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[Permission to use this text has been kindly granted by Dr. Hilary Putnam — with profound thanks]

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. 279-289.




Eugenio Camerini, mid-nineteenth century Italian critic, published in 1869, in the Rivista critica, of which he was an editor at Milan, an article on “The Correspondents of Aretino” (I correspondenti dell’ Aretino). Part of this material is reproduced in the Prefazione to his edition of the Commedie (Casa Editrice Sonzogno, Milan). His preface to the comedies begins with a section on the “Life and Customs” (Vita e Costumi) of Aretino:

Pietro Aretino, the bastard son of one Luigi Bacci of Aretino and one Tita, was, as it were, consecrated to impure loves from his mother’s womb, and to this consecration he was faithful all his life. Born in 1492, he died at about the age of sixty-five, in 1557.

Margutte died from laughter at seeing a female monkey trying the tricks which Morgante had endeavored to conceal from her. Of Aretino, it is said that he died in a fit of laughter at hearing his sisters tell of the experiments in lust which they had made in a bordello of Arezzo, experiments of which Giulio Romano had not dreamed in those designs which Aretino illustrated with his pen and Marco Aurelio Raimondi with his burin.

I do not know, I am sure, how Catholic writers feel when they recall Aretino’s words after he had received extreme unction:

Be sure the rats don’t get me, now that I’m all greased up.

I am not certain about this. What I am certain of is that his procuress, Monna Alvigia, represented well enough his double character, when she inserted into the versicles of the pater noster lustful references. It was common in the Risorgimento, this mingling of devotion and carnality, of scepticism and superstition, but in none other was it carried to such a degree as in Aretino; and in his letters, if we turn the pages, we find the solution of a number of theological doubts . . .

Diogenes told Alexander to get out of his light; Aretino abandoned a position at the right hand of Charles V. because he did not want to go to Germany. Venice was his rock, and from there he spread his nets for the great ones of the earth.


He visited the poor and the studios of great artists; through his generosity, he had his roots in the hovel, as he likewise sunk them, through his importunacies, deep into courts.

Berni compared him to dogs, —

Which, if you beat them, as you may know,

Jump better than ever where their masters go.

He was as rich in blows and dagger thrusts as he was in gifts. His body, said Boccalini, looked like a ship’s chart . . . and I once knew the editor of a theatrical journal who would show the marks of blows he had received from his beloved choristers with the same pride with which a Roman legionary would have displayed his wounds.

On all sides . . . he felt the gnawings of appetite; he rejoiced in it, with his friends and mistresses; he praised gifts and givers, but if the present was not to his taste, he would speed back a letter of reproof.

With one hand he took, and with the other he gave; he was a born philanthropist. But he was a man, not a chest of gold; and so he sometimes found himself in straits. When he wished to make a dot for his loved Adria, he had to appeal to the princes and their secretaries to make up the sum he needed. We have a number of letters of his in which he replies sharply to those who counsel him to be a better manager. He was the vase of the Danaids.

He knew that he was ignorant and willingly admitted it, but he was unable to stand by when others called him an idiot, maintaining that the fruits of his genius, which had the savor of certain wild plants, were worth more than all those which others had transplanted, with great sweat, from the Greek and Latin gardens.

Hyperbole, a simple rhetorical figure, made his fortune. But just as, even in the most hyperbolical praise, there is always some substance, so in the one who employs such praise there is always a rock-bottom of truth. And so he, with the strangest metaphors in the world, goes on exaggerating his ideas and the merits of others, and with the newness of his verbal coin, he makes an effect which a soft and simple speaker never could hope to obtain.

It is notable that the influence of Aretino carried over into the sixteenth century. When the other great writers of the cinquecento were being forgotten, his works were being travestied, disguised and read, sotto mano, on account of the attraction exercised by their obscenity, as well as because of their vivacious and original force.

