Pietro Bembo

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Rudolf B. Gottfried (essay date 1954)

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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 palace of the Queen, the formal pattern of arbor, hedge, and wall, the two marble windows opening on the wide Trevisan plain below, the fountain around which his gentlemen and ladies gather in the laurels' shade; and as a pendent scene he later shows the little wooded mountain-top where Lavinello meets a hermit. Today, though the garden and much of the palace have not existed for more than a century, it is still possible to reconstruct that setting while one is standing on the spot; and the imagination may even identify Lavinello's mountaintop with the Colle di San Martino, the highest point on the line of foothills along which the scattered town is built. But these recognitions are not so telling as another, the discovery that Bembo's Asolo faces southward, across the plain to Venice, and that Bembo turns his back on the dominant feature of the landscape, the great wall of the Alps, and in particular on the towering front of Monte Grappa which rises only a few miles to the north. What he omits from the scene is precisely what a modern eye selects as its most striking element.

In a similar way, modern Asolo is dominated by the Grappa of Victorian enthusiasts, Robert Browning; and one must resolutely turn his back on that familiar outline if he would discuss, however briefly, the human setting, writing, publication, and literary significance of Gli Asolani.

Caterina Cornaro, who is the presiding figure on Bembo's stage, became Queen of Cyprus and Lady of Asolo through a series of tragic circumstances. The daughter of an aristocratic Venetian family, in 1472 she was married, for reasons of state, to Giacomo II, King of Cyprus. Within three years both her husband and her infant son had died; nevertheless, in spite of revolution and dynastic conflict, she contrived to govern the island until the beginning of 1489, when the rulers of Venice, again for reasons of state, decided that it would be expedient for her to abdicate her crown if not her title. A few months later, after her return to Italy, she received the lordship of Asolo as a recompense; and there she maintained her court until 1509, a year before her death.1 Bembo, her younger kinsman, visited her at Asolo in 1495 while she was celebrating the marriage of a favorite maid of honor, one Fiammetta; and this may well have been the occasion which supplied the initial inspiration for Gli Asolani.2

Bembo's own career, aside from domestic losses like that of his brother Carlo, seems to have been peculiarly fortunate. Born in 1470, he belonged to a large and powerful Venetian house. Although he was only eight years old when his father became ambassador to Florence, the two years which the boy spent in that city probably contributed to his later zeal for the literary heritage of the great Tuscan writers. As he grew older, he received a thoroughgoing humanistic education, meeting Politian at Venice in 1491, in...

(This entire section contains 3241 words.)

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the next year studying Greek at Messina under Lascaris, and, again at Venice, joining the Filelleni group which gathered around Aldus when he began to publish in 1493. Yet Bembo also participated in the court life of the period, not only at Asolo but at Ferrara, where his father served as Venetian co-ruler in 1497, and at Urbino, where the social and cultural refinements of the age were carried to their apogee during the very years of Bembo's stay (1506-1512). With the accession of Leo X in 1513, the already well-known courtier-humanist became a Papal secretary and formed a liaison with a young woman named Morosina, who eventually bore him three children. Meanwhile, having departed from Rome in 1519, he spent a number of years in scholarly retirement near Padua; there, in his capacity of Historiographer of Venice, he prepared a Latin account of the city's recent history and in 1525 published one of his two most important Italian works,Le Prose della Volgar Lingua, a treatise which argues that the Italian writers of his time should use the Tuscan of Petrarch and Boccaccio rather than the various contemporary dialects. In 1538, three years after Morosina's death, his attainments were at last rewarded by election to the College of Cardinals; and before his own death in 1547 he was also preferred to the Bishopric of Gubbio.3

Bembo had what is surely one of the richest careers of the Italian Renaissance. To have lived in the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Venice of Aldus, and the Rome of Leo X; to have been portrayed in youth by Bellini and in old age by Titian; to have known Raphael, Vittoria Colonna, Politian, Erasmus, and Pietro Aretino; to have been chosen by Castiglione as his mouthpiece when he reached the climax of The Courtier; to have written two of the most famous treatises and the best Petrarchan verse of the sixteenth century; to have experienced first physical and romantic passion, then the responsibilities of parenthood through a liaison which resembled marriage, and finally the spiritual honors belonging to a bishop and a cardinal:—it is not an exaggeration to say that Bembo both had his cake and ate it several times.

Gli Asolani belongs to the early period during which Bembo repeatedly succumbed to physical and romantic passion. Between 1495, the date at which he probably, as we have seen, began to frame his work, and 1505, the year of its first publication, he must have fallen in and out of love with at least three women.4 With the first of these, an unidentified Venetian, known as “M. G.,” who was probably of lower social rank and without Bembo's literary interests, he seems to have been involved in 1497 and 1498.5 The second love affair produced a series of seventy-seven letters which Bembo wrote to another Venetian woman in 1500 and 1501 and which his executors published five years after his death; quite recently her side of the correspondence, preserved and annotated by Bembo himself, has been discovered and published; it reveals that this second inamorata, named Maria Savorgnan, was a married woman of the upper middle class who cultivated the Petrarchan aspects of her relation, equivocal as that relation was, with the young man of letters.6 In the third place, Bembo engaged in his well-known amour with Lucrezia Borgia, already married to Alfonso d'Este and soon to be Duchess of Ferrara; their passion, which ran its course between 1502 and 1505, is shown by their surviving letters to have been warm, though it may not be true, as Will Cuppy notes, that while her husband was away, “Lucrezia would slip on something comfortable and curl up with a good author.”7 Each of these love affairs, it is well to add, has its bearing on Gli Asolani.

In a letter dated from Ferrara on December 11, 1497, after writing that he spends the hours before dawn as well as most of his mornings in work on Gli Asolani, Bembo speaks of the wound from which he suffers, presumably his separation from the first of his three mistresses; and it seems clear that the tragic view of love which Perottino expounds in the opening dialogue of the book embodies Bembo's dissatisfaction with this first affair.8 At any rate, his correspondence with Maria Savorgnan shows that he later assumed the name of Perottino in wooing his second mistress and that she followed the composition of Gli Asolani with keen interest; in a letter dated May 30, 1500, but probably written some months later, he refers to Book Two, and on January 4, 1501, he sends her Lavinello's canzoni from Book Three, although only the first of them is yet amended; on two occasions the desire to read “el vostro libro” together seems to have served as Maria's excuse to her husband for being closeted with her lover; and there is an intimate stylistic similarity between their correspondence and Gli Asolani.9 That work must, in any case, have been substantially completed by December 24, 1502, when Bembo asks to have a friend return the manuscript with suggested changes.10

Meanwhile, however, he had met Lucrezia; and by July, 1503, she appears to have known at least part of Gli Asolani.11 When he left Ferrara at the end of 1503, he promised to send her the whole; but the death of his brother Carlo on December 30 threw all his affairs into confusion, and it was not until August 1, 1504, that the work was dispatched to her with the dedication which was printed in the earliest editions. This is a revealing document. It compares his loss of Carlo to the two blows which Lucrezia has lately suffered, one of them undoubtedly the death of her illustrious father, Pope Alexander VI, on August 18, 1503, and the other perhaps that of her child on September 5, 1502.12 Bembo goes on to mention the recent marriage of her maid of honor Nicola which is parallel to that of Caterina Cornaro's maid of honor in Gli Asolani, just as Angela Borgia (whose flirtations later caused a bloody quarrel among the brothers of the Duke) corresponds to Caterina's ladies and the courtiers Tebaldeo and Strozzi to Perottino, Gismondo, and Lavinello; thus Asolo becomes Ferrara.13 But it is an even greater shock to read, in the final sentences of the dedication, that Lucrezia is a miracle of inner virtue as well as of external beauty, though the novelty of the idea is softened if we may assume that Bembo is alluding to their hidden love when he speaks of the pleasure she enjoys within her mind.14

In the following months, it is evident, Lucrezia urged that Gli Asolani should be published;15 yet it was March, 1505, according to the colophon, before Aldus issued the book in Venice. Its steady, if not immediate popularity is revealed by the fact that it was reprinted at least seven times during the next seventeen years. Then, at some date not earlier than 1525, Bembo undertook a complete revision of the text; and in 1530 this was published by Sabbio in Venice as the so-called “second” edition. The revision included an infinite number of small verbal changes and one important addition, a discourse on the Thomist distinction between love and desire; but its most striking feature is the omission of certain considerable passages, namely, the dedication to Lucrezia, four poems containing a total of 111 lines, and, in prose, a five-page account of a conversation in which Gismondo asked his lady how she would act if he were dead, a description of the ring she gave him, a refutation of the charge that love causes bitter memories, and a long reference to the story of Cimon in Boccaccio (Decameron, V, 1). These changes, which are improvements for the most part, were followed in three reprints issued during Bembo's lifetime; but before he died, he made more than 150 further revisions in this text, revisions which were included in Scotto's Venice edition of 1553 and in at least nine other reprints before the end of the sixteenth century.16

By 1600 there were thus at least twenty-two Italian editions of Gli Asolani. A Spanish version appeared at Salamanca in 1551; and the French translation of Jean Martin which was first published in 1545 was later reprinted at least six times.17 Therefore, even though it does not seem to have been translated into English, we are justified in calling Gli Asolani one of the influential books of the Renaissance and in considering the direction of that influence.

Those who know Bembo's name but not his work are apt to think of him as he is described by his friend Castiglione in The Courtier, a book of deeper insight and more human interest than anything which Bembo ever wrote. Castiglione, writing some years after the event, recounts, or pretends to recount, what was said during four evenings at the court of Urbino in March, 1507; Bembo, who is present throughout the dialogues, takes a leading rôle only at the very end of the last evening when the Duchess assigns him the task of telling the others what kind of love is suitable for the Courtier. In what follows he reveals that he is a master of the art of raillery and too much a man of the world to take himself over-seriously; nevertheless Castiglione has Bembo deliver a highly serious, at times almost mystical exposition of the Platonic doctrine of love as understood by the Renaissance: the divine origin of beauty, the distinction between the worlds of sense and intellect, the various steps by which the sensual love of one lady is finally transformed into the spiritual love of God. And a reference to Lavinello's hermit clearly relates this passage to the second half of Book Three, the corresponding climax of Gli Asolani.

Is Castiglione right in placing this emphasis on Bembo's Platonism? That he was right might be argued from the fact that Bembo read and apparently criticized the manuscript of The Courtier before it was published by Aldus in 1528.18 But in 1528, when he was fifty-eight years old, he may very well have been contented to appear more Platonic than he had really been when he was thirty-seven; and there is evidence to support this deduction. For the Carnival at Urbino in 1507, celebrated at almost the very moment which The Courtier describes, Bembo composed certain “Stanze” which he and Ottaviano Fregoso, disguised as ambassadors from Venus, recited to the Duchess and Emilia Pia before the assembled court.19 The poem is a graceful plea for natural love, the kind of love which, as we are told, made Catullus write of Lesbia and Ovid of Corinna; it contains nothing which is distinctively Platonic; in fact, it expresses the point of view of the hedonist Gismondo rather than of Lavinello.

If we turn to the still younger Bembo who produced Gli Asolani, his Platonism appears to be an even more doubtful quantity than in 1507. The three love affairs which nourished his treatise could hardly, at best, evoke a sincere devotion to heavenly beauty; and it is not surprising to find him writing to the Duchess of Urbino on March 20, 1504, that the thought of heavenly things had never occupied him much and did not occupy him now at all.20 When Gli Asolani was published a year later, it revealed, in spite of appearances to the contrary, that this was true. Both Perottino's eloquent attack and Gismondo's warm eulogy on earthly love carry a tone of conviction which it is hard to catch in Lavinello's Platonic resolution of the problem in Book Three. That book is shorter than the other two; and the first half of it, in which Lavinello denies the validity of his friends' positions and recites three canzoni in honor of his lady, is only distantly Platonic (the lady, for example, remains an individual throughout the poems). The second half, the report on his conversation with the hermit, brings us to the kind of Platonism which Bembo was given to explain in The Courtier, and Castiglione clearly owes a debt to the ideas expressed in these concluding pages of Gli Asolani; but a comparison also reveals that in some things (as, for example, in explaining how love ascends from individual to universal beauty) The Courtier is much closer to Plato than Gli Asolani is. It becomes evident that the Platonic tradition, however distorted and diluted by the Renaissance, had a more genuine representative in Castiglione than in Bembo.

This conclusion is borne out by Bembo's revisions in Gli Asolani of 1530. The considerable omissions previously noted all occur in Books One and Two, the non-Platonic portion of the work; but they seem to have been made chiefly in order to render the three books more nearly equal in length: that is, for a literary rather than a philosophical reason. Thus, the only considerable addition is made in Book Three, the shortest of the books; and the added passage, in which the hermit draws the Thomist distinction between love and desire, is actually a correction of what Lavinello has already said and an intrusion in the Platonic context.

Platonism is, on the whole, a literary rather than a philosophical element in Gli Asolani; it contributes more to the form than to the substance of the treatise. The real content of most of Bembo's pages is derived from experience, from the courtly framework of the Decameron, and from the modified Petrarchan tradition which also appears in his correspondence with Maria Savorgnan, a tradition which subordinated philosophical ideas to the various and often contradictory moods of earthly love. From his study of the Dialogues, on the other hand, Bembo gained not merely the arguments of Lavinello's hermit or an occasional reference like Gismondo's to the myth that every pair of lovers was at first a single creature, but a perception of what might be done with the dialogue as a literary form. He is indebted to Plato, not so much for the arguments of Lavinello's hermit as for the use of that curious figure, on the model of Diotima, to secure an almost supernatural climax; and Plato's influence is even more significantly revealed in Bembo's constant effort to develop ideas through conversation and to give his discussions as much dramatic variety as possible. Gli Asolani is, therefore, the artistic rather than the intellectual fruit of those Platonic studies which the Florentine Academy had made a generation earlier. Not that Bembo plays an unimportant rôle: without his dialogues we might never have had the finer art of Castiglione.


  1. See Roberto Cessi, “Caterina Cornaro,” Enciclopedia Italiana (Istituto Giovanni Trecanni, 1929-49).

  2. D. Carlo G. Bernardi, Guida Storico-Turistico-Sentimentale di Asolo (Milan, 1949), Part I, p. 40.

  3. See Mario Santoro, Pietro Bembo (Naples, 1937), passim.

  4. Santoro, pp. 15-24.

  5. Pietro Bembo, Opere (Venice, 1729), III, 102.

  6. See Opere, III, 343-75; Maria Savorgnan and Pietro Bembo, Carteggio d'Amore, ed. Carlo Dionisotti (Florence, 1950).

  7. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (New York, 1950), p. 104. See Opere, III, 309-17, 375-80, 501-4; IV, 174-5, 345-6.

  8. Opere, IV, 165; Dionisotti in Carteggio, p. xxiv. Another letter shows that the work was half completed by December 3, 1498; for this and other data on composition see Gli Asolani e le Rime, ed. Carlo Dionisotti-Casalone (Turin, 1932), pp. 297-300.

  9. Carteggio, pp. 133, 65, 124, 6, 26, xxiv. That Gli Asolani was woven on the warp of reality is further indicated by Bembo's references to a boy called “Lavinello” (Opere, III, 98-9) and his attempt to secure a medal representing the real woman who is introduced as Berenice in the book, apparently a certain Berenice Gambara (Carteggio, p. xx; Opere, III, 221, 502).

  10. Opere, III, 99.

  11. Maria Bellonci, Lucrezia Borgia, La Sua Vita e i Suoi Tempi (Verona, 1947), pp. 391-4, 427; Opere, III, 502.

  12. Bellonci, p. 378.

  13. Bembo was on very friendly terms with Nicola (Opere, III, 501).

  14. Bellonci, p. 427.

  15. Opere, III, 312-3.

  16. For the material in this paragraph see Opere, II, 68 (of Asolani section); Dionisotti-Casalone in Gli Asolani e le Rime, pp. 297-300; and the catalogues of the British Museum, Bibliothèque Nationale, and Library of Congress.

  17. A French translation was already being made in 1508 (Opere, III, 117).

  18. See Opere, III, 119.

  19. Opere, II, 37-40 (of Rime section); III, 201-2.

  20. Opere, III, 320.


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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.”

Ronnie H. Terpening (essay date 1974)

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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 while the Renaissance individual focused on myths in their purity has been, at least, in part, modified.2 Quattrocento Platonists were thoroughly grounded in the allegorical method and as a result pagan mythology served as the vehicle for much of the philosophical thought of the time.3

Among the Humanists the search for allegorical significance in mythology was a search for the lost wisdom of antiquity. The moral truths hidden in myths and emblems were used for didactic purposes—to teach love of good and hate for evil. Bembo, sharing the Neoplatonic interests in the edification and subsequent elevation of the soul, writes so that man may know “quale amore buono sia e qual reo.”4

Bembo's knowledge of Platonic doctrine, however, was never that of a philosopher. Most critics, in fact, feel compelled to point out that he had neither the time nor the desire to meditate on the theories of Ficino.5 Nevertheless, Bembo's ability to assimilate the various tendencies of his time is notable. Humanistic and vernacular cultures both converge in the Asolani (1505). Within the three dialogues are reflected the influence of the humanistic disparagement of love, the Florentine vernacular love tradition and the Neoplatonic idealization of love.6 Other stylistic and thematic influences are equally varied.7

Yet, while much attention has been paid to Bembo's sources, both stylistic and thematic, as well as to his innovations, little has been said concerning his implementation of myth. I believe that the poet's ability to absorb and disseminate Platonic philosophy on a courtly level is not limited to the aspect of love but extends also to mythology. In this he again mirrors the vogue of the Florentine exegetes. Moreover, the poet's study of Boccaccio, especially the Boccaccio of the minor vernacular works and of the De genealogia, would have assured and encouraged him in his use of mythological exempla. Like emblems, myths had a dual nature: they were on one hand in some measure esoteric, a classical element thus raising the tone of a work of art, and, on the other, they were exoteric, a popular element serving a didactic purpose.8

How then, one might ask, is the Neoplatonic interest in fables expressed in Bembo's Asolani? To answer that question more fully I would like to examine first Bembo's concept of myth, then his use of images and of allegorical exegesis, followed by his specific mythological exempla and, finally, the poet's own “bella menzogna.”

One of the beautiful passages in the Asolani is Perottino's description of the poetic origins of mankind. When men still lived in trees and caves like beasts, poets, the “primi maestri della vita,” taught by nature, invented verses in order to gather together these rough uncultivated people who were entranced by the beauty of the music (335). Orpheus, who could tame beasts, cause trees to run, move rocks and induce rivers to flow backwards (a résumé of the typical adynata), was the sublime example of the power of the Logos to humanize.

Having gathered “quella sciocca gente,” it was necessary to teach them the nature of things so that they would follow good and avoid evil. Unable to instill the greatness of nature in their restricted souls or reason in their drowsy minds, the poets resorted to fables under the veil of which they hid truth, as under transparent glass. In this guise they delighted the people with the novelty of fictions while sometimes revealing the truth in order to guide them little by little to a better life. Through Perottino's description, then, Bembo illustrates the importance of delightful fictions which play a large part in the edifying nature of poetry.

Bembo theorizes at greater length on the material of art as finzione pittorica through Gismondo in Book II. Refuting Perottino's statements on love's unnatural effects (lovers live in fire like salamanders, freeze like ice, live insensate like rocks), Gismondo marvels that Perottino would have them take vain fables for truth. These images, he says, are special licenses used by both poets and lovers. They have no more truth in them than other novel fables like the teeth sown by Cadmus, the ants of Aeacus or the chariot ride of Phaethon. All lovers who write or have written employ images not because they have experienced these miracles, “ma fannolo per porgere diversi suggetti agl'inchiostri, acciò che con questi colori i loro fingimenti variando, l'amorosa pintura riesca agli occhi de' riguardanti più vaga” (394-395).9 Thus, for Bembo, myths not only provide variety but add color to a work of art. The vividness of fable is emphasized in the author's choice of the word “pintura” to describe these poetic effusions.

Bembo himself employs a variety of images throughout the Asolani to create a particularly visual impression and thus add color to his exposition. Perottino, for example, as an exponent of love's pain, speaks with inflamed eloquence. His description of Amore entails a magnificent series of metaphors (“questo universale danno degli uomini,” “questa generalissima vergogna delle genti,” “questa malvagia fiera”) ending with the reversal of Cupid's divine birth to a more damning parentage. Love is not a child of Venus, as writers claim in fables, disagreeing in the same lie as to his actual mother, nor is he a son of Mars, of Mercury or of Vulcan,

ma di soverchia lascivia e da pigro ozio degli uomini, oscurissimi e vilissimi genitori, nelle nostre menti procreato, nasce da prima quasi parto di malizia e di vizio, il quale esse menti raccolgono e, fasciandolo di leggierissime speranze, poscia il nodriscono di vani e stolti pensieri, latte che tanto più abonda, quanto più ne sugge l'ingordo e assetato bambino.


Love issues from this speech with a physical reality so intense as to make us almost forget, despite the constant reminder of moral metaphors, that we are speaking of an emotion.

As well as abounding in images of moral intent, Perottino is adept at allegorical exegesis. Love is called fuoco because it consumes, furore because it aggravates like the Furies (333). Cupid is represented as naked to show that lovers are without reason; he is pictured as a youth because he turns lovers into stupid children; he is described as winged to show that lovers fly on the wings of desire in the air of hope, so they think, to heaven; he is depicted with a torch because, just as the brightness of fire is pleasing but its heat painful, so the first appearance of love delights us only to torment us beyond measure later and so forth (346-347).

The pleasures of love are presented metaphorically by Perottino with equal vehemence. He apostrophizes them as bitter sweetness, poisoned medicine of unhealthy lovers, grievous happiness leaving no sweeter fruit than repentance, vaghezza which like thin smoke is no sooner seen than disappears leaving only tears in our eyes and as “ali che bene in alto ci levate perché, strutta dal sole la vostra cera, noi con gli omeri nudi rimanendo, quasi novelli Icari, cadiamo nel mare!” (360). Bembo's ability to create the tension of heightened emotion through imagery demonstrates, here in his prose, his poetic skill.

Turning specifically to Bembo's mythological exempla, I would like to point out the author's tendency to employ myth in referring to the dialogues themselves, to rhetoric. As one might imagine, the concept of weaving an argument brings to the page the myths of Penelope and Arachne. Gismondo, for example, at one point refuses to discuss a subject which he feels his opponent Perottino has already refuted himself. He compares such a task to Penelope's endless reweaving, emphasizing through the myth the futility of such an action (398). Berenice returns to the image when she desires Gismondo to untangle a statement of Perottino (399) which Gismondo in turn refers to as more like a web of Arachne than one of Penelope (405). Finally, criticism of each other's comments leads Gismondo at one point to refer sarcastically to Perottino's presentation of his canzoni as if they were the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl or the voices of Phoebus' prophetic curtains. The mythological similes serve here as the vehicle for Gismondo's scoffing.

A more extensive and varied elaboration of myths occurs in the discussions of love. All three youths, Lavinello to a much lesser degree, interpret myths allegorically, each explicating them as best fits his individual position. Perottino, for example, evokes a host of calamitous myths to prove love is bad. The first general statement about love is expressed through the myth of Medea:

          Mentre ad Amor non si commise ancora,
vide Colco Medea lieta e secura;
poi ch'arse per Jason, acerba e dura
fu la sua vita, infin a l'ultim'ora.


Love, then, is basically unhappy. Perottino's purpose is to show how and why. His first recourse is to the authority of previous poets. No one, he claims, calls love pleasing, sweet or human. Pages have been filled with the attributes “crudele,” “acerbo,” and “fiero,” while in the thousands who have written of love little can be found but grief (333). An enumeration of love's evil effects follows after which Perottino adds that not only are both entertaining and exemplary fables stained by love's pain, but even the most serious histories and secret annals. With a skillful use of praeteritio, he passes over the unhappy loves of Pyramus and Thisbe, of Myrrha, of Biblis and of Medea, “i quali, posto che non fosser veri, sì furono essi almeno favoleggiati dagli antichi per insegnarci che tali possono esser quelli de' veri amori” and concludes with a reference to the true story of Paolo and Francesca both of whom fell by one sword (333-334).

Perottino adduces other historical and mythical examples of unhappy love claiming that if Gismondo wishes to prove that love is good, he must not only confute me, but a thousand ancient and modern writers (334). As he tells Lisa later, the whole world is an example of the power of the god love (345).

One of the follies of lovers, Perottino points out, is to ignore the universality of love in the belief that the pain they feel has never been surpassed. The youth summons up a small catalogue of women who followed their husbands in death. If one can trust ancient authors, he says, no one grieved more than did Argia on the body of her dead husband. Evadna, Laodomia, Pantea and Ero all sacrificed their lives. Their example demonstrates the universality of unhappiness, unvaried in time.

When Perottino moralizes on Cupid's pictorial traits, the god is compared to Medea. With strange potions he changes old, gray-haired men to babies (347). Like moths, lovers swarm to Cupid's torch, whence, “quasi Perilli nel proprio toro” they perish in their own fire (347-348). The juxtaposition of these diverse images—the moth and the instrument of torture—joined by their reference to a burning death emphasizes Perottino's oratorical excitement. From a strange but natural fact he passes immediately to the more gruesome Ovidian (Ars Amat. I, 635-636) and Dantesque (Inf. XXVII, 7-12) representation of Perillus who died in his own instrument of torture made for Phalaris, the Sicilian tyrant.

Despite the universal affliction of love, the poet Perottino grieves alone, his pain shared only by Echo. But at least he lives. Many lovers have died from grief, especially those who were unrestrained in their happiness. Perottino employs Artemisia, the celebrated classical example of marital fedelity, to illustrate his own theme of rejoicing with measure. Like Dido (“Elisa”), had she lived less subject to fortune's extremes she would not have died. In the same fashion Niobe's loss of her children was the greater because of her previous happiness.

To depict the lover's precarious state Perottino borrows an image from previous poets (who have sometimes told the truth “favoleggiando”) similar to the myth of the sword of Damocles or of Cicero's Tantalus (Tusculan Disput. IV, 16). The immense rock hanging from a thin thread over the head of one of the damned is representative, he says, of the state of lovers always fearful of possible harm (360). To forestall imagined harm, lovers have resorted to terrible crimes. Classical examples abound: Egisto killed Agamemnon upon his return from Troy fearing the husband's return would ruin his own pleasures (361); thus Orestes killed Neoptolemus for Hermione. The untold examples of love's similar deeds, says Perottino, would equal in number the drops of water left behind in the sea by a fast sailing ship! (362). Regarding a lover's torments, while cruel women allow them to consume themselves in desire like Tantalus (366), fickle girls leave them like froth tossed here and there on the waves of the sea. He who must compete with his own forces against love's ferocity would have less trouble were he forced to do battle with the Hydra of Hercules (367).

Finally, near the end of his argument, Perottino in a pitch of oratorical excitement first passes from similes to metaphors (the lover is Tityus whose liver feeds vultures; he is Ixion eternally tormented on his wheel) and then leaves all exempla behind:

Non posso, o donne, aguagliar con parole le pene, con le quali questo crudel maestro ci afflige, se io, nello stremo fondo degli inferni penetrando, gli esempi delle ultime miserie de' dannati dinanzi agli occhi non vi paro: e queste medesime sono, come voi vedete, per aventura men gravi.


Thus, Perottino concludes his argument, having begun with an introductory canzone based on an exemplary myth, having proceeded with the aid of the many mythological examples provided by the poets of antiquity and having ended with an impassioned descent to the depths of hell itself for similar examples. His opponent's argument will mirror, even in detail, this progression.

Gismondo, in preparing his defense, comments on Perottino's ability to create vivid representations. His skill in “dipignere ragionando,” thereby lending a semblance of truth to lies, has enabled him to sound convincing (399). If what Perottino professes were true, however, says Gismondo, man might as well live like the ancient Timon, Lucian's misanthropic creation, or like Narcissus. But, what about the example of Andromeda?

          Infin quel dì, che pria la punse Amore,
Andromeda ebbe sempre affanno e noia;
poi ch'a Perseo si diè, diletto e gioia
seguilla viva, e morta eterno onore.


Men and women, claims Gismondo, need each other, a fact that the ancient women of Lemnos and the Amazons realized to their dismay (404). Besides, he notes, with reference to Plato's myth of the Androgyne, in loving one another we in effect love our other half (401-402).

Gismondo asserts that love is thus a natural condition and not evil. When Lavinello protests that natural things such as trees feel no love, Gismondo replies that they love the earth they live in (407-408). Lavinello turns to the myth of Daphne in his attempt to refute his companion. Since she felt no love and first gave form to the laurel, these trees, her descendants, are also unloving, if what is written is true, he adds. Gismondo, as if accepting the myth's truth, postulates a distinction between the laurel and Daphne, who left her being in taking on the new form (408-409).

Gismondo also is adept at allegorical interpretation. In castigating Perottino's intemperance in loving things he cannot obtain, he compares his friend's foolish desire to a myth. The poets, he says, wished to signify such folly when they described the giants' vain attempt to take heaven from the gods (410). Gismondo, in fact, decides to correct Perottino's use of myth. His friend, he claims, missed the path of love and encountered instead those “Mezii,” “Tizii,” “Tantali” and “Isioni” among whom at the end he saw himself as if he had looked in clear water (413-414).

Before launching into his own definition of love and its effects, Gismondo emphasizes the truth of his statements despite their lofty tone (419). Postulating love as the origin of all good, he traces the development of mankind. It was love that first gathered beastly men and civilized them. As love grew so grew the arts. The family unit was formed and a golden age of friendship flowered (421). Thus Orestes and Pylades, before fierce Diana, each wanted to die to save his friend (422). Women then were different from those of our malign age. Gismondo evokes the famous classical examples of good women, ones who courageosly ascended the pyres of their husbands, ones like Alcestis never praised enough (422). Even when apart spouses remained true, living in perfect harmony. As proof, Gismondo recalls the example of Laodameia who availed herself of a wax image of Protesilaus in order to remember him (450).

Gismondo's comments on love's innate goodness apply as well to love's effects. After listing some of the pleasures of lovers, he adds that these are merely an indication of those not mentioned. The delights of love are exemplified by Leander's action in swimming so often across a wide and dangerous expanse just to see Hero briefly (431).

In one of Gismondo's final moments of poetic exaltation he illustrates love's power with the myth of Orpheus' descent to Hades. At his approach, Cerberus restrained his barking; the Furies neglected their raging; the vultures of Tityus, the rock of Sisyphus, the water and fruit of Tantalus, the wheel of Ixion and the other punishments of the damned all forgot their duty, enchanted by the poet's singing. Which myth, declares Gismondo in conclusion, signifies that the harsh cares of man cease to torment him while he is enraptured by the sound of his beloved's voice (433). Thus, by introducing Orpheus into Perottino's gloomy world, Gismondo with his own allegorical interpretation turns the table on his opponent's argument. He too has shown himself no less a master of poetic fable.

Relatively few myths adorn Book III. Those used by Lavinello and the Romito most often refer to man's lesser qualities. At one point, however, when Lavinello asks Gismondo to recant, he offers him the noble classical example of Stesichorus who, having vituperated Helen and been punished with blindness, amended his statements, praised Helen and regained his sight (469).

Later, after Lavinello has expounded on the four lower steps of the ladder of being with man endowed with reason at the top, the Romito exclaims that nature must have given us free will to compensate for the gift of reason, so that we ourselves might descend voluntarily to the level of the beasts. He compares nature to Apollo who, having repented of his gift of prophecy to Cassandra, added the stipulation that she should never be believed (487). Man, he concludes, is actually worse off than the beasts inasmuch as he is able to desire what is harmful for himself.

But nature also allows man to avoid this error. The sun, moon and stars, says the Romito, are sent by God to mankind as messengers (488). With eternal voice they ask why we are entranced by false forms of beauty, in the guise of Narcissus, and do not realize that these are merely shadows of the true. Enchanted by earthly love, as if we had drunk the potion of bewitching Circe, we change ourselves from men to beasts (489).

Noting that Gismondo's ideal of two lovers in one accord is difficult to attain when man is not even in accord with himself, the Romito counsels Lavinello to direct his love to an eternal object, steadfast and perfect. On earth everything is weak and unstable: extremes of weather, sickness and disease, which unfortunately ancient Pandora freed when she opened the box, assail us from all sides (497-498). One cannot experience the pleasures of loving God, the Romito concludes, unless he casts aside terrestrial love (502). In the timeless world of true reality exists perfection; fortune has no power. Nothing beyond the necessary is desired or conceded. To the body is given the little that is needed as if it were a sop to still Cerberus' barking (502). The absolute insignificance of the body acquires visual clarity with the repugnant comparison to the infernal beast. Through his sparing but effective use of myth, the Romito, then, like the three youths, lends color and intensity to his moral exposition.

That Bembo was fully aware of the didactic importance of mythological exempla with their hidden meanings is confirmed by the poet's own fictio, his creation of the Platonic myth concerning the Queen of the Fortunate Islands. Inspired perhaps in part, as Dionisotti notes (493-494), by Columbus' voyage to new lands, in part by classical myths such as that of Circe, by Hesiod's and Pindar's Islands of the Blessed, and by the legendary Atlantis, Bembo's myth expresses, through the Romito, the poet's concept of life.

According to the fable, the virgin Queen of the Fortunate Islands takes pleasure in being loved and cherished (494). While she rewards all who love her with a commensurate “guiderdone,” they must first be tested. Touching them with a wand she sends them forth from her place where they fall asleep until summoned before her a second time. When they present themselves, their dreams are engraved on their foreheads. Those who dreamed of hunting, fishing, riding and similar pleasures she sends to live with the beasts. Those who dreamed of commerce or of governing their families and communities she keeps in her city, since they thought of her occasionally, but burdens them with cares and worries. Finally those who dreamed of her she allows to live in her court in order to speak to her among music, singing and other amusements (495). The moral significance of the fiction is apparent. As the Romito observes at the close of the Asolani, “noi qui peregrinando viviamo” (503).

In conclusion, I think it is evident that Bembo's absorption of Neoplatonic concepts is not limited to love but extends also to mythology. Just as the Quattrocento Platonists read allegorical meanings into classical fable, employing mythology as a philosophical tool, so Bembo utilizes ancient stories for the significatio hidden beneath the surface of each. The poet's “grazioso ufficio” is to unveil the truth in fables. His use of mythological exempla is thus tied to his concept of the poet as philosopher. He himself, as an educator of men, follows in the pattern of the “primi maestri della vita” (335).

The ultimate authority of the Asolani's interlocutors is the classical world, the ancient poets and their creations. While the three youths often state that myths in themselves are false, as poets they not only recognize a moral relevance, a substructure, in all fable but also feel compelled to offer an individual interpretatio of that hidden mystery. The attraction of mythological exempla, however, lies above all in the dual nature of myths. They serve not only as vehicles of permanent philosophical truths but are also picturesque fictions lending “novità” and color to a work of art. The delight they offer in themselves, their decorative or aesthetic function, is essential to their edifying nature. In Bembo's dialogue moral didacticism and aestheticism are harmoniously fused. Myths, rather than remaining a decorative element, become vivid didactic illustrations, word pictures (“dipignere ragionando”) of an exemplary nature.


  1. See, for example, the introduction and studies in The Renaissance: A Reconsideration of the Theories and Interpretations of the Age, ed. by Tinsley Helton (Madison, 1961).

  2. Jean Seznec's La Survivance des dieux antiques: Essai sur le rôle de la tradition mythologique dans l'Humanisme et dans l'art de la Renaissance (Studies of The Warburg Institute, XI, London, 1940), for example, stresses the essential continuity of the two ages by pointing to the survival of medieval attitudes in the Renaissance.

  3. The Humanists, despite their direct contact with antiquity, never abandoned the search for hidden meanings in fable. Boccaccio is securely tied to Dante's concept of poetry as fictio, a “bella menzogna” with a “veritade ascosa,” as is evident in Book XIV of the De genealogia deorum gentilium and in the Trattatello in laude di Dante. In the latter work he writes of mythology as follows:

    La verità piana, perciò ch'è tosto compresa con piccole forze, diletta e passa nella memoria. Adunque, acciò che con fatica acquistata fosse più grata, e perciò meglio si conservasse, li poeti sotto cose molto ad essa contrarie apparenti la nascosero; e perciò favole fecero, più che altra coperta, perché la bellezza di quelle attraesse coloro li quali né le dimostrazioni filosofiche, né le persuasioni avevano potuto a sé tirare.

    (Opere minori in volgare, a cura di Mario Marti [Milano, 1969], IV, 361-362). The medieval allegorical method perpetuated in Salutati's De laboribus Herculis (1378-1383) is stressed by Cristoforo Landino, in harmony with his Platonic education, in the Disputationes camaldulenses (ca 1474) and practiced in his commentaries on both Virgil (1478) and Dante (1480). Ficino draws on Neoplatonic authorities when offering allegorical explanations of ancient myths. For his method see his treatment of the judgment of Paris in an appendix to his commentary on Plato's Philebus in Supplementum Ficinianum, ed. by P. O. Kristeller (Firenze, 1937), I, 80-82. Even Poliziano took his interpretations of Homer directly from Heraclitus, Phornutus and the pseudo-Plutarch. For a discussion of Poliziano's depiction of myths in the light of the medieval allegorical tradition see my study “Poliziano's Treatment of a Classical Topos: Ekphrasis, Portal to the Stanze” in Italian Quarterly, XVII, 65 (1973), 39-71.

  4. Asolani I, 1 in Prose e rime di Pietro Bembo, a cura di Carlo Dionisotti (Torino, 1960), p. 314. All future page numbers in the text refer to this edition.

