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Bembo, Pietro (1470–1547) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

aldus literary appointed love

Descended from a noble family, Bembo was born in Venice, but as a boy he accompanied his father, the diplomat Bernardo Bembo, on embassies to Florence and later to Rome and Bergamo. As a young man, he studied Greek with Constantine Lascaris (1492–94) at Messina and philosophy with Niccolò Leoniceno (1497) at Ferrara. For about a decade, Bembo alternated residence between Ferrara and Venice, where his fruitful collaboration with Aldo Manuzio (Aldus Manutius)—as editor, author, colleague—commenced in 1494. According to Erasmus,* Bembo gave Aldus a Roman coin, the reverse of which inspired the famous anchor-and-dolphin mark of the Aldine Press.

Bembo’s activities, however, were not exclusively literary; he fell in love three times. About the mysterious “M. G.” nothing is known; but the love letters he exchanged with Maria Savorgnan (1500–1) and with Lucrezia Borgia (primarily 1503–5), the wife of Alfonso d’Este, soon to be duke of Ferrara, have been preserved. The letters to Lucrezia seem intense beyond courtly love games, doubtless spiced for both by the frisson of danger, but it is difficult to judge the character of the relationship. Bembo’s first major work, Gli Asolani , was published by Aldus in 1505 with a dedication to Lucrezia. As Castiglione* memorably recorded, he then lived at the court of Urbino (1506–12), before moving to the papal court at Rome (1512–21). When Giuliano de’ Medici was elected Pope Leo X (1513), Bembo and Jacopo Sadoleto were appointed to share the office of papal secretary, in which role he continued until Leo’s death, whereupon he retired to his villa near Padua. Untroubled by having taken Holy Orders, he there produced three children by a common-law wife, Morosina. He also produced his second major work, Prose della volgar lingua (1525), his collected Rime , and was appointed official historian of Venice (both 1530). Paul III made Bembo a cardinal in 1539; thereafter he spent most of his time in Rome, being appointed bishop of Gubbio and of Bergamo before his death at the grand age of seventy-six.

Bembo was the leading man of letters and arbiter of literary taste for his generation. His contemporary celebrity is indicated by numerous portraits, including medals by Valerio Belli and Cellini and paintings by Bellini and Titian. Looking back from the end of the century, Justus Lipsius described Bembo as “easily the prince of the learned men of Italy in our times.”


In the twentieth century, attention has centered on Bembo’s place and influence in the humanist debates over theories of imitation, the questione della lingua , the Ciceronian movement, and on his role in the reform of an extravagant Petrarchan poetic style. More recently, several translations of his Latin poetry and his dialogues have indicated a responsiveness to his writings for their own merits. Criticism of Gli Asolani in particular has advanced its claim to be accepted as an elegantly conceived and sophisticated literary work. General readers still are most likely to connect his name with that of an elegant typeface, deriving from his association with Aldus.


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