Fontaine-de-Vaucluse: Where the Waters Speak of Love

Reading Petrarch in Provence

ZNM/ iStockPhoto
ZNM/ iStockPhoto


I sit sleepily on a stone bench, lolling in a half-dreamy state, only dimly perceiving the limestone escarpments lightening above me. Gradually, though, I perk up: the predawn sky, a rich cobalt in the west, is paling to eggshell blue in the east. Beside me flow the dark bubbling currents of the Sorgue, the transalpine river that originates in the foothills of the Vaucluse Mountains, just outside Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, the Provençal hamlet where I’m staying. Soon, with daybreak, the waters acquire an almost otherworldly glow; I can imagine how the beautiful Sorgue, hallowed for millennia, would have inspired one of the seminal works of the Renaissance, the Canzoniere of the 14th-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarch.

Petrarch was a literary titan in his homeland, second only to Dante, and, with his 1345 discovery of Cicero’s letters, is often credited with fostering the Renaissance. Consisting of 366 poems (mostly sonnets, but also canzoni, ballads, madrigals, and sestinas), the Canzoniere, born of Petrarch’s sojourns along these banks, has drawn me to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and serves as my vade mecum to its landscape of longing. In one of the book’s most noted stanzas, Petrarch sang the Sorgue’s praises as chiare, fresche, et dolci (“clear, cool, and sweet”). For him,

The waters speak of love, and the breeze, the oars,
the little birds, the fish, the flowers, and the grass
all together beg me to love forever.

The Canzoniere is Petrarch’s heartfelt, distinctly personal rendition of his suffering in unrequited love for the enigmatic Laura—the “loving” of whom the Sorgue’s waters and wildlife urge him to continue. (Medieval European literature, before his day, was mostly fables, theological writings, and tales of chivalry.) The valley channeling the river, the Vaucluse, importuned him less; he called it a refrigerio de’ sospir miei lassi (“comfort for [my] weary sighs”). He fantasized about admiring Laura’s beauty as he rowed her across the Sorgue, with her spirit pervading everything he saw:

Wherever I turn my eyes
I find a serene sweetness,
thinking that the wandering light [of
Laura’s gaze] fell upon this spot

I’ve come here to seek refuge from the world’s woes and to immerse myself in the Canzoniere, long the consolation of my darkest hours and the joy of my brightest. Reading Petrarch’s master opus by the Sorgue will, I hope, allow me to experience something of what he did, and help me better understand one of my favorite literary works.

Clutching my copy of the Canzoniere, I ascend the footpath, darkly named the Chemin du Gouffre (Path of the Abyss), that follows the eastern bank just above the Sorgue. It ends before an abrupt stony occlusion—a nearly sheer mountain face (Vaucluse comes from the Latin vallis clausa, or “closed valley”) and the river’s source, a deep, forbidding cave half filled with murky, blue-green water that at times brought Petrarch gloomy thoughts, and at least once un dolce di morir desio (“a sweet desire to die”).

But I feel no such morbid inclination. For the Celts this was a sacred spot, as it was for the Romans. (Even in ancient times, people made wishes and tossed in coins.) The Sorgue passes from the underground cave to emerge, a short way down, from scrub brush and boulders to form a symphony of waters as enchanting as it is inescapable in this village. Wherever you go, the Sorgue serenades you, with its notes as chiare, fresche, et dolci as its currents.

As the sky brightens, the Sorgue glows emerald-green, the color of the aquatic vegetation swaying just beneath its surface, and rushes south, frothing with foam and tumbling over rocks, before pouring into Roman-era canals that once probably channeled water to Arles and Avignon. (Eventually it reaches the Rhône.) The air has a cool crispness, and soon, church bells chime seven, mallard ducks quack, and warblers flit through the trees overhanging the shores. The sun’s warm rays bathe the crumbling ramparts of a 12th-century fortress, the Château des Evêques de Cavaillon, looming on a promontory high above the village.

