Imitatio scriptorum rerum Romanarum:
Livy and Caesar in the composition of Pietro Bembo’s Historiae Venetae

Robert Ulery (Wake Forest University)

In 1530, at the age of 60, Pietro Bembo, famous for his Gli Asolani and the Prose della volgar lingua, was shifted away from concerns of vernacular literature to the writing of Latin by his selection as official historian of the Republic of Venice; the history was to begin where his predecessor Sabellico had left off, the end of the war with Ferrara in 1487.  Although he had written letters and speeches in Latin prose, this history would have to be on a different literary level, and would put into classicizing Latin prose the contemporary history of his own city whose actors were still living or recently deceased and all well-known to him (Dionisotti, DBI 8 [1966], p. 143).  He continued to the end of his life working on the project, which he had brought to the year 1513 in twelve books by his death in 1547, along with an Italian translation undertaken with the assistance of his colleague Carlo Gualteruzzi.  The two versions were separately published in 1551.

Though Bembo is rightly known as the foremost Ciceronian of his day, the model for these histories would be Caesar and Livy, there being no Ciceronian history to serve as model, and Livian historiography having been the model of his predecessor Sabellico.  The language is drawn principally from Cicero and those two authors, but Sallust, Tacitus, and other historians are used as well.  This paper, however, focuses rather on the historiographical techniques used by Bembo in the composition of his Venetian Histories.   He describes the task in his proem as follows:  ad variam atque multiplicem, quodque vere possum dicere, multo maxime operosam scriptionem me contuli, annos natus sexaginta; ut, nisi Reipublicae exstaret postulatio, merito me homines reprehendant id aetatis ausum tantum onus sustinere.

What made the task of writing operosa was the multiplicity of events to be included and given the weight due their importance to Venice: “wars, numerous and almost continuous and very great, aroused by the peoples and rulers of Italy, Germany, France, and Spain, but also by the rulers of the Turks, and waged on land and sea, each of which could have taken up an entire volume of the whole history, instead of being all of them comprehended in one; and many things on the home front:  Senate decrees, laws, famous trials, new magistracies, the reception of visiting rulers, religious ceremonies, prodigies and prophecies at home and abroad, wondrous vicissitudes of storms and stars” (quoting the proem to Book One); quae colligere et mandare litteris nec amantis otium animi est, nec minimae industriae.

How then did Bembo use the techniques of Livy and Caesar to accomplish this difficult task?  This paper looks at examples of his procedures in the organization of annalistic material, in battle narratives, in speeches put into the mouths of participants, in digressions, and in end-of-year compendia.  This examination of the work of a major literary figure sheds light on the methods of the classical historians from a Renaissance perspective.

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