Today is the birthday of Pietro Aretino, who was born in Arezzo in the Florentine Republic in 1492. His life didn’t have a very promising start, he was the illegitimate son of a cobbler, was probably not well educated and was, for reasons I’ve been unable to divine, banished from his home town as a teenager. Aretino at first thought he might be a painter, but soon realised that writing was where his real talent lay. He would be honoured by Popes and befriended by Kings, but not because he was a writer of fine and elevated literature. Aretino was good at noticing people’s weaknesses and he wasn’t afraid to write about them. This made him a lot of enemies, so he survived on his wits and also a certain amount of good fortune. He also wrote poetry and plays that were extremely sexually explicit that have earned him the title of the inventor of literate pornography.
When he was about fourteen, he moved to the nearby city of Perugia, where he worked as assistant to a bookbinder. But he had to leave the city after he vandalised a statue of Mary Magdalene by painting a lute in her hands. By the time he was twenty-four, he was living in Rome, working for a rich man called Argostino Chigi. For Chigi, he began to write obscene and witty poems which he recited at dinner parties, much to everyone’s delight. But Aretino wanted more. He wanted fame and he thought a combination of his writing and access to a printing press could probably help him achieve that. He just needed to find the right subject.
Then, in 1516, the Pope’s pet elephant died. The Pope, Leo X, loved his elephant. His name was Hanno and he used to appear in parades. Sadly, after two years of living in Rome he died after a failed attempt to treat his constipation. The Pope composed Hanno’s epitaph himself and commissioned Raphael to paint a fresco in his honour. It might have seemed a bit over the top to some people, and then a pamphlet appeared, purporting to be ‘The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno’. It mocked pretty much every cardinal and authority figure in Rome. The elephant bequeathed his jaws to Cardinal Danti Quattro so that he will be able to devour the revenues of the Church more easily. To Cardinal Santa Croce, he left his knees: “so that he can imitate my genuflections, but only on the condition that he tells no more lies in Council” and to Cardinal Grassi, his generative organs because he is such an ‘incorrigible fornicator’. Luckily, the Pope saw the funny side. Leo X was a member of the Medici family and was, like Aretino, from the Republic of Florence. Maybe he thought it would be useful to have a man like Aretino in his employ and he hired him for himself.
Five years later, Pope Leo died and Aretino was naturally hoping that another Medici would be elected in his place. He published a lot of rude things about the other potential candidates. Unfortunately for him, someone else was elected. Adrian of Utrecht was known to: “scorn the vanities of this world”. As a man who relied pretty heavily on the vanities of this world, Aretino could see that things were not going to work out very well form him and he fled Rome
Pope Adrian died the following year and another Medici, Clement VII, was elected in his place. Aretino returned to Rome and began, once again to publish rude pamphlets mocking the power hungry men who surrounded the Pope. This time though, he made himself a powerful enemy called Giovanmatteo Giberti, who swore revenge. It wasn’t long before he was presented with the ideal opportunity.
To explain what happened, I need to tell you about a couple of artists. The first was Giulio Romano. He was doing some work in the Vatican, but when he was bored he did a few sketches for his friends. There were sixteen drawings and they all: “dealt with the various attitudes and postures in which lewd men have intercourse with lewd women.” Legend suggests that he actually drew these pictures on the walls of the Vatican. I’d love that to be true, but it probably isn’t. When he left to work on another commission elsewhere he left the drawings with his friend Marcantonio Raimondi. Marcantonio had learned how to reproduce drawings as engravings and had them printed. He sold thousands of them. When the Pope heard about it, Marcantonio was arrested and thrown in prison. Every single copy of the engravings was found and destroyed. Somehow, and we don’t know how because he was not a popular man, Aretino managed to campaign for Marcantonio’s release.
Then, of course, he wanted to know what all the fuss had been about. Marcantonio showed him the drawings and Aretino was so impressed that he was inspired to write a sonnet to accompany each illustration. Each poem is a conversation between a courtesan and her client. Some of the characters were recognisable as prominent public figures. The work was published all over again as a book which is called ‘I Modi’ or ‘Aretino’s Positions’. They were dedicated to his enemy Giberti. When this came to the attention of Giberti he ordered Aretino arrested. But when the guards arrived at his house, he was already gone. All copies were again sought out and destroyed. All that remains of Marcantonio’s engravings are a single illustration and a few fragments which now belong to the British Museum. Aretino’s sonnets have survived along with some woodblock prints from a forged copy of their book.
Aretino fled to Mantua, but Giberti’s influence was far reaching and in July 1525 Aretino was on his way home from a party, when he was stabbed twice. He was stabbed once in the chest and once in the hand and was expected to die. But slowly he began to recover. He had to learn to write with his left hand because his right was so badly damaged. In 1527, he moved to Venice, which was an extremely liberal place and pretty much perfect for him. Aretino knew a lot of things about a lot of very important people. Sometimes he made a living writing about them, sometimes by not writing about them. People would give him gifts in the hope that he would publish something salacious about their enemies. Sworn rivals Francis I of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V both petitioned him in the hope that he would have something to say about the other one.
Before we leave Aretino today, I want to tell you a bit about one of his other works. His ‘Capricciosi Ragionamenti’ (Capricious Dialogues) was a three part work. It was a discussion between one prostitute and another about how she should raise her daughter. Basically, there were three life choices open to women. They could become a nun, a wife or a whore. The mother Nanna, wondered which was best. Her friend, Antonia, suggests that, as Nanna had been all three, she should describe the life of nuns, the life of wives and the life of whores and she will be able to tell which is best for her daughter.
As a young woman, Nanna had been sent to a convent. She expected to find a place of piety and prayer, a place where she might as well have been dead. Instead, as she sat down to eat, a man brought a basket, which he claimed contained fruits from paradise. But what the basket contained was loads of glass penises made out of Murano glass. The picture on the right is not an illustration from his work, it’s actually from around two hundred years earlier, but I was reminded of it. Nanna was completely debauched in the nunnery and eventually left to return to her family. Then, she was married off to a very old and rich man. To convince him that she was a virgin, her mother placed an egg shell filled with chicken’s blood inside Nanna’s vagina. The ruse completely fooled her husband and Nanna later met many other wives and learned about the tricks they’d pulled on their foolish husbands. Nanna had lots of affairs while she was married and wound up stabbing her husband when he found her in the arms of a beggar. It was after that, that she became a whore, selling her ‘virginity’ over and over. Her friend concluded that she would be better off making her daughter a whore straight away. That way she wouldn’t be breaking any promises to God, or her marriage vows.
Pietro Aretino died in 1556. He died of laughing too much. Either he asphyxiated or he fell backwards and hit his head on the floor. Which isn’t the worst way to go. You can see a nineteenth century depiction of the event by Anselm Feuerbach on the left. His work continues to cause controversy. In 2007, Michael Nyman set some of his ‘lust sonnets’ to music. When they were performed in 2008 at Cadagon Hall in Chelsea, the programme was withdrawn on grounds of obscenity. It is one of the few pieces of classical music which carries a ‘Parental Advisory, Explicit Content’ sticker.