Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1518
Pietro Aretino was born in Arezzo, Republic of Florence, in 1492 into a humble family; he was the son of a shoemaker. His father abandoned the family and joined a troop of mercenaries when Pietro was a small child. His mother, Margherita (Tita) Bonci, was not of such obscure origins and, because of her great beauty, was frequently chosen as a model by the local painters. A few years after Pietro’s birth, she had a love affair with the wealthy nobleman Luigi Bacci, which might have been the reason for her husband’s sudden decision to leave and which continued long after he left, providing Margherita and her children (the son Pietro and two younger daughters) with all that was necessary to live. While Aretino maintained a tender relationship with both his mother and his sisters, he disowned his father’s name and adopted the name of his native community.
While still an adolescent, Aretino went to live in Perugia, where he soon became associated with men of arts and letters and was patronized by Francesco de Bontempi. The most influential among the local families seemed to appreciate him both as a painter and as a poet. In 1512, while still in Perugia, Aretino found the means to have his first book of verse printed in Venice: Opera nova is a collection of facetiae, folk songs, sonnets, and letters in rhyme in the manner of the poet Serafino Aquilano.
In 1517, after a brief stay in Siena, Aretino went to Rome to work for the Sienese Agostino Chigi, an extremely rich and powerful banker, a patron of the painter Raphael, and treasurer to the papal court of Leo X. The court was attended by other artists and prominent writers, such as Cardinal Bibbiena (Bernardo Dovizi) and Pietro Bembo. Aretino was soon able to attract the attention of the pope and Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, as well as the attention of the Roman public. His swift climb to fame and fortune reached its apex soon after the death of Leo X, in November, 1521, precisely during the conclave that resulted in the election of Adrian VI. On that occasion, Aretino displayed his talent as a fierce satirist, composing more than fifty biting sonnets that were to promote Giulio de’ Medici and defame his rivals. These so-called pasquinate made him popular among the Roman people, who were displeased with the unexpected election of the Flemish pope. The harshness of Aretino’s satire had been such that he wisely decided to leave Rome a month prior to the new pope’s arrival, at the end of July, 1522.
Between 1522 and 1523, Aretino was in Bologna, Arezzo, and Florence in Giulio de’ Medici’s suite. Then, the latter, in order not to compromise himself further in the eyes of the pope by openly protecting one of his enemies, deemed it necessary to send Aretino first to Mantua, to the court of young Federigo Gonzaga, then to Reggio in Emilia. There his nephew Giovanni delle Bande Nere, the famous condottiere, whom Aretino must have met in Rome in 1519, kept his headquarters. After the death of Adrian VI and the election of Giulio de’ Medici as Pope Clement VII in November, 1523, Aretino returned to Rome hoping to gain employment in the papal court as a cultural adviser. The new papal datary, Giovanni Matteo Giberti, was not, however, inclined to tolerate Aretino’s defiance and his intrusions into the court’s business. When Aretino succeeded in obtaining from the pope the release of Marcantonio Raimondi, an engraver who had reproduced sixteen erotic drawings by Giulio Romano, and then saucily proceeded to provide a text for the work by writing sixteen sonetti lussuriosi, Giberti and the pope were so outraged that Aretino had to leave the city in order to avoid imprisonment himself. He set out for his hometown, Arezzo, and then, once again, joined Giovanni delle Bande Nere in Fano, on the Adriatic, where the captain introduced him to Francis I, king of France.
Aretino was nevertheless determined to return to Rome, and he therefore composed two long odes in praise of the pope and one in honor of the datary, which proved effective. Once in Rome, however, his intolerance of the papal court’s way of life—which the first draft of his comedy The Courtesan clearly betrays—turned into an even more open spirit of rebellion. With the pasquinate of April, 1525, Giberti’s hostility caught fire again, and the exasperated datary tried to have Aretino slain by a hired assassin, Achille della Volta, on July 28, 1525. This attempt failed: As soon as he recovered from the wounds, Aretino left Rome, never to return.
