Pietro Bembo Bembo, Pietro - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Pietro Bembo 1470-1547

Italian poet, theoretician, essayist, and epistler.

Bembo was a poet and treatise writer who was instrumental in establishing vernacular Italian as a suitable vehicle for serious literature, equal to Latin. He is widely considered a consummate Renaissance man of letters, a reputation that results as much from his connections to other literary luminaries and his refined lifestyle as from his polished, elegant writing. Bembo moved in noble circles at the courts of Urbino and Ferrara, and he counted among his friends the artists Raphael and Titian and the authors Erasmus and Castiglione. He was a favorite of Pope Leo X, whom he served as secretary, and was later made cardinal by Leo's successor. Bembo's works were widely read during his lifetime, particularly his prose treatises Gli Asolani (1505) and Le prose della volgar lingua (1525; Prose in the Vernacular). The former, a “treatise on love,” was celebrated as the epitome of formal perfection and brilliant style, while the latter greatly fostered the adoption of Italian as a literary language, holding up Boccaccio as the model for prose and Petrarch as the model for poetry. Together with the Prose, Bembo's own poetry, written in imitation of Petrarch, inaugurated the Petrarchan movement in Italian literature. Although his promotion of the use of literary models has led some critics to call his works derivative or unoriginal, his excellence as a stylist has remained undisputed and his far-reaching influence undeniable.

Biographical Information

Bembo was born into a powerful Venetian family. His father, Bernardo Bembo, was a senator and diplomat as well as one of the greatest Italian book collectors of the fifteenth century. Italian literature was so important to the elder Bembo that he sponsored a monument to Dante. Bembo was educated in Florence as a young boy; he later studied in Messina and Padua, mastering Greek and Latin in addition to studying philosophy. By 1490 Bembo had begun writing poetry in Latin. In Venice he befriended the printer Aldus Manutius, and their relationship gave rise to Bembo's 1501 edition of Petrarch's Canzoniere and his 1502 edition of Dante's Divine Comedy. Around this time Bembo traveled with his father to the court of Ferrara. There he met Lucrezia Borgia, with whom he began a romance. The letters they exchanged in the course of their liaison, which lasted from 1502 to 1505, have been acclaimed as exemplary Platonic love letters, and were published in collections as early as 1552. During this period Bembo began one of his most famous works, Gli Asolani, a philosophical discourse on love. After his time in Ferrara, Bembo went in 1506 to Urbino, where he lived until 1511 as one of the leading wits of the court. His time there and his friendship with the Medici family is recalled in Castiglione's The Courtier, in which a fictional Bembo appears, taking part in a dialogue as a representative of Platonic love.

Bembo went next to Rome, and by 1513 was appointed secretary to Pope Leo X. In Rome he met a young woman named Morosina, who became his mistress; when Leo X died in 1520, she encouraged Bembo to leave public life and nurse his own faltering health. In 1521 Bembo retired to Padua and devoted himself to literary study. At his home in Padua, Bembo played host to the greatest scholars and wits of Italy—a reflection of his status as one of the most influential men of Italian letters. During this time he worked on his imitations of Petrarchan verse, later collected in the Rime (1530; revised and enlarged 1535, 1548) and on the Prose. Around 1530 Bembo was named Historiographer of Venice, a position that later yielded his history of Venice from 1487 to 1513, Rerum venetarum historiae libri XII (published 1551). In 1539 Pope Paul III appointed Bembo a cardinal, and he was named Bishop of Gubbio a few years before his death in 1547.

