[BACK]          [Blueprint]          [NEXT]


[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. 9-35.



From the Italian of Francesco De Sanctis1

The theological-ethical world of the middle ages touched the extremity of its contradictions in the positive world of Guicciardini, a world purely human and natural, walled by individual egoism, superior to all the moral chains that bind men together. The living portrait of this world, in its most cynical and most depraved form, is Pietro Aretino. The picture of the century was given in him its last fine pencil strokes.

Pietro was born in 1492, in a hospital of Arezzo, the son of Tita, the beautiful courtezan, the model sculptured and painted by a number of artists. He was without name, without family, without friends and protectors, without education, “I went to school only long enough to learn the Santa Croce . . . conniving thievishly, calling for many excuses, not being one of those who pore over the art of the Greeks and Latins.” At thirteen years, he robbed his mother and fled to Perugia and took up his lodgings with a bookbinder. At nineteen years, drawn by the fame of the Court of Rome and the report that everybody became rich there, together with the fact that he himself had not a farthing, he went to Rome and was received as a domestic in the house of a rich merchant, 10 Agostino Chigi, and, a little later, in the house of the Cardinal of San Giovanni. He sought his fortune with Pope Julius; and, not meeting with success, he became a vagabond and a libertine throughout Lombardy, finally becoming a Capuchin Monk in Ravenna. When Leo the tenth became Pope, and men of letters, buffoons, actors, singers and adventurers of every sort began running to that court, it seemed to him that his place was there; he doffed his habit and went to Rome and, putting on the livery of the Pope, became the latter’s valet. High spirited, merry, a libertine, impudent and a go-between, he completed his education and instruction in that school. He learned to put into sonnets his lusts, his adulations and his buffooneries; he began to make a business of it, a business which brought him many fine farthings. But he was always a valet, and he had little to hope in a court in which it was the custom to improvise in Latin. Armed with letters of recommendation, he goes to Milan, to Pisa, to Bologna, to Ferrara, to Mantua and presents himself, brazenly, to the princes and monsignori, with the airs and presumption of a man of letters. He studies, like a woman, the art of pleasing and he lends his aid with complacency to the arts of the charlatan:

“I find myself at Mantua, in the house of the Signor Marchese, in so much grace that he even leaves his bed and board to talk with me and says that he has never had so much pleasure at all, and he has written to the cardinal things of me which have truly been of most honorable assistance, and I have been regaled with three hundred crowns . . . all the court adores me, and he is happy who can come by one of my sets of verses; and as many as I make, the Signor has them copied, and I have made a few in praise of him. So it is with me here, and he gives the whole day to me and does great things, as you shall see at Arezzo . . . at Bologna they commenced to load me with gifts; the Bishop of Pisa made me a present of a great coat of black satin, embroidered in gold, the superbest ever.”


They give him the titles of “messere and signore:” the valet is a gentleman, and returns to Rome with a throng of tavern pages, dressed like a Duke, the companion and go-between of gentlemanly pleasures, with, at his side, Estensi and Gonzaga, who sometimes slap him familiarly on the back. He continues the trade in which he has made so good a beginning. One of his “praises” of Clement VII. gains him his first pension; it is the following effusion:

Or queste si che saran lodi, queste
lodi chiari saranno, e sole e vere
appunto come il vero e come il sole.2

His spirit, his jovial humor, his libidinous inclinations won him such a reputation that, driven out of Rome on account of his sixteen sonnets, illustrated with obscene designs by Giulio Romano,3 he was sought as a boon companion by Giovanni de’ Medici, the head of the “bande nere” called the “gran diavolo.” He was little more than thirty years old. Giovanni and Francis I. were disputing his friendship. Giovanni wanted to make the signor of Arezzo the companion of his orgies and lusts, when a German ball cut short, at once, this design and his life. Pietro had now a consciousness of his strength and, leaving the Court, he repaired to Venice, as to a rock of safety, and from there he lorded it over Italy with his pen. Listen to him, as he paints himself in his letters:4


”I, who, in the liberty of many states, have managed to remain a free man, fleeing the court forever, have set up here (at Venice) a perpetual tabernacle against the years which are advancing upon me, for the reason that here treason has no place, here favour can do no wrong to right, here the cruelty of the meretricious does not reign, here the insolence of the effeminate gives no commands, here there is no robbery, here no coercion, here no murder . . . O universal fatherland! O communal liberty! O inn of all the dispersed peoples! . . . She inflames you, others elude; she rules you, others pursue; she gives you pasturage, others starve you; she receives you, others hunt you down; and, as she regales you in your tribulations, she preserves you in charity and in love . . .

”By the Grace of God a free man . .

”I laugh at pedants . . .

”I, in my ignorance, have not followed in the footsteps of Petrarch or Boccaccio, although I know what they are, but I have not wanted to lose time, patience, and reputation in the desire to transform myself into them, since this is not possible. Bread eaten in one’s own house does one more good than bread accompanied by fine viands at the table of another. I walk here with leisurely step, in the garden of the Muses, and no word drops from me which I have learned from any stinkpot of old. I wear the face of genius unmasked, and, not knowing an h, I can still teach those who know their l’s and their m’s; so that now they should hold their peace who think there is no better work under heaven than the “Dottrinale novellis” . . .

”As to things in Florence . . . I give myself very little concern for them; the bases of my hope are in God and in Caesar, and, thanks to Their Majesties, I am assured of a hundred crowns pension, which the Marchese del Vasto gives me, and others which the prince of Salerno pays to me, so that I have an income of six hundred, with about a thousand more which I make every year with a folio of 13 paper and a bottle of ink; and this is the manner in which I live in this serenest of cities . . .