Here, we find again the persistence of the Aretino legend, traced by the pseudo-Berni. Pietro is the bastard of Luigi 281 Bacci and Tita. The latter, it is true, is not here referred to as a prostitute, but it is the same Tita. The “consigned from his mother’s womb to impure loves” is like the “because he was vile and a poltroon” of De Sanctis; it is another mark of that moralistic claw of which Aretino, for four centuries, has been the victim. The story, in the second paragraph, of Aretino’s death is to be noted. That, of course, and the son-of-a-prostitute angle constitute the punch of the tale. Nor is the “mixture of devotion and carnality,” one fancies, limited to the “Risorgimento;” the Messers. Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis and others have observed it since. Berni crops out in the bit of doggerel about the dogs. As to the “gnawings of appetite,” that, as De Sanctis saw, admits of a slightly larger interpretation: “What they (Machiavelli and Guicciardini) thought, Pietro was.” There is something spiritual in Aretino’s disdain of money; as Hutton and other have pointed out, he preyed on the powerful. “Ignorance,” in Aretino’s mouth, is merely a word used to confuse the pedants; it is a boast.

As to “Hyperbole,” Hutton (op. cit., pp. 265ff.) lifts a number of allusions from Gabriel Harvey’s Marginalia (Edited by G. C. Moore Smith, Shakespeare Head Press, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1913). Harvey refers to the Italian as “Unico Aretino.”

Unico Aretino in Italian, singular for rare and hyperbolical amplifications. He is a simple Orator, that cannot mount as high as the quality or quantity of his matter requireth. Vaine and phantasticale Amplifications argue an idle or mad-conceited brain: but when the very Majesty or dignity of the matter itself will indeed bare out a stately and haughty style; there is no such trial of a gallant Discourse and no right Orator.

Notating “I would . . . find some supernatural cause whereby my pen might walk in the superlative degree,” Harvey writes:

In hoc gener Lucianus excellebat: et post eum plerique Itali: maxime Poetae Aretinus voluit albis equis praecurrere et esse Unicus in suo quodam hyperbolico genere . . .


Unicus Aretinus erat scriptoris hyperbole, et actoris paradoxum. Illius affectatissima foelicitas fuit, omnia scriptitare hyperbolice, singula actitare ex inopinato. Qui velit Unicum vincere, eum oportet esse miraculum eloquentiae, oraculum prudentiae, Solem Industriae.

Yet, Harvey admits that “Aretino’s glory” was “to be himself.”

Camerini then goes on to present extracts from the Aretine correspondence. These extracts are particularly valuable for the light they throw on the relations between Aretino and Giovanni delle bande nere. They may be taken as refuting De Sanctis’ implicaton, which I have previously annotated: “What grieved him (Giovanni) was the sight of a poltroon.”

“The affection,” writes Camerini, “which Aretino bore toward the great Giovanni de’ Medici, the creator, under the name of the Bande Nere, of the only effective military force at the time of our national shame, is well known. Giovanni de’ Medici on the other hand, loved him well enough.”

A letter of Giovanni’s is then quoted, in which the great captain says; “I will give you this praise, that while all others may bore me at times, you never have done so as yet.” In another letter, written from Pavia, Giovanni says, there is “no living without Aretino.”

A letter of the widow, Maria de’ Medici, is given, in which she writes to Aretino with the warmest and most intimate affection of her late husband and their young son. Cosimo de’ Medici, the son, when he becomes Duke of Florence, also writes to Pietro concerning the friendship between Aretino and Giovanni.

“I could never bear,” he says, “that you should live in misery.”

There is also a correspondence between Cosimo and Aretino over the dowry to be paid to Adria, the latter’s 283 daughter, or rather, to her husband. The Duke is frank but friendly:

“It is not because we doubted your daughter was to be married that we deferred the payment of what we had promised for her dot; but in order that the money may reach its proper destination, we would suggest that you send her consort with the license to get it. It will be paid at once, and you will be better off; since it is better for him to use it to pay his debts than for it to fall into your hands which through their natural liberality, which is not a vice, might convert it to some other use.”

