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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in New York

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Titian: Pietro Aretino - c1548

New York, Frick Collection

As Titian has vividly portrayed in this painting, Pietro Aretino was a larger than life figure, a poet, dramatist, critic and pornographer, who often transgressed the boundaries of propriety. Born in Arezzo in southeastern Tuscany, the son of a shoemaker, he received very little formal education but on moving to Perugia at about the age of 18 it seems that he may have trained for a short while as a painter. By 1517 he was in Rome where his considerable talents as a satirist catapulted him to fame but also generated a coterie of influential enemies. As for his friends, he counted Michelangelo, Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo amongst them.

In 1524 another friend, the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, was imprisoned as a result of the appearance of a set of 16 of his engravings (after drawings by Giulio Romano) showing different sexual positions. This spurred Aretino to publish his sonetti lussuriosi (lewd sonnets) which were accompanied by another set of Raimondi’s prints. It was a show of defiance which, together with his continued scurrilous attacks on the powerful, made it impossible for him to stay in Rome, and to avoid imprisonment he left the city and eventually settled in Venice where he remained for the rest of his life.

In Venice he began writing letters on innumerable subjects, usually written with an eye to publication. Over 600 of these epistles can be described as art criticism including one dated 1545 in which he analyzes Michelangelo’s recently completed Last Judgement and astoundingly – considering the reasons for his departure from Rome – accuses him of impropriety for representing saints in the nude. But these letters were also the vehicles for continued satirical attacks and (the other side of the coin) obsequious flattery and through these means he amassed considerable wealth, receiving gifts from popes and kings who wished to encourage the latter and avoid the former. Two popes proffered knighthoods upon him and Francis I of France gave him a gold chain similar to the one he is wearing in this portrait (which can be seen in another Titian portrait of him now in the Pitti Palace, Florence). All this puts into context the hubristically grandiose appellation he gave himself – flagello dei principe (scourge of princes).

On his arrival in Venice (around 1527) Aretino soon became acquainted with the great artists then working in that great maritime city. He commissioned family portraits and mythological scenes for his house from Tintoretto and Titian became a close friend. At about this time, in 1530, Titian attracted the interest of the Emperor Charles V who was so enamored with his talent that three years later he bestowed on him the title of Count Palatine and Knight of the Golden Spur. Charles’s commissions represented the apogee of Titian’s fame and success and at first they took the form of portraits, a genre which was evolving at this time (due in no small measure to Titian) away from the head and shoulders format typical of the 15th century towards more expansive half length and full length paintings.

In this later portrait of Aretino Titian presents his friend bedecked in satin and fur, one of his gold chains adding to the impression of a successful, worldly man, solid, purposeful, focused, the eyes conveying the menace of the implacable satirist, the sumptuous clothing signifying the fruits of the opportunistic propagandist – the two sides of the ‘scourge of rinces.’

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Contemporary Works

1551 Pieter Aertsen:  Butcher’s Stall, Uppsala, University Collection

1552 Giovanni Battista Moroni:  Gian Lodovico Madruzzo, Chicago, Art Institute

1553 Jacopo TintorettoLorenzo Sornaro, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Further Paintings of Interest

The Giving of the Keys to St Peter

Pietro Perugino

Girl at a Window


Self Portrait in a Straw Hat

Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun