by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Rare Look at the Life of a Renaissance Man

By Roderick Conway Morris
PADUA 9 March 2013
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Titian's portrait of Bembo,
who was made a cardinal by Pope Paul III in 1539.



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 podestà, 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. In 1506, Bembo left the city. The third room of the show displays portraits and other pieces related to the subsequent years during which Bembo cultivated his contacts with the courts of Ferrara, Mantua and Urbino. For much of this period he was in Urbino where, he wrote, 'one laughs, jests, plays, mocks, celebrates, studies and even composes at times.'

In 1512, Bembo traveled to Rome in the hope of finding employment at the papal court. When, in 1513, Lorenzo the Magnificent's son Giovanni de' Medici was elected as Leo X, he appointed Bembo his secretary, responsible for drafting documents in flawless Latin. This was a brilliant era, with Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael (whom Bembo knew from Urbino) all at work in the city. The fine works in the two sections on the Roman years include drawings and paintings by Bramante and Raphael and a spectacular tapestry from the Sistine Chapel woven from a Raphael cartoon.

Telling evidence of a growing awareness of the importance of preserving the city's ancient monuments is in a draft letter to the pope written in 1519 by Raphael and Castiglione, appealing to him to protect this architectural heritage.

After Alberti defined classical columns as Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and so on, Raphael introduced the idea of 'orders' in architecture, a concept elaborated by Baldassare Peruzzi and published by Serlio - innovations illustrated by the books and engravings here on display.

This systematic thinking found a parallel in Bembo's work on the Italian language, to which he now sought to apply a similar rationale. Just as he had argued that the ideal model for Latin prose was Cicero and for verse Virgil, for the modern tongue, Bembo proposed the Tuscans Boccaccio and Petrarch as the benchmarks of a nation-building lingua franca.

When Leo X died in 1521, Bembo found himself without a patron. He decided to settle in the university town of Padua to pursue the life of an independent scholar. He bought a property where he cultivated gardens and orchards running down to the riverside. He had inherited his father's collection upon his death two years earlier, which now joined his own impressive acquisitions of manuscripts and books, paintings, marbles, bronzes, medals, gems, ancient coins, maps, and scientific instruments.

Among the treasures in the collection that have been brought back to Padua for this exhibition are Mantegna's 'St. Sebastian,' Raphael's double portrait of Bembo's humanist friends, Andrea Navagero and Agostino Beazzano, a carved gemstone that once belonged to the emperor Augustus, Roman inscriptions, and portrait busts. Also here is Bembo's 'Mensa Isiaca,' a large colored bronze tablet adorned with Egyptian scenes and hieroglyphics relating to the cult of Isis dating back to the first century A.D. Having passed through the Gonzaga collection in Mantua, it went on to form the basis of Turin's Egyptian Museum.

Bembo's personal collection was soon described as a 'museum' and attracting learned visitors from far and wide, who came as much to benefit from his erudition and his knowledge about the works as to view the objects themselves.

In 1539, at the age of 69, Bembo was again summoned to Rome to be made a cardinal by the Farnese Pope Paul III. The appointment was opposed by traditionalists, but it was part of Paul's policy of reforming the College of Cardinals and improving its intellectual quality. Bembo had lived for 20 years with Morosina della Torre, a former courtesan, and she had given birth to three children fathered by him (she died in 1535). But bidding farewell to his former secular life, he embraced his new role as a churchman.

Opening with Titian's powerful portrait of the newly elevated scholar in the dress of a cardinal but with an oratorical hand gesture derived from ancient statuary, the last section of the exhibition is devoted to these final years in Rome.

Bembo stipulated in his will that his collection should be kept intact, but his son Torquato did not honor this wish. Thus began a process of dispersal as the pieces were eagerly snapped up by other major collectors, from the Medici and Farnese to the Gonzagas and the Wittelsbach of Bavaria.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024