  5. Mario Santoro writes, “Quel platonismo che è a base del trattato gli è tutto arrivato nella generica volgarizzazione che la teorica del Ficino aveva per l'Italia e soprattutto per le corti dove le propiziava le strade quella non mai spenta tradizione cavalleresca provenzale che passava per il Canzoniere del Petrarca e per l'Ameto e per il Filocolo del Boccaccio” (Pietro Bembo [Napoli, 1937], p. 72). Bembo's lack of profundity is especially felt by Carlo Dionisotti, for example, in Book III. He writes, “Il Bembo stesso cercava, nel terzo libro dei suoi Asolani, una soluzione filosofica e religiosa insieme al problema dell'amore. Ma la sua vocazione non era né filosofica né religiosa” (“Pietro Bembo,” Dizionario biografico degli italiani [Roma, 1966], VIII, 136).

  6. In discussing the cultural currents preceding Bembo, Dionisotti (Asolani, op. cit., pp. 17-18) notes that the Venetian probably knew Platina's Dialogus contra amores, Petrus Haedus' Anteroticorum (1492) as well as Battista Fregoso's vernacular work L'Anteros (1496). He found a justification of love, however, in Ficinian Neoplatonism which “aveva ridato all'amore una legittimità e una funzione nella vita spirituale dell'uomo, e alla letteratura amorosa, al dibattito sull'amore, una serietà e importanza.”

  7. Santoro sees the effects of Cicero's use of indirect dialogue as well as his theory of love expressed in part four of the Tusculan Disputations (op. cit., p. 74). Dantesque, Petrarchan and Boccaccian reminiscences abound throughout the dialogue while the mixed form owes much to the Ameto which in turn reflects Dante's use of verse and prose in both the Vita nuova and the Convivio. As a precedent for Bembo's use of the vernacular for realistic subjects as opposed to its accepted use for idealized topics such as we find in the Arcadia, Dionisotti mentions Alberti's Della famiglia (Asolani, op. cit., p. 21).

  8. The habit of using examples from history and myth to illustrate a moral lesson is, of course, a very old classical tradition. As early as Homer great heroes of the still-earlier past were used as models and quoted in speeches so that their successors could imitate their virtues and avoid their errors. Gilbert Highet points out that this practice “spread through nearly all classical literature to an almost incredible degree. For instance, Propertius, who writes love-poetry, feels that his own passion is inadequate as a subject for a poem, unless it is objectified and exemplified by mythological parallels. The satires of Juvenal swarm with examples” (The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature [Oxford, 1970], p. 68).

  9. For the myths referred to see Ovid, Met. III, 1-137; VII, 523-660; I, 747-749; II, 1-400 and Boccaccio, De genealogia II, 63; XII, 45; VII, 41. Almost all of Bembo's myths come by way of Ovid, Dante or Boccaccio (especially the De genealogia and the Amorosa visione).

Principal Works

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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.

Fred J. Nichols (essay date 1979)

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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 own Latin writings. The very polish of his work has tended to put off modern critics who assume that such an attention to surface must entail a corresponding deficiency of substance.

His long poem “Benacus,” an encomium dedicated to Bishop Giberti of Verona, a man who showed himself worthy of Bembo's praise, although perhaps not in the way Bembo envisioned, is representative of the poet's best work in Latin and of the difficulties his poetry presents to a modern reader. In the first place we are suspicious of encomiastic verse, living as we do in a century already glutted with bad poetry ringing out dubious praises of bad causes and worse leaders. Secondly, we suspect the formality of such poetry. In Bembo's resonant ambiguities and elegant hyperbole we find no sense of a human figure to which the poem has responded. It is in fact the superb impersonality of the speaking voice that makes us doubt the poem's sincerity.

Yet this poem repays close examination. It begins with the creation of an elaborate mythological context, for it is not a human voice but the voice of the god of Lake Garda that will sing Giberti's praises, calling him finally to his domain, involving him—as the beginning of the poem suggests—in the very fabric of the poem itself. This mythological scene, so carefully described, is one of perfect harmony. It is noon, but it is cool in the grottoes; even the sun is precisely balanced in the center of the sky. It is appropriate that the god of the lake should speak, for he sees in Giberti one who can create in the human world the kind of harmony these aquatic deities enjoy in the world of nature. The gods of the rivers of northern Italy assemble, and become the refrain of Garda's song.

The bringing of water is the central thematic action of the poem. The endless gathering force of the rivers is evoked after the enunciation of each of the young man's heroic qualities and accomplishments. It is work of civic restoration he will first accomplish, repairing both the social and the natural order with his ability to persuade and to discipline the powers of nature. The poem's complex patterns—and the energy of its design reflects the energy it compliments its hero for possessing—culminate in the exaltation of Giberti as the very focal point of nature's energies, as well as of poetic and heroic endeavors; the poem ends with a twin vision of the land parched and the land blooming. We recall that the poem began in the heat of noon when the reigning harmony operated to provide compensating coolness and repose amid activity. The refrain that ends the description of the drought becomes a plea that has been answered before the poetic voice can speak the next line. A man who has so consistently been able to succeed by exercising his gifts in harmony with the social and the natural, brings the harmony and consequent fertility of nature into the landscape that he enters. The final plea (in which the Venetian poet invites the newly named bishop to reside in his diocese in Venetian territory) has in a sense already been answered. The restoration of social coherence and natural fertility that the poem evokes is a sign that Giberti's presence is already at work in the land. It is then not his individual personality but his persona as an organizing focus of the activities of men and of natural processes that counts. In the poem's impersonality lie both the force of its compliment and the poetic value of its evocation of the possibility that man can find a way to live in harmony in nature, to refresh himself in the noonday heat.

Joseph S. Salemi (essay date 1980)

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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 beauty, wit, and craftsmanship of a poem that Fred J. Nichols has called “by far the most elegant accomplishment of Renaissance Latin in this particular area of literary endeavor.”1

A scion of the Venetian nobility, Pietro Bembo was an outstanding—as well as protean—figure of Renaissance Italian history. 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. His dialogues Gli Asolani reflect the fashionable neo-Platonism of its philosophy, his history of Venice its obsession with Ciceronian Latin, his vast body of sonnets and stanze its revitalized Petrarchism, his Prose della volgar lingua its growing taste for vernacular literature. In his Latin poetry too, Bembo was one with his contemporaries in the desire to create serious verse based on ancient models, purely classical in its vocabulary and style. And “Priapus” is a fine example of that “consummate literary skill” which Nichols has described as a particular mark of Bembo's Latin poems.2

“Priapus” first appeared in the posthumous edition of Bembo's Latin poetry published at Venice in 1552-53.3 It is difficult to determine exactly when in Bembo's life the poem was written, but it is more likely a youthful composition than a product of his later years. A note in a MS of “Priapus” and some other poems by Bembo states that he wrote it “when he was a youth” (dum erat iuvenis), and adds that such obscene matters were hardly fitting to the gravity and dignity of old age.4 The subject of “Priapus” is a certain “herb” or “plant” in a garden, and the manifold virtues that this herb holds for women. As the poem progresses the imagery makes it unmistakably clear that the herb is the “little mint” (mentula) or penis, although not a single offensive term is used in the eighty-odd lines that make up the poem. “Priapus” is a marvelous evocation of sensuality, but one whose verbal duplicity insists on defending itself, as it were, by saying to the shocked reader honi soit qui mal y pense—evil to him who evil thinks.

Bembo's poem must be understood within the context of the Priapean corpus, an Augustan collection of about eighty short poems, mostly obscene, pertaining to the god Priapus.5 Originally an important god of fertility, by late Roman times Priapus had become a minor divinity relegated to the garden.6 His statue was that of an ugly, satyr-like creature with a prominent erection usually painted a menacing red. This statue of Priapus functioned as a scarecrow, and by extension came to be looked upon as a guardian posted against thieves who might enter the garden to steal fruits. Many of the poems in the Priapean corpus are warnings to would-be pilferers, and sometimes they threaten very explicit sexual punishment.7 Some are epigrammatic, others longer, and almost all are concerned with the phallus in some way or another. Because of its unabashed vocabulary and licentious subject-matter, the Priapean corpus led a subterranean existence in the world of letters, and Renaissance editors balked at publishing the collection as the work of Vergil, who is almost unanimously named as the author in the MS tradition. Instead, the poems were attributed to “diverse authors,” as indeed is probably the case.8

A good many of the poems in the Priapean corpus are spoken by Priapus in soliloquy or to others, while a few are addressed to the god by some third party. In the first case, a Renaissance editor would entitle the poem “Priapus,” while in the second case the poem would be headed “Ad Priapum.”9 This minor point makes it clear that Bembo's poem has the god as its speaking persona, and not Bembo or even his poetically imagined self. One must not think of “Priapus” as a reflection of turpitude in its author—the poem is a feigned bit of oblique eroticism that works within an established tradition of such verse.

In several places in his poem Bembo is either alluding to verses in the Priapean corpus, or unconsciously remembering them. Thus the lines

Tum mirata novam faciem non rustica virgo
Praegrandesque toros, insolitumque decus,

which describe how a girl is amazed when the “plant” gets larger, seem to recall a reference in Priapea 68 to Nausicaa and Odysseus:

Huius et Alcinoi mirata est filia membrum
Frondenti ramo vix potuisse tegi.

(And the daughter of Alcinous was astonished that this man's member was hardly able to be covered with a leafy bough.)

Similarly, when in Bembo's poem a girl addresses the plant with the words Te meum columen, te mea sceptra puto, we are reminded of Priapea 25, which speaks of

Sceptrum, quod pathicae petunt puellae.

(The scepter that pliant girls strive for.)

Also, when Bembo writes In molli latet umbra aliis, mihi semper aperta est he recalls a commonplace theme of the Priapean corpus, as in Priapea 9:

Nec mihi sit crimen, quod mentula semper aperta est:
Hoc mihi si telum desit, inermis ero.

(Let me not be blamed if my mentula is always in the open—if I lack this weapon I'll be unarmed.)

Even lines 47 to 50—the most vividly sensual of Priapus—recall poem 48 of the Priapean corpus:

Quod partem madidam mei videtis,
Per quam significor Priapus esse:
Non ros est, mihi crede, non pruina,
Sed quod sponte sua solet remitti,
Cum mens est pathicae memor puellae.

(The wet part of me which you see—the part that shows me to be Priapus—is wet from neither dew nor hoar-frost, believe me, but from that which is accustomed to be yielded up of its own free will when the mind recalls a pliant girl.)

The very conception of the mentula as a herb is not original with Bembo, but is anticipated in Priapea 68, where the organ is likened to the mythic herb moly (μῶλυ):

Hic legitur radix, de qua flos aureus exit;
Quem cum μῶλυ vocat, mentula μῶλυ fuit.

(Here the root is plucked, out of which comes a golden flower. That which he calls moly was the mentula.)

There are other poems in the Priapean corpus which cast light on Bembo's work. Priapea 51 is especially notable since, like “Priapus,” it contains a list of plants in a garden. But although that poem may have been the primary inspiration for Bembo, the entire collection should be examined to see the tradition which gave birth to “Priapus.”10

Even if we did not place “Priapus” within this poetic tradition, the language that makes up the poem's seemingly innocuous beginning hints of the lascivious tone of the later parts. The verbs allicit and rapiunt in lines 2 and 3 have sexual overtones, and the picking of flowers is itself no accident of fiction. Flowers are picked for several traditional reasons, and the poem dutifully lists them: to make garlands, to decorate the hair, to honor the gods, or simply for their beauty and fragrance. But to understand why Bembo uses this image we must recall what the phrase carpere flores means in the amatory tradition. In the Metamorphoses, after losing Eurydice the disappointed Orpheus gives up the love of women:

Ille etiam Thracum populis fuit auctor amorem
In teneros transferre mares citraque iuventam
Aetatis breve ver et primos carpere flores.

(He was the originator among the Thracian people of that practice which transfers love to tender boys, and picks the first flowers and brief spring of their youthful years.)

(Metamorph. X. 83-85)11

This plucking or picking of flowers is clearly sexual, and in fact the meaning is standard in much medieval poetry.12 Bembo begins “Priapus” with an innocence that is only apparent—the careful reader notes immediately the lascivious potential of the imagery. The poet then goes through a short catalogue of plants and flowers, a list which seems to do no more than tell us what the “special flower” is not.

But in fact this is not all the catalogue does. Bembo's use of floral imagery goes beyond the mere cumulative amplification of a poetic list. Almost every one of the plants which he mentions in lines 9 to 16 shares, reflects, or suggests some quality of the phallus in terms of the poem's ultimate development. Thus the “unwithering” or “undying” plant (amaranthus) is an image of the perpetual erection of Priapus, and the sorrel is slippery (lubricum), as is the Priapic member later on in the poem. Like the all-heal (panacea), the phallus is good for many ailments, and like the poppy it is an excellent soporific. Like the self-turning heliotrope, it moves vigorously, and like the acanthus, it rises up. Even the artichoke (cynara) on its long stem appears phallic. But it is the poem's oblique reference to the hyacinth that demonstrates Bembo's skillful use of an erudite allusion to enhance this Priapic theme. The story of the dying Hyacinth in Ovid depends heavily on floral imagery, which Bembo is certainly remembering:

Ut, siquis violas riguoque papaver in horto
Liliaque infringat fulvis horrentia linguis,
Marcida demittant subito caput illa gravatum
Nec se sustineant spectentque cacumine terram,
Sic vultus moriens iacet, et defecta vigore
Ipsa sibi est oneri cervix umeroque recumbit.

(Just as if someone in a well-watered garden should snap off violets or the poppy or lilies bristling with yellow tongues, those drooping flowers would quickly let down their heavy heads, gazing downward to the earth, unable to sustain themselves, so does his dying face hang down, deprived of strength, and his neck is a burden to itself and sinks down on his shoulder.)

(Metamorph. X. 190-95)

This image of drooping languor and weakness in picked flowers is in sharp contrast to the vigor and vitality of the phallic flower, a flower which is made even stronger and taller by being “plucked.” Bembo's hyacinth (the flower which “has its name from a boy”) is the reverse image of that other masculine flower—the mentula—which in the case of Priapus never grows languid. The plant which this poem speaks of is far different (longe alia est) from every other plant, while encompassing all of their individual virtues.

There is a final joke on the reader in the last two lines of the poem, where Priapus asks forgiveness for having “slipped in one word.” At first one assumes that this apology is for the semi-explicitness of menta pusilla. But in fact it is for the word nimia (“excessive”) as applied to the phallus. In a poem that contains—unlike many of its Priapean forebears—not a single offensive term or gross description, the facetious apology is an apposite touch. It serves as an appropriate signature to a poem that truly transcends its genre in subtlety, delicacy, grace, and wit.


  1. Fred J. Nichols, An Anthology of Neo-Latin Poetry (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 29.

  2. Nichols, p. 51.

  3. A meticulous chronology of editions and MSS of all Bembo's poems is contained in Marco Pecoraro's Per la Storia dei Carmi del Bembo (Venezia-Roma: Instituto Per La Collaborazione Culturale, 1959). See pp. 51-52 for the dating of this particular edition.

  4. Modena, cod. T. 6. 8. The note goes on to mention that Bembo wrote the poems in the twenty-fifth year of his age (anno aetatis suae vigesimo quinto). See Pecoraro, p. 83.

  5. A convenient edition is Grattius Faliscus/“PriapeorumPoetae (Pisa: Giardini Editori, 1976). All my subsequent quotations from the Priapean corpus are from this text, pp. 41-67.

  6. See R. P. Knight, A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786; repr. Secaucus, N.J.: University Books, 1974), p. 102.

  7. Cf. poems 22 and 35 in the corpus.

  8. See R. F. Thomason, The Priapea and Ovid: A Study of the Language of the Poems (Nashville, Tenn.: George Peabody College, 1931), pp. 3-10, for a good account of the history of the Priapean corpus, but one which argues Ovid to be the sole author of the collection.

  9. This is the case in the 1517 Aldine edition of the Priapean corpus mentioned later in this article.

  10. Poems to or about Priapus were composed by a number of ancient writers. Martial wrote several, but especially notable are Tibullus I. 4, and the eighth poem in Horace's first book of Satires.

  11. Quotations from Ovid are from William S. Anderson's edition of Metamorphoses Books 6-10 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1977), pp. 130-33.

  12. The most famous example is the extended metaphor of the Roman de la Rose, but the image also appears in the Carmina Burana in poems such as “Amor Habet Superos” (Hilka-Schumann, 88) and “Prata iam rident omnia” (Hilka-Schumann, 114). The first can be found in George Whicher's The Goliard Poets (Cambridge, Mass.: The University Press, 1949), p. 166, and the second in Helen Waddell's Medieval Latin Lyrics (London: Constable, 1966), p. 250.

Further Reading

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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 Poet.” Yearbook of Italian Studies (1971): 119-41.

Focuses on Bembo's views on the use of literary models as expressed in his debate with Giovan Francesco Pico della Mirandola and as practiced in his poetry.

Hagar, Alan. “Castiglione's Bembo: Yoking Eros and Thanatos by Containment in Book Four of ‘Il Libro del cortegiano’.” Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 16, no. 46 (1993): 33-47.

Investigates Bembo's editing of Baldessare Castiglione's Il Libro del cortegiano, a work in which Bembo himself appears, delivering a speech derived from Gli Asolani.

Heiple, Daniel L. “Pietro Bembo and Sixteenth-Century Petrarchism.” In Garcilaso de la Vega and the Italian Renaissance, pp. 77-102. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

Studies Bembo's “prescriptions for structuring the sound values in poetry” and then demonstrates “the relevance of these ideas for Spanish literature,” particularly Garcilaso's poetry.

Jones, R. O. “Bembo, Gil Polo, Garcilaso: Three Accounts of Love.” Revue de Litterature Comparée 40, no. 4 (October-December 1966): 526-40.

Examines the influence of Gli Asolani on works by the Spanish writers Garcilaso and Gil Polo.

McLaughlin, Martin L. “The Dispute between Giovan Franceso Pico and Bembo.” In Literary Imitation in the Italian Renaissance: The Theory and Practice of Literary Imitation in Italy from Dante to Bembo, pp. 249-74. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Investigates the debate between Bembo and Pico on the proper use of literary models for imitation.

Robb, Nesca A. “The Trattato d'Amore.” In Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance, pp. 176-211. New York: Octagon Books, 1968.

Asserts that, while it breaks little new ground, Gli Asolani is a model “trattato d'amore,” or treatise on love.

Reynolds, Anne. “Francesco Berni, Gian Matteo Giberti, and Pietro Bembo: Criticism and Rivalry in Rome in the 1520s.” Italica 77, no. 3 (Autumn 2000): 301-10.

Explores the sources of the personal and professional antipathy between Bembo and Berni and Giberti.

Richardson, Brian. “Bembo and His Influence, 1501-1530.” In Print Culture in Renaissance Italy, pp. 48-63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Examines Bembo's editing of Dante and Petrarch, and assesses the impact of his work on subsequent editors.

Shankland, Hugh. Preface to The Prettiest Love Letters in the Word: Letters Between Lucrezia Borgia and Pietro Bembo, 1503 to 1509, pp. 7-46. London: Collins Harvill, 1987.

Discusses Bembo's connection to Lucrezia Borgia and her family, paralleling the development of his writing career with the path of their relationship.

Terpening, Ronnie H. “Pietro Bembo and the Cardinalate: Unpublished Letters to Marco Mantova.” Lettere Italiane 32, no. 1 (January-March 1980): 75-86.

Examines four letters by Bembo in terms of his “aspirations as regards his ecclesiastical career, his correspondence with Marco Mantova, and his elevation to the College of Cardinals.” In one letter Terpening finds a suggestion that Bembo may have aspired to the papacy.

Young, R. V. “Versions of Galatea: Renaissance and Baroque Imitation.” Renaissance Papers 1984 (1985): 57-67.

Compares two translations of a story in Ovid's Metamorphoses: Bembo's Galatea and Luis de Góngora's Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea. Young finds Bembo's version closer to Ovid's but admires Góngora's transformation of the story.

Additional coverage of Bembo's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 2.

Joseph S. Salemi (essay date 1982)

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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 their own tribe. The dispute that subsequently arises between Aeneas and Turnus over the possession of this woman forms the conclusion of Vergil's epic.

Faunus is a woodland divinity, a god associated with wild beasts and sylvan mystery—indeed, Latinus must enter the depths of the Albunean forest in order to consult his father's oracle. Like Artemis and Cybele, Faunus favors the woods, making his home among dense groves where neither axe nor plow has come to disturb the primeval sanctity. As was the case with many native Roman divinities, Faunus came to be associated with a Greek counterpart. Pan was closest in conception to the Latin woodland god—he too dwells in uncultivated regions and has a decidedly feral aspect. Both deities were eminently suited to be patrons of pastoral life and, by implication, poetry which celebrated pastoral concerns.

The Italian humanist Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) composed in his youth several lovely pastoral lyrics dealing with the god Faunus. Bembo conflated the image of the Roman god with elements that strictly belonged to Pan, so that these two similar but separate divinities came to be synonymous names for a single god—one who dwelt in the woods, favored humble shepherds and goatherds, promoted the use of the syrinx or reedpipe, and chased constantly but vainly after young nymphs.

Marco Pecoraro, in his study of the chronology and manuscript tradition of Bembo's poetry, points out that all or almost all of the Faunus poems of Bembo were composed between 1490 and 1498 (the exception is “Galatea,” which may be somewhat later).1 Thus they are among Bembo's earliest efforts in Latin verse, and they do breathe a youthful exuberance of spirit. Their vivacity and occasional raciness makes them charming, and the technical excellence of the poems is a sign of Bembo's sure hand at Latin even at this early point in his career.

What prompted the young scholar to take Faunus as a subject? Pecoraro quotes from Bembo's book Aetna (1505) a passage that provides a possible answer. It seems that, on a trip to Sicily, Bembo had visited the forested environs of Mount Etna where he saw, as Pecoraro says, “la dolce campagna etnea, coperta di prati erbosi attraversati da freschi ruscelli, e cinta di alti pioppi e faggi, che procuravano piacevoli ombre alle Amadriadi e alle Naiadi.”2 In describing all this natural beauty to his father Bernardo, Bembo aroused in the old man a desire to know what sort of god inhabited so lovely a region. Bembo replied that Faunus, by traditional consensus, was the tutelary deity of such places, and that he was the protector of the pasturing herds and mountainous wilds. And in the course of speaking about Faunus, Bembo says:

Videre se inquiunt pastores, ipsum deum passim errantem per silvas & pasqua, tum etiam sedentem sub illis arboribus coronatum pinu, & tacentem saepius, interdum tamen etiam fistula solantem amores.3

(Shepherds say that they see this god wandering here and there through the woods and pastures; sometimes sitting under the trees, crowned with pine; more often silent but sometimes assuaging his passions by playing on his reedpipe.)

Here, I think, is the origin of the Faunus poems. Bembo was intrigued by the legend of the rustic divinity, and tried his hand at some small pieces addressed to the god, or using him as a persona. The subject matter of these pieces is traditional—the wooing of nymphs, the praise of pastoral life, the playing of the reedpipe—but the poems themselves are delightful specimens of the neo-Latin lyric at its best. Perhaps because of Bembo's youthful enthusiasm, they are free of the stale formulaic air that hangs about so many Renaissance Latin imitations of classical verse.

My translations and annotations provide, I believe, a good apparatus for understanding the Faunus poems, so I will not comment on the shorter ones here. I would, however, like to draw the reader's attention to “Galatea,” the longest of the poems. “Galatea” deals not with Faunus but his Greek counterpart Pan. (As I have suggested, Bembo uses these names interchangeably to refer to the rustic divinity.) “Galatea” is a curious production; although it echoes the conventional lyric treatment of the wooing of the nymph Galatea by the Cyclops Polyphemus, it presents some notable variations on the theme of pastoral love.

The poem begins with Pan chasing the nymph Galatea, who has coyly lured him on, into the sea. He slips, is overwhelmed by the waves, and is in danger of drowning. Pan's rustic companions on shore (other fauns and satyrs) call to Galatea to save their leader from death. She laughs and congratulates herself on her guile in perpetrating such trickery, but finally rescues the helpless Pan. After bringing him ashore she upbraids him for his folly and impertinence in pursuing her.

Galatea is by no means an unwilling prey in this chase. Bembo suggests that she leads the inept Pan on with her “slow flight,” and that she has deliberately tricked him into entering the sea. The nymph rejoices in his fall, and prolongs his distress. Her final words to Pan, therefore, are not to be read as an indignant attack on a would-be ravisher, but rather as the playful dismissal that a sophisticated girl addresses to a silly bumpkin. Galatea is a culta puella in the Ovidian tradition, one who delights in the beguilement of a foolish lover. And Pan is a parodic version of Polyphemus; as a suitor he is just as distasteful but by no means as dangerous as the Cyclops. Thus Galatea is able to say—as she never could to the much fiercer Cyclops—that he is related to the mountain-goats and should confine his attentions to them.

Pan makes several blunders in his approach to the nymph. It makes little sense, for example, for him to boast of his association with shepherds and sheep as he does, since they would forever be linked in Galatea's mind with the hated Cyclops, himself a shepherd. This is one sign of Pan's essential ineptitude and ignorance, and the incompatibility of his earthly divinity with the subtler and swifter divinity of water. And in fact at the end of the poem this incompatibility forms the substance of Galatea's reproach to the goat-footed god.

A real confusion about water divinities exists in Pan's mind, and it trips him up as well. He calls Galatea a “Neptunian,” whereas her father is Nereus. Nereus, like the god of lake Garda in Bembo's poem “Benacus,” has many daughters or Nereids who are the tutelary spirits of various streams and rivers. Galatea is one of them, and for her to be called a child of Neptune/Poseidon, and hence a sister of the Cyclops, would be particularly offensive.


  1. Marco Pecoraro, Per la Storia dei Carmi del Bembo (Venezia-Roma: Istituto Per La Collaborazione Culturale, 1959), pp. 119-20.

  2. Pecoraro, p. 120.

  3. Opere del cardinale Pietro Bembo (Venezia: Francesco Hertzhauser, 1729), tom. IV, p. 328. Quoted by Pecoraro in the work cited, p. 120.

Ross Kilpatrick (essay date 1986)

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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 until 1970, when a handsome commemorative edition was printed in Verona in three bilingual issues (English, Italian and German). The Latin-English issue, with a translation by Betty Radice, was limited to one hundred and twenty-five copies.1 The following translation is only the second.2

De Aetna is a significant work not just because it is Bembo's first, and a landmark in typography.3 It presents a fascinating first-hand account of the ascent of Etna by an adventurous young man whose wide scholarly interests were to earn him in time a respected position among humanists and scientists. But it is also an impressive work of renaissance letters. In it the young Bembo reveals an easy familiarity with a wide range of ancient authors, philosophical and poetic, a delicate mastery of the Ciceronian Style, and a sensitive (at times puckish) grasp of character portrayal through dialogue.

In 1903, S. Günther presented a paper at the Congresso Internazionale di Scienze Storiche, titled, “Il Cardinale Pietro Bembo e la Geografia,”4 in which he detailed Bembo's scientific interests, especially his relations with the mathematician Filippo Faraone—there is extant a letter to Bembo in which Faraone describes the eruption of Etna in March of 1536 after being dormant for forty years.5 Bembo's interest in geography was shared by a number of renaissance humanists, such as Petrarch, Buondelmonte, Flavio Biondo, and Enea Silvio.6 (Günther felt his patience badly abused by Bembo's garrulous father in the dialogue.)7

On the scientific side, Bembo's descriptions and theorizing show a close familiarity with the doctrines of the ancient philosophers and geographers, particularly Aristotle, Strabo, and Seneca: these three writers catalogue ancient views on earthquakes and volcanoes from Thales to Poseidonius.8 Bembo quotes or cites by name writers such as Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Pindar, Aristotle, Theocritus, Vergil, Ovid, Strabo, and Pliny as authorities on Etna and volcanoes. (Horace is cited too, but as Orazio morale, not as an authority.) He certainly could have been familiar with the pseudovergilian didactic poem Aetna and with the Etna passages of Lucretius and Claudian.9

The volcanic theory that dominates ancient geographical writing, beginning with Anaxagoras, is that of subterranean winds forcing their way in and out of chambers beneath the earth and producing fire by friction.10 The sea is a concomitant factor, whether it blocks the exhalations or forces its way right into the holes and passages of the earth.11 That the sea does not dampen volcanic eruptions, as Pietro observes, could be demonstrated by submarine eruptions.12 The potential of compressed air to do all this is fully accepted as part of the hypothesis.13

The setting and style of the dialogue are Ciceronian, a formal allusion to the De Legibus, with its shady bank and poplars. The longed-for plane trees recall Plato's Phaedrus.14 Bernardo's comparison of life to a banquet is Lucretian;15 the quibble about “the truest fable” recalls Strabo.16 His enthusiasm for information about Etna is like Seneca's, while his fears about climbing to the crater echo both Aetna and Claudian.17 The philosophy of life advocated by Bernardo and willingly subscribed to by Pietro is Senecan, but it is given a Horatian twist at the end.

It would be tempting to pass this off as mere Renaissance erudition, and there is no doubt that Bembo is revelling in his youthful knowledge. But De Aetna is also a highly entertaining work, and what seems to contribute most to that is the part of Bernardo Bembo himself, cast in the role of Nestor, that garrulous elder statesman of the Iliad (Bembo tells us he has been studying Homer in Sicily with Constantinos Lascaris). A precursor by a century of Polonius, Bernardo becomes the object of tender, affectionate satire. He is old, devoted to his city's welfare and his family's, a scholar, a moralist (a bit of a pedant), an exponent of moderation and self-control, and a realist. Pietro, on the other hand, casts himself as a youthful romantic, a poet, and an idealist. Bernardo's affectionate jests at his fanciful, rather poetic beliefs in “his Faunus” and pastoral deities are deftly parried by his son's gentle and tactful Horatian appeal for moderation in all things of life: from dining to philosophy. Perhaps most tactful of all is the way he gives his father the last word, a sincere defence of reason, self-control and virtue, beginning and ending with Homer: Ulysses is contrasted with his crew, whose ears must be stopped against the Sirens, and with the lazy and prodigal young men of Phaeacia and Ithaca. The first is perhaps inspired by Cicero; the second, a direct quotation from Horace.18 The final tableau is of Bernardo's departure into his study, lost in his thoughts once more.

Above all else the De Aetna is intended as a gift to Bembo's father, and a tribute to his wisdom, humanitas and love. We see him here, rich in years, through the eyes of a son whose gratitude and understanding has reached a new maturity.

My colleague Professor A. C. Hamilton has suggested that De Aetna may have at least one Renaissance offspring. In 1580, Gabriel Harvey published a controversial “Familiar Letter” addressed to “M. Immerito” (Edmund Spenser), being one of

Three Proper and wittie familiar Letters lately passed between two Universitie men: touching the Earthquake in April last, and our English refourmed Versifying. With the Preface of a wellwiller to them both.

Like Bembo's, Harvey's piece (“A Pleasant and pitthy familiar discourse, of the Earthquake in April last”) is a dialogue within an epistle frame, addressed to an old school friend, recounting a dramatic geological event and its possible causes in a spirit of scholastic inquiry and controversy, but enlived by irony and humor. Harvey presents an Aristotelian analysis of causes, along with classical theories of “winds” and “waters” in veins of the earth, and parodies non-Ramist investigations of the phenomenon and those pamphleteers who make God the efficient cause.19 The comic mixture of logical argument and rhetorical evidence (adding the classical poets as authorities) seems to exploit Pietro's dilemma: “What you are asking for is a philosophical explanation without the use of logical argument.”

Differences in the purposes of the two writers are suggested by the roles of the third parties to the epistles. The youthful Bembo gives pride of place to his garrulous father, whose views he recounts to Angelo. Harvey introduces “A coople of shrewde wittie new marryed Gentlewomen, which were more Inquisitive, than Capable of Nature's works”,20 who react to the tremors with terror and with prayers. He is challenged first by one of the gentlemen, then one of the ladies present to explain them with his “deepe Universitie Cunning”.21 His reply is so convoluted that Mistresse Inquisitiva makes him cease. A “short, but sharpe, and learned Iudgement of Earthquakes”22 follows in response to the Gentleman of the house, which is given a satirical sampling of Latin quotations, complimentary close, and postscript. It is tempting to think that Harvey, with his wide and eclectic reading, knew the De Aetna. That he was familiar with Bembo as a Ciceronian is certain.


  1. Petri Bembi De Aetna & Pietro Bembo On Etna. Now first translated into English by Betty Radice and printed in memory of Stanley Morison (Verona: Editiones Officinae Bodoni, 1970). This is an elegant version by a well-known and gifted translator. The present version was first attempted in 1967, and has since profited in a number of places from Radice's. It differs from hers in the use of Italian place names wherever possible: e.g., Piuvego (Pluvicus), Villa Bozza (Nonianum), Punto del Faro (Pelorus). Because the Bodoni edition was limited to 125 copies of the English version, with very few accessible (none circulating) in North America, I believe another translation is both justified and timely. I am most grateful to the Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University for the use of its copy of both the 1496 and 1970 editions of De Aetna, and for permission to reproduce the first page of the former here.

  2. The text translated is that of Yale University's copy (Beineke Library) of the 1496 edition, incorporating the manuscript corrections catalogued from all the existing copies in C. Bühler, “Manuscript corrections in the Aldine Edition of Bembo's De Aetna,Proceedings of the Bibliographical Society of America, 45 (1951), 136-42. I would like to thank Mr. William Burton who first suggested this translation, Professor E. David Francis who read it through and improved its accuracy greatly, and Mr. John Hersey, whose fine sense of English style saved it from very many infelicities. I am also grateful to the following geologists whose interest in De Aetna over the years has encouraged me to publish this translation: The late Professor R. F. Flint, Professor A. W. Joliffe, and Professor P. L. Roeder.

  3. The Roman type for that edition (the first all-Latin work done by Aldus) was cast by Francesco Griffo of Bologna. It would eventually be copied by the Monotype Corporation as “Bembo”. (See the introduction to the Bodoni edition.)

  4. S. Günther, “Il Cardinale Pietro Bembo e la geografia,” Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Scienze Storiche (Roma, 1903), Vol. X, Atti della sezione, vi, 55-68. On Bembo's life and work, see also Vittorio Cian, Un Decennio della Vita di M. Pietro Bembo (Torino, 1885); G. Meneghetti, La Vita Avventurosa di Pietro Bembo (Venezia, 1961); Mario Santoro, Pietro Bembo (Napoli, 1937).

  5. Günther (57).

  6. Günther (55). The work of Georgius Agricola (1494-1555), De Ortu et Causis Subterraneorum, was not published until 1540.

  7. Günther (62-3).

  8. Arist. Meteor. 2.7-8; Strabo Geog. 6.2.8-11; Sen. N.Q. 6.9.1-24. For a full survey, see S. Sudhaus, Aetna (Leipzig, 1898), pp. 48-72 (Einleitung).

  9. Lucretius 6.639-703. Claudian 33.160-78.

  10. Sen. N.Q. 6.9.1.

  11. Arist. Meteor. 2.8.8.

  12. N.Q. 2.26.4.

  13. N.Q. 6.21.1.

  14. Cic. Leg. 1.1.1-1.5.15; Plat. Phaedr. 229a-30c.

  15. Lucr. 3.938-9. Cf. Hor. Sat. 1.1.118-19.

  16. Sen. Epist. 79.2; Strabo 6.2.

  17. Note 9 (above).

  18. Cic. Fin. 5.18.49; Hor. Epist. 1.2.27-31.

  19. I am grateful as well to Professor Hamilton for the following references on Harvey: Gerald Snare, “Satire, logic, and rhetoric in Harvey's earthquake letter to Spenser,” TSE, XVIII (1970), 17-33; Virginia F. Stern, Gabriel Harvey: His Life, Marginalia and Library (Oxford and New York, 1979).

  20. The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, eds. J. C. Smith and E. De Sélincourt (London, 1912), p. 613.

  21. P. 614.

  22. P. 616.

Susan Delaney (essay date 1986)

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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 meno degli amanti che de' poeti, fingere le cose molte volte troppó da ogni forma di verità lontane.

Gli Asolani

Pietro Bembo's most notable contribution to the literature of his time was the justification of form as a primary component of a work of art. Giorgio Santangelo has written, “Col Bembo si pone prima che con altri critici del Rinascimento, il valore della forma come realtà essenziale del fatto artistico.”1 Bembo did not stress form as a manner of simple ornamentation; rather he invested the “external” features of a text with a power equal, if not superior, to content. While the development of formal technique is elaborated more fully in Bembo's later writings such as Le Prose della volgar lingua of 1525, his preoccupation with stylistic and linguistic prowess can already be seen in one of his first works, Gli Asolani. Published in 1505, this trattato reveals an early stage in Bembo's theory of artistic idealism. Poetic form takes on a transcendental nature in Bembo's writings, where art can be seen as a means to maneuver around problems of ethics. As we see by the moral dilemmas posed in Gli Asolani, Bembo suggests that such problems may be solvable only through an “ascension” to an activity that will allow for the peaceful existence of paradoxes: the realm of pure art.

