Dante and Petrarch are two of the world’s greatest love poets who convey the story of their emotional, intellectual, and religious life in part through a story of human love. The focus here is not so much on the myriad symbolic values and associations of Beatrice and Laura but rather both on the attitudes of these two poets to sexual desire in order to throw some light on the character of their human love and on the status and value they give to human love in the context of their Christian lives.
For all the stark contrasts between them, Dante and Petrarch have been often compared, for they write in a common literary, classical, and Christian tradition. The comparison generally leads to the conclusion that Dante describes his human love experience as positive and constructive whilst Petrarch’s experience of love is negative and destructive. My intention here is not to polarize their views in this way, but rather to identify the different yet positive and highly original value both poets attribute to human love.
More than fifty years ago, Étienne Gilson claimed that Peter Abelard turned to loving God in the way that Heloise had loved him, with the disinterestedness which she claimed in loving him and which she accused him of never understanding in loving her. It is the general argument of this study that Dante and Petrarch, as well as leaving their original mark on the treatment of love in literature, have insights into religion, personal to them, which can be likewise characterized by examining their attitude to human love and the story of their personal loves. There are many more aspects to their Catholicism than are examined in these essays. The discussion here is of that part of their faith which grows out of, is coloured by, or at least can be explored, through their human loving.