(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1389 words.)