20 April 2020

Pietro Aretino – writer

Satirist was both admired and feared by the nobility


Pietro Aretino, captured by his friend, the Venetian painter Titian in around 1545
Pietro Aretino, captured by his friend, the
Venetian painter Titian in around 1545
Poet, playwright and prose writer Pietro Aretino was born on this day in 1492 in Arezzo in Tuscany.

Aretino became famous for his satirical attacks on important figures in society and grew wealthy from the gifts he received from noblemen who feared being exposed by his powerful pen.

Although he was the son of an Arezzo shoemaker, he pretended to be the natural son of a nobleman and took his name from Arretium, the Roman name for Arezzo.

He moved to Perugia while still very young and lived the life of a painter, but in 1517 when he was in his early twenties, Aretino moved on to Rome, where he secured the patronage of the rich banker, Agostino Chigi.

When Pope Leo X's pet elephant, Hanno, died, Aretino wrote a satirical pamphlet, The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno, cleverly mocking the leading political and religious figures in Rome at the time. This established his fame as a satirist. He then wrote a series of viciously satirical lampoons supporting the candidacy of Giulio de’ Medici for the papacy. Giulio duly became Pope Clement VII in 1523.

Despite being supported by the Pope and his patron, Chigi, Aretino was finally forced to leave Rome because of writing a collection of ‘lewd sonnets’, sonetti lussuriosi, in 1524.

The painter Titian became a good friend
and supporter of Aretino
By 1527 Aretino had settled in Venice where he was admired but also feared by those in power and he received enough money to be able to live in a grand - albeit dissolute - style.

He became a close friend of the painter Titian and sold paintings on Titian’s behalf to Francis I, the King of France.

Titian’s portrait of Aretino, painted in around 1545, shows him wearing a gold chain that he had received as a gift from the King of France.

It is claimed Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain both paid him a pension at the same time, each hoping he would damage the reputation of the other.

Aretino wrote six volumes of letters that were published from 1537 onwards which reveal his cynicism and justify the name he gave to himself, ‘flagello dei principe’ - scourge of princes.

He was particularly vicious in his attack on Romans, not forgetting that they had forced him to move to Venice. In his Ragionamenti - Discussions - written between 1534 and 1536, Roman prostitutes reveal to each other the moral failings of many of the important men in the city and in his Dialogues, he examines the carnality and corruption among Romans at the time.

Aretino’s dramas present well observed pictures of lower-class life, free from the conventions that burdened other contemporary dramas. The best known is Cortigiana - The Courtesan - published in 1534, a lively and amusing insight into the life of the lower classes in Rome.

Aretino captured in another portrait  by Titian, painted in 1512
Aretino captured in another portrait
by Titian, painted in 1512
Aretino also wrote a tragedy, Orazia, published in 1546, which has been judged to be the best Italian tragedy written in the 16th century.

Pietro Aretino died in 1556 in Venice aged 64. It was claimed at the time that he either suffocated because he could not stop laughing, or fell backwards and hit his head while laughing.

He was buried in the Church of San Luca, which lies between St Mark’s Square and the Rialto bridge in Venice.

In 2007, the composer Michael Nyman set some of Aretino’s Sonetti lussoriosi to music under the title 8 Lust Songs. Aretino’s texts again caused controversy when the songs were performed in London in 2008 as the printed programmes containing extracts had to be withdrawn after there were allegations of obscenity.

The interior of the 13th century Basilica di San Francesco in Piazza San Francesco in the heart of Arezzo
The interior of the 13th century Basilica di San Francesco
in Piazza San Francesco in the heart of Arezzo
Travel tip:

Arezzo, where Pietro Aretino was born and acquired his surname, is an interesting old town in eastern Tuscany, which was used as the location for the 1997 film Life Is Beautiful. One of the scenes in the film took place in front of the Badia delle Sante Flora e Lucilla, a medieval abbey. Right in the centre of the town, the 13th century Basilica di San Francesco in Piazza San Francesco is the most famous sight in Arezzo and attracts many visitors as it contains Piero della Francesco’s cycle of frescoes, The Legend of the True Cross, painted between 1452 and 1466 and considered to be his finest work.

The church of San Luca in Venice, which can be found between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge
The church of San Luca in Venice, which can be found
between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge
Travel tip:

Pietro Aretino was buried in the Church of San Luca close to Salizzada San Luca in the St Mark’s sestiere of Venice. On his tombstone was the epitaph: ‘Here lies Aretino, poet Tosco, that everyone spoke poorly about, except Christ, who apologised saying: ‘I do not know him.’’ This inscription was later removed, either by the Inquisition, or during restoration work on the floor of the church in the 18th century. It is claimed many journalists, writers and non-believers used to visit the church looking for Aretino’s tomb. On either side of the altar there used to be paintings from the 16th century, in which Aretino was portrayed as part of the crowd. It has been claimed that the paintings were removed by one of the priests in the 19th century to discourage the interest and they have still not been put back.

Also on this day:

1317: The death of Sant’Agnese of Montepulciano

1949: The birth of Massimo D’Alema, Italy’s first Communist prime minister

1951: The death of anti-Fascist politician Ivanoe Bonomi


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