Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) is the star of the Venetian literary renaissance, and his life provides a check-list for the compleat renaissance gentleman. He studied Greek with Constantine Laskaris in Sicily, met Ariosto at the Este court in Ferrara, lived in Florence, Padua, and Urbino, wrote songs for Isabella d’Este, had an affair with Lucrezia Borgia, wrote poetry and love letters (in strikingly clear and musical Italian), was secretary to Pope Leo X, wrote a treatise on Italian discussing Petrarch and the composition of poetry, was made a cardinal in 1539, and had his portrait painted by Raphael (pretty, dark-haired young man) and Titian (neatly-bearded, elderly, hawk-nosed cardinal). His linguistic theories were important in the development of the madrigal and the establishment of Tuscan Italian as the literary language.1 He might have described himself with a phrase he used for Columbus (2.VI.2) as being “in line with the appetite of the human heart for fresh discoveries” (“ut est humanus animus novarum rerum appetens”).
In 1529 he was appointed historian of Venice, and then librarian of S. Marco. In this position he wrote a history of Venice in 12 books for the years 1487 to 1513, somewhat overlapping Sanudo’s diaries of the republic from 1496 to 1533. Sanudo reported the event:
December 21, 1530. A noteworthy item: in these days, by decision of the Council of ten, the management of the books of the late Cardinal Bessarion, which are held in the Ducal Palace in strongboxes above the room of the thirty savi, was assigned by the procurators to the reverend ser Pietro Bembo. He has been charged with writing the history of Venice in Latin, something that ser Andrea Navagero did not do. Even though he was paid 3,000 ducats for that purpose, at 200 ducats a year, he wrote nothing [et nihil scripsit ]. What this monsignor will do, I do not know. He was given a mandate by the heads of the Ten to have access to the [government] books and letters and writings …” (54:185).2
When Bembo learned that Sanudo had already been through much of the archives and selected out the best parts, he asked for access to his records. Sanudo refused at first, but arrangements were made to pay him 150 ducats a year to continue, and Bembo would get to read the diaries for his history
The I Tatti Renaissance Library has now completed their publication of his history in their elegant blue-bound volumes (complimenti to Dean Bornstein for their design). The clear classical font, based on a design by Bembo’s near-contemporary Nicholas Jensen, visually represents the elegance of his language: it is a shame the font is nowhere identified in I Tatti’s volumes.
Bembo’s Latin is as lucid as his Italian, and Ulery is acutely sensitive to Bembo’s voice. Ulery is chairman of the Department of Classical Languages at Wake Forest University and his web page there is composed of a collection of Latin quotations about the sounds and uses of the human voice. For this translation he has used the Venetian 1551 first edition of Bembo with some additions from the 1729, and he notes (323) that “the first edition is not divided into paragraphs (except by capitalizing the first word of some sentences).”
Bembo’s history is famous for Book VI (volume 2) with its discussion of the effects on the Venetian economy of the Portuguese spice trade to India and the discoveries of Columbus. He clearly admired Columbus, calling him “a man … with a very sharp mind,” (“Erat Columbus homo … ingenio peracri”), and included several pages taken from reports of the discoveries. This is the typical Venetian concern for detail, written by a poet:
Heading from there [the Canaries] into the setting sun for 33 days together, he discovered six islands, two of them very large indeed, where nightingales sing in November and naked men of a gentle nature use boats made of a single tree trunk …. They have very few kinds of quadrupeds, among them tiny dogs which are actually mute and do not bark. But they do have a great many types of birds, both larger and smaller than ours, so that some little birds are found which together with their nests weigh no more than a 24th of an ounce each.3 There are parrots of various shapes and colors in great abundance. They collect fleeces which grow by themselves from the woods and hills, but when they want to make them whiter and finer, they clean them and plant them by their homes. They have gold, which they collect in the sands of the rivers; they do not have iron. In its place they use specially hard and sharp stones, both for hollowing out their boats and for shaping other wood for domestic use and working gold. But the gold they work only for ornament, wearing it suspended from their pierced ears and nostrils — they are indeed unacquainted with coinage, nor do they use any kind of money…. The forests support an animal the size of a rabbit which is a bitter enemy of hens; the female has a pouch of skin with copious teats next to the stomach, like a second stomach, in which it carries its young and from which it lets them out as and when it wishes (2.VI.3, 8).
Reading straight through the three volumes — twelve books — of the history of Venice between 1487 and 1523 is to pick one’s way through exhausting series of battles. I am not sure whether this reflects Bembo’s view of history, or that of his employers. There is little or nothing about public finance and law unless they concern war, and nothing about art and architecture, but he kindly pauses for three sentences on a two-headed baby (“born to commoners”) and then two about incest: “Balbo … ordered the arrest of one of the commoners who was using his own daughter as a concubine, and of the daughter as well …. When both confessed, he had them bound and beheaded, setting fire also to the father’s corpse” (3.XI.59).
