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 leave in the next few years, above all after a band of mercenary soldiers in the sometime employ of Emperor Charles V sacked the city in a series of raids in 1527. That was also the year in which a Venetian printer reissued copies of I modi, this time accompanied by sixteen Licentious Sonnets (Sonetti Lussuriosi) and a summary poem from the pen of the prolific Tuscan writer Pietro Aretino, himself another friend of Raphael, Giulio Romano, and Marcantonio Raimondi.

Aretino’s verbal dexterity was nearly boundless: he would offer to write words of praise for rich clients, and if his services were refused he turned his efforts to scurrilous invective—usually wittier than the panegyric, if the truth be told. Pietro Aretino’s only scruples involved literary style. His had been honed early to a standard of chilly classical perfection by such demanding company as the arch-courtier Baldassare Castiglione and the Venetian aesthete Pietro Bembo.

But Aretino was also capable of an infinite prolixity on matters sexual, as in his Conversations on Love (Ragionamenti d’Amore), in which the women who feature as his discussants summon legions of metaphors to their aid when they finally exhaust the purely physical repertory of ingenious couplings (and triplings, and solo acts). Surprisingly, however, he applied none of this verbal bounty to his poems accompanying Giulio Romano’s sixteen positions. Instead, the Sonetti Lussuriosi burst out in a string of raw expletive barely beaten into sonnet form. His verse keeps strangely violent company with the artfully posturing couples of I modi, hammering home their sexual banter in the Italian equivalent of our proverbial four-letter words. By then, of course, Rome had fallen victim to bands of hard, hungry soldiers released from service in the Italian Wars. Aretino’s Licentious Sonnets may have been written from the safe remove of Venice, but the writer himself had come of age in Rome, and could not have looked unmoved upon its ruination.


In Taking Positions, Bette Talvacchia pieces together the dispersed fragments of the sixteen Modi, and with the same reconstructive skill she recomposes the society of the 1520s in which they were produced. It was a society made up of the peculiar official families that surrounded pope, cardinals, and bishops. But Church officials were not the only consumers who scrutinized this sixteen-part portfolio. The women of I modi are notable for their vocal participation in the goings-on, both pictorial and verbal (for it seems out of place to call the Sonetti Lussuriosi poetic). Indeed, the women of I modi are often sexual aggressors, leaping astride the struggling lad who staggers to uphold Position 15, gamely riding Cupid’s flatbed cart in Position 14, sliding off the bed with cool aplomb in Position 16, to say nothing of the frank conversation Pietro Aretino’s sonnets put in their mouths.

Talvacchia suggests convincingly that these flexible, chatty familiars are courtesans, as characteristic a population of papal Rome as the clerics they serviced. Indeed, prostitutes were the largest cohort of professional women in the city during these years, and for many years before and after. Increasingly, moreover, women of every occupation made up a significant proportion of the target public for printed books and images; however piously contemporaries insisted that they should be using these new publications to improve their spiritual lives, they seem to have devoured erotic prints and salacious novels as eagerly as men.1 But this apparent autonomy in bed was a poor substitute for the autonomy that women were losing in most other aspects of life. The sixteenth century seems to have been a time when Italian women, especially of the upper classes, were subjected to increasing restrictions on their social and legal lives; I modi show that restrictions of behavior, indeed of fantasy, may have hemmed in their erotic lives as well.

For the brand of sex practiced in I modi is striking for its relentlessly phallic emphasis. The forthright women of the Licentious Sonnets ask for little else than il cazzo, “the pipe,” and the men, well past the point of reason, oblige their partners with prompt attention. Some of this slant is certainly owing to Pietro Aretino rather than to Giulio; the artist reveals male and female gonads in careful detail and with perfect parity. Aretino, on the other hand, commissioned a portrait medallion of himself whose reverse is a nest of intertwined phallic snakes. He was not alone in his fixation. A sixteenth-century anatomical illustration of the female genitals, one of Talvacchia’s illustrations, transforms the very birth canal into yet another cazzo.

