Born in the Tuscany city of Arezzo in 1492, Pietro Aretino was one of the most influential people in Italy at the time. A poet and satirist and occasional blackmailer, he was a powerful presence in the royal court and earned the name ‘the scourge of princes’. He once had to run from Rome after the publication of his infamous, and intensely pornographic, Lust Sonnets.
Aretino made something of a habit of getting into trouble from an early age. He was born out of marriage and had little in the way of formal education, finding himself banished from his home town and settling in Perugia where managed to he gain some level of prestige. He was sent from there to Rome and taken under the care of a banker called Agostino Chigi who was famous for his patronage during the Renaissance period.
In his early twenties, Aretino came to the attention of the court when he wrote a satirical work about the recently deceased Pope Leo X which threw a mocking broadside at many of the political heavyweights of the day. He immediately became known as a satirist and wit and his fame spread quickly.
Aretino wrote his Lust Sonnets to accompany a series of engravings by artist Marcantonio Raimondi and, after his temporary self-imposed exile, he returned to Rome under the new patronage Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, one of the most powerful people in the city. Aretino trod a very fine line with his scathing satirical works and was often the subject of assassination attempts. One such altercation in 1525 caused Aretino to leave Rome, traveling through the North of Italy and hiring out his pen to whichever nobleman could afford him.
Finally, in 1527, he settled in Venice where he would stay for most of the rest of his life. Kept safe from any further assassination attempts, Aretino turned his mind to more lucrative sources of money and took up blackmailing. He was the master of courtly gossip and it is said that both Charles V and Francis I both took the opportunity to offer him a sizeable pension in exchange for valuable information.
In addition to his bawdy literary works and satirical pamphlets, Aretino was also famous for his letters that were often designed to lead to blackmail. It was these published works that gained him the name of scourge of princes and earned the writer as many enemies as it did fans of his work. One of Aretino’s most famous works was La cortigiana which was a parody of a previous epic poem by the late Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione.
To modern day readers of poetry, Aretino’s work has more of biographical and topical interest with his attacks on the great and good of the day than perhaps for their literary merit. At the time celebrated widely throughout Europe, he died at the age of 62, apparently from laughing too much which caused him to asphyxiate.