BEMBO, Pietro

BEMBO, Pietro
Scholar, courtier, and, later in life, cardinal, Pietro Bembo was one of the foremost arbiters of Italian and Latin literary style of the sixteenth century. Bembo was the son of the Venetian diplomat Bernardo Bembo, himself a sig­nificant personality in his native city's intellectual and political community. Pie-tro studied Greek under Constantine Lascaris at Messina and philosophy under Pietro Pompanazzo at Padua and later fell in with the circle of scholars asso­ciated with the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. Bembo resided in Ferrara from 1498, where he began a passionate, though epistolary, romance with Lucrezia Borgia, the wife of Alfonso d'Este. It was to her that Bembo dedicated his well-known Gli Asolani (1505), a dialogue on earthly and platonic love written in his trademark polished Italian. In 1506 he was lured to the celebrated court of Urbino, where his scholarly ability, gentility, and pleasant manner made him a popular figure and, eventually, a principal speaker in Baldesar Castiglione's* Il cortegiano (The Courtier).
In 1512 Bembo moved to Rome in the company of Giuliano de' Medici and was appointed papal secretary to Leo X,* Giuliano's brother, shortly afterwards. He was a natural addition to the community of artists, scholars, and socialites that Leo took pains to foster. Like his employer, Bembo tended to value the literary grace of pagan antiquity over the moral imperatives of Christianity; a famous anecdote has him advising Jacopo Sadoleto to avoid studying the Epis­tles of St. Paul too closely lest he become corrupted by their inferior style. An ubiquitous member of a distinguished circle that included Raphael,* Vittoria Colonna,* and the affluent Agostino Chigi, Bembo also became enamored of a young Roman woman named Morosina. Their long and affectionate relationship lasted twenty-two years, eventually producing three children.
Bembo remained in the papal service until 1519, when, in poor health, he retired to Padua to pursue his cultural interests. In 1522 he took minor orders and used the income from his ecclesiastical benefices to finance his household, which became a notable repository for fine art, antiquities, and books, as well as a popular haunt for artists and literati. It was while he was at the height of his influence in 1530 that he accepted a commission to pen the history of Venice (published in 1551) and was appointed librarian of St. Mark's Cathedral soon after. It may have been Morosina's death in 1535, however, that wrought a fundamental change in his personality. In time, he began to regard his religious duties with a more serious eye, applying himself to the scriptural study that he had once disdained. He was made a cardinal by Pope Paul III in 1539, bishop of Gubbio two years later, and lived as a model churchman until his death in 1547.
Bembo's fame derives largely from his role as the most influential dictator of style in Latin and Italian letters of his time. His endorsement of Ciceronian style as the standard for excellence in Latin manifests itself in the technical perfection of his correspondence and poetry and is outlined in his De imitatione (1513). Perhaps his most significant work was his Prose della volgar lingua (Prose in the vernacular tongue). Published in 1525, this was a significant con­tribution to the movement to establish the fourteenth-century Tuscan vernacular of Petrarch and Boccaccio as the model for Italian literary endeavor. Aside from his Gli Asolani, Bembo's other major works include De Aetna (1496) and Le rime (1530), as well as his editions of Petrarch's poetry (1501) and Dante's Commedia (1502), which he guided into print through the Aldine press.
P. Bembo, Gli Asolani, trans R. Gottfried, 1954.
G. Braden, "Applied Petrarchism: The loves of Pietro Bembo," Modern Language Quar­terly 57 (September 1996).
Michael J. Medwick

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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