Poems about Ginevra and Bembo
Several humanists in the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote verses extolling the platonic love of Bernardo Bembo and Ginevra de’ Benci. The excerpts below are by Cristoforo Landino.
III. To Bernardo Bembo
Therefore we will sing of the chaste love of Bembo, so that Bencia may rise up, made known by my verses. O lovely Bencia, Bembo marvels at your beauty, with which you could surpass the goddesses of heaven. Great Mars would wish to prefer this to his love for Venus, and Jupiter himself would abandon Europa and desire it. But Bembo in astonishment marvels more at you ancient virtue, you chaste heart and hands with the skill of Pallas. He is always warmed by pious love, nor can the infection of base luxury affect him. It is no Helen that he praises, no Corinna; no Cynthia or Lesbia please him, nor anyone who would dare to do violence to her husband’s chaste bed. His wish has been that loyalty should be strong. But Alceste is pleasing to him, and Evadne who wished while living to climb her husband’s dark funeral pyre; and pleasing too is Penelope, who neither her parents nor the wanton band of rich suitors could move. So too is anyone who once preferred to yield to harsh death and to swim through the waters of the Stygian lake, rather than to break the due bonds of her lawful bed or loose the chains of holy marriage. Therefore, lovely Bencia, imitating such arts as these, you come as an example to Tuscan ladies. Well known, I confess, is the love of Paris and the frenzy of the Spartan woman, but it is known for its base adultery. You, Bencia, are more beautiful than Leda’s child and are known to all peoples for your rare chastity.
V. To the same [Bernardo Bembo]
Come now, Erato, let us speak of Bembo’s love, but only love of which heavenly Venus herself would approve. Here there is nothing unclean or foul with base lust; a chaste love always demands chaste faith. Bembo’s love is such as the divine page of Plato expresses with the eloquence of Socrates. For love, since desire is excited by the beautiful, loves the beautiful and rejoices in images of beauty. But whatever is good is beautiful, everything base is wrong; thus love demands what is good and avoids what is evil. It is with these flames and with such a love that Bembo is on fire and burns, and Ginevra dwells in the midst of his heart. Her figure indeed is beautiful, and her soul too is beautiful within it; you do not see well, Bembo, which of these is superior. Therefore there is no cause for wonder, but both the virtue and beauty of your lady give you mighty seeds to make you fires grow. And nature has also formed you with a kindly disposition, and a favoring star has given you an ingenious mind. Marvel with astonished eyes at ancient statues, whether they are images of men or gods, or if some picture shines with the glory of Parrhasius or any color is derived from the art of Apelles. But once you saw images of the Venus of Cnidus revealed by the skilled hand of Praxiteles, and so far you have not seen any Italian, French or other lady who is like them. But as soon as Bencia recently appeared before your eyes with a band around her golden hair, then how all other forms of beauty, being common in comparison, fled from your heart! Ginevra alone seemed to be a goddess. Then your mind, Bernardo, was astonished at a figure so unusual, for you thought you saw something beyond mankind. But who would deny, Cupid, that you fly and have wings, and there is nothing swifter in the whole world than you? When Bernardo was amazed at that first sight, how suddenly did frenzy seize his whole breast! He saw her, and the flame burst into the heart within him, and a dreadful trembling passed through his bones. For her face resembled what we often see when white lilies are mixed with red roses, or if an Indian gem found in the Erythrean Sea should come tinged with purple color. And Venus herself sprinkles her eyes with divine glory, and the whole charms of the Graces shines from her brow. When she walks you would swear that she has the step of Juno. When she has some work in hand, it is the work of Pallas. We have seen that, when the dreadful sound of the north wind is stilled, white snow suddenly grows in a remote valley; but if you look at Ginevra’s neck, you will rightly be able to scorn white snow. In the spring red flowers glow like fire, but they are nothing compared to the beautiful lips of your lady. Why should we mention her snow-white brow, her teeth like ivory, and her dark eyes set in rosy cheeks? Nor should I hope that I could express with human voice what her character is, or what charms are on her lips. Therefore if by chance, Bernardo, you fall forever into such mad love, a memorable lot is granted to you; but if in your wisdom you choose her out of the whole city, who is truly wiser than you? Happy then are you, but she is not less blessed, since she lives having once been loved by so great a man.
VII To the same [Bernardo Bembo]
You will not think, Bembo, that this love is new or worthless; there is nothing more ancient or more noble. For Love, guarding the highest halls of God, stood before the heavens and the stars of the bright universe. But if perhaps you ask what parents Love has, Form is his mother and the Beautiful itself is his father. Without you, sweet Love, Nature, the creator of the world, does nothing, nor does she move her skillful hands. With you as the leader, though mortals dwell, alas, far from the homes of their fathers in caves in the depths of the world, they love whatever beauty the variegated earth has borne, since these things are images of heavenly fitness. Man has a spirit fired by love of the gods above and desires to lose his thirst in this eternal spring. But while he wanders through the dark places of a deep forest and cannot see the sky in so black a night, he loves the things which shine on earth in the likeness of his Father, for these are images of the highest good. Thus as soon as you saw Ginevra, you believed, Bembo, that she had descended from the heavenly band. At any rate she is either a goddess or such a gift of the gods as few centuries bring to mankind. For Pallas has given her her head and golden Venus her hair, and her eyes have come from your rays, Phoebus. Jupiter has places a chaste resolve and the laws of holy chastity in her gentle heart. But the son of Semele brings her his face with the horns removed, and the Graces command that everything she does should be fitting. Mercury with his kindly star, Bembo, has granted that she should speak sweetly with sweet laughter and honest modesty, for modesty and laughter combine with equal strength so that her shining brightness blushes red and a blush shines upon her face.
Translation by John F. C. Richard in John Walker, “Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci,” Report and Studies in the History of Art (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1967), pp. 32–3, 35.