In the history of pornography and erotic literature, the sixteenth-century Italian poet Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) occupies an important place. Together with the artist Giulio Romano and the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, he was responsible for one of the earliest and most notorious printed pornographic books: I Modi (literally, ‘The Ways’ or ‘The Positions’). First published in 1524 as a set of engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi, after designs by Romano, the work quickly fell foul of the papal authorities; all copies of this first edition were seized and Raimondi was imprisoned. Nevertheless, a second edition appeared in 1527, this time with accompanying sonnets by Aretino, each of which he had composed specifically with the engraved image in mind. So successful were the authorities in seizing and destroying these early editions of I Modi that only fragments have survived.
Fortunately, several pirated copies, usually with crudely engraved copies of the original, have survived. A few extracts provide a flavour of the work. In the first sonnet, Aretino imagines a dialogue between the lovers in the accompanying image:
Let’s make love, my beloved, let’s make love right away since we are all born for this. And if you adore my cock, I love your pussy; and the world wouldn’t be worth a fuck without this. And if it were decent to screw postmortem I would say: Let’s screw so much that we die of it, and in the beyond we’ll fuck Adam and Eve, who found death so indecent.
…But let’s stop the chitchat, and stick your cock into me up to my heart, and do it so that there my spirit bursts, which on a cock now comes alive, now dies. And if it is possible don’t keep your balls outside of my pussy, witnesses of every fucking pleasure.
This wonderfully straight-to-the-point exchange is picked up in the second sonnet. Aretino imagines the woman telling the man:
Put a finger up my arse, dear old man, and push your cock in, little by little. Lift this leg up high and do a good job, then pound away without giving it thought… And if it displease you in my snatch, change the location: for there isn’t a man who isn’t a bugger.
And this is followed by his tender reply:
This time I will do it in your cunt, and in your arse another: both in your cunt and your arse my cock will make me happy, and you happy and blissful.
Where a man should put his cock is a theme that runs throughout the sonnets. This important question is discussed in the seventh sonnet, for example, in which the woman indicates she is keen on anal sex. This pleases the man:
But since you fervently want a prick in your arse, just like all the important people, I’m pleased for you to do with my thing what you will. Grab it with your hand, put it inside, since you will find it just as salutary for your body as invalids find enemas. And I feel such happiness at the feel of my cock in your hand that I will explode if we fuck each other.
The initial impression of these sonnets and their images may incline us to the view that there is a straightforward intention behind the work: it is designed to do nothing other than sexually arouse the reader. And some confirmation of this simple reading of I Modi is provided in a letter by Aretino himself:
No sooner had I obtained from Pope Clement the release of Marcantonio of Bologna, who was imprisoned for having engraved on copper the Sixteen Positions, [an alternative name for I Modi] etc., than I desired to see those pictures which had caused the complaining Ghiberti and his followers to cry out that the worthy artist ought to be crucified. As soon as I gazed at them, I was touched by the same spirit that had moved Giulio Romano to draw them. And since poets and sculptors, both ancient and modern, in order to amuse themselves, have often written or carved lascivious objects… I tossed out the sonnets at the foot [of each figure]. With all due respect to hypocrites, I dedicate these lustful pieces to you, heedless of the scurvy strictures and asinine laws which forbid the eyes to see the very things which delight them most… What wrong is there in seeing a man mount a woman?
In more poetical vein, Aretino provided yet further commentary on these sonnets, again confirming that they are not to be taken seriously:
This is not a book of sonnets… / But here there are indescribable pricks / And the cunt and the ass that place them / Just like candy in a box. / Here there are people who fuck and are fucked / And anatomies of cunts and pricks / And asses filled with many lost souls. / Here one fucks in more lovely ways, / Than were ever seen / Within any whorish hierarchies. / In the end only fools / Are disgusted at such tasty morsels / And God forgive anyone who does not fuck in the ass.
Aretino himself, therefore, tells us that these poems were ‘tossed out’, and that they should be likened to the way artists often ‘amuse themselves [with] lascivious objects’. If we take him at his word, the sonnets were a spirited celebration of the sexual, but they are not to be taken any more seriously than that.
But there are reasons not to take Aretino at face value. It is worth noting that various difficulties descended upon him as a result of publishing the I Modi sonnets: he faced arrest as well as death threats, prompting him to find sanctuary in Venice, the centre of sixteenth-century libertinism (and a place where, by all accounts, Aretino lived happily). Above all, of course, he had incurred the censure of the Church.
One of the decrees of the Council of Trent specifically addressed the issue of obscene publications:
Books which professedly deal with, narrate or teach things lascivious or obscene are absolutely prohibited, since not only the matter of faith but also that of morals, which are usually easily corrupted through the reading of such books, must be taken into consideration, and those who possess them are to be severely punished by the bishops. Ancient books written by the heathens may by reason of their elegance and quality of style be permitted, but by no means read to children.
One outcome of the Church’s Tridentine position was that books considered to be obscene were to be placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, and hence their authors (as well as publishers and printers) became subject to the attentions of the various Inquisitions operating during the early modern period. (Of course, by banning his book, the Church only made it more sought after, leading to numerous pirated copies appearing throughout Europe; even two centuries later, publishers were bringing out new editions of the sonnets, usually with accompanying engravings.)
Given the moral censure of the Church, it is not surprising that Aretino dismissively suggested that he had written no more than a light-hearted, albeit sexually explicit, volume of poems designed to get readers in the mood. He would like us to think that these are simply entertaining poems about cocks, cunts and arses and all the fun that can be had with them, and that there is little point in trying to read any more than that in them.
But there is a distinctively satirical edge to Aretino’s writing. For Aretino, pornography is a means to comment, under the cover of lascivious content, on his contemporary society and on certain individuals within it, some of whom are named (which is the reason he received subsequent death threats). There is an anti-clericalism running throughout his writings, such that he labels the real sodomites of his day as the clergy, not those usually described as such; and there is an underlying message that courtiers (i.e. the the supposedly refined nobility of the day) are really courtesans (i.e. whores), while courtesans are in fact the true courtiers. Above all, there is a disdain for hypocrisy. Aretino celebrates the importance of telling it how it is. He presents a subtle critique of the hypocritical way in which many of his fellow humanists and poets were justifiably critical of the wealthy and the nobility in private, yet in their public writings and orations they would suck up to these same men. Aretino, in arguing that sex should be talked about openly and plainly, pointedly contrasts this with the manner of humanists who will never refer to a cunt as a cunt.
Aretino’s poems had, therefore, a subversive and transgressive edge: through pornography he was satirizing and critiquing his contemporary society and culture. In this respect his work stands firmly in the tradition of early modern pornography and erotic literature: this was a subversive, sometimes dangerous literary genre, and one consistently associated with radical ideas and free thinking. It is perhaps not surprising that such works were banned; equally, it is not surprising that pornography, as subject to official censure and consequently grouped with other subversive texts, was a form of writing with a sharp social and political edge.