”In addition to medallions, coins, carvings in plaster, gold and silver, wood, lead and stucco, I have a reproduction of my effigy on the facade of palaces, and I have had it printed on my comb cases, on the ornaments of my mirrors, on my majolica plates, in the manner of Alexander, of Caesar and of Scipio. And, more, I would have you know that, at Murano, a certain sort of crystal vases called “aretini.” And ‘aretina’ is the name given to a race of ponies, in memory of one which Pope Clement gave to me and which I gave to Duke Frederick. ‘Rio dell’ Aretino’ is the name with which the stream is baptized that bathes one side of the house in which I dwell on the grand canal. And besides the ‘Aretino Style,’ which comes from the hair-splitting of pedagogues, three of my chamber maids or housekeepers have left me and become ladies, and they are called ‘aretine.’ Such are the penalties of striving for distinction through a ‘Ianua Sum Rudibus.’5

And these were no idle boasts. Ariosto called him “the scourge of princes, the divine Pietro Aretino.”6 A pedant, speaking of the letters of Aretino and those of Bembo, said to Bembo: “I should call you our Cicero and him our Pliny.” “But Pietro would not be content with that,” replied Bembo.7 And he was not content with it. To Bernardo Tasso, who praised his letters, he wrote:

”It is certain that the excess of love which you bear your own things and the too little consideration you have for those of others have caused you to compromise your judgment . . . 14 Beyond confronting you with the opinion of one who knows, additional confirmation is to be found in your mode of procedure in letter writing, in which necessary exercise you display a lack of ability to counterfeit me, either in thought or in comparisons (which with me are born and with you are still born), or in the smoothness and beauty of the fertile correspondences which I ordinarily employ . . . The truth is, in any such contest, you follow me on foot. But you could not do otherwise since your taste is more inclined to the glow of the flowers than to the savour of the fruit; and, so it is, with that angelic grace of style and your celestial harmonies, you show to better advantage in wedding songs and in hymns, the sweetness of which is not in place in letters, which call for the high relief of intention and not an artificial miniature-making . . . Now since it is not an error to praise one’s self to a man of some merit in the presence of one who does not know it, I am going to give you here a few maxims in letter writing . . . But since presumption is the smoke of greatness in shadow, which is extinguished in the degree to which it appears to be and is not, in the degree to which it remains satisfied with less instead of striving for more, I, not to be like these, do not say that the virtuosi ought to make a festival of my birthday, although I, without running after posts, without serving courts and without moving a foot, have made a number of dukes, a number of princes and a number of monarchs pay tribute to my virtues, and this for the reason that, throughout the world, fame is sold by me. In Persia and in India,8 my portrait has its price and my name is esteemed. Finally, I salute you, with the assurance that no one concerned with letter-writing blames you out of envy, but that many who have written letters praise you out of compassion.”

So he regarded himself and so the world regarded him. He was believed to be a great man on his own say-so. He did not look for glory; he was not concerned with the 15 future; he wanted the present. And he had it, more than any mortal. Medallions, crowns, titles, pensions, gifts, stuff of gold and silver, chains and rings of gold, statues and paintings, vases and precious gems: he had everything that the cupidity of man could obtain. Julius III. named him a cavalier of St. Peter. And he came near being made cardinal.9 He had a sole pension of eight hundred twenty crowns. Of gifts, he had, in eighteen years, twenty-five-thousand crowns. He spent, during his life, more than a million francs. Royal gifts came to him from the corsair, Barbarossa,10 and from the sultan, Solimano. His princely house is thronged with artists, ladies, priests, musicians, monks, valets, pages;11 and many bring him their presents: this one a vase of gold, this one a picture, this one a purse filled with ducats, and this one clothing and fine stuffs. At the entrance, one sees a bust of white marble, wreathed with laurel; it is Pietro Aretino. Aretino to the right, Aretino to the left: look at those medallions, of all sizes and every metal, suspended from the tapestries of rose-colored velvet: always the image of Pietro Aretino. He died, at seventy-five years, in 1577; and of all his reputation, nothing remained. His works were almost forgotten; his memory was infamous; a well bred man would not pronounce his name in the presence of a lady.

Who was, then, this Pietro, courted by women, feared by his rivals, exalted by writers, the popular idol, kissed by the 16 Pope, and who rode in cavalcade by the side of Charles V.12 He was the consciousness and the image of his century. And his century made him great.

Machiavelli and Guicciardini said that appetite is the lever of the world. What they thought, Pietro was.

He had by nature great appetites, and forces which were proportionate to them. He saw his portrait done by Titian,13 the figure of a wolf that seeks its prey. The artist had formed a background of the hide and claws of a wolf; and the head of the wolf, like enough in structure, stood above the head of the man. Scintillating eyes, nostrils far apart, teeth in evidence through the drooping lower lip, the lower part of the head, seat of the sensual appetites, very large, toward which the rest of the head seemed to slope, bald in front . . . Son of a courtezan, soul of a king . . . he said. Reader of books, valet of the Pope, Alas! His needs are infinite. It is not enough for him to eat, he wants to taste; he is not satisfied with pleasure, he wants voluptuousness; he is not satisfied with clothes, he wants pomp; he is not satisfied with becoming rich himself, he wants to make others rich, to spend and to expand. And to one who marveled at all this he replied: . . . “Well, what would you have me do? If I am born to live this way, what is going to keep me from living this way?” . . . His gilded dreams are: exquisite wines, delicate 17 foods, rich palaces, pretty girls, fine clothes. For all this, he has the appetite, he has the taste. And no one is a more competent judge in the matter of good mouthfuls and of joys, licit and illicit. There is in him not only the sense of pleasure but the sense of art. He seeks, in his joys, the magnificent, the splendid, the beautiful, good taste and elegance.14

