Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 27, 2013
Guido Beltramini, Davide Gasparotto, and Adolfo Tura, eds. Pietro Bembo e l’invenzione del Rinascimento Exh. cat. Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2013. 456 pp.; 196 color ills.; 8 b/w ills. Paper $44.00 (9788831715096)
Exhibition schedule: Palazzo del Monte di Pietà, Padua, February 2–May 19, 2013

As this outstanding exhibition on view in Padua demonstrated, Pietro Bembo (b. Venice, 1470; d. Rome, 1547)—humanist, author, lover, courtier, collector, papal secretary, and cardinal—was one of those exceptionally rare people who seems to have experienced at firsthand a large proportion of the great cultural events of his time. When Angelo Poliziano visited northern Italy in 1491 looking for unknown ancient texts for Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Florentine humanist studied alongside the young Bembo, annotating an incunabulum of Terence’s Comedies while also consulting a rare codex by the author (cat. 1.3). During the emotion-laden years in which Bembo wrote his great dialogue on love, Gli Asolani (first published in 1505), he had an amorous affair with the widowed Maria Savorgnan (about which scholars know a great deal, thanks to an important cache of letters preserved in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana; unfortunately the portrait of her commissioned by Bembo from Giovanni Bellini is lost), and then promptly fell deeply in love with Lucrezia Borgia, a risky business to carry out under the eyes of her husband, Duke Alfonso d’Este (Bembo’s Asolani was dedicated to Lucrezia; see cats. 2.1 and 2.3). Leaving Ferrara, Bembo then became a central figure at the court of Duke Guidobaldo del Montefeltro and Elisabetta Gonzaga in Urbino, immortalized by Baldassarre Castiglione in his Il libro del Cortegiano (170–71, and cat. 3.9), published in 1528. In 1512, Bembo moved to Rome, becoming Leo X’s segretario ai brevi (secretary of the papal briefs) in 1514 and participating fully in the artistic life of the city throughout the last eight of Raphael’s extraordinary years there, eventually composing the epitaph for Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon (this famous inscription, which ends “Ille hic est Raffael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori,” is analyzed in an exhibition catalogue essay by Stefano Pagliaroli, 292–99).

Bembo quit the city soon afterward to return to northern Italy. There he had the leisure to complete his manuscript of the Prose della volgar lingua (1525, dedicated to Clement VII), one of the first, and certainly the defining, treatise on the Italian language, with wide-ranging implications (cat. 4.20 presents the annotated example that belonged to Angelo Colocci, likewise a papal secretary and collector of antiquities, who did not agree with the author’s conclusions, being less inclined himself to look for rules [“leggi”] in language). In Padua, Bembo also put together a collection of antiquities, coins, paintings, and sculpture that made his home a destination for visitors from around Europe (cats. 5.1–31). Finally, he was made a cardinal by Paul III, returning to Rome in 1539, the date of Titian’s exceptional portrait of him now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (cat. 6.1). During Bembo’s final years he was a close associate of Vittoria Colonna (cats. 6.5, 6) and of others who were interested in the reform of the church. He died in 1547 in the home of his friend Giovanni della Casa.

It is impossible to isolate any single artwork or incident that epitomizes this long and evolving career, but the famous trip to Tivoli in April 1516, undertaken by Bembo with his friends Raphael, Castiglione, Andrea Navagero, and Agostino Beazzano and described by Bembo as an opportunity to see “il vecchio e il nuovo, e cio che di bello sia in quella contrada” (“the old and the new, and whatever is beautiful in that area”), could serve that purpose. Raphael’s double portrait of Navagero and Beazzano (1516, cat. 4.16), which belonged to Bembo, is a lasting tribute to these friendships. Another way to consider the extraordinary arc of Bembo’s life is to realize that it began with him surrounded by the objects collected by his father, the humanist and diplomat Bernardo Bembo, such as Hans Memling’s diptych of St. John the Baptist and St. Veronica, painted around 1470–75 (cats. 1.5, 6), and ended with him at his ease in the presence of Michelangelo’s drawings for Vittoria Colonna, such as the powerful Crucified Christ (ca. 1540, cat. 6.5).