What ties Gli Asolani to Bembo's essays on writing is the way the author adds to the book's ostensible thematic interest in a philosophy of virtuous love by underpinning it with a secondary “plot” concerning the power of rhetoric and poetic expression. In the treatise, Bembo presents the speeches of three gentlemen of the court of Asolo, whose earthly concepts of love are challenged in the final chapter by the Platonic teachings of a mystical hermit. The figure of the hermit quickly became a cliché for Bembo's philosophy, to such an extent that twenty years after the publication of Gli Asolani, Castiglione had Bembo introduce himself in Il Cortegiano as a disciple of “il romito di Lavinello.” Most modern readers have likewise taken Lavinello's hermit to be the implied spokesman for Bembo's supposedly Platonistic lesson in Gli Asolani. Yet, as we hope to show, the value of this text is not to be found in its guise as a love treatise. Gli Asolani is a Humanistic rather than a Neoplatonic work, for it unites a tolerant and syncretic approach to questions of morality with an inquiry, also common to the Humanist endeavor, into the nature and role of poetry. It is Bembo's discovery of the possibility of an artistic sublimation of the ethical quandaries raised within the pages of Gli Asolani that creates a link between this early essay and the author's later writings.

… nel peregrinaggio di questa nostra vita mortale, ora dalla turba delle passioni soffiato e ora dalle tante e cosí al vero somiglianti apparenze d'openioni fatto incerto, … ho sempre giudicato grazioso ufficio per coloro adoperarsi, i quali, delle cose o ad essi avenute o da altri apparate o per sè medesimi retrovate trattando, agli altri uomini dimostrano come si possa in qualche parte di questo periglioso corso e di questa strada, a smarrire cosí agevole, non errare.2

From the opening pages of Gli Asolani Bembo's didactic purpose seems clear. He offers his dialogue as a guide for overcoming the uncertainties of life, and for determining the nature of “good” and “bad” love:

Ma perciò che tra le molte cagioni, le quali il nostro tranquillo navicar ci turbano e il sentiero del buon vivere ci rendono sospetto e dubbioso, suole con le primiere essere il non saper noi le piú volte, quale amore buono sia e qual reo … ho voluto alcuni ragionamenti reccogliere.

(P. 4)

In order to resolve this ethical problem, the author has gathered three young gentlemen, “tre nostri avedenti e intendenti giovani,” whose discussions on the subject are intended to be of profit to the reader. In the brief introduction to Book I Bembo establishes that the purpose of his work is to go beyond the deceit of appearances (“le tante e cosí al vero somiglianti apparenze d'openioni”) and to arrive at a true knowledge of virtuous love.

In these same first pages, however, there are already indications that such a discovery may not be made possible in Gli Asolani. The narrator, writing after the discussions have occurred, and therefore surely in a position to evaluate their moral correctness, surprisingly does not take the opportunity to assure his readers that by the end of the book one of these discussants will have offered a definitive version of “good” love (notably Lavinello, the bearer of the hermit's Platonic message in Book III). Bembo seems instead to draw no distinction among any of the speakers. He calls each as wise as the others and claims that he had received both profit and enjoyment from hearing all three of their speeches. For all his proclaimed didacticism, Bembo is remarkably noncommittal in his evaluation of the young man, implicitly bestowing as high a value on the lessons in amorous pleasures offered by Gismondo and Perottino as on the more ascetic existence described in Lavinello's discourse.

In many other ways the apparent Platonism of Gli Asolani is rendered problematical by the author. By announcing that the main theme of the book is to be an examination of the nature of love, and by using as his format an intellectual discussion among a small group of cultured gentlemen, Bembo could not have failed to invoke Plato's Symposium in the minds of contemporary readers. The narrator himself underlines the banquet-like nature of his work:

Senza che infinito piacere ci porgono le diverse lezioni, delle quali gli animi d'alquanti uomini, non altramente che faccia di cibo il corpo, si pascono assai sovente, e prendono insieme da esse dilettevissimo nodrimento.

(P. 5)

Gli Asolani is thus presented as an intellectual “feast” of ideas continuing the Socratic form of its parent text. Yet certain aspects of the classical work have been altered by Bembo. The occasion of the feasting at the castle of Asolo, for instance, is not a pagan gathering but a Christian wedding, an earthly celebration of love, and one that is hardly in keeping with the most elevated form of Platonic love soon to be proclaimed by Lavinello's hermit. Furthermore, the narrative design of Gli Asolani, in addition to its dialogic similarities with the Symposium, harks back as well to the Decameron, particularly in the format calling for three men and three women to exchange stories for three days. This literary ancestry injects a medieval spirit into a nominally classical genre. Finally the presence of the women, notably absent from Platonic texts, is also a strikingly modern element. Not only do the ladies attend the discussions conducted among the gentlemen, but it is the female characters, especially the Queen of Asolo and Madonna Berenice, who provide key insights into the questions of ethics and rhetoric raised, as we shall see, in the later part of the text.

Indeed the figure of the Queen is vital to Gli Asolani in that she embodies the eclectic mix of spirituality and epicureanism that Bembo's text conveys despite its outward trappings of idealism and a unified morality. She furnishes the supposedly intellectual setting with its sensual pleasures:

[La Reina] in suoni e canti e balli e solennissimi conviti l'un giorno appresso all'altro ne menava festeggiando.

(P. 6)

She is a lover of poetry, and enjoys all of three of the young maidens' diverse poems on love which precede the main discussions, poems ranging in theme from the sensual to the spiritual, thereby reflecting the narrator's similar unwillingness to give special favor to any one of the speakers. She presides over the wedding and provides the physical pleasures of the feast, and yet also attends the third and most idealistic of the three discussions. The actions of the Queen represent the seeming confusion of religious, earthly and philosophical purposes of the events. These different currents are united by Bembo in one courtly figure who partakes of all without exhibiting any desire or need to choose among them according to a hierarchy of virtues.

It soon becomes evident to the reader that Gli Asolani is far from the single-minded treatise on Platonic love one might at first assume it to be. Each of the characters' attitudes are represented by the author with such an egalitarian tone that the reader discerns no single dominant perspective. Moreover, as seen above, the discussants' quest for a philosophy of love takes place in a problematical setting which merges religious, sensual and intellectual values. At times, in fact, the syncretistic nature of Gli Asolani gives the impression of a work out of control. There is a contradiction between the stated belief in a transcendental truth (“quale amore buone sia e qual reo”), and the author's ability to organize his world, or his text, in order to arrive at that truth. Bembo's didactic purpose is weakened by so much mixing of values and points of view. He opens his book with confident metaphors: “col segno della indiana pietra ritrovare la tramontana” and “incontrare che loro la diritta insegni, sí che essi possano all'bergo senza errore … pervenire.” (P. 3) Yet the path of virtue (“il sentiero del buon vivere”) is obscured by the sheer variety of the activities taking place and the styles of love being proclaimed.

Gli Asolani is remarkable not so much for the philosophy it claims to seek, but for the way in which Bembo's treatise avoids espousing any one ideology at all. Instead the many different viewpoints represented in the book are fused harmoniously by an author who seems to savor their confrontation:

ho voluto alcuni ragionamenti raccogliere, … affine che il giovamento e pro che essi hanno a me renduto, da loro che fatti gli hanno sentendogli, che nel vero non è stato poco, possano eziandio rendere a qualunque altro, cosí ora da me raccolti, piacesse di sentirgli.

(P. 4)

Bembo's ideological open-mindedness becomes more apparent throughout the discussions of Perottino, Gismondo and Lavinello. Although the plan of the book seems designed to carry the reader away from the carnal pleasures expressed by the first two speakers and toward a more ideal definition of love finally stated by Lavinello's hermit, the privileged status of the last speech is denied to a great extent by the strength of the arguments preceding it. Perottino's and Gismondo's analyses would ordinarily have to be proved false in order to give way to Lavinello's more “truthful” portrait of love, but there is no evidence that their arguments are unconvincing. As Rudolf Gottfried has observed, “Perottino's eloquent attack and Gismondo's warm eulogy on earthly love carry a tone of conviction which it is hard to catch in Lavinello's Platonic resolution of the problem in Book III.”3 Gottfried goes on to show that Lavinello's Platonism is itself insufficient, for his poems on ideal love never fail to envision a lady whose virtues are seen in concrete human terms.4 It should be pointed out as well that in the last section the hermit himself, praising Lavinello and his companions for having undertaken this quest for virtuous love, begins his own discourse with an unexpected disclaimer:

Tuttavolta, se a te giova che io ancora alcuna cosa ne rechi sopra e piú avanti se ne cerchi, facciasi a tuo sodisfaccimento, pure che non istimi che la verità sotto queste ginestre piú che altrove si stia nascosa.

(P. 141)

Later the hermit refers to the multitude of human beliefs, and to the difficulty in distinguishing truth from falsehood, another example of the curious intellectual reserve of this holy man who is supposed to possess the ultimate solution to the problem of love.

When all the speeches are completed, none of the three men and not even the hermit has presented a convincing enough argument to invalidate any of the other philosophies of love. The lack of moral authority culminates in the book's ending: at the close of Lavinello's discourse in Book III the reader finds a firm narrative voice to be strangely absent. The original narrator disappears, as if unwilling to attempt to sort out and draw a moral from the discussions he had presented. Gli Asolani remains in the end a work without the single, unifying ideology it had claimed as its goal.

Bembo's biography perhaps allows us to understand the incongruities of Gli Asolani; that is, the way its idealistic goal is undermined by the author's philosophical liberalism. Carlo Dionisotti points out that although Gli Asolani claims to portray the Neo-Platonic conception of love, there are contemporaneous letters written by Bembo which seem to deny any such spiritual or philosophical preoccupations on his part. As a result, writes Dionisotti, “la conclusione mistica, che è, questa, chiaramente espressa, non risponde in tutto all'animo dello scrittore, … è dubbio che volesse e potesse elevarsi con intensa fede alla contemplazione divina.”5 Dionisotti also calls attention to the separation of the hermit's discourse from the rest of the text, noting that it takes place away from the castle and is not spoken by one of the three young members of the court but by a medieval ascetic. Removing the hermit from the courtly setting, suggests Dionisotti, underscores Bembo's probable lack of interest in abstract theories or the rigours of a demanding spiritualism. Gottfried makes this biographical interpretation of Gli Asolani even more concrete by tracing the writing of the book over the course of ten years and three love affairs in Bembo's life, each of the affairs leaving its stamp on the style and intention of the various parts of the book.6 Finally both Gottfried and Francesco Flamini also point to Bembo's Stanze—composed at about the same time as Gli Asolani but written in a less esoteric, more erotic vein—as further indication of the improbability of any authentic interest in Platonism.7

The accumulation of ideological inconsistencies in Bembo's writings make it difficult to read Gli Asolani as the simple essay of Platonic love it was long held to be. A far better “label” than trattato d'amore would be the broader trattato umanistico: an essay whose apparent lack of philosophical focus is in effect the reflection of the tolerant and inquisitive Humanistic tradition of the times. Plato's influence on Gli Asolani can only be seen as minimal, appearing more as a formal element than a philosophical one. Gli Asolani conveys not an ideology per se but rather a synthesis of the many systems of love found in contemporary writers and thinkers: Platonic and Christian as fused by Ficino; hermetic and inspirational from a thinker like Pico; Petrarchan, courtly and epicurean following the medieval and early Renaissance traditions.

As with many Humanistic texts, Gli Asolani remains more “Socratic” than Platonic, in the sense that it forestalls the preaching tone that it might have fallen into, and adopts instead a format permitting a free and unprejudiced confrontation of several points of view. Bembo's sophistication is especially evident if one compares his work to that of Symphorien Champier, perhaps the earliest French Humanist. In 1503, just two years before the publication of Gli Asolani, Champier also undertook a “translation” of Plato's teachings (via Ficino's commentaries) in Le Livre de vraye amour. In this text, the dispassionate reasoning of the early passages borrowed from Ficino gradually degenerates into moralizing exhortations where all question of free thinking or philosophical quest is denied.8 This sermonizing reveals the lingering medievalism in France compared to the relatively well-developed liberalism of Bembo's Italy, a liberalism which allows Gli Asolani to run the whole gamut of philosophical, Christian and earthly love.

Indeed it is quite plausible, as several critics have suggested, that Bembo intentionally undermined the original Platonic quest with which he began his dialogue. Edouard Meylan has written that, “while validating natural desires on the one hand and exalting a life of contemplation on the other, Bembo revealed precisely his aspirations as a worldly cardinal: on the outside a vague but impressive idealism; on the inside, a discreet epicureanism.”9 In similar fashion, Flamini explained the success of Bembo's work despite its lack of philosophical seriousness: “l'aulica società italiana dilettavasi nel vedervi rispecchiato quel suo contemperamento singolare d'idealità platonica e di sensualità boccaccesca … Ecco perchè fu tanto ammirata, imitata, tradotta e ristampata un opera come gli Asolani che in fondo ha scarso valore filosofico.”10 Benedetto Croce recalls that Sannazaro, older than Bembo but still an admirer of his poetry, “avrebbe desiderato che egli non avesse mai pubblicato gli Asolani, une delle molte teorie dell'amore che si ebbero nel cinquecento e delle piú deboli e pallide. In verità, il Bembo non era filosofo e pensatore.”11

Toward the end of Gli Asolani Bembo seems to reveal his awareness that the book has not succeeded in producing the kind of unified ethic that its early pages had promised. The opening passages to Book III are a far cry from the optimism seen in the introduction to Book I:

Non si può senza maraviglia considerare, quanto sia mal agevole il ritrovare la verità delle cose, che in quistion cadono tutto 'l giorno … Il che diede per aventura occasione ad alcuni antichi filosofi di credere, che di nulla si sapesse il vero e che altro già che semplice openione e stima avere non si potesse di che che sia … senza che si suole egli eziandio non so come alle volte avenire che, o parlando o scrivendo d'alcuna cosa, ci sott'entra nell'animo a poco a poco la credenza di quello medesimo, che noi trattiamo.

(Pp. 119-120)

The last phrase is revealing. It suggests that Bembo, in the very act of writing his book, has come to realize not only the impossibility of its philosophical task but also the reason for his failure: any discourse can be convincing, and, as an almost inevitable result, each type of love presented in the course of the dialogues has been proved justifiable through the speakers' persuasive arguments. The implication is that the author, too, as he was writing the book, came to believe in the variety of opinions he was transcribing and is unable to validate any one of them over the others. Rhetoric, writes Bembo, impedes the search for objective truth.

The analysis quoted above, however, is not the first time the disruptive power and untruthful nature of language has been called forth to become part of Gli Asolani's thematic focus. At the end of Book I, for instance, the author reveals that Perottino's appealing discourse on love had elicited sympathy from the other listeners, an unexpected reaction to the least noble, least Platonic of the three expositions of love. In protest, Gismondo criticizes the inappropriateness of Perottino's eloquence, accusing his companion of creating only the “appearance” of truth: “E certamente, riguardevoli donne, egli ha in uno canale derivate cotante bugie, e quelle cosi bene, col corso d'apparente verità” (p. 59). At the end of his own speech, Gismondo is in turn criticized by Madonna Berenice for his own exaggerations, and he ironically advises Lavinello, whose speech is to follow the next day, that his phrases should aim to bring pleasure rather than convey truth:

[Madonna Berenice] disse: Come che ora il fatto si stia, Gismondo, del tuo avere a bastanza ragionato o no, siam pure molto ben contente che di Lavinello abbia a dovere essere il ragionar di domane; il quale se noi non conoscessimo piú temperato nelle sue parole, che tu oggi nelle tue non sei stato, io per me non so quello che io mi facessi di venirci.—E che ho io detto, Madonna, rispondea Gismondo. Ho io detto altro, che quello che si fa, e ancor meno? Perchè, se io cotanto spiaciuto vi sono, ben ti so confortar, Lavinello, che tu di quello ragioni, che non si fa, se tu le vuoi piacere.

(P. 117)

Madonna Berenice's wish to hear Lavinello's “temperate words” and to put an end to Gismondo's passionate disputation (however grounded in reason it may be, she acknowledges) suggests that language's lack of necessary affiliation with truth can nevertheless have a positive result: to transcend moral disharmony.

Another potent message on aesthetics is inserted in Book III during the hermit's remarks on the union of the Platonic world of love and the “spiritual” world of art:

sí come fai tu, il quale, mentre ancor bene l'arte del verseggiare e del rimare non sapevi, sí l'amavi tu assai, sí come cosa bella e leggiadra che ella è, e insieme la disideravi; ma ora che l'hai e usar la sai, tu piú non la disideri, ma solamente a te giova e etti caro di saperla e amila molto ancor piú, che tu prima che la sapessi e possedessila non facevi.

(P. 142)

Coming as it does just after the passages mentioned above where the conflict between instructive, rational discourse and pleasing rhetoric has been so clearly presented, the hermit's analogy carries special importance. The transcendental goal of Gli Asolani, originally expressed as a quest for understanding Platonic love, is transferred to another arena, that of an “ideal” art. As Dionisotti has observed, “[Il romito] insiste sulla necessaria elevazione oltre il mondo sensibile … Che è insomma il mondo platonico delle idee, effigiato realisticamente, e, per il Bembo scrittore, il mondo che l'arte compone, umano eppure durevole e puro.”12

With this series of comments by the narrator, Madonna Berenice and finally the hermit, the relationship of Gli Asolani to Bembo's later works on language becomes much clearer. Even though (or perhaps even because) its ethical pronouncements prove to be questionable at best, Gli Asolani can still stand as a kind of experiment on the nature and goals of the art of rhetoric. Bembo's characters reveal the risks of speaking and writing on any subject, for their language often portrays immoral practices in a beautiful and quite persuasive light. The solution suggested by Bembo in this and other essays is to surpass—indeed almost to disregard—the very question of content and to concentrate one's attention instead on mastering the domain of formal literary expression.

Bembo's oeuvre verifies the author's preoccupation with linguistic domination of restrictive morality. Readers are often surprised to find that Bembo could write the sensual Stanze and the more intellectual and modest Gli Asolani during the same period of his life. Yet it is precisely this counterpoint of rakishness to asceticism which marks the beginning of Bembo's movement toward a literary “transcendence” of moral values. Dionisotti sees in the simultaneous composition of these two works, “la riprova di quella liberazione dall'amore, inteso come turbamento dell'animo, che impedisce la chiarezza dell'arte.”13 Bembo's theory of artistic sublimation culminates in Le Prose, where, writes Dionisotti, art is shown to exist for its own sake, independent of its subject matter: “la sicura, serena passione del gioco.”14

Dante Della Terza echoes Dionisotti's interpretation of Bembo's creative process, and the shift in his works from moral to stylistic concerns. In a study of the De Imitatione (the exchange of letters between Bembo and Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola on the subject of writing, which follows Gli Asolani by about a half dozen years), Della Terza writes:

A time-consuming dilemma centered around the contrast deeply felt by the Italian Humanists between Cicero's stylistic excellence and the weakness of his private life. Bembo, ill at ease with debates involving ethical coherence, appears always very skilled in bringing to light those aspects of the literary experience of the models which can become useful tools for the imitator.15

By this time in Bembo's life, writing had become a formal exercise, an act where the artist takes refuge from thematic disturbances by turning to the security and ethical neutrality of language. This theory opened the passage from virtue to virtuosity, from preoccupation with the morality of content to the value of art alone. From the higher vantage point of poetry or other literary genres the writer could give aesthetic unity and meaning to the often insolvable moral dilemmas raised within a written text.

This theory of artistic transcendence is nascent in Gli Asolani and it provides a solution to the problem of ethical disparity raised by the work. Again, as earlier, it is the character of the Queen who seems best to embody the work's underlying message of poetic sublimation. Just as her presence at the early festivities conveys the combined sensual, philosophical and Christian interests of Bembo's text, her reappearance in Book III underscores the second thematic concern of Gli Asolani; that is, the power of literary form. In the middle of Lavinello's discourse, the Queen, having learned of the entertaining discussions being conducted in the garden and deciding to attend, interrupts the young man and asks him to recite some poetry:

la Reina, soavamente alquanto sopra sè recatasi, cosí a lui con sereno aspetto cominciò, e disse: Bene avete fatto, Lavinello, per certo a sovenirci ora di quello, poeti e versi ricordandoci, di che per aventura la vaghezza de' vostri ragionamenti, tacendol voi, ci arebbe tenuta obliosa. Perciò che avendo i vostri compagni, sí come noi abbiamo inteso, tra gli loro ragionamenti di questi dí cotante e cosí belle rime mescolate, che le vostre donne udite hanno, non volete ancor voi ora alcuna delle vostre mescolare e tramettere in questi parlari, che noi eziandio ascoltiamo, poscia che le loro non abbiamo ascoltate?

(P. 131)

The Queen's request for another poetry reading is not surprising, for she had already displayed a fondness for verse purely as amusement when she listened with equal pleasure to the three very dissimilar poems recited by the maidens at the beginning of the feast. More recently the Queen had revealed her interest in aesthetic matters by choosing to attend the garden discussions not on the basis of their subject matter but because of their “pleasing” nature:

pervenne la novella di bocca in bocca agli orecchi della Reina, la quale ciò udendo e sentendo che belle cose si ragionavono tra quella brigata, ma piú avanti di loro non sapendole perciò alcuna ben dire.

(P. 122)

Nel vero, disse, egli si suole essere di diporto e di piacere assai.

(P. 123)

The Queen's presence at Lavinello's speech is therefore not to be read as a validation of his ideas; on the contrary, she delights more in his poems than in his theories:

Detta questa canzone, volea Lavinello a' suoi ragionamenti ritornare, ma la Reina, che del suo dire di tre canzoni nate ad un corpo non s'era dimenticata, essendonele questa piaciuta, volle che egli eziandio alle altre due passasse.

(P. 134)

As she had in Book I, the Queen serves to unify the polemical nature of Gli Asolani's discussions. Her aesthetic appreciation of poetry, coupled with her unquestioned sovereign status, reduces the dialectical nature of the gathering to a moment of peaceful contemplation. As she temporarily interrupts the philosophical talks in order to prolong the sheer pleasure of Lavinello's rime, we clearly see Bembo's confidence in the ability of poetry—or of artistic beauty in general according to the hermit's Platonic vision of art—to transcend moral controversies and to engage in an ideology of pure rhetoric.

To seek the separation of art from worldly events was indeed the focus of Bembo's treatises on writing such as the Prose and the De Imitatione. Della Terza has pointed out a recurring aesthetic of disinterest in Bembo's later poems as well: “his stressing the distance between emotion and writing, decisively pointing toward a transposition of feelings into verbal textures objectively significant.”16 Yet we need not turn only to Bembo's more mature texts in order to observe the writer's concept of literary power, for this theory can already be discerned in Gli Asolani. In fact we might surmise that it was because of writing Gli Asolani, and perhaps experiencing first-hand the effects of its ethical and rhetorical confusion as well as the harmonious and neutralizing effect of its verse, that Bembo realized the need for the concrete treatises to which he soon turned.


  1. Giorgio Santangelo, Il Bembo critico e il principio d'imitazione (Firenze: G.C. Sansoni, 1950), p. 100.

  2. Pietro Bembo, Gli Asolani, introd. Carlo Dionisotti (Torino: UTET, 1932), p. 3. Page numbers of all further references to this work appear in the text.

  3. Rudolf Gottfried, Introd., Gli Asolani (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Pub., 1954), pp. xvi-xvii.

  4. Gottfried, p. xvii.

  5. Dionisotti, Introd., Gli Asolani, pp. xi-xii.

  6. Gottfried, p. x-xii.

  7. Gottfried, p. xvi; Flamini is cited by Dionisotti, p. xxix.

  8. See James B. Wadsworth's Introduction and Notes to Symphorien Champier's Livre de vraye amour (The Hague: Mouton, 1962).

  9. Edouard Meylan, “L'Evolution de la notion d'amour platonique,” Humanisme et Renaissance, V (1938), 432. The translation is my own; the original reads: “au fond, en justifiant d'une part les désirs naturels et exaltant de l'autre la contemplation, Bembo a indiqué exactement ce à quoi tendaient ses aspirations de cardinal mondain: pour la forme, un idéal vague mais impressionnant; pour le fond, un épicurisme discret.”

  10. Francesco Flamini, Il Cinquecento (Milano: Vallardi, 1902), p. 377.

  11. Benedetto Croce, Poeti e scrittori del pieno e del tardo rinascimento, vol. 3 (Bari: Laterza e Figli, 1952), pp. 57-58.

  12. Dionisotti, p. xii.

  13. Dionisotti, p. xxx.

  14. Dionisotti, p. xxxiii.

  15. Dante Della Terza, “Imitatio: Theory and Practice. The Example of Bembo the Poet,” Yearbook of Italian Studies (1971), p. 126.

  16. Della Terza, p. 128.

William J. Kennedy (essay date 1994)

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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 Bergamo (1489-90).1 As a young adult he studied Greek with Constantine Lascaris at Messina (1492-94). In 1497-99 and 1502-3 he lived at the court of Alfonso d'Este in Ferrara, where he pursued a celebrated love affair with Lucrezia Borgia, and in 1506-12 he lived at the court of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro in Urbino, where he participated in the discussions recorded in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier. From 1513 to 1519 he served as secretary to the Medici Pope Leo X in Rome, moving afterward to scholarly retirement at Padua. When opportunity promised him advancement in the Church, he took holy orders in 1522, but he relinquished neither his connubial relationship with a young woman, Morosina, who bore him three children at their home in Padua, nor the occasion to serve as official historian of Venice after 1530. He spent the last years of his life as a bishop in Gubbio (1543-44) and as a cardinal in Rome (1544-47). His major literary work includes an Italian dialogue on love, Gli Asolani (1505), dedicated to Lucrezia Borgia; a number of Latin letters and dialogues on humanist themes, notably the De Imitatione (1512), argued in polemic with Giovan Francesco Pico; several volumes of narrative history about Venice (1530 ff); a dialogue on usages of the vernacular, Prose della volgar lingua, dedicated to the Medici Pope Clement VII (published 1525, 1538, 1549); and a collection of Petrarchan Rime printed in 1530 and augmented in 1535 and 1548.

While Bembo's Rime offer a series of overt Petrarchan imitations, sometimes inspired, sometimes moribund, his Prose della volgar lingua presents a vigorous defence of old Tuscan, and specifically the composite Tuscan inscribed in Petrarch's style, as normative for developing the Italian poetic vernacular. That this language is associated with the trecento literary heritage of Florence, and especially that heritage endorsed by Lorenzo de' Medici and his humanist circle, is no accident. Nor is it any accident that Bembo sought to revoke features of contemporary Florentine usage associated with spoken and written forms of the constitutional republic from which the Medici were expelled (1494-1512). Though surely Bembo admitted some current Florentine usage—his own Gli Asolani, composed at Ferrara in 1497-98 and 1502-03, incorporates select popular innovations—his dominant models are the poetry of Petrarch and the prose of Boccaccio, models substantially applied in his revision of Gli Asolani published in 1530.2

Bembo composed most of the Prose in 1511 when Florence was holding to its alliance with France against Julius II's Holy League with Spain and Venice. While the combined strength of the papal and Spanish armies abroad and increasing polarization at home put Soderini's republic at a disadvantage, Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici's partnership with the pope and growing support among upperclass families in Florence increased the chances for a Medici restoration. That restoration, along with Giovanni's election as Pope Leo X, would occur in 1512-13. Bembo had no absolute financial need to press the Medici for their patronage, but he did have a great deal of political prestige to gain from promoting their interests. As a close friend of Giuliano de' Medici, whose exile at the court of Urbino coincided with his own residence there, and as an aspirant to high office under Leo X and Clement VII, whom he served in blatant self-interest, Bembo ratified the canon of Florentine literature advanced by the Laurentian humanists of the previous century. If his chief goal was to authorize Petrarch as a Florentine poet, his chief accomplishment was to authorize Petrarch's vernacular as the poetic standard for all Italy. He succeeded beyond all measure.

Bembo's father, Bernardo Bembo, had associated with Cristoforo Landino, Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Poliziano, and other humanists during his ambassadorship at Lorenzo's Signoria, and his learning was justly celebrated by them. It made very little difference that Pietro had spent only part of his adolescence in Florence. Petrarch himself had spent barely ten days there in 1350 and he constructed his Italian poetry in a wholly artificial language that differed greatly from sixteenth-century Florentine usage. Petrarch's texts abound in Latinisms (condutto, fenestra), self-conscious archaisms (belli, dever), poetic reminiscences from Sicilian poets and the Stilnovisti (beltade, disio, fora), intrusive Provençalisms (augello, savere), and distinctive Tuscanisms, themselves no longer current, that had never been accepted in Florence (fera, tesoro).3 Despite its refractory elements, the language of the Rime sparse could nonetheless embody for sixteenth-century Italy the ideals of an earlier age conducive to political harmony. To renew these ideals under the Medici banner, to suggest that the destiny of old Florence bespeaks that of modern Italy, and to encourage widespread acceptance of a Florentine patrimony through a Medicean restoration are charges that Bembo entrusts to himself. His task is to retail Petrarch's language as an inescapable product of Florentine genius.

Pietro Bembo embarked upon this project in 1501 after his brother Carlo offered Aldus Manutius a generous subvention to publish the vernacular texts of Dante and Petrarch at his press in Venice.4 Manutius accepted, eager to recruit an affluent and influential clientele, ever watchful for a good commercial deal, and possessed of an idealism that prompted him to speculate in safe markets such as vernacular poetry for income to finance less popular projects such as the Greek classics. Nor was Aldus above returning favors for help that he needed. In 1495 Pietro Bembo provided him with manuscripts of Lascaris's Greek grammar that he published with great success. Later that year he published Bembo's minor essay De Aetna, perhaps as a token of personal thanks. Four years after his edition of Petrarch, he likewise published Bembo's dialogue Gli Asolani, roundly decried by some contemporaries as unthinkable trash.

Aldus advertised his edition of Petrarch's Cose volgari as a serious and important project. Aimed at a broad readership, it was his inaugural volume in the vernacular. To supervise its editing, he turned to Carlo's brother, Pietro, an avid collector of autograph manuscripts and the inheritor of his father's fourth-century Terence, ninth-century Virgil, and twelfth-century Pindar books. For their copy text, both Manutius and Bembo claimed to use Petrarch's final exemplar, begun by his secretary in 1366 and completed in the poet's own hand the year of his death. Now in the Vatican Library (Vat. Lat. 3195), this manuscript belonged at the time to a Paduan nobleman, although Bembo indeed purchased it in 1544.5 As an editor he perhaps consulted it in 1501, at least cursorily enough to warrant the publisher's boast, but he probably used his father's copy, now also in the Vatican Library (Vat. Lat. 3197), a transcription with some 160 variants from the original. Despite some attempts to regularize Petrarch's orthography, Bembo's Aldine edition offered its contemporaries a more reliable text of the Rime sparse and Trionfi than any available since Petrarch's death, a text largely free from the contaminations of an unruly transmission. Like the Greek and Latin volumes in Aldus's series, it appeared in octavo format as a naked text free from any marginal gloss or accompanying commentary. It was the first vernacular text printed in the Italic type that Aldus had commissioned and used earlier that year for his edition of Virgil.

Aldus printed the volume with an afterword that defends Bembo's selection of the text and his care in presenting it. There Aldus notes that readers might find some lexical choices strange, beginning on the title page (Le cose volgari di messer Francesco Petrarcha … Sonetti et canzoni) with volgari and canzoni rather than vulgari and canzone, and continuing throughout the text with such variants as senonse rather than senon in canzone 22 and bavarico rather than barbarico in canzone 128. Aldus assures his readers that these forms derive not just from Petrarch's handwriting but from a pristine Tuscan archetype that modern usage has corrupted. Aldus refers to the story of Odysseus's homecoming to demonstrate that what seems new and strange can be ancient and authoritative. He compares Petrarch's original text to Ulysses who “vecchio a casa ritornando non fue racconociuto da persona” ‘returning home as an old man, was recognized by no one’ (Biiv). The poet's archaisms encapsulate a journey through history that has scattered and fragmented the language of the past, reducing it to an aesthetic artifice apt to be fetishized for its decorative appeal rather than understood for its signifying potential.

In Aldus's view, Petrarch himself followed the practice of older writers “che nelle loro scritture alcuno antico vocabolo vanno alle volte spargendo tra gli usati; che poi risplendono, quasi vaghe stelle nell'ampio cielo” ‘who in their texts occasionally scatter some ancient diction among current forms, so that they might shine like brilliant stars in the vast heavens' (Biiv). These archaisms force an encounter with history that challenges instead of confirms our understanding of the past and our expectations for the present. If an authentic autograph copy of Virgil should one day turn up, it might differ from the text that we now take for granted, but it would indubitably deepen our knowledge about antiquity:

Ma quando essi a me un Virgilio recheranno inanzi; che di man di Virgilio sia, o pure da quello tolto; quante volte o parola, o sentimento mi verra in esso veduto altrimenti stare, che non ista nel mio; tante m'ingegnero piu tosto d'intenderlo, che di colparo.


If scholars uncovered for me a copy of Virgil that was written in his own hand or even just copied from it, whenever its words or ideas seemed different from those in our current edition, I would sooner take great care to understand the difference rather than to censure it.

To possess and now to publish an authentic autograph copy of Petrarch is doubly rewarding because it deepens our understanding not only of a proximate cultural heritage but also of our role as its inheritors.

Published nearly a quarter of a century after the Aldine Petrarch, Pietro Bembo's Prose della volgar lingua offers a painstaking commentary upon this argument. It dramatizes a humanist's anxieties about linguistic fragmentation and about the possibility of reconstituting a lost language; it records the anguish of an entire generation about Italy's political fragmentation and the possibility of renewing or inventing a shared culture; and it advocates a paradoxical program that endorses literary dismemberment as a way to recuperate an authentic understanding of cultural discourse. In a society beset by factional strife and political dissention, Bembo's interlocutors divide their master texts in order to open up their powers and scatter them abroad. Circulating them among various constituents, they would heal the wounds of every prior disruption.

Civic and academic humanists of an earlier generation understood the Latin language and its literary culture as a common tongue for troubled Europe, a single system of signs able to consolidate rulers and nations, philosophers, theologians, and politicians. The spurious nature of this harmony became evident with the French and Spanish invasions of Italy at the turn of the century. The invasions prompted a turn inward, and cultivating the vernacular became a measure of patriotic defence. At the very least a unified vernacular might facilitate political unity.6 At the end of The Prince (1513) Machiavelli urges a restored Medici party, strengthened by the papacy of Leo X, to confederate Italy and, in a catachresis that fuses the theology of redemption with the economics of power, to redeem it from servitude to the rising nation states of Europe: “Nor has [Italy] at present any hope of finding this redemption [questa redenzione] save only in your illustrious house, which has been so highly exalted both by fortune and by its own merits [fortuna e virtù] and which has been favored by God and the Church, of which it is now ruler” (Bergin trans., p. 76). No less a pragmatic humanist than Machiavelli, Bembo urges the fashioning of a Florentine culture by consensus as a vehicle for Italy's redemption. Supported and encouraged by his Medici patrons, he would try to squeeze out of a two-hundred-year-old Siculo-Tuscan literary idiom the seeds of a factitious cultural and linguistic heritage. Recourse to the “pure” language of a shared past, a wholly artificial language but, for that reason, one untouched by history and the contaminating influences of regional rivalry, coalitional dispute, or foreign invasion, is Bembo's political remedy.

Chaos surrounds the dialogue. Its fictional date is 10-12 December 1502, the year following the publication of the Aldine Petrarch. Evidence suggests that Bembo may have drafted some parts of his argument at this time, but that he composed most of it toward the end of his residence at Urbino.7 In April 1512 Bembo circulated among his Venetian friends two of its eventual three books. Its plan called for an entire book on the principles of Tuscan grammar and syntax, but Giovanni Francesco Fortunio preempted this need in 1516 by publishing the first major handbook of Italian grammar, Regole grammaticali della volgar lingua. Afterwards Bembo took great pains to affect the Prose's composition at an earlier date. Its fictional setting temporalizes the year of Piero Soderini's greatest anti-Medicean political success in Florence, when he was elected gonfaloniere for life (May 1502). It temporalizes, too, the last frenzied months of Pope Alexander VI's pontificate (1492-1503), eight years after the first French invasion of the peninsula (1494), three years after the French appropriation of Milan (1499), and one year after the French seizure of Naples (1501). Ahead were the Spanish takeover of Naples (1503), the belligerent maneuvers of Cesare Borgia (1503) and of Pope Julius II (1503-13) in Romagna and the north, the action of the Holy Leagues of 1511 and 1521 against France, the election of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor in Germany (1519), and the steady advance of the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman II through the Balkans (1520). The completed Prose, dedicated to Pope Clement VII in November 1524 and published at Venice in September 1525, reverberates with echoes of these public events.

Like Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, also composed in these troubled times (1507-16, 1521-24), and whose publication Bembo would supervise with editorial adjustments in 1528, the Prose reflects its author's personal losses.8 By the time it appeared in print, three of its four interlocutors had died. Foremost is Carlo Bembo, the author's brother, himself a talented scholar and the Prose's major spokesperson for Pietro's ideas. Carlo died in December, 1503, little more than a year after the fictive date of the dialogue. Another is Ercole Strozzi (1473-1508), the noted Ferrarese humanist and statesman, author in Latin of several long poems and two books of elegies and epigrams, brutally murdered in a street fight little more than five years after the fictive date of the dialogue. A third is Giuliano de' Medici (1478-1516), the author's friend at Urbino who took refuge there during his family's exile from Florence (1494-1512). As a surviving heir of Lorenzo de' Medici (his elder brother Piero had died a few months earlier) and the brother of Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, Giuliano became head of affairs in his native city after the latter's election as Pope Leo X in March 1513, but failing health and a disinclination toward politics weakened his rule appreciably before his death in 1516. The fourth interlocutor is Federigo Fregoso (1480-1541), the only participant in the dialogue who survived its publication. Federigo, one of the most active and adventurous of Bembo's friends, took holy orders in 1507 and became bishop of Gubbio, to be succeeded in that office by Bembo himself. His ecclesiastical career notwithstanding, he distinguished himself as a military commander of his native Genoa from 1513 to 1522 when his brother Ottaviano served as Doge of that city. Federigo Fregoso, Giuliano de' Medici, and Pietro Bembo themselves play important roles in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, the first proposing its topic of “forming in words a perfect courtier” (1.12: Meier ed., p. 100; Singleton trans., p. 25), the second endorsing the monarchical directives of François I (1.42) and Isabella of Castile (3.35), and the third presenting a celebrated discourse on Platonic love (4.50-70). In the Prose Federigo and Giuliano provide central supports for Carlo's arguments about fourteenth-century Tuscan language.