And he has forces proportionate to his appetites. A body of iron, an energy of will, a knowledge of and a contempt for men, and that marvelous faculty which Guicciardini called “discretion,” the instinct to take things as they come. He knows what he wants. His life is not cut up in various directions; it is one in scope, the satisfaction of his appetites, or, as Guicciardini says, his own “particuliarity.” All means are excellent and he adopts them according to occasion. He is now a hypocrite, now impudent, now evasive, now insolent. Now he adulates, now he calumniates. The credulity, fear, vanity and generosity of the man are, in his hands, a ram to batter the breach to victory. He has the keys to all doors. Today, a man like him would be called a “gangster,15 and many of his letters would be called “blackmail.” He is the master of the genre. He speculates, above all, on fear. The language of the century is officious, adulatory; his own tone is disdainful and brazen. Printed calumnies were worse than daggers; a printed thing meant a true thing; and he had his price for slander, silence and eulogy. It made no difference 18 to him if he had the reputation of an evil tongue; that was part of his strength. Francis I. sent him a golden chain, made up of linked tongues with vermilion points, as though they had been dipped in poison, and bearing the inscription: “Lingua eius loquetur mendacium.”16 Aretino gave him a thousand thanks. When it was not convenient for him to speak evil of persons, he would speak evil of things, just to keep up his reputation, as in the case of his diatribes against the ecclesiastics, the nobles and the princes. And so, the abject fellow was held an apostle and was called “scourge of princes.” Sometimes, he would find a person who was not afraid. Achille della Volta stuck a dagger in his back. Niccolò Franco, his secretary, wrote him messages of vituperation. Pietro Strozzi threatened to kill him if he dared pronounce Strozzi’s name. He was beaten, spit upon. And it was he, then, who was afraid, because he was vile and a poltroon. The ambassador from England beat him. And he praised the signor who had given him the opportunity of pardoning the injury. Giovanni, the “gran diavolo,” on his death bed, said to him: “What makes me suffer most is the sight of a poltroon.”17 . . . But in general, they preferred to treat him as a Cerberus and to stop his barking by tossing him a cake. His letters are full of malice and effrontery. He takes all forms and all habits, that of the buffoon and that of 19 the braggart, even that of the holy man, slandered and slighted. As a sage, take his letter to the most pious and petrarchian marchesa di Bescara, who had exhorted him to change his life and to write pious works:

“ . . . I confess that I am less useful to the world and less acceptable to Christ, spending my efforts in false gossiping, rather than in true works. But the cause of all the evil is the pleasure of others and my own necessity. If princes were as hypocritical as I am needy, I would not draw from my pen anything but misereres. My excellent lady, all do not have the grace of divine inspiration. Some burn with angelic fire, and we have offices and preachings, which are to them music and comedy. You would not turn your eyes to Hercules in the flames nor to Marsia without her hide, and these others would not tarry in the room to see San Lorenzo on the spit nor the apostle flayed alive. Look you: My colleague, Bruciolo, dedicated his Bible to the king, who is certainly most Christian, and in five years, he has not had an acknowledgement. Was it, perhaps, that the book was not well translated and well put together? On the other hand, my Courtezan18 drew from him a great chain; for the reason that he is not honest. The excuse for my babblings must be that they were composed by me in order to live, and not out of malice. But, you see, Jesus inspires me to take account of Messer Sebastiano da Pesaro, from whom I have received the thirty crowns I levied on him, and the rest I owe to him, since he 20 has been true to his word.”

At the end, a thrust,19 as we would say today. We have here a letter with the breath of an infernal genius. With what bonhomie he makes sport20 of the pious lady, having all the air of praising her! With what cynicism he proclaims his own speculations on lust and on human obscenity, as if they were the most natural things in this world!21 He speculates, also, in devotion and, with an equal indifference, writes obscene books and the lives of saints; his Ragionamento della Nanna and his Vita di santa Caterina da Siena, the Cortigiana errant and the Vita di Christo. And, why not, since he got a reward on this side and on that? He wrote of all matters and in all forms; dialogues, romances, epics, articles, comedies and even a tragedy, the Orazia. Imagine what sort of heroes the Orzaii could be, what sort of a heroine Orazia, and what sort of Roman populace could issue from the imagination of Pietro. And yet, this is the only work which has artistic intentions, composed after he was already old and satiated and thinking more of glory than he was of money. The result was cold, an abstract and pedestrian world, a world the simplicity and grandeur of which he was incapable of comprehending. In his other works, he felt himself true to his own nature, dedicated to pleasing the public, concerned only with interesting it, getting what he could out of it, making an effect. There is in him a species of mercantile morality;22 he knows 21 what are the goods most sought after, the easiest to dispose of and at the dearest price. He created for himself a conscience and an art that were fictitious, and which varied according to the tastes of his patron, the public. For he was the writer the most in the mode, the most popular and the best paid. His obscene books are the model of a literary genre which, under the name of “gallant tales,” invaded Europe. Obscenity was a sauce much sought after in Italy, by Boccaccio among others; but here it is dyed in the wool. The lives of the saints are true romances into which all sorts of things are packed, appealing to the fantastic and sentimental nature of hypocrites. Maker of verses sufficiently coarse, Aretino unloaded, in his sonnets and articles, a store of bile and malignity joined with servility. And so, alluding to the munificence of Francis I., he said to “Pier Luigi Farnese:”

Impara tu, Pier Luigi ammorbato,
impara, ducarel da tre quattrani,
il costume da un re tanto onorato.
     Ogni signor di trenta contadini
e di una bicoccazza usupar vuole
le ceremonie de’ culti divini

Pietro is not a villain by nature. He is a villain by calculation and from necessity. Reared among unfortunate examples, without religion, without country, without family, deprived of every moral sense, with the most unrestrained appetites and with the intellectual means of satisfying them, he himself is the center of the universe: the world appears made for his service. On this basis, his logic is equal to his temperament. He had a clear perception of means, and no hesitation or scruple in putting them into action. He makes no dissimulation of this; indeed, he glories in it; it is his strength, and he wants everybody to be persuaded of the 22 fact. The world was somewhat after his own imagination. There were many who would have liked to imitate him; but they did not have his genius, his industry, his penetration, his versatility, his spirit. And so, they took it out in admiring him. Among so many adventurers and condottieri, with whom Italy was infected, a vagabond race, without profession and in search of fortune at any cost, the prince, the model, was he. Titian called him “il condottiero della letteratura.”24 And he was not offended: he strutted over it. Left to his own spontaneity, when he was not oppressed by need and not working by calculation, he displayed good qualities. He was merry, sociable, liberal, as well as magnificent, a tried friend, grateful, and an admirer of great artists like Michelangelo and Titian. He had the logic of evil and the vanity of good.

Pietro, as a man, is an important personage, the study of whom takes us behind the scenes into the mysteries of that Italian society of which he was the image, a mixture of moral depravation, of intellectual force and artistic feeling. But he is not less important as a writer.