Major Works

Bembo produced works in several different genres, but his reputation both in his own time and in literary history has rested on his skill as a stylist and his influence in establishing the Italian vernacular that would eventually supersede Latin as the leading literary language. His first publication, Petri Bembi De Aetna Ad Angelum Chabrielum Liber, (1496), a dialogue in Latin, is an exercise in classical erudition and Ciceronian style. This work is also notable for its tender and appealing portrait of the author's father in the character Nestor. Gli Asolani, which was modeled to some extent on Plato's Symposium as well as Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, presents a dialogue on the nature of love through the voices of gentlemen and ladies at the court of Caterina Cornaro, Bembo's cousin in Asolo. Bembo's real interest in this work, however, is not the nature of love—on which he closely follows Plato—but the nature of art. Indeed, Bembo characterizes love as the desire for beauty; thus the achievement of Gli Asolani is not so much its philosophy but the beauty of the language. In Le prose della volgar lingua Bembo addresses the subject of language more directly, arguing in dialogue form that Italian rather than Latin should be the literary language of Italy. In particular, Bembo argues that Tuscan, which was the language of Boccaccio, Dante, and Petrarch, should provide the standard. Bembo's views, expressed in this and other works, would eventually prevail, scholars note, resulting in the dominance of Tuscan as a literary language, the ascension of the principle of imitation of literary models over that of innovation and originality, and the establishment of Petrarch as the preferred model for love poetry, all of which profoundly influenced the future development of literary Italian. Bembo's poetry is often seen as exemplifying the principles laid out in his prose works. Much of the poetry collected in the Rime consists of imitations, particularly imitations of Petrarch. His close adherence to the Petrarchan model in numerous sonnets is credited with launching the tradition of Petrarchism and establishing the Petrarchan sonnet as a dominant lyric form. Bembo's epistolary talents have also been an important part of his literary reputation. He wrote his letters in stylistically flawless Latin and Italian, and they are read both as documents of Italian history as and as models of brilliant prose. His letters to Lucrezia Borgia have been of long-lasting interest, and his correspondence with Giovan Francesco Pico della Mirandola, collected in De imitatione Libellus (1512), has been regarded as a seminal expostulation of the theory of literary imitation.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Bembo was considered one of the leading literary figures of the day. His treatises were influential and his poems were hailed for their stylistic and formal accomplishment. Nevertheless, he did have his detractors, who found his poetic works mere exemplifications of his literary theories, devoid of passion. This view continues to be held by some modern critics. More generally, however, recent commentators credit Bembo with playing a pivotal role in the development of Italian literature through his advocacy of the use of the vernacular in literary works, his development of theories of literary imitation, and his promotion of Petrarch as a literary master to be emulated. Gordon Braden has characterized Bembo as the man “perhaps more responsible than any other individual for giving Renaissance literary culture self-conscious definition and direction,” and has stressed the impact of Bembo's “literary canonization” of Petrarch by noting that “if the Renaissance as a cultural enterprise comes to seem inconceivable without Petrarchan sonneteering, Bembo is the figure who made the most sustained, varied, and articulate effort to have it that way.” Joseph J. Salemi has perhaps best summarized the current critical estimation of Bembo: “Courtier, diplomat, scholar, historiographer, papal secretary, editor of Petrarch, suitor to Lucrezia Borgia, a prolific poet in Italian and finally a Cardinal of the Church, Bembo epitomized the wide-ranging scope of interest and activity associated with Renaissance humanism.”

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Petri Bembi De Aetna Ad Angelum Chabrielum Liber [Pietro Bembo, De Aetna: A Dialogue Dedicated to Angelo Gabrieli] (dialogue) 1496

*De imitatione Libellus [with Giovan Francesco Pico della Mirandola] (correspondence) 1512

Gli Asolani (treatise) 1505; revised 1530

Le Prose della volgar lingua [Prose in the Vernacular (treatise) 1525; revised 1538

Rime (poetry) 1530; revised 1535, 1548

Rerum venetarum historiae libri XII [History of Venice] (history) 1551

Prose e rime (collection) 1960

Opere in volgare (collection) 1961

The Prettiest Love Letters in the World: Letters Between Lucrezia Borgia and Pietro Bembo, 1503 to 1519 (correspondence) 1987

Lettere. 4 vols. (correspondence) 1987-93

*This work consists of an exchange of letters between Bembo and Pico debating literary imitation. The letters were written in 1512; an unauthorized edition of the work was published in 1514 and an authorized edition appeared in 1530.

Rudolf B. Gottfried (essay date 1954)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gottfried, Rudolf B. Introduction to Pietro Bembo's Gli Asolani, translated by Rudolf B. Gottfried, pp. vii-xx. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1954.

[In the following excerpt, Gottfried relates Gli Asolani to events in Bembo's life—notably his three love affairs—and minimizes the influence of Platonism on the conception of love propounded in the poem.]

If any readers of Gli Asolani visit Asolo itself, they will find that the topography of the region dramatically reveals one difference between the age of Pietro Bembo and their own. Bembo carefully describes the garden in which his dialogues take place: the steps descending from the...

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Ronnie H. Terpening (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Terpening, Ronnie H. “Mythological Exempla in Bembo's Asolani: Didactic or Decorative?” Forum Italicum 8, no. 3 (September 1974): 331-43.

[In the essay below, Terpening examines Bembo's use of mythological stories in Gli Asolani as instructional devices.]

Since the publication of Burckhardt's seminal work on the Cultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860), much has been written and said about the relationship of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.1 The role of mythology in this wide-ranging debate has been of fundamental importance. The Burckhardtian view in which medieval man looked to classical mythology for moral sustenance...

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Fred J. Nichols (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Nichols, Fred J. Introduction to An Anthology of Neo-Latin Poetry, edited and translated by Fred. J. Nichols, pp. 1-84. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Nichols judges “Benacus” one of Bembo's finest poems in Latin.]

The most influential figure of the generation of Latin poets which reached its literary maturity toward the end of the [sixteenth] century was Pietro Bembo (1470-1547). Bembo's fame as a literary figure, notably because of the part he played in enabling serious writers to regard Italian as a language worthy of cultivation, has obscured an appreciation of the consummate literary skill he displays in his...

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Joseph S. Salemi (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Salemi, Joseph S. “‘Priapus’ by Pietro Bembo: An Annotated Translation.” Allegorica 5, no. 1 (Summer 1980): 81-94.

[The following excerpt is taken from the introduction to Salemi's English translation of the erotic poem “Priapus.” The critic focuses on the lascivious imagery to demonstrate that Bembo was working within an established tradition.]

