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Pietro Aretino

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A Critical and Biographical Study - Samuel Putnam - Source Elfinspell

“Machiavel and Aretino knew fashions and were
acquainted with ye cunning of ye world.” - Gabriel Harvey

“On the day set by Julius II., that is to say, on Monday,  Michelangelo betook himself once more to the Palace. He had been given to understand that the Pope was leaving on a hunting expedition in the Albanian mountains. The court was filled with the joyous sound of horns, the barking of dogs, the cries of hunters and the beating of the wings of falcons. From a distance, Michelangelo saw the Pope, clad in hunting costume, strange enough for a man of the church. Shod in high boots, wearing a plumed hat and a leather round-jacket, he looked like an old conqueror, as he mounted a superb horse. Accorsio1 held his stirrup. The Pope appeared to be animated and whispered in the earl of his favorite, who smiled like a woman, a fine, ambiguous smile.

“Buonarotti understood that, at this moment, Julius II. was little concerned with his mausoleum. He came back on Tuesday. The Pope had not yet returned from the hunt. He put in an appearance on Wednesday and met, in the gallery, a secretary whom he knew, who informed him that His Holiness, having received vexatious news from Bologna, was in a bad humor and had just given the priest, d’Ancona, a caning. Courtezans, with a discomfited air, were coming out of the audience chamber, and Michelangelo overheard the ambassador from France remark, with a smile, to a fat and insouciant chaplain:

“ ‘But he is terribly irritable, your Pope!’” 1

With these few vivid lines, Dmitri Merejkowski, in his novelized biography of Michelangelo,2 puts us into the heart 10 of the cinquecento, in all probability the most riotously colorful and the most colorfully depraved epoch in civilized history. Merejkowsky’s account is fiction, but if there ever was a time when truth was stranger than fiction, that time was the Sixteenth century.

The Russian writer’s snapshot is, of course, not the whole picture, but it is the focus of that larger photograph which might be composed — and which, yet, so eludes any one who attempts the task — from the documents of the age. For the Papacy was the heart of a Romanized world, and the world was a goodly apple rotten at the core.

To fill in the picture, we must add: the melodrama of dagger-thrusts in the dark; the finest of the fine and Machiavellian arts, the art of poisoning; and, finally, that most poisonous of all weapons, the pen. Oscar Wilde’s shocking title3 becomes a commonplace, in a world in which the Popes and princes of the earth —’ and the pirates of the high seas, as well — pay groveling tribute to the Prince of Blackmailers and even think seriously of giving the fellow a cardinal’s hat. The cold-blooded craft, cunning and self-centeredness of the era are reflected for us in the political morality to be encountered in Machiavelli’s Principe and Guicciardini’s Ricordi politici;4 while such highly chromatic names as the Medici, Lucrezia Borgia, Cellini, Malatesta, Gonzaga, etc., round out the picture. Tasso and Ariosto, today the most unread of authors outside their native country, provide the literary background, while Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael and Tintoretto do the honors in paint, to say nothing of such lesser figures as Bellini, Giorgione, Sansovino and others.

The world scene, too, which means the European scene, is a fascinating one. While the Popes of Rome, in scarlet hunting costume, are riding to the chase accompanied by their favorite Ganymedes and the Doges are lording it over the world from their rocca sicura, Venice, it is, at the same 11 time, the day of the “Spanish flamingo,”5 the Emperor Charles V., of the wavering, reactionary and stingy Francis I. in France, of Henry VIII., his wives, divorces and religious schisms in England, of Luther in Germany, nailing up his theses on the church door at Wittenberg, and of Barbarossa, sailing the seas for Their Imperial Majesties, the Sultan Selim I. and the King of Algiers. What more could be asked in the way of color?

And out of all this welter of gorgeous semi-barbarism, there emerges — there must emerge —’ for the student who seeks a conscientious close-up, the figure of one man — the bastard son of a prostitute, legend has it, though more likely the son of a village shoemaker — who, by the sheer force of personality (since what other explanation is there?), rules the rulers of this turbulent world, flaying them into submission with the power of his pen, accepting, with one hand, their regal bribes, and, with the other, tossing the bulk of what he gets to the poor, living all the while in princely splendor, amid a veritable harem of wives and courtezans, and keeping open house to artists, soldiers, statesmen, priests, the intellectual, social and artistic èlite of his day. That man is Pietro Aretino, the last fine poison-flower of the century that grew the Borgias.


Yet, Aretino today is barely a name. He is chiefly known in Europe, and in America by a few collectors of erotica, as the author of certain obscene Dialogues and obscener Sonnets. True, some years ago, a couple of addle-pated college boys6 got hold of him, went completely out of their heads and — well, the criminal case that ensued, attended by world-wide notoriety, familiarized the public for a fleeting moment with at least the name; and Hearst newspapers even dug up one of Titian’s bearded portraits of the “Scourge of Princes.” All this, doubtless, has been long since forgotten by the 12 man in the street, and Aretino remains a name for a few Romance professors to conjure with, while if he has any other readers outside the curiosa hounds, they are a few pale-handed youths with mildly decadent ambitions who go abrousing in campus libraries.

Sic transit.

If Aretino had been a non-literary personality, the oblivion thus thrust upon him might be understandable. The public may have heard of Machiavelli and the Borgia’s for the reason that these names, in a manner, have passed into schoolboy language as classy synonyms or flossy references; Cellini, too, may be fairly well known by those more or less directly concerned with the arts, or who have been told that his Autobiography is first-rate reading; but how many would be able to state, for example, who Guicciardini was?

But though most of those who collect and read him — the smut-hounds who trail him down, along with the Venus in Furs or Pierre Louys’ Aphrodite — have no suspicion of the fact, Aretino was something a good deal more than a mere picturesque figure in a picturesque age. He was, among other things, the first modern realist of importance, the first writer who dared to break away from the old, dead and deadening, hide-bound traditions of the classicists and the academicians and to write in the language of the people, the language of the street and the market place, even that of the brothel. He was, in a way, the Ring Lardner of his day (plus, of course, much more frankness than our twentieth-century Puritan America permits). Or, we might call him the H. L. Mencken (with all scruples removed) or, possibly, the Ben Hecht of his time. (His defense of his Sonetti lussuriosi reads strangely like Hecht’s flauntingly youthful preface to Fantazius Mallare.) It would not be wholly improper to term him the Rabelais of the cinquecento, though he lacks the gargantuan, cosmic vitality of Francois of blessed memory. As a matter of fact, he is the antecedent of Rabelais, his contemporary in 13 years, and of Molière, both of whom would seem to owe him no little, as do, also, Shakespeare and Balzac.

Aretino is not only the first modern realist; he is the first modern journalist. The founder and “first great Adventurer of the Press” Edward Hutton,7 in his scholarly and lonesome English biography, calls him. In his Pasquinades, his giudizii and his letters, as Hutton points out, Aretino really conducted what corresponds to a great modern newspaper, in which scheme, his religious writings (the prose sacre) are the pompous, inflated editorials. He is, in a sense, in his “yellow” proclivities, the forerunner of Mr. Hearst, Lord Northcliffe and others, while he is also the father of the awful tribe of modern press agents, who, when they wish to put on airs, become “publicists.” It is his boast that “throughout the world, Fame is sold by me.”8 He had to have publicity; it was his living; and he certainly knew how to set about to get it.

He is more than this, however. He is also the first modern critic of the arts — of painting, as of literature. In deed, he seems to have had, as will be shown later, even more feeling for painting than for literature. His genius was essentially a plastic one, and there was a reason for his almost life-long intimacy with Titian. Like Titian, he was a realist of the senses. De Sanctis, in the role of moralizing professor, finds fault with him for not drawing any “moral impression or elevation of soul” from his contemplation of and love for nature. The kick which Aretino got was a purely sensuous, purely aesthetic one; and in this, he is truly a modernist.


Here, then, we have a man who may be called, in point of chronology, the first literary realist, the first journalist, the first publicist, the first art critic. Surely, such a man has his importance. Is a first-hand knowledge of that importance to 14 be confined to a few Romance instructors and their scattered seminars, for which only a handful of bespectacled graduate students ever enroll? Is the public to know Aretino only as a purveyor of smut, as a writer who is on the Index expurgatorius of the contemporary Puritan, and who must, therefore, be smuggled past the customs as a contraband?

Why is this? Why is it that Aretino for four centuries, has been the victim of a world-wide conspiracy of shush? Even the prurient virtue of our combined comstockeries is scarcely enough to account for this, since, with the mouldering influence of time, a bad boy of literature, usually puts on the more or less sacrosanct garb of a “classic” and, thenceforth, is looked upon as naughty but, for the sake of art, as comparatively innocuous. Rabelais is a case in point. The Maitre is now seldom bothered on the metropolitan stalls. He hardly could be sold, it is true, in Dayton, Tenn., but in Chicago, the Committee of Fifteen does not stay up nights tracking him down. And yet, Aretino, as has been stated, is the godfather of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Why, then, all the animus against Pietro?

The answer is, Aretino is a bad example, not on the sexual side, but in his attitude toward life.