As Taking Positions shows, the I modi pictures derive something of their flavor and many of their poses from ancient Roman erotic imagery, drawing their inspiration from wall paintings, vases, and especially the metal tokens that may have been used as coin in ancient brothels. This antiquarian eroticism continued an evocation of classical style for which Raphael had become internationally famous in his lifetime and which Giulio Romano had successfully continued in his wake. Raphael, however, observed a strict decorum even when he painted lovers; he was too shrewd a professional to compromise a reputation that needed no further promotion than he already had from popes and kings.

The one exception to this almost universally chaste output is a cycle of frescoes he designed for the Roman villa of the incalculably rich papal banker Agostino Chigi in 1518. Just over the door to Chigi’s business office, a life-sized, stark-naked Mercury, patron god of merchants and thieves, flies down from heaven, bearing Fame’s trumpet in one hand and gesticulating toward an obscene coupling of phallic gourd and overripe fig in the garland above him. Beyond doubt, the impetus for the design was Chigi himself. His ribald sense of humor was famous, and it is no surprise to learn that some years before he had engaged a Tuscan houseboy with literary ambitions named Pietro Aretino.

For all their antiquarian rigor and post-Raphaelesque erotic abandon, Giulio and Marcantonio’s “Sixteen Ways” omit the homosexual couplings that the ancient Romans included as a matter of course in their own amorous repertory. The wide variety of behavior that counted as sodomy in the Renaissance (basically, any union “against nature”) often carried penalties as drastic as death at the stake, although these penalties were only intermittently enforced; many courts never pressed the charges at all. In the case of I modi, the aura of antiquity would have served to mitigate some of the explicitness with which Giulio’s images were meant to strike the viewer, especially an antiquity whose real sexual variety had been so carefully edited. Subsequent imitations would play it still safer by transforming similar erotic portfolios, many based more or less faithfully on I modi, into The Loves of the Gods. Through the addition of winged sandals, thunderbolts, cupids, and tridents, lovers as naked as babies could become safely, educationally nude. One of the most curious metamorphoses of I modi, however, must be their recycling for a series of anatomical illustrations published in France in 1545, a phenomenon to which Talvacchia devotes her final chapter.


Although described as a study of “the erotic in Renaissance culture,” Taking Positions in fact describes the eroticism of a particular generation and a particular moment; both Giulio Romano and Pietro Aretino were born in 1492 and were young men during the period of Rome’s history that has been given such glowing titles as the High Renaissance and the Golden Age—first of all, by the participants themselves. We know these years best from their greatest artists: Michelangelo, between 1508 and 1512, driving his brush across the Sistine Chapel ceiling beneath the hawk eye and flailing cane of Pope Julius II; Raphael’s beautifully calibrated Vatican Stanze (begun in 1508); Donato Bramante’s design for the new St. Peter’s (1506).

Art could be seen as the surface manifestation of a deeper phenomenon. Politically, economically, and spiritually, the Italian peninsula seemed to be building a new era in the first two decades of the sixteenth century. In 1512, Pope Julius would convene a general Church council, Lateran V, to initiate much-needed reforms. By that time, the foreign invaders, Spanish, Italian, and German, who had threatened Italy since 1494 had been driven back against all apparent odds. New styles of art and literature, print (a new medium of mass communication), new routes of exploration, all seemed to hold out the prospect of a freshly enlarged and unified world.

I modi ridiculed that high-minded culture in a sixteenth-century burst of what might be glorified as postmodern irony or dismissed as delayed adolescent rebellion. But the makers of the volatile assemblage of drawings, engravings, and licentious sonnets for I modi had their reasons to be flip. During a single decade, between 1514 and 1524, Rome’s Golden Age turned into an era of lead. By the time I modi came along to express the changing climate, Raphael, Bramante, and the banker Chigi were dead, along with three successive popes: Julius II, Leo X, and Adrian VI. The papal treasury lay nearly empty, thanks to the profligacy of Pope Leo and Chigi’s demise. Lateran V, under Leo’s leadership, had ended inconclusively in 1516; by 1517 Martin Luther had posted his theses, and when Leo excommunicated him in 1521 the Reformation was irrevocable fact. Pope Adrian VI, an upright Dutchman, subjected the remnants of Rome’s dolce vita to paralyzing austerity during his two-year reign between 1521 and 1523. By the time that Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici ascended the papal throne as Clement VII in 1523, he could muster neither the will nor the funds to mount a full-scale renewal of Rome’s life, cultural, spiritual, or political, although contemporaries vocally pretended that he could resurrect all three. It is not surprising that he found I modi less amusing than the aging young bloods who brought them forth.

