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Speak PROPER Renaissance Italian!

A Renaissance Man’s “Speaking Book” in Manchester’s Neo-Gothic Library

A guest post from Dr Stefan Hanß uncovers the interactions between author, text and reader in sixteenth-century Italy

In the early 20th century, a sixteenth-century Italian volume entered the collections of The University of Manchester. It was one of circa 15,000 volumes formerly held by Richard Copley Christie (1830–1901). Today, it is one of the many treasures of The John Rylands Library Manchester.

Printed in Venice in 1552 and entitled Le prose, it contains some of the most important reflections on the origins and peculiarities of the Italian language. The author, Pietro Bembo (1470–1547), was a colourful Renaissance man. Contemporaries praised the Venetian scholar, cardinal, and humanist for his collections, the purity of his Latin and Tuscan, as well as his cultural refinement. “Bembo embodied eloquence, the verbal art of arts,” as Anthony Grafton put it in the London Review of Books recently.

The John Rylands Library’s heavily annotated volume is the product of Renaissance debates about ‘proper’ language use, and the use of ‘proper’ Italian in particular. It resonates with historians’ more recent work on the subject, which broadened our understanding of language learning in the sixteenth century, the kind of protagonists about whom we think of as having an interest in learning languages, and the role of books in such processes. Bembo’s volume held at the John Rylands Library was a “speaking book”, to use a term recently introduced by John Gallagher. It called for being read as much as it called for action, for further philological enquiry, linguistic scrutiny, memorisation, and actual speech exercises. The John Rylands copy helps us to reflect on what it meant to live in a contested polyglot landscape such as Renaissance Italy.

Titian, Portrait of Pietro Bembo Cardinal, c. 1540. Oil on canvas, 94.5 cm x 76.5 cm. The National Gallery of Art, 1952.5.28. Open access:

What can be considered ‘proper’ Renaissance Italian? Speak in Tuscan dialect!

The content of Le prose, a treatise first published in 1525, is well known. Bembo argued that Italian shall be based on the literary principles of leading Tuscan authors like Boccaccio, Dante and Petrarch for ensuring the literary value of the Italian language. Bembo actively intervened in one of the most contested humanist debates in Renaissance Italy. Contrary to other authors, Bembo wished to favour the Tuscan dialect over other regional dialects. This Renaissance debate has a long-lasting effect: modern Italian is closely tied to the Tuscan tradition.

Arrigo Ruscelli, the reader of this copy, commented heavily on the grammatically correct use of Italian. JRL, R198121

A Renaissance Reader’s Marginalia

However, this copy is special: it is heavily annotated. With pen in hand, a sixteenth-century reader worked through Bembo’s remarks. The reader scribbled note after note on the margins of this volume. Peppered with such summaries, comments, and critiques, this volume allows us to follow a Renaissance reader’s intellectual engagement with the treatise.

A short blog entry can hardly do justice to the intellectual width and linguistic curiosity of the reader. The volume is covered with marginalia commenting, for example, on the reasons for the use of vulgar and literary Latin in ancient Rome or on early Egyptian, Phoenician, and Assyrian scripts. Other comments regard Sicilian and Provençal dialects.

The names of authors in literatura volgare are underlined, especially Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante grande & Magnifico poeta. The reader clearly had a particular interest in how these authors had made use of grammatical compositions. Petrarch, for example, made prominent use of ha instead of sono as the reader curiously noted. Would the reader change personal speech habits after learning about this?

The reader had a particular interest in the proper use of grammar in Volgar Lingua, Italian as opposed to Latin. Some marginalia comment on the use of articles, declinations, and verbs. Other comments highlight the incorrect use of words, for example Potrò invece di Poterò. A particular source of concern, it seems, has been the correct use of the word che. The reader excelled in summarising instructions on proper language use.

The Ruscelli Connection

Exciting news! We know the name of the reader! Di Arrigo Ruscelj is written on the title page. Historians stumbled over similar ownership marks in other copies in the past and speculated that Arrigo might have been a relative of Girolamo Ruscelli (1518–1566), another humanist born in Viterbo. Girolamo won fame for editing Boccaccio’s Decameron and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, two literary classics that featured prominently into humanist debates on proper Italian language use.

Girolamo also published various prints on the use of Italian for the composition of rimes and verses. It seems as if Girolamo himself has been associated with the Accademia della Nuova Poesia, a group of like-minded humanists who advocated for a renewal of Italian poetry. In one of this circle’s prints entitled Versi, et regole de la nvova poesia toscana (Rome, 1539), a poem is dedicated to Girolamo who is praised for his ingenuity (ingegno). Familiarity with Bembo’s work and reflections was a milestone that helped receiving such enthusiastic praise and recognition from like-minded humanists. It seems as if Arrigo followed his relative’s curiosity in language use. He read Bembo with a humanist interest that encompassed both the written and oral world, an interest that dynamised the oral world of Renaissance Italy.

The copy of Bembo’s Le prose held at The John Rylands Library, thus, offers a rare glimpse into the sixteenth-century reception of this author’s ideas on Italian language(s) and their consequences for philological practice and everyday language use among Renaissance language enthusiasts. This volume charts a climate of intellectual engagement, exchange, and curiosity that centred on the spoken wor(l)d. The volume must be considered an invitation to reflect on language reform and language learning as part of broader Renaissance movements of cultural renewal.

Pietro Bembo, Le prose (Venice, 1552), JRL, R198121, is now available online:

Dr Stefan Hanß is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at The University of Manchester. His article ‘Ottoman Language Learning in Early Modern Germany’ was recently published in  Central European History.

Further readings

Danzi, Massimo, La biblioteca del cardinal Pietro Bembo (Genève, 2005).

Gallagher, John, Learning Languages in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2019).

Grafton, Anthony, ‘Locum, Lacum, Lucum: The Emperor of Things’, London Review of Books vol. 40, no. 17 (13 September 2018), pp. 10–12,

Kidwell, Carol, Pietro Bembo: Lover, Linguist, Cardinal (Montreal, 2004).

Morgana, Silvia, Mario Piotti and Massimo Prada, eds., Prose della volgar lingua di Pietro Bembo (Milan, 2001).

Nalezyty, Susan, Pietro Bembo and the Intellectual Pleasures of a Renaissance Writer and Art Collector (New Haven, 2017).

Pasquale Sabbatino, La “scienza” della scrittura: dal progetto del Bembo al manuale (Florence, 1988).

Williams, Gareth D., Pietro Bembo on Etna: The Ascent of a Venetian Humanist (Oxford, 2017).

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