Bembo, Pietro

, in Lat. Petrus Bembus, one of the restorers of polite literature in Italy, was born at Venice in 1470, of an ancient and honourable family. His father, Bernardo, who died in 1518, was an accomplished scholar, and distinguished statesman, who maintained a friendly intercourse with many illustrious and learned persons of the age, and is honourably spoken of by various writers. On one of his embassies to Florence he carried his son, then in his eighth year, to improve him in the Italian language, which was supposed to be spoken and written in that city with the greatest purity. Atter two years, he returned home with his father, and was placed under the tuition of Joannes Alexander Urticius, and continued to apply to his | studies with great assiduity, acquiring in particular a critical knowledge of the Latin tongue. Being solicitous of acquiring a knowledge also of the Greek, the study of which was at that time confined to very few, he resolved to undertake a voyage to Messina, and avail himself of the instructions of the celebrated Constantino Lascaris. Accordingly he set out in 1492, accompanied by Agnolo Gabrielii, a young Venetian of distinction, his friend and fellow-student, and profited greatly by the instructions of Lascaris. During this residence in Sicily, which lasted more than two years, he composed a work in Latin, entitled “P. Bembi de vEtna ad Angelum Chabrielem liber,” which was published the same year in which he returned, 1495, 4to, and is said to have been the first publication from the Aldine press “in literis rotundis.” His compositions both in Latin and Italian soon began to extend his reputation, not only through the different states of Italy, but also to distant countries. His father, flattered with the approbation bestowed on his son, was desirous of employing his talents in the service of his country in some public station, and for some time Bembo occasionally pleaded as an advocate with success and applause, until being disappointed in obtaining a place which was given to a rival much inferior in merit, he discovered that reluctance for public life, which, in obedience to his father, he had but imperfectly concealed, and determined to devote his whole attention to literature, as connected with the profession of the church. About this time, it is said, that his resolution was confirmed by accidentally going into a church when the officiating priest was reading a portion of the evangelical history, and had just come to the words, “Peter, follow me,” which Bembo looked upon as a divine admonition. There is nothing in his character, however, that can give much credibility to this story, which, it ought to be mentioned, some say occurred long after, when he was hesitating whether he should accept the office of cardinal.

After the lapse of a few years, which he spent partly at Venice and partly at Padua in the prosecution of his studies, his father being appointed vicedomino of Ferrara, young Bembo accompanied him thither, where he had an opportunity of attending the philosophical lectures of Nicolao Leoniceno, and commenced an acquaintance with Sadoleto, other learned men. He was also favourably received court, but did not desist from the prosecution of his | studies. When about twenty -eight years of age, he began his “Asolani,” so called from its having been finished at Asolo, a town in the Venetian territory. This work, in which the subject of love is attempted in a moral and philosophical point of view, soon became so popular as to contribute much to his fame. It was first printed at the Aldine press in 1505, 4to, and was often reprinted. He afterwards returned with his father to Venice, where, and at Padua, he continued his studies principally with a view of improving his native language. At length, unwilling to continue burthensome to his father, he determined to try his fortune at the court of Urbino, at that time the centre of genius, fashion, and taste, and where Castiglioni laid the scene of his “II Cortegiano,” and introduced Bembo as one of the speakers. Bembo was recommended here in 1506, and soon became admired for his address, eloquence, and manners, while he still prosecuted his favourite studies, and produced his “Rime,” and various Latin compositions. He also occasionally visited the court of Rome, where the duchess of Urbino Elizabetha Gonzaga zealously endeavoured to promote his interest. In the last year of the pontificate of Julius II. he accompanied Sadoleto and other persons of distinction to that city; and among other literary services rendered by him to the pope, he decyphered an ancient manuscript written in abbreviated characters, a task which others had in vain attempted, and which the pope appears to have rewarded by some ecclesiastical preferments of the sinecure kind.

In 1513, when Leo X. became pope, he appointed Bembo one of his secretaries, who, now in his forty-third year, settled at Rome in this character, and had his friend Sadoleto for his colleague. By them the pope’s correspondence was carried on in pure and classical Latin, a thing which Casa says was neither practised before nor thought practicable, former secretaries having compounded their Latin of all manner of languages and provincialisms. Bembo in other respects rendered himself so acceptable to Leo, that he employed him in commissions of the highest trust, which he rewarded with liberality. But the court of this pope was at the same time the seat of voluptuousness, and what Bembo gained in courtly promotion and literary fame, he lost in morals and moral character. All the excuse Casa can make is that he was not yet in holy orders. He here formed an illicit connexion with, a, girl | of sixteen years of age, by whom he had three sons and a daughter. Among other objections to Bembo’s character, it is said that he participated in Leo’s ill-concealed contempt for religion, and, what was perhaps true, because characteristic, he professed to avoid the perusal of his bible and breviary, for fear of spoiling his Latinity.