Bembo situates the discussion in his native Venice on three cold, windy days in early December. The prologues to each of the Prose's three books narrate how the interlocutors gather before a fireplace in Carlo's apartment. Their common exposure to the north wind functions as a quiet emblem of the social, political, and economic infirmities that harrow all Italy. At first their anxieties focus upon a linguistic issue. When Giuliano complains about the bracing north wind, he uses a word, rovaio, that provokes commentary: “Accostiamvici—disse Giuliano—ché questo rovaio, che tutta mattina ha soffiato, accio fare ci conforta” ‘“Let's huddle together,” said Giuliano, “because this rovaio that has blown all morning encourages us to do that”’ (Dionisotti ed., p. 77). Ercole, who professes greater comfort in speaking Latin rather than the vernacular, construes the meaning of this specific Tuscanism by referring to its usage in context: “Io non ho altra fiata cotesta voce udito ricordare, che voi, Magnifico, Rovaio avete detto, e per aventura se io udita l'avessi, intesa non l'averei, se la stagione non la mi avesse fatta intendere, come ora fa” ‘Never before have I heard this word rovaio that you, Magnifico, pronounced; yet even if I had heard it, I wouldn't have understood it if the weather hadn't made me grasp its meaning’ (78). Ercole's act of interpretation initiates a discussion about language in general and about the Florentine vernacular in particular. This motif recurs at the beginning of books 2 and 3 when on successive days the speakers, “freddo per lo vento di tramontana” ‘cold from the north wind’ (132), reassemble around Carlo's fireplace, until the wind finally dies down: “Ora si tace e niuno strepito fa” ‘Now it is quiet and makes no din’ (186). The image of a community huddled for warmth and protection dominates the Prose, as it does Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, furnishing a metonymy for asylum against the storms that rage in margins of the text. Language provides a resilient medium of exchange and protection, a civilizing force that shelters humanity from tumult.

The challenge is to recognize what may be permanent in this civilizing force. As cultures change, so do their dominant forms of signification. Bembo pays homage to Michelangelo, Raphael, and other artists who labor to preserve their own visual forms while they retrieve from the past yet earlier forms that might instruct future generations: “Tanto più sé dovere essere della loro fatica lodati si credono, quanto essi più alle antiche cose fanno per somiglianza ravicinare le loro nuove” ‘So much the more do they think they should be praised for their labors as they fashion their own new works to compare with ancient ones’ (183). The verb ravicinare ‘draw near to, compare’ implies that Bembo perceives change as part of value itself. Modern works approximate those of the ancients without duplicating them. At the same time the verb s'accostono ‘approach’ implies that for both ancients and moderns perfection may be an unattainable goal: “Sanno e veggono che quelle antiche più alla perfezion dell'arte s'accostano, che le fatte da indi innanzi” ‘They know and see that those ancient works approach the perfection of art more nearly than later ones’ (183).

One can approach perfection only by degrees and with limited success. Bestrewn with ruins and swarming with tourists, sixteenth-century Rome inspires countless artists and sculptors. Its fragments disseminate past culture and challenge the present imagination:

Questa città … vede tutto il giorno a sé venire molti artefici di vicine e di lontane parti, i quali le belle antiche figure di marmo e talor di rame, che o sparse per tutta lei qua e là giacciono o sono publicamente e privatamente guardate e tenute care, … con istudio cercando, nel picciolo spazio delle loro carte o cere la forma di quelli rapportano, e poscia, quando a fare essi alcuna nuova opera intendono, mirano in quegli essempi.


Every day Rome sees artisans come to her from far and near; carefully seeking out the beautiful ancient shapes of marble and copper that lie scattered here and there or are kept and tended publicly and privately …, they reproduce such forms in the cramped space of their sketchbooks and wax models; and then, when they wish to fashion some new work of their own, they consult these models.

Conversely, this invasion of visitors who study and produce art replicates an earlier invasion of barbarian armies who treated the original artifacts with less kindness, and it figures an ultimate invasion of time itself that tramples everything underfoot. In this whirligig of change Rome remains Rome precisely because its relics survive, “per le sue molte e riverende reliquie, infino a questo dí a noi dalla ingiuria delle nimiche nazioni e del tempo” ‘through its many honored relics now spared for us from the ravages of enemy nations and time’ (183).

Implicit in Bembo's image of Rome is the idea of a plundering that can be either corrosive or beneficent. Barbarian hordes pillage the city's relics in ignorance and confusion, but visiting artists excavate them to improve their art. Time lacerates them all indifferently, but with contradictory effects. Linguistic change is one effect. In his prologue to book 2 Bembo traces the vernacular's development from ancient Latin as a natural and even desirable sequence of events, though one achieved through struggle and conflict. The dominant figure is an agonistic contention inscribed in succedere ‘win,’ a verb that evokes the victorious outcome of combat: “È ora, monsignor messer Giulio, e a questi ultimi secoli successa alla latina lingua la volgare; et è successa così felicemente, che già in essa, non pur molti, ma ancora eccelenti scrittori si leggono” ‘Now, my lord Giulio, in these last centuries the vernacular has won out over Latin, and it has won out so felicitously that already at least some, if not many, excellent writers can be read’ (128). Not all effects, however, bode well. The long discussion of linguistic change in the middle of book 1 discloses a history full of retractions and accommodations that exist side by side in unstable union.

This history unfolds in a dialogue between Ercole Strozzi and Federigo Fregoso. The former recounts a theory proposed by Leonardo Bruni in 1435 and promptly refuted by Flavio Biondo.9 It holds that the grammar and syntax of classical Latin were far too complex for everyone in antiquity to master, and that as a consequence in ancient Rome there existed side by side with Latin a less inflected plebeian speech similar to modern Italian. From this language the vernacular has descended. Ercole is appalled that modern Italians should cultivate a language contemned by ancient writers, “non solamente la meno pregiata favella e men degna da' Romani riputata, ma ancora la rifiutata e del tutto per vile scacciata dalle loro scritture” ‘not only the less valued language deemed unworthy by the Romans themselves, but also rejected and totally expunged from their literature as base’ (81). Worse, modern Italians actually dare to inscribe this language in their literature: “Laonde e di molta presonzione potremmo essere dannati, poscia che noi nelle lettere quello che i romani uomini hanno schifato, seguitiamo” ‘We can be accused of grand presumption since we pursue in our writing what Rome shunned’ (81).

Federigo, following Biondo's argument, tries to refute Ercole's history. The lack of written traces from antiquity only proves that such a language did not exist: “Se ella stata fosse lingua a quelle stagioni, se ne vederebbe alcuna memoria negli antichi edifici e nelle sepolture” ‘If this language had existed at that time, some memory of it would survive in inscriptions on ancient buildings and tombstones’ (84). Federigo defends his claim at great expense. In place of an irenic vision of linguistic and literary history in which Italian has passed with unbroken continuity from ancient times to the present, he offers a savage and turbulent one. The vernacular originated in a moment of violence. It began when barbarians invaded Italy and contaminated Latin with their own foreign tongues: “Ella cominciamento pigliasse infino da quel tempo, nel quale incominciarono i Barbari ad entrare nella Italia e ad occuparla” ‘Its beginning took hold from the time when barbarians began to enter Italy and occupy it’ (86). From this contamination Federigo nonetheless tries to recuperate an ideal, essentialized prototype of the vernacular.

As though to anticipate Federigo Fregoso's conclusion and to forestall its consequences, Giuliano de' Medici protests any need to authenticate the historical foundations of a language. The quest for primary origins leads one to posit a single form, a sole model worthy of emulation. The result would inspire useless contestation among rival heirs who compete for supremacy: “Quella una forma, quell'un modo solo di lingua, con la quale premieramente sono state tessute le scritture, sia nel mondo da lodare e da usare, e non altra” ‘That one form of language and none other, that single style in which writing had first been clothed, would then be considered worthy of praise and emulation throughout the world’ (82). Federigo conversely tracks the logic of his own argument. To assert an originary model may indeed initiate rivalry, but various forms of competition would enrich the model and prevent it from becoming a static and outmoded artifact. The Italian vernacular was born in barbarian invasions that damaged Latin cultural discourse, but it has grown in worth and has acquired an integrity of its own.

Since Federigo acknowledges that the rise of Italian has led to the decline of Latin, he must also acknowledge that among competing dialects the rise of one leads to the decline of another. In the case of Italian, Petrarch's Tuscan has emerged supreme. Its speakers and writers have borrowed diction, syntax, semantic nuances, and grammatical patterns from classical Latin, medieval Provençal, and Italian dialects. At an earlier period and in a different environment, Provençal drew support from other languages until its literature supplanted all rivals. Now Federigo argues that Tuscan has supplanted Provençal as well as Latin. This exaltation of Tuscan over other languages is the final product of a long development, the teleological goal of linguistic history. The Tuscan conquest of Provençal and earlier languages, the scattering and dispersal of Provençal literary traditions become emblems of Florence's manifest destiny in cultural politics: “Ma sì come la toscana lingua, da quelle stagioni a pigliar riputazione incominciando, crebbe in onore e in prezzo quanto s'è veduto di giorno in giorno, così la provenzale è ita mancando e perdendo di secolo in secolo in tanto” ‘But as the Tuscan language, beginning from that time on to gain in reputation, grew in honor and value seemingly from day to day, so Provençal began to diminish and contract from century to century’ (104).

Federigo's argument imposes no logical limits upon the growth of any language or upon the development of its literary discourse. It in fact denies linguistic closure and puts all discourse at risk. Giuliano de' Medici had already noted a blurring of boundaries with the influx of French and Spanish forms into contemporary Italian. This influx first resulted from military interventions summoned by one Italian state against another: “Chiama in aiuto di sé, contra il suo sangue medesimo, le straniere nazioni, e la eredità a sé lasciata dirittamente in quistion mette per obliqua via” ‘Each one calls foreign powers to its own aid against its own very blood, and by indirection puts in question its own patrimony’ (87). Giuliano now calls for a transfusion and intermingling of various lingue cortigiane. His proposal echoes a contemporaneous theory on behalf of eclecticism proposed by Vincenzo Colli, il Calmeta (1460-1508), in a lost treatise Della vulgar poesia and iterated by Castiglione's spokesperson for linguistic decorum, Ludovico da Canossa, in The Book of the Courtier. The theory holds that current usage prevailing at the major courts of Italy, especially the papal court, provides a flexible model for all speech and writing. As Ludovico da Canossa explains in Castiglione's dialogue,

Nor would this be anything new, for out of the four languages of which they were able to avail themselves, Greek writers chose words, expressions, and figures as they saw fit, and brought forth another that was called the ‘common’ language.

(1.35: Maier 142; Singleton 56)

In Bembo's version, however, Giuliano emphasizes that it would be a language distinctly different from that of the common people, a cultured, refined, intra-national language as opposed to popular dialectical forms that will always be local and chaotic, “a differenza di quell'altra che rimane in bocca del popolo, e non suole essere così tersa e così gentile” ‘different from that which remains in the mouths of the people and which cannot be so terse and gentle’ (107). Giuliano advocates an elegant, up-to-date, federated language, one that incorporates current usage and fashionable turns of phrase, Latinisms, Gallicisms, Iberisms, and contributions from elsewhere.

By embracing changefulness and variety as linguistic values, Giuliano de' Medici hopes to preempt linguistic rivalry among the city states of Italy. He also hopes to preempt any suspicion that, as patriarch of the Medici fortunes, he is plotting a dynastic renewal and a resumption of power in Florence with hegemonic ambitions over the rest of Italy. In Castiglione's Book of the Courtier Giuliano offers muted support for the supremacy of Tuscan over other Italian dialects, with a tame acknowledgment that if Petrarch or Boccaccio wrote today, both would adjust their styles to contemporary usage: “I cannot, and in reason should not, gainsay anyone who holds that the Tuscan language is more beautiful than the others. It is true, of course, that one meets with many words in Petrarch and Boccaccio that have been dropped from usage” (1.31: Maier, p. 135; Singleton, p. 51). It is almost as though he recoils from promoting a Florentine cultural dictatorship. In Bembo's dialogue, Giuliano articulates a yet more accommodating position, one that again shelters him from the charge of hatching any designs for Florentine hegemony. If Federigo's argument about unbridled change leaves Italian culture without a clear goal, Giuliano's proposal for an accommodated eclecticism leaves it with an indiscriminate sense of purposelessness. His rhetorical stand seems in fact to slight specifically the Florentine dialect and its proud literary heritage.

Carlo Bembo seeks to articulate a sharper sense of purpose. Federigo's argument and Giuliano's proposal horrify him, and his reaction against them generates the Prose's central thesis. Carlo views hurtling, unbridled change as a threat to linguistic energy. At the same time he views a composite, oleaginous lingua cortigiana as the very emblem of self-mutilation and self-effacement that Federigo and Giuliano seek to avert. To take the papal court as a possible standard, one finds there a mass of changeful and invasive influences that hobble the vernacular. Its irregular succession of popes brings to power old men of vastly different backgrounds and temperaments. Wave after mutinous wave washes away the values set by predecessors: “A guisa di marina onda, che ora per un vento a quella parte si gonfia, ora a questa si china per un altro, così ella, che pochi anni adietro era stata tutta nostra, ora s'era mutata e divenuta in buona parte straniera” ‘Like a sea wave that now swells with a wind from that quarter, now crashes with another from this, so the court that a few years earlier had entirely been ours has now changed and become largely foreign’ (109). Just as its history records the disruption of every foreign power that has threatened Italy, so its language constitutes a repository of those disruptions, a palimpsest of linguistic confusion: “E la cortigiana lingua, che s'era oggimai cotanto inispagnuolita, incontanente s'infranceserebbe, e altretanto di nuova forma piglierebbe, ogni volta che le chiavi di S. Pietro venissero a mano di posseditore diverso di nazione dal passato” ‘The courtly language, which was once hispanicized, would suddenly become gallicized and would take on a new form every time the keys of Saint Peter came into the hands of a caretaker of a different nationality’ (109). To privilege the lingua cortigiana is to privilege chaos.

For Carlo the emblem of true linguistic value is an unlikely ancient text, Virgil's Georgics, “lo specchio e il lume e la gloria de' latini componimenti” ‘the mirror and light and glory of Latin composition’ (120). Carlo's choice of Virgil's least read poem, often dismissed as a versified handbook on agricultural management, seems strange. Why not the many-layered Eclogues or the lofty Aeneid? Carlo's explanation belies any narrowly formalistic preference. Virgil's Georgics addresses every spectrum of the population without limiting itself to one privileged group. It addresses humble farmers as well as proud scholars and its store of practical advice and philosophical wisdom speaks to the present and the future as it did to the past:

Scrive del bisogne del contado il mantovano Virgilio, e scrive a contadini, invitandogli ad apparar le cose di che egli ragiona loro; tuttavolta scrive in modo che non che contadino alcuno, ma niuno uomo più che di città, se non dotto grandemente e letterato, può bene e compiutamente intendere ciò che egli scrive.


Mantuan Virgil writes about the needs of rural folk and he writes for farmers, beckoning them to learn what he taught them; he always writes in such a way that not only every farmer but also every city-dweller, whether or not learned and literate, can understand well and fully what he writes.

The allegorical mysteries of the Eclogues and the political cunning of the Aeneid may yield only a pale shadow of their original import to postclassical moderns, but the timeless simplicity of the Georgics endures.

Despite the egalitarian fervor of Carlo's argument, a vicious circularity bedevils it. Why Virgil in the first place? If popular language were ever a standard for literary greatness, then common rhymesters would be worthy of more honor than Virgil. Carlo himself concedes this point: “Virgilio meno sarebbe stato pregiato, che molti dicitori di piazza e di volgo” ‘Virgil would have been valued less than perhaps many performers of the marketplace and the rabble’ (118). Nor does the eminent classicist Ercole Strozzi shed much light on the privileging of Virgil. When Carlo defers to his expertise in Latin, Ercole retorts that no one can be sure of what he or she knows about the intricacies and enigmas of Virgil's Latin, or indeed whether any one knows very much at all about Rome's ancient language: “Trovarestemi in ciò di gran lunga meno intendente, che per aventura non istimate” ‘You might find me less knowledgeable by far than what you perhaps think’ (136). Though Ercole maintains a lighthearted attitude and jokes freely about his ignorance of the vernacular, his reply dramatizes a malaise that was beginning to affect the humanist movement in the sixteenth century. As a subtle ironist he confesses his own ineptitude in a striking version of Socratic paradox: “Il quale come che in niune non sia maestro, pure in queste sono veramente discepolo” ‘Since I am master of nothing, even in these matters I am a disciple’ (142). The very technical philological expertise that had sharpened Ercole's knowledge of the language now puts his confidence to the test.

Carlo nonetheless ventures to prove that the Italian vernacular can accomplish for modern culture what classical Latin did for earlier culture.10 To demonstrate that its best texts deserve serious consideration, he moves beyond the claim that they have already acquired a widespread reputation. Instead, he tries to analyze the conditions of worth that determine which texts are best, “che perciò che, come sapete, tanto ciascuno scrittore è lodato, quanto egli è buono” ‘because, as you know, each writer is praised according to how good he is’ (135). His analysis locates the conventional rhetorical labors of inventio, dispositio, and elocutio within a practice of variation and ornament, contrast and decoration. At least initially, however, it rests upon a distinction between matter and form, “la materia o suggetto, che dire vogliamo, del quale si scrive, e la forma o apparenza, che a quella materia si dà” ‘the matter or subject that we intend and about which we write, and the form or appearance that is given to this matter’ (136). By separating matter from form without providing for any necessary link between them, Carlo opens the textual field as a scene of struggle between words and the things that they refer to, or the things that we impute them to refer to. Form becomes a variable independent of matter, while matter becomes another independent variable, an external commodity that individual readers may first acquire and then control as a vested interest.

In the end Carlo is amazed that even the strongest texts manage to circumscribe any decisive meaning. What enables them to do so is an “occult” power, an occulta virtù, that defies analysis and rational understanding. It is an insurgence of difference and otherness that overwhelms and absorbs the reader: “Ma dico quella occulta virtù, che, in ogni voce dimorando, commuove altrui ad assentire a ciò che egli legge, procacciata più tosto dal giudicio dello scrittore che dall'artificio de' maestri” ‘I call it an occult power that, lingering in each word, moves one to assent to what he reads, procured more by the writer's judgment than by workmanlike artifice’ (174). This power derives from natural properties of words, sounds, and even letters of the alphabet on the one hand and their relationship to things that they denote on the other. It in turn reflects the hidden forces and secret sympathies of a Platonic universe uncovered in such texts as Ficino's De vita, which devotes a key chapter to “The Power [Virtute] of Words and Song for Capturing Celestial Benefits” [3.21]: “Certain words pronounced with a quite strong emotion have great force to aim the effect of images precisely where the emotions and words are directed” (Kaske-Clark trans., pp. 354-55).

These possibilities demand that the writer control the text in a powerful way. The stylistic norm that matters is gravità. Its privileging calls for a clear, assertive articulation of words and syllables in euphoniously balanced lines of verse. As Dante's De vulgaria eloquentia still awaited publication in 1529 by Bembo's antagonist, Giangiorgio Trissino, Bembo did not cite its whimsical classification of “masculine” and “feminine” words.11 He instead devised his own classificatory system based on a conception of sounds appropriate to each gender. Writers achieve gravità through clusterings of “masculine” consonants that lend sharp definition to otherwise cavernous and diffuse “feminine” vowels. “Masculine” words that feature jagged consonants like g, b, d, and t (as in “sgombro,” “destro,” “morbidezza,” “sbandito”) impart a lofty quality absent from “feminine” words that overflow with irriguous vowels and liquid consonants like l, r, and n (as in “assalire,” “errore,” “onde,” “aviene”). In Bembo's opinion the best poetry uses explosive “masculine” sounds to disrupt soothing “feminine” ones. The first line of Petrarch's sonnet 1, “Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse il suono” ‘You who hear in scattered rhymes the sound,’ for example, acquires a powerful resonance through its repetition and variation of diverse sounds: “Oltra che Rime, perciò che è voce leggiera e snella, posta tra queste due, Ascoltate e Sparse, che sono amendue piene e gravi, è quasi dell'una e dell'altra temperamento” ‘Moreover, rime, since it is a light and easy word, placed between ascoltate and sparse, which are both full and weighty with consonants, seems to acquire one and the other temperaments’ (143). The consonantal gravity of ascoltate and sparse, closed and masculinized by elision with the vowels that follow each, ascoltate in and sparse il, provides a remedy for the soft feminized vocalic dispersion of rime and suono.

So too the silent masculine reserve of elisions and ellipses provides a remedy for the womanish garrulity of dilation and repetition. Carlo finds it especially appropriate when the topic veers towards immodesty, obscenity, low or contemptible behavior. Dante stands guilty for having left nothing out of his descriptions of vile and degrading actions. He lacks the virile containment and restraint of Petrarch: “Da tacere è quel tanto, che sporre non si può acconciamente, più tosto che, sponendolo, macchiarne l'altra scrittura” ‘One should keep quiet about that part which cannot be properly expressed, rather than mar the rest of the writing in expressing it’ (138). To Ercole's pressing questions about evaluating Dante and Petrarch comparatively, Carlo answers unequivocally. The Divine Comedy deals with more varied and complex thematic issues than the Rime sparse, but its style falters more frequently. Carlo compares it to a broad and capacious field strewn with weeds and brambles. Stylistic heterogeneity diminishes its potency:

Egli molto spesso ora le latine voci, ora le straniere, che non sono state dalla Toscana ricevute, ora le vecchie del tutto e tralasciate, ora le non usate e rozze, ora le immonde e brutte, ora le durissime usando, e allo 'ncontro le pure e gentili alcuna volta mutando e guastando, e talora, senza alcuna scielta o regola, da sé formandone e fingendone, ha in maniera operato, che si può la sua Comedia giustamente rassomigliare ad un bello e spazioso campo di grano, che sia tutto d'avene e di logli e d'erbe sterili e dannose mescolato.


Frequently using Latin words, foreign words not accepted in Tuscan, old-fashioned words abandoned by everyone, foul and ugly words, the harshest sort, and on the other hand changing and ruining pure and gentle words and without any rhyme or reason forming and fashioning words by himself, Dante has made his Comedy comparable to a spacious, lush field of grain strewn with oats and darnel and poison weeds.

The importance of Dante's topic does not confer excellence upon his style. Among the ancients, Lucan attempted a historical epic whose style proved inferior to Theocritus's humble pastoral. In Carlo's judgment, Petrarch's verse overcomes these deficiencies. It is the invariable model, the single standard for good Italian style.

Despite this unequivocal conclusion, neither Carlo nor any other speaker manages to explore the actual workings of Petrarch's poetry in satisfactory depth. Federigo refers to Petrarch's three “sister” canzoni 71-73, and to the complementary canzoni 124-125 as triumphs of piacevolezza and gravità: “Fuggì non solamente la troppa piacevolezza o la troppa gravità, ma ancora la troppa diligenza del fuggirle” ‘Petrarch not only avoided too much charm and too much gravity, but he also avoided the appearance of trying too hard to avoid them’ (172). From sonnet 303 Federigo quotes a single line as a supreme example of gravità attained through a predominance of masculine consonants that bind and constrain feminine vowels: “Fior', frondi, erbe, ombre, antri, onde, aure soavi” ‘Flowers, leaves, grass, shadows, caves, waves, gentle breezes’ (172). Like Théophile Gautier's touchstone from Racine (“La fille de Minos et de Pasiphae”) ridiculed by Proust when Bergotte utters it in Du coté de chez Swann, the line carries more phonic charm than syntactic or semantic density. It simply designates in a parallel series various aspects of Vaucluse that the speaker summons after Laura's death. Federigo's preference for this line—indeed, his valuing of the entire poem—betokens the préciosité that would dominate a later manneristic poetics.

Commentators after Bembo would cite the same touchstone line. Bembo's unspoken presence dominates these commentaries. Fausto da Longiano, for example, celebrates the line as superior to any in ancient or modern verse: “Questo e'l piu alto verso piu sonoro e piu pieno che si legga tra moderni o antichi” ‘This is the noblest line, more sonorous and full than any among the moderns or the ancients’ (111r). Daniello describes the effects of its combination of harsh monosyllables and soft polysyllables in terms echoing Bembo's: “Si per la quantità, e qualità de le consonanti, ch'in essi vi veggono, e si per essere anchora spogliati de gli aggiunti loro; al quanto duri e aspri; non gli parve di compirne il verso, ma di temperar questa asprezza” ‘Through the quantity and quality of the consonants found in them and through being deprived of their endings, they seem somewhat harsh and bitter’ (156v). Its semantic meaning gets lost in minor controversy. In “O nimphe, et voi che 'l fresco erboso fondo / del liquido cristallo alberga et pasce” ‘O nymphs, and you whom the fresh grassy floor of the liquid crystal shelters and feeds,’ for example, Daniello notes that the periphrasis could refer to fish that swim in the riverbed as well as to niades that inhabit the stream. The lines acquire a trivial ambiguity as one reading tends toward landscape pictorialism, another toward mythic animism, “che s'intendendesse de Pasci bisognerebbe, che s'intendesse anchora per i vaghi habitador de verdi boschi, non i Satiri, Fauni, o Silvani, ma gli animali irrationali” ‘because if it referred to “fish,” then it would mean that it could also refer to the denizens of green woods, not satyrs, fauns, or sylvans, but irrational animals’ (156v). Castelvetro supports the first choice unequivocally, “Et voi) pesci” ‘“And you” refers to fish’ (57*), but commentators through the eighteenth century would prefer the second for surpassing brute naturalism with its elevated imagination.

The only poem from the Rime sparse quoted in its entirety in Bembo's Prose is sonnet 304, recited by Federigo Fregoso (168):

          Mentre che 'l cor da gli amorosi vermi
fu consumato e 'n fiamma amorosa arse,
di vaga fera la vestigia sparse
cercai per poggi solitarii et hermi;
          et ebbi ardir cantando di dolermi
d'Amor, di lei che sì dura m'apparse:
ma l'ingegno et le rime erano scarse
in quella etate ai pensier' novi e 'nfermi.
          Quel foco è morto e 'l copre un picciol marmo:
che se col tempo fossi ito avanzando
(come già in altri) infino a la vecchiezza,
          di rime armato ond'oggi mi disarmo,
con stil canuto, avrei fatto parlando
romper le pietre, et pianger di dolcezza.

While my heart was consumed by the worms of love and burned in an amorous flame, I sought on solitary and wild hills the scattered footprints of a wandering wild creature, and I dared, singing, to complain of Love and of her who seemed so cruel to me; but wit and rhymes came scantily at that age to my new and faltering thoughts.

That fire is dead and a little marble covers it: if it had gone on growing with time, as it does in others, into old age, armed with the rhymes of which today I am disarmed, with a mature style I would speaking have made the very stones break and weep with sweetness.

As a paragon of Petrarch's Italian oeuvre, this text speaks eloquently of the poet's self-conscious artistry. When its octave swells to a stunning admission of defeat, the speaker repudiates his own poetic talent during Laura's lifetime, while in its sestet he speculates that if Laura had lived, he would have forged a mature style, a “stil canuto,” to befit her excellence. Federigo finds here the mature style denied by its speaker. “Stil canuto” refers to a claim in Cicero's Brutus that experience and maturity bring insight and authority to one's style, “when my oratory too had attained a certain ripeness (canesceret) and maturity of age” (2.8). Petrarch's speaker has ripened in age, if not in wisdom, and if his poetry draws tears from stones as he predicted it would, the reason is that it enacts his perseverance. Simply put, the plight of an older man mourning the death of his beloved carries more affective weight than that of a younger man bemoaning her intransigence. The speaker has attained this insight at a terrible cost.

Petrarch's later commentators would draw upon Federigo's evaluation of the poem. Fausto da Longiano, for example, explains stil canuto by referring to sonnet 293 where the speaker articulates his aim “pur di sfogare il doloroso core / in qualche modo, non d'acquistar fama” ‘only to give vent to my sorrowing heart in some fashion, not to gain fame.’ Fausto construes the speaker's avowal as a direct confession, “perche in questo tempo ogni suo studio era sol di sfogare il doloroso cuore in qualche modo, e non d'acquistar fama” ‘since at this time his entire effort was to vent his sorrowful heart in some fashion and not to achieve fame’ (111v). Gesualdo likewise identifies Petrarch's stil canuto with the speaker's refinement, “cio è di meravigliosa dolcezza empiere altrui, e muovere tutti amorosi e gentili affetti” ‘that is, in order to fill another with marvelous sweetness and to move every amorous and gentle affect’ (cccxxviiv). Sylvano iterates it as “la molta differenza delle prime sue rime amorose, e di quelle che scrisse di poi nell'eta piu matura” ‘the great difference between his early amatory verse and the verse that he wrote at a more mature age’ (clxxxixr).

Other commentators would mention specific flaws in Petrarch's youthful writing. Brucioli repeats Daniello's assessment: “Non havendo cosi bei pensieri, ne cosi chiaro ingegno, e alte rime, e cosi buono giudicio” ‘Not having high thoughts, clear wit, noble rhyme, and good judgment’ (197v). Daniello adds that Petrarch acquired competence as he mined his poetic resources throughout the years: “Fu poco, non havendo ne cosi bei pensieri, ne cosi chiaro ingegno, e alte rime, e cosi buon giudicio, il quale suol crescere insieme con gli anni” ‘His art was slender, having neither high thoughts, clear wit, noble rhyme, or good judgment; but it would grow with the years’ (157r). So too with Castelvetro, for whom the speaker's ambition is a constant feature of his poetic career. Now in old age his thought and expression coincide with a ripeness of sentiment: “Si riferisce alla perfezione de' sentimenti” ‘It refers to the perfection of sentiment’ (59*). Petrarch's stil canuto marks the apex of his achievement. Bembo had authorized it as such, and later commentators accepted his judgment.

The Prose's strongest impressions of the Rime sparse, then, and the ones bequeathed to Petrarch's sixteenth-century critical readership and poetic emulators, privilege the gravità and stil canuto of Petrarch's verse in morte di Laura as touchstones of his art. In contradictory practice, however, the same poets and commentators, including Bembo himself in his own Rime, would turn to Petrarch's earlier poetry as a more stimulating model. It is not hard to see why. The turbulent emotions generated by an unstable love during the beloved's lifetime challenge the reader as well as the writer, while the rueful reflections occasioned by Laura's death figure only a dissolution. In theory the latter mode might better catch and express the political dismemberment and ideological malaise of early sixteenth-century Italy, but in practice it forecloses the development of other more versatile or adaptable forms of poetry. Understandably, then, most Petrarchists preferred the style of Petrarch in vita di Laura. For Bembo, however, the espousal of Petrarch's austere manner tallies with his social status as a cleric after 1522. By the time he published the first edition of his own Rime in 1530, the arbiter and advocate of Petrarch's stil canuto had been an ordained priest for nearly a decade.


No wonder Ercole distrusts his friends' defense of the vernacular in the Prose. They have argued that the vernacular evolved fortuitously from an ever-changing, forever unstable Latin. If the father tongue, Latin, the language of medicine, science, law, and scholarship, the patrimony of the ancient past, the medium of communication for educated males in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, proves so unstable, how can any vernacular mother tongue, the language of women and children, the fickle masses and the changeable mob, achieve stability? Ercole's masculinist assumptions disclose a bias toward a patriarchal, patrilinear, primogenitural order in society, an order that is inscribed in the grammar, rhetoric, and logic of a male academy. Whatever its particular goals might be, the ultimate goal of any academy is to guarantee an order favorable to the community it serves. Because language provides a classifying system, the work of the academy is to regulate that system.

By all odds Petrarch's language would appear a strange choice to regulate the Italian vernacular. Its chief stylistic feature is changefulness. The transformative powers of its shifting vowels and vocables chart everywhere a landscape of variable wordplay. Chameleonic homophony and polyvalent equivocation mark its character. The Petrarchan speaker seeks only to escape the paralyzing stasis of a routine language and inauthentic thought. An important emblem of this stasis in the Rime sparse is Medusa, the female monster who deprives men of their vital energies by turning them into stone. The myth, especially as Freud analyzes it in a conspicuously two-sided way, epitomizes male fears about being immobilized by terrifying sexual powers.

Freud's analysis of the myth juxtaposes two contradictory effects. One is that “the horrifying decapitated head of Medusa” evokes in the male “a terror of castration” (“Medusa's Head,” Works 18.273). Medusa's mutilated appearance reminds him of the possibility of his own castration. The second is that the sight of her head may nonetheless mitigate this horror by arousing the hero's potency: “The sight of Medusa's head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him into stone. Observe that we have here once again the same origin for the castration complex, and the same transformation of affect! For becoming stiff means an erection” (18.273). The figure's counterphobic or apotropaic effect enables the male, first, to defeat Medusa and, then, to secure her powers for his own. In the case of a cultural anthropology such as Bembo's, the power to stabilize flux, to reduce change to immobility, and to confer permanence upon vicissitude, is at issue.

This myth allows Petrarch to play famously upon the figure of petra ‘stone’ in his own name as he associates it with Laura's ability to petrify him. In sonnet 179 the speaker acknowledges his fear of being reduced to stasis by Laura's stare:

E-cciò non fusse, andrei non altramente
a veder lei, che 'l volto di Medusa,
che facea marmo diventar la gente.

And if it were not so, I would not go to see her otherwise than to see the face of Medusa, which made people become marble.

His ‘scattered’ rhymes inscribe an effort to evade paralysis, as does his verbal legerdemain. The first line of another poem about Medusa, sonnet 197, plays on the words l'aura ‘the breeze’ and lauro ‘laurel’ as variants of the beloved's name: “L'aura celeste che 'n quel verde lauro” ‘The heavenly breeze that breathes in that green laurel.’ The speaker's reference to the petrifying powers of Medusa extends the figure from his own name (Petrarca-petra-selce) to evoke the beloved's name through a play on l'auro ‘gold’:

Pò quello in me, che nel gran vecchio mauro
Medusa quando in selce transformollo;
né posso dal bel nodo omai dar crollo,
là 've il sol perde, non pur l'ambra o l'auro.

It has the power over me that Medusa had over the old Moorish giant, when she turned him to flint; nor can I shake loose that lovely knot by which the sun is surpassed, not to say amber or gold.

The suppleness of language itself provides an escape from Medusa's trap.

Bembo's interest in trying to stabilize this language as his speakers urge in the Prose corroborates his prior interest in trying to stabilize classical Latin. Like other humanists of Ciceronian persuasion, Bembo fears the dismemberment and death of the ancient language. Whereas many late fifteenth-century humanists had celebrated the variety and multiplicity of styles available in classical texts, their sixteenth-century counterparts favored a single artificially prescribed, culturally anachronistic standard for Latin style based on Ciceronian prose or Virgilian poetry. It affords a modicum of stability in the quest for vanished meaning. To Bembo, Latin is an elite discourse, the language of theology, philosophy, the approved professions, law, and politics. To save Latin for this purpose, and hence to save the world that it represents for an elite community, Bembo designates the use of a prescriptive vernacular for the official affairs of a wider community.

A tension between standards urged upon the vernacular by authorized institutions such as the university or the humanist studium and by unauthorized or self-authorized institutions such as the local court destabilizes the idea of a normative vernacular from the very beginning. Bembo can only take refuge in a call for stylistic coherence. That it might encourage a moribund conformity matters less than the linguistic stability that it affords. Instead of fleeing from Medusa, he embraces her. Medusa's powers enable him to gain the fixity that he wants. They threaten to immobilize Petrarch's lover, but they only invigorate Bembo's speaker. As he devises a language to stanch the flux of time, the Medusan gaze becomes an emblem of his art. Its language and style will be single, stable, and immutable, flexible enough to handle any topic in his purview, yet sufficiently steadfast to remain identifiable. Thus Bembo celebrates Petrarch's stil canuto, and when he writes his own poetry, he exercises it in a variety of settings. His Rime offer a diversity of topics ranging from songs and sonnets that celebrate youthful love affairs to occasional poems addressed to valued friends and trusted associates, and finally to poems about the political status of Italy in the author's lifetime. Petrarch's stil canuto governs them all.

The specter of Petrarch's stil canuto hangs over Bembo's Rime with adverse consequences. One is that the idea of a style separable from content counters Petrarch's symbiotic relation of form and content. To prescribe Petrarch's example as archetypal for all kinds of poetry, regardless of purpose, length, function, or intention, hypostatizes the notion of style. The coincidental recovery of Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poetics in Padua and Venice during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries provides an intellectual ground for this conclusion. Predicated upon Aristotle's hylomorphic assumptions, the Rhetoric (translated into Latin by George of Trebizond in 1447-55 and by Ermolao Barbaro after 1480, first printed in Greek in 1508) and the Poetics (translated into Latin by Giorgio Valla in 1498, printed in Greek in 1508, but not popular until the commentary of Francisco Robortello in 1548 and the Italian translation of Bernardo Segni in 1549) apply the categories of form and matter to verbal discourse. Aristotle's technical distinction between them legitimates their autonomy. If formal excellence may exist apart from topical significance, the writer may pursue formal excellence beyond the restraints of a poem's subject matter. In practical terms the writer may appropriate the stylistic features of Petrarch's stil canuto even when they fail to match the poem's content.12 The task is to shape or mold those features to display their stylistic elegance.

