Canzoniere 199

O bella man, che mi destringi ’l core,                  O lovely hand, that grasps my heart
e ’n poco spatio la mia vita chiudi;                       and encloses in a little space all my life;
man ov’ogni arte et tutti i lor studi                         hand where Nature and Heaven have put all their art
poser Natura e ’l Ciel per farsi honore;               and all their care to do themselves honour;

di cinque perle orïental’ colore,                            neat soft fingers, the colour of five oriental pearls,
et sol ne le mie piaghe acerbi et crudi,               and only bitter and cruel to wound me:
diti schietti soavi, a tempo ignudi                         to make me rich, Love now opportunely
consente or voi, per arricchirme, Amore.            consents that you be naked.

Candido leggiadretto et caro guanto,                  White, light and dear glove
che copria netto avorio et fresche rose,              that covered clear ivory and fresh roses,
chi vide al mondo mai sí dolci spoglie?             who ever saw in the world such sweet spoils?

Cosí avess’io del bel velo altrettanto!                  Would I had again as much of that lovely veil!
O incostantia de l’umane cose!                            Oh the inconstancy of human life!
Pur questo è furto, et vien chi me ne spoglie.    Even this is a theft, and one is coming who will deprive me of it.

[English trans. by Robert Durling]


A sonnet from the In vita section of the Canzoniere, which constitutes the first instalment of a three-part mini-narrative known as the “ciclo del guanto” (see also poems 200 and 201), despite the fact that the quatrains in this sonnet are addressed to Laura’s hand rather than her glove, which only appears briefly in ll. 9-12.  Begun around 1343, the sonnet underwent a significant rewriting in 1368, twenty years after Laura’s death.  In this first part of this narrative within a narrative, Laura is divested of one of her gloves, and her naked hand is exposed to Petrarch’s gaze.  In 200, she recovers the glove and puts it back on, while in 201, we discover that Petrarch had taken the glove, perhaps after it had fallen inadvertently from Laura’s hand, and subsequently returned it to her.

A number of key words see Petrarch take advantage of a characteristic semantic ambiguity which allows the sonnet to sustain a number of differing readings, while the uncertain identity of the approaching figure in the final line shifts the focus of the sonnet depending on who we interpret the figure as:  it may be Laura coming to reclaim her glove, or, given the exclamatory meditation of the inconstancy of human life in the previous line, could it be Death coming to claim Laura, and despoil her (and the poet) of the bel velo, which is explicitly identified as her body in Canz. 302?

The poco spatio may refer to the sonnet.  The poet wishes to enclose both himself and Laura in this space (see 95 and 239, l. 37).  The glove also serves as an apt metaphor for Petrarch’s search for meaningful self-representation through poetry – his words constitute empty shells which he attempts to fill with meaning.

Dialogue with Cavalcanti: Presence, Absence, Distance, Beauty, and Pain

A variety of interpretative threads make this sonnet remarkable, not least of which is the seeming dialogue which Petrarch engages in with Cavalcanti.  Although certain echoes of the Commedia are present, Dantesque allusions are less prominent in this sonnet than in any poem discussed by the Reading Group to date.  The fetishistic treatment of the glove has implications for Petrarch’s poetics of presence, absence and distance, which again is viewed through the lens of his dialogue with Cavalcanti.  The bel velo has become the object of the poet’s desire as opposed to that which it covered.

The first quatrain deals with presence and absence.  As the hand is revealed, it seems to occupy Petrarch’s entire poetic universe for the duration of the sonnet – the poco spatio in which the poet is enclosed.  The hand is both praised for its beauty and blamed for the suffering which the sight this beauty inflicts on the poet.  This vision of suffering through observation recalls a recurring theme of Cavalcanti’s Rime, while l. 4 in particular, with its reference to Natura e ’l Ciel, calls to mind not only Petrarch’s own Canz. 339, but also the closing lines of Biltà di donna e di saccente core.  Further Calvalcantian echoes can be heard in the fresche rose of l. 10 (cf Rime I).  It may be that Petrarch is engaged in a polemical response to, or indeed a development of, Cavalcanti’s theme of the presence of beauty engendering suffering by rendering the observer painfully aware of his unworthiness with respect to the beloved’s beauty and virtue.  While Petrarch seems to acknowledge this in ll. 6-7, he goes further and suggests that absence can cause suffering to the same degree as presence.  Direct contact with the lady is presented as destructive and invasive, yet there is no sense that absence is the answer.  Thus Petrarch presents us with a double aspect to suffering which is quite unlike Cavalcanti.  His love is, by necessity, based on distance, but not strictly speaking on absence.  The same goes for his poetry, and the metaliterary connotations of velo cannot be ignored in this context (see Canz. 11 for a poem which foregrounds this interpretation of the velo).  At any rate, the hand in this context is Ovidian rather than Cavalcantian.  It both heals and wounds.

