Francesco Berni (1497/98-1535) was born in Lamporecchio, a small town outside of Pistoia in modern-day Tuscany, and spent a good portion of his life in Rome as a secretary to important cardinals at the courts of the Medici popes Leo X and Clement VII. Berni’s environment was thus one of glittering literary productivity, where the lines between poet, cleric, and court official blurred into an army of lovelorn bureaucratic literati. One of Berni’s employers, for example, the cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, was the author of the very famous and frequently performed cross-dressing comedy La calandra. After working for Bibbiena, Berni spent some time in exile in the Abruzzi, being sent there by Pope Hadrian VI as a punishment for questionable literary and sexual practices.1 Coming back to Rome with the return of a Medici pope, Clement VII, Berni served under the Veronese cardinal Giovan Matteo Giberti, the papal datary and a correspondent of Pietro Bembo.2 Berni followed Giberti, by this time named Bishop of Verona, to the Veneto after the sack of Rome in 1527, and then ultimately ended up in the service of the then-young cardinal Ippolito de’Medici.
Wherever Berni went, Petrarchan poetics dominated the bustling literary scene. These poetics, developed in the Canzoniere and later codified by Pietro Bembo in his Prose della vulgar lingua (1525), established the literary norm for all subsequent Italian poetry. The stock distant female figure, often with a suggestive name; the standard pale blonde aesthetic ideal; the “highly artificial literary language;”3 the impossibility of the physical consummation of the relationship, etc., influenced, if not totally determined,
1 See Francesco Berni, Rime, ed. Giorgio Bàrberi Squarotti (Milan: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 1991), 29.
2 See Anne Reynolds, “Criticism and Rivalry in Rome in the 1520s,” Italica 77, no. 3 (Autumn, 2000):301-310, here 301.
3 William Kennedy, “Petrarchan Poetics,” in Cambirdge History of Literary Criticism, Volume 3: The Renaissance, ed. Glyn P. Norton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999):119-126, here 119.