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Aretino, Pietro (1492–1556) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

sonnets published

Pietro, the son of Tita Bonci and a cobbler named Luca Del Tura, was born in Arezzo in the momentous year 1492. With typical disregard for propriety, he sometimes claimed to be the bastard of the nobleman Luigi Bacci, who kept his mother as a mistress. In all his publications, however, he adopted the nom d’artiste “Peter of Arezzo.” “Born in a hospital, with the soul of a king,” he would announce his presence in a room of courtiers by bellowing, “I AM PIETRO ARETINO.” After a picaresque life in various employments he settled in Venice, “by the grace of God a free man” (except for periods as a fugitive from the law). Shimmering descriptions of that city, an urban Eden and “a living reproach to Rome,” fill his famous correspondence.

By his death in 1556, Aretino had achieved perhaps the most monumental act of self-production in early modern history. Entirely without Latin and Greek education, he expanded the forces of the vernacular in thousands of letters that won him the friendship or hatred of patrons, intellectuals, and poets of the stature of Ariosto,* who gave him the sobriquet “Divine.” His training as a painter led nowhere, but he became the closest friend of Titian and Sansovino, a major impresario and critic of art, and the conduit that led Italian painters to Fontainebleau. The cobbler’s son wrote and conversed freely with the Emperor Charles V, François I of France, Henry VIII of England, and the princes of Italy, who rewarded him with pensions, commissions, and intangible marks of intimacy; “kings and emperors answer my letters,” he warned Michelangelo. His most intimate transactions were openly published in these letters, the first to be collected and published in the vernacular within a few years of being written: Aretino wrote to Federigo Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua, on the most personal matters (e.g., the ruler’s “lustful thoughts” about a statue of Venus by Sansovino), and in return Gonzaga declared him “a festival of joy… like being in a whole crowd’; he boasted that the doge was “his father” and that he himself “was father, brother, friend, and servant” to the condottiere Giovanni de’ Medici. Just as he collected and displayed the gold chains given him by royalty, so he reveled in descriptive nicknames: the Terrible, the Divine, the Diabolic, the Scourge of Princes, the Fifth Evangelist, the Secretary of the World. His enemies called him sodomite, Lutheran, and testa di cazzo , but even these insults could be confidently brandished as compliments; two of his portrait medals carry on the obverse a head made of writhing phalluses, and some scholars believe that Aretino himself commissioned this image as a boast of his prowess as a “satyr.” More portraits of Aretino circulated than of any other individual in his lifetime, including the pope and the emperor, when one counts the woodcut portraits that appeared on almost every publication. One edition of The Humanity of Christ merely shows him in silhouette, an instantly recognizable icon.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

In addition to these letters, Aretino’s varied and voluminous writings earned him the description “polygraph.” His early and enduring reputation was for “scourging” satires and pasquinades, and his distinctive combination of cynical observation, salty topicality, and verbal exuberance generated successful comedies, including La cortegiana and Il marescalco . He published relatively conventional love poems to “La Sirena” (with a beautiful title page by Titian), and one manuscript in Venice contains sonnets to a Mantuan boy and to a woman who has converted him from a “born sodomite.” Aretino also poured out devotional works—a retelling of Genesis and lushly emotive biographies of Jesus and the saints—that in his opinion qualified him for a cardinal’s hat. Here, as throughout his work, he tries to find the verbal equivalent of the paintings that proliferated around him; his description of Mary Magdalene, for example, clearly sets out to emulate Titian.

As far as his reputation in England is concerned, however, Aretino’s definitive works are his two ventures into pornography. The sonnets he wrote to accompany the erotic engravings of Marcantonio Raimondi after Giulio Romano, published and prosecuted in 1524, gave him a reputation as the original expert in “postures’—ironically, since these sonnets have a complex and tense relationship to Giulio’s images; they act out the conflict of aesthetic appreciation, naturalistic hedonism, and transgressive violence, often seeming hostile to the bodies and pleasures they ostensibly celebrate. The famous letter that accompanies the sonnets likewise pursues two contradictory arguments. Aretino’s naturalistic assault on false propriety—“What is wrong with seeing a man mount a woman? Should the animals have more freedom than we do?’—with its paradoxical encomium of the phallus, which anticipates Montaigne,* is hard to reconcile with the claim to re-create the artistic license of a classical elite, especially when his main example is a strikingly “unnatural” statue of a satyr raping a boy.

In the prose dialogues known as Ragionamenti or Sei giornate , Aretino sometimes maintains the naturalistic, sex-positive stance that he used to justify the sonnets; the praise of the phallus in his letter, for example, appears almost verbatim in the final dialogue, recited by a wet nurse and a midwife. Nevertheless, such voluptuary set pieces are increasingly isolated in a sea of satire against the tricks and extortions of the prostitute and the brutality of her customers. Erotic spectacles, pictures, and “modi” continue to feature in the Ragionamenti , but punitive associations compromise any celebratory impulse they might express. The cosmic whore-figure (Rojas’ Celestina, Aretino’s Nanna) elaborates most fully the paradox more tightly expressed in the sonnets, where sexual vocabulary stands for the greatest pleasure and the commonest insult. Within her pleasure-world she reigns as “mistress of inchantment’; in the social-political universe she stands for the whore of Babylon, chief witness and symbol of abjection.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Just as England’s fascination with Italian politics created the composite figure of “Machiavel,‘* so Elizabethan and Stuart culture amplified the mythic Aretino. This sole progenitor supposedly invented, codified, and performed the “postures” themselves, designed the engravings and paintings, and composed all the associated texts. Educated circles could have developed a more discriminating knowledge of Aretino through contact with exiles like Giordano Bruno,* whose Spaccio della Bestia Trionfante , which calls the Ragionamenti fit reading for the gods, first appeared in London. Indeed, the first full version of those pornographic dialogues was published in London (John Wolfe 1584), and a copy found its way into the library of that great Machiavellian William Cecil, Lord Burghley. But for the most part England preferred its imaginary polymath of perversity, who conveniently defined the outer limits of sexual discourse. “Posture” became a code word for pornographic display in scandalous locations, and “Aretino” lost its status as a proper noun, grammatically as well as morally. We might find Thomas Nashe’s* Choice of Valentines closer to Chaucer than to Aretino, but when Nashe’s enemy Gabriel Harvey* chose to denounce this venture into protolibertine discourse, the word he coined to express his loathing was a verb: to “Aretinize.” By the time of Jonson’s* Volpone , the Falstaffian figure of Aretino had become familiar enough to use in satires against pretention: Lady Politick rattles off a list of Italian classics that culminates in the “desperate wit” of Aretino, conceding only as an afterthought that “his pictures are a little obscene” (3.4); the city husband justifies prostituting his wife to the decrepit Volpone by contrasting him to some young lecher who “had read ARETINE, conn’d all his printes,/Knew every quirke within lusts laborinth” (3.7); Sir Epicure Mammon raves on about the “oval roome” he will purchase with al-chemical gold, filled with original erotic artworks of the kind that “dull ARETINE / But coldly imitated” (2.2).

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