The first tercet is remarkable for its proliferation of adjectives, every noun apart from mondo having at least one attached.   The adjectives in the final stanza are more restrained (bel and umane), presenting the unadorned reality which the poet and reader must face.

In the second tercet, it seems that the poet wishes to keep the bel velo, whether in the sense of the glove, or of Laura’s body, yet he seems to acknowledge that he knows this to be impossible.  If we read the approaching figure as Death, this would seem to constitute a foreshadowing of Laura’s death?

Thus the sonnet may be seen to some degree as a microcosm for Petrarch’s poetics in the Canzoniere as a whole.  The quatrains, addressed to the hand, correspond to the In vita section, based on bodily presence;  the tercets, dealing with the empty glove, reflect the poetry of absence Petrarch practices in the In morte section.

The shift in tone in the second tercet is almost comical, as Petrarch moves from an almost twee description of the lady’s hand and glove, to a meditation on the inconstancy of human life, in a line which recalls Purg. XI. 91 (Oh vana gloria de le umane posse!).  He engages with the absence of the lady through the fetish, but her appearance at the end of the sonnet (if we interpret the approaching figure as Laura) is a cause of dismay as her presence deprives him of the signal of her absence.  It seems he prized her absence more than her presence and was happy to make do with the synecdoche.

Petrarch as Thief

We may also discern, through a close reading of certain key words in the poem, such as oriental and furto, the possible influence of certain cultural phenomena occurring during the trecento,

Furto has many connotations.  The poet depicts himself as a thief, even though he will eventually return the glove, which suggests that there must be another layer of meaning hidden somewhere within the subtext. The Latin furtum is part of the erotic vocabulary of Latin elegy, where it was used to describe a secret encounter between lovers.  Thus Petrarch’s declaration in l. 14, Pur questo è furto, can be seen as an expression of his experience of love, even if it is represented by just one glove.

Furto also recalls the practice of furta sacra, the stealing of holy relics, common in Petrarch’s time.  Is Petrarch casting his poetry, with its reliance on senhals and remnants of Laura (which may in turn be signified by the dolci spoglie of l.11) as a sort of theft?  Similarly, the focus on fingers and wounds calls to mind the story of Doubting Thomas.  The cult of the Arma Christi and of the five wounds of Christ have a long iconographical tradition which would have been both well-established and current during Petrarch’s lifetime.  Could the Arma Christi, the instruments which inflicted Christ’s suffering, be related to Petrarch’s sacred yet wounding dolci spoglie?

A famous literary “theft” is recounted in Purg. XI.97-99, where Dante declares how Cavalcanti has robbed Guido Guinizelli of la gloria de la lingua and surpassed him as a poet, raising questions about the survivability of fame.  Although it is difficult to imagine that Petrarch’s character would permit him to predict his usurpation as the supreme poet of the vernacular, his treatment of worldly fame in the Triumphus Fame may be relevant here.

Similarly, the furto may be a metaliterary reference to Petrarch’s borrowings from other authors, both classical and vernacular, whose dolci spoglie he has appropriated as he has seen fit.

The word oriental appears in the same metrical position in Purg. I.13, while in l. 20 oriente occurs in reference to birth and dawning.  This Dantesque association may trigger Petrarch’s sol in l. 6 of the present sonnet.  It is not until we finish reading the line that we understand it must be read as “only” rather than “sun”, and thus for a time it retains its potential as yet another senhal of Laura.  Indeed, in the previous line, Petrarch has already “veiled” Laura’s name in other words, her signifier, (l)or, appearing twice in the words perLe ORiental coLORe, and reappearing in avORio in l.10.

The perle usually represent teeth, while rose are normally associated with the lady’s cheeks.  In this instance, they have migrated to the hand, suggesting that the glove has become a signifier for more than just the bella man, and has perhaps expanded to encompass Laura’s whole body.  Perle perhaps triggers the idea of wealth, resulting in the somewhat unwieldy verb arricchirme in l. 4.  The notion of wealth and proliferation of eastern imagery in the sonnetis  perhaps inspired by Petrarch’s period of residence in opulent Venice from 1363-67, immediately prior to his rewriting of the sonnet.

– Summary by Mike Hodder


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