Pietro Bembo

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Pietro Bembo

The Italian humanist, poet, and historian Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) was the most influential man of letters during the High Renaissance in Italy.

Pietro Bembo was born in Venice. His learned father, Bernardo, was prominent in civic and diplomatic affairs, and Pietro benefited from residence and education in Florence, Venice, Padua, and Messina. In Florence he knew Lorenzo il Magnifico, the most famous of the Medici ruler-patrons. Bembo soon gained remarkable prestige in literary matters because of his vast classical culture and his ability to write fine Tuscan prose and poetry. He also served as secretary to popes Leo X, Hadrian VI, and Clement VII.

In 1530 his native city appointed Bembo historian of the Republic of Venice and head of the famous library which was later called the Marciana. Pursuing an ecclesiastical career and fearing to lose lucrative benefices, he refrained from marrying and thus failed to legitimize his three sons, born of a Roman woman. In 1539 Pope Paul III made him a cardinal, and until his death in 1547 Bembo was considered a likely candidate for the papacy.

Subsequent generations of critics have considered Bembo's literary talents to be rather modest, yet his influence during his lifetime was immense. An accomplished Latinist, he nevertheless encouraged literary use of the vernacular, which he insisted should be Tuscan rather than any other dialect, and his Gli Asolani (1505) was the first prose work written in Tuscan by a non-Tuscan author. This work influenced many subsequent authors of love treatises by the predominantly literary way in which it dealt with philosophical questions about love. Many of Bembo's concepts were based on Marsilio Ficino's Commentary (1469) on Plato's Symposium, and Bembo continued Ficino's tendency to Christianize Plato's theory of love.

Ostensibly, Asolani teaches its readers "not to err, " since "not to love" is impossible. In the first of the three dialogues the character Perottino expounds the untoward results of love. In the second dialogue Gismondo exalts love indiscriminately. In the final dialogue Lavinello states that to love well one must follow reason, not the senses. Petrarchan canzoni (odes) adorn the dialogues.

The Prose della volgar lingua (1525; Prose in the Vernacular), in which Bembo again employed the dialogue form, is perhaps the earliest Italian grammar. It is a pivotal document in the centuries-long polemic about the Italian language (the questione della lingua), in that it strongly affirms the Florentine character of the national language. Bembo's history of Venice from 1487 to 1513 was published posthumously in 1553.

Further Reading

Ernest Hatch Wilkins, A History of Italian Literature (1954), contains material on Bembo. See also Francesco de Sanctis, History of Italian Literature (2 vols., 1870; new ed. 1914; trans. 1931), and Richard Garnett, A History of Italian Literature (1898). □