Previous generations in Italy, more restrained perhaps in their expression of explicit sexuality, were not for that reason more restrained in any other respect. For Italian lords and ladies of the fifteenth century, and for the middle-class merchants who emulated their refined ways, erotica mostly consisted in chivalric romances, sometimes involving King Arthur or The Song of Roland, sometimes based on the ancient writers Ovid or Virgil, or, as knowledge of Greek became more common in the fifteenth century, the epics of Homer. The naked gymnastics that animate I modi and the Licentious Sonnets were conveyed through allusion and swathed in layers of embroidered velvet. So was sexiness pure and simple. Typically, Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s portrait of the handsome Milanese warlord Galeazzo Maria Sforza, now in the Uffizi Gallery, concentrates all its erotic charge on the show of exposed wrist between skin-tight, supple glove and stiff brocaded sleeve, and in its own way it succeeds entirely.

Nor were women confined to the ideal of downcast eyes and pliant modesty that contemporary tracts tried to enforce. No one in the Renaissance could compete in sheer sexual drive with Caterina Sforza (circa 1462-1509), Galeazzo Maria’s daughter. Among the many anecdotes recounted in Taking Positions, a tale told about this legendary virago stands out with particular force. For Caterina, as ruler of Imola, once pardoned a man condemned to die at the stake for the brutal rape of a local woman. The stated reason for her clemency was his ingenuity in attacking his victim from behind, “against nature.” Talvacchia uses the story to illustrate the extent to which Renaissance Italian law took sexual postures into account; it was the assault “against nature” that had initially earned the rapist a death sentence by immolation. (The rape itself and the woman’s consequent internal injuries would have called for penalties less severe.)

And yet the revelations of this horrific little episode extend beyond its juridical nuances. Caterina Sforza released the prisoner, laughing, only after he had undergone his own moment of mortal terror, reveling in her power over his life and death and in what she knew would circulate among court gossips as another proof of her own perversity. But then this real-life dominatrix already knew a good deal about sex and power and the fraught relationship between the two. As a widow, she had continued to maintain her hold on her late husband’s estate while openly keeping a young lover. Machiavelli tells another story, about a siege of Imola in which the attacker managed to seize one of Caterina’s sons. As she stood on her own battlements, he threatened from the ground below to kill the boy before her eyes. In reply, she raised her skirts and called down, in effect, to say, “There’s more where that came from.” Needless to say, she wore no underwear. The boy was spared.

When Imola finally fell to Cesare Borgia in 1500, Caterina Sforza would be raped herself, by the young hothead who found her defiance as intolerable as he found her legendary erotic pull irresistible. He molested her again and again as they made their way down to Rome in his victory train and continued to assail her after he had clapped her into the dungeons of Castel Sant’Angelo. Would she have found her handling of the sodomitical rapist quite so amusing in retrospect? The story of her pardon is really a story about her ruthless awareness of power and its caprices, an awareness that would enable her to survive—indeed to outlive—Cesare Borgia. She released the rapist, watching with satisfaction the play of his emotions from desperate fear to incredulous relief; she was flouting custom yet again, launching yet another story of her appetite for sexual adventuring. As she well knew, to many of her contemporaries, her reputation as an unabashedly powerful, seductive woman put her in a category as unnatural as the sodomite’s. It is a pity that Titian was born too late to paint Caterina Sforza; the best surviving portrait shows that she resembled her father, Galeazzo Maria, in appearance as well as the energetic lust that animated them both.

