, Laura was married and happily so. The good news for poetry lovers and posterity, however, is that the heartbroken Petrarch spent the rest of his life writing love sonnets to Laura.

Here is a stanza from Sonnet 101, Ways apt and new to sing of love I’d find:

Ways apt and new to sing of love I’d find,
Forcing from her hard heart full many a sigh,
And re-enkindle in her frozen mind
Desires a thousand, passionate and high;

At the behest of his father, reportedly, Petrarch first studied law. He soon abandoned it, however, in preference for his first loves of writing and literature. His work and literary reputation in Europe were officially recognized in 1341 when he was named poet laureate in Rome.

On a recent visit to Incisa, a small town about twenty minutes south of Florence, we had a serendipitous encounter with a former living space of the medieval luminary. A friend we were visiting offhandedly mentioned that her new apartment is in the childhood home of Petrarch. She shared this tidbit just as we were climbing into our car to follow her through the town’s narrow streets to her front door.

Engraving on facade of childhood home of Francesco Petrarch in Incisa, Tuscany

Three minutes later we pulled up in front of a large medieval Tuscan residence, four floors of rustic design at the top of a steep hill. Originally built in the 12th century, it was the home of Petrarch’s maternal grandparents. Back in the day, it was within the protective security of the small city’s protective walls. The walls are long gone, but the house still has its tranquil view of the green valley below with the Arno river winding through it.

The newborn poet came with his parents from a nearby town to live in Incisa soon after his birth in July 1304, according to historical accounts. He remained there through his early childhood.

Unlike the celebrated and elegant villa Arquà Petrarca (now a museum) in a northern region of Italy where Petrarch lived out his last years, the more humble Incisa structure is much less wellknown. Its history also is more troubled.  The line of family inheritance to the property was broken in succeeding centuries, according to local sources.

The residence did continue to be recognized up until the end of World War II as a one-time home of Petrarch. It housed a small museum and library dedicated to the poet. In the chaotic aftermath of the great war, however, the residence fell into abandonment and neglect.

City councilman Gianfranco Mazzotta overseeing the restoration of childhood home of Francesco Petrarch

On our recent sunny day in Incisa, we were fortunate to bump into a lead player in the restoration of the former Petrarchal home there, local city councilman Gianfranco Mazzotta. In fact, when we first saw him, Mazzotta was energetically wielding a mop to clean the floor of the newly completed public meeting room on the lower level of the Incisa structure.

Do your city council members in the US do this? he calls out, smiling as he held the dripping mop aloft.

In a complicated arrangement, the ownership of the former Petrarch home was previously held jointly by private owners and by the Italian state. Mazzotta recounted to us the sometimes thorny process of negotiating a fair sales price of the state’s share of the property to the city of Incisa. His pride in his ultimate success in the battle is evident.

Completion of the full renovation of the Casa Petrarca is expected to be a year from now, at which point it will be open to the public. In addition to the public meeting room, the residence will comprise a small museum and a library celebrating the poet.

Casa Petrarca, childhood home of Francesco Petrarch in Incisa, Tuscany

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A little help holding up the leaning tower of Pisa

Posted on the July 29th, 2011

Creating special effects with their snapshots is especially popular when tourists visit Pisa and its famous leaning tower. On a trip there last May, photographer Tarcisio Arzuffi also found the temptation irresistible. With a little help from his friend Andrew, he framed a fun optical illusion.

Explaining how and why he created the photo, Tarcisio wrote:

Last May I spent a couple of days in Savona (Liguria) for a meeting. The weather was okay but a little cloudy and cold. I was hoping for better weather on the long six-hour trip back home to Rome. When I left with my friends Andrew and Walter it was just a gorgeous day.

We decided to take the coastal highway. Along the way, after passing the beautiful white marble caves of Massa Carrara, we saw the exit sign to Pisa, and since no one of us had ever seen the famous leaning tower we decided to take a detour.

The cathedral with the leaning tower is really worth seeing. We walked the whole “Campo dei miracoli,” the square around the cathedral, and then… I saw the photo: the light was great (6 p.m. I think the light is at its best, right where you want it). I only had to work a little on the composition with the help of Andrew so that his hands are in the right place and his feet also, so that it looks like he is really pushing the tower. I also found the right balance between the height of the tower and that of Andrew, and then the right zoom.

We rewarded ourselves with some awesome cones of gelato artigianale, the famous Italian ice cream, almost as famous as the leaning tower!

I hope this advice can be useful for those who will be coming to Italy and are planning a visit to the Tuscany region.

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That’s a really big cow

Posted on the June 2nd, 2010

My recent piece and photo series about the world’s largest breed of cow, on Demotix.com (“The everlasting Chianina cows” May 30, 2010).


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The pigeon of Arezzo

Posted on the February 6th, 2010

Visiting Arezzo, Tuscany – February 1, 2010

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Pienza on a cold day

Posted on the January 21st, 2010

Winter. Tuscany. Val d’Orcia.

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