Regular readers of Luca’s Venice will be aware that Venice retains its own dialect or language which is quite distinct from standard Italian. They might not be aware however that when the Italian people got together to choose which of the many varieties of the language to adopt as the common and literary language, it boiled down to two: Tuscan, because it was the language of the poet Petrarch, and Venetian because Venice was the contemporary centre of the European printing industry and one of the most important political powers.
In the end Tuscan was chosen, mostly due to the arguments set forth in the book Prose della volgar lingua written by the sixteenth-century humanist writer, poet, and grammarian, Cardinal Pietro Bembo. What is extraordinary however, is that Bembo was not Tuscan, but Venetian and argued against the adoption of his own language.
Pietro was born in 1470, into the illustrious and noble Bembo family. As a child he moved to Florence with his father, Bernardo, who was sent there as the ambassador of the Venetian Republic. It is there that he learnt Tuscan and began his life-long love affair with that language. After graduating from the University of Padua, he spent time in Ferrara, where he is reputed to have had an affair with the Duke’s new daughter-in-law, one Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI.
It was in Ferrara that Bembo wrote his first book Gli Asolani which contains a conversation about love, which supposedly took place in Asolo at the court of his fellow great Venetian, Caterina Corner (who will be the subject of a future post). The book was written in Tuscan, using the language of the poet Petrarch as a model. Just after the book’s publication (ironically in Venice) he fled Ferrara to avoid a terrible outbreak of plague and ended up in Urbino in Le Marche.
From Urbino he travelled to Rome where he became secretary to Pope Leo X. Following the Pope’s death he returned to Padua and eventually to Venice where he was commissioned to write an official history of the Republic and became librarian at the Biblioteca Marciana. It was during this period that Prose della volgar lingua was published.
In 1539, surprisingly since he wasn’t even a priest, he was made a cardinal by Pope Paul III. He quickly got ordained as a priest and then spent time as a papal administrator in various Italian cities. He died in Rome on January 18, 1547 and is buried there in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, next to the Pantheon.
The portrait at the top of the page was painted by the Venetian painter Titian and shows him in his cardinal’s robes.