A second consequence is that stylish elegance overtakes the poetic rendering of even the most resistant motifs.13 Style becomes a way of denying the pressures of disruption and anxiety figured in the poetry. Bembo's “Sonnet 22,” for example, “Re degli altri, superbo e sacro monte” ‘Proud, sacred mountain, king of the others,’ most likely composed in anticipation of the poet's sojourn at Urbino in 1506, represents an attempt to galvanize his energies in a new environment. The speaker is leaving Ferrara, the site of his much publicized liaison with Lucrezia Borgia. The poem's opening line appropriately echoes Petrarch's sonnet 180, whose speaker addresses the Po river as he travels away from his beloved, “Re degli altri, superbo altero fiume” ‘King of rivers, proud and haughty.’ In Bembo's poem the speaker addresses the Apennine mountain range, “ch'Italia tutta imperioso parti” ‘that imperiously divides all Italy.’ Instead of increasing his amatory fervor, the journey displaces it. That fervor, “de le mie voglie mal per me sì pronte” ‘of my unhealthy desires ever so keen for me,’ comes in fact to be associated with diseased limbs, “non sani parti,” and disordered thinking, “pensieri sparti,” both linked paronomastically with the sense of division, parti, imposed by the mountains: “Vo risecando le non sane parti, / e raccogliendo i miei pensieri sparti” ‘I go paring away those unhealthy limbs, collecting my scattered thoughts.’

The periphrastic designation of Ferrara as a place “a cui vicin cadeo Fetonte” ‘in whose environs Phaeton fell’ now evokes the speaker's ruined aspirations during his residence with Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d'Este. Petrarch's canzone 23 refers to the same myth, “allor che folminato et morto giaque / il mio sperar che tropp'alto montava” ‘when thunderstruck and dead lay my hope that was mounting too high’ (52-53). The psychological density of Petrarch's model gives way to direct statement. Bembo's speaker seeks the hills of Urbino only to compose poetry and win the laurel there: “Tu sarai 'l mio Parnaso, e 'l crine intorno / ancor mi cingerai d'edere nove” ‘You will be my Parnassus and you will encircle my locks with young ivies.’ The sense of Petrarchan anguish yields to a foreordained stylistic resolution. Instead of acknowledging his trauma, the speaker tries to cure the wound by referring to Petrarch's Rime sparse. In the end he appropriates Petrarch's style but not its substance.

A third consequence of Bembo's appropriation of Petrarch's style follows from the other two. It is that all the denials and disruptions stored in the writer's unconscious tumble out in the process of composition. Their exposure only generates the speaker's effort to recover or renew his potency, thus extending the process of composition. Not just revision, but prolonged efforts of revision become crucial. In preparing his Rime for press, Bembo collected songs and sonnets composed during a period of more than thirty years and he submitted them to painstaking correction and revision. His work continues through subsequent editions that establish for each poem a palimpsest bearing the record of its own invention. This process of composition requires the poet to redo his own text, paralleling habits that Giorgio Vasari attributed to the great masters of Venetian painting in Bembo's own lifetime.14 In Vasari's judgment, however, these habits are not necessarily beneficial. In his Life of Titian Vasari complained that Giorgione painted “directly with colours, without reference to drawing” and he implied that the artist's original lack of design forced him later to make endless adjustments “to hide under the alluring beauty of colors his inability to draw” (478). So too Titian dashed off his work “with bold, sweeping strokes, and in patches of colour,” with the result that he needed constantly to retouch his pictures, “going over them with his colours several times” (478). Bembo's poetry is similarly executed, its themes and motifs altered and transformed in the course of revision, its syntax, diction, rhythm, and harmony scattered and dispersed through repeated reworking.

Bembo's allegiance to the Petrarchan model almost compels this dispersal. The poet attempts to deal with the same linguistic currency as Petrarch, extracted whole without being melted down or transformed into any personal style. For Bembo the best way to preserve the exemplary model is to cut it up into little pieces and redistribute it in new syntactic patterns. This fragmentation of the master text gives way to its reassembly in the art of cento. Bembo's poetry suggests this art without strictly constituting it. In “Sonnet 28” every element of the poem's diction and figuration derives from Petrarch, but no aspect of its composition achieves Petrarch's complexity:

          Viva mia neve e caro e dolce foco,
vedete com'io agghiaccio e com'io avampo,
mentre, qual cera, ad or ad or mi stampo
del vostro segno, e voi di ciò cal poco.

My living snow and dear sweet flame, see how I freeze and burn while, like wax, I stamp myself with your mark and you care little about it.

To appropriate the model's elocutionary devices in their pristine purity means that one can vary them at most through syntactic manipulation. Only a distention or contraction of sentence structures can bring acceptable change to the model.

One archetype for this process is the myth of division and reintegration iterated in Neoplatonic philosophy and figured most powerfully in the castration of Uranus and the birth of Venus.15 The sacrificial dismemberment of the Titans' father transforms unity into multiplicity, but not without salutary issue. Uranus's testicles thrown into the sea produce a foam from which Venus emerges. The seed of ideal form is scattered upon formless matter, only to be reassembled in a new creation. Bembo's “Sonnet 61,” “Colei, che guerra a' miei pensieri indice” ‘She who declared war upon my thoughts,’ suggests this transformation of random flux into the concentrated power of poetry whenever the beloved appears:

          Or in forma di cigno, or di fenice,
s'io parlo, scrivo, penso, vado o seggio,
m'è sempre inanzi, e lei sì bella veggio,
che piacer d'altra vista non m'allice.

Now in the form of a swan, now of the phoenix, whether I speak, write, think, move, or sit, she is always before me, and she seems so beautiful that the pleasure of no other face cheers me.

For Bembo's speaker, love generates the self-reflection and self-expression of art. The poetry that ensues reenacts a process of self-division, scattering, and reassembly.

As though to foreshadow the workings of this motif and to exemplify its consequences for poetic practice, “Sonnet 86,” a poem written before 1500, inscribes the act of dismemberment as a metaphor for literary composition. The poem, “Quando 'l mio sol, del qual invidia prende / l'altro” ‘When my sun, of whom the other sun is jealous,’ apostrophizes the decapitated Medusa. Figures of sight dominate the poem, from the emphasis of the penultimate word in its first line, invidia, to the attribution of the beloved's radiant effect, “vago sereno agli occhi miei risplende” ‘it shines charming and serene upon my eyes.’ Invidiousness becomes a consequence of sight, etymologically embedded in the root videre, as envy (in-vidia) results from seeing the other in a more desirable position. With reference to Medusa, one glimpse suffices to immobilize the man who views her even from afar.

Petrarch's figuration of Medusa poses a problem for those who would risk making the beloved unapproachable when she takes on the qualities of this devastating female monster. Thus Petrarch's speaker in his final canzone renounces Laura as a Medusa: “Medusa et l'error mio m'àn fatto un sasso / d'umor vano stillante” ‘Medusa and my error have made me a stone dripping vain moisture’ (366. 111-12). Bembo's speaker, on the other hand, manages to tame the figure by asserting that he suffers more from his beloved's disdain than any of Medusa's victims suffered from the gorgon's hellish gaze. By implication Medusa poses less of a threat to him than his own beloved does:

          Medusa, s'egli è ver, che tu di noi
facevi petra, assai fosti men dura
di tal, che m'arde, strugge, agghiaccia e 'ndura.

Medusa, if it is true that you turned men to stone, you were still less harsh than the one who burns, melts, freezes, and stiffens me.

The final stiffening ('ndura) immobilizes the speaker, undoes his creative powers, reduces him to the impotence of a marble figure: “Passo in una marmorea figura” ‘I turn into a marmoreal fixity.’ The beloved becomes a figure of castrating cruelty. The stiffening brought on by Medusa is not only less harsh but, as in Freud's alternative reading of the myth, may even be associated with sexual potency. Medusa's gaze provokes the onlooker to assert his aggressive masculinity. Only the strongest of men, Perseus or his avatars, Bembo among them, can face her at all and take charge of the situation. He stares into a formless chaos that becomes the birthplace of form. The risk of petrification—in Bembo's case, Petrarchification—becomes positive and productive. Both terrifying and life-giving, it affords entry to the womb of future possibilities while it confers new shape upon the medium of exchange itself.

These possibilities expand Petrarchan discourse through successive acts of conquest. The possession of the Medusan talisman is the sign of a threat that has been overcome, a fragmentation and dispersal of monstrosity along with the appropriation and transformation of its magical properties to work on one's behalf. Fragmentation and dispersal, appropriation and transformation, only replicate what Bembo perceives to be Petrarch's mode of composition. They motivate him to achieve within the vernacular what Petrarch himself had achieved. If Petrarch incorporated slivers of classical antiquity, Provençal troubadourism, and Tuscan stil nuovo into the composite form of his own textuality, so too may Bembo. He may do so, moreover in confidence that humanist philology since Petrarch's day has uncovered many more models to draw upon.

One example is “sonnet 87,” “O superba e crudele, o di bellezza” ‘O proud cruel woman, rich in beauty.’ The poem refers at least in theme, if not explicitly in style or diction, to Petrarch's sonnet 12, “Se la mia vita da l'aspro tormento” ‘If my life can withstand the bitter torment.’ There Petrarch's speaker looks ahead to an indefinite future when Laura's charms will surrender to old age:

Ch'i' veggia per vertù degli ultimi anni,
Donna, de' be' vostr' occhi il lume spento,
e i cape' d'oro fin farsi d'argento.

That I may see by the power of your last years [trans. mod.], Lady, the light of your lovely eyes dimmed and your hair of fine gold made silver.

In Petrarch's version the speaker is remunerated after all these years by the beloved's muted acknowledgment, “alcun soccorso di tardi sospiri” ‘some little help of tardy sighs.’ Bembo's speaker likewise imagines the day when his beloved will greet old age, “quando le chiome d'or caro e lucente / saranno argento, che si copre e sprezza” ‘when your hair of precious shining gold, which now is covered up and tied back, will become silver.’ In this version, however, she will see her transformed features in a cold, uncompromising mirror:

E ne lo specchio mirerete un'altra,
direte sospirando:—eh lassa, quale
oggi meco penser?

And you will see yourself as someone different in the mirror, you will say with a sigh: Alas, what memory remains with me today?

These lines signal Bembo's pride in his own classical attainments as they incorporate a direct translation from Horace's Ode 4.10: “dices ‘heu,’ quotiens te speculo videris alterum” ‘as often as you gaze in the mirror on your altered features, you shall say: “Alas!”’ The intrusion of Horace's complaint into the lexical field of Petrarch's refined and sublimated lament disrupts Petrarch's syntactic and semantic unity. On the one hand it points to Bembo's academic and largely self-conscious view that Petrarch knew less about the classical past than he himself did. On the other it leads to a comprehensive discourse. Though Petrarch refers rather vaguely to Horace's recently recovered Latin odes, Bembo applies their model to his own work with a professional exactitude.

Bembo's claim upon reconstituting a classical discourse through the work of humanists since Petrarch's era gives him an imagined advantage over his literary precursor. It expands his hypothetical resources for self-representation. At the same time it reaffirms that Bembo's deepest allegiance may have been to classical discourse itself. The dismemberment he fears is a division within the ancient language, a dispersal of it threatened by contamination and misuse at the hands of lesser authors. To save that language for the educated few who are the true wielders of power, Bembo recommends a standardized vernacular for the many. This linguistic purging acts out a crisis that displaces Bembo's amatory anxieties from an interior erotic drama to the exterior choice of Petrarch's language. It nudges him in the end toward a tightening and restraint of his emotional repertoire, leading finally to a constriction of mood and diminution of pathos.

The late “Sonnet 94,” composed between 1530 and 1535, exemplifies this constriction. It represents the speaker in a conventional oxymoronic posture “tra due,” but it reduces his beloved to the figure of a wild creature drawn from Roman elegy: “La fera che scolpita nel cor tengo, / così l'avess'io viva entro le braccia” ‘The wild creature that I hold sculpted in my heart, would that I held her so within my arms.’ In the sestet the speaker admits that he cannot curb her freedom. This admission leads to a statement of regret curiously modified by the strong adverb inutilmente ‘uselessly’:

          E so ch'io movo indarno, o penser casso,
e perdo inutilmente il dolce tempo
de la mia vita, che giamai non torna.

And I know that I act in vain, O heavy thought, and that to no avail am I losing the sweet time of my life that will never return.

The adverb virtually cancels the speaker's regret by implying the foolishness of his behavior. Any reasoned consideration of his chances for success will show their impossibility. The word inutilmente appears only once in Petrarch's canon, in sonnet 74, a poem about amatory constraint. Its opening lines echo with chiasmic repetition: “Io son già stanco di pensar sì come / i miei pensier' in voi stanchi non sono” ‘I am already weary of thinking how my thoughts of you are weariless.’ When inutilmente occurs at the climax of the first tercet, it signals a cleft between Petrarch's awareness of the futility of his pursuit and his decision nonetheless to continue, “a seguir l'orme vostre in ogni parte, / perdendo inutilmente tanti passi” ‘to follow your footsteps everywhere, wasting in vain so many steps.’ The speaker's erotic drive is compromised in the process.

The extinction of eros likewise follows in Bembo's art. The epigonic speaker feels the torment inscribed in the Petrarchan model but not the passion ignited by the lover's yearning for completion in a new language. In the absence of any perceived need to invent a different style, the erotic temper melts away. Bembo's speaker has what he wants: the text of Petrarch's poetry reified and marmorealized beyond all possibility of alteration, change, or disfigurement. Bembo's last poems, no doubt coincident with the poet's self-proclaimed seriousness about his ecclesiastical duties and his elevation to the cardinalate (1539), explicitly platonize his love.

“Sonnets 132-137,” composed probably between 1537 and 1539, address Elizabetta Massolo, a sister of Bembo's testamentary executor, in “povera vena e suono umile, a lato / beltà sì ricca e 'ngegno sì sublime” ‘an impoverished vein and humble sound in relation to so rich a beauty and so sublime a spirit as yours’ (“Sonnet 133”). The speaker all but equates his admiration for her with a literary exercise when he claims in “Sonnet 135” that Virgil himself might miss the mark in praising her, “le cui lode, e scemar del vero parmi, / foran al Mantovan troppo alto segno” ‘whose praise, and it seems to me to understate the truth, would have been too high a goal for Virgil to achieve.’ In “Sonnet 137” he explains that the source of her excellence is uncommon virtue and steadfast goodness: “La via di gir al ciel con fermo passo / m'insegna, e 'n tutto al vulgo mi ritoglie” ‘She teaches me the way to heaven with steadfast pace and in every concern she draws me away from the mob.’ For this Platonic sublimity the price that the poet must pay is self-immolation. The extinction of eros obliterates his fears, hopes, longings, and unfulfilled desires for the other.

Something of Bembo's self-effacement emerges at the end of Castiglione's Book of the Courtier.16 If ever Bembo wanted a prince to notice him, it was Giuliano whom he wanted to attract. The Medici heir represented his best hope for security, patronage, and protection, and with Medici support he could attain the literary celebrity he so ardently hoped for. When at a climactic moment in book 4 of Castiglione's dialogue Giuliano virtually ignores him, the slight has a wounding effect. It is tempting to imagine that Bembo responds by overcompensating in his famous discourse on Platonic love. The ineffectual, even rather clownish, Bembo has tried to refine a discussion about virtue and reason when he points out that continence draws upon passion (4.15). Giuliano de' Medici rejoins that “If I have heard aright, signor Ottaviano, you said that continence is an imperfect virtue because it has a part of passion in it” (4.17: Maier, p. 466, Singleton, p. 300). Giuliano has heard the words aright, but he has confused the speaker's identity by attributing the words wrongly to Ottaviano Fregoso. The Medici heir simply fails to acknowledge Bembo's presence. Within moments Bembo speaks again, this time to defend the primacy of republican government after Ottaviano has subordinated it to autocratic monarchies: “I hold that the rule of a republic is more desirable than that of a king” (4.20: Maier, p. 471, Singleton, p. 305). Once more he suffers a rhetorical check as others extol the benefits of rule by a single leader.

Castiglione proceeds to locate Bembo's discourse on Platonic love (4.50-70) in an intensely political context. Ottaviano unequivocally endorses monarchy over the rule of a republic because it is “more like that of God, who singly and alone governs the universe” (4.19: Maier, p. 470, Singleton, p. 303). At the end of his endorsement, Ottaviano painfully admits that Italy lacks a truly powerful prince, a ruler blessed with fortuna ‘good fortune,’ if not with Machiavellian virtù (4.42: Maier, p. 501, Singleton, p. 326). In the awkward fumbling that ensues, Bembo rushes into the breach to defend Ottaviano's remarks about the noble courtier as a lover. By the time he takes center stage, Bembo has become a proponent of the new order and a convert to monarchism. His claim about hierarchical degrees of love asserts “the coherence of an order so precisely constituted that, if things were in the least changed, they could not exist together, and the world would fall into ruin” (4.58: Maier, p. 523, Singleton, p. 343). In this “great fabric of the world,” as Bembo perceives it, the rule of God is best mirrored in society by the rule of one monarch over all.

What motivates Bembo's change of mind in these last pages of Castiglione's dialogue? Has this patrician Venetian humanist traded his convictions about republican civic virtue for an endorsement of the aristocratic well-being prized by his Medici friend? Or has he from the beginning conducted his affairs without regard for political consistency or ideological purity? And what is Castiglione's evaluation: does he show Bembo's contradictions in order to censure them? Or does he fail to notice the retractions and reversals in Bembo's performance? Did neither he nor Bembo, who revised Castiglione's manuscript before its publication, try to edit out the inconsistencies? Or did Bembo approve Castiglione's fictional representation of him because that fiction firmly cemented his dedication to the Medici at all costs?17

Bembo, of course, had everything to gain from a show of loyalty and affection to Giuliano de' Medici. Beyond his youthful ties to Florence during his father's ambassadorship, Bembo seemed a genuinely good companion of Giuliano at Urbino from 1506 to 1512. After the Medici restoration in September 1512, Bembo declared active support. Unusual benefits, however, came from neither Giuliano nor his brother. Though Bembo accepted a secretarial appointment from the latter after his papal election in March 1513, and though he pursued hopes of ecclesiastical advancement by taking holy orders in December 1522, he received no direct recompense in either capacity. Nor did he win recompense from their nephew Lorenzo, upon whom the family's leadership devolved in 1516, nor from their cousin Giulio, later Pope Clement VII (1523-34), to whom he dedicated the Prose della volgar lingua in 1524 as a major effort to certify the cultural hegemony of Florence. By September 1530, when the Medici were again in exile from Florence, he appears to have abandoned his hopes for the family when he became historiographer of Venice. Nine years later at age sixty-nine, he received the cardinal's hat from Pope Paul III, and finally a bishopric in July 1541. Bembo's struggle to be heard in the Book of the Courtier, his efforts to gain recognition by taking the floor with an edifying discourse on love, find their rhetorical correlative in the petrarchification of his own poetry. That Vittoria Colonna famously circulated Castiglione's manuscript in the early 1520s against Bembo's wishes is only a minor blow. He never had full control of it anyway.


  1. Data from Vittorio Cian, Un decennio della vita di Pietro Bembo (1521-1531) (Turin: Ermanno Loescher, 1885); Mario Santoro, Pietro Bembo (Naples: Morano, 1937), pp. 11-70.

  2. For a stronger emphasis on Bembo's evolved thinking, see Theodore J. Cachey, Jr., “Il pane del grano e la saggina: Pietro Bembo's 1505 Asolani Revisited,” The Italianist 12 (1992): 5-23. Notably Bembo composed Gli Asolani at the time of Savonarola's downfall and Soderini's rise, events auguring new turns in the life of Florence. He revised it during the second Medici exile and published it upon the second Medici restoration.

  3. Examples from Bruno Migliorini, The Italian Language, trans. T. Gwynfor Griffith (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 134-39.

  4. Martin Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), pp. 109, 116, 147-50, 175, 223; and Carlo Dionisotti, Gli umanisti e il volgare fra quattro e cinquecento (Florence: Le Monnier, 1968), pp. 1-14, 123-30.

  5. Gino Belloni, Laura tra Petrarca e Bembo: Studi sul commento umanistico-rinascimentale (Padua: Antenore, 1992), pp. 72-73 and 109-18; Giovanni Pillinini, “Traguardi linguistici nel Petrarca Bembino del 1501,” Studi di filoglogia italiana 34 (1981): 57-76.

  6. Cesare Segre, Lingua stile e società (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1963), pp. 355-82.

  7. Cian, Un decennio, pp. 46-57.

  8. Wayne A. Rebborn, Courtly Performances (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978), pp. 183-84; Piero Floriani, Bembo e Castiglione: Studi sul classicismo del cinquecento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1976), pp. 104-5.

  9. See Robert Hall, The Italian Questione della Lingua (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Studies in Romance Languages, 1942), pp. 13-15; and Mario Vitale, La questione della lingua (Palermo: Palumbo, 1960), pp. 45-48.

  10. For the development of Latin philology and sixteenth-century efforts to model an analysis of the vernacular on it see Aldo D. Scaglione, Classical Theory of Composition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972), pp. 126-50; and Giancarlo Mazzacurati, Misure del classicismo rinascimentale (Naples: Liguori, 1967).

  11. Dionisotti suggests that Bembo nonetheless knew De vulgari eloquentia imperfectly in his edition of Bembo, Prose e rime, pp. 128-29, note 1. See also Richard Waswo, Language and Meaning in the Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 132-37, and R. R. Bolgar, The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), p. 434.

  12. For applications to Bembo's own poetry see Dante Della Terza, “Imitatio: Theory and Practice. The Example of Bembo the Poet,” Yearbook of Italian Studies 1 (1971): 119-41, pp. 134-36; Giorgio Santangelo, Il Bembo critico e il principio d'imitazione (Naples: Morano, 1937), pp. 103-9; and Giorgio Santangelo, Il Petrarquismo del Bembo e di altri poeti del 500 (Rome: Istituto Editoriale Cultural Europanea, 1962), pp. 129-62.

  13. James Mirollo, Mannerism and Renaissance Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 131-32.

  14. David Rosand, Painting in Cinquecento Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 19-21.

  15. Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (New York: Norton, 1968), pp. 113-37.

  16. See Guido Arbizzoni, L'ordine e la persuasione: Pietro Bembo Personaggio nelCortegiano” (Urbino: Quattroventi, 1983).

  17. For a reading that plots Bembo's differences from Castiglione along Aristotelian and Thomistic rather than Neoplatonic lines, see Theodore Cachey, “In and Out of the Margins of a Renaissance Controversy: Castiglione in the Second Asolani (1530),” Rivista di letteratura italiana 3 (1985): 253-62.

Primary Texts Cited

Bembo, Pietro. Gli Asolani. Trans. Rudolf B. Gottfried. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1954.

Bembo, Pietro. Prose e rime. Ed. Carlo Dionisotti. 2d ed. Turin: UTET, 1966.

Brucioli, Antonio. Sonetti, canzoni, et triomphi di M. Francesco Petrarca con breue dichiaratione, & annotatione di Antonio Brucioli. Venice: Alessandro Brucioli e i frategli, 1548.

Castelvetro, Ludovico. On the Art of Poetry. Ed. and trans. Andrew Bongiorno. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1984.

Castelvetro, Lodovico. Le rime del Petrarca breuemente sposte per Lodouico Casteluetro. Basel: Pietro de Sedabonis, 1582.

Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Charles Singleton. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1959.

Castiglione, Baldassare. Il libro del cortegiano. Ed. Bruno Maier. 2d ed. Turin: UTET, 1964.

Daniello, Bernardino. La poetica. Venice: Giovanni Antonio de Nicolini da Sabio, 1536. Reprint in Poetiken des Cinquecento. Ed. Bernard Fabian. Munich: Fink, 1968.

Daniello, Bernardino. Sonetti, canzoni, e triomphi di messer Francesco Petrarcha con la spositione di Bernardino Daniello da Lucca. Venice: Giovanniantonio de Nicolini da Sabio, 1541.

Daniello, Bernardino. Sonetti canzoni e triomphi di M. Francesco Petrarca, con la spositione di Bernardino Daniello da Lucca. Venice: Pietro e Gioanmaria Fratelli de Nicolini da Sabio, 1549.

Fausto da Longiano, Sebastiano. Il Petrarcha col commento di M. Sebastiano Fausto da Longiano. Venice: Francesco di Alessandro Bindoni e Mapheo Pasini, 1532.

Ficino, Marsilio. De vita: Three Books on Life. Ed. and trans. Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud. 24 vols. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1953-75.

Gesualdo, Giovanni Andrea. Il Petrarcha colla spositione di Misser Giovanni Andrea Gesualdo. Venice: Giovann' Antonio di Nicolini & fratelli da Sabbio, 1533.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Trans. Thomas G. Bergin. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1947.

Petrarch, Francesco. Canzoniere. Ed. Gianfranco Contini. 3d. ed. Turin: Einaudi, 1964.

Petrarch, Francesco. Petrarch's Lyric Poems. Ed. and trans. Robert M. Durling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Petrarch, Francesco. Le rime. Ed. Giosuè Carducci and Severino Ferrari. Florence: Sansoni, 1899.

Sylvano da Venafro. Il Petrarca col commento di M. Syluano da Venaphro. Naples: Antonio Iouino and Matthio Canzer, 1533.

Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Trans. George Bull. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

Ignacio Navarrete (essay date 1994)

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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, Petrarchism is the result of the transfer to the vernacular of models of literary history originally elaborated within the context of an attempt to ameliorate composition in Latin through the imitation of Cicero. The figure most associated with this transfer, both during the Renaissance and today, is Pietro Bembo, who in his landmark dialogue-treatise, the Prose della volgar lingua, proposed the strict imitation of Petrarch and Boccaccio as a solution to the problem of creating a national literary language for Italy. Bembo in his youth developed a reputation as a strict Ciceronian in matters of Latin style, and his theory of imitation was first worked out in an exchange of letters with Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, in which he rejected the eclectic approach promoted by earlier generations of Renaissance writers, particularly those associated with the Florentine Neoplatonists. To Bembo, imitation involves copying not only the style but “if you please, the same organizing principle which he has used whom you have set before you as an example” (Scott, 11); hence copying stylistic details alone, an inevitable consequence of eclectic imitation, would only result in a travesty. Imitation also gives a work a certain resonance; describing his own early attempts to avoid imitation, he concludes, “It pleased me and I experimented in it as far as I could, but all my thought, care, and study, all my labor was vexatious and void; for I invented nothing which could not easily have been drawn from the old writers; and when I tried to avoid that, it lacked the charm, the propriety, the majesty of those ages” (Scott, 13). Cicero and Virgil themselves attained this majesty by imitating their Greek predecessors, and they thus showed the way for Bembo and his contemporaries who, if they are diligent in their imitations, may someday hope to surpass their classical models. But for now this is only an elusive hope, as “it is not so arduous to surpass the one whom you equal as to equal the one whom you imitate” (Scott, 16).

As Ferruccio Ulivi pointed out, Bembo and the other humanist partisans of a strict Ciceronianism nourished a phenomenological concept of literary creation that emphasized process, as opposed to that metaphysical one which lay at the heart of Ficinian thought, which emphasized the emanation of ideas (23).1 Thomas Greene, elaborating on Ulivi's distinction, focuses on the conflict between “inventio and elocutio, or res and verba, or expressionism and formalism, between creativity as spontaneous nature and creativity as discipline, between impulse and method, or between beauty as variety and beauty as unity, between color and purity” (175). He thus identifies the dispute over Ciceronian imitation with perennial aesthetic issues in the history of literature, though at the cost of the historical specificity of the issues involved. Although he correctly sees Pico, an advocate of the eclectic approach, as grounded in humanist historiography—that is, emphasizing the difference between antiquity and the sixteenth century and the freedom of the modern writer to pick and choose—he overlooks that it is Bembo who locates a writer in the historical process of reading and writing, and who has no illusions about the easy restoration of antiquity.2

As Greene further notes, between Bembo's letter to Pico and his discussion of poetry in the Prose, “his theoretical outlook did not significantly change” (175). Yet this consistency is in itself remarkable, for the Prose contains the first overt application of imitation theory, previously reserved for the more exalted area of Latin prose composition, to the vernacular. In order to transfer his ideas, Bembo had to preserve not only his phenomenological outlook but also the humanist conception of history as divisible into a tripartite structure comprising classical achievements, medieval decline, and Renaissance renewal. The process by which Bembo establishes Petrarch as a model therefore deserves closer scrutiny. To appropriate the humanist scheme of history, Bembo begins by justifying the use of Italian rather than Latin; the Romans, he argues, composed in their own language, even though they valued the literary accomplishments of the Greeks more highly than their own. Had they ignored the rule of composing in the native language, they would have written in Greek, while the Greeks themselves would have written in Phoenician, and they in turn in Egyptian, and so on. In this way, Bembo describes each culture's sense of inferiority to a preceding one, which is itself largely forgotten as the new cultures arise.3 Thus language, and with it literature, are at any moment of time caught in an uncomfortable position of feeling inferior to the past and anxious about the future. Moreover, this cycle occurred not only in antiquity but in the recent past as well: Bembo declares that the scuola siciliana of thirteenth-century Italian poetry is only a name to him, and that although the Provençals were extremely influential and worthy of study, their language is as good as dead. This discussion of Provençal, in the Prose, directly precedes the statement of the questione della lingua—considering all the dialects spoken in Italy, which should a writer employ?—and therefore Bembo places the discussion about contemporary language in a context of past literatures that have come to grief. Bembo thus implies that this fate may hang over Italian as well, and that the Prose represents an attempt to ward it off.

As alternative solutions to the language problem, Bembo entertains two possibilities. The first is the lingua cortegiana, the common language spoken by courtiers throughout the peninsula. This however is rejected as being too unstable and lacking in uniformity. Moreover, speakers alone cannot guarantee immortality to a language:

Né la latina lingua chiamiamo noi lingua, solo che per cagion di Plauto, di Terenzio, di Virgilio, di Varrone, di Cicerone e degli altri che, scrivendo, hanno fatto che ella è lingua.

(110, Prose 1.14)

Not even Latin would we call a language, were it not for Plautus, for Terence, for Virgil, for Varro, for Cicero, and for the others who, by writing, made it into a language.

Here Bembo moves from arguing that writers insure that a language will be studied in ages to come to asserting that only writers make up the language. He concludes that Tuscan must become the literary language of Italy, for it was the principal heir to the Provençal tradition and, more importantly, because it is the most developed dialect in Italy:

Perciò che se io volessi dire che la fiorentina lingua più regolata si vede essere, più vaga, più pura che la provenzale, i miei due Toschi vi porrei dinanzi, il Boccaccio e il Petrarca senza più.

(110, Prose 1.14)

Thus if I wished to say that the Florentine language is clearly more ordered, more beautiful, and more pure than Provençal, I would put before you my two Tuscans, Petrarch and Boccaccio, and no more.

Petrarch and Boccaccio, however, lived almost 150 years before the composition of the Prose. By citing them rather than more contemporary Tuscans, Bembo underlines the endangered state of Italian poetry, courting the same fate that had earlier befallen the Sicilians. Yet by positing this gap, and turning to Petrarch and Boccaccio as models, Bembo saddles the vernacular with the same sense of cultural inferiority with which the humanists had earlier burdened Latin composition. By turning away from Latin (in the Prose at least), Bembo rejects the humanist ideal; but his method for improving the vernacular was derived from humanist practice. Again and again as Bembo repeats his key point—that Petrarch and Boccaccio have never been surpassed and that Italian literature in fact has decayed since the time they wrote—he appropriates for the vernacular the key elements of the humanist tripartite division of history: the notion of a dark age, and the practice of scholarship and imitation as the only means to recuperate the level attained by long-dead predecessors.

Ultimately, Bembo concludes the discussion of vernacular imitation with a nearly necromantic model of imitation, a description of artists in Rome disinterring ancient monuments and dutifully sketching the paintings, sculptures, and buildings. Reversing Petrarch's description of strolling through Rome and imagining what lay beneath the ruins, Bembo presents a city in the course of recovering its ancient cultural artifacts in such a way that modernity begins to merge with the predecessor that formerly lay underneath. This process of recovery, by providing adequate models, is responsible for the achievements of Michelangelo and Raphael, both of whom have become so proficient in their art that it would be difficult to tell their work from that of their antique models. If imitation can accomplish such results with the plastic arts, it should be able to accomplish far more for literature, “così leggiadra e così gentile” (so graceful and so noble, 184). While there is now an overabundance of books in Latin, however, the vernacular is most in need of development: the many vernacular writers have produced few works in prose or in verse worthy of preservation, and only the same process of imitation can lead to the restoration of poetry. Thus Bembo establishes a heuristic equivalence among Latin literature, the architectural and artistic monuments of ancient Rome, and the state of modern Italian letters. All three are subject to the same historical model adopted by Petrarch to define the humanist movement, yet while the first has been fully recovered through a plethora of books, and the second is now literally being exhumed for study, the necessary archaeology for the restoration of the vernacular has scarcely begun.

Bembo's understanding of Petrarchist imitation is primarily linguistic and stylistic, and his appreciation of Petrarch's phonetic structure led Cesare Segre to characterize it as “linguistic hedonism.” Yet even if his precepts were not easily transferred outside Italy, and were often resisted within it, he was tremendously influential in other ways. By displacing to the vernacular realm the theoretical foundations of Ciceronianism, he provided an ideological framework that justified the effort to illustrate the languages of contemporary Europe. From Ciceronianism, however, he also brought to the realm of the vernacular the tripartite historiography of the humanists, and the attendant sense of deficiency, which made Petrarchism the truest form of Renaissance vernacular lyric poetry, for it reflects the idea of decadence and rebirth inherent in the idea of a renaissance. Thus his theories were self-serving, for from the Prose there emerge two sets of linguistic heroes, Petrarch and Boccaccio in the fourteenth century as the original illustrators of the language, and Bembo himself as the vanguard of its restoration. Moreover, his fame as a Tuscan scholar brought his poetry a canonical status second only to Petrarch's, further increasing his influence abroad (see Cruz, Imitación, 24-34). Bembo's popularity, like that of contemporaries such as Sannazaro and Ariosto, may partly have been due—as Curtius argued (34 n. 44)—to a fashion for things Italian; but his legacy was a model of literary history and of Petrarch's place within it as the only modern classic, the standard against which lyric poets, both Italians and foreigners, must measure themselves.

To appreciate more fully Bembo's position in the development of vernacular humanism, we can situate him in a context that includes Petrarch's own views on literary history and imitation, and the subsequent history of what we might call the trope of the continual Renaissance. In his history of the Renaissance as a historical concept, Wallace Ferguson credited Petrarch with conflating models drawn from civic and sacred history to posit the tripartite division of time into the ancient Greco-Roman world, an intervening “dark age,” and the contemporary, incipient revival.4 Moreover, by rejecting any continuity with ancient Rome through the Holy Roman Empire (an idea still held by Dante a generation earlier), Petrarch was free to see the end of the republic, rather than the collapse of the empire, as the first step in a decline that included the cultural as well as the political spheres, while conversely the recovery of civic virtue would entail not only the founding of a new republic, but also the exhumation of culture through the cultivation of Latin and the study of Roman literature, particularly Cicero. Beginning with Petrarch, the two major tools for the humanist restoration of ancient standards of literary culture became scholarship, for the purification of model texts, and imitation, as a guide for the development of the moderns (see Ulivi, 9). Ferguson's view of Petrarch as the source of humanist theories of alienation from antiquity is echoed by Greene, who sees Petrarch as the founder of the “humanist hermeneutic,” the recognition that classical texts had a meaning in ancient times that can be recuperated only through scholarship, not through the atemporal allegorical and anagogic modes of interpretation practiced during the Middle Ages. Greene takes as paradigmatic Petrarch's description of a stroll through Rome, in the course of which he evokes the historical associations of the mounds and ruins he encounters. The passage echoes the eighth book of the Aeneid in which, as Aeneas walks through the site of the future Rome, the poet cites the buildings and monuments that will some day stand in the same locations. But Petrarch's retrospective tour, by emphasizing the decayed state of the scene, also underlines the fact that Rome is gone for good, and that its former magnificence can only be imagined. Thus even as he imitates Virgil, Petrarch recognizes the gulf of radical discontinuity that separates them and locates in that gulf his own freedom, his alterity from both antiquity and the middle ages. Thus as we have already seen in Bembo, archaeology—whether literary or architectural—would become the model science of the Renaissance: like the robbing of tombs, it entails the violation of taboos, and sometimes a little necromancy as well, to achieve its ultimate goal of bringing the dead back to life (Greene, 88-93).