He is capable of being, upon occasion, the most tremendous hypocrite, as in his official and semi-official letters and in his “laudi,” those cringing, knuckling sonnets that he wrote to order. In this, he was conforming, outwardly and for his own shrewd purposes, to the custom of the age; it was a part of his game. In reality, he is a hardened, ingrown and parading cynic, and that is one thing your Babbitt will never forgive.

Hutton calls Aretino “the negation of the Renaissance.” He is more than that. He is the living negation of all the copybook maxims. He knows that early to bed and early to rise may make a man healthy, but that it will never make him wealthy or wise. Get all you can while the getting’s good is, rather, his motto, as it is that of the American big 15 business man; only, the latter will never, never stand for a formulation of his practice. Aretino, like the captain of industry, started at the bottom and worked his way up. But how? And to what? He should have ended on the gallows, but as it was, he came near being made a prince of the church. In other words, he beat the game, and that is, of all things, unforgivable; it is worse than breaking the bank at Monte Carlo.

Aretino has no illusions about himself or, above all, about humanity. He knows human lusts and meanesses and depravations, and speculates in them; they are his stock in trade. He is a non-conformist. He lives his own life amid his harem of beautiful women and his art treasures, and remarks, with a sneer, “Who’s going to keep me from it?” He prefers a talk with Titian or an interview with a lady of fortune to going to mass. When, on his death bed, he is given the holy oils, he bursts forth, to the horror of the pious ones about him, with “Now that I’m all greased up, don’t let the rats get me.” And he is the man who, according to tradition,9 had for epitaph:

Here lies Aretino, the Tuscan poet,
Who slandered every one but God, and said:
Sorry, but if I ever met him, I did not know it.

No, Aretino is not, precisely, a Sunday school lad. He was no worse, probably, than Machiavelli, Guicciardini or a hundred others of his day; but Machiavelli and Guicciardini, putting on the cloak of political necessity, have acquired a certain respectability in their diablerie. What is wrong for an individual may be, it seems, right for a nation. Aretino merely applies the Principe and the Ricordi politici to private life; but that is always dangerous. It is doubly dangerous in a democracy. Every republic is replete with Aretinos, but 16 they stay under cover and disguise their depradations under moralistic croakings. To speak out, to be frank with one’s self and others, is the unpardonable sin. It is to be doubted if, after all, Aretino ever could have existed elsewhere than in such an oligarchy as that which flourished in Venice under the Medici.

This is the real reason for the conspiracy of silence against him. This is the reason the world has chosen to overlook his undeniable contributions to literature, art and the spirit of modernity. It is time, in the name of scholarship, that the veil were lifted. Let us take the man as he was and, giving him his dues, good and bad, endeavor to place him as accurately as possible. In the course of the process, there are a few of us, it is to be hoped, confirmed amoralists, who love color and take it where we find it, who will be content to rejoice in the vivid reds of the picture and to leave the rest to priests and pedants.


Aretino, like Baudelaire, has been the victim of a legend, a legend which he encouraged, rather than discouraged. When they accused him of being the son of a prostitute, he admitted it. When it was found that he was, really, the son of a shoemaker (acconciator di scarpe), which was far more damning, he trumpeted the fact to the world in a letter to the Duke of Medici. Like Baudelaire, he was quite willing to do anything pour è pater la bourgeoisie, and, like the author of Les Fleurs du mal, he paid the penalty. Baudelaire had his Maxime du Camp, of whom Huneker so effectually disposes (see his “The Baudelaire Legend” in Egoists); Aretino had his pseudo-Berni. And the resulting legend, in each case, has displayed a surprising persistence, and resistance to the discoveries of scholars.

Nevertheless, despite all legends and overthrowings of legends, the man himself remains a miracle of vividness. The names and titles that were conferred upon him during his 17 life timer are an indication of this. Ariosto won Aretino’s undying gratitude by referring to him, in the Orlando Furioso, as “the divine Pietro Aretino, the Scourge of Princes.” The “Scourge,” as Hutton remarks, might more aptly have been called “the Screw of Princes.” “Buffone, cativo” his own townsman, Meforo Nucci, calls him. He was looked upon, in turn, as a magician and a “prophet” (propheta divino).10 He was the Ward McAllister of his day and refers to himself as “censor del mondo altero.”11 Coming to bless and remaining to curse, he stands forth as a “charlatan of genius.” Francis I sends him a chain of gold, with vermilion-colored serpents’ tongues, bearing the exergue: “Lingue eius loquetur mendacium” (“His tongue speaks lies”).12 Aretino is delighted and is never seen without the chain thereafter; it appears in all his portraits. And yet, this man, whom the mighty college of cardinals could not silence, boasts always that “I speak the truth,” insisting that therein lies his strength. De Sanctis implies that he is a “poltroon,”13 but it is still Aretino’s vaunt that “With a goose-quill and a bottle of ink, I mock myself of the universe.”


The facts of Aretino’s life may be told briefly.14

The first that strikes us is the year of his birth, 1492, the same that, with the discovery of America, marks the beginning of a new world. Aretino stands on the threshold of the modern era; and it is, accordingly, not strange if in him we first hear definitely sounded the note of revolt against Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio and the other old masters of literature, as well as against Plato and Aristotle, Plautus and Terrence, Cicero and Pliny — the dead weight of all the centuries.

It is significant, also, that his birth occurred two years after that of Rabelais, who died (in 1553) three years before Pietro. The latter was born just as the Age of Form, carried to a last fine, hard coldness by Tasso and Ariosto, was drawing to a close. With those two great names, poetry was to die a temporary death. But across the border, barely beyond the span of Aretino’s lifetime, were to come Galileo, with his epoch-making discoveries in science, and a new birth of music.

Pietro was born — in a hospital,15 De Sanctis tells us — in the little but well known town of Arezzo, the birthplace also of Petrarch, Vasari and, in the eleventh century, of Guido of Arezzo, inventor of the modern system of musical notation. His birth occurred some time between the night of Holy Thursday and the morning of Good Friday, April 19-20, as he himself indicates in his sonnet, In questa chiara sacrosanta notte.16 The cynical may find a humorous significance in the date.

In accordance with the Aretine legend, perpetrated by the pseudo-Berni and repeated in the mid-Nineteenth century by such scholarly critics as De Sanctis and Camerini, he was the son of Tita, the “beautiful courtezan,” and one Luigi Bacci of Arezzo. Scholarship, however, has shown that his real father was Luca, the cobbler, whose wife Tita was. When, years later, a townsman arose to reveal his true birth, Aretino exclaimed, in his letter to Duke Cosimo: ‘I tell you, I glory in the title which he, to vilify, has given me; and may it teach the nobility to procreate sons like the one which a cobbler has borne in Arezzo . . . Yes, I am the son of a maker of shoes.”17

Later, Aretino was accused of passing himself off as the son of the Virgin, and so, as the Antichrist. The controversy 19 arose over a portrait of the Virgin in a picture of the Annunciation which stood over the church door in Arezzo. Pietro insisted his mother had been the model for the Mary of this picture: “Witness is borne to the sacred goodness of so modest a woman by the fact that she is represented as Mary, Mother of Christ.”18 For Aretino had a typically Italian sentimentality where his mother was concerned, and he put himself to great exertions to get Vasari to have this portrait copied and sent to him, which was done. Doni, Aretino’s enemy, made capital of the matter and assailed Pietro as “an Antichrist, a limb of the Great Devil.”19

As to his early education, Aretino would seem, like Ben Johnson’s Shakespeare, to have had “little Latin and less Greek.” He went to school, he informs us in one of his letters,20 “only long enough to learn the santa croce,” that is, the elements of religion. He appears to have been a poor pupil, stealing his marks, and having to be condoned by his teachers (“componendo ladramente, merito scusa”); and he brags of the fact that he was “not one of those who pore over the art of the Greeks and the Latins.”

All his life long, Aretino hated pedants, with a bitter, inborn, unquenchable hatred. He speaks of them as those who “croak21 the dead and crucify the living.” Pedantry to him is a crime worse than murder. He extends it even into the moral realm: ‘I tell you, it was pedantry that poisoned the Medici; it was pedantry that cut the throat of Duke Alexander; and, what is worse, it was pedantry that provoked the heresy against our faith by Luther, the greatest pedant of them all.”22 Aretino was wise enough to capitalize his deficiencies. He probably knew little if any Latin — his secretary, Berni, who later claimed he had “written” much of Aretino’s work, was, doubtless, his master’s superior in 20 this — and so, spurning Cicero, Pliny and the rest, he turns instinctively to the vulgate, the dialect of his people and his time.

The legend then goes on to tell us that, at the age of thirteen, Pietro robbed his prostitute mother and fled to Perugia. A more likely story is that he was compelled to leave Arezzo on account of a certain sonnet against indulgences.23 We know that in 1512 he was already a verse-maker, for in that year, a volume of his poems was published in Venice24. He seems also to have been a student of painting in his early youth.25


Aretino was next attracted to Rome. Rome then, under Julius II, was on the verge of entering upon the golden, the Augustan age, as it has been called, of Leo X., who was the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The papal court was thronged with artists, men of letters, buffoons and adventurers of every sort; and so, it was the logical, not to say the inevitable dream of every youth who was on the make. It was the Paris, the London and the New York of those days.

