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The Scourge of Princes

September 14, 2016

“If you want to annoy your neighbors, tell the truth about them.”

—Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) —


Haven’t heard of Pietro Aretino? There was a time when he was one of the most talked about men in Europe, and one of the most feared. He was an Italian author, playwright, poet and satirist, but he was also a blackmailer who wielded tremendous influence on contemporary art and politics. He also invented modern literate pornography. His prose might be beautifully constructed, but many of his stories were based in brothels and poked fun at the rich and powerful.


Born out of wedlock in Arezzo and banished before reaching adulthood, Aretino made his way to Rome where in 1516 he penned a satirical pamphlet inspired by the death of Pope Leo X’s pet elephant entitled, “The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno,” mocking the leading political and religious figures in Rome at the time, including Pope Leo X himself. Enormously popular, this pamphlet established Aretino as a famous satirist, while also earning enough enemies to prompt him to flee Rome.


Aretino lived from hand to mouth over the next decade, gathering information about the rich and famous. He was a self-proclaimed sodomite and slept with men at an early age, but he enjoyed the company of women equally and was experienced in all sorts of debaucheries, advising friends and clients on how to get away with indecent acts without getting caught by authorities like the Catholic Inquisition.  Anyone confiding in him soon came to regret it because he was always willing to divulge secrets—for a price.


He finally settled in Venice, which he called “the seat of all vices,” not surprising for a city where citizens referred to themselves as Venetians first and Christians second. In Venice, he became close friends with the famous artist Titian, who painted his portrait three times as well as including him in several religious compositions.



Pietro Aretino by Titian (1545)


Aristocrats were so troubled by Aretino’s barbed pen that monarchs like Francis I of France and Charles V (The Holy Roman Emperor) both pensioned him at the same time, each hoping for some damage to the reputation of the other. Aretino became immensely rich and lived out his life like a prince, with many worried that at any minute this precursor of Edward Snowden might spill the beans on them.


Aretino’s letters circulated widely, and he collected and published them at intervals winning both enemies and fame, and earning him the dangerous nickname "scourge of princes." Few people today read Renaissance Italian prose, even when pornographic. Aretino is remembered above all for his letters, full of literary flattery that could turn to blackmail.


In Titian’s portraits, Aretino brims with exuberance and energy. He loved life and is said to have died from laughing too hard, with several pretty girls on his lap. Not a bad way to go.




Titian used his good friend Aretino as the model for Pontius Pilate,







Fanciful depiction of the death of Pietro Aretino





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He sounds like my kind of guy. I'd definitely like to go laughing with several girls on my lap.
By: PT Dilloway on September 14, 2016
Maybe one of those ladies was hired to drop a little poison in his drink?
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on September 14, 2016
Thanks for another history lesson--I'd never heard of him. He seems to have been quite a character!!
By: fishducky on September 14, 2016
The first artist must have been terrified of him for he portrayed him as a sweet, gentle man. The second one must have not been afraid for he painted him as scary and imposing. Such a cad.
By: Arkansas Patti on September 14, 2016
He sounds like a scary person. Like so many of today's politicians.
By: messymimi on September 14, 2016
Fascinating. He was a scoundrel indeed. Sounds as if he could have been a role model or at least and influence for Silvio Berlusconi.
By: Tom Cochrun on September 14, 2016
Another interesting lesson. Thank you professor.
By: cranky on September 14, 2016
In the end, he was able to ear a living, if perhaps not an honest one. Oh, wait. He told the truth...
By: Val on September 14, 2016
Not a bad way to go, I'd say. Very interesting bit of history, Stephen. Thanks.
By: scott park on September 14, 2016
It's funny how he could blackmail people but he himself wasn't blackmailed.
By: red Kline on September 14, 2016
I have not heard of this guy but I am amazed that he did all he did without being burnt at the stake! I guess he was the Hedda Hopper of his day or Walter Winchell. I'd love to know what he would write about concerning Trump and Clinton. If he did die the way you mentioned...a great way to go.
By: Birgit on September 14, 2016
I'm surprised someone didn't make him have an unfortunate accident much sooner :)
By: Rick Watson on September 14, 2016
A lustful man indeed. He got his jollies in several ways. [smirk]
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 15, 2016
You have me curious and now I want to know more!
By: Sage on September 15, 2016
Such beautiful paintings. Have you noticed that dogs often appear in old paintings while cats almost never do?
By: Snowbrush on September 15, 2016
oh my goodness- how did he get away with such bad behavior- my oh my!
By: Kathe W. on September 18, 2016
History, how you can make it come to life, Stephen. You must have been a wonderful professor.
By: Catalyst on September 19, 2016

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