Renaissance and Reformation Pietro Aretino
Raymond B. Waddington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0308


Pietro Aretino (b. 1492–d. 1556) displaced the humanist Pietro Bembo, a generation his senior, as the leading man of letters in Italy during the second quarter of the century. His dominance signaled a revolution. Whereas Bembo was a skilled Latinist and advocated imitating the “pure” Italian of 14th-century Tuscany, Aretino wrote exclusively in the vernacular, evolving his own colorful, vital, and distinctive prose style. His work reveals an acute knowledge of humanist literary kinds and conventions as well as the approved fashions of Ciceronianism, Petrarchism, and Neoplatonism, often satirizing or inverting them. Aretino adopted “follow nature” as his credo and boasted that he lived by the sweat of his ink. After having begun his career as a court poet in Rome, he adapted to Venice’s flourishing printing industry, becoming highly and variously productive. Equally adept at praise and blame, Aretino was a justly feared satirist; however, his greatest success came with his enormously popular books of letters, which created a new literary vogue. His religious writings, biblical narratives and saints’ lives, also were popular and influential before Counter-Reformation repression. Aretino spearheaded the emancipation of writers from dependence on court patronage. Despite the handicaps of modest origin and lack of formal education, Aretino transcended class barriers to become the correspondent and confidant of nobility and princes, “the secretary of the world” in one of his epithets (“secretary” meaning “keeper of secrets”). Aretino befriended and cultivated many artists, particularly the painter Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) and the architect and sculptor Jacopo Sansovino; the three men came to be recognized as an informal artistic triumvirate in Venice. Aretino’s letters and sonnets have been recognized for contributing to the development of art criticism. He was the first writer to take full advantage of reproductive artistic media to enhance his status as a celebrity author whose face and personality were even better known than his books. All of this makes it possible to argue that Aretino was not the greatest but the most important Italian author of the 16th century.

General Overviews

At the peak of his popularity, Aretino, “the scourge of princes” (Ariosto’s epithet in the Orlando Furioso 46.14) was admired for his fearless candor. His dialogues were savored for their satiric exposure of clerical and sexual hypocrisy, his letters attracted an unprecedented readership, and his religious writings were highly regarded. All of this commenced to change with the Counter-Reformation. In 1559, three years after Aretino’s death, the Index of Prohibited Books issued by Paul IV prohibited Aretino’s complete works, along with those of Rabelais and Machiavelli—fit companions, one might think. In Protestant England, Aretino, who dedicated his second book of letters to Henry VIII, remained popular and influential until near the end of the century. With the rise of Puritanism in the 1590s, however, the advocate of natural sexuality came to be branded a pornographer, and the scourge of princes was demoted to blackmailer. In Anglophone countries, these stereotypes remained largely unchallenged until the late 20th century. Serious reconsideration began earlier in Italy with important historical scholarship, notably Luzio 1888. Critical monographs placing Aretino in a broader literary context commenced to emerge in the mid-20th century, of which the most important is Larivaille 1980. Cairns 1985 produced the first scholarly monograph in English devoted to Aretino, tracing contemporary contexts for his Venetian years. The 500th anniversary of Aretino’s birth (1992) was marked by two major events: the launching of a national edition of his work and a sequence of conferences that resulted in two thick volumes of essays (Pietro Aretino nel cinquecentenario della nascita). These generated further work, as did the shift from close textual analysis to cultural studies, along with such thematic approaches as class, gender, sexuality, and eroticism (Frantz 1989 and Moulton 2000). Waddington 2004 builds on these developments, emphasizing Aretino’s identity as a satirist and his involvement with the arts. Most recently, studies have emphasized Aretino’s influence, his relations with his patrons, his religious writings, and his own religious beliefs (Waddington 2013).

  • Cairns, Christopher. Pietro Aretino and the Republic of Venice: Researches on Aretino and His Circle in Venice. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1985.

    Places the comedies, religious writings, and letters in relevant political, religious, and literary contexts. Important for showing the influence of Erasmus on his letters and in his religious beliefs.

  • Frantz, David O. Festum Voluptatis: A Study of Renaissance Erotica. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.

    Devotes chapter 2 to Aretino as “pornographer” and chapter 3 to his imitators and rivals. Handicapped by being written before the reassessments of the 1990s, but a useful introduction to Italian and English erotica.

  • Larivaille, Paul. Pietro Aretino fra Rinascimento e Manierismo. Rome: Bulzoni, 1980.

    Revised and expanded translation of his 1972 doctoral thesis, “L’Arétin entre renaissance et manierisme, 1492–1537,” University of Lille III. Focuses on Aretino’s work from the beginning to the late 1530s; concludes with consideration of his morality, aesthetics, poetics, and relation to the Mannerist movement.

  • Luzio, Alessandro. Pietro Aretino nei suoi primi anni a Venezia e la corte dei Gonzaga. Turin, Italy: Ermanno Loescher, 1888.

    Much biographical information; valuable for Aretino’s relations with Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua.

  • Moulton, Ian Frederick. Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Challenges the validity of the term “pornography” for this period. Chapters on the “cultural significance” of Aretino’s erotic writing and his influence on Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson. Commendable insistence on the social and political satire in this material; not always accurate on detail.

  • Pietro Aretino nel cinquecentenario della nascita: Atti del Convegno di Roma-Viterbo-Arezzo (28 settembre–1 ottobre 1992), Toronto (23–24 ottobre 1992), Los Angeles (27–29 ottobre 1992). 2 vols. Pubblicazioni del Centro Pio Rajna Series 1, 4. Rome: Salerno, 1995.

    Papers and reports presented by over fifty speakers at a peripatetic anniversary conference, moving from Rome to Toronto and Los Angeles. Most are in Italian, a few in English. They are mixed in quality but cover a considerable range of topics, some of which are important.

  • Waddington, Raymond B. Aretino’s Satyr: Sexuality, Satire, and Self-Projection in Sixteenth-Century Literature and Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

    Aretino adopted the persona of a satyr, a creature characterized by sexuality and truthfulness, and then believed to have originated satire. Waddington argues that Aretino’s diverse writings are unified by his role as a satirist and examines his multimedia image projection. Translated into Italian as Il satiro di Aretino (Rome: Salerno, 2009).

  • Waddington, Raymond B. Pietro Aretino: Subverting the System in Renaissance Italy. Variorum Collected Studies. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013.

    Nine previously published articles, five subsequent to the book Aretino’s Satyr, and two published for the first time. The recent work discusses his patrons, dialogues, religious writings, and influence.

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