At Perugia, Aretino, according to legend, had been apprenticed to a bookbinder. The causes of his leaving are not exactly clear. There is a discredited story, told by Mazzuchelli, as to his having defaced a certain picture of a suppliant Magdalen by going to it at night and painting a lute in the Madalen’s hands. It is more likely that it was, simply, ambition that lured him.

Arrived in Rome, Aretino entered the service of a rich merchant, a Croesus of his day, who, with his magnificence and munificence, made the Holy Father “look like a piker,” as we in America would remark. Agostino Chigi, one of the signs of the coming order, in which money was to lord it 21 over the lords of the earth, is a typical figure. On one occasion, he gave a banquet to the papal court on gold and silver plates, which were tossed into the Tiber as soon as used; but Chigi was shrewd enough to have had nets laid to retrieve them. On another occasion, each guest found his coat of arms engraved on the plates from which he ate. Chigi, finally, had himself married by the Pope to one of his own mistresses.

Discharged from the house of Chigi, the legend relates, for having stolen a silver cup, Pietro entered the house of the Cardinal San Giovanni and, upon the death of His Eminence, became valet to Pope Julius II. Ma ere sempre un valletto, opines De Sanctis. The judgment is a little harsh. Dismissed once more, he entered upon a period of vagabondage, in the course of which he wandered over the greater part of Lombardy, ending up by becoming a Capuchin in a monastery at Ravenna.

Pietro Aretino a monk! The picture is complete. Was it here that he put the finishing touches to his education, not merely in religion, but in vice and the refinements of vice? Was it here that he gathered much of the material for the “Life of Nuns” in the Ragionamenti? And was it here he acquired that smattering of sanctity which he later was to make use of in his religious best-sellers — for that is why his Life of Saint Catherine and other homilies were written: to sell?

However, Pietro was not cut out for a friar, and he soon tired of the life. Rome beckoned again.

All this, at least, is set forth in the Aretino legend, based upon the Vita dell’ Aretino, published with the object of vituperating the subject and formerly believed to have been written by Berni. Hutton thinks there is not a word of truth in this account of Aretino’s coming from Perugia to Rome and then becoming a Capuchin at Ravenna. There is, the English biographer points out, nothing in the letters to support it. He believes that Aretino first came to Rome in 22 1516, at the age of 24, “on foot and furnished only with what he had on his back.”

At any rate, it is certain that Pietro was in Chigi’s employ. As to just what place he held in the house of his rich patron, we are not sure. Those who would play Pietro down assert he was a domestic. Whatever his status, he met there many famous men of the day, including such artists and writers as Raphael, Iacopo Sansovino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giulio Romano, Bembo, Castiglione, Paolo Giovio and others. Leo X. had succeeded to the pontifical throne in 1514, and the “golden age” was on. We know that Aretino made powerful friends at this time, among them Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, later to become Pope Clement VII.

It was in Rome, under Leo, that Aretino first became acquainted with the vices of the Holy City, those vices which he lambasts with so keen a power of satire in La Cortigiana and his other comedies. The Courtezan is a take-off on the prostitution of an age


Two misfortunes then befell Pietro. One was the death of his patron, Chigi, the other the sudden death of Leo X. In the confusion following the death of Leo and attendant upon the naming of his successor, Aretino found himself launched in his career of journalist. He became a writer of Pasquinades, as the vitriolic articles, affixed to the recently excavated statue of Pasquin in the Piazza Navona, were called. Pasquin, or Pasquino, had been, tradition had it, a fifteenth century schoolmaster with a bitter tongue, and the form of journalism named after him lived up to his reputation. Aretino, becoming so well known as a journalist of this type that he even had a tavern named after him,26 strenuously opposed the election of the pious weakling, Adrian VI., and it was for this reason, probably, that he was forced to flee from Rome, in the year 1522.

Supplied with excellent recommendations, through the friendships with the great which he had been wise enough to make, Aretino seems to have visited a number of cities, Milan, Pisa, Ferrara and Bologna, ending at Mantua, where he settled down for a while under the joint protection of the Marquis of Mantua and Cardinal de’ Medici. These two powerful personages even indulged in a friendly quarrel over the honor of Pietro’s company.

Finally, Pope Adrian inquiring a bit too anxiously after Aretino, the Medici shipped him off to join Giovanni delle bande nere, the leader of Italy’s only organized military force at that time. Pietro and Giovanni at once became bosom-cronies. The were, indeed, two of a kind. Barbarossa, the Corsair pirate, was later to remark that Aretino had “the head of a captain, rather than that of a poet,” and there was in him, the fact is, no little of the soldier and the buccaneer of letters. Giovanni later died in Aretino’s arms, his death being described in one of the finest and most touching letters the latter ever wrote;27 and Giovanni’s son, Cosimo, and the widow, Maria, remained devoted to the “Scourge,”28 who, it may be, first got his title from his warrior friend.


The death of Adrian, the last of the Pontefici barbari, or foreign Popes, brought Aretino’s friend, Cardinal de’ Medici, to the chair as Clement VII. Aretino at once returned to Rome. He was now distinctly in the swim. He traveled in style, and the great and powerful were his friends. He wrote sonnets in praise of Clement, the Pope made him a Knight of Rhodes, and all went well — till the little affair of the Sonnets.

What happened was this. Giulio Romano, the artist, had executed a number of obscene designs — sixteen of them, each supposed to represent a different modus sexualis — and had them engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, the first 24 man of his day with the burin. Aretino, according to his own version of the affair, saw the engravings and was inspired to write his famous, and infamous, Sonetti lussuriosi as a commentary.

The storm broke. Even the Rome of Clement VII. was shocked. Marcantonio was thrown into prison. Giulio’s reputation, a splendid one theretofore, was shadowed, and Pietro had to do some tall talking to get out of the scrape, though he did succeed, by intervening with the Pope, in procuring the release of Raimondi.

In a letter written to Battista Zatti,29 Aretino says he dedicates his sonnets to “the hypocrites, out of patience with their villainous judgment and with the hoggish custom that forbids the eyes what most delights them.” And he exclaimed, in conclusion: “The beasts are more free than we!” Does not this sound like Hecht’s preface?

In any event, Rome had now become a trifle too warm for Pietro; so he fled for a time. The legend says he was driven out, and it seems to have amounted to that. Giulio also saved himself by flight. Aretino went back to Arezzo, perhaps to visit his family, then joined his friend, Giovanni, again. He appears to have vacillated for some little time between Giovanni, who wanted him badly, and Rome, eventually returning to Rome and the sunshine of Clement’s favor. His Holiness having forgiven, and, no doubt, forgotten all.

It was in Rome at this time that the famous attempt to assassinate Aretino was made by Achille della Volta, who stuck a dagger in Pietro’s back one night as the latter was riding home alone on horseback. Aretino, badly wounded — mortally, it was believed at first — escaped with a maimed hand, which he carried for the rest of his life. The attempted slaying, which was traced to Giberti, the Pope’s counsellor and Aretino’s deadly enemy stirred Rome. Aretino once more left, this time, in October, 1525, for Mantua.

He did not stay long in Mantua but was soon back with Giovanni delle bande nere. After the death of the sturdy captain, Pietro returned to Mantua and looked about him. His future was uncertain. Rome was out of the question. What was he to do?

It was at this time that he entered upon another phase of his journalistic activity and began issuing his giudizii. The giudizio, an institution of which Aretino was not the originator, had started out as a respectable enough almanac. In his hands, it became a scandal sheet.


1 One of the papal “Ganymedes”.

2 Michel Ange, Roman, Dmitry Merejkowski, Traduit du russe par Dumesnil de Gramont, Paris, Artheme Fayard & cie, 1926.

3 Reference is, of course, to Pen, Pencil and Poison.

4 See also his Storia d’Italia.

5 I lift the phrase from Eugenio Camerini, Prefazione al primo volume delle Lettere dell’ Aretino.

6 Loeb and Leopold.

7 Pietro Aretino, the Scourge of Princes, Edward Hutton, Constable and company, 1922.

8 “. . . in tutto il mondo per me negozia la Fama.” In a letter to Bernardo Tasso, quoted by De Sancti; see the latter’s essay, Vol. II.

9 Probably no more than a tradition. The original runs:
Qui giace l’Aretin poeta tosco,
Che disse mal d’ognun, fuor che di Dio,
Scusandosi col dir, no lo conosco.

10 Cf. Giovan Battista Diedo (quoted, Appendix II): Dico che Iddio l’ha fatto di poeta diventar profeta, etc.

11 See in this volume, Miscellaneous Sonnets, IV.

12 See De Sanctis’ essay, Vol. II., and my note.

13 See the De Sanctis essay, Vol. II., and my note. See also Appendix I.

14 I am particularly indebted to Hutton in the biographical part of this paper.

15 In uno spedale.

16 See, in this volume, Miscellaneous Sonnets, I.

17 “Dico che mi glorio del titolo che per avilirmi egli dammi, conciosiache ai nobili insegna a procrear figliuoli simili a quello, che un calzolaio ha generato in Arezzo . . . Io natoci d’un acconciator di scarpe.”

18 Letter from Venice, December, 1548, Lettere, V., 66.

19 See the Berni Vita, Milano, Daelli, 1864.

20 Lettere, I., 200. See the quotation from this letter in De Sanctis’ essay, Vol. II.

21 gracchiare.

