To make sure that 1492 would be memorable, Pietro Aretino, Scourge of Princes and Prince of Blackmailers, came into the world on Good Friday of that year. His father was a poor shoemaker of Arezzo, known to us only as Luca. Like many other Italians, Pietro received in time the name of his birthplace, and became Aretino. His enemies insisted that his mother was a prostitute; he denied it, and claimed that his mother was a pretty girl named Tita, who posed as a Madonna for painters, but in a careless moment conceived Pietro while in the arms of a casual but noble lover, Luigi Bacci. Aretino did not mind being a bastard, having such distinguished company in that class; and Luigi’s legitimate sons, when Pietro became famous, did not mind his calling them brothers. But his father was Luca.
Having attained the maturity of twelve years, he set out to make his fortune. He found work as a bookbinder’s assistant in Perugia, and there he studied art sufficiently to become in later years an excellent critic and connoisseur. He himself did some painting. In the chief square of Perugia was a holy picture, fondly reverenced by the people, showing Magdalen fervent at the feet of Christ. One night Aretino painted a lute in the arms of the Magdalene, changing her prayer into a serenade. When the city seethed with anger at the prank, Pietro slipped out of Perugia and examined Italy. He earned his bread as a servant in Rome, as a street singer in Vicenza, as an innkeeper in Bologna. He served a term in the galleys, became a hired man in a monastery, was discharged for lechery, and returned to Rome (1516). There he labored as a lackey for Agostino Chigi. The banker was not unkindly, but Aretino had discovered his own peculiar genius, and fretted under servantry. He wrote a bitter satire describing a scullion’s life: “cleaning privies, polishing chamberpots… performing lewd offices for cooks and stewards who soon see to it that he is all pricked out and embroidered with the French disease.”6 He showed his poems to some of Chigi’s guests, and word went around that this Pietro was the sharpest and witties satirist in Rome. His pieces began to circulate. Pope Leo enjoyed them, sent for the author, laughed at his rough frank humor, and added him to the papal staff as a cross between poet and jester. For three years Pietro ate well.
Suddenly Leo died, and Aretino was afloat again. As the conclave dallied in choosing a successor, he wrote satires on the electors and the candidates, affixed the sheets to the statue of Pasquino, and poked fun at so many dignitaries that soon he had hardly a friend in the city. When Adrian VI was elected, and began a most unwelcome campaign of reform, Pietro fled to Florence, then to Mantua (1523), where Federigo took him on as court poet at a moderate salary. When the death of Adrian answered Rome’s prayers, and a rich Medici sat again on the throne of thrones, Pietro, like a thousand other poets, artists, rascals, and rakes, hurried back to the capital.
Almost at once he ended his welcome there. Giulio Romano had painted twenty pictures describing various erotic attitudes; Marcantonio Raimondi made engravings for them; for each engraving, says Vasari, “Messer Pietro Aretino wrote an extremely lewd sonnet, so that I cannot say which is worse, the drawings or the words.”7 The pictures and sonnets went the rounds of the intelligentsia; they reached Pope Clement’s datary, Giberti, who was known to be hostile to Aretino; Pietro heard of it, and took again to the road. At Pavia he charmed Francis I, who was on the verge of losing everything but honor. And now, by putting a different point on his pen, he turned a somersault that made Rome gasp. He wrote three laudatory poems—one about Clement, one about Giberti, one about Federigo. The Marquis said a good word for him to the Pope, Giberti relented, Clement sent for Aretino, and made him a pensioned Knight of Rhodes. Francesco Berni, his only rival among the satirists, described him at this period:
He walks through Rome dressed like a duke. He takes part in all the wild doings of the lords. He pays his way with insults couched in tricked up words. He talks well, and he knows every libelous anecdote in the city. The Estes and the Gonzagas walk arm in arm with him, and listen to his prattle. He treats them with respect, and is haughty to everyone else. He lives on what they give him. His gifts is a satirist make people afraid of him, and he revels in hearing himself called a cynical, impudent slanderer. All that he needed was a fixed pension. He got one by dedicating to the Pope a second-rate poem.8
Aretino would not have questioned any of this. As if to illustrate it, he asked the Mantuan ambassador to solicit for him from Federigo “two pairs of shirts worked with gold… two pairs worked in silk, together with two golden caps.” When these took too much time in coming he threatened to annihilate the Marquis with a diatribe. The ambassador warned Federigo: “Your Excellency knows his tongue; therefore I will say no more.” Soon four shirts worked in gold arrived, and four of silk, and two gold caps, and two silk hats. “Aretino,” wrote the ambassador, “is satisfied.” Pietro could now really dress like a duke.