Born in 1304 in Arezzo, Tuscany, Petrarch led a peripatetic life as a cleric, scholar, and bibliophile. Writing in both Italian and Latin, he put Fontaine-de-Vaucluse on the world’s literary map. (Subsequent visiting men of letters include Alexandre Dumas, the critic Sainte-Beuve, and the poet Frédéric Mistral.) The area, mostly wild in his time, perfectly suited Petrarch’s desire for an inspiring place to write, and was an ideal spot for him to lead a life of religious austerity and recover his health. In a letter to a friend, he announced that he had retreated to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse so that his eyes would see nothing but “sky, mountains, and the source [of the Sorgue]” and his ears hear only the “bellowing of cattle … the bleating of sheep … the singing of birds, the continual murmuring of the waters.” In Trionfi, his last major work, unfinished at the time of his death in 1374, he lauded Fontaine-de-Vaucluse as the “the closed place where everything restores the weary heart.” All in all, it was the locus aptissimus (“most suitable place”) on earth for him.

Shepherds, sheep, and cows were just about Petrarch’s only company here, save for an ancient, hardworking servant whose sun-withered visage put him in mind of the parched wastes of Libya. Today, with only some 650 inhabitants, the village still offers relative isolation, at least if you come at the right time of year. Avoiding the horde of summer tourists, I’m here in late September, and I’ve pretty much got the place to myself. A transcendental peace prevails, manifest in the ubiquitous, calming murmur of the Sorgue and the stillness of the giant ferns, oaks, and plane trees along its banks. I can’t help thinking that this scene resembles a real-life locus amoenus, the pastoral idyll figuring in literature from antiquity onward as Elysium, Eden, and even Heaven.

Noon is drawing near. I cross the Sorgue by a low, double-arched stone bridge flanked by a churning, algae-mottled watermill, and take a short tunnel through a limestone hillock to reach a 19th-century house, now the Petrarch Museum and Library. Abutting the rock wall, stucco-sided, gable-roofed, and skirted by spearlike cypresses, the museum-library occupies land Petrarch once owned. Inside, I contemplate the portraits and etchings of Laura, entitled La Belle Laure, Laure de Pétrarque, Madonna Laura. In 1327, in a church in nearby Avignon, Petrarch fatefully encountered Laura—probably Laure de Noves, a young, married Frenchwoman wed into the de Sade (as in the Marquis de Sade) family. She ignored his advances, causing him much distress. But her death 21 years later left him even worse off and occasioned the Canzoniere’s division into two parts, pre- and postmortem: Rime in Vita and Rime in Morte. 

The portraits here in the museum mostly depict her coiffed in a bonnet or a hairnet, with eyes downcast—the very image of chastity. Stung by her rejection, Petrarch called her a viva petra (“living rock”) who drove him to despair, leaving him defenseless (“I find no peace, nor do I have the means to wage war”), as if imprisoned, wondering whether death was better than life. He wailed, “Harsh Love, … you press me to follow a beast that destroys me.” His verse describes the tumultuous amours we so often know in youth:

Love at times goads me on and stops me,
reassures me and frightens me, burns me
and turns me cold,
pleases and condescends to me, calls me to itself
and drives me away,
keeps me in hope one minute and pain the next

As time passed, his love for Laura appeared to wane, but then:

That flame I thought had died out
from the cold and my age, no longer youthful,
the flames that in my martyred soul refresh

After her death, he endured even more unbearable sorrow:

I see, think, burn, weep; and the one who undoes me
is ever before me thanks to my sweet pain:
a war, my condition, filled with ire and pain;
and only thinking of her do I have some peace

The Monteverdi opera L’Orfeo playing through the speakers imparts a fitting air of tragedy to the exhibits: Orpheus, as the Greeks had it, descended into Hades to retrieve his perished love, Eurydice. He failed, of course.

A couple of hours later, beneath the cypresses outside the museum, by a bend in the Sorgue, I stand amid the manicured remnants of Petrarch’s beloved garden, which motivated him to study. He believed it would suit Apollo, the Greek god of poetry, music, and light, and even called it his own “Transalpine Helicon,” in reference to the mountain in Greece whose springs were sacred to the Muses. The sun—mild now, even just past the meridian, and so unlike the fireball bleaching Provence in summer—enriches the pastel colors of the olive trees and grotto-pocked bluffs across the water. Passions at life’s noon make for great literature, but their lessening is a good thing. We do, eventually, need some peace.

I head back through the tunnel and across the bridge, passing by the old stone houses and cafés with terraces lining the banks, and soon find myself beneath a plane tree with an immense canopy shading the village’s sole roundabout. In its midst stands a monument to Petrarch, the Colonne de Pétrarque. Cars are few, and one can walk in the street without much concern.