Yet if Petrarch was responsible for the tripartite view of history through a self-representation as the one who began the revival of antiquity, subsequent generations often denied him that honor. As Ferguson shows (22-24), a succession of later humanists excluded Petrarch and Boccaccio from their ranks, relegating both of them to the benighted middle ages while fixing the beginning of the revival in their own generation. This continual, rhetorical postponement of the “renaissance” allows them comfortably to predict future achievements that will equal the ancients even as they emphasize their own attempts to begin to make up for the defects of the past. Ferguson's account of the history of humanist self-consciousness makes several important points. First, it recalls the connection established by Petrarch himself between politics and culture, which led later writers such as Bruni to remark on the lag between the rates of political and cultural development, and which was to have important consequences outside Italy. Second, it points out the overt sense of deficiency by comparison to antiquity, constantly cited as the standard; although there is contempt for what the humanists saw as the dark age that followed the collapse of Rome, there is also an implicit feeling of insecurity about their own age, only tenuously distinguished from that which preceded it. Third, it emphasizes that the beginning of the restoration of letters was variously dated, with the proclamation of a revival attaining the status of a trope. By constantly reappropriating Petrarch's idea of a renaissance as a defense against antiquity, the later humanists betray their chronic feeling of insecurity about the present when compared to the ancient past, and to the true pioneer humanists whom they attempt to ignore; by bringing forward the time of the rebirth, it is made to seem as if the moderns have had less time to catch up.5 But why did the humanists feel a need to deprecate their own forebears? I argue that this tendency represented an attempt to excuse their own shortcomings, their own failure to achieve according to the antique standards that they themselves had reestablished, and the desire on the part of the later humanists for a degree of priority. How to account for the seeming inability to compose literary monuments on a par with those of antiquity? One way was to pretend continually that they lived at only the beginning of the revival, that they were the pioneers, and thus that they were only laying the groundwork for future generations.

Naïve attempts to recreate antique literature, however, were doomed to failure. Greene draws our attention to what he calls heuristic imitations that—like Petrarch's stroll through Rome—underline the gap between cultures, and he quotes extensively from Petrarch's letters on imitation, in which the poet emphasizes the need to process ancient texts and make them one's own. Borrowing from Cicero, Petrarch advises an imitator to be like a bee, tasting from various flowers but transforming the nectar into a honey all its own.6 This apian model is then transformed into the famous digestive image, which has a prehistory going back to Seneca and which recurs throughout the Renaissance in discussions of imitation:

I have read Virgil, Flaccus, Severinus, Tullius not once but countless times, nor was my reading rushed but leisurely, pondering them as I went with all the powers of my intellect; I ate in the morning what I would digest in the evening, I swallowed as a boy what I would ruminate upon as an older man. I have thoroughly absorbed these writings, implanting them not only in my memory but in my marrow, and they have so become one with my mind that were I never to read them for the remainder of my life, they would cling to me, having taken root in the innermost recesses of my mind.

(3.212-13, Familiares 22.2; see Greene, 99)7

Here Petrarch stresses the transformatory aspect of imitation and the need to be true to one's personal style. Elsewhere, he warns against slavish imitation, comparing it with wearing someone else's clothing; in contrast, he claims to prefer his own “garment,” however rude and ill-cut. To Greene this passage constitutes evidence of Petrarch's strong sense of the self, and of its expression through an individual style; the successful assimilation of models along these lines characterizes the best poetry of a humanist period that extends to the eighteenth century (97-99).

Summarizing Petrarch's contribution to the development of humanist inferiority as a cultural phenomenon, Greene argues that the “humanist poet is not a neurotic son crippled by a Freudian family romance, which is to say he is not in Harold Bloom's terms Romantic. He is rather like the son in a classical comedy who displaces the father at the moment of reconciliation” (41). But Greene takes too benevolent a view of father-son relationships when he offers the following letter to explain the connection between imitation and sonhood:

An imitator must take care to write something similar yet not identical to the original, and that similarity must not be like the image to its original in painting where the greater the similarity the greater the praise for the artist, but rather like that of the son to his father. While often very different in their individual features, they have a certain something our painters call an “air,” especially noticeable about the face and eyes, that produces a resemblance; seeing the son's face, we are reminded of the father's. … We must thus see to it that if there is something similar, there is also a great deal that is dissimilar, and that the similar be elusive.

(3.301-2, Familiares 23.19; see Greene, 95)

Although the father-son model of imitation is, like that of the bee, taken from Seneca, Petrarch's particular use of it here skirts close to the very family romance that Greene finds of no relevance. Like the earlier tropes emphasizing the imitator's divergence from models (his own suit of clothes, however ill-fitting; his own honey, made of the nectar gathered from many flowers), this one stresses both similarity and difference. Slavish imitation is likened to mimesis, but while the possibility of deviating from the prototype offers some comfort, the analogy between model and father, and imitation and son, suggests that the model poet engenders the imitator, and this relationship of direct dependency is closer to medieval notions of midgets on the shoulders of giants than to the humanist hermeneutic. Moreover, the reader's constant back-and-forth comparison between imitation and model, to Pigman a sign of competitive emulation (26), hardly eases the anxiety of poets attempting to compete with the great writers of the past.

The father-son model established in the letter on imitation underlies Petrarch's letter about Dante. There, Petrarch compares the Tuscan poet to his own father, both of whom were exiled from Florence at the same time: “[M]y father, compelled by other matters and by concern for his family, resigned himself to exile, while his friend resisted and began devoting himself all the more vigorously to his literary pursuits, neglecting all else and desirous only of glory” (3.203, Familiares 21.15). Because of Petrarch's own thirst for fame and his resentment about life in Avignon, he imagines Dante as a fantasy father, more appropriate than his own. Yet he then denies that relationship by asserting that he never imitated Dante. The purpose of the letter (which is addressed to Boccaccio) is to defend himself against the charge that he is jealous of the Florentine poet. Petrarch concedes that there are grounds for the allegation, but goes on to justify his behavior:

While always passionately hunting for other books with little hope of finding them, I was strangely indifferent to this one, which was new and easily available. I admit this to be so, but deny that it was for the reasons that they give. At the time I too was devoted to the same kind of writing in the vernacular; I considered nothing more elegant and had yet to learn to look higher, but I did fear that, were I to immerse myself in his, or any other's, writings, being of an impressionable age so given to indiscriminate admiration, I could scarcely escape becoming an unwilling or unconscious imitator. … This one thing I do wish to make clear, for if any of my vernacular writings resembles, or is identical to, anything of his or anyone else's, it cannot be attributed to theft or imitation, which I have avoided like reefs, especially in vernacular works, but to pure chance or similarity of mind, as Tullius calls it, which caused me unwittingly to follow in another's footsteps.


Like the romantic poets Harold Bloom studies, Petrarch here tries carefully to hide his debts, a task made harder by his clear dependence on the vita nuova and the Commedia for the plan of his own Rime sparse.8 Here, in the context of vernacular poetry, Petrarch abandons the combination of piety and independence with which he had characterized imitation of the classical authors. Instead, predecessors become dangerous and imitation an unavoidable snare for the unwary poet. In contrast to his earlier admission of casually reading minor authors and studying the major ones until they became part of him, he now denies ever being an imitator, and where similarity to a model was earlier explained on a genetic basis, Petrarch now resorts to the mimetic imitation of a similar reality, or even happen-stance, to account for the resemblance of his works to Dante's.

In the same letter Petrarch also emphasizes his turn to Latin and away from the vernacular, attempting to elevate himself above Dante, who had followed just the opposite path in his career. Dismissing the notion that he is envious of Dante's popularity, Petrarch becomes shrill and unconvincing: “How can someone who does not envy Virgil envy anyone else, unless perhaps I envied him the applause and raucous acclaim of the fullers or tavern keepers or woolworkers who offend the ones they wish to praise, whom I, like Virgil and Homer, delight in doing without? I fully realize how little the esteem of the ignorant multitude carries weight with learned men” (3.205-6). Forgetting his republican principles, Petrarch here resorts to the tropes of vituperatio, portraying himself as a literary aristocrat appealing even in the vernacular to the more cultivated tastes of those who can appreciate Virgil and Homer (which is to say few indeed, as Petrarch himself probably did not know Greek). This letter, written at roughly the same time as his letters on imitation, gives us a very different image of Petrarch, struggling not with the ancients but with the living legacy of a more recent poet. The transparent defenses against Dante reveal the identity of his true poetic father and force Petrarch to employ every sort of reproach in his rhetorical warehouse. Just as his descriptions of the imitative process heuristically refer to both his Latin and his vernacular poetry, so too this letter reveals how even the strongest and most successful imitator can feel anxiety about his task.

Reviewing Petrarch's letters on imitation and the one on Dante, we can distinguish between two distinct reactions to his predecessors. The first is a sense of being inferior or deficient in comparison to the achievements of the ancients; this is what Harold Bloom calls “cultural belatedness” (Map, 77-80), and it became a defining feature of the Renaissance. Although Petrarch clearly looks up to their achievements and feels that his own culture as a whole has no comparable attainments, he is not ashamed to admit he has read their work. Indeed, he uses the digestive trope to emphasize how much labor he expended on study of the principal classical authors, to the point that they have been absorbed and transformed into a part of himself; in actuality, it is the very gulf between them that allows him the freedom to imitate these models in the fashion that Greene dubbed “heuristic.” Dante poses a different set of problems, however, and Petrarch's clear retreat into the language of a Freudian family romance (the assertion and then denial of a fantasy father in the place of his own) cannot merely be accounted for in terms of the real acquaintance between Dante and Petrarch's biological father. Dante is threatening to Petrarch in a much more immediate way than were the classical authors because his works, however rough Petrarch may judge their language to be, are the towering accomplishment of Italian vernacular literature, and in textual, structural, and mythic terms they are a necessary model for Petrarch's own work. Thus his feelings about Dante constitute what Bloom calls feelings of poetic belatedness, a nagging sense that the dead predecessor has formed oneself, and is even now speaking through one's own voice. Petrarch's shrillness regarding Dante is striking compared to his generosity about ancient authors; poetic belatedness is a much more emotional phenomenon than humanist belatedness, yet for that very reason, in a strong poet it produces greater results.

Shifting to Bembo, we can now appreciate the full implications of transfer to the vernacular of the tripartite model of history, and its attendant sense of humanist cultural belatedness. Bembo in the Prose explicates Petrarch's texts in terms of a rather idiosyncratic set of linguistic theories that were to have relatively little influence; what was influential was his designation of trecento Tuscan as the national literary language. Similarly, however much Bembo's theories of imitation may have been motivated by the need for well-trained writers in a papal chancery that was shifting its language of operation from Latin to Italian (see Donisotti's introduction to Bembo's Prose e rime, 36; and more recently Partner, 142-44), Bembo's argument is presented in terms of a myth of decline, and a proposal to stem the decline by reversing Petrarch's own self-proclaimed move from the vernacular into Latin. By using this myth, however, Bembo runs the risk of conflating the cultural belatedness of the humanists with the poetic belatedness Petrarch felt about his vernacular predecessor and rival. By crystallizing this union, Bembo transforms Petrarch from a mere linguistic model (one whose example is to be “followed,” in Pigman's terms) into a classical model subject to transformation and competitive emulation. Yet if he burdens the Renaissance vernacular poet with Petrarch as a type of poetic father, he also provides that poet the freedom inherent in the humanist hermeneutic. This distance allows writers to make of Petrarch what they will; however much Bembo may have meant Petrarchism to be a sociolinguistic concept, Petrarchism—particularly outside Italy—can take on a variety of generic, stylistic, thematic, and even ethical dimensions.


  1. Thus Bembo's literary theory is at odds with his reputation as a Neoplatonist, which is based on the love theory of his 1505 dialogue Gli Asolani, and on the speech “he” gives in book 4 of Castiglione's Cortegiano.

  2. On the role of Bembo's letter to Pico in the evolution of imitation theory, see Santangelo; Greene, 171-77; and Cruz, Imitación, 24-26. Bembo's rejection of a metaphysical, inspirational theory of poetry approximates twentieth-century hermeneutic and phenomenological approaches that emphasize reading and writing; see Kennedy, 1-2, 16-18, particularly his references to Gadamer and Ingarden.

  3. Bembo's arguments here are an echo of the trope of the translatio studii, which was to become crucial for the Renaissance outside Italy; see the section below on “Spanish Alterity and the Language of Empire.”

  4. Thus to Ferguson the idea of a “renaissance,” in contrast to other period concepts such as both “antiquity” and “middle ages,” is rooted in the cultural self-consciousness that existed at the time. By deriving our characterization of the “Renaissance” from the self-concept of the humanists, the term can be historicized, freed on the one hand from nineteenth-century Burckhardtian associations, and distinguished, on the other, from our own set of period concepts; see Waller, 5-8; also Kerrigan and Braden, 7: “The movement that counts, what we now call humanism, takes decisive form under Petrarch's inspiration and influence in the fourteenth century and is accompanied from the first with propaganda about its historic momentousness.”

  5. To Curtius, the creation of new tropes such as these can signal a major historical transition, for tropes “reflect the sequence of psychological periods. But in all poetical topoi the style of expression is historically determined. Now there are also topoi which are wanting throughout Antiquity down to the Augustan Age. … They have a twofold interest. First, as regards literary biology, we can observe in them the genesis of new topoi. Thus our knowledge of the genetics of the formal elements of literature is widened. Secondly, these topoi are indications of a changed psychological state; indications which are comprehensible in no other way” (82). Thus just as ancient tropes have a history that can be traced, so too do modern tropes such as the tripartite model of history, the idea of a Renaissance, the pairing of Petrarch and Boccaccio (as models of learning or of ignorance), and many other expressions used by the humanists; and the development of these new tropes is indicative of the psychological changes that characterize period boundaries.

  6. For a typology of Renaissance tropes that describe “following,” transformative imitation, and emulation, along with their classical sources, see Pigman.

  7. For the sake of consistency all quotations from Petrarch's Familiares (English: Letters on Familiar Matters) are taken from the translation by Aldo Bernardo.

  8. For a nuanced Bloomean approach to Petrarch's poetry that takes as its point of departure his theory of history, see Waller.


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Bloom, Harold. A Map of Misreading. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

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Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Bollingen Series 36. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Ferguson, Wallace K. The Renaissance in Historical Thought. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Riverside Press, 1948.

Greene, Thomas M. The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Kennedy, William J. Rhetorical Norms in Renaissance Literature. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.

Kerrigan, William, and Gordon Braden. The Idea of the Renaissance. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Partner, Peter. The Pope's Men. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1990.

Petrarch [Francesco Petrarca]. Letters on Familiar Matters. 3 vols. Translated by Aldo S. Bernardo. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975-85.

Pigman, G. W., III. “Versions of Imitation in the Renaissance.” Renaissance Quarterly 33 (1980): 1-32.

Santangelo, Giorgio. Il Bembo critico e il principio d'imitazione. Florence: Sansoni, 1950.

Scott, Izora. Controversies over the Imitation of Cicero. New York: Teacher's College, Columbia University, 1910.

Segre, Cesare. “Edonismo linguistico nel cinquecento.” Giornale storico della letteratura italiana 130 (1953): 145-77.

Ulivi, Ferruccio. L'imitazione nella poetica del rinascimento. Milan: Marzorati, 1959.

Waller, Marguerite. Petrarch's Poetics and Literary History. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

Gordon Braden (essay date 1996)

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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 exchange in both directions, the new practice can easily repeat in its own mode the mistakes of the old. In particular, recent discussion of Renaissance love poetry has generalized some of the conventions of that poetry into an increasingly popular thesis about gender relations in the period, about the lines of power within which nonfictional men and women, in love and otherwise, had to function; but it is a thesis, I think, that has not digested all of the information that we would want it to explain. Some unusually rich documentation from the personal life of a key figure in the history of that love poetry reveals connections between art and life that are different from what the more familiar literary evidence would make many critics expect.

A man perhaps more responsible than any other individual for giving Renaissance literary culture self-conscious definition and direction—“not only the light, but the sun of our age”1—Pietro Bembo is now best known for a text he did not write. A character with his name takes the floor at the end of Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, and his speech has become a touchstone for our accounting of the period. A Christianized (and heterosexualized) recasting of Diotima's speech at the end of Plato's Symposium, it has proved indispensable to Renaissance scholars for displaying in clear and elegant form one of the most influential mergers that the Renaissance performed with its own cultural inheritance: the application of the philosophical resources of a rediscovered Platonism to the affective styles of Petrarchan love poetry. Such philosophy can explain with new conviction the point of the extravagant male longing for an unattainable woman that Petrarch shaped into the central subject of Renaissance love poetry: deprived of the physical solace of his beloved, the lover turns his longings inward, replaces her with an imagined beauty, and finds himself, in a famous metaphor, climbing a ladder into a progressively lofty mental and spiritual reality. Although not an accurate gloss on the troubled course of things in Petrarch's Canzoniere, it is a cogent way of idealizing a situation such as the one Petrarch dramatizes. Speakers on a previous day have already attested the cachet that his love story has acquired in their circles; it sounds at times like a mark of rank: “Every one of us has seen very noble youths, discreet, wise, worthy, and handsome, who devote many years to love, and omit nothing in the way of care, gifts, entreaties, tears, in short, everything imaginable—and all in vain.”2 Bembo's speech shows how to think of such a fix as prompting not humiliation and despair but a sense of honor and noble occasion.

The real Bembo was thirty-seven at the fictional time of the dialogue and almost sixty when it was published in 1528—a famous man by then, though not yet a cardinal of the church. The literary character is not identical to the historical one, but the famous speech had Bembo's tacit sanction; Castiglione asked him to read the manuscript and even the Aldine page proofs, and we do not know of Bembo's having lodged an objection to the philosophy that his namesake sets out. Most of its elements can indeed be found in Bembo's own writings, notably his Asolani, a dialogue on love that he published in 1505 and that became, internationally at least, his best-known work.3 The speaker in the Diotima slot of this dialogue brings things to an ascetic and religiously orthodox conclusion that is in fact closer to Petrarch's own, but there is some justice in letting Bembo's ghostwritten speech stand as one synthesis of what his life's work would come to stand for. One might credibly expect such a speech from a man who wanted to refine all aspects of Petrarch's legacy into a high standard for the culture of a new age.

The nuts and bolts of doing so occupied Bembo for forty years or more. While still a comparatively young man, he helped prepare the 1501 Aldine edition of Petrarch's Italian poetry. It not only offered a better text (and a better typeface) than its predecessors but did so in an innovative pocket-sized format, which let that poetry circulate into a kind of early modern mass market; any Renaissance figure who happened to have a Petrarch handy would very likely be pulling out one of its progeny. For Bembo it was only the beginning of a prolonged immersion in Petrarchiana. By the end of his life he owned the two key Petrarchan manuscripts that became Vat. lat. 3195 and 3196; they joined a copy of the complete Canzoniere and Trionfi in Bembo's own famous handwriting, a manuscript that has become, appropriately enough, Vat. lat. 3197. Knowledge from these resources gradually organized itself into a program for comprehensive literary reform, set out in Bembo's Prose della volgar lingua (1524, 1538), the third book of which is virtually a draft grammar of trecento Tuscan. The specific proposal on the table is to resolve the dialectal chaos of sixteenth-century Italy by setting up Petrarch as the sole model for vernacular poetry and Boccaccio as the sole model for prose, though the treatment of the former is notably fuller and more fervent (a lengthy section is devoted to showing Petrarch's superiority to Dante). Between editions of this long-gestated work, Bembo published the first edition of his Rime (1530), concrete examples of the prescribed imitation in action; his deviations from specific Petrarchan usage are unusual enough to rate notice in modern annotation, and the poems offer a corporate counterexample to the unrulier Petrarchism practiced by poets such as Serafino and Tebaldeo. Bembo's poems become, after Petrarch's, the most widely reprinted canzoniere of the century, touchstones of a school that gets called Bembismo but casting in fact a longer shadow. That, for instance, vernacular lyric of the next seventy years is so solidly recentered on the sonnet, after some serious flirting with the strambotto (an eight-line form very popular with musicians) and other possibilities, is in great part Bembo's doing; 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. He is the agent of one of the most deliberate, visible, and successful acts of literary canonization on record.

Outside Italy, however, Bembo has not been a particularly prominent figure in Renaissance studies.4 The embeddedness of his work in the Italian language is certainly one reason;5 another is modern discomfort with the whole legacy. Prescriptive rule giving is a long-discredited style of literary self-improvement; in the contemporary intellectual environment it is hard for a project such as Bembo's not to raise ominous echoes, to sound like “la grammatica del dominio.”6 The wider phenomenon of Petrarchism, unavoidable in almost any area of Renaissance literary study, has proved a tenacious challenge to our powers of historical sympathy; discussions of individual Petrarchan poets usually analyze and celebrate their combative or at least “controversialized” relation to the tradition: “In Scève's turn from the Petrarch of his contemporaries we glimpse new and emergently modern possibilities of rewriting Petrarchan discourse.”7 An especially influential trend has extrapolated the central premise of that tradition into an imputed hostility to expressions of mutual desire generally and to female erotic utterance in particular, as if the dominance of Petrarchism were itself an important reason that the age had so little to show in the way of poetry by women: “First, Petrarch's figuration of Laura informs a decisive stage in the development of a code of beauty, a code that causes us to view the fetishized body as a norm. … And second, bodies fetishized by a poetic voice logically do not have a voice of their own; the world of making words, of making texts, is not theirs.”8 A certain consensus about the authority of that logic has yielded some tortuous scenarios for female lyric achievement.9

It is not a consensus that sorts well with all the data. There is no lack of other factors to explain the low incidence of female literary activity in the Renaissance generally; against a spare background, the premier site of female lyric poetry in the age is found precisely where Petrarch's presence and prestige are the most intense: the northern Italian literary circles of Bembo's day and of the next generation that fell so strongly under his influence.10 This is where Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara, Tullia d'Aragona, Laura Terracina, Chiara Martraini, Gaspara Stampa, Laura Battiferri, and Veronica Franco, among others (no other European country has such a list), wrote and were published, sometimes in numerous editions; one male editor was sufficiently impressed to take the unprecedented step of publishing an anthology of poetry by contemporary women (331 poems by fifty-three different writers).11 Early on Bembo himself favored female entry into the literary world and promised women, if necessary, the Petrarchan reward of posthumous fame for it (Asolani 3.1); as a public man in later life he corresponded with Colonna and Gambara, exchanged poems with them, encouraged their work. To stress the maleness of Petrarchism as a movement is to obscure some of what makes it stand out in its own historical context.

Just outside the public sphere, the dossier on Bembo has even more interesting and complex information to offer on what relations could be like between literary Petrarchism and the world around it. Bembo himself appears to have believed that Petrarch's own poems were accurately autobiographical because of their sheer effectiveness as poems.12 Much of his writing on literary matters breathes a sense that, as Baldacci puts it, imitatio stili should be allied with imitatio uitae.13 Modern scholars of the Renaissance are still, at Burckhardt's inspiration, prone to generalize eagerly from the age's ideals to its behavior, but that path is not always a straight one. In Bembo's case, a substantial part of the biography departs markedly from the canonical Petrarchan scenario: marriage in all but name to a woman called La Morosina, whom Bembo loved, he says, for twenty-two years (Rime 159; the dates would then be 1513-35) and who bore him three children. He was living with her, not secretly, when Castiglione wrote his book. By Italian standards the arrangement was not scandalous, just irregolare, and less so than many: though he took holy orders in 1522, Bembo did not become a priest until he became a cardinal, four years after La Morosina's death. (A surviving letter from her to Bembo was edited in 1902 with an affectionate, even admiring, commentary by the Italian scholar who later became Pius XI.)14 Yet their apparently stable and contented bond was for the most part not the stuff of love poetry, at least not of the specific tradition that Bembo put so much effort into fine-tuning. As it happens, we know that Petrarch traveled a similar road: he fathered two children by a woman or women who have never been securely identified and are alluded to, if at all, only with the utmost obliquity in his poetry.15 Bembo is more forthcoming in writing a few sonnets and one canzone about La Morosina, but only when the occasion intersects established Petrarchan precedent; most of them are poems of grief at her death.16 Bembo declines, and perhaps does not even perceive, the challenge of writing the poetry of their domestic history. It is hard for modern readers not to miss that poetry and to feel that its lack measures the oppressive narrowness of Petrarchan lyricism. What gives every sign of having been the happiest, certainly the most durable, love story of Bembo's life barely registers on its radar.

But records with a more intimate sound to them than the poetry warn against overgeneralizing Petrarchan narrowness. Two collections of letters, Bembo's to two women and theirs to him—his show traces of later revision, but the women's are preserved in their original autographs—provide surprisingly direct information as to what applied Petrarchism could be like. The letters show how in his thirties an effort to saturate his affective life with the literary heritage Bembo so cherished prompted a female response in kind and indeed supplied some of the shared language of their clandestine unions.

One collection has acquired a measure of fame and has even been translated into English as The Prettiest Love Letters in the World (the phrase is Byron's).17 As if in some absurdly prescient bid for future celebrity, Bembo between 1503 and 1505 formed an intense bond with none other than Lucrezia Borgia. Married to Alfonso d'Este in 1501, she was commonly referred to as the duchess of Ferrara even before she officially became so with the death of Alfonso's father in 1504. Her rank would have given her the allure of a troubadour's domna; she was also blond, like Laura, and probably gave Bembo a lock of her hair as a love token.18 Bembo dedicated his Asolani to her, but the correspondence is self-consciously furtive: “Take good care not to be seen writing, because I know you are watched very closely” (Lettere 148 [27]); she asks him to refer to her in code, as the still undeciphered “f.f.” (Borgia 2). Within this secrecy, the language is often extravagant and not indifferent to eventual publicity: “As long as there is life in me my cruel fate will never prevent the fire in which f.f. and my destiny have placed me from being the highest and brightest blaze that in our time ever set a lover's heart alight. It will soar by virtue of the place where it burns, bright with the intensity of its own flame, and one day it will be a beacon to all the world” (Lettere 172 [13]).

A significant part of their business is the sending of poems. Bembo's first letter is a response to a Spanish song that Borgia has sent him; he is sending her “two sonnets born to me these last days,” as well as “a little song [also in Spanish] born this very day as rival [a gara] to your own” (Lettere 151 [1]). We know that Borgia did not compose the poem in question, though it sounds as if Bembo might have assumed she did (or wished her to think that he thought so) and were rising to the prospect of poetry as a ground of emulous mutuality.19 So he sends her several poems. References in the letters proper do not allow us to match them all to surviving texts in Bembo's Rime, though some we can. Bembo's “three sonnets upon the loveliest and most gracious dream I had a night or two ago” (Lettere 156 [4]) are almost certainly the first versions of Rime 88-90, which are among Bembo's most famous and influential poems:

          Se 'l viver men che pria m'è duro e vile,
né più d'Amor mi pento esser suggetto,
né son di duol, come io solea, ricetto,
tutto questo è tuo don, sogno gentile.
          Madonna più che mai tranquilla, umile,
con tai parole e 'n sì cortese affetto
mi si mostrava, e tanto altro diletto,
ch'asseguir no 'l poria lingua né stile.
          “Perché,” dicea, “la tua vita consume?
perché pur del signor nostro ti lagni?
frena i lamenti omai, frena 'l dolore.”
          E più cose altre; quando il primo lume
del giorno sparse i miei dolci guadagni,
aperti gli occhi e travïato il core.

(Rime 89)

[If life is less hard and vile to me than before, and I repent less at being Love's subject, and I am not the refuge of pain that I used to be, all this is your gift, gentle dream. My lady, calmer and humbler than ever, came to me with such words and such kind affection, and such further delight, that no tongue or pen could follow. “Why,” she said, “wear away your life? Why complain about our Lord? Rein in these laments now, rein in this sorrow,” and many other things; when the first light of day scattered my sweet gains, my eyes were opened and my heart led astray.]

Bembo's development of his theme here deserves comment. His Petrarchan originals are some entries in the Canzoniere about dreamed and imagined visitations from Laura; yet while Petrarch implies that such visitations have long been a feature of his enamorment (250), most of the poems about them (e.g., 279, 283-6, 302, 336, 341-3, 359) come in morte, and the comfort they offer has a moral cast to it:

          “Fedel mio caro, assai di te mi dole;
ma pur per nostro ben dura ti fui,”
dice, et cos' altre d' arrestare il sole.


[“My dear faithful one, I am much grieved for you, but still for our good I was cruel to you,” she says, and other things fit to make the sun stand still.]20

In Bembo's case, we know that the woman in question is alive and reading the poems a few days after their composition, while the sexual character of the fantasy is, as in much sixteenth-century Petrarchism, more distinct than in Petrarch: the praeteritio—“e tanto altro diletto,” “e più cose altre”—is provocative precisely because it is discreet. Yet the conclusion toward which the poem moves also reasserts Petrarchan limits; the erotic dream stays a dream, and the pleasure of the lady's kind words “and many other things” remains where it is largely located in Petrarch, within the world of hope and fantasy.

We can only guess whether sending such poems was a risky and outrageous act. If Bembo took a chance, the continuation of the correspondence is evidence that it paid off, though we cannot be sure how far. But some important lines were crossed. A few months after the composition and dispatch of his dream poems Bembo writes with fervor of something his lady finally said to him in all reality: “I would not rather have come by some great treasure than hear what I heard from you yesterday, although—as our sworn affinity [conformità] deserved—you might well have let me know it earlier” (Lettere 172 [13]). That is about as specific as he gets, though a few lines later he seems to be talking about something that went beyond words: “The state of grace to which in your great charity you have raised me, whether extended still or now withheld, is such honor that no other woman could ever again enter my thoughts.” Grazia, mercé, and the like are sometimes code words for sexual favors, and if Borgia bestowed them on her grateful but courtly lover on 4 October 1503, he would not necessarily express himself otherwise.

Yet we know enough to suspect that the real tensions in the air have little to do with Bembo himself. The death of Borgia's father and the nearly fatal illness of her brother Cesare in August had made her personal and political situation dangerous, but she could breathe a bit easier with the election in late September of Pius III, a pope without known hostility to the Borgias. Beneath its hyperbole, Bembo's letter may well record Borgia's return to conversation as normal after a time of distraction.21 Another letter to her presents a gift in a way that speaks both of the sensuality of his feelings and of the limits on their physical intimacy: “Out of love for me sometimes please deign to wear at night the enclosed Agnus Dei which I once used to wear upon my breast, if you cannot wear it in the day, so that your precious heart's dear abode, which I should gladly stake my life to kiss but once and long, may at least be touched by this roundel which for so long has touched the abode of mine” (Lettere 148 [27]). In both manuscript and printed sources, this letter is dated early (10 February 1503) but placed late (1505); internal evidence corroborates its placement, which would make the letter the valediction of the intense main phase of the correspondence (Raboni, 98-9). There is a gap of seven months, and when the letters resume, they are sparser and more restrained: “It afforded me infinite pleasure to receive in these days the public announcement of the happy birth of a male child to your Ladyship” (Lettere 213 [28]). Our best guess is that the affair was like the dream: rich in unacted sexual promise.

However, there is little complaining about unresponsiveness on Borgia's part; rhetoric about the cruel fair is not a significant part of the mix. The language of mutual desire, on the other hand, is often fervent; two weeks after the encounter on 4 October, Bembo writes, “The flame of true love is a mighty force, and most of all when two equally matched wills in two exalted minds contend to see which loves the most, each striving to give yet more vital proof” (Lettere 173 [14]). We are not to forget that it is Petrarch's devotee who is writing: “But sometimes far greater than a love which can be freely manifest is the flame of a love which may not reveal itself however deeply it might desire.” What Bembo is building up to turns out to be the gift of another sonnet, probably the famous “L'alta cagion,” a high-minded manifesto of one-sided devotion: “io mi giro / pur sempre a voi, come eliotropio al sole” [I turn myself toward you always, like a sunflower to the sun] (Rime 38.13-4). Yet we also learn that this poem is one of those occasioned by a poem that Borgia has sent him:

I have striven to render into Tuscan your Criò el ciel y el mundo Dios but can discover no means to convey the same sentiment to my satisfaction in this tongue, least of all in the form of a copla and with similar words. Nevertheless I enclose a sonnet which was begun with the intention of treating the same theme and then took a different turn because it could not hold to the same path and still hold true to my ultimate design.

Borgia's poem has not survived; again, Bembo seems to think of it as her composition, and we are in no position to know. We also cannot judge what divergences of style and statement Bembo is talking about, but one significant thing is clear: this sonnet illustrating the nobler situation of “a love which may not reveal itself however deeply it might desire” is written as part of an exchange that more closely resembles Bembo's first category: “when two equally matched wills in two exalted minds contend to see which loves the most, each striving to give yet more vital proof.” The content of the poetry is, as convention dictates, adoration at a distance; but sent on its errand, the poem itself becomes the medium of reciprocal exchange.

I am of course relying almost wholly on Bembo's account; the language of rivalrousness in particular has a male sound to it and perhaps needs to be discounted. An earlier exchange is more balanced in its documentation. On 19 June 1503 Bembo sends a new sonnet—its text is part of the letter—which he describes as the outgrowth of a conversation with Borgia: “Gazing these past days into my crystal, of which we spoke during the last evening I paid my respects to your Ladyship, I have read therein, glowing at its center, these lines I now send to you inscribed upon this paper” (Lettere 155 [3]). The talk may have taken rise from a text in Petrarch, a manuscript book of whose poems—“uno Petrarcha in forma pichola”—Borgia had made a point of bringing with her to Ferrara22:

          Certo, cristallo o vetro
non mostrò mai di fore
nascosto altro colore
che l'alma sconsolata assai non mostri
più chiari i pensier nostri
et la fera dolcezza ch' è nel core
per gli occhi, che di sempre pianger vaghi
cercan dì et notte pur chi glie n'appaghi.

(Canzoniere 37.57-64)

[Certainly crystal or glass never showed forth a color from within more clearly than my disconsolate soul shows forth through my eyes the cares and the savage sweetness that are in my heart, my eyes that, always eager to weep, seek day and night only for her who will still their desire.]

Bembo's sonnet expands a passing reference into a conceit:

          Poi ch'ogni ardir mi circoscrisse Amore
quel di ch'io posi nel suo campo il piede,
tanto ch'altrui non pur chieder mercede
ma scoprir sol non oso il mio dolore,
          avess'io almeno d'un bel cristallo il core,
che quel ch'io taccio, e Madonna non vede
dell'interno mio mal, senza altra fede
a' suoi begli occhi tralucesse fore,
          ch'io crederei della pietate ancora
veder tinta la neve di quel volto,
che 'l mio sì spesso bagna e discolora.
          Or che questo non ho, quello m'è tolto,
temo non voglia il mio Signore ch'io mora,
ché la difesa è poca, e 'l strazio è molto.

(Rime 7)23

[Since Love circumscribed all my ardor on that day when I set foot in his camp, so that I dare not disclose my grief, let alone beg for the mercy of another, would that I had at least a heart of fine crystal, so that what I am silent about and what my Lady does not see of my inner suffering would without further proof shine forth to her beautiful eyes; so would I hope yet to see the snow of that face colored with pity, such as so often bathes and discolors my own. Since now I do not have the one, the other is taken from me, I fear lest my Lord wants me to die: there is little defense, and much devastation.]

The crystal of which Bembo and Borgia spoke is a heart clear enough to communicate its feelings without speech. The male lover's propensity for aphasia in his lady's presence is a durable convention of Petrarchism;24 here it is part of a principled restraint on all explicit solicitation and expressions of desire. That restraint has an obvious moral component, but it also enhances a sense of the depth and richness of desire; unspoken emotions, Petrarchan poets often affirm, are stronger than spoken ones (“chi po dir com' egli arde è 'n picciol foco” [He who can say how he burns is in but a little fire (Canzoniere 170.14)]). The restraint also sets up the possibility of a higher, speechless form of erotic telepathy, such as Petrarch himself thinks that he may have experienced on a few blessed occasions:

          Conobbi allor sì come in paradiso
vede l'un l'altro; in tal guisa s'aperse
quel pietoso penser ch' altri non scerse,
ma vidil io, ch' altrove non m'affiso.

(Canzoniere 123.5-8)

[I learned then how they see each other in Paradise; so clearly did that merciful thought open itself, which no one else perceived, but I saw it, for I fix myself nowhere else.]

Bembo ends with a concession that he does not possess the magic crystal, and the poem does not leave the more ordinary state of Petrarchan solitude; but of course he sends the poem to Borgia, and five days later he has her reply: “Concerning the desire you have to hear from me regarding the counterpart [lo incontro] of your or our crystal as it may rightly be reputed and termed, I cannot think what else to say or imagine save that it has an extreme affinity [conformità] of which the like perhaps has never been equalled in any age. And may this suffice. And let it be a gospel everlasting” (Borgia 2). The counterpart of Bembo's crystal would be Borgia's crystal, but his crystal is already their crystal, presumably because of the extreme affinity of the two. That looks like a tensely awkward but finally exhilarated way of saying, Your hidden thoughts are my hidden thoughts. The poetry of Petrarchan isolation is not necessarily an act of lonely self-display; it can also be a means of reaching someone else with the same secret.

