Petrarch in Global Translation: A Genealogy of Western Love
2023-2024 (March - April)
Ramie Targoff is the Jehuda Reinharz Professor of the Humanities, Professor of English, and Co-Chair of Italian Studies at Brandeis University She is the author of Common Prayer: Language and Devotion in Early Modern England (2001), John Donne, Body and Soul (2008); and Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England (2014), all from University of Chicago Press; and Renaissance Woman: The Life of Vittoria Colonna (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018). She is also the translator of Sonnets of Widowhood: Vittoria Colonna’s 1538 Rime, published in 2021 from ITER Press as part of “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe” Series. Her new book, Shakespeare’s Sisters: How Women Wrote the Renaissance, is forthcoming in 2024 from Alfred A. Knopf. Targoff is the recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, and she was the Renaissance Scholar in Residence at the American Academy in Rome. She has been a visiting professor at Merton College, Oxford University; Villa I Tatti, Florence; and the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda.
I am currently embarking on a a collaborative humanities project across languages and national borders to investigate the foundational conception of Western love introduced in Petrarch’s Canzoniere. Poetry is the art form most deeply associated with love--the oldest poem ever to be found, from ancient Mesopotamia, was a love poem involving a Sumerian goddess--and Petrarch has been without question the most influential love poet of Western modernity. According to the twentieth-century literary scholar, Ernst Robert Curtius, Petrarchism spread over Europe “wie eine Pest” (like the plague), influencing century upon century of love poets who have translated, imitated, and parodied his poems. This project will develop an innovative, global approach to Petrarchan poetry as a grammar of love by using translation as our principal investigative tool. I am assembling a team of scholar-translators working in an initial group of twelve different languages will be doing translations of Petrarch’s sonnets in multiple senses of the word: we will be translating the poems into our contemporary vernacular tongues at the same time that we will be translating the key concepts of Petrarchan love as they have been absorbed into our distinct literary, cultural and religious traditions. (I will be doing the English translation). Among our key research questions, we seek to examine: how Western concepts of love grew out of Petrarchan models; why the relationship between poetic forms like the sonnet on the one hand and the expression of love on the other are so intertwined; what the relationship between religious and secular love was in Petrarch’s initial formulation, and how this moves across different cultural and theological systems; how normative ideas about female beauty and male desire embedded in the Petrarchan model adapt outside of the heterosexual matrix; how Petrarchan love relates to the social models of courtship and marriage dominant in the West; and how translation itself might become a more widely recognized and innovative tool for critical thinking.