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"X" Marks the Spot: Petrarch's Censored Sonnets

by Michael Taylor on 2016-09-26T08:35:00-06:00 in CSWR | 0 Comments

From childhood onward, most of us are taught not to write in books. Historians, however, love to find books from long ago in which people "made their mark." Notes and scribbles in the margins can often tell us what past generations of readers thought was significant about a book, or whether they agreed with its author. 

Even more interesting are marks that can be traced back to censorship. Our latest "Rare Book of the Month" column celebrates Banned Books Week 2016 by looking at a historical example of censorship from UNM’s Special Collections.

Il Petrarca, an anthology of works by the medieval Italian poet Petrarch, was published in Venice by Vincenzo Valgrisi in 1560. The vellum-bound volume has many of the hallmarks of Renaissance book production and graphic design. And yet, thirty-five years after its printing, it was being scrutinized not so much for its beauty as for its controversial content. 

In 1595, Pope Clement VIII waged war on three sonnets in which Petrarch criticized the papacy for its decadence. Even though the poet had died more than two hundred years earlier in 1374, some now worried that Protestants, who hadn't been around in Petrarch's days, would use his words as propaganda. In a futile attempt to erase the sonnets from history, the pope ordered that they be omitted from all future editions of Petrarch's works. Owners of existing editions, like the ones featured here, were instructed to cover up the offending sonnets, either by inking them out or pasting a piece of paper over them.

Did readers comply? Some did. The owner of one copy of the 1552 edition of Petrarch’s works, now at Louisiana State University (shown at left), took a pen and drew thick black lines through the three outlawed sonnets, so thick that the ink gradually ate through the pages. Others ignored the ban. And at least one person found a censored copy and wrote the sonnets back in, by hand, on blank pages. 

Perhaps the most interesting category of readers, however, is represented by a copy of Petrarch’s sonnets now in Special Collections at UNM. The owner, it turns out, obeyed and subverted the law at the same time. On the surface, he or she followed the censors’ orders—each sonnet has been dutifully crossed out by a large "X." And yet the poems are still perfectly readable. As usual, censorship seems to have done nothing more than draw attention to the controversy, like a blinking neon sign saying "READ ME!"

Do rare books still matter in the age of digital libraries? Absolutely! Studied side by side as unique artifacts, individual copies of books sometimes shed light on the many different ways that people in the past responded not only to authors, but to authority. Additionally, the copy-specific information in, for example, these marked-up editions of Petrarch helps us tell not only the story of the Reformation, but also the larger story of intellectual freedom, public debate, and the free circulation of ideas.

Above: Il Petrarca (1560), showing the censored poems. UNM Special Collections, PQ4476 .B60

Michael Taylor is Public Services Librarian in the Center for Southwest Research & Special Collections. He can be reached at

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