Saturday, July 21, 2007

BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "Lyric Poetry"

Pietro Bembo: Lyric Poetry. Etna. Edited and translated by Mary P. Chatfield. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 18. Harvard University Press, 2005. 0674017129. xxi + 278 pp.

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 :)), except that it includes Bembo's short dialogue Etna, the first edition of which (in 1495) was the first book set in Bembo. Etna is a description of Bembo's visit to Mount Etna on Sicily, set in the form of a dialogue between Bembo and his father. This was not an uninteresting read, but I wish he hadn't wasted so much time on things that haven't got anything to do with the subject: lots of space is taken up by pointless politenesses between the two Bembos, with Bembo jr. sometimes verging on obsequiousness, all of which certainly doesn't do anything to increase the reader's knowledge of Etna. Perhaps he was simply a bit in love with his own style; the front flap of the dust jacket says that he “was one of the most admired Latinists of his day”. Anyway, once he actually gets around to describing Etna and his ascent of it (¶41ff.), it's fairly interesting. There are also a few paragraphs of speculation about how and why volcanoes function the way they do (¶37–40).

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 :-) But even without metre, it looks a fair bit more poetic this way already. So kudos to the translator!

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 Isotta Nogarola, 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. :-)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pietro Bembo appears toward the end of a novel about Leonard da Vinci that I am re-reading (by Dmitri Merezhovski, pub. about 1900). The context is that, in a time of moral and religious turmoil, Giovanni de Medici became pope (another recent pope had been Alexander Borgia) and welcomed all sorts of poets, artists, and so on, to his court. The dominant style was emulation of the classical authors particularly the Romans; Merezhovski says the new Pope, Leo X, was petitioned by clergy to add Plato to the list of the Christian Saints, and that some pastors called the Holy Ghost the Breath of Jupiter in their sermons.

Thus the situation was one of widespread debauchery, and the classical authors were seen by some as giving precedent for erotic themes in literature. According again to Merezhovski, Bembo later became a Cardinal.

I was just starting to look up Pietro Bembo when I came across your post. Other historical figures that I've looked up from this book have been accurately portrayed.

(By the way, how right you are about the capital R in the Bembo typeface!)

Monday, March 26, 2012 1:14:00 AM  

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