Pietro Bembo Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Pietro Bembo wrote a range of nonfiction titles, many of which presented literary criticism, including De Aetna (1496), De imitatione (1514), Prose della volgar lingua (1525), De Guidobaldo liber or De Urbini ducibus (1530), and Epistolae familiares libri VII (1552).


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The influence of Pietro Bembo on his contemporaries and on the Italian language far outstripped his talent as a writer. The literary dictator of Italy for more than fifty years, he was dubbed the foster father of the Italian language, and authors whose names are more familiar than his sent him their manuscripts for corrections and improvements. Bembo did not fail to partake of the best his era had to offer. He lived in the Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Venice of Aldus Manutius, and the Rome of Pope Leo X. Bellini and Titian painted portraits of him. He was a friend of Lucrezia Borgia, Isabella d’Este, Raphael, Poliziano, Ludovico Ariosto, Desiderius Erasmus, and Pietro Aretino, and both friend and literary mentor to Gaspara Stampa, Vittoria Colonna, and Veronica Gambara. Giangiorgio Trissino, Colonna, and Ariosto, among many others, wrote sonnets to him. He wrote two of the most famous essays of his century and the best Petrarchan verse.

Bembo is credited with having heterosexualized the concept of Platonic love. For the ancient Greeks, Platonic love was not love between the sexes but a philosophical idea based on heroic friendship, and what was so called by the Neoplatonists was still essentially the same as, for example, the relationship of Marsilio Ficino and Guido Cavalcanti, or of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Girolamo Benivieni. The Neoplatonic idealism that inspired Bembo and his style of balanced moderation determined an important pattern in the Renaissance poetry of several countries until the early Baroque.

Bembo restored Petrarchanism to its original luster and form by providing an unmistakably elegant standard by which the excesses of such conceitful poets as Il Chariteo, Antonio Tebaldeo, Serafino...

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Occasional Poems

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Bembo wrote many occasional poems, such as to celebrate the birth of a friend’s son or the exploits of an unidentified “conqueror of Naples.” He had a knack for converting an ordinary incident into a subtle vignette. In “Ove romita e stanca si sedea” (where tired and alone she sat), the poet, like a thief burning with hope and fear, surprises his beloved as she is lost in thought and perhaps even talking to herself. She is mildly upset that he has seen her so absorbed, and he is possessed by tenderness to have seen her so. His elegies on the death of persons dear to him are counted among his best poems; unlike so many of his Petrarchan exercises, they do not lack spontaneous emotion. “Donna, di cui begli occhi alto diletto” (lady, whose beautiful eyes gave such delight) is one of his many sonnets on the death of his mistress Morosina, and “Adunque m’hai tu pur, in sul fiorire” (“On the Death of His Brother”) was penned in memory of his brother Carlo, who died at the age of thirty-two in 1503.

Latin Poems

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Bembo also wrote Latin poetry. His hexameter poem “Benacus” is a description of Lago di Garda, and he also wrote epitaphs in Latin for many of his contemporaries. In his epitaph for Poliziano, whose death in 1494 followed close upon that of his patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Bembo tells how death struck him while he wept, breaking his heartstrings in the middle of his sighs, and dubs him in the last line as “master of the Ausonian [Italian] lyre.” Two elegiac poems, “Priapus” and “Faunus ad nympheum flumen,” are remarkable for their pagan approach to morality; his masterpiece in elegiac meter is “De Galeso et Maximo,” about a boy, Galesus, who wrongs his master, Maximus, who, as the epigraph explains, is a great man in Rome and may possibly represent Pope Leo X himself. When Maximus is confronted with the boy’s misdeed, the boy does not apologize but rather runs to clasp the neck of his angry master, raining kisses upon him. Bembo concludes: “Still doubting, Maximus? Change place with me:/ Gladly I’d bear such infidelity.”

The influence of Bembo was so strong that an entire half century (1500-1550) has been designated by many critics as the “Bembist period.” His support of the vernacular as the equal of Latin, and his support of the Florentine dialect over competing dialects, determined in no small way the course of Italian literature. As a poet, he refurbished the Petrarchan tradition, and he was instrumental in the spread of Neoplatonism. While it is true that his influence on literature was out of proportion to the value of his literary output, Bembo inspired a fierce loyalty in his contemporaries, and his precepts commanded a vigorous authority long after his death.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile, eds. The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. In “Bembo and the Classicist Tradition,” Anthony Oldcorn sketches the broad influence of Bembo on the likes of Michelangelo, Della Casa, Torquato Tasso, and contemporary women poets, such as Gaspara Stampa. Presents Bembo’s establishment of bembismo and the debate it sparked.

McLaughlin, Martin L. Literary Imitation in the Italian Renaissance: The Theory and Practice of Literary Imitation from Dante to Bembo. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. The final chapter outlines the 1512 literary dispute between Bembo and Pico della Mirandola. McLaughlin examines Bembo’s defense of strict Ciceronian formalism, in opposition to eclectic or syncretic developments in Latin or the vernacular, and his “literary credo,” which is applicable to all his subsequent critical work.

Raffini, Christine. Marsiglio Ficino, Pietro Bembo, Baldassare Castiglione: Philosophical, Aesthetic, and Political Approaches in Renaissance Platonism. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. This is a short, chronological treatment of Bembo’s life and major works with an emphasis on his impact on contemporary poets and scholars. Platonism is treated but lightly.

Robb, Nesca A. Neoplatonism in the Italian Renaissance. London: Allen and Unwin, 1935. In the chapter on the trattato d’amore, Robb analyses Gli Ascolani as a Neoplatonic treatise on love in a courtly setting and a prototype of its genre.

Wilkins, Ernest H. A History of Italian Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Wilkins’s short chapter on “Bembo” places him squarely in the tumultuous years of the early sixteenth century. His life and major works are discussed chronologically, if briefly, and his later influence is asserted.