November 2, 2015
Ginevra de’ Benci’s life totally changed when Bernardo Bembo came to town. Humanist, poet, and career diplomat, Bembo was known throughout Europe as an extraordinary collector of books. He owned 62 manuscripts—a huge library in that day—among them autographed verses by Petrarch. Bembo also owned a portrait believed to represent Petrarch’s Laura, which he had had copied from a fresco in the Cathedral of Avignon.
Not much could have been more attractive to the young poet and book-loving Ginevra de’ Benci!
Courtly, eloquent, and worldly, Bembo wasn’t just a voracious reader, he was also an avid equestrian—a sport he enjoyed at his country villa near Padua. His favorite horse was named Pegasus, and his favorite poem was an ode by Horace celebrating life on his own Sabine farm.
When he arrived in Florence in 1475, Bembo was about 42-years-old. He had already served Venice as ambassador to the powerful, cosmopolitan courts of Spain and Burgundy. It was critically important that Bembo reinforce the new treaty between Milan, his watery city-state, and the Medici-run Tuscan capital. The alliance would help protect Venice against the Turks, who were beginning to pull apart Venice’s trade empire in the Adriatic Sea.
Bembo immediately joined Lorenzo’s inner circle because of his literary acumen. He then shifted his previous intellectual allegiance from Averroes—an Islamic student of Aristotle, who ran completely counter to Plato’s philosophy—to the Neoplatonic thought so popular in Florence. Certainly his choosing a Platonic muse—to emulate Lorenzo de Medici’s celebration of Lucrezia Donati and Giuliano’s of Simonetta—solidified his budding friendship with the Medici brothers, the book-loving, philosophizing “IT” boys of Florence!
For Ginevra, he commissioned poems to celebrate her physical and moral beauty and the nobility of their love—six from Cristoforo Landino and four by Alessandro Bracessi. That would not have been cheap, nor would have been the commission of her portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. Bembo actually got in trouble several times with the Venetian government, accused of extravagance, borrowing large amounts of money inappropriately from Lorenzo, and putting his own personal ambitions ahead of the kingdom’s. Did he do that for love of her?
I have no doubt that Bembo would have been quite taken with Ginevra—she was definitely his kind of girl—articulate, well read, witty. As a lover of word games, image puzzles, and literature, Bembo must have delighted with Ginvera’s sophisticated banter. And she with his and all he had seen and experienced and knew of the world beyond Florence. This young girl, who had been educated in a cloister, whose mind had been set free within those walls, and then was married off to a cloth merchant at age 16.
Check out this Landino poem about their conversations:
O you lucky man! O day not to be surpassed,
that like a milk-white signet marks out your birth,
when your mistress was allowed to sit beside you, Bembo,
frolic and exchange a thousand witty sallies.
Come tell us how you turned first white, then red with fear
and what kind of sound came from your trembling lips,
when in the inner sanctum of your host you met
Ginevra the goddess, when you least expected it.
As she answered modestly a few words to your greeting,
a rosy blush spread also on her snow white face...
... She had fun and fun became her; she spoke, and you would swear
that through her lips the Graces were pouring out their words...
...if perchance Ginevra glowed with but half a smile….
(taken from the translations of Mary Chatfield)
We don't know what Bembo looked like, exactly, but these images helped inspire my descriptions of him: