A Rare Look at the Life of a Renaissance Man ; Exhibition Reunites Works Assembled by the Scholar and Poet Pietro Bembo

By Morris, Roderick Conway | International Herald Tribune, March 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Rare Look at the Life of a Renaissance Man ; Exhibition Reunites Works Assembled by the Scholar and Poet Pietro Bembo


Morris, Roderick Conway, International Herald Tribune


An exhibition in Padua, Italy, reunites works assembled by the scholar and poet Pietro Bembo.

Seldom has a collection so eloquently expressed the personality of its creator as that of the Venetian poet and scholar Pietro Bembo. It acquired a mythical status during his lifetime, which long survived its dispersal after his death in 1547.

Bembo's legacy is still on the lips of every Italian speaker -- it was in his "Prose della volgar lingua" (Writings in the vernacular tongue) of 1525 that he successfully argued for the adoption of a standardized version of the Tuscan dialect, codified by himself, as the basis for a national language for the whole of Italy. Yet he is now perhaps the least familiar of the major figures of his epoch, a situation that "Pietro Bembo e l'invenzione del Rinascimento" (Pietro Bembo and the invention of the Renaissance), which runs through May 19 at the Palazzo del Monte in Padua, aims to remedy. This splendid life-and-times exhibition, curated by Guido Beltramini, Davide Gasparotto and Adolfo Tura, also brings together key objects from Bembo's collection for the first time in centuries.

The diversity of the exhibition, which includes works by Bellini, Titian and Raphael as well as books, letters, sculptures and gemstones, reflects Bembo's many and varied interests.

His patrician father, Bernardo, a prominent political figure in the Venetian Republic, was a refined humanist and himself a collector, as the first room of the exhibition demonstrates. While ambassador of the Serenissima to the Burgundian court in 1471-74, Bernardo purchased in Bruges directly from Memling a diptych, now divided between Washington and Munich but reunited here. When later ambassador in Florence, he commissioned Leonardo to paint a portrait of Ginevra de' Benci and while serving as Venice's podesta, or governor, in Ravenna he restored Dante's tomb at his own expense.

Through his father, Bembo was introduced to Italy's elite at a tender age. Born in 1470, Pietro lived with Bernardo in Florence from 1478 to 1480, and at the age of 15 made the first of several extended visits with his father to Rome.

In 1492, Bembo went to Messina, in Sicily, for two years to study Greek. On his return to Venice, the publisher Aldo Manuzio published Bembo's "De Aetna" (On Etna), inspired by his ascent of the volcano. With its clean design, wide margins and beautiful typeface engraved by Francesco Griffo, this small volume (on show in the exhibition) was the prototype of the modern book and of the pocketbook, a revolutionary format that brought enormous success to the Aldine Press. The typeface used is still familiar today as "Bembo type."

Bembo went on to edit for Aldo Manuzio pocket-book editions of Petrarch's poetry and Dante's "Divine Comedy." These and other volumes in the same format became the sine qua non fashion items for those with intellectual pretensions. In a painting in the second room of the exhibition, one such volume appears in the hand of a young man with the end of the middle finger of his glove snipped off to facilitate the turning of the pages.

This "Young Man with a Green Book" from San Francisco is attributed to Giorgione, as are two other portraits of pensive young men shown alongside it. Studies of this kind of introspectiveness enjoyed a brief vogue in the first decade of the 16th century.

In 1505, Bembo penned his own vernacular prose and verse text on the theme of love: "Gli Asolani" (The Asolians), set in the gardens of the exiled queen of Cyprus, Caterina Cornaro, in Asolo in the foothills north of Venice. The author had already had an affair with a married aristocratic Venetian woman and was by this time involved with Lucrezia Borgia, the wife of the Duke of Este in nearby Ferrara, to whom "Gli Asolani" is dedicated. Printed by the Aldine Press, the book became a best seller.

Paternal expectations that Bembo would follow his father into a political career in Venice were dashed by the younger man's failure to win election to any post, perhaps because Bembo was seen by his fellow Venetian aristocrats as more dedicated to his studies than serving wholeheartedly the state, and was becoming known as a literary figure. …

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