What writings would a force of nature like Caterina Sforza have read? It is hard to imagine that she would not have been one of the first to lay hands on a steamy, mysterious novel published in 1499 by the Venice-based printer Aldus Manutius. Its author goes unnamed; from an acrostic formed by its chapter headings, we might surmise that he was one Francesco Colonna, who has been most plausibly identified as a wayward Venetian monk from the Dominican Order, yet the identification is anything but sure, and deliberately hidden.2 The book’s title, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, would have been as opaque to its first readers as it is to their modern counterparts: a peculiar compendium of Greek, Latin, and Italian that means “Poliphilo’s Sleeping Love-Battle,” where Poliphilo is the name of the tale’s protagonist and “erotic” comes across clearly to the reader above all the classical background noise. Now, for the first time, the complete text of the Hypnerotomachia is available in English, translated by Joscelyn Godwin, who has confronted the demands of Poliphilo’s “strife of love in a dream” with subtle skill.

These demands are basically two. In the first place, Poliphilo’s love-battle lies embedded in an intricate antiquarian fantasy. The mystery of eros and love’s insatiable longing are entirely bound up with the mystery of the past and a longing for bygone lives that goes equally unfulfilled. The hero is a scholar who wanders, like Dante, lost in a darkened forest. He falls asleep to awaken in a wonderland of ancient ruins, Egyptian hieroglyphs, animated statues, cavorting nymphs, and titillating pagan rites. One of these nymphs turns out to be his lover Polia, with whom, after many adventures, he undergoes an initiation on the Island of Venus before she slips away once and for all from his febrile embrace. For Polia, it seems, is dead, and as the book’s final words proclaim, “a wilted rose will never revive again.” Like the ancient world in which she and Poliphilo play out their lovers’ drama, she has come to life only in his imagination. With her name that can mean “many things” or perhaps “gray-haired,” she probably personifies Antiquity.

Secondly, the Hypnerotomachia is written in an elaborately artful language that strives to reinforce the antiquarian flavor of its plot. Its dense prose strikes readers either as a grave siren song that opens out profound, mysterious vistas or a ponderous drone that brings on sleep almost before Poliphilo can put down his own weary head and dream his love-embattled dream. Readers of the former persuasion range from the contemporary humanist Angelo Colocci through Pope Alexander VII to a group of modern-day devotees, some of them scholars of the highest sensitivity. The ranks of the latter include the sixteenth-century Spanish jurist Antonio Agustín, and the anonymous seventeenth-century writer of a warning note in a Vatican copy of the book—“It is a boring novel of sorts.”

Joscelyn Godwin must rank among the devoted, but he also understands the skeptics’ point of view. His English translation has struck a sensitive balance between Francesco Colonna’s tortuous circumlocutions and the impulse to improve upon the text before him, so that it streamlines the writing almost imperceptibly, but consistently enough to effect a genuine acceleration of the novel’s ponderous rhythm—why must Poliphilo always say “not without” to mean “with”? As proof of a far deeper skill, Godwin has also transformed an elaborately archaic art language into an almost natural English when he could easily, and justifiably, have created something more like those excruciating Victorian evocations of Arthurian speech, “eftsoons” and all.

Physically, moreover, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in its original form is one of the most beautiful books ever created, its elegant Roman font a triumph of the printer’s art, deployed in careful patterns across its broad, well-crafted folio pages. More gorgeous still are its woodcut illustrations, probably by the Venetian artist Benedetto Bordon, whose poignant immediacy has cast an unbroken spell for centuries. They are as stately, sexy, enigmatic, and mysterious as the novel itself sometimes fails to be. The picture of Poliphilo wandering among the ruins will resonate with anyone who has explored beneath the soaring arches of Rome’s Palatine Hill, where the remnants of the Imperial Palace have become their own phantasmagoric landscape. In Piranesi’s hands, human figures are dwarfed by these monuments’ looming grandeur, but Poliphilo, three centuries earlier, strides with confidence through a terrain defined by its quality of ordered clarity.

Legions of nymphs dance through Bordon’s evocative woodcuts, peeking out from trellised bowers or bringing offerings to the phallic god Priapus (whose significant attribute was often blacked out by later censors). Poliphilo and Polia kiss, faint, and flee a fire-breathing dragon. Hieroglyphs for once spell out intelligible texts; there are even Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions over a set of caverns. The illustrator of the Hypnerotomachia, like Francesco Colonna himself, also devotes careful attention to classical architecture, so much so that many readers have concluded that Colonna must have harbored a deep interest in the subject. Close scrutiny of the text suggests, however, that the attention is superficial: the buildings Colonna describes cannot be drawn according to his specifications, and some of the terms he uses are just plain wrong. The illustrated buildings, wisely, have taken on a life of their own.