This second period of Roman prosperity was ended by a cloak-and-dagger romance. Aretino composed an insulting sonnet on a young woman employed in the datary’s kitchen. Another of Giberti’s household, Achille della Volta, attacked Aretino in the street at two o’clock in the morning (1525), stabbed him twice in the chest, and so severely in the right hand that two fingers had to be cut off. The wounds were not mortal; Aretino healed rapidly. He demanded the arrest of Achille, but neither Clement nor his datary intervened. Pietro suspected the datary of planning to have him murdered, and he decided that the time had come for another Italian tour. He moved to Mantua, and resumed his service with Federigo (1525). A year later, hearing that Giovanni delle Bande Nere was marshaling a force to check Frundsberg’s invasion, a secret atom of nobility stirred in him; he rode a hundred miles to join Giovanni at Lodi. All the ink in his veins tingled at the thought that he, the poor poet, might become a man of action, might even carve out for himself a principality, and be himself a prince, and no mere literary menial of a prince. And, indeed, the young commander, as generous as Don Quixote, promised to make him a marquis at least. But brave Giovanni was killed, and Aretino, putting aside the helmet he had received, returned to Mantua and his pen.
He composed now a mock giudizio, or almanac, for 1527, predicting absurd or evil fates for those he disliked. Furious against Clement for giving Giovanni delle Bande Nere inadequate and vacillating support, Aretino included the Pope among the victims of his satire. Clement expressed surprise that Federigo should harbor so irreverent an enemy of the papacy. Federigo gave Aretino a hundred crowns, and advised him to get out of the papal reach. “I will go to Venice,” said Pietro; “only in Venice does justice hold the scales with an even balance.” He arrived in March, 1527, and took a house on the Grand Canal. He was fascinated by the views across the lagoon, and by the teeming traffic of what he called “the fairest highway in the world.” “I have determined,” he wrote, “to live in Venice forever.” He addressed a letter of lordly compliments to the Doge Andrea Gritti, praising the majestic beauty of Venice, the justice of her laws, the security of her people, the asylum she offered to political and intellectual refugees; and he added, magnificently: “I, who have stricken terror into kings… give myself to you, fathers of your people.”9 The Doge took him at his own estimate, assured him of protection, assigned him a pension, and interceded for him with the Pope. Though invitations were to come to Aretino from several foreign courts, he remained a loyal resident of Venice through-out his remaining twenty-nine years.
The furniture and art that he gathered into his new home attested the power of his pen, for they were given or made possible by the generosity or timidity of his patrons. Tintoretto himself painted the ceiling of Pietro’s private apartments. Soon the walls shone with pictures by Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giulio Romano, Bronzino, Vasari; there were statues by Iacopo Sansovino and Alessandro Vittoria. A rich ebony casket contained the letters received by Aretino from princes, prelates, captains, artists, poets, musicians, and noble dames; later he would publish these letters in two volumes totaling 875 closely printed pages. There were carved chests and chairs, and a walnut bed fit for Pietro’s now ample form. Amid that art and luxury Aretino lived and dressed literally like a lord, dispersing charity to the neighborhood poor, entertaining a host of friends and a succession of mistresses.
Where did he get the means to support so lavish a life? Partly from the sale of his writings to publishers, partly from gifts and pensions sent him by men and women who feared his scorn and sought his praise. The satires, poems, letters, and plays that rushed from his pen were bought by the most alert or important people in Italy, all eager to see what he had to say about personalities and events, and delighting in his blasts at the corruption, hypocrisy, oppression, and immorality of the times. Ariosto inserted into the 1532 edition of Orlando furioso two lines that added two titles to Pietro’s name:
Ecco il flagello
De’ principi, il divin Pietro Aretino—10
“Behold the Scourge of Princes, the divine Pietro Aretino”; soon it became the fashion to speak of the coarsest and most scurrilous major writer of the age as divine.
His renown was Continental. His satires were at once translated into French; a bookseller on the Rue St. Jacques in Paris made a fortune retailing them.11 They were welcomed in England, Poland, Hungary; Aretino and Machiavelli, said a contemporary, were the only Italian authors read in Germany. In Rome, where his favorite victims lived, his writings were sold out on the day of their publication. If we may take his own estimate, his receipts from his various publications amounted to a thousand crowns ($12,500?) a year. Moreover, in eighteen years, “the alchemy of my pen has drawn over 25,000 gold crowns from the entrails of various princes.” Kings, emperors, dukes, popes, cardinals, sultans, pirates were among his tributaries. Charles V gave him a collar worth 300 crowns, Philip II another worth 400; Francis I a still more costly chain.12 Francis and Charles competed for his favor with promises of fat pensions. Francis promised more than he gave; “I adored him,” said Aretino, “but never to get money from the stirring of his liberality is enough to cool the furnaces of Murano” (the suburb where the glass industry of Venice was concentrated).13 A knighthood was offered him, without income; he refused it, remarking that “a knighthood without revenue is like a wall withoutForbidden signs; everybody commits nuisances there.”14 So Pietro pledged his pen to Charles, and served him with unwonted fidelity. He was invited to meet the Emperor at Padua; on reaching that city he was hailed by a crowd, like a modern celebrity. Charles, out of all those present, chose Aretino to ride beside him through the city, and told him: “Every gentleman in Spain knows all your writings; they read everything of yours as fast as it is printed.” That night, at a state banquet, the son of the shoemaker sat at the Emperor’s right hand. Charles invited him to Spain; Pietro refused, having discovered Venice. Sitting beside the conqueror of Italy, Aretino was the first example of what was later called the power of the press; nothing like his influence would appear again in literature until Voltaire.
