I modi: The Sixteen Pleasures: An Erotic Album of the Italian Renaissance
The core of I modi is a collection of sixteen pornographic sonnets in Italian with sixteenth-century Italian woodcuts appended to most of them. How the book came into being, and the many vicissitudes through which it has reached us, make up a long story—so complex that it has to be approached, like the ladies depicted in the woodcuts, from several different directions.
Though scandalous in its own time, and well known to scholars since, I modi has been revived in the 1980s through the initiative of Lynne Lawner. She is the author of an earlier book titled The Lives of the Courtesans with special emphasis on the portraits painted of them; that book was reviewed in these pages by Charles Hope on May 28, 1987, with a subsequent exchange in the issue of September 24, 1987. In the present volume, Ms. Lawner’s tasks have been to introduce the sonnets and woodcuts by defining the circumstances under which they were produced, to analyze and appreciate both, and partially to translate the sonnets. The word “partially” is required because much of the sonneteer’s art is devoted to reiterating the words cazzo, potta, culo, and fottere (respectively, prick, cunt, asshole, and fuck), and these are never translated into their formidable English equivalents, but left in the original Italian. The sonnet-translations (unrhymed, unmetrical) are printed on the opposite page from the woodcuts; the original Italian versions are under the woodcuts as well as in a separate section at the back of the book. The translations do not come off as very distinguished poems, but then neither do the original sonnets.
George Szabo, formerly with the Metropolitan Museum, has written an erudite foreword describing various erotic illustrations and handbooks dating from medieval and early Renaissance times. He does not discuss Persian or Indian sex manuals or their illustrations (acknowledged masterpieces of the genre), and there are no images at all of the things he does discuss, so the matter remains rather remote. Still, his contribution provides a wide-ranging and informative introduction.
The original maker of the designs from which the woodcuts were taken was Giulio Pippi, better known as Giulio Romano; he made the drawings about 1524, under disputed circumstances. About a year later, engravings were made from them by Marcantonio Raimondi and circulated privately among the quality of Rome; at or near the same time Pietro Aretino wrote sonnets (popularly named the “sonetti lussuriosi“) to accompany the engravings. All the plates, almost all the prints, and (so far as possible) the poems were destroyed by order of Clement VII, and both Marcantonio and Aretino found it convenient to leave town for a while. In 1527 a crude woodcut edition of both designs and poems was printed in Venice. Most copies of this woodcut edition (to which Ms. Lawner refers as the “counterfeit” edition, though Aretino was probably behind it) disappeared over the centuries, for reasons that are easily surmised. But a single surviving copy was picked up in 1928 by Walter …