22 See De Sanctis’ essay.

23 Hutton, op. cit., p. 13.

24 Published by Nicolo Zopino. See Bibliography, Appendix IV.

25 “Alquante cose de uno adolescente Aretino Pietro, studioso in questa faculta et in pictura.” (Prefatory note to first volume of poems).

26 The “Accademia di Pietro Aretino.”

27 See Volume II., Letters, III.

28 See correspondence, Appendix I.

29 Lettere, I., 258.


Venice proved to be the solution. Indeed, it might be said that Venice was the solution of Aretino’s life problem. Here alone, in the city of the Doges, under the oligarchical sway of the Medici, was freedom to be had; here alone was safety and security. Read the glowing tribute which Aretino, in one of his letters,1 pays to Venice. His letters, the truth is, are a part of the Venetian picture in the Sixteenth century. This was the Venice of Shakespeare’s plays. Tintoretto was there, and so were Titian and Sansovino, with whom Aretino was to set up a lasting “triumvirate.” As Hutton points out, Bellini, Sebastiano, Mansueti, Giorgione and others have preserved for us, in their canvases, the Venice that Pietro knew.

It was in Venice that Aretino began his life-long friendship with Titian, whom he met through Sansovino. The last named commemorated the triple alliance in his painting over the doors of the sacristy of San Marco, and Aretino celebrated it in a sonnet, one of his finest.2 As to Titian, Pietro became to him a sort of press agent de luxe. He secured many commissions for his painter friend, and it has been thought that he possibly took his percentage on these commissions. (If he did, Hutton remarks, it would be “only 26 another mark of modernity in him.”) It was Aretino who introduced Titian to Charles V.

Aretino, as we have seen, like Baudelaire, probably had studied painting. At any rate, he soon became a first-rate painting critic. Not only that. He was used by Titian, over and over again, as a model. Three months after he had arrived in Venice, Titian did a portrait of him. In this portrait, Aretino is represented as disdaining the laurels of Homer and Caesar, as described in the sonnet which he sent with the picture to the Marquise of Mantua; the one beginning: “Togli il lauro per te Cesare e Omero.”3 He also served as the model for Pilate (role fitting enough, some would say!) in Titian’s Ecce Homo. It has been thought, even, that Titian might have made use of Aretino’s face —’ minus the beard, of course — for some of his Christs!

Here, then, in Venice, Pietro comes into his own. His house, the famous casa Aretina,4 is filled with art treasures from all over the world; for Aretino, as Merejkowski tells us, à propos of Michelangelo, was not backward in levying contributions on artists whom he knew and did not know. Sometimes, as in the case of Michelangelo,5 they may have been reluctant to comply, but they were usually compelled to make at least a show of homage; Aretino and the famed Aretino pen were too potent to be ignored.

While Aretino’s house was filled with paintings and rare objects of art, it had almost no books;6 for Pietro prided himself upon his originality and disdained “the vulpine modesty of the asinine pedants who write books.”7

In such surroundings as these, he maintained his harem and kept open house for his friends. His cuisine was famous, and he never dined in the town, for he insisted the Venetians 27 did not know how to dine. At times, his own house became so unbearably crowded that he was forced to flee to Titian’s abode for a little peace and comfort. He was constantly besieged by the poor, to whom he always gave with a lavish prodigality. He would stand no reproaches on this score. Great souls always spend freely, would be his reply.8 He resented also any gratuitous advice on the part of his benefactors as to the better husbanding of his income.9

In Venice, Aretino’s fame grew, and from Venice it spread to all parts of the known world — to the courts of Charles and Francis, to the semi-barbarous wilds of Germany, to India, to Barbarossa on the seas, even to the Rio de la Plata. In France, he was almost a household author, 10 and he seems early to have been translated into German.

His fame showed in other ways. A race of ponies, named after one of his nags — “which Pope Clement gave to me, and which I gave to Duke Federigo” — bore the name, aretina. A certain variety of crystal vase was called the aretino. His women — former mistresses, near-wives, procuresses, housekeepers and chambermaids — were known, collectively, as the aretine. The street in which he lived, the lane that ran past his house, the portion of the Grand Canal that washed his casa — all bore his inescapable mark.11

And Aretino, by no means neglected to advertise himself. He would not have been the first of press agents, if he had done so. He tells us, in his letters, that he had had his image reproduced in every conceivable form, even on his mirrors and comb-cases; and in addition, he boasted that it was to be seen on “the facades of palaces.” He sent a head of himself to Barbarossa, which drew the comment already quoted. His home was all Aretino — “Aretino to the right, Aretino to the left,” De Sanctis says. For Pietro had 28 discovered the rather important fact that the world has been known to take a man at his own valuation. He was, De Sanctis adds, a great man on his own say-so.

In such settings as these, he lived his life, because he was “born to live this way.” The world might go hang, so long as it did not forget that it owed him a living. To this end, he proposed to see that it did not forget. He may have lived, as he says, by the sweat of his ink, but the motive power (“il motore del suo inchiostro“) was money. He, therefore, had to have publicity. He was of a new commercial age, which is never slow in learning that it pays to advertise.

Blackmail? The word12 is a harsh one — too harsh, it may be; yet we find it used repeatedly in connection with Pietro. He seldom made downright threats, though he often made specific demands, and generally drove a shrewd and definite bargain. And princes and the powerful paid him, for his favor or for his silence. He often sold his “praises” (laudi) as a writer of today sells his manuscripts. There was in him, De Sanctis observes, “a species of mercantile morality.” He was the camorrista of literature.

There were times when he had pretty hard sledding, financially. This was most of the time. His charities actually seem to have kept him chronically “broke.” At one time, he even thought of starting a lottery, and the Marquis of Mantua issued him a patent for the purpose, but the scheme seems to have fallen through. Falling out with the Marquis, he turns to Francis I. and, for a while, seriously thinks of going to France. He distrusted, however, the close watch which the French monarch kept upon his purse strings. Had he gone, he probably would have made it decidedly uncomfortable for the Italian princes, including his old friend, Mantua.


It was at this time that Aretino conceived the idea of an epic poem, La Marfisa, to be a continuation of the Orlando 29 Furioso of Ariosto. Pietro proceeded to peddle his poem about, not, as a poet today would do, for a publisher, but for a patron. The prince that came across with sufficient money was to have the pleasure of seeing his house celebrated in the Aretine epic. For the printing of his poem, Aretino wanted a privilegio from the Pope. To get it, he pulled all sorts of strings. Finally, the Doge himself, Andrea Gritti, intervened in Pietro’s behalf. The privilegio at last was granted, along with a collar from the Pope’s hands.

Aretino’s poem, though it was afterward printed and dedicated to the Marchese del Vasto, is not the important thing. The important thing is the fact that the Doge had seen fit to interfere in his behalf. This definitely established Aretino’s position in Venice. He had been, as it were, officially recognized by the government.

Nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding the securing of a patron for the Marfisa are interesting, illustrative as they are of the Aretino tactics. After first proposing to dedicate his immortal opus to Federigo Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, Aretino quarreled with him. We then find him making overtures to Alessandro de’ Medici, proposing to sing the “genealogy of the Medici, not without disdain for the house of Mantua.” But Alessandro eludes him. So Aretino, at last, turned to the pompous del Vasto, and the epic, which is far from remarkable, was dedicated to him and published in Venice, in 1535.

Another point to be made, in connection with the Marfisa, is that, through it, Aretino was reconciled with the Pope, with whom he had been on none too friendly terms since his attempted assassination by the papal favorite, Giberti; Aretino had dealt, in his giudizii, none too gently with the sovereign pontiff. The Medici, disliking to have so prominent a citizen on bad terms with the see of Rome, had exerted their influence, and the author of the Marfisa agreed to leave out all references which might be offensive.

This probably marks the happiest period of Aretino’s 30 life, the height of his worldly success. The rest of his career was to be embittered by repeated betrayals on the part of his numerous secretaries, by domestic troubles and by literary feuds. But at this time, he could write:

“They say I am the son of a courtezan. It may be so, but I have the heart of a king.”


Aretino seems to have been unfortunate or unwise in his choice of secretaries. At any rate, he had nothing but trouble with them.

The question may be raised as to whether, or why, he needed a secretary. He must have had good use for one, he who was, as the Neapolitan Alessandro Andrea called him “il secretario del mondo“ — the “secretary to the world.”13 His hand, too, it must be remembered, had been hopelessly maimed the night that Giberti stabbed him in the back. Moreover, he doubtless felt that his position called for one; for Pietro always insisted on the place which he had stolen for himself in the world being given all the formalities and respect that were its due.

Every one of his young men, as Hutton remarks, appears to have been “a scoundred and a traitor.” Possibly the first was Lorenzo Veniero, who was, also, one of Aretino’s dearest friends.

Aretino, there is little doubt, was leading a very corrupt life at this time. Just how corrupt, or what form his corruption took, it might be difficult to say. A little later, there was to be a nasty scandal, as a result of which Pietro was all but driven out of his beloved haven, Venice. Unnatural vice figured in this affair, which has been largely smoothed over by historians. It was patched up some way, and Aretino contrived to live it down. It is, likely, a fact that he was something of a satyr in his habits. He would have been able to give John Addington Symonds light on a certain problem 31 in Greek, as well as in modern ethics. The Sonetti lussuriosi and the Ragionamenti represent a very real, and for that reason a very sincere, side of the man.

