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.

The book was novel in form as well as content. Cast as a dialogue between Pietro – by now in his late twenties – and his father, Bernardo, and set at Bernardo’s charming country villa outside Venice, it announced that old men and ancient writers had no monopoly on accurate knowledge. Though Bernardo listens hard and jumps in more than once with an authoritative remark, the son – at least in the dialogue – draws the decisive lesson from their conversation. When Pietro describes the snow that lies on Etna even in summertime, Bernardo breaks in, quoting a Greek geographer: ‘What of the fact that Strabo records that there’s snow only in winter?’ Without missing a beat, Pietro replies: ‘But first-hand inquiry tells you that it lasts, as does practical experience, which is no less an authority.’ A new generation has arrived. Pietro is as scholarly as Bernardo. But in his passion to see and experience the world around him – and in his willingness to cart specimens of lava back down the mountain for further examination – he looks forward to an age when things would claim epistemic authority. Later scholars like Ulisse Aldrovandi and Athanasius Kircher would search the marketplaces for new species of fish and collect shells and fossils as eagerly as books. With their finds they created spectacular museums where the citizens of the Republic of Letters could marvel and converse. They were Bembo’s heirs.

Historians nowadays are in love with things, and with people who were fascinated with them. Some, including Sarah Ross in Everyday Renaissances (2016), have scrutinised post mortem inventories to identify the books that physicians, notaries and housewives, none of them famous, owned and read. For her forthcoming study, Engineering the Eternal City, Pamela Long spelunked in sewers and fossicked in archives to find out how the popes piped fresh water to their city and sewage away from it.[*] Lawrence Principe and William Newman (Alchemy Tried in the Fire, 2002) and Pamela Smith (The Making and Knowing Project) have decrypted arcane manuscripts and recreated forgotten crafts to establish how alchemists and artisans actually did their work, which they then replicate. Sachiko Kusukawa in Picturing the Book of Nature (2012) and Florike Egmond in Eye for Detail (2016) have traced the ways in which naturalists collaborated with fishermen and gamekeepers, female gardeners and male artists to create a magnificently vivid and innovative, if sometimes bizarre, brand of natural history. Ulinka Rublack (Dressing Up, 2011) and others have examined soft velvets and flashing silks, slashed doublets and massive, statue-stiff dresses to show how clothes really did make the man, and the woman. In fashion as much as any other sphere, life in early modern Europe could really be a work of art.

The case of Pietro Bembo, though, is special. At a time when Latin was still Europe’s central literary language, he was – as one friend, Giovanni della Casa, recalled after his death – the first to show how to imitate the classics in an artistic and individual way. During his time as a papal secretary, he saved the cultural credit of the papacy itself, by drafting bulls and letters on Christian subjects in perfect Ciceronian Latin. His Italian letters and dialogues became classics in their own right, eagerly read by men and women across Italy. Bembo embodied eloquence, the verbal art of arts. Though few English readers have had much contact with him, many know the magnificent pastiche speech that Bembo, one of the characters, delivers in the concluding pages of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier – a paean to the love of spiritual and physical beauty, so fine-drawn and ethereal that two court ladies have to tweak the character by his robes, lest his soul depart from his body. No one – not even the passionate Ciceronian Christophe de Longueil, whom Erasmus parodied in his Ciceronianus as a neurasthenic obsessive – paid more scrupulous attention to the choice of a word or the disposition of a letter.

Creating so fine a style was itself a form of scholarship, which rested on intensive training. In the 15th century, Venetian patricians – and men and women of lower birth – began to pay a new, serious attention to classical literature. Prominent humanists like Marco Antonio Sabellico lectured on ancient texts at the School of San Marco. The Venetians who administered the city’s maritime empire brought their interests, and their copies of classical texts, with them, as Erin Maglaque shows in Venice’s Intimate Empire.[†] Across the Mediterranean, they collected inscriptions, assigned the proper ancient names to ruins and cities – and described the triumphs and disasters of their public and private lives in something resembling humanist Latin.

Bembo’s ability to write a pure Latin – and, by an extension of the same skills, a pure Tuscan, based on the writings of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio – was distinctive. His training as a scholar began early. In June 1491 Angelo Poliziano, a Florentine poet and philologist, visited Venice. There he studied, among many other things, the ancient manuscript of Terence’s plays that belonged to Pietro’s father, Bernardo. Enthusiastically, Poliziano wrote in the manuscript itself that he had never seen so old a codex. He collated it against a printed edition, which survives, and recorded ‘even its obvious errors’, since some of them might yield emendations. Pietro, Poliziano noted, helped him do this work. As Gareth Williams shows, Pietro also made a collation of his own, in some respects more detailed than the master’s, parts of which he would eventually publish. That Bembo wrote what his contemporaries thought to be convincing Ciceronian Latin was due in large part to his reading prose models with the same unremitting attention that he had watched Poliziano accord to the plays of Terence.

