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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. 292-297.




In his book on Michelangelo, quoted in the Introduction to this edition, Merejkowski has the following account of the relations between Buonarrotti and Aretino:

At this epoch, there lived in Venice, Pietro Aretino, the celebrated writer. He was the son of a prostitute of Arezzo, whom he had quitted in his childhood after having robbed her. Monk, vagabond, and valet by turn, he had known misery, cold, and the blows of innumerable misfortunes, but, thanks to his pen and, according to his own expression “the sweat of his ink,” he had acquired fame and riches.

By means of calumnies and flatteries, by the threat of Pasquinades and the promise of panegyrics, he obtained from the powerful money and honors. Many Italian princes and even the Emperor himself paid Aretino an annual tribute. The Most Christian King of France had sent him a golden chain with an exergue in the form of serpents’ tongues, emblem of his satiric and venomous traits. In his honor, a medal had been struck, bearing on the obverse side the effigy of the poet crowned with laurel, with this inscription: Divus petrus aretinus, flagellum principium. (“The divine Pietro Aretino, the scourge of princes.”) And on the opposite side, one read: Veritas odium parit.” (“The truth engenders hatred.”)

His libels, the most perfidious and the most insolent, directed against those monarchs who were slow in sending him gifts, were signed: “Divina gratia homo liber.” (“By the grace of God a free man.”)


He composed, readily and promptly, whatever was commanded of him on whatever subject. He had been charged by Vittoria Colonna to write pious meditations and a Life of the Saints; on the order of Marcantonio, the pupil of Raphael, he wrote sonnets for the engravers’ designs which were so licentious that the Pope, despite the intervention of numerous cardinals, had the painter thrown into prison. In his superb palace on the Grand Canal — the celebrated Casa Bolani — Aretino lived in a royal fastness, surrounded by objects of art and by a harem of pretty women which was constantly renewed.

Titian flattered him, painted his portrait, and presented him with his works. From all corners of Italy, pictures, designs, bas-reliefs, medallions, bronzes, antique marbles, majolica plates, cameos and precious vases flowed to him in a constant stream. When his palace became crowded to the point where there was no room for more, he would share his artistic loot with the lords and princes who had merited his good graces. As he himself said, “The poet distributed to kings the crumbs of his table.” 

From vanity as much as from love of the beautiful, Aretino for some time had deplored the fact that he had in his museum not a single work of Michelangelo. Employing as intermediaries his friends, Benvenuto Cellini and Biogo Vasari, he, on a number of occasions, had given Michelangelo to understand that his turn had come, but the latter did not deign to respond. Then the writer resolved to hurl the gauntlet himself. In 1537, he addressed to Buonarotti one of his celebrated letters, thousands of copies of which were spread over Italy.

He began by praising the great artist; then he explained to him what were the qualities in his talent, which he, Aretino, prized the most. The essential passage of the letter commenced with this apostrophe:

And so I, whose praise or criticism is so powerful that the glory or dishonor of men depends on me alone, but who am, nevertheless of little worth and in myself nothing, I salute 294 Your Grace, a thing which I should not have dared to do if my name had not acquired some renown, due to the respect which it inspires in the greatest princes of our century. But in the presence of Michelangelo, there is nothing to do but to admire. There are in the world many kings; there is but a single Michelangelo; and he by his glory has eclipsed Phidias, Appele, and Vitruvius.

The letter continued in this tone until it came to the question of the Last Judgment. Here Aretino gave advice to the artist and attempted to teach him how he ought to paint. He concluded by making renewed offers of service, proposing to glorify Michelangelo’s name.

Buonarrotti replied to him with a word that was polished and laconic, in which irony could be perceived, hidden under excessive compliments.

Aretino preferred not to remark the irony, and, in a new letter, solicited a souvenir, even if it was but a little drawing, one of those which the artist was in the habit of tossing into the fire.

Michelangelo did not reply, and for five years Aretino left him in peace.

In 1544, Aretino let Buonarrotti know that the Emperor Charles V had just accorded him — an unheard of honor — permission to ride on horseback by his side. Cellini had written him that Michelangelo felt kindly towards him, which was, above all things, precious to the poet. He loved and admired Michelangelo. He had wept from emotion at contemplating a copy of the Last Judgment. His friend, Titian, also admired Buonarrotti, and praised him with enthusiasm.