His satires hardly hold our attention today, for their force lay mostly in pointed allusion to local events too tied to the time to have lasting significance. They were popular because it is hard for us not to enjoy the excoriation of others; because they exposed real abuses, and courageously attacked the great and powerful; and because they brought all the resources of the language of the streets to the uses of literature and gainful literary homicide. Aretino exploited the human interest in sex and sin by writing Ragionamenti—conversations—among prostitutes about the secrets and practices of nuns, wives, and courtesans. The title page announced the book as “The Dialogues of Nanna and Antonia… composed by the divine Aretino for his pet monkey Capricio, and for the correction of the three states of women. Given to the printer in this month of April, 1533, in the illustrious city of Venice.”15 Aretino here anticipates the rollicking ribaldry and epithetic frenzy of Rabelais; he revels in four-letter words, and achieves some startling phrases (“I’d wager my soul against a pistachio nut”); and he indites such lively descriptions as that of the pretty wife of seventeen—the “finest little piece of flesh that I think I ever saw”—who, married to a man of sixty, took to sleepwalking as a way of “jousting with the lances of the night.”16 The conclusions to which the dialogues come is that courtesans are the most praiseworthy of the three classes of women, for the wives and nuns are faithless to their vows, while the courtesans live up to their professions and give an honest night’s labor for their pay. Italy was not shocked; it laughed with delight.
Now, too, Aretino composed the most popular of his plays—La cortigiana, The Courtesan. Like most Italian comedies of the Renaissance, it followed the Plautine tradition of servants making fools of their masters, arranging intrigues for them, serving as their panders and their brains. But Aretino added something of his own: his burlesque and bawdy humor, his intimacy with prostitutes, his hatred of courts—above all, of the papal court —and his uninhibited transcript of life as he had seen it in the brothels and palaces of Rome. He laid bare the hypocrisies, timeserving, humiliations, flatteries required of the courtier; and in a famous line he defined slander as “telling the truth”; it was his pithy apologia for his life. In another Aretino comedy, Talanta, the title character is again a prostitute, and the story turns on the tricks she plays upon her four lovers, and her ways of squeezing money out of their agitation. Another play, Ipocrita, was an Italian Tartuffe; indeed, Molière is a French continuation of the Aretine comedies, deodorized and improved.
In the same year that produced these idyls of the stews, Aretino composed a long series of religious works—Tee Humanity of Christ, The Seven Penitential Psalms, The Life of the Virgin Mary, The Life of the Virgin Catherine, The Life of St. Thomas, Lord of Aquino, etc. They were largely compounded of fiction, and Pietro confessed that they were “poetical lies,” but they won him the plaudits of the pious, even of the virtuous Vittoria Colonna. In some quarters he was regarded as a pillar of the Church. There was talk of making him a cardinal.
It was probably his letters that sustained his fame as well as his fortune. Many of these were eulogies addressed to the eulogized, or to persons near them. They were frankly intended to elicit gifts, pensions, or other favors; sometimes they specified what was to be given, and when. Aretino published—printed—these letters almost as soon as he wrote them; this was necessary to their extractive power. Italy snapped them up because they provided an indirect intimacy with famous men and women, and because they were written with an originality, vivacity, and force unequaled by any other writer of the day. Aretino had style without seeking it. He laughed at the Bembos who polished their stanzas into perfect lifelessness; he ended the humanist idolatry of Latin, of correctness and grace. Pretending to be ignorant of literature, he felt free from cramping exemplars; he accepted in his writing one overruling rule: to enounce spontaneously, in direct and simple language, his experience and criticism of life, and the needs of his wardrobe and larder. Amid the mountain of hypocritical rubbish of these letters some diamonds can be found: tender epistles to a favorite ailing harlot, lusty accounts of his domestic history, a sunset described in a letter to Titian almost as brilliantly as Titian or Turner could paint it, and a letter to Michelangelo suggesting, for The Last Judgment, a design much more appropriate than that which the artist used.