Yet Bembo attended, with equal precision and expertise, to the world of things. After his death, his friend Ludovico Beccadelli recalled that ‘he not only spoke wisely about literature, but he also knew very well indeed how to discourse on other pleasant things, such as medals, and sculptures, and ancient and modern paintings. His study was so well equipped with these things that he probably had few peers in Italy. Among other things he had a copper tablet [it was really bronze], quite large and worked with Egyptian figures in silver, a wonderful thing to see.’ Even the books in his library were physically splendid: many handsome manuscripts flanked his inherited Terence, which he believed must have been written at the time of Cicero (in fact, it dated to around 400 ce). All of his treasures were housed and placed in the most artistic way possible. His coins were slotted into neat little boxes that could be brought to him when – as during his stays in Rome – he found he could not live without his collection.

Collecting, for Bembo, was anything but primitive accumulation. He was one of the new breed of scholars, known as antiquarians, who studied objects as thoroughly as texts. Asked by a friend about a silver coin that bore the heads of Virgil and his patron Maecenas, Bembo described a copy of the coin in his collection: ‘It is a modern piece, though it is stamped rather than moulded. As to the falcons and other birds of prey, that is a modern custom. The ancients had not trained them and did not use them as we do.’ Here he showed both his technical expertise and his historical sense. The coin in question was not moulded – that was a sign of forgery, since ancient coins were stamped. But its portrayal of a post-antique custom, training birds to hunt, revealed that it was modern. When Bembo showed friends his magnificent if fragmentary illustrated Virgil, a codex created around 400 ce that is now one of the treasures of the Vatican Library, he pointed out that its illustrations depicted ‘things done by the ancients in a manner different from ours’. Bembo’s classicism was material as well as literary.

Belli’s medal of Pietro Bembo
Belli’s medal of Pietro Bembo

Only part of his collection was classical. Bembo, as has long been known, was an expert on contemporary painting and sculpture. He served from time to time as an intermediary for richer and more peremptory collectors like Isabella d’Este, who needed his help to convince the touchy Giovanni Bellini to produce something for her. A patron in his own right, he developed very discriminating tastes. He commissioned Valerio Belli to make a medal with his portrait on the obverse and an image of him sitting, poetically, on a riverbank. Belli’s efforts met with sharp criticism at first, and the final state of the medal reflected Bembo’s wishes – he insisted that Belli leave a large space blank, which disturbed the artist. Portraits of Bembo – or portraits that may be of him – abound, some by giants like Titian and others hard or impossible to assign. Commissioning works of art did not exhaust his energies. In his city house in Padua, he created a garden in which he cultivated rare herbs, ten years before the university established its Orto Botanico.

Susan Nalezyty treats Bembo’s collection in comprehensive detail, and promises to tell us not only what it contained, but also what it meant to him. Williams follows him to Sicily and up Etna. He records every step, not only of Bembo’s voyages, but of his intellectual development, and caps his study with a Latin text and English translation of De Aetna. The two books are very different. Mistranslations and mistranscriptions mar Nalezyty’s work. So do strange editorial decisions. Apparently uncertain about the nature of her public, she provides some quotations only in English, others only in Italian. Yale seems to have done no editing: a shame, since her material is abundant and engrossing. Williams, by contrast, moves deftly from one episode or argument to the next. He nails down each with a philologist’s precision, while still offering a critic’s imaginative interpretation. For all their differences, the two studies intersect at many points. Like Nalezyty, Williams emphasises Bembo’s ‘visual literacy’. The publisher Aldus Manutius not only printed Bembo’s De Aetna, but had the punch-cutter Francesco Griffo (1450-1518) devise a ‘fresh and innovative’ Roman type for it – an adventurous typeface, Williams argues, appropriate for an adventurous book and named, in due course, for its author. Every time you choose to print a character in Bembo, you are paying homage to a Renaissance Gesamtkunstwerk.

Like Williams, Nalezyty makes clear that Bembo’s fascination with design – in the world of things as in the collector’s world of antiques and paintings – was all embracing. Some of her most gripping pages deal with his interest in majolica plates and his efforts to obtain a bed canopy for his Roman residence. He sketched it, and prescribed not only the materials and colours but the form of the seams. Not surprisingly – given his own popularity as a subject for portraits and the difficulty of tying so many Renaissance paintings to the specific circumstances of their creation – both Nalezyty and Williams examine questions of ascription at some length. Both speculate, in fascinating but ultimately indecisive ways, on whether the sitter in Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of a Young Man, in the Royal Collection, is Bembo and whether Bernardo Bembo was responsible for commissioning Leonardo around 1474 to paint the portrait of Ginevra de’Benci, the subject of his neo-Platonic affection, which is now in the National Gallery in Washington.