Culture at that time was tending to become fixed, and Aretino debated long as to whether he should write in the vulgate or in Latin. The popular idiom already had conquered its right of citizenship. But the question was as to whether this idiom was to be called “Tuscan” or “Italian.” And it was not a matter of words, merely, but of things. For many writers pretended to write as the language was spoken, from one end of Italy to the other, and were not disposed to go to Florence to take lessons. But they preferred Latinizing to Tuscanizing. They recognized as their models Boccaccio and Petrarch, but gave no authority to the living tongue. The living tongue, for them, was that common dialect which resembled Latin, on the one hand, and the common word-of-mouth speech on the other. This mechanism was generally 23 accepted, with the exception that in Florence the basis of the language was not the common dialect, mixed with local, Lombardian and Venetian elements, but the Tuscan idiom which had been established by writers. Florence, exhausting its intellectual production, had elevated the colonies of Hercules, in the vocabulary of Crusca, by saying: You shall not go beyond this. Bembo and, later, Salviati fixed the grammatical forms. And the rules of writing, in all genres, were laid down in the “rhetorics,” which were translations of, or refinements on Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. Added to this was the fact that Giulio Camillo pretended to teach all knowledge by a device of his own. This tendency to mechanize is a constant phenomenon in all periods in which production is exhausted; and as a result, culture is arrested, takes refuge in forms and becomes crystallized.

Pietro, of very mediocre culture, looked upon all these rules as pedantry. His own inner life, so spontaneous and so full of productive force, found little point of contact here. Pedantry is his enemy, and he combats it with might and main. And he calls “pedantry” the viewing of things, not in themselves, by direct vision, but through preconceptions, books and rules. Involutions of words and forms are as odious to him as hypocrisy, or the covering of one’s self with an affected modesty, or with the skin of the fox while preaching humility and decency, without being any better than the rest.

”How much better is it,” he wrote to the cardinal of Ravenna, “for a gran maestro to keep in his house a few faithful men, free folk and persons of good will, than to attempt to adorn himself with the vulpine modesty of the asinine pedants who write books, who, when they have assassinated and, with their labors, have succeeded in croaking25 the dead, will not rest until they have crucified the living. I am telling you the truth: it was pedantry that poisoned Medici, it was 24 pedantry that cut the throat of Duke Alexander, and, what is worse, it has provoked a heresy against our faith through the mouth of Luther, the greatest pedant of them all.”

He is not less implacable toward literary pedantry. To Dolce, he wrote:

“Follow the path that nature shows you. Petrarch and Boccaccio are imitated by those who express their conceits with the same sweetness and light26 with which Petrarch and Boccaccio expressed theirs; you will not find them imitated by the man who would plunder these writers, not of their “wherefores” and their “whences,” their tricks and qualifications, but of the poetry that is in them . . . The faecal blood of pedants who would poetize feeds on imitation and, while they cackle away in their worthless books, they transform the works they imitate into locutions, which they embroider with phthisical words according to rote. O wandering tribe, I tell you, and I tell you again, that poetry is a caprice of Nature in her lighter moods; it requires nothing but its own madness and, lacking that, it becomes a soundless cymbal, a belfry without a bell; for which reason, he who would compose without taking beauty out of its swaddling clothes is nothing more than a cold potato.27 . . . Take a lesson from what I am going to tell you about that wise painter who, when asked whom he imitated, pointed with his finger to a crowd of men, implying that he drew his models from life and truth, as I do when I speak and write. Nature herself, and Simplicity, her hand-maid,28 give me what I put into my compositions. And, certainly, I imitate myself, since Nature as a companion is a large order,29 and art is a clinging beetle; and so, I advise you to strive to become a 25 sculptor of the senses, and not a miniaturist of vocabularies.”

Many were trying to write according to nature; above all, one must cite Cellini, whose work is replete with life. But Cellini looked upon himself as an ignorant man, and he wanted Varchi to edit his Vita into learned form; while Aretino, on the contrary, looked upon himself as the superior to all these others and was ready to give the name of “pedant” to those who spent their time distilling words. There is in him a critical consciousness so direct and decisive that, in such an age as his, it must strike one as extraordinary. The very freedom and elevation of his judgment took him into the arts, for which he had the proper feeling. To Michelangelo, he wrote: I sigh to think of your merit so great and my own powers which are so puny.” His favorite is his friend and gossip, Titian, whose realism, so complete and so sensual, was attractive to Aretino’s nature. Taken with fever, he leans against the window and looks out on the gondolas and the Grand Canal of Venice and falls into a thoughtful and contemplative mood; he, Pietro Aretino! The sight of nature purifies, transforms him. And he writes to Titian:30

“Like a man who is weary of himself, I do not know what to do with my mind, my thoughts, and so, I turn my eyes toward the heavens, which, since the day that God created them, never presented so beautiful and elusive a picture of lights and shadows; the atmosphere was the kind those painters strive to express who envy you because they are not you . . . The houses . . . although made of stone, appeared to be made of some artificial material. And then, you perceived that the air on one side was pure and lively, on another turbid and pale as death. Consider also what marvels I had in the way of clouds which, from the principal point of view, stood half touching the house tops, half melting away in the distance, for a black-gray mist hung over all. I surely was amazed at the varied color they displayed, the 26 nearer ones glowing with the flames of the sun, the more distant flushed with a fainter vermilion. Oh, with what fine drawing the brush of Nature had painted that atmosphere, giving the palaces perspective in the same manner that Vecellio does in his landscapes! On some sides, there appeared an azure-green, on others a greenish-azure, truly composed by the caprice of Nature, who is the mistress of all masters . . . She, with her clear colors and her dark, achieved background and relief in such a manner that I, who know what a spirited brush you wield, three or four times exclaimed: “O Titian, why aren’t you here? . . . through my faith that if you had depicted all I have told you, you would have given men the same confused amazement that I feel.”

It is to be noted that this sentiment in the presence of living nature did not produce in him nany moral impression or moral elevation,31 but only an artistic admiration or stupefaction, as in the ordinary Italian of his day. He sees nature through the brush of Titian and the landscapes of Vecellio, but he sees her alive, sees her immediately and with a feeling for art that we seek for in vain in Vasari. Amid so many pedantic works of that time, pertaining to art and the art of writing, his letters on artistic and literary subjects exhibit the first splendors of independent criticism, a criticism that was to outstrip books and traditions and find its base in a love of nature.

