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.
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.
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.
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.”