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. 36-42.
PIETRO DE ARETINO
In his letters, Aretino is to be seen at his worst and at his best. At his worst as an always designing hypocrite, fawning — almost incredibly, at times — on princes, prelates and the powerful ones of the earth, and sniffling the usual religious buncombe, and patriotic platitudes. At his best as the good fellow, enjoying the good things of life, a good bottle of wine, a pretty girl, a well-cooked thrush — with a wholesome relish. At his very best, in his letters to Titian and other artist, as a highly sensitized and keenly intelligent art critic. His hypocrisy, as has been said, was part of his fame; and it is of interest to not that even in his most servile epistles to kings, popes and emperors, there is to be found, beneath the all too obvious flattery, an undercurrent of threats. See, for example, his letters to the Duke d’Atri and the Duke de Montmorency (XLIV. And XLV.), in which he demands a fixed stipend for “praising” Francis I. It is such letters that de Sanctis calls “masterpieces of malice and effrontery.
“He said,”1 Camerini2 tells us, “that it was the prick of want and not the spur of fame that led him to soil paper. His letters were mercantile documents, and being honored, with him, consisted in being paid. ‘With me,’ he added, ‘there is a necessity of transforming digressions, metaphors, pedagogicalisms into levers that move and pincers that open. It is necessary for me, in my writings, to rouse others from their avaricious sleep, and so I need the baptism of invention and of locutions which will fetch me crowns of gold and not of laurel.’ Something, in short, between a ‘jimmy’ and a lead-pipe.3 One would not be able to attribute anything more to him, if it were not that a certain irony leaks out, when he abases himself to say: 40 ‘No one thinks so ill of me as to believe that I do not know the weak figure I cut and the triviality of my complexion, which is without any point of relief.’ Yet . . . Aretino marks a departure from the epistolographers of his century in his presentiments of modernity. He is notable, not so much for those hyperboles, of the seventeenth century, as for the forms and conceits which might be said to be of our time, and which in his day must have made a strange impression. . . . These two masks may be taken as representing the writer (of the day) in his double aspect: the mendicant and literary retainer, like the poets of ancient Rome; and the independent writer, who anticipates modern frankness, but who was slow in developing, even in a country like England. Aretino sometimes asks charity, sometimes demands tribute, and he lacks neither philanthropists nor tributaries. Battista Tornielli wrote him: ‘Your pen has made you, as it were, the conqueror of all the princes of the world, who are in the position of being your tributaries and feudal subjects. You ought . . . to be decorated with those titles which were given the old Roman emperors, according to the provinces they had conquered.’ ”
Not only as a man but as a stylist, Aretino is frequently at his worst in his letters. His style in the state communications is tortuous, ornate and effusive. It reminds one of the oration which a high school junior, who had been a little too attentive to his Cicero,4 might turn out. It is deadly, the worst of models. This style was severely criticized by French writers, including Bayle, Ménage and Montaigne. Their criticisms will be found in an appendix.5 But criticism like that of Montaigne, for example, should be taken with such critical correctives as those supplied by Camerini.6 Even in the murkiest spots, there are astonishing sparks, while there are a number of extended passages of really fine writing — such — to mention but two — as the letter to Titian describing the view from a Venetian window, or the letter describing the death of Giovanni de’ Medici. 41 The letters in which he set forth his views of writing and his hatred of pedants are almost invariably good reading; it is to be regretted he did not always follow his own precepts.7
But it is for the picture they give us of a century and of the Venice of his day that Aretino’s letters are preeminently valuable. It is in these letters, remarks Hutton, “that we find perhaps the best picture of the city at this time — in the letters of Aretino, who, vile as he was, was yet a man of genius; scoundrel though he was, was yet full of humanity; brutal though he was, was yet full of pity and love for the miserable, the unfortunate, the poor; ignoble though he was, was yet able to dominate the Italy of his time.” The Lettere are, indeed, a piece of valuable historical documentation for the age of Charles V.
However, history is more than likely to be dull reading. The joy lies in the little revelations. Speaking of Casanova, Arthur Machen writes:
“ . . . the parts of him which I recall with the greatest pleasure are the small adventures and the back alley business rather than the meetings with kings and popes and philosophers. I like to hear of little things; of the super of pork chops that the scopatore santissimo provided for his guests; of the ways of Italian strolling players in the eighteenth century ‘fit-ups’; of that magic figure that the witch was to bathe in blood; of the significant salad prepared in the Casino at Venice; of the Italian scholar correcting proofs of the Decameron in a London coffee-house. There are some people who prefer the small talk in the dressing-room to the larger speech of the stage; and I am one of them.”
You will find a number of these “significant salads” in Pietro’s letters. They are the spice to a sometimes too heavy pudding. The Letters give us the detail with which to fill in the picture. Outside of eating, drinking, making love, collecting his revenues and running the universe, Aretino had very little to do.
1 Writing to Bembo in a well known letter.
2 Prefazione al primo volume delle Lettere dell’ Aretino, Milano, Daelli, 1864, reprinted, Prefazione alle Commedie, Casa Editrice Sonzogno, Milano. See also Camerini’s article: I corrispondenti dell’ Aretino, Rivista critica, Milano, 1869. See Appendices I and IV.
3 il grimaldello e la sveglia.
4 See Appendix IV.
7 In the present translation, no effort whatever has been made to touch up Aretino’s style. It has been left, in the state epistles, in all its labored fulsomeness. The attempt has been, always, to convey the spirit.