The subject of the medal, Cardinal Pietro Bembo, was born in Venice in 1470 and is regarded as one of the most influential figures in the world of Italian literature during the Renaissance. He edited the works of Petrarch and Dante, insisted on the classics as contemporary models, and helped ensure Tuscan became the standard language for Italian letters. Bembo appears as a character in Castiglione's celebrated treatise on ideal courtly behaviour, Il Cortegiano [The Courtier]. His own works include verse in Latin and Italian, as well as a history of Venice and a celebration of Platonic love, Gli Asolani [The Asolans]. Secretary to Pope Leo X, he was promoted to cardinal in 1538 by Pope Paul III. His portrait was painted by Raphael and Titian, amongst others. Bembo died in Rome in 1547.
The reverse shows the fabulous winged horse Pegasus striking the earth on Mount Helicon with his hoof; the fountain Hippocrene gushes forth. Sacred to the Muses, the spring was associated with poetry and literature, and was thus appropriate for the writer and humanist Bembo.
Cellini has been attributed with the Bembo medal because, as Graham Pollard notes, 'he modelled Cardinal Bembo in 1537, in preparation for a struck medal, but there is no documentary evidence for his having cast a medal of Bembo.' In Cellini's long and boastful autobiography, he recounts the occasion in 1537 when he stayed with Bembo in Padua, when his host
began to hint in very modest terms that he should greatly like me to take his portrait. I, who desired nothing in the world more, prepared some snow-white plaster in a little box, and set to work at once. The first day I spent two hours on end at my modelling, and blocked out the fine head of that eminent man with so much grace of manner that his lordship was fairly astonished . . . since he wore his beard short in the Venetian fashion, I had great trouble in modelling a head to my own satisfaction. However, I finished it, and judged it about the finest specimen I had produced . . . he implored me at least to design the reverse for his medal, which was to be a Pegasus encircled with a wreath of myrtle.
Cellini left for France, seemingly without the medal being struck or cast.
In the existing medal, Bembo's beard is long rather than short, and Pegasus is on Mount Helicon, without the myrtle. Some writers argue that Cellini made the work in about 1539, a modified version based on the earlier model. It must have been made in or after 1538, as Bembo is shown wearing a cardinal's hooded robe, and is titled 'CAR[dinalis]'. Other scholars disagree that Cellini was the artist. It is accepted as Cellini's in the catalogue raisonné of his work published in 1981, and disputed in the catalogue for the exhibition Currency of Fame in 1994.