I follow the Chemin du Gouffre along the Sorgue up toward its source, past crêpe stands and bistros and ice-cream vendors, some already shuttered. The sun filters through the leaves, dappling the scene with a kaleidoscope of light and shadow. Tough to imagine that a grim legend could be associated with this river: people once believed that a foul dragon known as the Coulobre lurked below its surface until it was slain by a certain Saint Véran. Downstream, the crude stony bulk of the 10th-century Church of Saint Véran—complete with a rough-hewn statue of the mythical beast at its entrance—harkens back to the less-refined architecture of the centuries preceding the Renaissance.

Late in the afternoon, I am at Restaurant Philip, high above the Sorgue, sitting at a table on a gravelly terrace embowered by plane trees whose branches reach all the way down to the water. Now and then, yellow leaves flutter to the ground, landing with a rustle. The waiter tells me they’re just about to close for the season, so I’m one of the last customers of the year. Soon, the sun slips behind the overhanging crags, the birds fall silent, and a chill sets in.

Petrarch’s Laura died as the Black Death was ravaging Europe. Her demise sent him into paroxysms of anguish. The “Petrarchan conceit”—in poetry, hyperbolic comparisons of the emotions of the love-stricken to the physical world—found full expression in such lines from the Canzoniere as these:

Death, you have left the world without a sun, dark and cold … the Earth and the sea should mourn for the human lineage [Laura], without which the meadow has no flower, the ring no gem.

In Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, Petrarch took at least figurative refuge at the Sorgue’s source, “beneath a big rock, in a closed valley, whence the Sorgue emerges,” accompanied only by Love, which will never abandon him. He depicted Vaucluse and the river as manifesting his grief:

Valley, that is filled with my weeping,
river that often rises with my tears

The Sorgue in spate from Petrarch’s tears! This conceit aside, we see that his love for Laura, one-sided though it may have been, actually served as consolation of a sort: it, unlike her, would never abandon him.

I understand him. After my mother’s death in 2005, I found my grief in some way reunited me with her, allowed me, in a way, to keep her alive. As long as I missed her, she was not really gone. With the passing years, however, grief has lessened, and my memories of her are fading. Which leads me to think: What of all those feelings for those whom we have known and loved, for all we have lived, for all the experiences that make up who we are, all our moments of seemingly consequential success and failure, pleasure and pain? A pioneer of individualism, Petrarch validated sentiments and perceptions like these by making them subjects for his poetry and turning our interior lives into the stuff of art. My impressions of the Sorgue, powerful as they are, are fleeting, and mine alone. But thanks largely to Petrarch, I’m recording them for others now.

In one of the Canzoniere’s sestinas, Petrarch alludes to the Platonic idea that our souls are born of and later return to the stars. Night finds me seated at a café along the Chemin du Gouffre, sipping a glass of Côtes du Rhône red, and witness to, above the cliffs, a celestial tableau of stardust unimaginable in a town or a city. The breeze hints at the cool autumn to come while below, the Sorgue burbles in the dark. Still, there’s a sense of melancholy here. In a month or so, the hotels will close, the few remaining tourists will depart. Rains and winds will begin, perhaps followed later on by dustings of snow. The stars will shine, but more rarely.

Petrarch managed to transmute his love for Laura into reverence for a quasi-saintly Madonna Laura; in doing so, he reverted to Christian notions of virginal purity—even though Laura was married. In the Canzoniere’s final poem, he addresses her as vergine (“virgin”) bella, vergine saggia (“wise”), vergine pura, even vergine santa, and lastly, vergine humana. It concludes with an entreaty:

Commend me to Your Son
a true man and the true God,
that he may receive my soul in peace.

With this turn toward the religious, Petrarch, I confess, loses me. I prefer to dwell on another of the Canzoniere’s later poems, Sonnet cclxxii. Here he tells us of the “war” between his remembrances of things past, present, and future; exhausted, he awaits arrival at his final port. The sonnet opens with a sage, incontrovertible pronouncement:

Life flees and never stops for a moment,
and death advances upon us, taking grand strides

There is no truer line in all the Canzoniere. Sitting here by the Sorgue, I resolve to take it to heart.

“I fear nothing but returning to the cities,” Petrarch once wrote to a friend, reluctant to leave Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. But I, having been ministered to by the Sorgue’s healing waters, feel just the opposite, newly inspired to head back to the city and resume my life.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of seven books, including Facing the Congo, Angry Wind and River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny.


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