Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1389
Pietro Aretino won his reputation as “the Scourge of Princes” with his sharp, scurrilous attacks on the important men of his time; he is best known as a writer for his vigorous, witty, often obscene plays and dialogues that show him as a realist and something of an ironist. He was deeply conscious of the moral corruption of his age, but he was for the most part content to portray it vividly without endeavoring to reform it.
The Discourses (Ragionamenti) is based on an underlying premise that sex is the overriding concern of all human beings. Aretino treats the subject with great humor and gusto. He is a gifted storyteller and an acute observer of the mores of society, skillful at painting every detail of a lavish banquet or a lady’s costume.
In this work Aretino has linked together a succession of tales, beast fables, and anecdotes with a narrative framework, using a pattern successfully employed by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio in The Decameron; the tone of his work is close to that of Chaucer’s fabliaux, the tales of the miller, the reeve, the friar, and others of the bawdier pilgrims. Each of the two parts of Aretino’s Discourses consists of three days’ conversation. In Part I, Nanna takes up successively the life of the nun, the wife, and the courtesan. Part II deals with rules for the successful prostitute, the “Betrayals of Men,” and the “art” of the procuress.
On the first day Nanna, a witty, experienced courtesan, tells her friend Antonia about her entrance into a convent. Leaving grieving lovers behind, she went with fear and trembling toward what she feared was to be a grim, ascetic existence. She describes, ironically in the light of what follows, the solemn ceremony in which they divested her of her worldliness, then goes on to recount the sights that greeted her when she entered the nunnery. Pretty young nuns and handsome, merry priests feasted together in the greatest luxury, eating and drinking their fill while laughing and talking throughout the meal that was theoretically governed by the rule of silence. The banquet concluded with what can only be described as an orgy, while Nanna and a companion went strolling down the hall, entertaining themselves by spying through cracks in the wall on the grotesque amours of the older nuns. Aretino spares no details to make the scene as corrupt and disgusting as possible.
To enlighten Antonia about the deceptions commonly practiced by wives, Nanna tells several tales, all calculated to reveal the cleverness of women. In the first a doctor’s wife, renowned throughout her village for her ostentatious piety, pays frequent visits to a hermit, who “stole time for his devotions” from tending his elaborate garden. The “holy couple” was discovered in bed by a villager, who promptly summoned his friends and the parish priest to see the sight. The hermit, awakened by the commotion, was unperturbed. Everyone knows, he explained, that holy men sin only when they are possessed by demons; he could not be blamed for his actions. Taking her cue from him, the doctor’s wife immediately feigned madness, recovering her senses only after she had three times touched the holiest relics in the church, the two knuckle bones of the holy innocents.
Heavy irony pervades Nanna’s second tale of unfaithful wives. The “heroine” is described in lyric terms. She seems to float in the air when she walks, and she genuflects with such grace that “it seemed it must be the way they did it in paradise.” This paragon of virtue is desperately anxious to escape the close surveillance of her elderly husband, “called the Count from some worthless old castle or other with two chimneys and a crumbling moat.” She pretends to walk in her sleep, sure that her husband will follow her, and causes him to fall and break his leg. Bedridden, he hires ten stalwart young men to guard his wife for him, and she, having accomplished what she wanted, “sleepwalks” nightly with these guards.
Nanna’s description of the courtesan’s life is filled with similar stories. She tells Antonia how she deceived her various lovers and filled her purse in the process. Each of her stories indicates that avarice and not lust is the dominating force in this kind of life.
At the end of the third day Antonia, considering all that Nanna has told her, advises her to make her daughter Pippa a prostitute, for it seems the most honest life of the three. Both the nun and the wife betray sacred vows, while the whore, like the soldier, “is paid for doing wrong, and doing it, she is not to be held for so doing, because that is what her shop has to sell.” Her life is a luxurious one, and a little penitence at the end will clear her of her sins.
The second part of the Discourses is briefer and more disconnected than the first; it seems to have been written to capitalize on the popularity of its predecessor. The first day’s discussion begins as Pippa pouts and begs her mother to make her a courtesan, as her godmother Antonia has advised. Nanna agrees and gives her daughter a few basic rules of the profession. In dealing with Spaniards, who carry on their courtships with flowery language and much hand kissing, return bow for bow and kiss for kiss, but get rid of them as quickly as possible. A Frenchman, on the other hand, should be welcomed at once, for in making love to him, one can steal the shirt from his back. Nanna reserves her greatest praise for the men of Venice, where Aretino made his home for the latter part of his life; they are generous and kind—ideal lovers, in fact.
Nanna recounts several anecdotes in the same vein as the stories told on the third day of the first group of dialogues: accounts of elaborate schemes for fleecing unsuspecting customers. She deceived one violent-tempered suitor with an elaborate plot, provoking him to strike her, then hiring a friend to paint a hideous scar on her face. Hoping to avoid arrest for assaulting her, her lover sent lavish gifts, money, and doctors to attend her. He made a settlement of five hundred ducats and paid more to have the scar “healed” by another swindler. Nanna finally restored him to her favors in return for the promise of a new dress.
Perhaps the most famous passage in the Discourses is the description of the sack of Rome by the Germans, described by Nanna as an example of the “Betrayals of Men.” Aretino displays great scorn for the Romans who, hearing of the invaders, decked themselves in their finest uniforms, then fled in panic. There is a vivid description of the horrors of the night when no church, no home, no hospital offered sanctuary from the enemy. “The pity was to hear husbands, red with the blood which streamed from their wounds, calling for their lost wives in a voice that would have made the solid block of the Coliseum weep.”
A stark description of the rape of a young prostitute by thirty-one stablemen reinforces Nanna’s comments on men. A lighter tale, the account of the deception of a silly young wife by a poet she had been pursuing, concludes the second day’s conversation.
Nanna and Pippa listen to a godmother and a nurse as they comment upon the superiority of the procuress to the prostitute, the subject of the final dialogue. The godmother tells them how she once lured strangers to the homes of young courtesans, where they were robbed of their cloaks as well as of their cash. She also boasts of her part in the elopement of a young wife, whose elderly husband was duped into admitting her lover into their home to cure his toothache.
Although Aretino’s Discourses is not great literature, it is entertaining in much the same way that the Elizabethan comedies about clever rogues are. The author, giving a lively picture of the seamier side of life in his time, writes in a style that, applied to more significant topics, might have given him a much higher place among Renaissance men of letters than he now holds.
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