Pietro Aretino, a Renaissance Pornographer

History hasn’t been particularly kind to Pietro Aretino. From shortly after his death until 1966, all of his writings were placed on the papal index of forbidden books. As a result, until recently, there had been little opportunity to study them. However, the number and quality of his portraits during the Renaissance attest to his importance. The Palatine Gallery at Palazzo Pitti houses an over-lifesize portrait of Aretino by Titian, painted in the artist’s signature style of painting popes and emperors. Aretino gave the portrait to Cosimo de’ Medici as a gift to establish his presence at the Florentine court. He has also been depicted on medals (a model used by rulers) and in print by Raphael’s “official printmaker,” Marcantonio Raimondi.

Pietro Aretino on a medal (c. 1542)

Born in Arezzo in 1492, Aretino amassed considerable wealth and influence through his clever, astutely observed satirical writings and verse. He was forced to flee Rome after his sonetti lussuriosi (“Lustful Sonnets”), describing the sixteen positions depicted in Raimondi’s erotic engravings, scandalised society. This was the first time pornographic text and imagery appeared together, and the few remaining fragments are housed in the British Museum.

He had an impact on contemporary politics and art as a distinguished Italian poet, dramatist, author, satirist and playwright. When he was exiled from his hometown, he spent about a decade in Perugia before being transferred to Rome. He was then forced to flee Rome as a result of his ‘Lewd Sonnets’ and obloquy.  He then moved to Venice, where he became a venerated figure and spent the rest of his life living a grand and decadent life.  His combination of literary flattery and blackmail enabled him to live in a palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal, which he shared with a number of men and women. He died as he lived, having a great time. He is said to have suffocated after laughing so hard at a dirty joke told by his sister that he died, with some claiming he suffocated and others claiming he fell off his chair, cracking his head.

“Der Tod des Dichters Pietro Aretino” by Anselm Feuerbach (1854)

Aretino was not alone in demonstrating little discrimination between men and women in terms of sexual partners. Despite the fact that practise society appeared to be relaxed, there were strict rules. In 1415, the Florentines established heterosexual state brothels in an attempt to steer young men away from homosexuality, and the Doge of Venice issued an edict requiring women to dress to impress and expose as much flesh as possible in order to arouse male passions. In France, it was referred to as doing it the “Italian way,” and anyone caught in the act and convicted could be executed.

Aretino is frequently mentioned and praised in Elizabethan and later works, with comments ranging from Nashe’s (The Unfortunate Traveller) “it was one of the wittiest knaves that ever God made” to Milton’s Areopagitica’s “that notorious ribald of Arezzo.”

“Portrait of Aretino” by Titian (1545)

In the mid-1650s, the English traveller Sir John Reresby paid a visit to Aretino’s grave in the church of San Luca in Venice. He claims that the inquisitors removed the epitaph which he translated as “Aretino, the Tuscan poet, lies here, and who else has the world abused but God, and why? He claimed he didn’t know him.” Because the church was demolished, the tomb at the church no longer exists.

Hundreds of years later, Aretino’s texts are still considered as contentious. Michael Nyman, a composer, set some of Aretino’s Sonetti lussuriosi to music in 2007 under the title 8 Lust Songs. at a 2008 performance at Cadogan Hall in London, the printed programmes were withdrawn due to allegations of obscenity.

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