He is Italy's second greatest poet after Dante, and regarded as the father of European humanism.
If Petrarch, full name Francesco Petrarca, had not written his anguished sonnets, inspired by Laura, his mystery love, scholars believe Shakespeare and Milton would have been stuck in the medieval fog.
Experts who specialise in the reconstruction of prehistoric human remains exhumed the poet's skeleton this week in the village of Arqua, near Padua.
When Professor Vito Terribile Wiel Marin, the paleopathologist in charge of the project, opened the marble tomb he discovered that the poet's skull was smashed into hundreds of pieces. The accident apparently happened in 1874, the last time he was hauled out of his grave for inspection. "We hope all the fragments are intact," Professor Marin said.
"The real challenge is to assemble all the pieces. Then a capable sculptor will make a cast from it, and from that will create an artificial cranium, identical to Petrarch's."
The cranium will then be sent to a specialist in Tucson, Arizona, who will make a three-dimensional computer model of the poet's head.
Petrarch was so celebrated in his own lifetime that his pet cat was embalmed and there are plenty of images of him, including a bronze head that sits on the tomb, depicting a plump, prosperous-looking figure with the aspect of a lawyer. When the reconstruction experts have done their work, scholars will be able to see if that well-known image corresponds to the reconstructed reality.
Professor Marin gave his team "five or six months" to complete the task, in time for a celebration of Petrarch's 700th birthday next July.
Petrarch lived through the plague, losing his mother, father, a son and a grandson to the epidemic. Laura, the woman about whom he wrote so movingly, also died of the plague. "The loving light of that angelic smile," he wrote, "[is] dust, a little dust, senseless and grown cold." Petrarch died the day before his 70th birthday on 19 July 1374.
The team of experts, which includes a geneticist and a mineralogist, aims to examine his remains very closely. They should be able to determine what he died of, what his other aches and pains consisted of and what he had for dinner the night before he died. But it is doubtful whether they will be able to establish what made him a great poet. For as he put it while contemplating Laura's death: "The veins are dry where creation's blood once moved, and Poetry turned to eternal sadness."Reuse content