From The Works of Aretino, Translated into English from the original Italian, with a critical and biographical essay by Samuel Putnam, Illustrations by The Marquis de Bayros in Two Volumes; Pascal Covici: Chicago; 1926; Volume II., pp. 290-292.
In the Giulio Bertoni edition of the Ragnionament (Parma, 1923), “Classici dell’ Amore”), there is an anonymous Introduzione that impresses me as worth reproducing. I give it below:
Of Pietro Aretino, it has been said that he was the representative of the most visible side of Italian life in the cinquecento. In truth, he was the most significant type, and one endowed with a degree of genius, of the moral baseness of that age. The son of a cobbler of Arezzo, he succeeded, with his native impudence, in rising, if not to the pedestal of glory, at least to that of fame. Scholastically, Aretino is to be classified among those versatile writers who are occupied with diverse literary forms, from letter writing to comedy, and so are called polygraphists. A personality purely artistic these writers never possess.
They treat of everything, but, principally, of what has reference to private life, mediocre and little things, in opposition to which the Aristotelians rear the classic concept. The fame of Aretino comes, indubitably, not so much from the spirit of the time as from that fact that he had forged from his pen a tremendous weapon of derision and satire and so struck all with admiration. Especially against the powerful and the high prelates did Aretino direct his injurious, and often merited, darts. But it is not for this reason to be believed that his cutting vivacity as a flaying polemic had any noble end, animated, as it was, by an inexpressive exuberance that frequently became vulgarity. Aretino was bent upon lucre, which he — euphemistically — called “the moving power of my ink.” He adulated the powerful, making them pay profusely, and at times he would not keep still about their faults, even when he had received the highest sums. An inspired letter writer has said that Aretino had for successors in the art of blackmail “certain journalists.” And indeed, the system by which Aretino organized those speculations which procured him the money to live surrounded by a court of vicious men and women does anticipate that of certain libellists of our time. Typical and to the point were the Giudizii, which were no more than an almanac; in which, with the contempt 291 of the most immaculate moral paladin, Aretino denudates the vices and the obscenities of the patrician world. And then, there were gifts, sums and favors which were made to the impudent writer because his “company” had ceased. Aretino knew profoundly the vices of the society of his time and the cowardice of others, and so, he drew down a profit for his own audacity.
The phenomenon of the predominance of this uncultivated man over his powerful contemporaries is not otherwise to be explained. The fluent ability of his pen — Aretino had a style puffed, awkward but sufficiently expressive — and the audacity of the man in his character of filibuster permitted him to live as a prince on the tribute which his vassals paid him as his right. The power of Aretino was so great, so great the terror which was felt of him, that he could even dream of obtaining a cardinal’s hat, and, to the end, he wrote religious works. Changeful by temperament, Aretino was, some would tell us, always sincere, as much so in his invectives as in his eulogies, in his hates as in his amends. This hypothesis, which sees men as the offspring of their age and of the society in which they live, from which they have inherited in the most visible manner their vices and their virtues, strikes us as being excessively benevolent. Otherwise, those biographers of Aretino are rare who do not constantly speak of their subject in the language of reprobation.
Among the typical works of Aretino are the Pasqunades on the occasion of the election to the papacy of Adrian VI., the pontiff who reacted against the licentious and worldly life of the court of Leo X. Through some of his attacks, Pietro Aretino ran more than one risk, and one time he even received a dagger thrust. At Venice, whither he had repaired, he lived surrounded with the halo of “scourge of princes.”
We have already said that, in literature, he belongs to the rebels against the Aristotelian rules. Aretino had, in fact, much genius and little culture. But of these qualities he was fully conscious, to such a degree that he defended rigorously the law of pure genius and set up against classicism the imitation of nature.
And yet, his writings, in a style that is often awkward, give the effect of great haste, and it cannot be denied that there is lacking in them the free and true effect of life. From his pen are known his letters, which are superabundant, his comedies and also a tragedy, the Orazia, which draws its motive from the episode, known in Roman history, of the Orazi and the Curiazi. His best things, those which truly attain a perfected artistic form, are 292 represented by the Ragionamenti and by those celebrated Sonnetti lussuriosi commentating certain precious designs by Romano.