Michelangelo persisted in his silence. Two months later the poet, through friends at Rome, reminded him that he was still waiting for a design. No response. He waited another year and then addressed a new reminder. Finally he received from Rome, in the guise of drawings, a few miserable scraps of paper in which was to be seen a mockery rather than a picture. 295 He wrote to Michelangelo that he was not satisfied and that he was waiting for something better. Again the silence endured for a number of months.

By this time, the patience of Aretino was at an end. He sent to Cellini a threatening letter. Had Buonarrotti no shame? He must declare openly whether or not he had any intention of keeping his promise. Aretino demanded explanations, without which his love was to be transformed into hate.

Menace had as little effect as flattery. At this moment, Titian, who happened to be in Rome, profited by the circumstance to slander Michelangelo to Aretino, Titian’s protector, and this resulted in a definite break.

In November, 1545, Buonarrotti received from Venice the following letter:Messer, now that I have seen copies of the Last Judgment, I recognize in the conception and execution the celebrated charm of Rafael. But, inasmuch as I am a Christian who has received holy baptism, I am ashamed of the unbridled liberty which you have taken with what ought to be the supreme end of virtue and the Christian faith. This Michelangelo, so great in his glory, this Michelangelo who astonishes all the world, has shown to men that he is as far removed from piety as he is near to perfection in his art. How can it be that an artist, who considers himself as a god and who, for that reason, has broken almost all bonds between himself and common mortals, should have profaned by such a work the temple of the All-Powerful God, the first altar of the world, the first chapel of the universe, where the greatest cardinals and the Vicar of Christ himself communicate in the divine and terrible mysteries of the Body and Blood of Our Lord?

“If it were not that it seems almost criminal to compare such things, I should permit myself to remind you that, in my frivolous dialogues on the life of courtezans, I have endeavored to veil with delicate and noble words the indecency of the subject. You, on the contrary, treating of things so high, deprive the angles of their celestial glory and the saints of their terrestrial modesty. But pagans themselves covered Diana with veils, 296 and when they represented Venus nude, they were careful that the chaste gesture of her hand should replace her vestment. And yet you, a Christian, have arrived at such a degree of impiety that you dare, in the chapel of the Pope, to offend the modesty of martyrs and of virgins. Of a truth, it would have been better for you to deny Christ altogether than, believing in him, to turn into derision the faith of your brothers. Be assured that Heaven will not permit the criminal audacity of your art to remain unpunished. The more astonishing this picture is, the more surely will it be the tomb of your glory!”

Then Aretino passed to his personal griefs, reminded the artist that he had not kept his promise and that he had not sent the design.

However, if the mountains of gold which you have received from Julius II have not been able to incite you to fulfill your duty by completing the promised mausoleum, what may a man like me hope? In putting into your own pocket the money of another and in being false to your word, you have done what you should not have done, and that is called theft!

In conclusion, he counselled the Pope to destroy the Last Judgment, displaying the same pious fervor that Pope Gregory did when he caused the pagan statues to be destroyed no matter how beautiful they were.

If you had followed my advice,he added, addressing Buonarrotti,if you had listened to the directions which I gave you in that letter which today is known by all the universe, and in which I explain in detail and according to science the ordering of Heaven, earth, and hell, nature would not now have to blush at having given so much genius to a man like you. On the other hand, my letter would have been a defense of your work against all the hatreds and all the jealousies throughout eternity. Your servant, ARETINO.

This epistle was recopied by a strange hand, in order that Michelangelo might not doubt that it had been made public and scattered throughout the entire world. But at the end there were these lines from the hand of Aretino himself:


Now that I have in part recovered from the fury I felt at the grossness of your conduct in responding to my kind advances, and now that you, I am led to hope, know well enough that, if you are divine —divino — I, on my side, am not made of water — this being so, destroy this missive, as I am ready to do myself, and realize that, in any case, my letters deserve a reply, even if you were an Emperor or a King.

[To Appendix IV]


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