Pietro Bembo: A Renaissance Courtier Who Had His Cake and Ate It Too
JOURNAL OF THE CAXTON CLUB OF CHICAGO
Gli Asolani, one of the most popular dialogues about Platonic love written in the 16th century. Bembo prefaces the work with a heartfelt dedication to Lucrezia Borgia, the infamously maligned daughter of Pope Alexander VI. It became an instant best seller and was reprinted at least seven times during the next seventeen years. Bembo revised the text in 1530, for the most part improving it, but eliminating the famous letter to Lucrezia. This revision is known as the second edition. By 1600 there were at least twenty-two Italian editions, one Spanish and seven French editions, which should qualify it as being one of the most popular books of the Renaissance.
Excerpt: The book interests me not only because of its influence in 16th-century Europe, but also because of its dedicatory letter and Bembo’s working relationship with Aldus Manutius. Before publishing Gli Asolani in 1505, Aldus had published Bembo’s De Aetna in 1495. This dialogue describes Bembo’s ascent of Mount Etna while a student in Messina during a trip to Sicily to study Greek with the noted humanist, Constantine Lascaris. One of the earliest books printed by Aldus with Francesco Griffo’s first Roman font, it has come to be recognized by bibliophiles as the first modern book and the source of the Monotype typeface known as Bembo. So famous did the type become that it influenced typeface design for generations; many designers in the Caxton Club would immediately recognize it. Among the souvenirs he brought back to Venice was a valuable manuscript of Lascaris’ that provided Aldus with a text for his first Greek grammar, published in 1495. At that time Bembo worked with Aldus editing his famous five-volume edition of the Works of Aristotle.