As interesting as they are, the Bembo-Borgia letters illustrate the potential for Petrarchan mutuality more abstractly and decorously than the other, virtually unknown collection from a little earlier in Bembo's life. Borgia's letters to Bembo are brief and few, nine to his forty, but during his affair with one Maria Savorgnan, from 1500 to mid-1501, both parties wrote copiously: we have seventy-seven letters in each direction. Bembo's side of the correspondence (like his letters to Borgia) has been available since 1552 as part of his Letters giovenili; Savorgnan's (which Bembo was rereading and annotating toward the end of his life) was uncovered early in this century and edited from manuscript by Dionisotti as part of a joint Carteggio d'amore that has, however, never been reprinted or translated.25 The lady's name is attested in the letters themselves (Savorgnan 70, 76);26 Dionisotti failed to identify her more precisely, but it now seems that she was the widow of Giacomo Savorgnan (d. 1498), whose cousin Antonio Savorgnan was a driving force in the famous blood feud that broke out in Friuli in 1511. If that identification is correct, she was more Bembo's social equal than Borgia but has a similar uncanny claim on posthumous renown: she would be the mother of the woman who inspired Luigi da Porto's Giulietta e Romeo, a copy of which the author sent to Bembo when it was published.27

In comparison with the Borgia correspondence, these letters feel altogether “più robuste e succose.”28 Savorgnan's declarations of reciprocal passion are extravagant: “Yours, yours and yours and yoursest [vostrissima] I am and ever will be” (37). But early on she and Bembo seem to have decided on di pari [the same on both sides] as their motto: “il nostro dolcissimo di pari” (Lettere 74 [26]); “We will go di pari into love's flame” (Savorgnan 3). There is more in the way of hyperbolic Petrarchan complaint here than with Borgia—Savorgnan has to read of “my torments born of the glaze of your hard and icy heart. Ohimè misero me!” (Lettere 87 [38])—but also more physical contact: “And then when I see you in reality, then, one hearing the other's words, we both read each other's minds, and many times to your dear cheek I bring my own, and kissing your lovely mouth with bashful ardor I feel unmistakably the sweet warmth of our mingled souls” (Lettere 115 [61]). There is little doubt that the affair was consummated, probably in July 1500 (shortly after that “Ohimè misero me”), though not without difficulties of theatrical colorfulness. Some letters are brief notes arranging or canceling assignations. Savorgnan is closely watched by one Bernardino, usually referred to as “B.” (“I can't write, since B. never goes out” [5]); Dionisotti assumed that he was a husband, but he now appears to have been a nephew to whom Savorgnan's in-laws assigned the task of guarding an attractive widow's virtue. She is virtually a prisoner in her home; the lovers have to risk go-betweens, including Savorgnan's maid (“O Donata, Donata, the only one knowing of all our desires” [Lettere 131 (76)]) and a Jewish medaglista named Moise (one letter may have used some of his scrap paper; there is Yiddish written on the back [Savorgnan 75]). In many cases Bembo must await a sign and then enter Savorgnan's house through a window, apparently with the help of a rope ladder that she keeps in her bedroom (a preplatonic scala d'amore). The discovery of the ladder by B. in August 1500 precipitates a crisis (Savorgnan 34), but, though the lover's existence has been attested, his identity stays secret, and the affair continues. These things, it turns out, did not happen only in novelle.

Bembo is somewhat less of a poet in these letters than he is in those to Borgia. His main work in progress, of which we hear a fair amount, is the Asolani; there are also references to what may be early notes for the Prose (“alcune notazioni della lingua” [certain notations concerning language (Lettere 106 [54])]). He transcribes into his letters two strambotti, an unfinished canzone, and seven lines of a Petrarchan sonnet to which he adds three lines of his own; none of these survive in his canonical Rime.29 He writes of sending his “three sisters” (Lettere 123 [70]; see also Savorgnan 65) and the “Lorenzo madrigal” (Lettere 112 [59]; see also Savorgnan 55); these are probably the three canzoni in Asolani 3.8-10 and the poem that becomes Rime 77. We occasionally have foretastes in prose of poems that will be sent to Borgia: “You will see [my heart] in every way more clearly than if I were a crystal” (Lettere 97 [48]); “This night near dawn I seemed to talk with you in my sleep as I lay on my side; and hearing from you some particularly lovely and sweet saying, I rose with a smile to kiss you for it and to have pleasure with you, when sleep broke, as if to say, ‘I don't want you to kiss her.’ I woke up as I was approaching your lovely mouth, and am full of envy for that pleasure” (Lettere 94 [45]).

Savorgnan, on the other hand, is considerably more of a poet than Borgia. Her letters contain three sonnets, which in fact flank the collection (1, 2, 77); two strambotti (8, 60); and an unfinished poem in octosyllabics (75). Bembo takes it as a sign that her love is fading when “you could go so long without writing me a single verse” (Lettere 123 [70]). Between Savorgnan's first and second sonnets Dionisotti detects “an intelligent and surprisingly rapid assimilation of Bembo's style”; he also notes the propensity of even her prose to slip into hendecasyllabic shapes and thinks that the affair may have begun as a literary tutorial.30 Bembo can sound professorial about her work: “Here is your canzone. Keep it close, since in many places it does not satisfy me” (Lettere 62 [16]). She does not, however, seem to have stayed in any submissive position long; several letters offer the master brisk advice on his own efforts: “The canzone is beautiful, but go back and rework it many times to make it better. When you come to me, I will tell you what I don't like in it, and if you are unhappy about that, blame yourself for giving me such passion” (48). Bembo already possessed a prestige that was part of his attractiveness to her—“I feed and nourish myself on your reputation” (47)—but it does not seem to have interfered with business: “You do not want to change that verse, and say that there is a difference: Petrarch says Con questo pensier and you say Col primo. I feel great unannoyance [disnoglia] toward you because you are Messer Pietro Bembo; nevertheless I hope you like it this way, because it does not please me” (55).31 (There is a contemporary American use of the word fine that I think catches Savorgnan's tone.) We find Bembo soliciting such advice, calling it “the sweet file [lima] of your intelligence” (Lettere 101 [62]). Their poetry workshop gives us our most specific, best-documented look at what di pari meant in practice.

What we have of the poems they write, however, is perhaps less interesting than the ones they quote. These are almost all by Petrarch, who is omnipresent in ways still not fully cataloged. Virtually everything Bembo and Savorgnan go through can be traced to Petrarchan precedent: “There was a time when I confirmed in myself that verse, Vivace amor, che ne gli affanni cresce [vigorous love, which grows with suffering (Triumphus Cupidinis 3.37)]. Now I am at the other end, and I firmly hold that it is true Che ben muor, chi morendo esce di doglia [that he dies well who escapes from sorrow (Canzoniere 207.91)]” (Lettere 88 [39]). But then: “Now I return to my first belief: Vivace Amor, che ne gli affanni cresce” (Lettere 57 [11]).32 Here the quotations are straightforward; often, however, they involve turns of phrase that assume a reader's memory of the original to deliver their full force. Contemplating, for instance, the possibility of a new failure in love, Bembo writes that such failure “non suole perdono meritare, non che pietà” [seldom merits pardon, let alone pity (Lettere 104 [52])].33 Petrarch's penitential first sonnet, which Bembo held in particular esteem, says that he hopes to win from his future audience “pietà, non che perdono [pity, not only pardon (Canzoniere 1.8)]. Bembo's allusion both announces a concern with how posterity will judge his behavior in what are currently matters of the highest secrecy and concedes that he has more to be forgiven than Petrarch has: the greater prize of pietà is written off in the awareness than even perdono may be unattainable.34

Savorgnan also practices this style of altered quoting: “There is no other news, except that I desire that you love me very much, as it pleases you; and if not, fia il danno mio e-lla vergogna vostra [mine will be the loss, and yours the shame]” (8). She is revising the last line of Canzoniere 224: “Vostro, Donna, 'l peccato et mio fia 'l danno” [yours will be the blame, Lady, mine the loss]. The obvious gender sign (Donna) is removed, and peccato, “blame” (even “sin”), is softened into the somewhat more sociable offense of vergogna: a dissolve from guilt culture into shame culture that nevertheless remains within the Petrarchan circuit, indeed assigns Bembo precisely the emotion that Petrarch claims three lines after hoping for “pity, not only pardon.” In due course Bembo will respond in kind: “For if you see that I live unhappy and mournful, I do not know anything to say except vostra, Donna, la colpa, e mio fia 'l danno [yours will be the fault, Lady, and mine the loss]” (Lettere 84 [35]; colpa in this context has the sanction of Canzoniere 207.78). So assembled,35 this dialogue seems to have a competitive edge to it, as if Savorgnan and Bembo were contesting possession of il danno, “the loss,” the Petrarchan lover's privileged state of deprivation; but elsewhere Bembo appeals for an acknowledgment that they are on this point in the same boat: “You accuse me, and I am content that you who are my accuser should at the same time be my judge, as long as you first hear me out: in these sorrows I am losing my natural vigor and feeling, which will peradventure be no less your danno than mine” (Lettere 88 [39]).

A more securely attested exchange shows the cooperative nature of the effort more dramatically, amid a flourish of letters that appears to follow upon their first lovemaking. Savorgnan writes, “I tell you that after you left—may the gods keep me in your grace—I never closed my eyes but your noble manner and your sweet kindness [umanità] guide me di pensier in pensier, di monte in monte [from thought to thought, from mountain to mountain]” (15). She quotes exactly the incipit of one of Petrarch's most famous canzoni—indeed, with eerie precision, the poem of his that is the most expansive about the compensatory power of purely solitary erotic satisfaction:

                    I' l'ù più volte (or chi fia che mi 'l creda?)
ne l'acqua chiara et sopra l'erba verde
veduto viva, et nel troncon d'un faggio
          e 'n bianca nube, sì fatta che Leda
avria ben detto che sua figlia perde
come stella che 'l sol copre col raggio;
                    et quanto in più selvaggio
loco mi trovo e 'n più deserto lido,
tanto più bella il mio pensier l'adombra.

(Canzoniere 129.40-8)

[I have many times (now who will believe me?) seen her alive in the clear water and on the green grass and in the trunk of a beech tree and in a white cloud, so beautiful that Leda would have said that her daughter faded like a star covered by the sun's ray; and in whatever wildest place and most deserted shore I find myself, so much the more beautiful does my thought shadow her forth.]

To remember the original is to remember a remarkable affirmation—one of Petrarch's most distinctive notes—of the adequacy of the unreal:

sento Amor sì da presso
che del suo proprio error l'alma s'appaga;
in tante parti et sì bella la veggio
che se l'error durasse, altro non cheggio.


[I feel Love so close by that my soul is satisfied by its own deception; in so many places and so beautiful I see her, that, if the deception should last, I ask for no more.]

Bembo in response copies Savorgnan's text into his own—“Who in the world has ever seen such precious and sweet letters?” (Lettere 93 [44])—salutes her allusion, matches it with a comparable citation of his own, and then turns something more than just a gallant compliment:

You say that you have not closed your eyes when I have left you but di pensiero in pensiero. And I say that always, since I first came to love you, I have kept a vigil for you in the sweetest thought, so that io son già stanco di pensar, sì come i miei pensieri in voi stanchi non sono [I am already weary of thinking how my thoughts of you are weariless (Canzoniere 74.1-2)]. The noble manner and sweet kindness which are there guiding you are your own, which shine out in me as in a mirror; and you see them and believe they are mine.

That mirror is a motif that hovers, sometimes disturbingly, over the whole history of Petrarchism.36 In one of Petrarch's rare moments of reproach against Laura, he attributes her disinterest in him to her infatuation with her own image in the mirror: “più ne colpo i micidiali specchi / che 'n vagheggiar voi stessa avete stanchi” [Most I blame those homicidal mirrors which you have tired out with your love of yourself (Canzoniere 46.7-8)]. The mirror is his rival, and Laura's virtue is really her pride or, in mythographic language, her Narcissism. The reproach is heard again in the tradition, but it jostles with a trope from Petrarch's own literary past; since the troubadours, gazing into a mirror has been an authoritative metaphor for male enamorment with a noble lady:

Anc non agui de me poder
ni no fui meus de l'or' en sai
que.m laisset en sos olhs vezer
en un miralh que mout me plai.

[I have never had the power of myself, I have not been my own man since that moment when she let me look into her eyes, into a mirror that gives great pleasure, even now.]37

Modern commentary has in effect consolidated this history into a severe diagnosis of what Petrarchism comes to: “Laura's eyes … are ‘homicidal mirrors’ in which her narcissistic lover finds spiritual death.”38 Bembo, in the glow of the occasion, makes a happier rearrangement of the same material. Deconstructing his lady's laureate narcissism, for one thing, is his way of celebrating the extent to which she herself has become a writer in the Petrarchan mode; it also intimates how such talent can be the basis of successfully mutual love: they behold their own best selves in one another. The vision is of a shared Petrarchism, joint fantasies interpenetrating. Later in the century Spenser will use a version of Bembo's trope on the way to a more systematic dramatization of such a possibility:

Leave lady in your glasse of christall clene,
                    Your goodly selfe for evermore to vew:
                    and in my selfe, my inward selfe I meane,
                    most lively lyke behold your semblant trew.

(Amoretti 45.1-4)39

I will be your mirror: this some twenty poems before the courted lady, almost uniquely in the history of sequential sonneteering, says yes. She does so, it would seem, at least in part because her lover has given her an idea of how her consent could mean not the surrender of her specular self-regard but its translation into a finer form, which would also be a joint project.

The sensation of a flash forward in literary history is not unique, or exclusively mine. An unidentified earlier reader of the copy of the Bembo-Savorgnan correspondence that I have used adds an impulsive marginalium a few sentences after the passage I have been discussing: “And who knows if the people who come after us, to whom perhaps the memory of our pure and constant loves will come somehow, will not praise us with a sweet envy [dolce invidia]?”40 “See John Donne,” my precursor writes, without needing to be more specific; Bembo's question anticipates in gentler phrasing the boast at the end of “The Canonization”:

                    by these hymnes, all shall approve
          Us Canoniz'd for Love.
And thus invoke us; You whom reverend love
          Made one anothers hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage.


Donne's boast takes its energy from reversing the opening appeal that everybody leave the lovers alone. By the end, the outsiders have been converted into a literally worshipful future audience who will know that we have now what they will desperately need but can never attain on their own in a world gone sour. The aggression is unmistakably Donne's, but the thought has often attracted attention as one of the few places in his love poetry where he has any use for the Petrarchan theme of immortalization through poetry. Donne makes it clear that this is what he is talking about with a pun routed through Italian—“We'll build in sonnets pretty roomes” (32)—and something about the erotic self-presentation in the first stanzas of the poem makes the speaker sound more comfortably Petrarchan than Donne usually does: “What merchants ships have my sighs drown'd? / Who saies my teares have overflow'd his ground?” (11-2). The literalization of the sighs-and-tears rhetoric is comic and mocking, but the real object of mockery is not the emotional extravagance of the lover but the loveless world of trade and agribusiness to which his extravagance is irrelevant. Donne's dealings with his Petrarchan heritage are intricate, but it is a fairly reliable general rule that his scorn for that heritage rises in direct proportion to its insistence on female sexual refusal as the norm:

          I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
          In whining Poëtry;
But where's that wiseman, that would not be I,
          If she would not deny?

(“The Triple Fool,” 1-5)

“The Canonization” is the prime place in the Songs and Sonets where the idiom of whining poetry speaks for sexually consummated love—consummated in this case by the time the poem begins. What both Bembo's letter and Donne's poem offer in their very different but still parallel ways is a look at Petrarchism negotiating and surviving the shift of the pressure traditionally directed toward an unavailing woman into a sense of sweetly invidious triumph over imagined but suddenly very vivid others—over us, in fact, the future readers of these texts. It is the male speaking in both cases, but an accurate taxonomy should note what his crowing precisely is not: bragging about captured female prey. For both Bembo and Donne, the exhilaration of bringing posterity to heel is inseparable from the conviction that first-person speech has become plural; the new and heady power belongs to “that abler soule, which thence doth flow” (“The Ecstasy,” 43). Or, as Bembo puts it, “di pari Amore tutto può” [Love di pari can do anything (Lettere 54 [8]).

I exaggerate Bembo's confidence; in context that last remark is conditional: “Oh, what happiness would be mine, if I could truly say …” I have also followed Dionisotti's punctuation over Travi's; the latter would have it “Oh, what happiness would be mine, if I could truly say di pari. Love can do anything.” The motto ultimately failed him: “And do you say that your flame burns di pari? O torment and comfort of my life, be content when I say this: You are not on fire” (Lettere 120 [68]). The affair seems to have run its course in a few months, though we have little information as to how or why. Bembo complains about “this separation and divorce of these hearts” (Lettere 132 [77]); Savorgnan sends him a sonnet about the end of desire:

Hor ch'è estinta la fiama e sciolto il nodo
e la prigion aperta di martiri,
riposerete o mei stanchi suspiri,
nè più rinforzerete il focho al chiodo.


[Now that the flame is put out and the knot is loosed and the prison of the martyrs opened, rest yourself, o my weary sighs, and do not rekindle the fire into torment.]

The future cardinal's future loves are of a progressively different character, either less literary or more abstract; one of our last signals from him on the subject comes three years after La Morosina's death, on the occasion of some new love sonnets: “Fingo, per aver da rimare” [I make things up in order to have something to rhyme about] (Lettere 1996). In the long run it is perhaps not unreasonable to think of the letters to Savorgnan as an early point on an arc whose end lies somewhere in the Neoplatonic neighborhood with which Bembo's name has come to be primarily associated.

Yet that arc is in certain obvious ways the arc of one man's long life; the speech in The Book of the Courtier is explicitly about the kind of love appropriate to old men. The tangent I have drawn through a point on the arc has something less familiar to tell us about the possibilities that Bembo's cultural enterprise brings with it. When the time and blood are right, even a highly conventionalized system like Petrarchism can accommodate, if not foster, mutations to which it might logically be thought allergic. We do not have many chances to inspect Petrarchism playing an actual role in Renaissance private life; here, an unusually well documented look into the very seminary of the emergent orthodoxy shows the productions of solitary male lyricism giving focus, color, and voice to the mutual passion of a man and a woman, and doing so without any overt sign from them that this is something strange or incongruous. Literary criticism can of course be quite resourceful in detecting such signs in their unovert form, but in this case I think that to do so would be to cheat the evidence of an important part of what it has to offer. Discussion of Petrarchism tends to display a familiar modern eagerness to perceive the limits of authoritative styles of discourse and to describe the crossing of those limits in transgressive and even violent terms; it is a predilection that can make us miss things.


  1. Francesco Sansovino (the son of the architect), dedication to Le rime di M. Pietro Bembo, ed. Francesco Sansovino (Venice, 1561), sig. A2v. Here and below, unidentified translations are my own.

  2. Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Charles S. Singleton (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959), 244 (3.41).

  3. The lyric in Don Quixote 2.68 is from Asolani 1.14; Unamuno a bit incautiously celebrated it as that “marvelous verse in which the deepest essence of the quixotic spirit is affirmed!” (see Francisco Rodríguez Marín, “El madrigalete de Don Quijote,” in El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, ed. Francisco Rodríguez Marín, 10 vols. [Madrid: Atlas, 1947-49], 10:115-21).

  4. A recent flurry of English-language books does give him something like his appropriate stature: Daniel L. Heiple, Garcilaso de la Vega and the Italian Renaissance (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 77-102; William J. Kennedy, Authorizing Petrarch (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994), 82-113; Ignacio Navarrete, Orphans of Petrarch: Poetry and Theory in the Spanish Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 3-14; Brian Richardson, Print Culture in Renaissance Italy: The Editor and the Vernacular Text, 1470-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 48-63.

  5. Apart from some of the correspondence discussed here (see n. 17) and stray rime and letters in anthologies and critical works, I know of English translations only for the Asolani (Pietro Bembo's “Gli Asolani,” trans. Rudolf B. Gottfried [1954; rpt. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1971]) and a key section of the Prose (in The Three Crowns of Florence: Humanist Assessments of Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio, ed. and trans. David Thompson and Alan F. Nagel [New York: Harper and Row, 1972], 155-71).

  6. Giancarlo Mazzacurati, “Pietro Bembo: La grammatica del dominio,” Lavoro Critico 7-8 (1976): 195-235.

  7. William J. Kennedy, “The Unbound Turns of Maurice Scève,” in Creative Imitation: New Essays on Renaissance Literature in Honor of Thomas M. Greene, ed. David Quint, Margaret W. Ferguson, G. W. Pigman III, and Wayne A. Rebhorn (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992), 88.

  8. Nancy J. Vickers, “Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 107. For a fuller critique of this position see my “Gaspara Stampa and the Gender of Petrarchism,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 38 (1996): 115-39.

  9. For example, “Unlike the Petrarchan model, [Gaspara] Stampa is clearly (and ironically) articulating both the way women were often perceived—as less able to create ‘exceptional’ verse—and also the way women can rearticulate such a disempowered status, charting another form of literary concern that refuses the totalizing view of metaphysical lack” (Juliana Schiesari, The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992], 170).

  10. There is an efficient summary, with further references, in Rinaldina Russell, ed., Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994), xvii-xx; for a full list of publications by women writers in Italy up to the mid-seventeenth century see Marina Zancan, ed., Nel cerchio della luna: Figure di donna in alcuni testi del XVI secolo (Venice: Marsilio, 1983), 254-64.

  11. Rime diverse d'alcune nobilissime e virtuosissime donne (Lucca, 1559). On the contents of this collection see Marie-Françoise Piéjus, “La Première Anthologie de poèmes féminins: L'Ecriture filtrée et orientée,” in Le Pouvoir et la plume: Incitation, contrôle et répression dans l'Italie du XVIe siècle (Paris: Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Centre Censier, 1982), 193-213.

  12. “If Petrarch has not been able to persuade you that he was truly in love with my lady Laura, with so many beautiful and precious works in the vernacular—and especially with his first sonnet, in which it is unbelievable that he is inventing his shame [fingesse a sua vergogna]—and with so many other works in Latin in which he attests to this, I will certainly not presume that I can persuade you myself” (Bembo, Lettere, ed. Ernesto Travi, 4 vols. [Bologna: Commissione per i Testi di Lingua, 1987-93], letter 997). Further references to Bembo's letters are to this edition (but see nn. 17 and 25). For Bembo's other writings I use Prose e rime, 2d ed., ed. Carlo Dionisotti (Turin: Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, 1966).

  13. Luigi Baldacci, Il petrarchismo italiano nel cinquecento, 2d ed. (Padua: Liviana, 1974), 51.

  14. Achille Ratti, “Una lettera autografa della Morosina a P. Bembo,” Giornale Storico della Letteratura Italiana 40 (1902): 335-42. Two more of La Morosina's letters, to another correspondent, have since come to light (Ernesto Travi, “Due nuove lettere delle Morosina,” Studi e Problemi di Critica Testuale 20 [1980]: 177-81). No letters from Bembo to her are known.

  15. For the known facts and a plausible, if unverifiable, guess at the story behind them see Frederic Joseph Jones, “Petrarch, Philippe de Vitry, and a Possible Identification of the Mother of Petrarch's Children,” Italianistica 18 (1989): 81-107.

  16. Toward the end of Bembo's Rime a series of poems (148-62) laments a woman's death; three (148, 151-2) were written before 1535, either as exercises or about unidentified other women, but the rest clearly concern La Morosina. We know that she was seriously ill in 1526, and Rime 111-2 (with an eye on Petrarch [Canzoniere 31-2]) may be the result. Rime 119 is an anniversary poem that definitely concerns her, though in an unhappy way; Bembo changes Petrarch's “sospir trilustre” [fifteen years of sighing (Canzoniere 145.14)] into “prigion trilustre” [fifteen years of prison] and, while crediting God with having shown him the way out, regrets that he cannot free himself from the burdens of the flesh.

  17. The Prettiest Love Letters in the World: Letters between Lucrezia Borgia and Pietro Bembo, 1503 to 1519, ed. and trans. Hugh Shankland (Boston: Godine, 1987). I use this translation for the prose portions of the letters but not for the poems in them. Shankland's introduction provides a reasonably conscientious narrative context for the individual letters. There is now a joint edition of the Italian texts: Pietro Bembo and Lucrezia Borgia, La grande fiamma: Lettere, 1503-1517, ed. Giulia Raboni (Milan: Rosellina Archinto, 1989). I cite Borgia's letters from this edition and for convenience add Raboni's number (in brackets) to the Travi number for citations of Bembo's letters to Borgia. Byron's phrase comes in a letter to Thomas Moore (Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, 12 vols. [London: John Murray, 1973-94], 5:123 [6 November 1816]; see also 5:114-5, 116, 118).

  18. See Lettere 160 [6]. Tradition identifies this lock with the one still preserved in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, from which Byron stole a strand.

  19. The song is actually from a poem by Lope di Estuñiga (Cancionero general de Hernando del Castillo, 2 vols. [Madrid: Impr. de M. Ginesta, 1882], 1:201). See Pio Rajna, “I versi spagnuoli di mano di Pietro Bembo e di Lucrezia Borgia serbati da un codice ambrosiano,” in Homenaje ofrecido a Menéndez Pidal: Miscelanea de estudios lingüísticos, literarios e históricos, 3 vols. (Madrid: Hernando, 1925), 2:299-321.

  20. I take text and translation for Petrarch (with occasional minor changes) from Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The “Rime sparse” and Other Lyrics, ed. and trans. Robert M. Durling (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976).

  21. See Shankland's telling of the story (28-30).

  22. The list of her books is preserved in a manuscript in the archives of Modena and is reprinted in Ferdinand Gregorovius, Lucrèce Borgia, trans. Paul Regnaud, 2 vols. (Paris: Sandoz and Fischbacher, 1876), 2:425 (the list is not in the German or English edition of the same work).

  23. I give (from Travi) the text that has come down with the letter; the final version in Bembo's Rime differs in a few particulars, amounting to a general effacement of the military metaphor (regno rather than campo in l. 2; medicina and languir rather than difesa and strazio in l. 14).

  24. See my “Unspeakable Love: Petrarch to Herbert,” in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 253-72.

  25. Carteggio d'amore, 1500-1501: Maria Savorgnan-Pietro Bembo, ed. Carlo Dionisotti (Florence: Felice Le Monnier, 1950); numerous small changes in the text are given by Antonio Enzo Quaglio, “Intorno a Maria Savorgnan I: Per una riedizione delle lettere,” Quaderni Utinensi 5-6 (1985): 103-18, but the prospective edition has not appeared. I cite Savorgnan's letters from Dionisotti's edition; for Bembo's letters to her I add the number in this collection to Travi's number. Critical commentary is sparse. There is an overconfident but sometimes useful reconstruction of the love story in Gildo Meneghetti, La vita avventurosa di Pietro Bembo: Umanista, poeta, cortigiano (Venice: Tipografia Commerciale, 1961), 20-39. Baldacci calls the correspondence “the first distinguished example of Bembo's Petrarchism” (123) and discusses it in reference to Bembo's own poetic development (123-34). Quaglio advances an interesting thesis about Savorgnan's first sonnet in “Intorno a Maria Savorgnan II: Un ‘sidio’ d'amore,” Quaderni Utinensi 7-8 (1986): 77-118. See also Elena Croce, Periplo italiano: Note sui narratori italiani dei primi secoli (Milan: Mondadori, 1977), 89-93; and Marina Zancan, “L'intellettualità femminile nel primo cinquecento: Maria Savorgnan e Gaspara Stampa,” Annali d'Italianistica 7 (1989): 42-65.

  26. According to Quaglio, we owe the first name to Dionisotti's silent expansion of “Ma” (“Intorno a Maria Savorgnan I,” 106).

  27. See Edward Muir, Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli during the Renaissance (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 158-9.

  28. Maria Bellonci, Lucrezia Borgia: La sua vita e i suoi tempi (Milan: Mondadori, 1939), 357.

  29. Lettere 88 [39], 129 [74], 101 and 102 [62 and 64], 123 [70]; the first three are Rime rifiutate 10-2 in Dionisotti, Prose e rime.

  30. Dionisotti, Carteggio, 139, xxii-xxiii (“Perhaps in the beginning poetry was their Gallehault”).

  31. I assume that disnoglia is equivalent to disnoia; the formation may be in response to Bembo's own disvolere (“ogni vostro volere, ogni disvolere”) of (probably) a couple of months earlier (Lettere 105 [53]). The poem in question is the “Lorenzo madrigal”; Bembo's reply is conciliatory, asking her permission to send the poem to its intended recipient if the bothersome verse is removed (Lettere 112 [59]), though line 10 of Rime 77 still reads “e col primo penser un altro giostra.” Savorgnan apparently thinks it too close to Petrarch: “Ma con questo pensier un altro giostra” (Canzoniere 68.5). In another exchange (Lettere 123 [70]; Savorgnan 65), her suggested revisions heighten the Petrarchan echoes, though not to the point of virtually quoting an entire line (see Dionisotti, Carteggio, 151).

  32. Despite the numbers, the second text is almost certainly the later (see Dionisotti, Carteggio, xxxviii). For a deliberately casual appropriation of this Petrarchan citation as self-evident truth (“Ma perché il vivace amore cresce nelli affanni”) see Lorenzo de' Medici, Comento de' miei sonetti, ed. Tiziano Zanato (Florence: Olschki, 1991), 31.16.

  33. Bembo writes specifically of a “third failure” [terzo fallire]. Bembo's numbering of his loves is consistent in several contexts: an otherwise unidentified “M. G.” in the 1490s is first; Savorgnan is second; and Borgia is third. The apparent prophecy of the next love story is part of the evidence that Bembo's letters are revised versions from some later date (see Dionisotti, Carteggio, 165).

  34. The Petrarchan text occasions telling revision by other poets. Michelangelo, in a late, unfinished sonnet, hopes in his spiritual distress “aita trovar non che perdono” [to find help, not only pardon] (Rime, ed. Enzo Noè Girardi [Bari: Laterza, 1960], 301.7). On the other hand, Gaspara Stampa, Italy's boldest female Petrarchist, announces in her opening poem that she bids to win “gloria, non che perdon” [glory, not only pardon] (Gaspara Stampa 1.6, in Gaspara Stampa-Veronica Franco: Rime, ed. Abdelkader Salza [Bari: Laterza, 1913]).

  35. Bembo's own dating puts his letter first, at 8 July 1500, and Savorgnan's two weeks later, at 20 July, but he is seriously unreliable in such matters; Dionisotti does not feel able to fit either letter into the revised ordering he suggests (Carteggio, xxxviii).

  36. For a fuller account see my discussion in “Love and Fame: The Petrarchan Career,” in Pragmatism's Freud: The Moral Disposition of Psychoanalysis, ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 128-34.

  37. Bernart de Ventadorn, “Can vei la lauzeta mover,” in Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères: An Anthology and a History, ed. and trans. Frederick Goldin (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973), 146-7. Goldin gives the trope book-length treatment in The Mirror of Narcissus in the Courtly Love Lyric (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967).

  38. John Freccero, “The Fig Tree and the Laurel: Petrarch's Poetics,” Diacritics 5 (1975): 39.

  39. I quote from The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. William A. Oram et al. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), though I obviously do not share Alexander Dunlop's opinion that “the poet here trivializes the concept of the lover's function as mirror” (627). There is a similar revision of the Petrarchan motif in Scève's Délie 229, which may well have been on Spenser's mind. An idealized female response is imagined by Catherine des Roches at the end of her Charite-Sincero sequence, when the heroine looks into her lover's heart: “Ouvrez donc s'il vous plaist: ha mon Dieu! je me voy!” [Then open it if you please; oh my God! I see myself!] (Madeleine des Roches and Catherine des Roches, Oeuvres, ed. Anne R. Larsen [Geneva: Droz, 1993], 281).

  40. The same sentiment, along with the phrase dolce invidia, occurs in Bembo, Lettere 115 [61].

  41. I quote from The Complete Poetry of John Donne, ed. John T. Shawcross (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967). Donne's dealings with Petrarch have been the subject of two books—Donald L. Guss, John Donne, Petrarchist: Italianate Conceits and Love Theory in the “Songs and Sonets” (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1966), and Sylvia Ruffo-Fiore, Donne's Petrarchism: A Comparative View (Florence: Grafica Toscana, 1976)—and have been given extensive attention in Theodore Redpath, ed., The “Songs and Sonets” of John Donne, 2d ed. (New York: St. Martin's, 1983), 47-88 and passim. My own feel for the topic, however, has been most strongly influenced by Theresa M. DiPasquale's recent work, most of it as yet unpublished (but see “Donne's Catholic Petrarchans: The Babylonian Captivity of Desire,” in Renaissance Discourses of Desire, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth [Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993], 77-92).

Brian Richardson (essay date 2000)

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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 rigorous imitation and emulation of his fourteenth-century model. As he approached his sixtieth year at the end of the 1520s, his poetic reputation was high: high enough, indeed, for verse to have been wrongly ascribed to his pen.1 However, his influence in this field had been established only in part, since until then the only poems he had had printed were those that formed part of the Asolani, and none of these was an example of the prime Petrarchan metric form, the sonnet.2 In contrast, his use of print had already helped to assure his pre-eminence in other areas of his literary activity. Thanks to his Asolani (first printed in 1505), Bembo was recognized as one of the two greatest living Italian writers of prose combined with poetry (Sannazaro was the other), and he was thought to be the leading expert in the history and language of Italian literature, by virtue of his editions of Petrarch and Dante (1501 and 1502) and especially through the printing of his Prose della volgar lingua (first edition, 1525). A factor that must have made him begin to think about adding a collection of lyric verse to his list of printed works was the revival of his interest in writing sonnets after he had left Rome and returned to a more leisurely life in the Veneto in the 1520s.3 On the other hand, it was still the norm that authors did not make such collections public through the medium of print. Although in the first three decades of the sixteenth century epic poets had begun to make use of the opportunities offered by print, as one can see from examples such as the first two editions of Ariosto's Orlando furioso in 1516 and 1521, only a small number of living poets had seen their lyric verse printed, and printings of such verse were not normally sponsored directly by the author. Furthermore, much of the poetry printed was of broad appeal, coming from writers such as Serafino Aquilano or Olimpo da Sassoferrato.4 However, by 1529 Bembo decided to break with the indifference or mistrust lyric poets had conventionally shown towards the press. A selection of Rime was duly printed for him in 1530 and was followed by a second selection in 1535. This pioneering initiative, together with the posthumous publication of printed editions of Sannazaro's Rime later in 1530, gave a decisive impetus to the development of Italian Petrarchism and to the use of print in this genre. The aim of this article is to study this example of the advent of print publication alongside scribal publication, first considering the essential role the latter continued to play in Bembo's circulation of his new verse in the key period from 1529 to 1535, and then examining how he nevertheless also set about using the resources of the Venetian printing industry in order to consolidate and enhance his reputation as a poet.

I begin with a specific example of the diffusion of a new poem by Bembo. In March 1530, writing a letter to his younger friend Vettor Soranzo in Bologna, he added a postscript to say that he was enclosing a second version of a sonnet he had sent to Soranzo earlier, in a draft version that must have been for Soranzo's eyes only. The sonnet in question, beginning ‘Quel dolce suon, per cui chiaro s'intende’ (Rime, CXXIII), was addressed to Veronica Gambara, in reply to one she had addressed to Bembo.5 Bembo now asked Soranzo, in effect, to publish this second version by giving it to three close friends from their circle and also to anyone else Soranzo wished (‘a chi vi parrà’). As a member of the papal court, Soranzo was well placed to make the sonnet public among cultured men and women. Not until six days later did Bembo send the sonnet to Gambara herself with an accompanying letter; this was almost a secondary consideration. News of the exchange of sonnets, but not the sonnets themselves, had reached Bembo's friend Francesco della Torre in Verona by the end of May, and Bembo published the sonnet for at least the third time by sending both it and Gambara's sonnet to della Torre in response to his request to see them. Soranzo, in fact, never received the sonnet directly from Bembo, probably because of warfare in central Italy. But the scribal network had been busy. The poem had reached Soranzo indirectly by 8 June in Rome, when it was well enough known for him to say that in that city it was ‘on everyone's lips’ (‘in bocca d'ognuno’). Only later did Bembo republish the sonnet, this time giving it much wider diffusion, when he included it in the second printed edition of his Rime in 1535.6

A first point to note here is that Bembo made a clear distinction between private diffusion, within a strictly limited inner circle, and making his work available to the public at large. When he sent a first redaction of a sonnet with a letter to one of a small handful of close friends, he usually specified that it was not for publication and could go no further than the recipient and perhaps one other trusted friend, because he would normally want to revise it at least once.7 Private diffusion was also important to poets of this period if the composition had a consolatory function. Thus, when Gambara wrote a sonnet for Bembo following the death of his beloved Morosina in August 1535, she asked Pietro Aretino to deliver it to Bembo and said that Aretino was to copy it later only if Bembo allowed.8 Another case in which diffusion was strictly limited was when a composition was being sent to a more experienced poet with a request for advice or emendation. The authoritative position of Bembo led, as one would expect, to his receiving a number of such approaches.9

After a relatively short period of reflection about a poem of his own, and possibly some minor changes, Bembo would then give the recipient or recipients permission to act as its secondary publishers, giving the poem wider circulation in the same way as patrons were sometimes asked to do. Thus he published “Sonnet CXXIII,” or at least thought he was doing so, first by telling Soranzo that he could release it, and then by sending it to Gambara, to his friend in Verona, and maybe to others as well. Releasing a text to friends in this way, without setting a limit on its circulation, constitutes what Harold Love, in his excellent study of scribal publication in seventeenth-century England,10 calls a ‘weak’ sense of publication. Such publication is distinct, on the one hand, from publication in a more active or ‘strong’ sense. But it is also clearly distinct, on the other hand, from restricted circulation, since, in Love's words, the text has ‘ceased to be a private possession’ (p. 36), and the surrender of control over the future use of the manuscript has taken place ‘in a context where there was some practical likelihood of the text entering public channels of communication’ (p. 40). Bembo signalled such publication by careful use of an instruction such as ‘do what you want with it’, ‘give it to whoever you like’, or of the verb uscire (to go forth); he thus explicitly allowed diffusion yet at the same time preserved decorum by affecting an attitude of indifference towards the process.11

The example of “Sonnet CXXIII” suggests, too, that scribal publication was still effective in the case of lyric poetry, even at a date more than sixty years after the introduction of the printing press to Italy. Bembo knew that his sending forth a sonnet would trigger off a flurry of avid copying and recopying by others, so that the poem would circulate from one network of acquaintances to others. His correspondence in this period provides other such examples of sonnets being sent on to one or more other readers after secondary copying.12 From a modern point of view, this system of diffusion might seem rather slow and limited in scope, unsatisfactory for both author and reader, in comparison with the simultaneous arrival on the market of perhaps a thousand copies of a printed edition, but as can be seen, in the right circles sonnets could circulate rapidly enough in manuscript.