In any case, we know that Veniero fell very much — too much — under his master’s influence. When it came to writing filth, Aretino, as his British biographer says, was inimitable. He was, in a manner, as inimitable as Rabelais, and any one who endeavored to imitate him inevitably floundered. That was what happened in the case of Veniero. He produced a work in verse entitled La Puttana errante (The Wandering Whore), which has been wrongly attributed to Aretino in the past. A close inspection of its style reveals, to any student of Aretino, the fact that it is not the latter’s. This work first appeared in 1530. It was dedicated to Aretino, who seems to have fathered it, and the latter sent a copy to the Marquis of Mantua, who smacked his chops over it. A quarrel over the authorship of the thing followed, and Veniero’s reputation was shattered.

Aretino was scarcely out of this before he became involved in another literary feud, in the course of which he was accused, as were the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine in the case of Keats, of having been the death of a young poet, Antonio Broccardo. The fracas grew out of an attack which young Broccardo had made on Monsignore, later to be Cardinal, Bembo, one of the worst pedants of his day and a man designed by nature to be Aretino’s butt, if not his enemy. However, Aretino, for politic reasons, sided with Bembo in counter-attacking Broddardo. After the latter’s death, Aretino characteristically penned four sonnets praising his adversary. Later, on Bembo’s death, he wrote sonnets praising the Cardinal.

Honors were coming to Pietro now. His home town, Arezzo, at last had awakened to the fact that it had, at least from a worldly point of view, a great son. It, accordingly, conferred upon Aretino, the title of Salvator della patria (saviour of his country). Then, in 1532, came Ariosto’s 32 Orlando Furioso, with its historic reference to Aretino as “il divin” and “il Flagello de’ Principi.” As we have seen, the title of “Scourge of Princes” probably had been conferred on Aretino long before, not unlikely by his soldier friend, Giovanni delle bande nere. Ariosto merely immortalizes it. Three years later, Ariosto’s comedy, the Negromante, is dedicated to Aretino by Lodovico Dolce. All this was literary success with a vengeance. Pietro, the great faker and, as it were, the scavenger of literature — “il condottière della letteratura,” Titian called him — the “street-car conductor of literature,” if we Americanize the idiom — Pietro, the blackmailer and the paid panegyrist, had at last won recognition, become respectable through his very vices!

Nevertheless, he had many enemies. This, of course, with a man of Aretino’s temperament and his habits of the literary abbattoir, was unavoidable. He would have been, one imagines, lost and unhappy without them; he would have suspected himself. At the same time, he had the faculty of making capital out of the worst calumny. In 1532, for example, the Rialto was placarded with the announcement that no bank or shop would trust him:

Non è banca
Non è botiga a farti credenza

and also with the report that he “had no wood to warm himself at the fire:”

Chi non ha legna da scaldarsi al focho.

He was always bankrupt, but that was part of his scheme of things. His popularity with the great ones remained undiminished. Luigi Gritti, natural son of the Doge of Venice and the latter’s ambassador in Constantinople, writes urging Aretino to join him to “make me happy with your charming conversation.” Florence, too, tried to steal him from Venice. Alessandro de’ Medici twice attempted to lure Pietro there, promising him the Strozzi Palace if he would come.

When Paul III. (Alessandro Farnese) became Pope, he 33 was so friendly that Aretino, for once, came near giving up his Venice to return to the Holy City; but he was wise enough not to do so. He had had enough of courts and their ways. For his reasons in declining, see the letter on the subject which he wrote to Monsignor Guidiccione.14 See, also, his sonnet: Sett’ anni traditori ho via gettati,15 describing the “seven traitor years” which he had “thrown away” in the papal service.

Then came the chain of gold from Francis. This was the recognition in the world of affairs which Ariosto had conferred in the world of letters. Aretino had become an institution.


Continuing his literary, or near-literary activity with tremendous force, publishing comedies, religious works, his obscene Ragionamenti, and keeping up all the time his journalistic letters, Aretino led an amazingly full life and displayed an astounding vitality. Honored by Ariosto and by Francis, he drew to the end amid domestic troubles and more broils.

Aretino never married within the law, he disdained the institution of matrimony; but he had children by his mistresses and adored his offspring. There was his daughter, Adria, whose mother was Caterina Sandella, one of Titian’s blonde types and a member of the harem at casa Aretina. Her father spends much time in getting Adria properly married off to the worthluess young Diovatelli Rota and levies a tax on his princely friends to provide the dowry which her prospective husband demands. The marriage was not a success. Adria, after twice returning to the paternal roof, died in 1554. There was also Austria, likewise the daughter of La Sandella, probably, and of whom Pietro was almost — but not quite — as fond as he was of Adria. His children, he maintained, were “legitimate in my heart.”

With Pierina Riccia, the abandoned wife of one of his secretaries (Polo Bartolini), Aretino carried on a touching affair, if affair it might be called. She was a consumptive, and Aretino, like a mother, nursed her back to health, only to have her abandon him for a younger lover. Four years later, she returned, and he took her back. She again fell ill, and he nursed her again. She died this time, and her memory colored the remainder of Aretino’s life. Years later, he exclaimed: “I think I died with her.”

Caterina and Pierina were the two chief women in his life, it would seem, but he had numerous affairs and escapades.

Aretino frequently became mixed up with husbands. He had no hesitancy in using them when he wanted their wives; and when a husband grew annoyed at Pietro’s “Platonic” intentions, as did Giovanni Antonio Sirena, he was capable, at once, of waxing virtuously indignant and of strutting like a peacock.

“My pen has made Madame Angela Sirena immortal . . . Do you not know that there is not a woman in the world who would not be proud to be chastely sung and celebrated in my verses? A time will come when this very letter that I send you and which I deign to sign with my own hand will be a title of pride and nobility for your son.”

And, needless to say, Aretino saw to it that the letter was published.

When one of his harem, Marietta d’Oro, wished to leave him, Aretino married her off to his secretary, who at that time happened to be Ambrogio degli Eusebii, aged 20. Then, having solved, as the thought, that problem, Aretino sent young Eusebii off on an embassy to Francis I. He even went part way with him to be sure he left. While he was gone, Marietta looted his house and sailed for Cyprus. Aretino was the laugh of the town, but it is to be doubted if he greatly cared.


It was this same Eusebii who lost at play the six hundred scudi which Francis I. had consigned to him for his master. The money was lost in the house of Cardinal Gaddi, with whom Aretino was on none too good terms, anyway; and this led to a row between Pietro and the Cardinal. His Eminence, eventually, made good the money lost.

Later, Eusebii lost eight hundred crowns which he had received in England, got two hundred of them back, then lost these (as he wrote Aretino) in a shipwreck. The last we hear of him is from the Rio de la Plata, whence he writes to say that he is “preaching Aretino’s name” there.

Leonardo Parpaglioni, another secretary, robbed Aretino of two hundred scudi while Nicolò Franco, still another amanuensis, became his bitterest enemy and detractor. Franco, a pedant of the pedants and a “parasite of letters,”16 in the controversy that followed, asserted that he had “written” a good part of Aretino’s work, and that his former master was “an ignorant dunce.” The truth of the matter is, France was Pietro’s superior in academic learning — which Aretino disdained — and probably did furnish some of the material for the religious works. But Aretino’s best work, as Hutton says, was done before Franco appeared on the scene.

In 1538, Aretino published his first book of Letters, printed by Marcolini. These letters, he tells us, had been collected through “the Love of my young men for what I do.” Among these “young men” must have been Franco. But in November of the same year, we find Franco publishing his own book of letters (Pistole vulgari) in fine format. This was too much. Aretino could not stand a rival in his own house; so he turned Franco out. In later editions of Aretino’s own letters, the name, Franco, has entirely disappeared. But Franco’s enmity, as has been hinted, was a potent one. It led, indirectly at least, to the calumnies of the 36 pseudo-Berni Vita and the fostering of the Aretine legend.

In the course of the Franco quarrel, Eusebii, who had succeeded Franco as Aretino’s secretary, stabbed his predecessor in the face, and Aretino supported him in court and even made him parade up and down in front of the house where Franco was lying wounded. The incident is typical.

When Franco fell ill. Aretino forgave him, but Franco, as soon as he was well again, renewed his attacks. Aretino prophesied he would die on the gallows, as he did. He was hanged by Pius V. for publishing an obscene work, the Priapeia.


All this time, Aretino was playing politics on a big scale — world politics. He must have a finger in every pie, no matter how impressive the size. When Charles V. imprisons Clement VII., we find him writing to the Emperor urging him to liberate the pontiff, and writing to the Holy Father, urging him to forgive the Emperor. The nerve of the man is almost beyond belief. He plays a hide-and-seek game with Francis, finally, chiefly on account of the French monarch’s lack of generosity, lining up against him with Charles. When Francis made an alliance with the Turks, against Charles and the Empire, Aretino wrote him an insulting letter which, as Hutton remarks, “reverberated throughout Europe.”

On the assassination of Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, in fulfilment of an apparent prophecy of Aretino’s, Cosimo, the son of Giovanni delle bande nere, became Duke and Aretino’s new protector.