Bembo moves back and forth between the exigencies of the land and the nastiness of warfare, making the violence all the more shocking by his calmness, rarely revealing his own attitude towards what he is writing: “The plain of the Taro valley was not easily traversed, owing not only to the banks of the river but to pebbles and large rocks too, also to the scrub that covered it and the slippery mud full of puddles” (1.II.49). “When they arrived at the banks of the Tagliamento, which had risen during the night, they slew those prisoners of advanced age that they had with them, about 2,000, in order to cross the broad river more easily, and taking the rest across, left … weighed down with plunder” (2.V.16). “In this sack the assault and rape of almost all the women and girls [by the Venetians] made the fall of the town even more shameful. When the business was done, the ambassador of the Spanish sovereigns approached Loredan and the senators to offer his congratulations” (2.VII.80). “On the river [Adda] is a place in the shape of a semi-circle which can hold any number of troops. The whole site is bounded and made secure by a watercourse six feet deep and about twenty wide, drawn off from the river upstream and flowing back into it, and thickly planted with trees so that it cannot easily be spied on” (2.VII.85).
Bembo gives a speech by the elderly lawyer, Gian Antonio Minio, which is a stark criticism of the financial demands and corruption of the Venetian administration, and then follows it with the sweepingly patriotic denunciation of Minio by the doge, Leonardo Loredan (2.VI.21-31). The censors of Bembo’s commissioned history could handle criticism when it was rebutted by a doge, but in another case, when Alvise Molin gave a slashing speech, demanding that Venice retake Padua, and slamming the government for its pusillanimity, (and carried the vote), the censors rewrote the speech to remove the criticism of the doge, dropping whole sentences, and improving the language (2. VIII. 52-58).4
Bembo is tremendously useful to read as a companion to Sanudo, who published every document he could get his hands on, in the order received, but seldom if ever paused to clarify events for those of us who weren’t there. Sanudo’s bulk is worth all the treasures of the Indies, but it can be difficult when one is trying, for example, to make sense of the Turkish sieges of Modon and Nauplion. Nearly all of Bembo’s Book V is occupied with that period, which is of particular interest to me because it covers men and incidents on which I am working.
But the disadvantage of an official history is illustrated by an incident from 1500. When Carlo Contarini was executed, less for surrendering Old Navarino than for accepting a gold Turkish robe and wearing it under the walls of Coron when he urged it to surrender, too, Sanudo prints nineteen documents giving details of the incident, as well as an inquiry into the defences of Old Navarino. Bembo sums up all nineteen with “Pesaro left, and as he sailed past the coast of Coron had Carlo Contarini executed on the prow of his own ship. Contarini had been the Venetian governor at Navarino, a town well defended by its natural setting, and though under no compulsion from force or siege, he had surrendered it to the enemy” (2.V. 38).
This may be all the next generations of Venetians needed to know, but Bembo’s commissioned history sacrifices the drama of men forced to deal so with their peers, the details of the offences, and the open questions as to the adequacy of Contarini’s men and supplies at Navarino, as well as omitting the details — and statement — of treason, and of Contarini’s legal trial before his execution.
Two more quotations from Bembo:
I don’t mind writing here of a matter … whose strangeness makes it worthy of note by my readers. A French ship was sailing in the Ocean not far from Britain when it captured a small vessel made of wicker split down the middle and covered all over with tree-bark. In it were seven men of moderate height and rather dark complexion, with broad and open faces marked with a violet-colored scar. They had on clothing made from fish skin dappled with spots. They wore painted crowns of straw, interwoven with seven little ‘ears’, as it were. They fed on raw flesh, and drank blood as we do wine. Their speech was unintelligible. Six of them died; one young man was taken alive to the king in Normandy (2.VII.50).
… at Venice, on a clear and calm day in the Arsenale, workmen were packing gunpowder into chests when a spark flew off from the blow of a hammer, catching a huge pile of the powder. The walls and roof of the room in which it was being kept were blown apart by a massive explosion, with a huge bang and quaking of the earth. The force and violence of the blast sent bricks, tiles, posts, and the timbers of the building itself flying through the air in different directions over a wide stretch of ground. Covering the whole city with a dark pall of smoke in an instant, it utterly terrified the citizens …. Owing to the fire and the debris that had been blow up falling all around them, a great many of the carpenters’ guild and the master carpenter himself perished, along with some men of consequence. The incident was taken as a portent (2.VII.62).
In this world that often seems to be fracturing into sound bites and tweets, the publication of Ulery’s lucid translation of this man who epitomized the liberal arts can only be seen as a benevolent portent for civilization.
[Note: The I Tatti editions of volume 2 of Bembo’s history and his Lyric Poetry can be found in Google Books.]
1. The I Tatti Renaissance Library has published two volumes of Bembo’s poetry, edited by Mary P. Chatfield.
2. Cità Excelentissima: Selections from the Renaissance Diaries of Marin Sanudo, ed. Patricia H. Labalme and Laura Sanguineti White; trans. Linda L. Carroll (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) 36. (For information about Bembo’s access to Sanudo’s material, p. 37.) Bessarion had given these books to the Senate in 1468.
3. Hummingbirds are New World birds, not found across the Atlantic.
4. Molin’s speech was in Italian; Bembo rewote it in Latin (2.VIII.notes 17 & 19).