VI. VENETIAN LETTERS

1. Aldus Manutius

Venice was in this period too busy living to care much for books; and still its scholars, libraries, poets, and printers shared in giving it a fair name. It took no prominent part in the humanist movement; nevertheless humanism had here one of its noblest exemplars—Ermolao Barbaro, who was crowned poet by an emperor at fourteen, taught Greek, translated Aristotle, served his fellow men as a physician, his country as a diplomat, and his Church as a cardinal, and was killed by the plague at thirty-nine. Venetian women made as yet little pretense to education; they were content to be physically alluring, or maternally fertile, or finally venerable; but in 1530 Irene of Spilimbergo opened a salon for men of letters, studied painting under Titian, sang sweetly, played well on viol, harpsichord, and lute, and talked learnedly about ancient and modern literature. Venice gave protection to intellectual refugees from the Turks in the East and from the Christians in the West; here Aretino would laugh securely at popes and kings, as, centuries later, Byron would here celebrate their decay. Aristocrats and prelates formed clubs or academies for the cultivation of music and letters, and opened their homes and libraries to the assiduous, the melodious, and the erudite. Monasteries, churches, and private families collected books; Cardinal Domenico Grimani had eight thousand, which he gave to Venice; Cardinal Bessarion did the same with his precious hoard of manuscripts. To house these, and the remnants of Petrarch’s bequest, the government twice ordered the erection of a public library; war and other distractions foiled the plan; at last (1536) the Senate engaged Iacopo Sansovino to build the Libreria Vecchia, architecturally the most handsome library in Europe.

Meanwhile Venetian printers were producing the finest printed books of the age, perhaps of all time. They were not the first in Italy. Sweynheim and Pannartz, once aides to Johann Fust in Mainz, set up the first Italian press in a Benedictine monastery at Subiaco in the Apennines (1464); in 1467 they transferred their equipment to Rome, and published twenty-three books in the next three years. In 1469, or earlier, printing began in Venice and Milan. In 1471 Bernardo Cennini opened a printing establishment in Florence, to the dismay of Politian, who mourned that “now the most stupid ideas can in a moment be transferred into a thousand volumes and spread abroad”43 Copyists thrown out of work vainly denounced the new gadget. By the end of the fifteenth century 4987 books had been printed in Italy: 300 in Florence, 629 in Milan, 925 in Rome, 2835 in Venice.44

The superiority of Venice in this regard was due to Teobaldo Manucci, who changed his name to Aldo Manuzio, and later Latinized it into Aldus Manutius. Born at Bassiano in the Romagna (1450), he learned Latin at Rome and Greek at Ferrara, both under Guarino da Verona; and then him-self lectured at Ferrara on the classics. Pico della Mirandola, one of his pupils, invited him to come to Carpi and tutor his two nephews, Lionello and Alberto Pio. Teacher and pupils developed a lasting mutual affection; Aldus added the name Pio to his own, and Alberto and his mother, Countess of Carpi, agreed to finance the first large-scale adventure in publishing. Aldus’ plan was to collect, edit, print, and broadcast at nominal cost all the significant Greek literature that had been salvaged from the storms of time. It was a heady enterprise for a dozen reasons: manuscripts were hard to get; different manuscripts of the same classic varied dishearteningly in their text; nearly all manuscripts were heavy with errors of transcription; editors would have to be found and paid to collate and revise texts; fonts of Latin and Greek type would have to be designed and cast; paper would have to be imported in large quantities; typesetters and pressmen would have to be engaged and trained; a machinery of distribution would need to be improvised; a book-buying public would have to be coaxed into existence on a wider base than ever before; and all this would have to be financed without the protection of copyright laws.

Aldus chose Venice for his headquarters because its commercial connections made it an excellent center for distribution; because it was the richest city in Italy, and had many magnates who might want to adorn their rooms with uncut books; and because it harbored scores of refugee Greek scholars who would be glad to be employed as editors or proofreaders. John of Speyer had already established the first printing press in Venice (1469?); Nicholas Jensen of France, who had learned the new art in Gutenberg’s Mainz, set up another a year later. In 1479 Jensen sold his press to Andrea Torresano. In 1490 Aldus Manutius settled in Venice, and in 1499 he married Torresano’s daughter.

In his home near the church of Sant’ Agostino Aldus gathered Greek scholars, fed them, bedded them, and set them to editing classic texts. He talked Greek with them, and wrote in Greek his dedications and prefaces. In his house the new type was molded and cast, the ink was made, the books were printed and bound. His first publication (1495) was a Greek and Latin grammar by Constantine Lascaris, and in that same year he began to issue the works of Aristotle in the original. In 1496 he published the Greek grammar of Theodorus Gaza, and in 1497 a Greek-Latin dictionary compiled by himself. For he continued to be a scholar even amid the hazards and tribulations of publishing. So in 1502, after years of study, he printed his own Rudimenta grammaticae linguae Latinae, with an introduction to Hebrew for good measure.

