Locum, Lacum, Lucum

Anthony Grafton

  • Pietro Bembo and the Intellectual Pleasures of a Renaissance Writer and Art Collector by Susan Nalezyty
    Yale, 277 pp, £50.00, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 300 21919 7
  • Pietro Bembo on Etna: The Ascent of a Venetian Humanist by Gareth Williams
    Oxford, 440 pp, £46.49, August 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 027229 6

In 1496 Pietro Bembo, a young Venetian scholar, published a short book on a long walk he had taken with a friend. Their hike led them from Messina, where the two of them had been studying Greek with Constantine Lascaris, to the top of Mount Etna. No one had seen a book like De Aetna. Mountains, though some curious thinkers had climbed them, were usually seen as fearsome and inhuman. Volcanoes had been objects of terror, always ready to vomit lava and gas, but also sources of fatal temptation. According to tradition the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles had donned brazen sandals to climb Etna and then hurled himself into the crater, so that it would seem as though he had turned into a god. Bembo and his friend, by contrast, appreciated the mountain’s fertile lower slopes with their cool springs and shady trees. They savoured its views of the Tyrrhenian sea. Even when they explored one of the craters, and smoke and burning stones appeared beneath their feet, they were ‘gripped by such enjoyment of the spectacle’, Bembo wrote, that they forgot to worry.

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[*] Chicago, 368 pp., £34, November, 978 0 226 59128 5.

[†] Cornell, 240 pp., £44, June, 978 1 5017 2165 6.