Aretino, Pietro (1492-1556)

Perhaps the most vigorous and versatile vernacular writer of the 16th century Aretino rejected the family name of his wastrel cobbler father and preferred to be known as Pietro 'of Arezzo' (his birthplace). It is doubtful whether he received any formal education. However, thanks to contacts derived from an aristocratic 'protector' of his attractive bourgeoise mother, he was much in the company of cultivated men, especially during a formative period of his life spent in Perugia (before 1510-17). There he showed an interest in painting and wrote his first poems. In 1517 he was passed on to the Roman household of Agostino Chigi, the wealthy banker and patron of artists (including Raphael), and thence moved into the outer circle of 'letterati' surrounding Pope Leo X.

Here on the raffish fringe of an elegant society he developed a lively interest in political and clerical gossip, expressing this in pasquinades and lampoons that earned him the shrewd, if perhaps grudging, patronage of Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, especially when, after Leo's death in 1521, Giulio wished to see the reputation of his rivals for the succession blackened. When the conclave elected instead the puritanical Adrian VI, Aretino thought it wise to withdraw, attaching himself to new patrons, the Marquis Federico Gonzaga of Mantua and - the beginning of a true friendship between equally frank and impetuous temperaments - the condottiere Giovanni de' Medici 'dalle Bande Nere'. Returning to Rome when, on Adrian's early death in 1523, Giulio became pope as Clement VII, Aretino had to flee briefly in 1524 after publishing some sonnets to go with a series of banned engravings by Giulio Romano showing positions adopted in love-making; and once more, this time permanently, in 1525, when the chief target of his pen, Bishop Giovanni Giberti - a man Clement could not afford to offend publicly - nearly succeeded in having him assassinated. After a renewal of his contacts with Giovanni de' Medici and Federico Gonzaga, Aretino moved in 1527 to Venice, where he spent the rest of his life.

By then, aged 35, he had not only become a master of the pasquinade but had transformed the crude Prognostications and Avisi, or news broadsheets, of the day into satirical and alarmingly well-informed sources of political and personal comment. He had also widened his repertory to include circulated copies of the letters he wrote praising or scolding the great political figures, Italian and foreign, whose actions were of wide public interest. Alternately goaded and flattered, a number of those they were addressed to placated him with gifts. These remained the chief source of his income, at a time when publication was unlikely to provide even the most prolific author with a living.

It is on his letters, launched from the congenial security of Venice, which he collected and published at intervals (1537, 1542, 1544, 1550 and - emerging posthumously - 1557), that his reputation as a writer rests most firmly. Though he was explicit in his condemnation of linguistic pedantry, the vigour, colour and inventiveness of his prose is the result of great care, usually well concealed beneath a surface of apparent spontaneity. They reveal him as a nimble if shallow thinker, a writer capable of expressing a wide range of feeling, a gifted and - for the time - uniquely sympathetic appreciator of the works of his artist friends, among whom Titian was prominent. Thanks to his early correspondence, in 1532 he was given by Ariosto in the final revision of Orlando furioso the soubriquet that has stuck to him: the Scourge of Princes. In further evidence of its success, in 1533 King Francis I sent him a placatory golden chain.

The running commentary on his times which made the basis of his career was, however, accompanied by more orthodox literary activity. In 1534 alone, for instance, he published the first part of his Ragionamenti, dialogues about brothel affairs that deliberately punctured the vogue for high-minded discussions on Platonic themes; the revised version of his defiantly anti-'erudite' comedy La cortigiana (first version 1525); and two effortlessly devotional works, one on the Passion, the other an extended paraphrase of the penitential psalms. Of his other works, those that have best stood the test of time are plays: Il Marescalco (1526-27, published 1533) and La Talanta (1542). Until the last decades Aretino's reputation, because of his unshifty interest in sex, was either academic or clandestine. While not yet the subject of a full reappraisal, he can at last be openly judged and enjoyed.

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