Though Nalezyty’s subtitle promises that readers will learn about the ‘intellectual pleasures’ that Bembo took in his collection, she and Williams could say more about this central point. Bembo, we know, took delight in his works of art. He confessed that he could not bear to spend long periods away from them. Contemporaries also make clear that his collection served a social purpose. In the description by the poet Antonio Beccadelli of Bembo ‘discoursing’ wisely and elegantly on his statues and books, Bembo’s study is seen as a social space in which he astonished his equals with his treasures and encouraged other scholars to write up their investigations of coins and other objects. Did he see these hours spent discussing handsome things as an intellectual activity comparable to his writing? One of his disciples, Alessandro Maggi da Bassano, a skilled antiquary, records that Bembo retired to his study ‘to restore his mental strength when he took leave from literary studies, so that he could return to them with a livelier mind’. Or was this description itself a literary commonplace?


Bernardo, a Venetian patrician and ambassador, collected, read and annotated books, in Latin and Italian, as eagerly as his son. William Sherman has called attention to the spidery manicules – pointing hands that call attention to key passages – and opticules, staring eyes that do the same, that decorate the margins of Bernardo’s books. He made the texts his own with energy and artistry and shared Pietro’s interest in innovative art and antiquarian scholarship. Most scholars agree that a portrait (c.1480) by Hans Memling, now in Antwerp, is a depiction of Bernardo. Standing before a landscape, hills blue with distance in the background, this black-clad, cosmopolitan figure holds a Roman sestertius with a head of Nero in his left hand. Like Pietro, he was an antiquary and a connoisseur. Bernardo’s collections were impressive. So were his architectural commissions, which included the lovely villa where Bembo set the dialogue between father and son in De Aetna and a handsome monumental tomb for Dante in Ravenna.

Memling’s portrait of Bernardo Bembo
Memling’s portrait of Bernardo Bembo

Learning, like Venetian politics, was a family matter, dominated by ancient clans such as the Bembo. This could be physically embodied in the annotated codices and commonplace books that older generations passed on to those of their sons who showed an interest. But Venetians took scholarship itself very seriously. Giovanni Bembo’s son, a later prodigy of the clan and one of Maglaque’s protagonists in Venice’s Intimate Empire, had mastered grammar, poetry and arithmetic at a young age and faster than any of his friends. But when he left his teens, his parents discovered that ‘he hates books, so that he seems afraid to open them, and studies nothing virtuous or profitable.’ This was a disaster – so terrible, Giovanni believed, that it hastened the death of his beloved wife.

How far, Nalezyty and Williams ask, did Pietro inherit his passions and skills from the Bembo clan, and Bernardo in particular? Nalezyty emphasises continuity. Bernardo, she notes, spent two periods in the 1470s as an ambassador to Florence. Characteristically, he brought home a pretty manuscript of a commentary on Plato’s Symposium by the Florentine priest and scholar Marcilio Ficino. Additions in the author’s own hand made it precious. Notes from Florence by Bernardo commemorate his friendship with the philosopher-poet Cristoforo Landino, who served as godfather to another of his sons and celebrated Ginevra de’Benci’s beauty and virtue in his poems. Like Castiglione’s treatment of Pietro, which evoked the happy years he had spent at the court of Urbino, this manuscript became a memory theatre, which recorded Bernardo’s role in the most advanced cultural circle of his time. Collecting and connoisseurship, like erudition, formed part of Pietro’s inheritance, which he passed on to his illegitimate children. Almost two centuries after Bernardo, his great-grandson Orazio became a collector, in true period fashion: the object he coveted and eventually obtained was a stuffed crocodile.

Williams, for his part, notes the differences, in careers and sensibilities, between father and son. Bernardo served the Venetian state. Pietro, who failed repeatedly to obtain an official post, became a scholar and courtier (and only later, in his sixties, a cardinal). His active life unfolded outside Venice, and he forged his reputation above all as a writer. The son felt great affection for the father, and recognised the debt he owed him for his own intellectual and aesthetic talents. Yet, as Williams argues, he also struggled for independence and left the record of that struggle in his writing. De Aetna portrays the two men’s affectionate intimacy, yet it also records Pietro’s decision to strike out on his own. As the text shows, Bernardo had created a marvellous, disciplined country space at his villa, Noniano, where orchards and shade trees fostered the rest and refreshment that the statesman sought in his too short country stays. The son, by contrast, made the wild slopes of Etna his own, evoking the beauty that nature created without human aid, and devising his own myths to describe what he had seen. When Pietro explained to Bernardo that autopsy – his own experience of seeing for himself – outweighed the authority of the ancients, he was declaring a hard-won if partial independence.

