BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "Lyric Poetry"
Bembo was a writer, scholar and later a prelate, in the late 15th and early 16th century. I doubt I would have heard of him before noticing this ITRL book of his if it wasn't for the fact that a well-known typeface is named after him. It's also one of the easiest to recognize, namely by the unusually long leg of the uppercase ‘R’. It's a nice font, except for this ‘R’ thing — it makes the character following the ‘R’ appear too far to the right of the main body of the ‘R’, almost as if a small space had been inserted after the ‘R’.
Well, anyway, this book doesn't really have anything to do with the Bembo
typeface (it certainly isn't set in it
But most of this book is taken up by Bembo's lyrical poetry. Many of these poems were pleasant enough to read, but I can't say that many of them were terribly touching or noteworthy for some other reason. There's a fair number of pastoral poems; lots and lots of short epitaphs; and a minor epic titled Sarca, some 600 lines long, which pretends to explain the origin of Lake Garda, and the course of certain rivers flowing into it, with a myth involving the tutelary deities of these various bodies of water. At the same time it is an all-round praise of the area, its towns and history, with particular emphasis on one of its most famous sons, Virgil. This is in a way not a bad read, but on the other hand it's again one of those things that make me wonder why anybody thought it worth his while to put pen to paper and write such a poem down, except perhaps as an exercise in style and literary technicalities. Nowadays this kind of thing would perhaps find its place in the ‘Local Interest’ shelf of a couple of local bookstores, but apart from that I don't see who would care to read such a ‘praise of such-and-such geographical area’ type of thing. But I've complained about this before, and there's no point in repeating myself.
I liked some of the shorter poems better. Some are quite openly erotic,
e.g. #2, “Faunus Speaks to the River Nympeus”:
“Hither come girls and boys [. . .] to swim in your water
[. . .] And when they please, they couple everywhere [. . .]
Boy rubs against boy, and bound each to each/ They perform their obscene thrustings
before my very eyes” — although what really bothers Faunus is that
“Although by long wickedness they are hardened to depravity,/
By some deceit or other they continue to flee my embraces”
And #9, “Priapus”,
is a lighthearted ode to the joys of sexuality:
“Before all the others which my garden here brings forth,/
One plant entices the hands of girls [. . .]
first it rises from a twofold foot;
Tightened into a smooth stalk [. . .]
its spacious head spread with a red like cinnabar [. . .]
Some conceal it in the soft shade, but I have it always in the open”
And I'm not quite sure what to make of #16, “About Galesus and Maximus”, which, although in a way modest and affectionate, is quite openly paederastic. Not that I object, but I'm surprised — after all, Bembo didn't live in ancient Rome, but in AD 1500 — weren't such things frowned upon then? And the poem's subtitle is “Modest verses written by the order of a great man: since all the other poets in Rome had also written by order of the same man”. Too bad that the translator's notes don't include any explanation of the background of this poem (if it is known).
Of the epitaphs, some are fairly conventional but some were quite touching. I particularly liked #36 (“If anything in all of nature was by chance hidden from you,/ You are reading it now, Leonico, in God's greatness”), #37 (“Why, harsh death, have you snatched away a maiden so lovely?/ Could it happen, woe is me! that love touches you also?”) and #38 (which is for his puppy: “Your master gave you everything, little dog Bembino,/ From whom you have a name, a tomb, and tears”). Although I must admit that when it comes to canine epitaphs, my favourite remains Byron's misanthropic masterpiece (and his other one is not bad either).
Another touching poem was #39, “A Fiction in the Ancient Manner”, about a woman who, after the death of her children and husband, commits suicide in order to be reunited with them. Another thing that strikes me as interesting in this poem is the pagan premiss underlying it; surely in christianity suicide would be unacceptable, and she would go to hell which presumably her husband or at least the children would be likely to avoid? All of which shows, I guess, that even if Bembo became a cardinal later in life, he was never any sort of tight-hearted zealot.
Another pleasant little poem was #2 in the Appendix B (i.e. one of the poems that are probably by Bembo, but we can't be quite sure), in which Love and Death accidentally mix their weapons (bows and arrows), leading of course to confusing results; in the end they almost attack each other with the other's weapon, but are stopped in the last moment — unfortunately, as otherwise “I would not now groan, wounded by Love's blow,/ And would be safe from the pitiless terms of death”.
In ll. 357–9 of the Sarca he mentions an etymology of the word ‘pheasant’: “the bird that takes its name from Phasis,/ Which, done away with in cruel slaughter, a treacherous mother/ Placed to be eaten upon his father's table”. But I'm not sure what this myth has got to do with pheasants (apart from the similarity of the name). The wikipedia describes Phasis as a river and says that ‘pheasant’ is “derived from this river, as it was in this region that the ancients first encountered the birds”.
One considerable plus for this book is that at least this time
poems have been translated into verse, unlike
in all the other ITRL poetry translations I've read so far,
which were all completely ordinary prose.
Who knows, maybe after some twenty more volumes or so,
we'll get something with metre as well
Conclusion: compared to the other ITRL poetry volumes I've read so far (Poliziano and Vegio, both of which contain only longer poems), I liked this one better than either of them. Maybe it's a problem of genre: I like big, long, proper epic poems, and I also like nice little lyrical poems. But I don't particular care about short epics like those of Vegio, or Bembo's Sarca in this book; nor about longish didactical poems like those in the Poliziano ITRL volume. So I hope that we'll eventually get some more translations of lyrical poetry in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series.
P.S. I do have one small complaint about this book: it contains unusually many typos. I noticed three; perhaps there are more: “troube” (p. 127), “trtodden” (p. 169), “promontary” (p. 245).
- One of the translator's notes on p. 262 mentions
who “was considered one of the most learned women of her day
and was an ardent feminist, engaging the Venetian Francesco Foscarini
in a long epistolary debate on the relative guilt of Adam and Eve”.
At first I thought what an impressively obscure author this must be,
but then I noticed that her
complete writings, in English, are readily available on amazon.
Possibly this might be interesting to read.
The same amazon page also links to some other rather more kooky-sounding
Renaissance feminist texts, e.g.
The Worth of Women:
Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men.