Who was Petrarch and why do lecturers in English Literature talk so much about him?
Petrarch is a particularly important figure in Renaissance culture. Campbell argues that ‘Petrarch was responsible for the idea of romantic love which was celebrated in Renaissance poetry’ and goes on crucially to explain, ‘An emotion which began as a literary attitude in Petrarchan poetry has become a real emotion in modern western culture’. I think it’s a bit ambitious to argue that Petrarch invented romantic love (it’s clearly referred to in ancient writings such as The Old Testament, for eg) but he’s absolutely right to stress the idea of romantic attitude.
Campbell summarises Petrarch’s influences helpfully: ‘From the cult of the Virgin Mary the Petrarchans adopted the veneration of the lady as a figure of spotless purity and virtue; from the neo-Platonic [Plato ie classical] tradition they adopted the idea of love as an ennobling emotion which raised the mind above mere physical attraction’.
See my lecture, The Renaissance: an Introduction, for more on Petrarch and how he can help you to understand Shakespeare, Donne and Sidney more fully.