Like critic, like writer. Words do not give thought to the world. He takes them all, from wherever they come and whatever they are: Tuscan, local and foreign, noble and plebeian, poetic and prosaic, bitter and sweet, humble and sonorous. And from it issued a written language which is 27 the dialect commonly spoken today by the cultivated classes of Italy. He abolishes the period, breaks up complexities, dissolves periphrases, does away with pleonasms and ellipses and shatters every artifice of that mechanism known as “literary form,” all in his effort to speak naturally. In Lasca, in Cellini, in Cecchi and in Machiavelli, there is the same naturalness; but with them, the Tuscan imprint is everywhere to be felt; all is prettiness and grace. Here, on the other hand, we have an uneducated Tuscan, a son of nature, living outside his native province, who speaks all languages and exercises his speculations in them. He flees Tuscanizing as a pedantry, in the quest of expression and relief. A word is good when it renders the thing perceived as it is in his mind, and when he does not have to go looking for it; the thing and the word seem to come to him at once, so great is his facility. The word is not always the proper one and not always adapted to its purpose, because sometimes, abusing his facility, he scribbles and does not write. His motto is: “Come as comes,”32 and from this spring great inequalities. He wastes no time on Cicero and Boccaccio, but, rather, does just the opposite, seeking not magnificence and grandeur of form, in the search for which an indolent brain squanders time, but the most rapid form and the one most suited to the velocity of his perceptions. He does not even affect brevity, as Davanzati does, a lazy mind, all at grips with words and images; for his attention is not directed outward but inward.33 He abandons mechanical processes and takes no thought of verbal niceties and the lascivious aspects of form. He has so much force and facility in production and so much richness of conceit and imagery, that it all rushes out impetuously and by the most direct route possible. There are 28 no obstacles, no digressions or distractions; he is immediate and decisive, in style as in life. As his ego is the center of the universe, so is it the center also of his style. The world of representation does not exist by itself, but through him, and he treats it and handles it as a thing of his own , with the same caprice and the same liberty as that with which Folengo treats the world of his imagination. Except that, in the case of Folengo, we have the development of humor, inasmuch as his world is wholly imaginary, and he treats it without any seriousness whatever, for the simple purpose of getting a laugh out of it; whereas th world of Pietro is a real thing, and he has a perfect consciousness of it and treats it for the purpose of exhausting it and carving out of it his style. And for this reason, he does not respect his own argument; he does not hide himself or lose himself in it, but makes of it his instrument, his means, even at the cost of profaning it unworthily. He treats Jesus Christ as a wandering knight. “Poetic lies,” he said, speaking of the Virgin, “which become gospels when they come to speak of Him who is the refuge of our hopes.” In his Vita di Santa Caterina, he wrote that “it practically all rests upon the back of invention . . . for, in addition to the fact that in every case whatever results to the glory of God is admitted, the work itself would be nothing without the assistance I have lent it.”34

Sometimes, he falls by the way, his brain is empty, and he amasses adjectives with a show of oratorical pomp that rivals the charlatan:

“The facile, the religious, the bright, the gracious, the noble, the fervid, the faithful, the veracious, the sweet, the good, the health-bringing, the sacred and the holy sayings of Catherine, virgin, saintly, holy, health-bringing, good, sweet, veracious, faithful, fervid, noble, gracious, bright, religious and facile, had in a manner sequestrated the spirits.”

It is like a bell that deafens one’s ears. And he was the 29 one who talked of a “florid style,” a style with which Aretino himself will regale you when he has nothing better to offer. There are times when he has something to say and is unable to strike the vein or lacks the feeling, and on such occasions, he falls into the most confused metaphors and the most absurd subtleties, especially in his elegies, for which he was so well paid.

“Since your merits,” he wrote to the Duke of Urbino, “are like the stars in the heaven of glory, they have inclined the planet of my genius, as it were, to find in my style in words the image of the mind, so that the true face of those virtues, desired by the world; may be seen in all parts; but the power of that genius, notwithstanding it is elevated by the altitude of the subject, is not able to express the manner in which goodness, clemency and strength, in equal concord, have given you, as though by fatal decree, the true name of prince.”

This is a period in the popular word-of-mouth manner, stretched out in form and conceits. Here there is no “Come as comes,” but won’t-come and must-make-come-at-all-costs. His panegyrics are altogether rhetorical, metaphorical, manufactured, falsely pompous and puffed out to the point of absurdity; they are almost like ironic caricatures under the guise of praise. Speaking good was not for him so easy a thing as speaking evil, in which latter pursuit he spent all the vigor of his cynical and sarcastic nature. He assumes an emphatic tone and seeks a strangeness of concepts and of manner, a dialect precious, composed wholly of pearls, but of false pearls. It is that preciosity which passed into France with Voiture and Balzac, which was flayed by Moliere, and which in Italy was to become the physiognomy of our literature. Here are a few of these false pearls placed in circulation by Aretino.

“(Your eloquence) moves from the nature of your intellect with so much fecundity that the language which profits by it, the conceptions it embodies and the ears which listen to 30 it remain confused in wonderment . . .

“He took from Solimano in the service of Christianity the mind from the soul, the soul from the body and the body from its arms . . .

“I give myself to you, fathers of your peoples, brothers of your servants, little sons of truth, friends of virtue, companions of strangers, supports of religion, observers of the faith, executors of justice, heirs of charity and subjects of clemency . . .

“To gather up my affection in a hem of your piety . . .

“The face of liberality has for mirror the hearts of those to whom it gives assistance . . .

“Your Excellency seeks of me a few gossipings of which to make a fan against the great heat we are having these days . . .

“To fish with the hook of thought in the depths of the lake of memory . . .

“The honesty of some is adorned with the corroding of others’ favor . . .

“The coin of affection stamps in the heart the imperishable name of friends . . .

“To buy hope in the urn of false promises . . .”

This precious and florid style is crossed, from time to time, by flashes of genius: original comparisons, splendid images, new and glowing conceptions, incisive pencil-strokes;’ and we discover in it, when it is abandoned to itself, and when it does not seek effects, a truth of feeling and of coloring, as in the following letter, so moving in its simplicity:

“The stockings of turquoise and gold, which I have received, caused me as much weeping as pleasure, for the reason that the little girl who should have enjoyed them was receiving extreme unction the morning they arrived; and I cannot write you more on account of the compassion that I feel for her.”