Aretino’s understanding and appreciation of art were among the better qualities of his character. His most intimate male friends were Titian and Sansovino. Together they had many a feast, usually graced with feminine company usually venal; and there, when the talk turned on art, Aretino could hold his own. His letters sang the praises of Titian to a host of possible patrons, and won Vecelli several lucrative commissions, in which Pietro may have shared. It was Aretino who persuaded the Doge, the Emperor, and the Pope to sit to Titian for portraits. Titian painted Aretino twice, and each time made a masterpiece of mountainous and vulgar vitality. Sansovino, pretending to carve an Apostle, placed the old satyr’s head on a sacristy door in St. Mark’s; and perhaps Michelangelo, in The Last Judgment, portrayed him as St. Bartholomew.
He was both better and worse than he was painted. He had almost every vice, and was accused of sodomy. His hypocrisy made his own Ipocrita seem by comparison sincere. His language, when he set his mind to it, could be a cloaca maxima of filth. He could be brutal and unmanly, as when he gloated over the fallen Clement; but he had the grace to write, later: “I am ashamed that in censuring him I did so in the depth of his afflictions.”17 He was physically an unabashed coward; but he had the courage to denounce powerful persons and highly cherished abuses. His most visible virtue was generosity. He gave to his friends and the poor a large part of what he received in pensions, earnings, gifts, and bribes. He waived royalties on his published letters, so that they might be sold more cheaply, and acquire wider fame and higher value. He was annually near bankruptcy with Christmas giving. Giovanni delle Bande Nere said to Guicciardini: “I yield to no man in generosity, unless it be to Messer Pietro, when he has means.”18 He helped his friends to sell their pictures and (as in the case of Sansovino) to get release from jail. “Everybody comes to me,” he wrote, “as if I were a custodian of the royal treasury. Let a poor girl be confined, and my house pays the expenses. Let anyone be put into prison, and the cost falls upon me. Soldiers without equipment, strangers down on their luck, stray cavaliers without number, come to my house to refit.”19 If at times he had twenty-two women in his house, it was not that they constituted his harem; some were nursing unexpected infants, and found a refuge under his roof; we note that a bishop sent him shoes for one of these women. Many of the women whom he used or succored loved and honored him; six favorite courtesans proudly called themselves “Aretines.”
He had whatever virtue is implied by abundant animal spirits; in private he was a good-natured animal who had never learned a moral code. He thought—with some excuse in those times—that no person of any consequence had any real moral code. He told Vasari that he had never seen a maiden whose features did not betray a touch of sensuality.20 His own sensuality was gross, but to his friends it appeared to be merely the spontaneous exuberance of life. Hundreds of people found him lovable; princes and priests delighted in his conversation. He had no education, but he seemed to know everybody and everything. He became human in his love for Giovanni delle Bande Nere, for Caterina and the two children she bore him, and for frail, consumptive, gracious, faithless Pierina Riccia.
She came into his household as the fourteen-year-old wife of his secretary. They lived with him, and he played father to her; soon he loved her with a consuming and solicitous paternal affection. He reformed his morals, kept, of his mistresses, only Caterina and their babe Adria. Then, just as he was simmering down to respectability, a Venetian nobleman, whose wife he had charmed, accused him in court of blasphemy and sodomy. He denied the charges, but dared not face the exposures and chances of trial; conviction would have meant long imprisonment or death. He fled from his house, and hid for weeks with friends. They persuaded the court to dismiss the charges; Aretino returned to his home in triumph, cheered by crowds on both sides of the Grand Canal. But he was heartbroken to find in Pierina’s eyes that she thought him guilty. Then Pierina’s husband deserted her. When she came to Pietro for consolation he made her his mistress. She developed tuberculosis, and for thirteen months was near death; he nursed her with anxious tenderness, and brought her back to health. At the height of his devotion she left him for a younger lover. He tried to convince himself that it was better so, but from that day his spirit was broken, and old age advanced upon him triumphantly.
He grew fat, but never ceased to vaunt his sexual powers. He frequented brothels, and became more and more religious, he who in his youth had laughed at resurrections as “nonsense” which “only the rabble takes seriously.”21 In 1554 he went to Rome hoping to be crowned with a red hat, but Julius III could only make him a Knight of St. Peter. In that year he was evicted from the Casa Aretino for failure to pay his rent. He took more modest quarters, away from the Grand Canal. Two years later he died of apoplexy, aged sixty-four. He had confessed some fraction of his sins, and had received the Eucharist and Extreme Unction; and he was buried in the church of San Luca as if he had not been the very paragon and apostle of lechery. A wit composed for him a possible epitaph:
Qui giace l’Aretin, poeta tosco,
Chi disse mal d’ognun fuorche Dio,
Scusandosi col dir, Non lo conosco;—
which is to say:
Here lies the Tuscan poet Aretino,
Who evil spoke of everyone but God,
Giving as his excuse, “I never knew him.”