Of all the literary productions in both Latin and Italian of Pietro Bembo, none is so notorious as the poem “Priapus.” Although by no means as pornographic as some other Renaissance effusions, the imagery of “Priapus” is still offensive enough to repel many readers who might otherwise appreciate the...

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Joseph S. Salemi (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Salemi, Joseph S. “The Faunus Poems of Pietro Bembo.” Allegorica 7, no. 2 (winter 1982): 31-57.

[The following excerpt is taken from the introduction to Salemi's English translation of six of Bembo's poems dealing with the god Faunus. Salemi provides background on the mythological figure and declares Bembo's poems “delightful specimens of the neo-Latin lyric at its best.”]

Most casual readers of the classics in translation are familiar with Faunus as the divine father of King Latinus in the seventh book of Vergil's Aeneid. Faunus, it will be recalled, has oracular powers, and he cautions Latinus against allowing his daughter Lavinia to marry within...

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Ross Kilpatrick (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Kilpatrick, Ross. “The De Aetna of Pietro Bembo: A Translation.” Studies in Philology 83, no. 3 (summer 1986): 331-58.

[In this excerpt, Kilpatrick introduces his English translation of De Aetna, Bembo's first Latin dialogue, which was originally published in 1496. Kilpatrick stresses the work's demonstration of Bembo's broad learning.]

Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), Venetian, humanist, cardinal, papal secretary, “papabile”, began his literary career in 1496, with the publication by the Aldine Press in Venice of a Latin dialogue entitled: Petri Bembi De Aetna Ad Angelum Chabrielem Liber. This book had apparently remained untranslated...

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Susan Delaney (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Delaney, Susan. “Bembo's Maneuvers from Virtue to Virtuosity in Gli Asolani.Italian Quarterly 27, no. 106 (fall 1986): 15-24.

[In the essay below, Delaney argues that while Gli Asolani is ostensibly a philosophical examination of the nature of virtuous love, the work evolves into an experiment in the art of rhetoric, as each speaker presents his or her view of love. This shifting emphasis from a work's content to its formal characteristics, Delaney maintains, significantly anticipates ideas expressed in Bembo's later writings on language, notably Le Prose della volgar lingua.]

… queste sono spezialissime licenze, non...

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William J. Kennedy (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Kennedy, William J. “Authorizing Petrarch in Italy.” In Authorizing Petrarch, pp. 82-113. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Kennedy discusses Bembo's analysis of Petrarch's poetry in the Prose della volgar lingua and then examines Bembo's application of Petrarchism in his own poetry.]


Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) could deem himself a citizen of all Italy. As son of the patrician Venetian ambassador Bernardo Bembo, he spent part of his youth in the embassies of Florence (1475-76, 1481-83), Rome (1487-88), and...

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Ignacio Navarrete (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Navarrete, Ignacio. “Introduction: Bembo, Petrarch, and Renaissance Belatedness.” In Orphans of Petrarch: Poetry and Theory in the Spanish Renaissance, pp. 3-14. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

[In the excerpt below, Navarrete argues that the Prose della volgar lingua “contains the first overt application of imitation theory … to the vernacular.” In the process of applying the theory, which was previously reserved for Latin models, to Petrarch, Navarrete maintains, Bembo “transforms Petrarch from a mere linguistic model … into a classical model subject to transformation and competitive emulation.”]

In its strictest sense,...

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Gordon Braden (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Braden, Gordon. “Applied Petrarchism: The Loves of Pietro Bembo.” Modern Language Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 1996): 397-423.

[In the essay below, Braden analyzes conventions of Petrarchan love poetry that Bembo employs in his letters to Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Savorgnan.]

Older historicist studies of literature usually made their points by applying nonliterary information to literary texts, with results that now often seem reductive and constricting. It has been part of the enterprise of recent criticism to reverse that vector, to seek in literary sources paradigms for describing and organizing nonliterary material; and although theory provides for an...

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Brian Richardson (essay date 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Richardson, Brian. “From Scribal Publication to Print Publication: Pietro Bembo's Rime, 1529-1535.” The Modern Language Review 95, no. 3 (July 2000): 684-95.

[In the following essay, Richardson traces how Bembo circulated his poems in manuscript while at the same time he “set about using the resources of the Venetian printing industry in order to consolidate and enhance his reputation as a poet.”]

The Venetian patrician Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) is recognized today as the crucial figure in the Petrarchan lyric poetry of sixteenth-century Italy: not the most gifted poet of the century, but the one who by his example set the standard for the...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Bowd, Stephen D. “Pietro Bembo and the ‘Monster’ of Bologna (1514).” Renaissance Studies 13, no. 1 (1999): 40-54.

Argues for Bembo's authorship of a pessimistic letter describing a deformed child and offering a “symbolic interpretation of the infant's body applied to papal policy.”

Clough, Cecil H. “The Problem of Pietro Bembo's Rime.Italica 41, no. 3 (September 1964): 318-22.

Addresses difficulties in establishing a canon of Bembo's works and assigning dates of composition.

Della Terza, Dante. “Imitatio: Theory and Practice: The Example of Bembo the...

(The entire section is 589 words.)