The dissolution of the literary mechanism results in a form of writing which is closer to that of conversation, freed 31 from all preconceptions, being the immediate expression of an inner feeling; a style now florid, now precious, is a form of the decline of arts and letters; and here lies the significance of Pietro Aretino as a writer. His influence was not small. He had about him secretaries, pupils and imitators of his manner, like Franco, Dolce, Lando, Doni and other tradesmen. “I live by a Lord-ha’-mercy,” wrote Doni. “My books are written before they are composed and read before they are printed.” His Libreria is still read today for a certain brio it possesses and for the curious bits of information to be found in it.

But Pietro has yet a certain other importance, as a writer of comedies. His was a conventional comic world, based on Plautus and Terence, with accessories drawn from the popular and plebeian life of the times. Its bases were equivocations, rewards and the confusion of accidents,35 all of which kept the interest alive. About this frame-work he set up characters thoroughly conventionalized: the parasite, the gluttonous servant, the courtezan, the thievish servant-maid and go-between, the prodigal son, the avaricious and bantered father, the poltroon who pretends to be brave, the broker, the usurer. A study of our comic figures is interesting to one who would see well into the corruption which characterized the Italy of that day. He will see there family bonds broken and worthless sons deceiving their fathers, while the latter are, themselves, come-ons for usurers, courtezans and pimps, all this accompanied by the laughter of a respectable public. This world was the world of a comedy with its forms patterned after the Latin and sprinkled with jests and obscenities. The most fecund comic writer was Cecchi, who died in 1587, and who, in less than ten days, would improvise comedies, farces, histories and sacred representations. He has the Florentine grace and brio in common with Lasca, but he has less spirit and movement, so that sometimes it 32 seems, in reading his plays, as though one were standing in a dead sewer. His world and his characters are like a repertory that is known and established, and his haste in composition prevents him from giving them flesh and color. He conveys the impression of being thin, lean and muddy. Pietro sees through all this trickery and does away with it. He recognizes no rules and no traditions and no theatrical usages. “Do not marvel,” he says in the prologue to his Cortigiana, “if the comic style does not here observe the rules that are laid down, for life is lived in another manner at Rome from that in which it was lived at Athens.” Among the rules referred to was this one: that no characters could appear more than five times in a scene. Pietro burlesqued this rule with much spirit: “If you see characters coming out more than five times in a scene, do not laugh, for the chains that bind the mills to the rivers do not confine the follies of today.” He looks to the effect; he cuts out delays, removes dramatic obstacles, avoids preparations,36 episodes, descriptions, long harangues and frequent soliloquies; he seeks, above all, action and movement, and he hurls you, from the very beginning, into that roguish, vividly individualized world of his. He has not Machiavelli’s gift of synthesis, the ability to take in, with a firm gaze, a vast ensemble, to bind it together and develop it with a logical fatality, as though it were a piece of argumentation. His is not a speculative genius; he is a man of action, and himself a character in a comedy. For he does not give you action well studied and ordered, as in the Mandragola;37 he flees the ensemble; the world presents itself to him in pieces and in mouthfuls. But, like Machiavelli, he has a profound experience of the human heart and a wide knowledge of character; his characters develop in a related manner, through a variety of accidents, and dominate the scene, generating the invention and the piquancy of situation. How this rogue rejoices us with all 33 the brigandages which he sets upon the stage! It is because that comic world is his world, the world in which he has known so much malice and charlatanry. His fundamental concept is that the world belongs to those who take it, because there are so many rogues and bold-faced rascals, and woe to the foolish ones! He deals in jests and injuries, for the reason that they are so fertile in laughs for the public, because they are the comic material. His Ipocrito is the apotheosis of a knave who, by the madness of intrigue and malice, becomes rich, just like Aretino. La Talanta38 is a courtezan who deceives all her lovers, and who ends up rich, esteemed and married to an old and faithful sweetheart under the beards of her other lovers. His “philosopher,” while he studies Plato and Aristotle, is made a cuckold by his wife, and then the good man is reconciled with her. In the Cortigiana, messer Maco, who wants to be a cardinal, and Parabolano, who thinks that, on account of his riches, he has all the ladies at his feet, are, throughout the comedy, the lure for courtezans, pimps and knaves. His “big booby of a sailor or great shield-bearer,”39 in order not to displease the Duke of Mantua, his lord, consents to marry a lady whom he has never seen, though he is himself an enemy of women and of matrimony. Nor is this a world imaginary and subjective, so properly pictured is the society of the day, with its customs egregiously represented in the finest and most minute detail. Pietro leaped into it, gleefully, as into his element, launching satires, elegies, epigrams, knaveries and deformities with a brilliancy and an ardor of movement which were like fireworks. Some of his characters have remained famous, and all of them are alive and true. His marescalco has inspired Rabelais and Shakespeare40 and is a most original scherzo, while Parabolano has remained the appellation given to vain 34 and fatuous fellows. Messer Maco is the type from which issued Pourceaugnac. His “hypocrite”41 is a Tartuffe, innocuous and placed in a good light. His “philosopher,”42 whom he calls Plataristotile, is a caricature of the Platonists of the time. To hear him wax sententious, he is a wise man; but he has no practical experience of the world, and his servant knows it better than he; and Tessa, his wife, knows it better still. This philosopher, whose wife makes sport of him under his nose, pronounces fine sentiments upon women, while the servant, who knows everything, has a good time at his expense.

PLATOARISTOTILE.   Woman is the guide to evil and the mistress of wickedness.

SERVANT.   He who knows that doesn’t say it.

PLATOARISTOTILE.   The breast of woman is strong in deceits.

SERVANT.   Which is sad for the one who doesn’t perceive . . .

PLATOARISTOTILE.   He who supports the perfidy of his wife is learning to endure the injuries of his enemies.

SERVANT.   That’s a fine story { ——}

And the servant concludes: “Your Wisdom, you should take what comes in good part and not let yourself go in doctrinal speculations, or if you do, the devil will let you go to grass.”43

“You speak eloquently,” replied the philosopher, “but those things are not to be considered too much by me, on account of the appetite for glory which I have acquired by philosophizing.”

His Boccaccio44 is one of those blackbirds, caught in the claws of a courtezan and flayed alive. The serving maid offers him an ambuscade.