A second attempt to assassinate Aretino occurred in 1539, in the course of a quarrel between him and Ercole II., successor to Federigo Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. This trouble soon blew over, however.


Then came the fitting climax to Aretino’s picaresque career, when, upon the visit of the Emperor Charles V. to 37 Venetian territory, a personal, very warm and human meeting occurred between the foremost prince of his age and the Scourge of Princes. This meeting took place, in July, 1543, at Peschiera, near Verona, where Charles, upon catching sight of Aretino, spurred his horse toward him, saluted him with affection and then rode along with Aretino at his right hand, conversing amiably. Later, when the stage was set, Aretino read his Capitolo and then went in to dine with His Majesty, again at the royal right hand. Charles urged Pietro to accompany him, but the latter declined, preferring to return to Venice.

What a triumph was here, for the legendary son of a prostitute, the defrocked friar and vagabond of tradition, the author of the Sonetti lussuriosi and the Prince of Blackmailers! Ariosto’s flagellum principum and Francis’ chain of gold may have marked the definite achievement of literary success, such as it was, and of worldly triumph, but this meeting with Charles was, veritably, Pietro Aretino’s Field of the Cloth of Gold.


If Aretino, at this time, was probably the most powerful man in Italy, perhaps in the world, the reason is to be found in the new force which he had discovered, that force which we today would call “the power of the press.” Aretino himself regarded it as the power of his pen. He himself did not realize the right Promethean fire with which he was playing. All he knew was that he had a tremendous instrument in his hands, and he employed it quite as unscrupulously as it, consistently, has been employed since his time. he was capable — see his Letters — of being quite as hypocritical as the press of today.

We have seen, largely, who his worldly friends were — kings and emperors, dukes and doges, popes and prelates — and there would be little point in repeating their names here. A glance at the names of those to whom his letters are addressed is indicative. As to his literary friends, Hutton 38 lists: Ariosto; Bembo; Machiavelli; Guicciardini; Vittoria Colonna, she for whom Michelangelo platonically pined away; Annibal Caro; Monsignore della Casa; Bernardo Tasso; Benedetto Varchi; Trissino; Speroni; Molza; Agnuolo Firenzuola; Paolo Manuzio; Alamanni; Bernardo Accolti; Guidiccione; Benedetto Marcello; Paolo Giovio; Lorenzo Veniero; Girolamo Parabasco; Bernardo Clesio, Cardinal of tent: and Veronica Gambara. It is the authors’ blue book of an age.

Many of these ostensible friendships, when not inspired by fear, were due, it is probable, to policy; but a surprising number of them were deep-rooted and sincere. As to just how much illusion the writers of the time harbored with regard to the work of Pietro, one cannot say. It is hard to get a perspective on one’s own generation.

As to Aretino’s friendships among artists, they included: Titian; Sansovino; Giovanni da Udine; Sodoma; Leone Leoni; Moretto; Tintoretto; Vasari; Sebastiano del Piombo; Luigi Anichi and Marcantonio Raimondi, engravers; Giulio Romano; Raphael; and Michelangelo. A good account of Aretino’s relations with Michelangelo will be found in Merejkowski’s work. He met Raphael in Rome, at the house of his early patron, Chigi. “It is a part of the fame of Aretino,” says Hutton, “that such men as Michelangelo were his friends.” We see, however, in Michelangelo’s case, that the nature of the “friendship” was, upon occasion, somewhat dubious. His very real friendship with Titian — who was, in all likelihood, as fleshly in his appetites as the blonde women he painted, or as Aretino himself — was the noblest side of the great Scourge’s life.


Pietro’s last years were of a piece with the rest of his weird life. He was crowned by academies. His second book of Letters, published in 1542, was dedicated to Henry VIII. of England, who gave the author, in return, a promise — it proved to be no more than a promise — of a reward of three 39 hundred crowns. Aretino was led to accuse the British ambassador of having stolen the money, and this brought on one of the scenes of his old age, when the ambassador, accompanied by six armed men, waylaid Aretino, then an old man, and beat him. Aretino then had to suffer the reproaches of his numerous enemies for not avenging himself. But the general feeling was with Aretino. The shading which De Sanctis, for example, gives this affair is misleading.

In 1550, Aretino’s native village rises up to honor him again, this time with the high-sounding title of gonfaloniere.17 In payment for a sonnet praising Pope Julius III. he receives one thousand scudi, and in June of 1550, the pontiff creates him a cavalier of St. Peter, with — what was more to Aretino’s taste, for he always preferred cash to empty honors — a pension of eighty scudi a year.

It was then that there came talk of the cardinal’s hat. Titian interested himself in the matter with Charles V., who looked favorably upon the idea. But there was a hitch somewhere; the hat was not offered. The question is, if it had been, would Aretino have left Venice, his “rock of safety,” to return to Rome?

Though he was not made a cardinal, the Pope did invite him to come to Rome as his guest, telling him it would be a second jubilee, and that all the world would flock to see him. Drawn, possibly, by a lingering hope of the red hat, Aretino journeyed, old as he was, to the city of the seven hills and was splendidly received. They endeavored to persuade him to remain there, but he declined.

He returned to die in his loved Venice, not in the famous casa Aretina, where he had spent so many colorful years18 — he had been forced to give that up in 1551 — but in his new home, the house of Leonardo Dandolo in the parish of San Luca on the Riva del Carbin.

In 1556, one of his oldest friends, Doni, the writer, turned 40 on him and attacked him, prophesying his death. Aretino died that year.


It is with the extremities of his career, his birth and death, that the detractors and vilifiers of Aretino seem to have done their worst. It is at these points that Legend steps in to add its touch of mendacious picturesqueness. We have seen Pietro, according to the Legend, born the son of a prostitute, robbing his mother at the age of thirteen, kicked out of Rome for his Sonnets, becoming a Capuchin, etc. And now, with his death —

He died, the prevailing account tells us, by falling over backward from his chair in a fit of laughter — ribald laugher, the followers of the Vita add. Look up Aretino in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and you will find this account repeated there, that he died in a fit of laughter at an obscene story told him by one of his own sisters. Camerini19 tells us that Aretino’s sisters20 (he makes it plural) were narrating to him the experiments in lust which they had made in a bordello of Arezzo — “experiments,” he says, “Of which Giulio Romano had not dreamed in those designs of which Aretino illustrated with his pen and Marco Aurelio21 Raimondi with his burin.”

It is Camerini, also, who gives the story of the holy oils.

It is, from a literary point of view, all very satisfying, especially when rounded out by the cosmic insolence of that ascribed epitaph, which, in its Latin version, reads:

Intactus Deus est illi, causamque rogatus
Hanc dedit. Ille, inquit, non mihi notus erat.

The “non mihi notus erat” is superb but, in all probability, apocryphal.

The facts seem to be that Aretino did die by falling backward from his chair. His death was due to apoplexy. Il divino 41 had become, in the words of Cosimo de’ Medici, il mortal Pietro Aretino. No sooner was he dead than he became a name that was not mentioned in the presence of a lady.22


This, then, was the end of Pietro Aretino, the first modern journalist, perhaps the greatest blackmailer in all history, the first truly modern exponent of the “poison pen,” to lift one of the pet phrases of our own brethren of the yellow press. There is a constant temptation, in the case of Aretino, to pile up names and adjectives; he lends himself to it so readily. But when the adjectives and the picturesque and picaresque titles have been sifted, what remains?

Edward Hutton calls him “the founder of the European press” and adds that he “used the hitherto unsuspected weapon of publicity with an incomparable appreciation of its power.” For “European press,” one might read “modern press.”

“And if we add to this,” continues the Englishman, in the introduction to his biography, “that he contrived a weapon for his own ends which has in our day come to be more powerful than any established government or elected parliament or hereditary monarchy — publicity, the press — there is more than sufficient excuse for this book. . . . Aretino’s virtues . . . are always those of a journalist, never those of a man of letters. His strength is in his spontaneity, his ability to write what is in his head almost without a second thought.”

And, it may here be parenthesized, is not this the prime virtue of the modern newspaper man — his spontaneity? Your present-day reporter also writes “what is in his head, almost without a second thought;” and if he does not happen, usually, to have a head, it is that which accounts for the poor quality of our contemporary journalism. Aretino, who, in his more pompous letters, is the prototype of the 42 twentieth-century editorial-writer, in his giudizii and his Pasquinades is, frequently, the antecedent of the rewrite-man; while in his Ragionamenti, he is the Ring Lardner, risen out of the local room.

Yes, Aretino was the first of the tribe of “yellow” journalists. He told the truth, not lies — “per finger no, ma per predire il vero,”23 he assures us in one of his sonnets — and he strutted all over the shop about it; but so, too, does Mr. Hearst. Something, it is to be presumed, may depend on the manner in which the truth is told, and the act of telling it may readily become the worst form of blackmail. In any event, the man who goes in for it makes the discovery of a certain power; he makes powerful friends and powerful enemies; and this is what Aretino did. If the latter were living today, there is not much doubt that he would be one of our “Napoleans of the Press.”


It is interesting to note that modern journalism grew out of the Renaissance, in the person of Pietro Aretino, the greatest of the Renaissance decadents. Aretino revolutionized the character of two of the nearest approaches to the thing that the Revival of Learning had sported: the Pasquinade and the giudizio.

