Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

From Scribal Publication to Print Publication: Pietro Bembo's 'Rime', 1529-1535

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

From Scribal Publication to Print Publication: Pietro Bembo's 'Rime', 1529-1535

Article excerpt

The Venetian patrician Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) is recognized today as the crucial figure in the Petrarchan lyric poetry of sixteenth-century Italy: not the most gifted poet of the century, but the one who by his example set the standard for the rigorous imitation and emulation of his fourteenth-century model. As he approached his sixtieth year at the end of the 1520s, his poetic reputation was high: high enough, indeed, for verse to have been wrongly ascribed to his pen. (1) However, his influence in this field had been established only in part, since until then the only poems he had had printed were those that formed part of the Asolani, and none of these was an example of the prime Petrarchan metric form, the sonnet. (2) In contrast, his use of print had already helped to assure his pre-eminence in other areas of his literary activity. Thanks to his Asolani (first printed in 1505), Bembo was recognized as one of the two greatest living Italian writers of prose combined with poetry (Sannazaro was the other), and he was thought to be the leading expert in the history and language of Italian literature, by virtue of his editions of Petrarch and Dante (1501 and 1502) and especially through the printing of his Prose della volgar lingua (first edition, 1525). A factor that must have made him begin to think about adding a collection of lyric verse to his list of printed works was the revival of his interest in writing sonnets after he had left Rome and returned to a more leisurely life in the Veneto in the 1520s. (3) On the other hand, it was still the norm that authors did not make such collections public through the medium of print. Although in the first three decades of the sixteenth century epic poets had begun to make use of the opportunities offered by print, as one can see from examples such as the first two editions of Ariosto's Orlando furioso in 1516 and 1521, only a small number of living poets had seen their lyric verse printed, and printings of such verse were not normally sponsored directly by the author. Furthermore, much of the poetry printed was of broad appeal, coming from writers such as Serafino Aquilano or Olimpo da Sassoferrato. (4) However, by 1529 Bembo decided to break with the indifference or mistrust lyric poets had conventionally shown towards the press. A selection of Rime was duly printed for him in 1530 and was followed by a second selection in 1535. This pioneering initiative, together with the posthumous publication of printed editions of Sannazaro's Rime later in 1530, gave a decisive impetus to the development of Italian Petrarchism and to the use of print in this genre. The aim of this article is to study this example of the advent of print publication alongside scribal publication, first considering the essential role the latter continued to play in Bembo's circulation of his new verse in the key period from 1529 to 1535, and then examining how he nevertheless also set about using the resources of the Venetian printing industry in order to consolidate and enhance his reputation as a poet.

I begin with a specific example of the diffusion of a new poem by Bembo. In March 1530, writing a letter to his younger friend Vettor Soranzo in Bologna, he added a postscript to say that he was enclosing a second version of a sonnet he had sent to Soranzo earlier, in a draft version that must have been for Soranzo's eyes only. The sonnet in question, beginning 'Quel dolce suon, per cui chiaro s'intende' (Rime, CXXIII), was addressed to Veronica Gambara, in reply to one she had addressed to Bembo. (5) Bembo now asked Soranzo, in effect, to publish this second version by giving it to three close friends from their circle and also to anyone else Soranzo wished ('a chi vi parra'). As a member of the papal court, Soranzo was well placed to make the sonnet public among cultured men and women. Not until six days later did Bembo send the sonnet to Gambara herself with an accompanying letter; this was almost a secondary consideration. …

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