Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Grand Passions

The Gay Love Letters of Pietro Aretino

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Portrait of Pietro Aretino Pietro Aretino (14921556) was notorious for a series of erotic sonnets, in one of which he declares himself to have been a sodomite from birth. His patrons were to include Popes Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici) and Clement VII, King François I and Emperor Charles V, and much of the nobility of Renaissance Europe, many of whom he blackmailed with threats to publish satires against them. He was called "the Divine Aretino" partly because his wit was so devilish. He himself was a bisexual libertine in the larger-than-life mode of Renaissance Italy, so outspoken as to be beyond any counterattacks. Gay themes are scattered throughout his poems and plays, notably in the comedy Il marescalco, in which a man is overjoyed to discover that the woman he has been forced to marry is really a page boy in disguise. In a letter to Giovann de' Medici written in 1524 Aretino encloses a satirical poem saying that due to a sudden aberration he has fallen in love with a female cook and temporarily switched from boys to girls; but he concludes his letter with a reaffirmation of the sodomites' credo: "My Illustrious Lord, be absolutely certain that we all return to the ancient great mother, and if I escape with my honour from this madness, will bugger as much as much and as much for me as for my friends." Aretino's letters to Giovanni de' Medici, for whom he acted as whoremonger, are well known. Much less well known are the following letters written by the Marchese Gonzaga (brother of Cardinal Gonzaga), who not only furthered Aretino's business and literary interests but also acted as his pimp for gay affairs, concerning some delicate negotiations.


3rd January, 1528

Magnificent and most learned maestro Pietro, dearest friend,
          I very much regret your pain, torment and afflictions; and although I am very sorry to be deprived of the great pleasure that your virtues are wont to confer on me, the uncommon love I have for you nonetheless induces and constrains me to feel no small compassion for you. Thus I cannot do what you would not gladly consent to; how much I can do to cure your grand passions, wanting very much to be capable of abolishing all your troubles and of consoling you, depends on your intentions. And as for what will occur, I was very happy to command that it be done; and I ordered to be done all that of which you wrote, and if I can do anything else to please and gratify you in relation to your work or to anything else that is close to your heart, I offer myself, etc.

5th February, 1528

The Magnificent, etc.
          . . . I have had [a letter] written to Father di Carlo da Fano about your business with Thadeo, such that he should certainly seek you out, and I wanted to send one of my grooms for the purpose of delivering it had it not happened that one of my gentlemen had to go there at that time and I gave the letter to him; I have as yet had no answer, which surprises me, but perhaps it will not be very long in coming.
          I would willingly satisfy your wishes regarding this kept boy who you write could remedy your trouble, if I knew who it was, but I do not know this boy of Bianchino's.
          I only afterwards received your letter with the verses that you sent me, in which you lament that you have had no replies to your letters. Which, m. Pietro, you may be certain is for no reason other than that as I told you I was sending m. Francesco [Gonzaga] to My Lord [His Holiness the Pope] charged with speaking very warmly of your business, and waited for this intending to write everything in full; so you must not think that I am angry because I did not write or that you had caused me any trouble, for neither you nor your affairs shall ever weary me nor should you for this reason hesitate in any way to show the same confidence in me, who always wants to please you in every way. Similarly, this is the reason I did not write to [Monsignor the Most Reverend di] Monte earlier, for I was expecting the ambassador to do everything; but fearing that the delay might at times anger you I caused [a letter] to be written in the manner of which I have told you. ...
          There is nothing else to add at present except to thank you very much for the great pleasure that you give me every day with your most learned and delightful new compositions, all of which cannot tell you how dear you are to me, etc.

24th February, 1528

My Magnificent M. Pietro
          There is nothing that is more agreeable and more pleasing to me and that gives me greater happiness than to have the good opinion of virtuous and learned persons; but it was most agreeable to have understood, from your letters which I have lately received, the memories you have of me and the regard you have for me, although you do this for a good friend. And truly I love you so much that I love you more than the others, and the fruits of your splendid intellect have so impressed you upon my memory that there is nothing that will suffice ever at any time to efface them from it. I have not forgotten to have [a letter] written on your behalf to the Most Reverend Monsignor my brother, and I ordered it to be written well. If I have thus been able to satisfy you in your desire for Bianchino I will also have done it gladly. But having understood his reluctance when Roberto spoke to him on your behalf, and as it seemed to me that I was unable to do justice to the work that I wanted to do in this regard, I did not think it fitting to plead with him or otherwise to exhort him, nor to have him exhorted in my name and I failed to think that I should command him, IT NOT BEING EITHER JUST OR HONEST TO COMMAND HIM IN THIS CASE. But pardon me if in this case I have not pleased you; if I can please you in any other way, as you know very well I am only too glad to do it and you will always find me ready. ...

SOURCE: Original Italian published by Alessandro Luzio, Pietro Aretino nei primi suoi anni a Venezia e La Corte dei Gonzaga (Turin: Ermanno Loescher, 1888); English translation Copyright Rictor Norton.

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