Pasquin was a fifteenth-century schoolmaster. Like many schoolmasters, he had a scurrilous tongue. The Pasquinade, therefore, retains the qualities of its nominal founder: scholasticism and scurrility.

“Pasquin, indeed,” says Hutton, “is of the modern world and is a sign of the return of free satire, anonymous and violent and often as vulgar and salacious as anything in antiquity. He is not really of the people: he is the creation of the learned, of scholars and men of letters. He is part of the Renaissance, and, in the age of Aretino, was bound to be abused. But he was already famous before Aretino transformed 43 him for his own purposes during the election of Pope Adrian VI.”

The Pasquinades were originally attached to the statue of Pasquino, but they seem very early to have been distributed in the form of fly-sheets, in the manner of the istorie or “extras” which are cried in the first act of La Cortigiana. The first Pasquinades were extremely pedantic; they were of the scholars, not of the people. Aretino transformed these exercises and made them popular, for his own purpose, which at the time happened to be the advancement of Cardinal de’ Medici’s claim to the papal throne. Aretino turned out his Pasquinades, furiously and daily. The fact that he “lost the election” mattered little; he had made himself famous — and infamous. It was at this time that amazement was expressed at the college of cardinals’ not being able to silence him. It was the old order against the new; the latter had shown its teeth and won, even in the temporary victory of the old.

And when, later, the Doge of Venice interfered to make peace between Aretino and the Pope, it was but another sign that the press had been recognized and had to be tolerated, whether the powers that be liked it, altogether, or not. A new social entity had been discovered, public opinion, the new tyrant of the new democracies. The same might be said of Francis I.’s chain of gold; kings as well as doges bowed.

Aretino revolutionized the giudizio, as well as the Pasquinade. The former, before his time, had been an Old Moore’s Almanac. Pietro cut out the astrology and the weather and, as the modern journalist would say, “played up the news,” putting in, often, even a little more “punch” than would get by the average copy desk of today. The giudizzi had at first appeared once a year, but who ever heard of a once-a-year newspaper? Aretino issued one whenever he felt the need of self-expression or money, particularly the latter.

Indeed, Aretino’s writings as a whole constitute a sort of daily journal of his times. Their quality, with the exception of the Ragionamenti and his plays, is essentially ephemeral. It is because their author so sums up his age, the chromatic cinquecento, that they are worth preserving and worth reading.


Aretino is not only the first modern journalist, he is the first modern critic of painting.

Like Baudelaire, whom Courbet taught to mix a palette, Pietro, it is likely, studied painting in his youth, and like Baudelaire, he retained a keen interest in the art all his life, while his dearest and closest friendships lay among painters. We know, at any rate, that he was lampooned by his enemies as having been formerly a painter;24 but if it was the fact that he had been, there was in it nothing strange. Many a writer has walked through the studio, returned to it and remained to chat. Aretino’s chattings (“ciancie,” he would have called them) are our first modern art criticism.

Speaking of this, Eugenio Camerini says:

“The truth is, Aretino, in his writings, displays sometimes the desire to compete with the rich palette of his painter friends. His familiarity with Titian and his affection for the art helped him sufficiently. Certainly, the best colorists among French writers of today have served their apprenticeship to art, either as students or as admirers. Dante drew. Aretino was fond of decoration and color-harmony, both in his habits of thought and in his person; dissonance appeared only in his actions.”

The italics here are the present writer’s own; they are employed to stress what impresses him as being an important point in any “psyching” which may be attempted of Pietro.

The fact would seem to be, Aretino had a natural inclination 45 toward the art of painting, which was piqued by association. When a man is found consorting with painters or writers, barbers or plumbers, as a class, it generally means that he has some predilection for one pursuit or the other. In Rome, we find Aretino, with Raimondi and Giulio Romano, getting into a scrape over the artists’ designs and Pietro’s Sonnets. When he goes to Venice, his friend, Sansovino, makes him acquainted with Titian, and the three set up their “triumvirate.” The triple friendship, so far as we are able to judge, was a very genuine one on all sides. It is easy to point out that Aretino was useful to both Titian and Sansovino in the capacity of press agent. In a way, he was their press agent. He introduced Titian to Charles V. and put himself out of the way to procure commissions for his painter friend. We have seen that he was accused of taking a “rake-off” on these orders. But there was, in this three-sided friendship, something far deeper than this. Any one who doubts it has but to read Aretino’s letters to Titian. They are, by far, the sincerest he ever penned. In these, he is human, not pompous, and at least one of them, the one describing the view from his window in Venice, has a true plastic quality.25

In these letters, too, we glimpse a total absence of “side” between the men. Titian, like the women he painted, had a good, lusty appetite for life that almost rivaled Aretino’s own. We see him as a chap who liked a good bottle of wine, and pretty girl and a well-cooked thrush.26 Highest compliment of all, Titian often painted in the casa Aretina, the walls of which he decorated with his brush. And Aretino sought the painter’s opinion on everything from the character of his daughter Adria’s face to the color qualities of a landscape. He took a keen interest in his friend’s work, and his description of the “Annunciation,” now lost to us, is a bit of verbal coloring in the master’s own style.

No, there would seem to be some deeper explanation of this triumvirate than mere utility.

“We may, perhaps ask,” writes Hutton, “what can have been the attraction of such a man as Aretino for the noble Titian? This certainly: that Aretino, who respected nothing else, respected the arts. But to ask such a question is to misunderstand not only Aretino, but still more Titian himself. A thousand things bound them together. . . . for Aretino was undoubtedly one of the most living and the most rich personalities of his day: he could give Titian as much as he took from him . . . he knew everything about everybody, he enjoyed enormously everything about everybody. His intellect, too, was of a high order, he understood everything and perhaps everybody. In a sense he must have completed Titian . . . He must not only have completed, but have amused Titian. Titian painted him, and he certainly never had a more splendid or a richer subject. He painted him over and over again: in the portrait now in the Pitti Palace, then in that one in the Chigi Palace at Rome. He appears, too, as Pilate in the Ecce Homo, now in Vienna. They enjoyed life together intellectually, socially, and sensually.”

Pietro sat as a model to other painters, including Sebastiano del Piombo. Of the latter’s portrait of the Scourge, Vasari, in his Vita di Sebastiano, gives us the following description:

“He made a portrait also, at this time, of M. Pietro Aretino, and he did it in such a manner that, beyond obtaining a likeness, he achieved a stupendous bit of painting, through the five or six different shades of black which he obtained in the subject’s clothes: velvet, satin, sarcanet, damask and cloth, while over it all trailed the blackest of black beards, as living and life-like as possible. In his hand, he (Aretino) has, in this portrait, a branch of laurel and a tablet, on which is inscribed the name of Clement VII., with, in front of this, two masks, the one beautiful for its expression of virtue, the other for its appearance of vice. This painting 47 Pietro gave to his native province, and his fellow citizens have placed it in the public hall of their Consiglio, thus honoring the memory of the genius who is their townsman and receiving no less honor from him.”

Aretino had a real flair for painting criticism. In his criticism, he is a pure realist, of the school of Titian. He has no suspicion that painting may have any other end. He would not have appreciated the Byzantines or other primitives. But in this, he was true to his age. It is only within the last century that something beyond realism has come into painting.

We should be grateful for one thing, and that is, that he was not a moralist in his criticism. De Sanctis finds fault with him on this score, but De Sanctis is wrong. There is no reason why the sight of a beautiful landscape should awake “any moral impression or any elevation of soul.” Aretino was not a nature-worshiper or a theorist of any sort. He was a pure sensualist in his reactions, and this it was that would have made him an excellent critic of the art of painting at any time from his own century to, let us say, the advent of Manet.


What, finally, is the literary significance, the literary importance of Pietro Aretino? This question has been answered, to a degree, at the outset of this paper; the answer is the justification of the present translation of Aretino’s representative works. But a few details remain to be sketched in.

In the first place, Pietro had few if any illusions with regard to his own literary quality. Just as he made capital of his lack of academic knowledge by turning on the pedants, so he sometimes bragged about the manner in which he “got by,” as we would say, in a literary way. In his sonnet, Togli il lauro, he tells us, quite frankly, “Non son poeta” — “I am not a poet” — and boasts that, while “neither a poet nor 48 an emperor,” he yet has filched the laurels from Homer’s and from Caesar’s brow. In this sonnet also he asserts that his style has been his star, and that his reputation is due, not to fictionizing (per finger no) but to speaking the truth. We know that, while with unwise worldlings, he sometimes passed as a “learned man,” he himself had no such illusions; and we know, too, that he had a vast and slightly overweening respect for writers and men of letter; these latter were the only ones towards whom he seems to have cherished a salutary fear; a mere prince of the earth might be cast down by the thunder of the famed Aretino pen, but a minor pedant, through the employment of a similar weapon, might work his ruin.

What was this “Aretino style?” Aretino himself tells us that the phrase was coined through “the hairsplittings of pedants,” but he nourished the legend. Speaking of Aretino’s style, Hutton is worth quoting once more:

“Aretino’s page is full of life, hard to read, spontaneous and yet packed tight, worked upon and forged, full of queer instances and odd comparisons, glittering with wit and every sort of comic exaggeration. Such work does not exist outside his pages. His successor was Rabelais; but also Molière. He has the robust joy of the one, but something of the intellectual charm of the other.”