Camerini himself, speaking of the relations between the writer and the captain, remarks that “It is impossible not to sense here the accents of a true affection.” All this, it seems to me, should tend to dispose rather effectually of at least one of the numerous back-thrusts which Pietro has received at the hands of the moralists.

Aretino’s boast (see De Sanctis’ essay) about the ponies, the vases, the women and the street named after him is borne out in almost the identical words that Pietro employs, by Doni in one of the latter’s letters to the “Scourge.”

I am at Mantua, and here I have seen a kind of pony out of your very fine nag, and upon asking what it was, I was told it was the Aretine. I go to Murano, and there they show me some very find crystal vases, a new sort of glass work, and they are called Aretini. The street where you have lived for twenty-two years has acquired you for patron, to such an extent that one says to those who live there — Where do you live? In Aretino’s house, in Aretino’s lane, on Aretino’s bank . . . Many beautiful women, who inspire much jealousy,bear your mark: this one is your procuress, this one something else, and many of them are known simply as Aretino’s sweeties. And then, there’s a third class, your housekeepers, and I am now the master. By my faith, if one night I didn’t come on one of them who, when I asked her what her name was, replied, “I have no other name than ‘the Aretina.’ ” I laughed then, and I’m laughing yet. I told her, “Since you’re an Aretina and I’m an Aretino, we must be one and the same thing . . .”

I must also give you a list, which I have compiled (as a remembrance), of the different manners in which I have seen you portrayed: in marble, in natural bas-relief; in cameo; in miniature; 284 and in medallions of gold, silver, copper, brass, lead and wax. As well as a picture from the hand of the aedmirable Titian, one by Fra Bastiano dal Piombo, and portraits by other valiant painters in more than thirty different places. Finally, I have seen you stamped on combs, in brass . . .

If Aretino exercised a considerable influence over the French literature that was to come after him — Rabelais, Moliere and others — it is not surprising; for he was known all over the world of his day, which was the world of the Emperor Charles V. From Giuseppe Horologgi, writing from Rouen, we learn that Aretino was a household author in France:

I swear to your lordship that I do not go into a place where I do not find some of your works on the table, and I do not speak with a man who knows that I am an Italian without his asking after the divine Aretino; and if your lordship does not believe me, I can show you the life of the Virgin Mary, that of Saint Catherine, the Humanity of Christ and the Psalms and Genesis translated into this language, and they are read with more satisfactions than I could tell you.

The Prior of Montrottier also writes to him, flatteringly, from Lyons.

As for his influence in Germany, we may hear Johannes Herold, writing from Basle, September 1, 1548:

A short time ago, I read your letters, printed by Marcolino in the year XXXVIII., and in swallowing the Genesis of Messer Pietro Aretino, I became a beggar, thanks to the altitude of your genius, which fitted my wings to fly upward, and the weight of my ignorance, which held me down . . . You are, then, an imitator of Circe in that, while rendering me a man with your presents, you make me a monster through the beverage of your sweet writings. Following out the comparison, I shall make of my German countrymen, through the subtlety of your works, semi-Italians out of barbarians, even as Pietro Aretino, with his immortal glory, has made a semi-barbarian of me, speaking the vision of Noah in the German language.

Aretino’s boast about being known in Persia and the Indies (see the letter quoted in De Sanctis’ study) also was 285 true. One of his secretaries, whom he had discharged for theft and unfaithfulness, Ambrogio degli Eusebii, had carried his master’s name to the Rio de la Plata. And the celebrated casa Aretina on the Grand Canal, as De Sanctis remarks, was thronged with artists, beautiful women and others. Alessandro Andrea of Naples tells us this, in a letter which he wrote seeking audience with Aretino:

From you come continually, in addition to our own Italians, Turks, Jews, Indians, French, Germans and Spaniards; nor are you ever to be seen an instant without a throng of soldiers, scholars, priests and friars, who recount to you the wrong done by this prince and that prelate; so that you really ought to be addressed by the title of secretary to the world.

“Secretary to the world.” It was far from being a bad title for Aretino!

