Bembo’s poems were borrowed, translated, and clearly plagiarized by subsequent generations of European writers. Among Italian poets, his greatest disciple was Giovanni Della Casa. In England, Sir Thomas Wyatt paraphrased “Voi me poneste in foco” (“Lady, You’ve Set Me All Afire”) from Gli Asolani, representing it as his own work, and Thomas Lodge included translations from Bembo in his Phillis poems. Because the principles of scansion are the same in Italian as in Spanish, Spanish poets such as Bartolomé de Torres Naharro, Juan Boscan, and Luis de Léon were especially avid imitators of Bembo’s verse, and Bembo’s poem “Quand’io penso al martire” (“Madrigal”) found its way into no less a work than Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615). Francisco de Sá de Miranda, who spent time in Italy in the 1520’s and became acquainted with Bembo, introduced Petrarchan imagery in Portugal and ultimately influenced the style of Luis de Camões. The epitaph Bembo wrote for Jacopo Sannazzaro, “De sacro cineri flores. Hic ille Maroni/ Syncerus, musa proximus ut tumulo” (Give to the sacred ashes flowers. Here Maro/ In Muse Sincerus neighbors as in tomb) was copied on Edmund Spenser’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.
As a native Venetian and an affiliate of the Papal Court who endorsed the Florentine dialect, Bembo did not see himself as a pacesetter. He had observed that the majority of older exemplary writers were native Tuscans, but he mistakenly considered himself the successor of such non-Tuscan writers as Pietro de Crescenzi and Guido delle Colonne of Messina. Actually, their works had been composed in Latin and translated anonymously by Tuscan scribes. It was not until the decision of Jacopo Sannazzaro, a Neopolitan, to write his highly successful Arcadia (1504) in Tuscan that the precedent of the Tuscan dialect as a vehicle for non-Tuscan writers was set. In the wake of Sannazzaro, Bembo proclaimed the preeminence of fourteenth century Tuscan; his views prevailed, and the influence of his prescriptive attitude on the subsequent development of Italian literature can hardly be exaggerated. Ludovico Ariosto, for example, undertook a massive revision of Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532) after the appearance of Bembo’s Prose della volgar lingua. He attempted to bring his Italian closer to the precepts of Bembo by doubling consonants, modifying his use of the article (il for el, lo before impure s), and revising verb forms. In a letter to Bembo dated February 23, 1531, Ariosto announced his intention of coming to Padua to consult him on stylistic matters. Ariosto gave Bembo a permanent tribute in the body of his masterpiece:
I see Pietro Bembo here,
Him who our pure and dulcet speech set free
From the base vulgar usage, and made clear
By his example what it ought to be.
Gli Asolani is a treatise on love in three books, with sixteen poems (canzones, canzonets, and one double sestina) interspersed in the text. The canzonets do not qualify as madrigals, even by Pietro Bembo’s own broad definition in Prose della volgar lingua, but in Italian Poets of the Renaissance, Joseph Tusiani nevertheless gives to one of them, “Quand’io penso al martire,” the title “Madrigal.” The treatise takes its name from the Castello d’Asolo, belonging to Caterina Cornaro, the former queen of Cyprus, in the mountains north of Venice, which also served as the poetic inspiration of Robert Browning, who made it the scene of “Pippa Passes” and finished there the collection of lyrics titled “Asolando.” Bembo wrote the treatise between 1497 and 1502, recast the work in 1503 and 1504, and published it in 1505, with a dedication to Lucrezia Borgia. The three principal speakers are three young Venetian gentlemen, Perottino, Gismondo, and...
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