Pietro Bembo

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Pietro Bembo
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Portrait of Pietro Bembo (Raphael, 1504)

Page Symbol for Literature and Poetry pagesPietro Bembo was born in Venice to a wealthy family of the patrician class. As a youth, Bembo was exposed to many languages and forms of the Italian language that were to influence him in his studies at Messina and afterwards at the University of Padua. His father was an ambassador for the Republic of Venice and it was through his father's duties as diplomat that he stopped at Ferrara, the gallant court of the Este princes where Bembo was to spend much time (off and on between 1497 and 1503). He met another of the major literary figures of the day,Ludovico Aristo at the Ferrarese court. It was during this time that he began writing Gli Asolani (roughly translates to 'of the People of Asolo') a treatise on the subject of courtly and platonic love. It is believed at this time he began his (most likely platonic) love affair with Lucrezia Borgia, newly married to Alfonso d'Este, heir to the ducal title.

Page Symbol for Literature and Poetry pagesHe later lived for a while at Urbino (between 1506 and 1512) where he began writing Prose della Volgar Lingua, the rules and codification of Italian grammar, which were to influence the entire genre of secular vocal music composition and literary prose into the next centuries. His treatise promoted the exclusive use of the Tuscan dialect as the standard for all Italian literature. In 1513 Bembo travelled to Rome with Cardinal Giulio de Medici (later Pope Clement VII) and was appointed secretary to Pope Leo X (Giovanni de Medici, Giulio's older brother). He lived at Padua for several years, writing and recovering from illness before becoming the offical Historian of the Republic of Venice and later worked at the Library of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. He was appointed by Pope Paul III to the College of Cardinals in 1539 when he was 69 years of age. He continued to write and publish until his death in Rome in 1547.

The Aldine Press

Anchor and Dolphin Logo of the Aldine PressAldine Press was the printing workshop founded by Aldus Manutius in 1494 in Venice, from which were issued the famous Aldine editions of the Roman classics. The Aldine Press is famous in the history of typography among other things, for the introduction of Italics. The press was the first to issue printed books in the small octavo size, similar to that of a modern paperback, and was intended for portability and ease of reading.

Virgil 1501 A page from the 1501 edition of Virgil, at left.

The John Rylands Library houses one of the finest collections of books from the press founded at Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1495 and continued by his successors until 1598.

The Library has all but seven of the 127 authenticated editions produced up to 1515, including this 1501 edition of Virgil which pioneered the use of italic type. The Rylands collection of Aldines includes a substantial number of vellum copies. These are almost all ornately illuminated and form valuable source material for the study of book decoration.

Further Reading

  • Prettiest Love Letters in the World: Letters Between Lucrezia Borgia and Pietro Bembo by Hugh Shankland and Richard Shirley Smith (2001)


Matteo Maria Boiardo
Baldassare Castiglione
Angelo Poliziano
Ludovico Ariosto
Ermolao Barbaro
Marsilio Ficino
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Pietro Bembo
Scholar, Humanist, Poet, Literary Theorist, Linguist, and Cardinal

Born 20 May 1470 in Venice

Died 18 January 1547


Pietro Bembo was a prominent and distinguished Italian scholar involved with the famous Aldine Press run by its namesake Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio). Bembo was a cardinal of the Catholic Church in his later years and secretary to Pope Leo X.

He is most famous for helping to bring the Italian language to the forefront of European scholarship, and establishing the Tuscan dialect as the official literary language of Italy. He also wrote the History of Venice, Gli Asolani (the first edition of which he dedicated to Lucrezia Borgia), and was a featured personality in the famous work Il Cortegiano by Baldassare Castiglione.

Portrait Medal, Pietro Bembo

Portrait Medal of Pietro Bembo, attributed to Benvenuto Cellini c. 1539.

Text from Gli Asolani, by Pietro Bembo

Sample of original Gli Asolani text printed by the Aldine Press, Venice 1505

The main themes in Gli Asolani are: one, that romantic love brings pain and bitterness, two, the idea that romantic love is the fount of all that is positive, and three, a refutation of both in that only platonic love - contemplating the beautiful ideal present in earthly things (and people) - is the highest form.

According to Carol Kidwell in Pietro Bembo: Lover, Linguist, Cardinal - "in short, good love is that which one can enjoy eternally and bad that which condemns us eternally to grief."

Gli Asolani by Pietro Bembo

1743 edition of Gli Asolani

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