The Erotic Play of Italian Renaissance Art

By Barolsky, Paul | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

The Erotic Play of Italian Renaissance Art

Barolsky, Paul, The Virginia Quarterly Review



Taking Positions: On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture. By Bette Talvacchia. Princeton University Press. $35.00.

The golden age of Lorenzo de' Medici, the execution of Savonarola by bonfire, the swagger and violence of Benvenuto Cellini, the tempestuous clashes of Michelangelo with Pope Julius II, the ferocity of Machiavelli's prince, indeed of Pope Julius himself, the insouciant grace of Castiglione's perfect courtier, embodied in his friend, the courtly Raphael-these are but a few of the many images and episodes, compounds of fact and fiction, of history and fable, that make up our larger picture of the period known as the Italian Renaissance. In this history one of the most curious episodes concerns a series of drawings made by Raphael's gifted discipline Giulio Romano, sometime after 1520, not long before the apocalyptic Sack of Rome: a corpus of erotic images that Pietro Aretino, himself a legendary figure of the period, would call the sedici modi, the 16 positions, a series of formidible fornications.

Our story begins in relative obscurity, for we do not know, despite speculation, the exact circumstances in which Giulio made these erotic compositions, drawings that disappeared long ago, presumably at the hands of those offended by their aggressively sexual subject. Their story became dramatic, however, only after these compositions were adapted by Raphael's collaborator, Marcantonio Raimondi, in a suit of engravings that created a great scandal. Had these images remained a matter of private delectation they would never have created such a furor, but only when they were reproduced for a broader audience did they indeed become shocking. Gian Matteo Giberti, who held the office of datary to Pope Clement VII and would later become a Bishop, brought action against the engraver, and Aretino, who would enter the story later by writing the sonetti lussoriosi, as a kind of gloss on Raimondi's engravings, claimed not only that Giberti wanted the printmaker "crucified," but that he himself came to the artist's rescue when he was imprisoned!

The suggestion that Raimondi was to be crucified is, of course, poetic hyperbole, and Bette Talvacchia, whose vivid, thoughtful, carefully researched, and well-told version of events I am summarizing here, adds that Aretino could have fabricated such intervention in his account of events reported years later. Since a member of Giberti's household attacked Aretino in 1525, however, leaving him nearly dead with a knife wound, she does not rule out the possibility that Aretino did indeed seek to free Marcantonio from prison, thus angering Giberti, who sought revenge. To complicate the picture, a presumably fake story was circulated according to which the would-be assassin and Aretino were rivals for the affections of a cook in the household of Giberti. This version of events is presumed to have directed attention away from Giberti himself, who is believed to have put out the contract on Aretino.

Our story grows richer and richer in the historical imagination. Although the artist who made the drawings in the first place, Giulio Romano, had left Rome for a new position at the court of Mantua before the scandal erupted, a legend took shape, still found in the modern scholarly literature, which tells of how he was forced to flee Rome because he feared the Pope's wrath. It has also been recently claimed that Giulio first drew the 16 positions on the walls of the Sala di Costantino, where he was painting, when Pope Clement VII was tardy in his payments to the artist. The story has been further embellished by the claim that Giulio pointedly drew his naughty couplings where he was to paint the personifications of virtue.

Raimondi's prints, which have been mostly destroyed and are known from crude woodcuts after them, have inspired further fabrications. In the 19th century a certain Count Frederic de Waldeck, a Baron Corvo of sorts, claims to have copied an original set of Raimondi's engravings, which he discovered in a Franciscan convent in Mexico-a claim as implausible as that of the cunning Douanier Rousseau who explained the exotic flora and fauna of his paintings by a trip to Mexico, where he pretends to have played in a French army band. …

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