BOCCACCIO.   What moves your mistress to wish to speak to me, who am a stranger?


LISA.   Perhaps, the grace that is in you; yes, by my faith, that’s it.

BOCCACCIO.   You like to say nice things.

LISA.   May death take me, if I don’t convulse myself in serving you.

BOCCACCIO.   Breeding always tells.

LISA.   To see her, you would forget all the other beauties . . . Stay where you are, stop and look at the sun, moon and stars coming through that door.

BOCCACCIO.   What a fine sight!

LISA.   There is grace in your judgment.

BOCCACCIO.   If only I’m the man she’s looking for . . . Names sometimes get confused.

LISA.   Yours is so sweet that it sticks to the lips. See, she’s running to you with open arms.

Courtezans are his favorite theme. His Angelica is the type of all the others, and his Nanna45 is the mistress of the species.

This was the comedy which the century produced, the last act of the Decamerone: a world brazen and cynical, the protagonists of which are courtezans, male and female, and the center of which is the court of Rome, a world open to the flagellations of a man who, in his fortress of Venice, was assured of impunity.

According to a popular tradition, and a very expressive one, Pietro died in a fit of laughter, as Margutte and as Italy died.46


1  This vivid essay by the author of the Storia della Letteratura Italiana, the leading Italian critic of the Nineteenth century, is printed here for its critical, rather than its biographic interest, but above all, for its qualities as a piece of forceful writing. As to its scholarship, there may be a question, particularly in the light of the latest Aretino researches. For historic accuracy, it cannot compare, for example, with the study by the Englishman, Edward Hutton (Pietro Aretino, Scourge of Princes, Constable, London, 1922). There is much of value in De Sanctis’ view of Pietro as an embodiment of the riotously chromatic cinquecento; his opinions are only marred by a certain moralistic tendency. In my footnotes, I have endeavored to apply an occasional corrective, or at least to note the danger when it occurs.

2  “Now this which is to be praise, this praise shall be clear, single and true, exactly like the truth and like the sun.”

3  Engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, the most famous engraver of his age. Romano, according to the account given by Vasari (Milanesi, Florence, 1906, Vol. V., p. 418), first made the designs and then employed Raimondi to engrave them. Aretino then wrote an indecent sonnet for each — “so that I do not know which was the more revolting, the spectacle presented to the eye by the designs of Giulio or the affront offered to the ear by the words of Aretino.” Vasari concludes: “Certain it is that the endowments which God has conferred on men of ability ought not to be abused, as they too frequently are, to the offense of the whole world, and to the promotion of ends which are disapproved by all men.”

4  Lettere, I., 2. This letter was written to the Doge of Venice, when the latter intervened between Aretino and the Pope to secure a privilegio for the printing of the former’s epic poem, Marfisa.

5  See Doni’s letter, quoted by Camerini, Appendix I.

6  Orlando Furioso, Canto XLVI., 14:

                                   “ecco il flagello
De’ Principi, il divin Pietro Aretino.

Aretino was overcome with delight at this. See also his letter to Ersilia del Monte, quoted by Camarini, and Gaddi’s comment, Appendix I.

7  See Aretino’s own comment on this, in a letter to Bembo, quoted by Camerini, Appendix I.

8  See Aretino’s letter to Ersilia del Monte, Appendix I.

9  Aretino at least pretends, rather successfully, not to want a cardinal’s hat. Perhaps, he was a little loathe to leave his loved Venice, even for an honor which would have been the supremely ironical crown of an ironical life. (His sense of irony would have told him that.) Nevertheless, we find Titian pleading his cause in the matter with the Emperor Charles V., who, it appears, was inclined to look favorably on the idea. See Hutton, op. cit., pp. 223ff., where Titian’s letter to Aretino, describing his interview with Charles, is quoted. The letter is printed in Lettere all’ Aretino, Bologna, 1874.

10  A friendship exists between the pirate of the high seas and the buccaneer of the mondo altero. Pietro, in one of his letters, exhorts Barbarossa to be kind to Christian captives! Barbarossa had called Aretino “the first of Christian writers.” For this fascinating letter, in full, see Appendix I.

11  See Alessandro Andrea, quoted by Camerini, Appendix I.

12  The emperor, in his last days, had a strange fondness, not to say a weakness, for the “screw of princes.” The story of this meeting, not without its touching side, will be found in Hutton, op. cit., where a chapter (Chapter X.) is devoted to the rivalry between Charles and Francis I. For Aretino’s favors. See Camerini’s interesting comment, Appendix I.

13  He served Titian as a model repeatedly.

14  (De Sanctis’ Note:) Here are a few citations:

“And Boccamezza . . . although I always regarded him as a man of abundant wealth, when I showed him twenty-two women with their babes at their breasts, who had come to eat the bones of my poor ink — for not a day passes that not more, or at least as many, hungry ones come to me — was surprised . . . Oh, he said to me, ‘and why spend so unrestrainedly, when you have no more than enough for yourself?’ ‘Because,’ I replied, ‘real souls are always unbridled in their expenditures.’ ”

“Eating . . . the day before yesterday, some hares torn by dogs which the captain Giovan Tiepoli had sent me, I was so pleased that I decided ‘Floria prima lepus’ was a saying worthy of being posted up in the hearts of hypocrites on their fast days, in place of the ‘silentium’ which a garrulous brother tacks up over the monk’s quarters. And while their praises were running to caeli caelorum, I was feasting on the thrushes which had been brought to me by one of your lackeys, and the very taste of them made me hum the ‘Inter aves.’ They were so fine, indeed, that our messer Tiziano (Titian), upon catching a glimpse of them on a plate and getting a whiff with his nostrils . . . deserted a crowd of gentlemen who were giving him a dinner party. And everybody gave great praise to the bird with the long beak which, boiled with a bit of dried beef, two laurel leaves and a pinch of pepper, we ate out of love for you and because it pleased us, even as Fra Mariano, Moro dei Nobili, Porto da Luca, Brandino and the Bishop of Troy were pleased with the ortolans, fig-peckers, pheasants, peacocks and lampreys with which they filled their stomachs, with the consent of their cooks’ souls and that of the mad and knavish stars which had given them such big bellies . . . And blessed is he who is mad, and in his madness pleases others and himself.”

