The sixteen erotic engravings at the heart of Bette Talvacchia’s Taking Positions have inspired outrage, delight, a recent popular novel (Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures), a salacious translation of the Italian sonnets (by Lynne Lawner) that accompanied the prints, and now, Talvacchia’s fine essay, subtitled On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture. I modi, “The Ways,” first surfaced in 1524 as a series of drawings by Giulio Romano, the artist who was the prize pupil of Raphael and, after the master’s sudden death at thirty-seven in April of 1520, his chief artistic heir. Shortly thereafter, another of Raphael’s associates, the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, put I modi into a form that Raphael had made an indispensable feature of the sixteenth-century art market: the published print.
The engravings of I modi were conceived and marketed in Rome, a city whose chief business was running the Catholic Church. In addition to cardinals, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and the flocks of the faithful, the sixteenth-century pope commanded a sovereign territory that stretched from the Po River in northern Italy to the rugged hills that divided the Papal States from the Kingdom of Naples. Churchmen, therefore, must have been prominent among the consumers of the sixteen titillating engravings that made up I modi, churchmen as highly placed as churchmen could be, and this only three years after the excommunication of Martin Luther had launched the Protestant Reformation once and for all. I modi were deliciously scandalous, in other words, but also potentially embarrassing.
When Pope Clement VII clapped Marcantonio Raimondi into prison for having produced this lubricious portfolio, the engraver’s stated offense was copyright violation. But hardly anyone believed that publishing rights were the real issue. The pictures of I modi were pornographic. They showed men and women engaged in acrobatic sex, standing, sitting, crouching, reclining, facing up, down, prone, supine, sideways, falling off the bed, or precariously mounted on a Cupid-drawn flatbed cart. Some images, at least, left no throbbing body part or erogenous zone to the imagination. We, however, can no longer experience I modi as it burst upon the Eternal City in 1524. The original drawings are gone. The prints themselves, shredded by militant prudes or cut to bits by eager viewers, survive only in lacerated fragments: nine tiny pieces, to be exact, clipped images of heads and legs that have been pasted onto a page in such a way that some of the missing conjugations can be quite handily surmised. Raimondi had his cheap imitators, and from these bootleg Modi we can see what was done in the originals—without the coolly elegant grace that went into the doing. The effect is rather like trying to recover the appeal of Michelangelo’s David from garden statuary (although Michelangelo was a better artist than Giulio Romano by an order of magnitude).
As Marcantonio Raimondi languished in his Roman prison, Giulio Romano moved north, to Mantua. A great many more of Rome’s leading cultural figures would also …