On the whole, Hutton finds him “the most significant and certainly the nearest to life of any Italian writer of his day.”

Aretino’s greatest contribution lies in the breath of realism which, in his revolt against pedantry and academicism, he brought to literature. As his British biographer remarks, his work has “the smell of the city” and “the odour of life.” It has all the futile turmoil, all the grandiloquent and sterile gestures of the metropolis.

But Aretino was not always, by any means, the realist and the modernist. As a matter of fact, by far the greater bulk of his prose work, if we take his pompously inflated letters 49 (many of them)27 and his turgidly pietistic religious writings over against his Ragionamenti and his plays, is of the old, rather than of the newer school.

Among the severer of Aretino’s critics were the Frenchmen, Bayle and Montaigne. The former wrote:

“This man who is so satiric a poet, is prodigal of his praises to the last degree. We find the most pompous hyperboles and the most rampant flatteries in those letters which he wrote to kings and princes, to the generals of armies, to cardinals and to the other great ones of the world. To such an extent is this true that one sees in him the airs of an amateur, who is endeavoring to make himself feared or to extort favors, and all the baseness of an author who is demanding, very humbly, a morsel of bread. He draws upon the most touching expressions to depict his poverty; and he resorts even to the language of Canaan — makes use of devout phrases, that is — the better to excite compassion and to move to charity those persons who look to God for the recompense of their good works.”

Bayle then goes on to speak of the letters.

“We have,” he says, “six volumes of the letters, which are not worth a great deal (qui ne valent pas grand’ chose) . . . It is a dry work, and one very like an unfurnished house in a waste and sandy place.”

Mènage also has something to say on the subject.

“I have read,” he says, “all the letters of Pietro Aretino, without finding in them anything which I was able to make use of in any of my books. There is nothing but the style to be had from their reading.

While Mènage praises the style, Montaigne condemns it as: “A fashion of speaking that is puffed and gushy, made up of ingenious points, in truth, but far-fetched and fantastic.” 50 The author of the Essays, nevertheless, concedes Aretino a “certain eloquence.”

Commenting on such passages as these, Camerini makes what impresses one as being a very good criticism of Aretino’s critics.

“Bayle and Montaigne,” he says, “were not able to savor Aretino’s style, for the reason that the one was not looking for and the other did not grasp that species of erudition which is to be found in Aretino’s writings: an erudition based, not upon ancient standards or solemn facts, but upon a feeling for life, the same erudition that Macaulay was to transform into a splendid picture of the life of nations.”

And this, finally, is Aretino’s contribution: that, breaking the chains of a tradition that had become slavery, he as the first to declare war on the tribe of pedants, whom, like the poor, we have always with us. The fact that his revolt was motivated by purely selfish reasons means, simply, that it was a vital matter with him.


And yet, Aretino’s direct influence, even upon his own literature, has been surprisingly small. He may have had “the root of all good literature in him, in his freedom from pedantry and closeness to life,”28 but it was slow in telling. His influence was greater in France than in Italy. It is generally conceded that Rabelais owes him a distinct debt, as does Molière, particularly in his Tartuffe. We do not know just how direct Shakespeare’s indirect debt was, but Aretino’s Marescalco would appear to have been the antecedent of Malvolio, though it cannot compare with the Elizabethan character in full-flavored richness. But the Venice of Pietro was the Venice of Shakespeare’s early plays, from whatever source the English poet got them.

Otherwise, Aretino’s influence in English has been almost entirely negligible. Sir Thomas Wyatt, in his Penitential 51 Psalms, owes Aretino something; the early part of Sir Thomas’ work was translated, and the latter part imitated, from the Italian writer’s Sette Psalmi. One agrees with Hutton, however, that Sir Thomas is “very dull stuff.”

“We also find Thomas Nash referred to by Lodge as “the true English Aretino.” This seems to have been due, chiefly, to the fact that Nash, like Aretino, employed the vernacular for comic effect and was given to the coining of “boisterous” words from other languages. Aside from this, there is not much in common between the two.

“Here, it may be remarked that Shakespeare also shares these same qualities with Aretino, and it was only a few years later that he was to perform his own experiments in the use of the vernacular (also for “comic relief”).

“References to Aretino in the sixteenth century are fairly numerous. Hutton cites a number from Gabriel Harvey’s Marginalia, published under the editorship of G. C. Moore Smith at the Shakespeare Head Press, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1913.


As to translation, Aretino, as stated, has been practically untouched in English. Hutton says that the only translation into English of any of his works was The Crafty Whore, published in London in 1658 and taken partly from the Ragionamenti. This is not precisely correct.29 There is a translation of the Dialogues, made by I do not know whom, that is sold by the “bookleggers” at an exorbitant price. There is also a very lewd rendering of the Sonetti lussuriosi, by “an English poet,” rumored to be from the pen of Oscar Wilde, but which, those who have read it assure me, Oscar undoubtedly never saw. At the time I write this, I have not been able to get hold of either of these translations. That of the Dialogues is, probably, the 6-volume one published by Isodore Liseux in 1889.30

There would seem, then, to be room for a translation of at least the representative works, not for the smut-hounds, whose exclusive property Aretino has been in the past, but for the general cultivated reader, as well as for scholars whose working language happens to be English.


Aretino’s ultimate importance lies, not so much in what he wrote as in what he was, what he stood for. With Ariosto, Titian and Machiavelli, he is the cinquecento. But the others, even Cellini, invoked the past; Aretino insulted it — insulted it, wholesomely.

His archetypal enemy is Luther, from whose half-baked pedantry has sprung the unlovely phenomenon of Protestantism, which achieves a horrible culmination in the barren and ugly little frame meeting house of the American prairies. Luther appealed to the individual conscience and, and by so doing, set up a new tyranny, the tyranny of the illiterate. Aretino appealed only to — Pietro Aretino and his will; but in the course of the process, he set in motion the tyranny of the modern press.

Hutton calls Aretino “the negation of the Renaissance.” He was, if we take “Renaissance” in its narrower sense, that of the Revival of Classical Learning; but this, as any undergraduate student of history knows, was not the whole Renaissance; it was merely one side of the Renascence. Let us say that Aretino was, rather, the Renaissance on its last legs, the Renaissance gone to seed. He represents the well known phenomenon of decadence. There is no need to get out our Paul Bourget and our Havelock Ellis to tell us this. What a glorious red rag he would have been to that Philistine bull, Max Nordau!

The trouble is, the word decadence is too frequently garbled to imply something naughty, like the Fleurs du mal. 53 Suppose we take it for once, in its true technical sense,31 as a process of breaking up and breaking down — as an expansion, a pushing out and back of the limits of language, life and thought. In this process, the old becomes a manure-heap to fertilize the growth of the new. But from this rich and decomposing earth there sometimes spring strange, poisonous flowers, like the mandragora. Of such was Pietro Aretino, the nightshade of the sixteenth century.32


1 See the quotation from this letter in De Sanctis’ essay.

2 See Miscellaneous Sonnets, III.

3 Ibid., IV.

4 This was “the house of Domenico Bolani, halfway between the Ca d’Oro and the Rialto bridge opposite the Rialto in the best part of the Grand Canal.” (Hutton, op cit.)

5 See Appendix III.

6 See Appendix I.

7 See the quotation from this letter in De Sanctis.

8 See De Sanctis’ note to his essay.

9 See Appendix I.

10 See ibid.

11 See De Sanctis; also Camerini, Appendix I.

12 Ricatto, in Italian. See Appendix II.

13 See Appendix I.

14 See, in Vol II., Letters, XV.

15 Miscellaneous Sonnets, II.

16 Hutton’s phrase.

17 Standard-bearer.

18 About twenty, in all.

19 See Appendix I.

20 Apparent family relationships in Aretino’s case are almost always to be distrusted.

21 Sic.

22 See De Sanctis’ shudders.

23 See Miscellaneous Sonnets, IV.

24 “ . . . Non havessi lassato il tuo pennello,
Se pyntor fustu un tempo, come io odo.”
(Quoted by A. Luzio, Pietr Aretino nei primi suoi anni a Venezia. See Bibliography, Appendix IV.

25 See De Sanctis’ essays.

26 See Letters, XI.

27 On the other hand, compare his letters to his real cronies, such as the one to Girolamo Agnelli, thanking him for his gift of wine (Letters, VII.) or the one to the Count Manfredo di Collalto, acknowledging a gift of thrushes (Letters, XI.)

28 Hutton, op cit., p. 264.

29 The author catches himself up in a footnote, with a reference to Liseux.

30 I have, since, confirmed this.

31 See Bourget’s paper on Baudelaire in Essais sur la psychologie contemporaine. The passage will be found translated by Havelock Ellis in the latter’s introduction to John Howard’s English version of Huysmans’ A Rebours (Lieber and Lewis, 1922).

32 Alfred Semerau (Pietro Aretino, Ein Bild aus der Renaissance, Verlag Karl Konig, Wien und Leipzig) objects to Pietro’s being termed “den Caesar Borgia der Literature.’





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