The exhibition in Padua, curated by Guido Beltramini, Davide Gasparotto, and Adolfo Tura, was mounted with great sensitivity in the rooms of the Palazzo del Monte di Pietà. It unfolded in chapters, each relating to one of the periods of Bembo’s life. In every one of these there were works of enormous beauty in varied media, always including rare books and manuscripts, and unusual objects, such as the beguiling Lira da braccio—the stringed instrument of choice at the north Italian courts—signed by Giovanni d’Andrea in 1511 and inscribed in Greek on an ivory plaque (cat. 3.16). Perhaps the most spectacular of these sections was that devoted to Bembo in the Rome of Leo X, which included the Raphael double portrait mentioned above, as well as the artist’s Small Holy Family and its cover Dovizia (Abundance, the latter probably painted by Giulio Romano, cats. 4.12, 13), painted for Cardinal Dovizi da Bibbiena (both ca. 1518–19), Bembo’s close friend, and the spectacular tapestry of the Conversion of St. Paul (1517–19) designed by Raphael and owned after the Sack of Rome in 1527 by Giovanni Antonio Venier in Venice (cat. 4.3). In addition there were luxury arts of extreme elegance, such as Valerio Belli’s Aspergillum with the Arms of Leo X (ca. 1515–20, cat. 4.5), and exceptional architectural drawings for monuments such as the Villa Madama (Antonio da Sangallo’s the Younger’s large plan, ca. 1519–21, cat. 4.27). The protagonists in this section were steeped in the study of antiquity, deeply absorbed in the history and literature of ancient Rome, and committed to the attempt to articulate the vocabulary and “grammar” of both architecture and language: in this context the display of the draft of the letter written by Raphael and Castiglione to Leo X concerning the documentation and preservation of the ancient monuments of the city (cat. 4.19, from the archive of the Castiglione family) was literally breathtaking.

One of the curators’ most challenging tasks must have been to assemble as many objects as possible from Bembo’s collection in Padua. These were described in some detail by Marcantonio Michiel, who visited the collection on more than one occasion but whose notes on these visits are difficult to date (he seems to have made them before Bembo moved in 1532 into the newly renovated house close to the Eremitani that became famous for visitors; see cat. 5.5). As the authors mention, this collection was above all a working tool (“uno strumento di lavoro”; 303): rich in coins, medals, inscriptions, and unusual ancient objects—such as the extraordinary bronze tablet with Egyptian scenes known as the “Mensa Isiaca” or “Tabula Bembina,” which later passed through the Gonzaga collection and then entered the collections of the Savoy family by 1666 (cat. 5.31). Central to this section was a group of ancient sculptures, now mostly in the Museo Archeologico in Naples, whose history subsequent to Bembo’s ownership has been patiently reconstructed (see cats. 5.8, 5.10–12). Bembo’s son Torquato was responsible for the dispersal of much of the collection, and it now appears clear that these pieces were purchased by Fulvio Orsini, and then entered the Farnese collection following Orsini’s death in 1600, eventually making their way to Naples. At least one, the riveting bronze bust Servilius Ahala, came from the collection of Lorenzo de’ Medici (cat. 5.8), where it served as inspiration for a glazed terracotta by Giovanni della Robbia; all were to have a further impact on both later sculpture and painting in Padua (above all in the so-called Sala dei Giganti in the former Carrara palace, now part of the University of Padua).

Three objects from the final section of the exhibition—two grand in scale, and one miniature—spoke of Bembo’s long-term passions and final beliefs. One was the medal by Danese Cattaneo of Elisabetta Quirini (cat. 6.12), the last of Bembo’s loves and the recipient of a series of celebratory sonnets written in 1537–39, with her beautiful plump face on the obverse and the Three Graces on the reverse. The second was the bust carved by the same artist for the cardinal’s tomb in Padua’s Basilica del Santo, here, as a boon to the viewer, brought into the exhibition’s rooms so that its vitality and concentration as well as the virtuoso contrast between the curls of the beard and the smooth surface of the mozzetta (ecclesiastical cape) were all the more apparent. Most striking of all was the Idolino (cat. 6.11), an ancient bronze believed to represent Bacchus that was discovered in Pesaro in 1530 and which was long on display in the Villa Imperiale there. Soon after its discovery it was supplied with a remarkable base, also in bronze, by Aurelio, Ludovico, and Gerolamo Lombardo, and an epigraph written by Bembo. As late as 1543, Bembo was able to visit the Imperiale and wrote to Eleonora della Rovere praising the villa’s beauty. Here all at once one saw conjoined his thrill at the recovery of the ancient world, the sustaining culture of the Italian courts in his life, and the effort with which he strove to bring forth the elegance of the written word—a summary of Bembo’s life and achievements.

The exhibition catalogue is equally rewarding. The curators brought together a specialized team of authors, and many of the entries read as synthetic essays on the subject, without ever losing sight of their connection to the central protagonist. Although all of the contributions are absorbing, some of the finest of the essays and entries are devoted to humanism and books, sculpture, and the history of collecting. The visual richness of the exhibition combined with the detailed and analytic approach of the texts made this immersion into the life of Pietro Bembo one of the most satisfying exhibition experiences of recent years.

Andrea Bayer
Curator, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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