In a real sense, for their erotic daring, their antiquarian trappings, and their mass dissemination, the woodcuts of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili were the direct ancestors of the engravings that make up I modi. Both the 1499 novel and the 1524 collection of prints worked on the age-old principle that sex sells, in hopes that the addition of classical antiquity would ensure appeal to an upscale market. The Hypnerotomachia’s target audience probably included well-to-do readers throughout Italy, men and women alike, but somehow it missed the mark, selling miserably the first time around. (By the time it was reprinted in a censored version by Aldus’s grandson Paolo Manuzio, its public was assured, as has been true ever since.)

Erotica are always a matter of personal predilection; some readers of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili yearned for stronger and simpler stuff. Likewise, although some viewers of I modi obviously felt that their conjugations of man, woman, word, and image delivered a charge nearly as potent as the real thing, some readers, Clement VII perhaps among them, were evidently shocked, and others, one suspects, were simply bored with a series of vignettes that remained stubbornly rooted in the soil of blunt physicality. Among the latter we might count the southern Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who erupted in 1585 with impassioned impatience against

a noise, a commotion, a clash of devices, of emblems, of mottoes, of epistles, of sonnets, of epigrams, of books, of chattering scribbles, of terminal sweats, of lives consumed, of cries that deafen the stars, laments that make Hell’s caverns reverberate, aches that strike the living dumb, sights that exhaust the pity of the gods, for those eyes, for those cheeks, for that bosom, for that white, for that crimson, for that tongue, for that tooth, for that lip, for that hair, that dress, that mantle, that glove, that slipper, that high heel, that avarice, that giggle, that scorn, that empty window, that eclipse of the sun, that hammer, that disgust, that stench, that sepulchre, that cesspit, that menstruation, that carrion, that malaria, that uttermost insult and lapse of nature, that with a surface, a shadow, a phantasm, a dream, an enchantment of Circe plied in the service of reproduction, should deceive in the matter of beauty; which simultaneously comes and goes, issues and dies, flowers and rots, and is somewhat beautiful on the outside, but truly and fixedly contains within a shipyard, a workshop, a customs-house, a marketplace of every foulness, toxin and poison that our stepmother nature has managed to produce: and once the seed she requires has been paid out, she often repays it with a morass, a remorse, a sadness, a flaccidity, a headache, a lassitude, this and that distemper that are known to all the world, so that every place aches bitterly where it itched so sweetly before.3

Bruno sought his own consolations in quick sex and philosophy, in whose service he transformed erotic devotion into spiritual exercise. Like the biblical Song of Songs (at least as he read it), his own version of I modi, a philosophical dialogue called On the Heroic Passions, told a story in sonnet, image, and prose about the soul’s relationship with God. Unlike the couples who assume the sixteen positions, however, Giordano Bruno, as had the fictitious Poliphilo before him, exulted in a love that remained forever unfulfilled, and hence forever charged with anticipation and excitement:

O may I never come to rue the love
Without which I’ve no wish for happiness!
Though for its sake I sacrifice to prove
I’ve no wish not to wish for its largesse.
Whether the sky be bright, dark, chill, or hot
The phoenix is but one and ever true;
No destiny or fate can breach the knot
That even death itself could not undo.

For heart, spirit and soul
No pleasure, liberty or life can render
Such smiles, or sustenance, or amity
As were more sweet, more gracious, or more tender
Than the grief, yoke, and deathly toll
I have by nature, will, and destiny.

Like Poliphilo, therefore, Giordano Bruno discovered that his chief erogenous zone lay inside his head. Theirs, of course, is a widespread human peculiarity, so pervasive that we may well rejoice that the originals of I modi have long since disappeared, to captivate imaginations that have made them far more exciting than the real pictures ever were, or ever could have been. Bette Talvacchia and Joscelyn Godwin, in very different ways, have proven that a desiccated rose can not only live again, but may also, with the help of fantasy, grow vivid as never before.

This Issue

June 15, 2000