One form of evidence might help, not to resolve this difference, but to bring the relationship between father and son into even sharper relief. For both Bernardo and Pietro, scholarship and connoisseurship met in the book. Their libraries – or library? – have been well studied by Nella Giannetto (Bernardo Bembo, 2012) and meticulously catalogued by Massimo Danzi (La biblioteca del cardinal Pietro Bembo, 2005). And their books tell many tales. It was Bernardo, rather than Pietro, who first pursued visual literacy. He worked intensively with the most innovative scribe of the late 15th century, Bartolomeo Sanvito, whose italic script may well have been the model for Aldus’s italic type. Sanvito, as Nalezyty notes, produced wonderful books for Bernardo. Their colourful frontispieces, often framed by columns and arches, were populated by busy cherubs, flying horses and pensive authors, and their neatly written pages left plenty of space for marginal signs and commentaries. Bernardo regarded Sanvito as much more than a skilful artisan. When he entered a Roman inscription in his vast Zibaldone, a commonplace book now in the British Library, he recorded not only that he drew it from Sanvito’s Little Book of Epigrams, but also that Sanvito was ‘my honourable godfather, on the birth of my son Bartolomeo, who was born at Padua’. Pietro inherited Bernardo’s books and notebook. Sometimes both men write in the margins of the same book – for example, a lovely little Sallust, transcribed by Sanvito and now at Harvard. When Pietro allied himself with Aldus, and in later years when he worried, as an author, about proper typefaces, he was extending the lessons he had learned from Bernardo. Seeing books as works of art – whose form should in some way express their texts – was a family matter.

No book makes the complexities of this connection more evident than Bernardo’s copy of De Re Aedificatoria, Leon Battista Alberti’s architectural treatise, now in Eton College Library. The book was a manifesto of a new architecture, based on exhaustive study of classical texts and ancient and later structures. Alberti left it unfinished when he died in 1472, just before Bernardo arrived in Florence as Venetian ambassador. Characteristically, he managed to bring home an especially valuable version of the text, one that included some pages from another copy, which Alberti himself had corrected. Bernardo studied the book with close attention, making notes in the margin and copying excerpts in his Zibaldone. He felt a deep elective affinity with Alberti. Reading the latter’s description of the best way to position a country villa, he wrote in the margin: ‘Leon saw my soul.’ And at one passage he recorded an experience that bears directly on his and his son’s ways of responding to nature and culture. Long before, Alberti had tried to raise two sunken Roman pleasure barges from Lake Nemi, a small lake in the Alban hills, more than 300 metres above sea level. The experiment failed, but Alberti continued to explore the area. In his treatise, he described the lake’s Roman emissarium – the rectangular tunnel, 1600 metres long, that drained stagnant water and, he thought, prevented flooding. He was especially struck by its secondary effect. The regular, orderly flow of water made the land below the lake extraordinarily fertile and pleasant.

In the margin beside this passage, Bernardo entered a long and enthusiastic note: ‘We have seen the place (locum) at Nemi, and the lake (lacum) and the delightful grove (lucum).’ He too praised the fertility of the fields irrigated by the neatly disciplined outflows from the emissarium. Elysian was the word that sprang to mind when he thought of them. Bernardo also recorded that he had made his expedition to Nemi in 1488, in the very pleasant company of, among others, his son Pietro. When Pietro made his own expedition to Etna, was he outdoing his father or emulating him? Hard to say. But one point is clear. Early in the text, he has Bernardo refer to a plane tree he had seen ‘at the foot of the bank of Diana’s mirror’ – the Roman term for Lake Nemi, the mirror-like lake with its temple of Diana. When Bernardo read the text, he would know – though other readers could not – that Pietro had not forgotten their modest climb and survey a few years earlier.

Henry Wotton, James I’s ambassador to Venice, bought Bernardo’s copies of Alberti’s works on painting and architecture, and brought them back to England, seeing them as key texts for the transformation of English architecture that he hoped to bring about, starting with country houses. Read together with the other works in the British Library, the Vatican and elsewhere, these books can still offer revelations: not about future versions of classicism, but about the great question that Nalezyty and Williams open up: what did it mean, and what did it feel like, to become an emperor of things in the High Renaissance?

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

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