A few years ago in Pakistan I met Jamil who had been in prison as a student. During the Islamic military dictatorship of Ziaul Haq he had been arrested for distributing pamphlets against the regime. While in jail he met a terrorist who was about to be freed. The man had been in prison a much shorter time than Jamil, who had no hope of imminent release. When the terrorist learned what Jamil’s crime had been he responded: ‘your pamphlets must have been more dangerous than my gun.’ This was the spontaneous reaction of a man who had almost certainly never heard the aphorism, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’
Pietro Aretino was a man who understood that concept, and like Jamil the Pakistani pamphleteer, it was sometimes to his cost. He was born in 1492, out of wedlock, to a no-good cobbler father and an attractive bourgeois mother from Arezzo in Southern Tuscany. Early on, like Leonardo da Vinci, he took his name from the place of his birth. Through contacts of his mother he gained access to the outer circle of literati at the papal court of Pope Leo X, the first Medici Pope. Amongst many satirical pieces he wrote an obituary on the death of Hanno, the Pope’s pet elephant.
He was a writer who, for his time and place, was fearlessly outspoken on the activities and intrigues of prominent people and wrote satires and lampoons of both princes and popes. He escaped arrest, and worse, on numerous occasions by fleeing, and he finally settled in Venice, a republic with a healthy scepticism for anointed heads, secular and ecclesiastical. He became known as ‘The Scourge of Princes.’ He has also been described as the first great pornographer for a number of grossly pornographic but well written books. No doubt he would have subscribed to Oscar Wilde’s view that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.”
If Aretino had any formal education at all it was cursory. At the age of 18 he left Arezzo and went to Perugia where he developed an interest in painting and wrote his first poems. He then went to Rome supported by the patronage of a wealthy banker Agostino Ghigi. This gave him full scope for his developing interest in literary and clerical gossip and for his talent as a writer of satire.
On the death of Leo X his cousin, Cardinal Guilio de Medici, used Aretino to blacken his rivals in the race to be elected pope. The conclave, however, elected an outsider, the ascetic and spiritual Flemish Cardinal Adrian Dedel who became Pope Adrian VI.
Aretino promptly left Rome, went to Mantua and found partonage at the court of Federico Gonzaga. He also established a lasting friendship with another cousin of his former patron the mercenary Giovanni de Medici, known as ‘dalle Bande Nere,’ ‘of the Black Bands.’ When Adrian VI died after less than two years as pope, Aretino returned to Rome and after the longest conclave in history, sixty days, Guilio de Medici finally ascended the Papal throne as Clement VII.
Aretino was once more secure in the patronage of the most powerful prince in Italy, but true to form he soon blotted his copybook again, this time badly. Under Leo X he had written sonnets to accompany engravings of Romano’s 16 positions in lovemaking, and had to flee Rome. This time he wrote a piece that was offensive to Bishop Giovanni Giberti who, for political reasons, Pope Clement could not afford to offend. After an assassin employed by Giberti stabbed and almost killed him he fled Rome again, this time for good. He re-established his contacts with Gonzaga and ‘della Bande Nere,’ and went through Northern Italy employing his pen in the service of a number of princes. In 1527 he moved to the relative safety of Venice where he spent the rest of his life.
From there he produced most of his works. One writer says “he kept all that was famous in Italy in a kind of state of siege.” His influence extended beyond the boundaries of Italy, and at one point he was pensioned by both King Francis I of France and the Emperor Charles V, each hoping to damage the other.
In Venice he published news-sheets that circulated with well informed personal and political gossip that flattered and goaded. Those who benefited by his flattery or his goading of others gave him gifts, some of which amounted to vulgar extortion. By these gifts he was able to live well. In pursuit of influence he was a prolific writer of letters which at intervals he collected and published. He was a close friend of Titian who painted his portrait at least three times. The gold chain he wears in one of these portraits is believed to have been a gift from King Francis I.
No doubt for services rendered, Clement VII made Aretino a Knight of Rhodes and Julius III named him a Knight of Peter. He died in Venice in 1556.