15  Camorrista.

16  Hutton has another interpretation. Mendacium, he thinks (op. cit., p. 149), “referred not so much to the lies which Aretino himself owns he told as to the flattering epithets with which he had overwhelmed Francis.” It was Aretino’s boast (see Hutton, ibid.): “Per Dio, che la bugia campeggia cosi bene in bocca a me come si faccia la verita in bocca al clero. — By God, a lie sits in my mouth as well as truth does in the mouth of a cleric.” Is it not possible that Francis had the same sense of humor, inverted it may be, or the same sense of irony, that Pietro had? There is also another reading, judicium, which, however, appears to have little to support it. (See Hutton’s note.) In any event, Aretino always wore this chain, thereafter, and it is to be seen in all his portraits. It was, as Hutton remarks, “the crowing of his reputation,” and “Henceforth he was a sort of institution.”

17  This is, it seems to me, a piece of deliberate misrepresentation. See Aretino’s own account, Lettere, I., 5, quoted at length by Hutton, (op. cit., Chapter VI.) “And he, as soon as he saw me, began to say to me that the thought of the poltroons distressed him more than the pain.” Hutton thinks, and I agree with him, that this is “Probably an allusion to the Pope and the politicians, e. g. the Datario” — in other words, to Italy’s enemies, the foes of that Italy which Giovanni of the bande nere died trying to save, and which speedily went to pieces when he was gone — the sack of Rome, described in the second day of the Ragionamenti, followed soon afterward. Aretino and the gran diavolo had been too good bosom-cronies, companions in lust and life, to let such a remark as this, with the interpretation De Sanctis gives it, ring true. They were, indeed, two of a kind, in walks of life not so widely separated as they might seem to have been. (For additional data, see Appendix I.)

There is also a misrepresentation of the affair with the British ambassador, if we are to credit Hutton, (op. cit., pp. 219ff.) Aretino was an old man then, and his deportment in the matteer appears to have been rather to his credit. The evident animus in such a remark as “it was he, then, who was afraid, because he was vile and a poltroon,” rather tends to disqualify the witness, it seems to me.

18  His play, La Cortigiana.

19  Una stoccata, a fencing term — a “knockout,” as we would say.

20  And why, one might ask, should he not? Aretino doubtless knew his correspondent as a pious old meddler, if not a hypocrite.

21  The capable cynic might put up rather a good argument to prove that they are. It has been done. At any rate, de Sanctis’ moralizing, at points, becomes a bit tiresome.

22  It is interesting to compare De Foe, who came not far from being the British Aretino. See Paul Dottin’s Vie et aventures de Daniel de Foe, auteur de Robinson Crusoe (Perrin et cie., Paris, 1925). Reviewing Dottin, the present translator once wrote: “De Foe, who started life as a merchant, who became a scheming politician and who ended as a best-seller, tossing off ‘Crusoe’ to provide his daughter’s dowry, remained, in the end, the merchant, selling his soul to God on the Puritan’s hard-driving bargain terms. And ‘Robinson’ is but the reflection of his creator, keeping always a moralistic profit and loss account, with an ear deaf to the song of birds but keenly attuned to the tinkle of coins in a till.”

23  “Learn you, sickly Pier Luigi, learn, you three-farthings dukelet, the ways of so honored a king. Every signor with thirty peasants and an old wreck of a castle tries to usurp the rites which are paid to the gods.”

24  The phrase stuck; it has become famous. “Street-car conductor (or elevatorman) of literature” might be the equivalent in Americanese.

25  The casa Aretina was rich in works of Art but contained few books. See Appendix I.

26  The rendering is exact: con la dolcezza e con la leggiadria.

27  Zugo infreddato. A zugo is a variety of fritter.

28   Literally, her secretary (secretario).

29  una compagnone badiale che ci si sbraca. This phrase is only one of many in which Aretino’s concentrated vividness is hard to translate. The force of si sbraca is to be noted; sbracarsi is, literally, to take off one’s small clothes, or breeches. The phrase is a strong one, and one which painters well might commit to memory.

30  Lettere, III., 48.

31  “It certainly did not,” remarks Hutton (op. cit., p. 238), “but why should it? It awoke in him as in any other artist a sheer delight. Surely that was enough? He was not a pantheist to worship Nature, nor, perhaps, would he have cared for the Lesser Celandine. Let us leave the moral elevation to Vasari, and only regret that Vasari was totally lacking in Aretino’s critical judgment and artistic appreciation of painting; and let us acknowledge in Aretino the first critic of modern art, in painting and letters, who refers us not to the classics but to nature and to life.” Appendix I.

32  Come viene viene.

33  Cf. the sonnet, Mentre voi Titian, voi Sansovino (Lettere, II., 249):

Benche il mio stil non puo forma e colore
Al buon di dentro dar; qual puote il vostro
Colorire e formare il bel di fore . . .

34  An example of daring auctorial frankness, which is punished as the author might have foreseen.

35  Cf. the Shakespearean comedy of errors, which likewise has classical antecedents.

36  The “exposition” over which our contemporary dramatists dawdle. In this respect, and in his tendency to slay the soliloquy and the aside, Aretino displays marks of modernity.

37  Machiavelli’s play.

38  Title character in the play of that name.

39  marescalco o grande scudiere. Marescalco is the title character in the comedy, il Marescalco.

40  Cf. Malvilio. Camerini’s “brio Shakesperiano.”

41  Title character in Lo Ipocrito. If we are to credit Horologgi, Aretino was to be found on almost every reading table in France. See Appendix I.

42  Title character in il Filosofo.

43  che il diavolo non vi lasciasse poi andare pei canneti.

44  In il Filosofo.

45  Of the Ragionamenti.

46  Aretino, whose death was due to apoplexy, died, according to popular account, by falling over backward from his chair in a fit of laughter at an obscene story told him by his sister. This account is repeated in the article on Aretino in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The falling from the chair, at least, is authenticated. This is established by a letter to the Duke of Mantua from his ambassador at Venice, Ludovico Nelli. The letter is printed in A. Luzio’s Giornale Storico della Letteratura Italiana. See Hutton, (op. cit., p. 230). Margutte died watching the antics of a monkey.

[The Letters]


[BACK]          [Blueprint]          [NEXT]