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 Toscanini, son of the conductor; it has served as the basis for the present edition.

Additionally, in 1858 a certain Maximilien de Waldeck found, or said he found, in a Mexican convent, eleven tracings made by a man named Gérard from Marcantonio’s prints. Waldeck produced twenty ink and wash drawings based on Gérard’s tracings; and these too are reproduced in the present book. A few cutout pieces of Marcantonio’s original engravings, currently resident in the British Museum, are also to be found in the present volume; they are apparently leftovers from an early effort at expurgation.

Finally, the question has been raised, who were the models for Giulio’s drawings? Ms. Lawner, with her previous devotion to the subject, has little doubt that they were courtesans. But the one story we have about the making of the drawings says that Giulio sketched them in a rage on the wall of the Sala di Costantino in the Vatican, because Clement had been late in paying him. Hardly a probable place for the artist to sketch from life sixteen different beauties in the exercise of their professional specialties. Ms. Lawner argues warmly that since the models could not have been wives or nuns, they must have been courtesans. But she does not show that there need have been any models at all; nor does she define at all carefully who the courtesans actually were.

Like French writers of the nineteenth century, who divided up loose women with micrometric exactness, Renaissance Italians distinguished classes within the trade. Mistresses and concubines were kept women, that is private property; courtesans, though distinguished from one another by price (and, presumably, desirability), were all on public sale. At various lower levels, cheaper and more likely to be diseased, were classes of meretrici and puttane. A very large number of women followed “the life” in Rome, Venice, and Florence; estimates vary from several thousands in Rome to several hundred in the other two cities. Among them were a few women of wit, intelligence, charm, and—an indispensable talent for this particular line of work—youth. But the great majority were common strollers on the model of Doll Tearsheet and Suky Tawdry. If Giulio needed models for his pornographic poses, he need not have resorted to the few expensive princesses of the trade; he could have picked up all the models he needed by making the rounds of a few local trattorie.


So much for the background. Giulio disappears from the story almost at once—placated, no doubt, by a few scudi for his work. The elegant and expensive courtesans fade away in the thin mists of speculation. Marcantonio’s engravings, though doubtless as elegant as most of his surviving work, disappear before the frown of Clement’s censorship—and also, no doubt, in the awful sack of Rome upcoming in 1527.

Thus Aretino remains at the center of the picture. Ms. Lawner, taking her cue from Burckhardt, introduces him to us as the first journalist and publicist of the modern world as well as an entrepreneur art dealer and critic. This seems just a bit generous. He was in fact a pimp, pornographer, parasite, libeler, sycophant, and blackmailer, with a flashy, scurrilous wit and a major gift of impudence. When Burckhardt called him the first journalist, he clearly meant yellow journalist, and ended his account by giving thanks that such creatures have become a thousand times impossible in modern Italy. Alas, poor Burckhardt! Aretino was by no means a man without talent; his set of whorehouse dialogues, published as Ragionamenti and modeled on Lucian, has many fine strokes of gutter wit; but he lived in a sluttish splendor by wheedling money from a few princes and threatening the others with scandals, libels, and—it must be confessed—unwelcome truths.

The sonnets Aretino wrote for Raimondi’s engravings put a new dimension on the pornography by adding, from the poet’s extensive acquaintance, the names of several Roman women of the town, and their patrons. (Pace Ms. Lawner, we do not know their formal categories or even their place in the aristocracy of price.) The sixteen different postures do not seem to have been well understood by the poet, who says relatively little about them, any more than by the woodcut-maker, who sometimes contorts his sexual partners into grotesque and even impossible positions. By comparison with more detailed lists of copulative possibilities (one of which Ms. Lawner reproduces in her notes), the sixteen images of I modi represent a limited and not very imaginative range. The major question debated in the sonnets is whether to enter the vagina or the anus; it seems to have been a class matter, with gentry and clergy favoring the second alternative. (I am myself, let me emphasize, but an elderly and bookish scholar, and know nothing of this whole subject except from the printed page.) Some of the sixteen modi, indeed, appear to be little more than minor variations on the primary, old-fashioned “missionary position.” There is only one instance of anything as radical as a woman mounting a man.

The woodcuts are crude and without human expression; the sonnets are not much less clumsy, with the additional handicap of requiring footnotes. (Not even Aretino pretended to have any gift for verse—which didn’t prevent him from committing a lot of it.) On the whole, if the present book is to be sold for its erotic attractions (at $35.95 a copy), it should be placed on the shelves in a tight plastic wrapper, only to be opened after the cash register has rung up a nonrefundable sale.

About Ms. Lawner’s contribution I feel bound to express some reservations. She has gone somewhat overboard in idealizing these creatures of public sale and their customers as a revival of the ancient pagan enthusiasm, an exhibition of lovely, technically adept women, a vision of terrestrial Venus, und so weiter. Somewhere the point might be made that prostitution is not really love and that selling sexual services is a little different from other commercial enterprises. Pietro Aretino was something for which we have an appropriate name: scum. The Venetian woodcuts are extremely primitive examples of what used to be peddled furtively along the boulevards of Paris as “feelthy peectchers.” Courtesans in the Renaissance were only exceptionally and very briefly golden goddesses. A few were bright or lucky enough to escape the common fate, but most of them suffered the same abuse from pimps, bawds, customers, and the law that they do today. They were afflicted with the same venereal diseases, for which there were then no cures. The working life of a courtesan on her way to becoming a common whore was cruel and brief, her destination (at best) a hospital for the convertite (repentant sinners). The subject deserves the scholarly thoroughness that Ms. Lawner has brought to it, but not the layer of oleaginous hyperbole with which she has tried to prettify it.


This Issue

May 18, 1989