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Cardinal Pietro Bembo, A Renaissance Papal Latinist

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 1470 was born one of the great literary men of the later Italian Renaissance, Cardinal Pietro Bembo. His father was a scion of one of the most highly ranked noble families of Venice, a scholar and man of letters, and twice served as his city’s ambassador to Florence, bringing his son there with him. It was during his stays in Florence that Pietro conceived a deep love of the Tuscan dialect, which he would later ardently promote as the pre-eminent Italian literary vernacular. It was to no small degree through the efforts of this Venetian that the Florentine dialect came to be modern “standard” Italian.

After spending two years in Sicily to learn Greek, Bembo obtained his degree at the University of Padua, and then accompanied his father to the court of Ferrara, where he became close friends with the poet Ludovico Aristo, and continued his Latin studies. After brief sojourns in his native city, in Ferrara again, and in Rome, he lived from 1506-12 at the court of Urbino, then one of the great centers of Italian culture, and began a highly influential treatise on vernacular literature. This was completed and published in 1525, and did much to canonized Petrarch and Boccaccio as the authoritative models for Italian poetry and prose respectively.

In 1513, Card. Giovanni de’ Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s younger son, who had known Bembo in his youth, was elected Pope with the name Leo X, and soon after appointed him to an important office in the Papal chancery. During his time in Rome, he encouraged the careers of many writers and scholars, and engaged in a dispute with one Giovan Francesco Pico over the degree to which Latin should be written in imitation of classical models. Bembo believed that writers of Latin should treat Vergil and Cicero as those of Italian should treat Petrarch and Boccaccio. It has to be said that took the classicizing trend of his era to absurd extremes, preferring “senatores” to the non-classical “cardinales”, and “virgines vestales” to the various later Latin terms for “nun.”

Leo X was succeeded in 1523 by Adrian VI, a Dutchman who was far less sympathetic to the Italian humanists, seeing in them some part of the justification for the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation. (In this he was not wholly unjustified; Bembo himself was not a priest, but had taken on religious vows as a member of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, now commonly known as the knights of Malta. Vows notwithstanding, he had a mistress for many years, who gave him three children.) Bembo departed from Rome and spent the next several years in Padua, publishing several works before he was made head of the great Library of St Mark in Venice. In 1539, Pope Paul III made him a cardinal, in which role he would serve the Church as apostolic administrator (bishop pro tempore, as it were) of various cities until his death in 1547. He is buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

(Portrait of Cardinal Pietro Bembo 1545, by Titian. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

A few minutes’ walk from his grave, one of Bembo’s Latin compositions is seen thousands of times a day by visitors to the Pantheon. In 1520, one of the other lights of Leo X’s court, the painter Raphael, died, and was buried there, since it was the seat of the artists’ confraternity to which he belonged. His sarcophagus has carved onto it an elegiac distich by Bembo.

Ille hic est Raphael, timuit quo sospite vinci,
Rerum magna parens, et moriente mori.

(Here lies the great Raphael, by whom the great mother of all things (i.e. nature itself) feared to be outdone, and as he was dying, she feared she was dying.)

The teacher with whom many of us at VSI once studied, Fr Reginald Foster, worked for over forty years in the Vatican in a position broadly analogous to that once held by Bembo. I once heard himself about this this dense and grammatically complex inscription by his “colleague”, “If you can read that, my friends, well, then I’ll know that you’ve learned something.”

(The tomb of Raphael. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Paschal Reusch; CC BY-SA 3.0)

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