Pietro Bembo was at the court of Urbino in 1507 when he presented this fifty stanza entertainment in ottava rima as part of the Carnival festivities held that year at Castel Durante, some 10 miles outside of Urbino. Bembo and his friend Ottaviano Fregoso played the role of ambassadors from the Goddess Venus, sent to persuade the Duchess of Urbino, Elisabetta Gonzaga, and her companion Emilia Pia to renounce their chaste, virtuous lives and embrace love in all of its delightful earthly forms. The poem is just saucy enough to have earned a place in the Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (well after Bembo’s death in 1547), not for doctrinal reasons but for alleged “immorality”. Bembo is remembered today as a humanist and scholar, as the editor of Aldus Manutius’s 1501 Petrarch, his history of Venice, and his treatise on the Italian language, Prose della Volgar Lingua. But in the Stanze we get a glimpse of Bembo the courtier, the charmer; an ornament in the cultured circles surrounding intelligent and influential women like Elisabetta Gonzaga and Lucrezia Borgia, his intimate confidante at the Este court in Ferrara prior to his time in Urbino. Bembo's road led, ultimately, to Rome and a cardinal’s hat in 1539, but this cheerful witty poem brings to life a gay February evening long before he assumed that responsibility. We can almost hear the laughter and chatter of the feasting crowd, to the tune of a lute strumming in the background. This 1506 portrait is by Raphael, a close friend of Bembo’s who was from Urbino, and which is sometimes claimed to be of Bembo at around the time this poem was composed. His biographer, Carol Kidwell, is not necessarily convinced and points to the shape of the nose and the color of the cap, black being the color preferred by Venetians. But who can say for sure? Perhaps this young man, whatever his identity, was among the revelers that night.
David Slavitt is a poet and translator with a bibliography of more than a hundred works of fiction and poetry, among them his translation of Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso published by Harvard University’s Belknap Press in 2009, something particularly appropriate to this publication considering that Ariosto and Bembo were at the Ferrara court together. Slavitt's observations in the Preface to that work bear repeating: “ottava rima stanzas are easier in Italian than in English, but in English one can have rhymes that are more startling and impish than in Italian, as Byron shows us. This seems to me altogether in consonance with the spirit of the piece.... Excessive earnestness, I'm glad to say, is not a defect I've often been accused of. ”