From these technical beginnings he went on to publish one after another of the Greek classics (1495f): Musaeus (Hero and Leander), Hesiod, Theocritus, Theognis, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Lysias, Plato, Pindar, Plutarch’s Moralia.… In those same years he put forth a large number of Latin and Italian works, from Quintilian to Bembo, and the Adagia of Erasmus, who, sensing the vital import of Aldo’s enterprise, came in person to live with him for a time, and edit not only his own Adagia or Dictionary of Quotations, but Terence, Plautus, and Seneca too. For the Latin books Aldus had a graceful semiscript type designed, not, as legend said, from the handwriting of Petrarch, but by Francesco da Bologna, an expert calligrapher; this is the type that we now, from that origin, call italic. For the Greek texts he cut a font based on the careful handwriting of his chief Greek scholar, Marcus Musurus of Crete. He marked all his publications with a motto, Festina lente—”Makehaste slowly”—and accompanied it with a dolphin symbolizing speed and an anchor standing for stability; this symbol, along with the pictured tower that Torresano had used, established the custom of the printer’s or publisher’s colophon.*

Aldus worked at his enterprise quite literally night and day. “Those who cultivate letters,” he wrote, in his preface to Aristotle’s Organon, “must be supplied with the books necessary for their purpose; and until this supply is secured I shall not rest.” Over the door of his study he placed a warning inscription: “Whoever thou art, thou art earnestly requested by Aldus to state thy business briefly, and to take thy departure promptly…. For this is a place of work.”45 He was so absorbed in his publishing campaign that he neglected his family and his friends, and ruined his health. A thousand tribulations sapped his energy: strikes disrupted his schedule, war suspended it for a year during the Venetian struggle for survival against the League of Cambrai; rival printers in Italy, France, and Germany pirated the editions whose manuscripts had cost him dearly, and whose texts he had paid scholars to revise. But the sight of his small and handy volumes, clearly typed and neatly bound, going forth to a widening public at a modest price (about two dollars in the currency of today) gladdened his heart and repaid his toil. Now, he told himself, the glory of Greece would shine upon all who cared to receive it.46

Inspired by his devotion, Venetian scholars joined with him to found the Neacademia, or New Academy (1500), dedicated to the acquisition, editing, and publishing of Greek literature. The members, at their meetings, spoke only Greek; they changed their names to Greek forms; they shared the tasks of editing. Distinguished men labored in this Academy—Bembo, Alberto Pio, Erasmus of Holland, Linacre of England. Aldus gave them much credit for the success of his enterprise, but it was his own energy and passion that carried it through. He died exhausted and poor (1515), but fulfilled. His sons continued the work; but when their son, Aldo the second, died (1597), the firm dissolved. It had served its purpose faithfully. It had taken Greek literature from the half-hidden shelves of rich collectors, and had scattered it so widely that even the ravaging of Italy in the third decade of the sixteenth century, and the desolation of northern Europe by the Thirty Years’ War, could lose that heritage as it had been so largely lost in the dying ages of ancient Rome.

2. Bembo

Besides helping to revive the literature of Greece, the members of the New Academy contributed vigorously to the literature of their time. Antonio Coccio, called Sabellicus, chronicled Venetian history in his Decades. Andrea Navagero composed Latin poems so nearly perfect in form that his proud countrymen hailed him as having snatched the leadership of letters from Florence to Venice. Marino Sanudo kept a lively diary of current events in politics, literature, art, manners, and morals; the fifty-eight volumes of theseDiarii picture the life of Venice more fully and vividly than any history of any city in Italy.

Sanudo wrote in the racy language of daily speech; his friend Bembo devoted half a long life to polishing an artificial style in Latin and Italian. Pietro imbibed culture in his cradle, for he was the child of rich and lettered Venetians. Moreover, as if to confirm his literary purity, he was born in Florence, proud home of the Tuscan dialect. He studied Greek in Sicily under Constantine Lascaris, and philosophy at Padua under Pomponazzi. Perhaps, if we may judge from his conduct—for he seldom took sin very seriously—he imbibed some skepticism from Pomponazzi, who doubted the immortality of the soul; but he was too much of a gentleman to disturb the consolations of the faithful; and when the reckless professor was accused of heresy Bembo persuaded Leo X to deal with him leniently.

Bembo’s happiest days were spent at Ferrara, from his twenty-eighth to his thirty-sixth year (1498–1506). There he fell in love, if only in a literary way, with Lucrezia Borgia, queen of that courtly court. He forgot her dubious background at Rome in the lure of her quiet grace, the glow of her “Titian” hair, the fascination of her fame; for fame too, like beauty, can intoxicate. He wrote her, in scholarly diction, letters as tender as might comport with his safety in the precincts of that excellent gunner, her husband Alfonso. He dedicated to her an Italian dialogue on Platonic love, Gli asolani (1505); and he composed in her praise Latin elegiacs as elegant as any in Rome’s Silver Age. She wrote to him carefully, and may have sent him that tress of her hair which is preserved, with her letters to him, in the Ambrosian Library at Milan.47

When Bembo moved from Ferrara to Urbino (1506) he was at the height of his charm. He was tall and handsome, of noble birth and breeding, of distinguished presence without obtrusive pride; he could write poetry in three languages, and his letters were already prized; his conversation was that of a Christian, a scholar, and a gentleman. His Asolani, published during his stay at Urbino, fell in with the spirit of that court. What topic could be more pleasant than love?—what mise en scène fitter for such discourse than the gardens of Caterina Cornaro at Asolo?—what occasion more suitable than the wedding of one of her maids of honor?—who could better speak of love, however Platonic, than the three youths and three maidens into whose mouths Bembo put his savory mixture of philosophy and poetry? Venice, whose artists took hints and scenes from the book, Ferrara, whose Duchess received the adoring dedication, Rome, where ecclesiastics were glad ragionar (d’amore, Urbino, which boasted the author in the flesh—all Italy acclaimed Bembo as a master of delicate sentiment and polished style. When Castiglione idealized in The Courtier the discussions he had heard or imagined in the Ducal Palace at Urbino, he gave to Bembo the most distinguished role in the dialogue, and chose him to phrase the famed concluding passages on Platonic love.

In 1512 Bembo accompanied Giuliano de’ Medici to Rome. A year later Giuliano’s brother became Leo X. Bembo was soon lodged in the Vatican as a secretary to the Pope. Leo liked his wit, his Ciceronian Latin, his easy-going ways. For seven years Bembo was an ornament of the papal court, an idol of society, an intellectual father to Raphael, a favorite with millionaires and generous women. He was only in minor orders, and accepted the opinion current in Rome that his trial marriage with the Church did not forbid a little gracious venery. Vittoria Colonna, purest of the pure, doted on him.

Meanwhile, at Venice, Ferrara, Urbino, Rome, he wrote such Latin poetry as Catullus or Tibullus might have penned—elegies, idyls, epitaphs, odes; many frankly pagan, some, like his Priapus, in the best vein of Renaissance licentiousness. The Latin of Bembo and Politian was idiomatically perfect, but it came at the wrong time; had they been born fourteen centuries earlier they would have been de rigueur in the schools of modern Europe; writing in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they could not be the voice of their country, their epoch, even of their class. Bembo realized this, and in an essay Delia volgar lingua he defended the use of Italian for literary purposes. He tried to show the way by composing canzoni in the manner of Petrarch; but here his passion for polish devitalized his verse, and turned his amours into poetic conceits. Nevertheless many of these poems were set to music as madrigals, some by the great Palestrina himself.

The sensitive Bembo found Rome a ghostly city after the death of his friends Bibbiena, Chigi, and Raphael. He retired from his papal post (1520), and, like Petrarch, sought health and ease in a rural home near Padua. Now, at fifty, he fell in love in no mild Platonic way. For the next twenty-two years he lived in a free union with Donna Morosina, who gave him not only three children but such comforts and consolations, such solicitude and care, as had never graced his fame, and now came doubly welcome to his declining years. He still enjoyed the income of several ecclesiastical benefices. He used his wealth largely to collect fine paintings and sculptures, and among them Venus and Jove held an honored place beside Mary and Christ.48 His home became a goal of literary pilgrimage, a salon of artists and wits; and from that throne he laid down the laws of style for Italy. Even while papal secretary he had cautioned his associate Sadoleto to avoid reading the Epistles of St. Paul, lest their unpolished speech of the commonalty should mar his taste; “put away these trifles,” Bembo told him, “for such absurdities do not become a man of dignity.”49 All Latin, he told Italy, must be modeled upon Cicero, all Italian upon Petrarch and Boccaccio. He himself, in his old age, wrote histories of Florence and Venice; they are beautiful and dead. But when his Morosina died the great stylist forgot his rules, forgot Plato and Lucrezia and Castiglione, and wrote to a friend a letter that, perhaps alone of all that flowed from his pen, invites remembrance:

I have lost the dearest heart in the world, a heart which tenderly watched over my life—which loved it and sustained it neglectful of its own; a heart so much the master of itself, so disdainful of vain embellishments and adornments, of silk and gold, of jewels and treasures of price, that it was content with the single and (so she assured me) supreme joy of the love I bore it. This heart, moreover, had for vesture the softest, gracefulest, daintiest of limbs; it had at its service pleasant features, and the sweetest, most graciously endowed form that I have ever met in this land.

He can never forget her dying words:

“I commend our children to you, and beseech you to have care of them, both for my sake and for yours. Be sure they are your own, for I have never deceived you; that is why I could take Our Lord’s body just now with a soul at peace.” Then, after a long pause, she added, “Rest with God,” and a few minutes afterward closed her eyes forever, those eyes that had been the clear-shining faithful stars of my weary pilgrimage through life.50

Four years later he was still mourning her. Losing his ties with life, he became pious at last; and in 1539 Paul III could make him a priest and a cardinal. For his remaining eight years he was a pillar and exemplar of the Church.

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