This is an unusual visual art exhibition, in that it’s not based on the work of a visual artist. Instead, Pietro Aretino was an epic networker, a friend to the stars who worked himself up from humble beginnings to great power in early 16th century Italy. I’d first heard of him on the Bad Gays podcast - Aretino being a proud self-described “sodomite” - which termed him “the original Regina George of the Italian high Renaissance”.
Not a comparison the rather sober show notes provided by the Uffizi would ever make. But, between the lines, you definitely get an echo of the Mean Girls queen bee’s social machinations in the sheer breadth of Aretino’s artistic and political contacts. Which are on display throughout the exhibition. “Aretino was a secretary in the sense that he knew the secrets of people and states, and not being formally bound to a specific court,” as the curators have it.
What people and what states! He was friends with Raphael in Perugia, Giulio Romano in Rome, and Titian and Tintoretto in his last years in Venice: the latter even painted the ceilings of Aretino’s apartments. For his part, Titian also supplied the portrait of Aretino pictured above, in which he’s a huge burly presence, staring avidly off to the side, perhaps at his next opportunity. There’s another portrait too from Sebastiano del Piombo, where a rather more sinuous and confiding Aretino is clad in black, looming over a pair of theatrical masks. The son of a cobbler puts his best, richest, foot forward in both, in his clothes and his bearing.
But Aretino never quite made a connection with the biggest name of all in Rome, Michelangelo. So instead, Aretino contented himself with hating on the sidelines, resulting in the rich spectacle of the sybiratic critic labelling the sexually abstemious master’s Last Judgement wall fresco in the Sistine Chapel as low pornography. “Your art would be at home in some voluptuous bagnio, certainly not in the highest chapel of the world,” he shudders.
Having heard the Bad Gays podcast episode before coming to this show, I was expecting a bit more voluptuousness. Instead, there were many, many patient explanations and documents about the holdings and interests of Aretino’s various rich patrons. And, unavoidably, a lot of small books in cases, not the most visually interesting of exhibits if your Italian’s not up to scratch. I guess the Uffizi curators are attempting to rescue Aretino’s reputation from prurient rubberneckers (guilty), though to describe him as “one of the most authoritative cultural voices of the 16th century,” having helped to invent art history, seems a stretch. (Vasari, naturally, was another of Aretino’s very closest friends.)
Being a prurient rubbernecker, I was especially interested in a contemporary medallion of Aretino, in which his fine head of hair is replaced, Medusa-style, by writhing penises: the notes are sure to point out the medal was “not directly devised by Aretino himself”. And there’s a nice display of Giulio Romano’s erotic Modi drawings, devised for private enjoyment for a patron, which were soon forged and published in book form, accompanied by some of Aretino’s ultra-blunt erotic sonnets. While only male/female sex is on display, both genders appear suspiciously muscular. Michelangelo would surely disapprove!
Pietro Aretino and the Art of the Renaissance is at the Uffizi (Florence). November 27 2019 - March 01 2020