He found shelter once again in Giovanni delle Bande Nere’s camp near Mantua, where the captain was engaged in the fight against the imperial troops. After Giovanni died from injuries received during the Battle of Governolo, in Lombardy in November, 1526, Aretino wrote a famous and moving letter to Francesco degli Albizzi (Giovanni’s treasurer in Florence) with the account of the hero’s death. The letter, besides containing one of his many keen analyses of the historical moment, shows Aretino’s capacity for deep and sincere feelings of friendship and admiration.
Aretino stayed in Mantua until March of the following year. There he sketched a poem, “La Marfisa disperata,” in celebration of the Gonzaga family, which was, however, to remain unfinished (like his poems “Le lagrime d’Angelica,” “Astolfeide,” and L’Orlandino). He also started to write his second comedy, The Marescalco, which is now known in the later, revised version of 1533. During the same period, Aretino experimented with a new genre of satire, that of the giudizi, or “judgments.” His giudizio for the year 1527—which unfortunately exists only in fragments—seems to have prophesied the sack of Rome by Emperor Charles V’s mercenaries, which duly occurred in May, 1527. Clement VII was obviously angered by this prophecy, and therefore the marquis of Mantua, who until then had enjoyed Aretino’s presence in his court, began to feel uneasy about sheltering such an enemy of the pope.
From March 25, 1527, Aretino took his abode in the “liberal and just” Venice. He rented, from the patrician Domenico Bolani, a beautiful house on the Grand Canal, not far from Rialto, where he resided until his last few years, when he then went to live in Leonardo Dandolo’s house in Riva del Carbon. In Venice, he wrote the majority of his works and lived the rest of his days honored by the friendship of great artists such as Jacopo Sansovino and Titian (who portrayed Aretino more than once), protected and feared by the greatest lords and kings of his time. Andrea Gritti, doge of Venice from 1523 to 1538, Cosimo de’ Medici, duke of Florence and son of his beloved friend Giovanni, and Francesco della Rovere, duke of Urbino, always favored and protected him. In 1533, Francis I sent him a precious golden chain as a gift; in 1536, Emperor Charles V assigned him a conspicuous pension, and when, in 1543, he was passing through the Veronese territory, the emperor wanted Aretino to ride at his side while parading in Peschiera. Aretino was thus able to live in the lap of luxury and satisfy his endless thirst for pleasure. His first biographer, Giovanni Maria Mazzucchelli, diligently records Aretino’s innumerable mistresses and mentions his two illegitimate daughters (Adria and Austria, born in 1537 and 1547, respectively).
Even in Venice, sorrows, troubles, and episodes of vengeance and violence occurred. In 1536, Aretino welcomed to his house Niccolò Franco, who was to help him in particular with the research for his religious works (since Aretino’s knowledge of Latin was mediocre at best). In 1537, a defamatory Vita di Pietro Aretino was published: The author, probably Fortunio Spira from Viterbo, declared in the preface that he had obtained most of his information from Franco. Soon afterward, Franco himself published his Pistole volgari (1539), with the clear intent to compete with his master’s own collection of letters. An exchange of violent insults followed between the two men, and Ambrogio degli Eusebi, who was an especially loyal secretary of Aretino, disfigured Franco with a knife.
Francesco Berni had continued to cast contumely on Aretino since the time they had met in Rome, and so did Anton Francesco Doni, who had initially been Aretino’s friend. There was even an attempt to take Aretino to court under the accusation of blasphemy and sodomy (a widely practiced and punishable offense). He had to flee to a villa on the Brenta, and it was only because of Francesco della Rovere’s intervention and pleading with the Venetian magistrates that Aretino was able to return to Venice. Finally, also in Venice, Aretino was the victim of an armed assault by an English ambassador in search of revenge.
These episodes did not, however, seriously upset Aretino’s life and career. His fame was such that, when Julius III was elected pope in 1550, he was appointed cavaliere of Saint Peter, and there were those who even tried to have him don the scarlet. This was not to come true: Aretino suddenly died of a stroke on October 21, 1556.
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