De Sanctis refers in passing to the friendship between Aretino and the corsair, Barbarossa. This is a highly picturesque sidelight on the man. Barbarossa’s letter is worth quoting:

To the first of Christian writers, Pietro Aretino . . . Ariadin Bassa Barbarossa, general on the seas and of the armies of their Imperial Lordships, the Sultan Salim and the King of England, salutes you, Aretino Pietro, the Magnificent and circumspect. I would tell you that I have received your head in silver, along with the letter which you wrote me. Surely, you have the head of a captain, rather than of a writer. I have heard the fame of your name throughout the world and have asked after you a number of times of some of my Genoan and Roman slaves, who know you by sight; and I have been pleased with the report of your virtue, to which I feel indebted fro the praise you have given me, as well as for the faith you have put in my valor, which makes me dear to the Turks as to the French. I should like to see one of those images which are in the likeness of my face, and which are common throughout Italy. I have instructed Bailo of Venice to tell you that you should excuse me if I have not yet rewarded you, for the great Signore commands me to be about his business in distant parts, but when I come back, I shall not be found lacking in courtesy, I promise you. Written at Constantinople in the middle of the month of Ramesan in the year 949 of our great prophet Maumeth. (Translated from the Turkish into the Italian language.)


Aretino, evidently, was animated by the desire of getting something out of Barbarossa, but the latter was quite as wily as he. It took, though, some little courage to praise a man like Barbarossa, publicly. The latter’s remark about the character of Pietro’s head is to be noted. It is a point, possibly, which has not been sufficiently stressed in Aretino’s case: he was really a pirate of the high seas of literature, and there was no little of the soldier in his makeup; it may be this, as has been remarked elsewhere, that accounts for his friendship with the leader of the Bande nere: he may have been vile, upon more than one occasion, but he was not a poltroon.

Speaking of this aspect of Aretino, Camerini says:

From the life of the camp, Aretino drew in part that verbal license which he displayed in the matter of religion and the religious, and also with regard to men of state, a license which was as great in those days as civil oppression was intense; and this attitude of the cut-throat, if it failed to inspire fear, resolved itself into fear.

Personally, however, I should be inclined to doubt if Aretino ever really knew fear; it would not appear to have been a part of his nature.

If Aretino has been the object of almost universal detraction on the part of posterity, he was, only too frequently, overpraised by contemporaries, who feared him, sought his favor or who, in some cases, did, quite sincerely, overestimate him. His religious writings, in particular, drew a saccharine praise, which is the only kind of praise most religious writings deserve. Coriolano, bearing the formidable titles of cavalier di San Pietro and Hierosolomitano di Roma, on January 6, 1551, gives Aretino the title of “light of the most holy and omnipotent scriptures” and adds that “You have always been known to be as a trumpet of faith against the heretics.” But probably, Bartolamio Egnatio da Fossambrone gets the medal for adulation: “I should call you the 287 little son of God . . . since God is the highest truth in heaven, and you are truth on earth.”

It was, always, Pietro’s highest boast that “I speak the truth.” He endeavored to speak the truth in art, as he did in life, and on this side of his character, the side that has to do with his artistic importance, his contemporaries, some of them, really began to lay hold of the man. Pietro Spino da Bergamo called him “the little son of truth and the disciple of nature,” and Antonio Cerruti of Milan, writing on the seventh of June, 1550, addresses him as “Your Lordship, in whom intellect is married to nature.”

Nowhere does this tendency to a modern realism come out more clearly, perhaps, than in the Ragionamenti but it also shows in the letters.

The truth is, there was in Aretino, as a writer, what Camerini calls “a double aspect.” Perhaps, we had better say, there were two men, two writers: one, the “literary mendicant;” the other, “the independent writer,” who anticipated modern frankness, “a frankness that was slow in coming, even in a free country like England.” And so, Aretino, for the most part, was content to go on with his game of literary brigand. His success here is indicated by Ariosto’s tribute, for Ariosto was the big man of his day. This is borne out by Battista Tornielli, who writes to Aretino:

Your pen may truly say that it has triumphed over practically all the princes of the world, since practically all of them are your tributaries and, as it were, your feudal subjects. You ought . . . to take yourself all those titles which the ancient Roman emperors were in the habit of assuming according to the geographic situation of their subjects.

