Aretino, Pietro (1492–1556)

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Aretino, Pietro (1492–1556)

Aretino, Pietro (1492–1556), Italian playwright and poet. Aretino rose from very humble origins in Arezzo to fame and eminence, simply by the calculated use of his pen. He operated mainly at the papal court in Rome until 1525; then, after a brief stay with the Duke of Mantua, he settled in Venice. He flattered and cajoled his chosen patrons, attacked their current adversaries, wrote outspoken letters to popes, kings and emperors, and earned from Ariosto the title of Scourge of Princes which has stuck with him ever since. His output ranged from Counter-Reformation devotional literature to outright pornography, everything being tackled, perplexingly, with equal apparent conviction and verbal skill.

His Letters tend to be seen as his crowning glory, but his comic drama is also of great significance. (He produced one tragedy, Orazia, printed in 1546.) He opened in 1525 with the absurd scurrilous Cortigiana (The Courtier's Play), combining two plots of elaborate practical jokes. The play was clearly written for a specific audience at a specific time, and its vigorous verbal by-play is larded with topical jokes. It was not printed in its first version before 1970, and the edition which appeared in 1534 is toned down in its aspects of vaudeville performance, and re-written to fit the topicalities and preoccupations of Aretino and his readers at that later date. Meanwhile Il marescalco (The Stablemaster) was written for the court of Mantua, probably in 1527, and published in 1533.

Both these early plays appear un-classical in structure, and owe little to Roman comedy in terms of plot. They seem to draw their inspiration more from the beffa tradition of practical joke in the medieval novella on the one hand; and from the harangues, dramatized dialogues, and sketches of street and court entertainment on the other. In fact a large part of both texts consists of one or two characters making speeches, to the audience or to each other: the content can be moralistic, satirical, sarcastic, celebratory, or just verbally fanciful, always supported by a level of language which is more dense and creative than that of most commedia erudita, though whether one would call it poetic is more debatable.

La Talanta and Lo ipocrito were both published in 1542, the former certainly being staged in Venice in the same year. The plays are named after a central character in each, Talanta being a rapacious prostitute, and the Hypocrite remaining named only by his principal characteristic. Both comedies have the surface function of detailing, in complex fictional plots, the dangers which prostitutes and religious hypocrites respectively pose to society and to individuals. But mixed in with these satirical aims, which continue to some extent the aggressive mockery of the first two plays, we find other elements sitting uneasily together for a modern reader, but foreshadowing quite separate developments in Italian theatre of the late 16th century. On the one hand, there are plots relating to marriages and family unity, traditional to classical comedy, but stretched by Aretino to such mannered lengths that one does not know whether they are to be taken at face value or as caricatures. The moral rhetoric is so stylized, the romantic misunderstandings and errors of identity so tortuous and implausible and yet a couple of decades later plots very similar to these were to become the norm. On the other hand, Aretino cannot renounce (or knows that his audience cannot renounce) more scurrilous low-life scenes involving backchat and practical jokes. What is more, in Talanta in particular, there are clear hints of the nascent commedia dell'arte, both in certain stereotyped characters and in the dialogue structure of some scenes, which may well have been played by professional buffoons alongside the gentlemen amateurs who took the more dignified roles.

Aretino's personal reputation was so bad by 1600 that his comedies were issued in a slightly rewritten form, under altered titles and authorship. That they were reprinted at all at that period attests to their enduring influence. On the surface they are aimed firmly at a specific audience, and thus tend to date rapidly; their plots are fragmentary, and their structure over-leisurely; but their merciless satirical vein and their verbal creativity (the latter sadly rare in Italian, as opposed to English Renaissance comedy) seem to have made them hard to forget.

International Dictionary of Theatre, volume 2: Playwrights. St. James Press, 1993.