Pietro Aretino was born the son of a cobbler in Arezzo, a small town in Tuscany that was subject to the city of Florence. His mother grew estranged from Aretino's father and moved in with a local nobleman, taking her children with her. At eighteen the young Aretino left Arezzo and moved to Perugia to become a servant in the home of the humanist Francesco Bontempi. Here he met the city's circle of humanists, painters, and authors, and he acquired his taste for writing and painting. In Perugia he published a book of his poetry, in which he described himself as a painter, and he also became acquainted with Agostino Chigi, a prominent Sienese banker who kept a villa in Rome. Chigi became Aretino's patron, inviting him to move to the papal capital, where he broadened his circle of friends and acquaintances. At the time Rome was emerging as the capital of the High Renaissance. Long a dusty and dirty city when compared to Florence and the other Northern Italian centers of the time, Rome was in transformation, becoming the center of artistic and intellectual life at the time. In this brilliant atmosphere Aretino became constantly embroiled in scandals.
In Rome, Aretino soon became known for his skills as a satirist when Giulio de' Medici hired him to write propaganda for him supporting his case for election to the papacy in 1521. Besides writing pamphlets praising the Medici candidate, Aretino also wrote a series of scathing satires that mocked Medici's rivals, and when one of these candidates won election instead of Giulio, Aretino fled the city. Two years later, though, Giulio de' Medici finally secured his election as pope and Aretino returned to Rome. However, he irritated his powerful friend when he wrote a series of pornographic sonnets that attacked Bishop Giberti, one of Giulio's close advisers. These sixteen Lascivious Sonnets recounted Giberti's bizarre sexual tastes, and resulted in Aretino's second banishment from the city. He made his way to the French court and tried to secure the patronage of Francis I, although his reconciliation with the pope soon allowed him to return to Rome. His taste for scandal, though, prompted him to write A Comedy about Court Life, a biting satire of the debauched sexual lives of those in the papal court. Aretino fell out of favor again, and when he tried to seduce the wife of a powerful Roman citizen, an assassination attempt nearly ended his life. Although unsuccessful, the attack damaged Aretino's hand and he never painted again. He traveled to Mantua in northern Italy where he continued to write satires and plays that attacked the papal court, but a second assassination attempt in 1527 forced him to flee yet again. He traveled to Venice, a more congenial place for his scathing wit, and he remained there for the rest of his life.
Venice was widely known throughout Europe for its tolerant atmosphere and its anti-papal politics, and Aretino prospered in this setting. He quickly became a close friend of the artist Titian and the architect Jacopo Sansovino. Together the three figures formed a kind of triumvirate that established the tastes and fashions in the city. Aretino wrote for the popular press in Venice on a whole range of subjects, including Petrarchism, Neoplatonism, and other philosophical topics, but he became wealthy from his satires of the pope, of court life, and of the high-born's sexual peccadilloes. His prose and poetry were vigorous, and captured the spirit of sprezzatura, the art of seeming artlessness that Castiglione and other prominent writers recommended as the best style. He became a friend of Italy's literary arbiter, the Cardinal Pietro Bembo who was also a Venetian and who supported and promoted Aretino's work. His satires and plays made him wealthy, as did his custom of sending "blackmail" to European princes and nobles. These figures often paid Aretino off with large donations rather than allow him to publish works that mocked them. In Venice, Aretino also became the first to publish his letters in Italian rather than Latin, which increased his readership since much of Italy's literate population was not schooled in scholarly Latin. Aretino's gossipy and frequently earthy letters gave readers throughout Italy an insider's glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous. He published more than three thousand of them during his life, and their subjects range over the most diverse areas, including minutiae of fashions, politics, and daily life. In Venice, Aretino's fortunes became so well established that he was able to promote the careers of many young artists and writers whose works ran counter to prevailing taste. But throughout his life his success continued to be tinged with controversy. In 1542 he earned the English king Henry VIII's favor when he dedicated a book of his letters to him, but a few years later, he had so enraged the court in England that an ambassador of the country made a third attempt on Aretino's life. While he became known as the "scourge of princes," he kept a large townhouse in the city of Venice that overlooked the city's Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, where he established a kind of court of admirers. Here his literary collaborators, mistresses, male lovers, and friends came to pay him homage. By 1550, Aretino had again won favor with the papal court so that he was granted a pension from Rome, but just a few short years after his death, his works would be placed on the Index of Prohibited Books. Such extremes of favor and disfavor and of controversy and celebrity had long been a fact of this fascinating figure's life.
C. Cairns, Pietro Aretino and the Republic of Venice (Florence: Olschki, 1985).
T. C. Chubb, Aretino, Scourge of Princes (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1940).
J. Cleugh, The Divine Aretino (New York: Stein and Day, 1966).
R. B. Waddington, Aretino's Satyr: Sexuality, Satire, and Self-Projection in Sixteenth-Century Literature and Art (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).