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Most pornographers are not in print five hundred years later.

Of course, Aretino has a good claim at inventing the form, or at any rate the literary kind of erotica, the sort that has philosophy and clever wordplay and political satire and enough other material to convince the people who see you with it that you only read it for the articles. Aretino has some aura of literature about him: he had the nickname 'scourge of princes' after the faked last will and testament he wrote for Pope Leo X's pet elephant in 1516. He was painted by Titian, he was painted by Michelangelo. He was never respectable, being both illegitimate and pointedly vicious, but he was read. The Secret Life of Wives is the second of his Ragionamenti, a mock-epic mock-Platonic set of dialogues which also includes The Secret Life of Nuns and The Secret Life of Courtesans. It is, one suspects, the portion he would know the least about-- he never married, he was a friend of Michelangelo's and considered the fact that he occasionally slept with women a mild psychological aberration on his part, as befit that set; more often he preferred men.

This is therefore less a satire on married life, though it is that, then a vicious swipe at the clergy. It's basically a series of shaggy-dog stories, related between a courtesan (who has been both nun and wife, possibly simultaneously) and her maid; the tone is somewhere between something like Petronius, who mostly wants to get a reaction, and de Sade, who wants you to read a pamphlet about republicanism (I have always appreciated that he included tear-out perforations for those persons who did not feel the pamphlet to be the point exactly). Aretino wants to be entertaining, always that, and rather more comedic than erotic necessarily, but he would rather like you to Notice A Theme. The theme, of course, is that chastity is bunk and clerical chastity is mythical as per the following seventy-three examples.

There are two things about this dialogue that make it more pleasant than much erotica, classical or modern. Firstly, although it feels quite male-gazey (Aretino's women are decidedly women conjectured by a man and at one point he very clearly demonstrates Nice Guy Syndrome*, which apparently existed back then, and it is ludicrous) his women have sexual agency. They control their fertility, they decide what they want, they go about getting it intelligently and with determination, they always get it, and they usually aren't punished for it in any way, socially or otherwise. It's clearly part of the never-never of pornography in some ways, but it also rings pleasantly of the Wife of Bath. Secondly, Aretino finds people hilarious, but fondly hilarious; this is not a cruel satire. His attitude can be summarized as: why not? "A spouse is pleasant," says his courtesan, "but I do so enjoy eating out." There is enjoyment here, there is laughter.

Mind you, there is also a degree of grotesquery that means that I do not think that today this reads as erotic erotica. He is determined to demonstrate that people will not let any rational considerations get in the way of what they want, including things like dirt and disease, and he has a way with a disgusting metaphor. Overall, the point nowadays is the parody of Homeric epic that opens the dialogue, the kind wittiness of the courtesan, the pleasant space of the garden they're sitting in to gossip. As I said before, you can, now, read this for the articles, and find them very solid, although, as Michael Nyman could have told you after the programs were withdrawn from a performance of his 2007 setting of Aretino because of their obscenity, he will never, ever be respectable.

*Nice Guy Syndrome is the belief that women must dislike nice guys and in fact prefer people who mistreat them, because otherwise they would totally be sleeping with the holder of this belief, wouldn't they. In fact, he is such a nice guy that women ought to sleep with him, he's all friendly and cares and doesn't that entitle him to something? It is sadly culturally fairly widespread and I hadn't known it went back quite that far.


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March 2017

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