Circulation by handwriting, when carried out by amateurs, also had the advantage of being free of any taint that might derive from association with the printing industry. Printed books inevitably had an association with commerce, whereas even manuscripts written by a professional scribe were not necessarily distinguishable from those copied by amateurs. Publication in print might also expose an author to accusations of vanity. Vincenzo Calmeta, writing in the earliest years of the sixteenth century, observed that poets no longer followed the custom of the ancients, who rarely published their collected works during their lifetime but preferred to send some minor works (‘qualche operetta’) to special persons, keeping the best for further correction, in order to gain some lasting reputation (‘qualche perpetuità’) after their death. Now, he lamented, because of the easy availability of printers, arrogant ambition (‘la boriosa ambizione’) reigned and, as soon as a poet had written a composition, he had it printed in order to achieve a name for himself. A collection of poetry in print, he warned, could also show up the shallowness of the talent of someone such as Antonio Tebaldeo; it was far preferable to hear a single composition by such a poet recited or sung once every week or two.13

As Calmeta's comments might suggest, authors in this period did not necessarily see it as a disadvantage of scribal publication that their poems should normally be distributed piecemeal rather than in collected form. They did not use the term canzoniere often and, even when a collection of poetry was put together, it did not necessarily tell chiefly of love for a single woman, in the manner of Petrarch's Canzoniere.14 Nor was Petrarch's concern with the careful ordering of his collection shared by his sixteenth-century imitators. This may have been partly due to the fact that there was only limited awareness of the principles of Petrarch's ordering. When Bembo edited Petrarch in 1501, he largely respected the poet's final organization of the Canzoniere, but two other editors of Petrarch, Alessandro Vellutello and Sebastiano Fausto, considered there was no definite evidence for it and introduced their own, in 1525 and 1532 respectively.15 As regards Bembo's own poems, he had probably envisaged the publication of a collection in manuscript at an earlier stage but had not pursued the idea. When he was still a member of the court of Urbino, in late 1510 or early 1511, he made a selection of his verse with the aim of presenting it to the Duchess of Urbino, Elisabetta Gonzaga.16 The manuscript providing the evidence for this (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, It. IX. 143 (= 6993)) was written on paper, perhaps by Bembo himself, and was not intended for presentation. Presumably he envisaged the initial publication of the collection through the medium of another manuscript to be copied on vellum and dedicated to the Duchess; there is no evidence that at this stage he was thinking of having the collection printed. Between 1510 and 1513 he continued to correct the collection, but eventually he abandoned this project. As Marco Santagata has remarked, the ‘strong’ Petrarchism of Bembo paradoxically did not demand the creation of a collected ‘libro di rime’, while the ‘weak’ Petrarchism of the previous century had favoured experimentation with it.17 The selection Bembo eventually published in the Rime of 1530 has rightly been described by Marti as ‘una “raccolta”, insomma, a posteriori e senza storia; non certo un “canzoniere”’ (Marti, p. 452). The putting together of this selection does seem to have led Bembo to compose the Petrarchan proemial sonnet ‘Piansi e cantai lo strazio e l'aspra guerra’, which was published only in print rather than in manuscript. On the other hand, it is notable that at the end of the 1530 Rime, the ballata of repentance ‘Signor, quella pietà, che ti constrinse’, composed for the Urbino collection in about 1510 in order to provide an obvious parallel with Petrarch's concluding canzone to the Virgin, was now followed by three recent sonnets on the deaths of friends (Rime, CXLV-CXLVII).18 This supplement recalls, though on a much smaller scale, the third section of Vellutello's edition of Petrarch, in which the editor grouped poems addressed to persons other than Laura.

Another important reason why the scribal publication of single lyric poems continued to flourish, even in the age of print, was that it fulfilled an important social function, both for the author and for the other participants in the operation. Antonia Tissoni Benvenuti has pointed out that collections of verse from the fifteenth century, and especially from the second half of that century, were predominantly made up of texts that were originally diffused singly because they were linked with particular social moments such as falling in love, mourning, the sending of gifts, thanks, congratulations, and, occasionally but rarely, contemporary political events (Tissoni Benvenuti, p. 26). It has also been observed by W. Theodor Elwert that in the sixteenth century, lyric verse was increasingly addressed to or concerned with the poet's friends (both male and female) and protectors.19 Since poems often referred to specific events, they needed to be transmitted rapidly, before they lost some of their freshness and relevance. This transmission on the part of sixteenth-century authors normally took place within the framework of their correspondence: a poem accompanied a letter or was occasionally included as part of the text of a letter. One of the benefits of this direct form of communication was the immediacy and the privileged nature of the initial contact it allowed between the poet and the recipient; thus Bembo could send verse written in ink he claimed to be scarcely dry.20 Yet lyric poems were acts of communication rarely if ever intended only for private reading by one person. Poets also wrote for a peer group made up of known and even unknown people with like tastes, and publication in manuscript allowed them to nourish their relationships with these readers. Bembo sent “Sonnet CXXIII” to Gambara only after its initial publication through Soranzo. Sometimes he sent a poem to its addressee not directly but via an intermediary.21 The system of scribal publication also allowed those, like Soranzo, who were used by the author as secondary publishers to cultivate links with their own networks of friends. Bembo himself benefited by being part of such networks, since in this period his correspondents were able to send him poems written by authors such as Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara, Angelo Colocci, and the exiled Spaniard Garcilaso de la Vega.22 Those who belonged to the networks of publication could build up their own personal miscellanies of the poems that came their way, using them as a source of pleasure or perhaps as a source of inspiration for verse of their own, as in the case of a collector who appended to his or her manuscript of Venetian lyrics a handy list of nouns found in the collection with the various adjectives used to qualify them.23

The social function of verse could also be demonstrated in the context of oral publication.24 Calmeta implied that the normal mode of diffusion of courtly poetry was for a performer to sing it to an accompaniment played by himself on a lute. He made several references to the publication of verse by such singer-lutenists, whom he termed ‘citaredi’. Only after their recital was finished might they leave behind written copies of what they had sung, by which he may have meant printed copies (Calmeta, p. 4). Performances by the poet Serafino Aquilano, wrote Calmeta, had the power to move listeners of all kinds: ‘Nel recitare de’ soi poemi era tanto ardente e con tanto giudizio le parole con la musica consertava che l'animo de li ascoltanti, o dotti o mediocri o plebei o donne, equalmente commoveva’ (pp. 75-76). Serafino sang his verse to music which was, it seems, deliberately understated (‘stesa e piana’, literally ‘extended and even’) in order to throw the brilliance of his words into relief (pp. 21-22). Such skill in recitation was, according to Calmeta, probably the most important factor in the success of courtly poets. Many instrumentalists and singers saw that it was performance rather than composition that had brought Serafino fame (‘la forza dil recitare più che dil comporre li aveva dato fama’) and that his manner pleased rulers, learned men, and fair women alike; they thus set about imitating him, learning his tunes and words, so that both he and ‘molti altri citaredi’ contributed to the diffusion of his verse throughout Italy (pp. 64-65).25 In the dialogue described in the Asolani, Bembo does make his characters sing poems to a lute or viol accompaniment, but in real life he seems to have frowned on this method of publication because of its associations with popular poetry and hasty composition. When once he wanted to tell Francesco Maria Machiavelli just how poor he found some stanzas Machiavelli had sent for his opinion, the rebukes he chose were that he found them ‘più tosto da sentir recitare che da leggere’ (‘fit to be heard recited rather than to be read’) and that they must have been written in a few days (Lettere, III, no. 1330, 10 February 1532). These are comments one would expect from a man who believed that no tongue was truly worthy of being called a language unless it was used in writing for literary purposes (‘non si può dire che sia veramente lingua alcuna favella che non ha scrittore’ (Bembo, Prose e rime, p. 110)). That is not to say that in Venetian society oral recitation could not still have some part to play in diffusing high-flown poetry. In a letter of 1532 Bembo referred to his having heard Marcello Palone recite his Latin verse in Venice, and Nicolò Franco asked the Venetian patrician Domenico Venier, in a letter of 1536, for a copy of a sonnet he said he had heard Venier recite.26 But in the case of Bembo's “Sonnet CXXIII,” one should not take too literally that reference by Soranzo to the poem being on everyone's lips.

Bembo's lyric poems, then, normally continued to be first published in this period in the traditional manner, by hand and as compositions that stood on their own. At the same time, following his renewed interest in composing lyric poetry, by the late 1520s he had reached the point at which he could return to the idea of making public a collection of his Rime. On this occasion, however, he chose to publish through the medium of print, and he turned to the Venetian press of Giovanni Antonio Nicolini da Sabbio and brothers. Preparations were well in hand by September 1529.27 The Rime came out in 1530 as one of a group of works Bembo published at the same time: he also arranged for Nicolini to print the revised Asolani, his Latin dialogues, and the Stanze written in 1507. The decision to publish his Rime in this way, and together with these other works, was a particularly bold one. Until then, probably only one Italian poet had taken it upon himself to organize a complete printed collection of his own lyric poems: Gian Giorgio Trissino, another patrician from the Veneto, whose Rime appeared in an elegant edition in Vicenza at some time in 1529 at his own expense, and also as part of a sequence of works by the same author.28 It may be that the example of Trissino played a part in Bembo's decision to send his own Rime to the press in order to establish his own contrasting poetic standards, but Bembo's plans could well have been made, at least in outline, before he learned of or saw the Vicentine edition. Certainly, his own collection was eventually to prove the more influential; as with many other works of Trissino, this one was strikingly original but too idiosyncratic to invite imitation.

Apart from possible rivalry with Trissino, what, one may ask, were the motives that led Bembo to take this unusual step? The main one would naturally have been a desire to give wider diffusion to his verse, following the reawakening of his poetic inspiration, than scribal publication allowed, and hence to gain greater renown. When in 1538 he was trying to persuade a reluctant Vittoria Colonna to allow him to have her poems printed in Venice under his supervision, he argued thus: ‘Né bisogna dire: “io non curo la gloria del mondo”, ché queste son parole. La gloria, che può venirne dalle buone opere, non è da essere sprezzata, anzi, amata e tenuta cara da ogni santissima anima’ (Lettere, IV, no. 1967 (8 November 1538), to Carlo Gualteruzzi). But there would have been other motives, which can be related to the question of authorial control: first, over the selection of the poems, their ordering, and the accuracy of the published text. This would have been a matter of great importance to someone as punctilious as Bembo. In order to have the last word in these matters, he would have had to ensure proper scrutiny of the printing process, since those in the printing-house could hardly be relied on to be accurate, and thus the poet, who now lived in Padua, had operations in Venice overseen on his behalf by his friend and secretary Cola Bruno, with some assistance from Soranzo in matters of content.29 It is known that Bembo was sent a copy of at least the first of the sheets to be printed, and he was probably sent all the others as they appeared, so that if necessary he could note any corrections in a list at the end of the volume (see the description of this edition in the Appendix; in the event, the list on folio E10r contained only three errors). By having the collection published in print, Bembo could establish and diffuse a text that was authoritative and would remain stable, at least until the next edition. In contrast, in the chain of scribal copying there was every possibility that others would misattribute poems, circulate old redactions or poems now rejected, or introduce involuntary or even deliberate changes. Even fairly superficial alterations to the language of his poems, such as the northern Italian patina introduced into the Bolognese manuscript of the Rime, which probably dates from between 1528 and June 1529, would have been deeply unwelcome to Bembo.30 It is worth noting that he did not allow himself to have particularly high expectations of the accuracy of the scribes (‘scrittori’) who, as a letter of 3 January 1536 (III, no. 1739) shows, helped him in this period to copy out his letters and compositions, including poems sent to friends. In a letter of 13 June 1535 (no. 1692), he said he had had to dismiss his previous scribe for bad behaviour, and that his current one had no Latin and made more errors than Bembo would like. In looking for a replacement, he stipulated only that the new scribe should have a good hand and some smattering of learning.

A second advantage of having the Rime printed would have been control over their physical appearance. Bembo had already demonstrated his interest in such matters in 1501-02 when he used the manuscripts he prepared as printer's copy for his Aldine editions of Petrarch and Dante to indicate the mise en page to be followed by the compositors, and in 1525 when he had his Prose della volgar lingua printed by Giovanni Tacuino in a presentation of which the aesthetic form helped to reinforce his intellectual approach.31 In the letter of 1538 to Gualteruzzi mentioned above, he showed outrage at the ‘ingiuria e villania’ done to Vittoria Colonna by the recent unauthorized Parma edition, which had published her Rime not only ‘incorrettissime’ but also ‘di pessima e forma e carta’. Print gave Bembo a guarantee that his own verse would circulate in an elegant and exclusive dress that would be appreciated by his peer group, and at the same time would put the poems out of the reach of other readers for reasons of cost and taste. The Nicolini brothers' edition used a large italic fount, and its quarto format gave pages with ample margins and with a printed area of 152 × 80mm, similar to the written area of the Urbino manuscript, 160 × 100mm.32 The effect is one of great elegance, certainly not inferior to the high standard set by Trissino's Rime of 1529, a volume Bembo would not have wanted to overshadow his own Rime.33 Bembo was no doubt responsible for a very unusual feature of the 1530 edition: the first three pages are blank, so that the title appears only on the verso of the second leaf. This arrangement seems intended to hark back to the earliest years of printing, when the first leaf or the first page might be left blank, but even then it was very rare to delay the start of the text until after the second recto.34 Another old-fashioned feature of the 1530 edition is the absence of foliation, in spite of the fact that the index of first lines refers to leaf numbers.

In order to have his poems published as he wanted, Bembo would have had to come to a contractual arrangement with the printers, agreeing to pay at least some share of their costs in return for a share of the copies printed. He chose not to seek any reward by addressing the work to a dedicatee. But a third aspect of the control print allowed was the prospect of some financial reward for publication. Sales of his copies would have allowed him to recoup at least some of his investment and perhaps even to make a profit. We know from his letters that he had a financial interest in the sale of the Rime, possibly in conjunction with the bookseller-publisher Niccolò Zoppino: a letter of May 1530 shows him arranging for copies of this and other works to be stocked by booksellers in Rome, and in another letter of June he remarked with irritation that the delay in sending copies south had caused him to lose money.35 A statement at the end of the volume claims that Bembo had applied for and had been granted privileges that would protect him for unspecified periods against the sale of rival editions in most of the states of northern and central Italy (see the Appendix). But Bembo did not use his stock of printed copies solely as a source of income for himself; he also derived another kind of advantage by presenting some of them as gifts to friends. He sent copies directly to Iacopo Sadoleto (though he thought they would not be to the bishop's taste), Pietro Pamfilio, and Agostino Lando, and he asked Flaminio Tomarozzo to take at least one copy to be presented as a gift in Naples.36 Printed copies, then, were not just destined to bring an author's works to a wider public but could, like manuscript copies, be used by an author to cement his or her personal relationships with others.

The impact of Bembo's Rime of 1530 on the publication of verse by other poets can be gauged by the imitation of its physical appearance in Bernardo Tasso's Libro primo de gli Amori, printed by the Nicolini press in the following year. The Rime must also have been a success in its author's eyes, since Bembo soon wanted to follow the first edition with a second. He began to make plans for this as early as May 1532, though it did not appear until 1535. New poems were added and some existing ones were revised.37 Although, as has been suggested, Bembo would have appreciated the fixity that print offered within a single edition, the habit of continuous revision was one that scribal publication had allowed and encouraged, and it remained deeply engrained among Italian lyric poets throughout the sixteenth century.38 In preparing the second edition of his Rime, Bembo was as exacting as ever about their visual appearance. He wanted to use the same typeface as in 1530, but it appears that the fount would have had to be recut and recast. In the event, the type used was very similar to that of 1530 but gave a printed area slightly taller and narrower (see the Appendix). It was particularly important to him that the type should be fresh and that the paper should be of good quality, if possible better than that of 1530. He turned again to the services of the Nicolini company, but the identity of the printer does not seem to have mattered greatly to him; the Nicolini were never mentioned by name in his letters, Bembo always negotiated with them through intermediaries, and in 1533 he seems to have been considering using another printer if Nicolini would not or could not replicate the 1530 fount. Bembo controlled the accuracy of the compositors' work by having each sheet of quarto proofread as it was set in type daily, following what appears to have been the standard rhythm for the output of a press in this period. He had to make (or more probably chose to make) a contribution towards printing costs: a letter to his nephew Gian Matteo Bembo asked him to conclude negotiations with the printer and said he would send the necessary payment. He would therefore presumably again have received a number of copies to sell on his own account. He also continued to take advantage of the opportunity to present several gift-copies to friends in Rome and elsewhere.39 The note at the end of the volume asserts that he was protected by privileges in the same states as before, but it is not clear whether these were fresh privileges, and an anonymously printed octavo edition did appear without his consent in 1539.40

Bembo's Rime constituted, then, a decisively influential instance of the printed publication of a collection of Italian lyric verse under the supervision of its author, after several decades in which print had scarcely been used for this purpose. Bembo's innovative use of the press did not mean, in this transitional period, that he stopped using the methods and habits of scribal publication. It was still normal for him, as for others, to make public a newly composed lyric poem in the first instance on its own and in manuscript, a medium perfectly suited to a form of composition that was still conceived as an act of social communication. Even after the poems had appeared in print, Bembo continued to present copies as gifts and to revise his poems with an eye to fresh publication. Using print publication was not an easy matter: the author needed to be wealthy and influential enough to make his own investment in the production and diffusion of an edition, and he needed to be determined enough to become involved in detailed negotiations about the quality of type and paper and the practicalities of the distribution of the resulting books. Nevertheless, in 1529 Bembo decided that if he was to achieve due recognition as a lyric poet, it was also necessary for all his poems that passed muster to be published, under his strict control, in printed form. Although by no means all poets wished to or were able to follow Bembo's example, its influence on younger poets such as Bernardo Tasso and Bernardo Cappello, and also on editors and anthologizers of the poetry of others, meant that the publication of lyric poetry began to move towards a dual system, in which manuscript still played an important complementary role but in which in the longer term print was destined to become increasingly powerful.




common 4°: A-D8 E10

A1r-A2r blank, A2v title page, A3r-E7r 114 poems by Bembo, E7v-E9v index, E9v ‘Per concession del Pontefice, della Signoria di Vinegia, del Duca di Milano, del Duca di Ferrara, & della Rep. Fiorentina si uieta sotto alcune pene a tutti altri il poter quest'opera stampare ne uendere per gli lor dominij.’, E10r ‘Errori, che fatti si sono stampando.’, E10v blank

152 × 80mm; italic 105

Printed in Venice, before 14 March 1530, by Giovanni Antonio Nicolini da Sabbio.


common 4°: A-F8

A1r blank, A1v title page, A2r-F4r 138 poems by Bembo, F4v-F6v index, F7r-F8r 5 sonnets addressed to Bembo, F8v ‘Per concession del Pontefice, della signoria di Vinegia, del duca di Milano, del duca di Ferrara, et della rep. Fiorentina si uieta sotto alcune pene a tutti glialtri il poter quest'opera stampare ne uendere per gli loro dominij. Stampati in Vinegia per Giovann' Antonio de Nicolini da Sabio. Nell'anno MDXXXV.’

156 × 78mm; italic 108


  1. See Pietro Bembo, Opere in volgare, ed. by Mario Marti (Florence: Sansoni, 1961), p. 451.

  2. Neither of the two other poems of Bembo's printed before 1530 seems to have been printed at his request. They were the capitolo ‘Amor è, donne care, un vano e fello’, which appeared in a Fioretto de cose nove nobilissime et degne de diversi auctori printed in Venice in 1508 and again in 1510, and the Stanze composed in Urbino in 1507, which were included in the editions of the Asolani produced in Venice by Nicolò Zoppino (1522) and Gregorio de Gregori (1525): see Pietro Bembo, Gli Asolani e le Rime, ed. by Carlo Dionisotti-Casalone (Turin: UTET, 1932), p. 300. Bembo had excluded all sonnets from the 1505 version of the Asolani: see Gli Asolani, ed. by Giorgio Dilemmi (Florence: Accademia della Crusca, 1991), pp. xliv-xlvi.

  3. See Carlo Dionisotti's introduction to his edition of Pietro Bembo, Prose e rime, 2nd edn (Turin: UTET, 1966), pp. 48-49.

  4. The lack of printed editions of the collected verse of living authors in the first few decades of printing is discussed by Walter Ll. Bullock, ‘Some Notes on the Circulation of Lyric Poems in Sixteenth-Century Italy’, in Essays and Studies in Honor of Carleton Brown (New York: New York University Press; London: Oxford University Press, 1940), pp. 220-41 (especially p. 222), and in the very useful surveys of Antonia Tissoni Benvenuti, ‘La tipologia del libro di rime manoscritto e a stampa nel Quattrocento’, and Nadia Cannata Salamone, ‘Per un catalogo di libri di rime 1470-1530: considerazioni sul canzoniere’, both in Il libro di poesia dal copista al tipografo, ed. by Marco Santagata and Amedeo Quondam (Modena: Panini, 1989), respectively pp. 25-33, 83-89.

  5. Bembo, Prose e rime, pp. 607-08; Veronica Gambara, Rime, ed. by Alan Bullock (Florence: Olschki; Perth: Department of Italian, University of Western Australia, 1995), no. 36.

  6. For these events, see Pietro Bembo, Lettere, ed. by Ernesto Travi, 4 vols (Bologna: Commissione per i testi di lingua, 1987-93), III, no. 1065, 26 March 1530, to Soranzo, apparatus criticus, line 32; no. 1072, 1 April 1530, to Gambara; no. 1099, 31 May 1530, to Francesco della Torre. Soranzo's letter of 8 June 1530 is quoted by Carlo Dionisotti in ‘Appunti sul Bembo e su Vittoria Colonna’, in Miscellanea Augusto Campana, 2 vols (Padua: Antenore, 1981), I, 257-86 (pp. 262-63). On Soranzo, see Annotationi nel Dante fatte con M. Trifon Gabriele in Bassano, ed. by Lino Pertile (Bologna: Commissione per i testi di lingua, 1993), pp. lxxxv-lxxxvi. Gambara's relations with Bembo are studied by three scholars in Veronica Gambara e la poesia del suo tempo nell'Italia settentrionale: atti del Convegno (Brescia-Correggio, 17-19 ottobre 1985), ed. by Cesare Bozzetti, Pietro Gibellini, and Ennio Sandal (Florence: Olschki, 1989): Carlo Dionisotti, ‘Elia Capriolo e Veronica Gàmbara’ (pp. 13-21); Giorgio Dilemmi, ‘“Ne videatur strepere anser inter olores”: le relazioni della Gàmbara con il Bembo’ (pp. 23-35); Guglielmo Gorni, ‘Veronica e le altre: emblemi e cifre onomastiche nelle rime del Bembo’ (pp. 37-57).

  7. In this period see, for example, Lettere, III, no. 992 to Soranzo (27 June 1529); no. 1000 to Bernardo Cappello (15 July 1529); no. 1104 to Carlo Gualteruzzi (10 June 1530); no. 1125 to Soranzo (19 July 1530); no. 1299 to Gualteruzzi (6 November 1531): on the identity of the recipient, see Dionisotti, ‘Appunti sul Bembo’, p. 266; nos 1722 (23 October 1535) and 1724 (29 October 1535) to Cosmo Gheri.

  8. Lettere scritte a Pietro Aretino, ed. by Teodorico Landoni, 2 vols (Bologna: Romagnoli, 1873-75), I, 326-28, 19 September 1536; Gambara, Rime, no. 51. On 26 October she sent a copy to Aretino at his request (I, 330, n. 1).

  9. Thus in this period Bembo tactfully suggested revisions to Bernardo Tasso (Lettere, III, no. 973, 27 May 1529), Vettor Soranzo (Lettere, no. 1207, 6 March 1531, and no. 1310, 2 December 1531), Veronica Gambara (no. 1683, 11 May 1535), and Bernardo Cappello (no. 1728, 11 November 1535 (see Roberto Fedi, La memoria della poesia: canzonieri, lirici e libri di rime nel Rinascimento (Rome: Salerno, 1990), pp. 70-72).

  10. Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 35-46.

  11. Examples can be found in two letters to Soranzo: Lettere, III, no. 904 (26 September 1528), sending revised versions of four of his poems plus a new one, ‘de' quali ne farete il piacer vostro’, and no. 999 (11 July 1529), sending new versions of two sonnets on the death of Navagero so that Soranzo could correct the earlier versions and give these two to Giovan Battista Ramusio, ‘il che fatto, potrete poscia dargli a chi vi piacerà’. For examples of the use of uscire, see Lettere, III, nos 1726 (31 October 1535) and 1771 (10 August 1536).

  12. Thus two sonnets of his were sent to Ramusio via Soranzo, and another was forwarded to Soranzo via Gualteruzzi (Lettere, III, no. 1097, 30 May 1530).

  13. Prose e lettere edite e inedite (con due appendici di altri inediti), ed. by Cecil Grayson (Bologna: Commissione per i testi di lingua, 1959), pp. 3-4, 16; see also page 38 for another comment on the ephermeral fame bestowed by print.

  14. See Guglielmo Gorni, ‘Le forme primarie del testo poetico’, in Letteratura italiana, ed. by Alberto Asor Rosa, Vol. III: Le forme del testo, Part 1 (Turin: Einaudi, 1984), 439-518 (pp. 504-18).

  15. See my Print Culture in Renaissance Italy: The Editor and the Vernacular Text, 1470-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 48-52 (Bembo), 77-78 (Vellutello), 93-94 (Fausto).

  16. See Claudio Vela, ‘Il primo canzoniere del Bembo (ms Marc. It. IX. 143)’, Studi di filologia italiana, 46 (1988), 163-251.

  17. Dal sonetto al canzoniere: ricerche sulla preistoria e la costituzione di un genere, 2nd edn (Padua: Liviana, 1989), p. 15.

  18. For more details on the composition of these poems, see the annotations of Carlo Dionisotti in his edition of Bembo's Prose e rime, pp. 632-34, 649.

  19. La civiltà veneziana del Rinascimento (Florence: Sansoni, 1958), pp. 125-76 (pp. 152-53). Historians of English Renaissance verse have also stressed the close ties between lyric poetry and the social world of its authors: thus Lauro Martines has described such verse as ‘a form of practical action’ (Society and History in English Renaissance Verse (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), p. 20), and Arthur F. Marotti has written of the composition of lyric poems as ‘part of social life’ (Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 2). Two very instructive studies of the importance and functions of scribal publication in seventeenth-century England are those by Harold Love (see note 10) and Peter Beal, In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and their Makers in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

  20. Lettere, II, no. 906 (26 September 1528) to Ventura Pistofilo (‘rime […] nate sì di fresco che a pena è ancor rasciutto il loro inchiostro’) and III, no. 1104 (10 June 1530) to Carlo Gualteruzzi (a sonnet ‘nato questi dì in Villa né ancor ben rasciutto’).

  21. For example, Bembo sent a sonnet addressed to Cardinal Farnese via Gualteruzzi (Lettere, IV, no. 1991, 11 December 1538) and sent sonnets to Vittoria Colonna via Paolo Giovio (Lettere, III, no. 1094, 29 May 1530) or via Gualteruzzi (Lettere, no. 1299, 6 November 1531) because she had used an intermediary when sending a sonnet to him; see also Dionisotti, ‘Apunti sul Bembo’, pp. 261-66. Bembo himself acted as an intermediary when Benedetto Lampridio wished to send a Pindaric ode to Colonna (Lettere, III, no. 1526, 23 October 1533).

  22. In this period Bembo received a sonnet of Colonna via both Giovio and Soranzo (Lettere, III, nos 1077 and 1078, 7 and 9 April 1530), a sonnet of Colocci via Gregorio da Fiume and then via Antonio Tebaldeo (Lettere, III, no. 1281, 10 September 1531), an exchange of sonnets between Colonna and Gambara via Marcello Palone (Lettere, III, no. 1385, 5 July 1532), and an ode of Garcilaso via Girolamo Seripandi (Lettere, III, no. 1707, 10 August 1535).

  23. In Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, MS It. IX. 109 (= 6743), fols 39r-44v.

  24. Such publication would include improvisation, on which see James Haar, Essays on Italian Poetry and Music in the Renaissance, 1350-1600 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 76-99. The spontaneity of this act was probably sometimes only apparent. Castiglione cast doubt on whether a sonnet supposedly recited by the courtly poet Bernardo Accolti (l'Unico Aretino) was really improvised (Il libro del cortegiano, ed. by Vittorio Cian (Florence: Sansoni, 1947), I. 9). Marin Sanudo also doubted the authenticity of a public ‘improvisation’ given in Venice on 10 May 1518 by Cristoforo ‘l'Altissimo’; see Vittorio Cian, Un decennio della vita di M. Pietro Bembo (Turin: Loescher, 1885), p. 239.

  25. Serafino also sang Petrarch's verse to a lute accompaniment (Calmeta, p. 60). Two of Calmeta's other references to ‘citaredi’ are more critical: elderly ones are rebuked for singing emotionally about love rather than performing serious compositions (p. 35), and courtiers, by means of ‘alcuni ignoranti citaredi’ or others, ‘vanno mendicando chi le sue rime celebri e in volgo proferisca’ (p. 40). Longer poems were not suitable for sung performance, in Calmeta's view: he warned that an elegy should not exceed twenty-five to thirty tercets, ‘perché, avendo cum la musica conformitade, quando li citaredi vengano a cantarla, a li ascoltanti per la prolissitade non abiano fastidio a generare’ (p. 54).

  26. Bembo, Lettere, III, no. 1385, 5 July 1532 (on Palone); Domenico Venier, Rime di Domenico Veniero senatore viniziano, raccolte ora la prima volta ed illustrate dall'ab. Pierantonio Serassi Accademico Eccitato. S'aggiungono alcune poesie di Maffeo, e Luigi Venieri nipoti dell'autore (Bergamo: Lancellotto, 1751), p. xxix.

  27. On 21 September 1529 (Lettere, III, no. 1015) Bembo was expecting to see the first printed sheet in two days' time. There are some further allusions in the Lettere to the production of the edition: on 25 September 1529 (no. 1017) Bembo told Soranzo not to worry if the apostrophes (‘quelle apostrofi che V. S. chiama vergole’) were not all in place; on 17 December 1529 (no. 1035) he mentioned that Cola Bruno was in Venice ‘a fare imprimere alcune mie cose e volgari e latine’; on 14 March 1530 (no. 1059) he asked Bruno to have a printed copy of the Rime bound for him, presumably so that he could use it as a gift.

  28. Trissino's printer was Bartolomeo Zanetti, operating under the pseudonym of Tolomeo Ianiculo (Giordano Castellani, ‘Da Tolomeo Ianiculo a Bartolomeo Zanetti via Giovangiorgio Trissino’, La Bibliofilia, 94 (1992), 171-85, and ‘Da Bartolomeo Zanetti a Tolomeo Ianiculo via Guillaume Pellicier’, La Bibliofilia, 96 (1994), 1-13). The pioneering nature of editions such as Trissino's and Bembo's was stressed by W. Ll. Bullock (pp. 222-23).

  29. For example, Bembo asked Soranzo to remove a capitolo if he and Trifon Gabriele agreed, which they evidently did (Lettere, III, no. 1016 (23 September 1529)).

  30. On MS 251 of the Biblioteca Universitaria, Bologna, see Claudio Vela, ‘Un manoscritto bolognese di rime di Pietro Bembo’, Studi di filologia italiana, 39 (1981), 121-57. This manuscript contains ninety-one poems, including seven excluded from the 1530 edition. Vela makes the interesting suggestion that the copying of the poems, from a source close to Bembo himself, may have been linked with the gathering of many men of letters in Bologna for the meeting between Charles V and Clement VII in November 1529 (p. 157).

  31. On the Aldines, see Paolo Trovato, ‘Per un censimento dei manoscritti di tipografia in volgare’, in Il libro di poesia, pp. 43-81 (p. 48); on the Prose, see Mirko Tavoni, ‘Scrivere la grammatica: appunti sulle prime grammatiche dell'italiano manoscritte e a stampa’, Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Classe di Lettere e Filosofia, 3rd series, 23 (1993), 759-96 (pp. 784-90).

  32. We know that, at least as far as one of his other works was concerned, Bembo did not like the idea of his own writings being printed in octavo, a format that in some contexts could be of lower status: see Lettere, III, no. 1591 (18 July 1534), referring to the Asolani. Writing of another work, he considered that an ample margin above and below the text ‘importa assai alla bellezza dell'opera’ (Lettere, no. 1474 (8 March 1533)). Octavo was used in two Venetian editions of the Rime printed in 1540, outside Bembo's control, by Comin da Trino and Giovanni Andrea Valvassore.

  33. Trissino had had his poems printed in octavo in 4s but on royal paper, and with a type page measuring 150 × 88mm; Bembo's quarto gave a leaf similar in height but about 15 to 20mm wider, and his type page was of similar dimensions. At 131mm for twenty lines, Trissino's italic type was rather larger than Bembo's.

  34. The old-fashioned nature of this feature is highlighted by Paolo Trovato, ‘Per la storia delle Rime del Bembo’, Rivista di letteratura italiana, 9 (1991), 465-508 (p. 466). A survey of the output of twelve sample presses from Venice, four from Rome, and three each from Florence, Milan, and Naples as represented in the Catalogue of Books Printed in the Fifteenth Century Now in the British Museum, 9 vols (London: British Museum, 1909-49) turned up only three editions with this feature: the undated Terence printed in Venice by Windelin of Speyer (V, 165); Antonius Guainerius, De febribus, printed in Naples by Bertholdus Rihing, 1474 (VI, 860); a translation of Flavius Josephus, De bello Judaico, printed in Florence by Bartolomeo de' Libri, 1493 (VI, 649-50). It seems unlikely that Bembo left blank space with the intention of adding a dedication: the title always preceded the dedication, and the title page would therefore have been followed by one or more blank pages, as in some copies of the Asolani of 1505, where the title appears on fol. a1r but the dedication is missing from fols a1v and a2r. Discussions of this case are summarized in Dilemmi's edition of Gli Asolani, pp. xvi-xviii.

  35. The sale of books is mentioned in Lettere, III, nos 1095 (30 May 1530) and 1110 (18 June 1530). Since Bembo enquired whether Zoppino could send copies to Rome, Trovato suggests that Bembo could have been sharing copies and printing costs with him (‘Per la storia’, p. 466).

  36. Lettere, III, nos 1107 (11 June 1530, to Sadoleto); 1117 (27 June 1530, to Pamfilio); 1224 (23 April 1531, to Lando); 1097 (30 May 1530, to Tomarozzo and Gualteruzzi). On this last letter, see Dionisotti, ‘Appunti sul Bembo’, p. 261. On authors' use of contracts with printers, privileges, and gift copies in this period, see my own Printing, Writers and Readers in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), Chapters 3 and 4.

  37. See Dionisotti in Bembo, Gli Asolani e le Rime, p. 301, and Pasquale Sabbatino, La ‘scienza’ della scrittura: dal progetto del Bembo al manuale (Florence: Olschki, 1988), pp. 103-41 (pp. 107-09).

  38. On the encouragement that scribal publication gave to authorial corrections, to the extent that the activity of revision could be more important than its outcome, see Love, pp. 52-54. On the careful collection of his variants that Bembo made in about 1546, see Trovato, ‘Per la storia’. For the example of Bernardo Cappello, a follower of Bembo who constantly revised his poems both before and after their printing in 1560, see Enrico Albini, ‘La tradizione delle rime di Bernardo Cappello’, in Studi di filologia e letteratura italiana offerti a Carlo Dionisotti (Milan and Naples: Ricciardi, 1973) and Armando Balduino, ‘Petrarchismo veneto e tradizione manoscritta’, in Petrarca, Venezia e il Veneto, ed. by Giorgio Padoan (Florence: Olschki, 1976), pp. 243-70.

  39. On the preparations, see Lettere, III: on 27 May 1532 (no. 1369) Bembo told Veronica Gambara he was about to have his Rime printed again and asked her for a copy of a sonnet of hers he wanted to include with his reply; on 28 January 1533 (no. 1457) he asked Gian Matteo Bembo for one or preferably two copies of the 1530 edition to correct for printing; on 6 February 1533 (no. 1458) he told Gian Matteo he did not like the fount the printer, presumably Nicolini, had proposed and asked him to provide printed samples from other printers unless the first one recast the fount; on 7 February 1533 (no. 1459) he asked Gian Matteo to send a sample of the fount a new printer had proposed, so that he could see if it was the same as the 1530 fount, but he warned his nephew (and did so again on 12 February 1533, no. 1465) to get a sample that had been freshly printed, in case the type had since become worn; on 24 February 1533 (no. 1480) he informed Gian Matteo that the ‘stampa’ he had sent was the right one but the ‘lettera’ seemed rather large, perhaps because it was either new or old (here ‘stampa’ seems to refer to the design of the type and ‘lettera’ to the individual letters, which, as one can see from the Appendix, are slightly larger in the 1535 edition); on 27 February 1533 (no. 1484) he urged Gian Matteo together with Giovambattista Ramusio to conclude ‘il mercato’ with the printer; on 26 November 1534 (no. 1638) he asked Gian Matteo to keep him informed once printing began and to see to proofreading. On the gift copies, see Lettere, III, no. 1674 to Gualteruzzi (9 April 1535), accompanying twelve copies of the volume to be given or sent to others including Vittoria Colonna, and no. 1683 to Veronica Gambara (11 May 1535). The edition is rather less old-fashioned than that of 1530 in that the title page is on fol. A1v and it has arabic foliation from gathering B onwards.

  40. Le edizioni italiane del XVI secolo: censimento nazionale (Rome: Istituto centrale per il catalogo unico, 1985-), B1190.