Gianiacopo, the ambassador of Urbino, remarked that “Aretino is more necessary to human life than all the preachings;” and Jacopo Gaddi, commentating Pietro’s title of “il divino,” wrote:


Cum vero sibi arrogaverit aliorum consensu divinitatem, nescio, si forte Dei munus exercuisse dicendus sit, cum summa capita velut celsissimos montes fulminaverit, lingua corrigens et mulctans quae ab aliis castigari nequeunt.

Aretino himself was conscious of all this. He writes to Ersilia del Monte, parent of Pope Julius III.:

All this is show by the fact that I am known to the Persians, to the Indians and to the world . . . what more? The princes of the tributary peoples, constantly and everywhere, look upon me as their slave and their scourge.

All this hardly could fail to attract Charles V., the tactical superman of his age. It was not merely Charles’ munificence; Aretino really was, personally, more drawn to Charles than to Francis I., who was not only stingy, but appears to have been lacking in imagination. On this point, Camerini says:

By his very prophetic quality, he was bound to please Charles V., the renovator of Europe, as much by his resistances as by his concessions in the matter of religion, as well as by his revolutionary spirit in the matter of ancient adjustments and political equilibrium. And Aretino felt himself attracted to Charles, rather than to Francis, not so much because the former was potent and great (and it does Aretino no little honor to have perceived . . . the capacity of Charles), as because in the one he saw movement, in the other historic reminiscence. Charles V. was also pleased to perceive in the letters of Aretino something of the color of Titian, and the effulgence of the former’s phrases did not appear morbid to a Spanish flamingo.

We have seen that Aretino was almost a library-table author in the France of his day, and well known also in Germany. Montaigne, however, and later, Bayle, found fault with his style. The former referred to it as “Une façon de parler bouffie et bouillonnée de poinctes ingenieuses à la verité, mais recherchées de loing et fantastiques.” He conceded Aretino, nevertheless, a certain eloquence. Bayle had this to say:

Ce poète si satirique prodiguait les louanges avec les derniers excès. Nous trouvons les hyperboles les plus pompeuses et les flatteries les plus rampantes dans les lettres qu’il écrivait aux rois et 289 aux princes, aux généraux d’armée, aux cardinaux, et aux autres grands du monde. Tant s’en faut que l’on voie là les airs d’un auteur qui se fait craindre ou qui exige des rançons, que l’on y voit toute la bassesse d’un auteur qui demande très-humblement un morceau de pain. Il se sert d’expressions touchantes pour représenter sa pauvreté; il recourt même au langage de Canaan, je veux dire aux phrases dévotes, qui peuvent le mieux exciter la compassion, et animer à la charité les personnes qui attendent de Dieu la récompense de leur bonnes oeuvres.

In any event, Camerini finds, Aretino was “the precursor of the sixteenth century” and had “a just conception of art” (De Sanctis, Hutton and others agree on this). “In a century of imitation,” writes Camerini, “he aspired to be original.” Surely, that is something! Sometimes, it is true, in his effort to be new, he merely fell into the bizarre.

But more than in his semi-official style, the genius of Aretino is to be recognized in those places in which passion enters the picture, as the flamingoes of his domestic life do in certain paintings; and then, we have a mixture of lasciviousness and virtue, of the insolences of lust and the niceties of good taste.

The Aretino that we have here — the Aretino who wrote that marvelously sensuous and marvelously plastic letter to Titian — together with the Aretino who wrote his Nanna into the dialect of his people and his age, and whose desire it was, always, to be true to nature — this is the Aretino who is to be rescued from the obloquy and oblivion of a moralistic world and given the place that is his due, as the first great realist of the Renaissance and the first modern critic of art.

[Appendix II]


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