The letters which Bembo wrote in Latin in the name of Leo X. were published with the rest of his epistles. Among other commissions of importance in which he was engaged, he undertook at the pope’s instance an embassy to Venice, for the purpose of detaching his countrymen from their alliance with the king of France, and engaging them to take a part in the coalition formed against that monarch by the emperor, the king of Spain, and the pope.

While he resided at Rome, he had many opportunities of indulging his taste for antiquities, and he is ranked among the most scientific collectors of statues, medals, and other ancient and classical remains. Besides other literary curiosities in his museum, particular mention is made of two beautiful and finely ornamented manuscripts of Virgil and Terence, which were supposed to have survived the ravages of upwards of a thousand years; the other is an autograph of the Italian poems of Petrarch, by which Aldus corrected the edition of them published by him in 1501. That printer, who lay under various other literary obligations to Bembo, in his preface to the edition of Pindar, published in 1513, terms him “Decus eruditorum retatis nostrae, et magnae spes altera Roma3.

An indisposition of a tedious and obstinate nature, the effect of late watching, close application, and the fatigues of office, rendering some respite and a change of situation absolutely necessary, with the advice of his physicians, seconded by the instances of Leo, Bembo retired to Padua for the sake of its air and baths. It is thought, however, by one of his biographers, that he had some cause of dissatisfaction with the pontiff, and that he left Rome with a resolution never to return. Be this as it may, he appears to have relished his retirement, dividing his time between his literary labours and the conversation of his learned friends. His hours, we are told, were sometimes agreeably diversified by the delights of an extensive garden, where he amused and recreated himself with botanical researches, usually spending the summer season at Villa Bozza, in the vicinity of Padua, his paternal inheritance, | and the scene of a great part of his juvenile studies. In this retirement, likewise, he completed his “Prose,” which had been begun long before, and which was now published under the title of “Prose di M. Pietro Bembo,Venice, 1525, fol. Upon the death of Andrea Navagero, in 1529, to whom the task had been publicly deputed of recording the transactions of the Venetian republic, the council of ten unanimously fixed upon Bembo to supply this loss, which although now in his sixtieth year he undertook, professedly taking the style of Caesar as his model. On the accession of Paul III. in 1534, this pontiff, willing to manifest his regard for the republic of Venice, by the advancement of one of its nobility, is supposed to have destined Bembo to the rank of cardinal. But in consequence of the objections urged against some of his writings, and past life, his appointment was not publicly announced till the beginning of 1539. On accepting this dignity, he is said to have determined to devote himself wholly to the duties of his office, and there is no reason to think that he did not conduct himself as became his now elevated character.

His death was accelerated by an accident which he met with while riding on horseback. In passing through a small postern, he received a bruise on his side, which brought on a slow fever. He was sensible of his approaching dissolution, and conversed cheerfully with his friends on that subject. He died Jan. 20, 1547, aged seventy-six years and eight months, and was interred in the church of S. Maria ella Minerva at Rome, behind the great altar, and between the tombs of Leo X. and Clement VII. with an inscription by his son Torquato.

Mr. Iloscoe, whose researches into the literature of this age, entitle his opinions to great respect, observes that the high commendation bestowed on the writings of Bembo by almost all his contemporaries, have been confirmed by the best critics of succeeding times; nor can it be denied that by selecting as his models Boccaccio and Petrarch, and by combining their excellences with his own correct and elegant taste, he contributed in an eminent degree to banish that rusticity of style, which charactersed the writings of most of the Italian authors at the commencement of the sixteenth century. His authority and example produced an astonishing effect, and among his disciples and imitators may be found many of the first scholars and most distinguished writers of the age. It must, however, be observed, | that the merit of his works consists rather in purity and correctness of diction, than in vigour of sentiment or variety of poetical ornament; and that they exhibit but little diversity either of character or subject, having for the most part been devoted to the celebration of an amorous passion. In the perusal of his poetical works we perceive nothing of that genuine feeling, which proceeding from the heart of the author makes a direct and irresistible appeal to that of the reader; and but little even of that secondary characteristic of genius which luxuriates in the regions of fancy, and by its vivid and rapid imagery delights the imagination. In this respect his example wat hurtful, as his numerous imitators soon inundated Italy with writings which seldom exhibit any distinction either of character or merit. It is also thought that in his Latin writings he has too closely followed the ancients; and in his verse as well as his prose, has too often endeavoured to imitate Cicero. Tenhove remarks how ridiculously he adopted the phrases of Cicero on ecclesiastical subjects, and Erasmus has ridiculed this practice with great wit in his Ciceronianus. The same critic adds that Bembo’s Latin style is forced and laboured; words and things are perpetually at war: and if he always triumphs, it is sometimes by the dint of excessive pains, and sometimes at the expence of judgment. The Roman orator is to Bembo, what a graceful dancer is to a posture-master. The whole of Bembo’s works, Latin and Italian, were published at Venice in 1729, 4 vols. fol.1


Gresswell’s Memoirs of Politianus, &c.—Roscoe’s Lorenzo and Leo.— Tenhove’s House of Medici.—Casæ Monimenta, edit. 1564.—Gen. Dict.—Moreri.—Saxii Onomasticon.