The Roots of Western Pornography
Sex has been depicted in many forms and in many cultures over thousands of years. The idea of fusing images with explicit text with the intention of either arousing or enraging the viewer -- not to mention intentionally violating social boundaries -- is a largely Western construct. The invention of the printing press, the emergence of the novel, the creation of an entrepreneurial middle class along with the enormous changes wrought by the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, all contributed to its development.
The balance between the political and sexual components of pornography has fluctuated over time. In 16th-century Italy, politics played a far greater role in its formation that it did in 19th-century England, when its major function was to arouse the reader. In its earliest incarnation in 16th- and 17th-century European literature, pornographys primary goal was subversion, developing largely out of a need for artists and writers to push political boundaries. What better way to draw attention to a corrupt church official or politician than to show him in an erect state, about to have sex with a nun? During the French Revolution, a pamphlet depicting Queen Marie-Antoinette in the midst of an orgy was a powerful, if not misogynistic, way to incite a starving mob already enraged over aristocratic excess.
In the 20th century, pornography has carved out a literary and artistic niche all its own, and functions less as a political tool and more as a genre devoted exclusively to the depiction of sexuality. But true to its subversive genes, it continues to inspire fear and loathing. To wit: the word "pornography" itself has become a handy epithet, a term hurled indiscriminately at any explicit image or text deemed sexually offensive.
Pornographys main purpose has always been to shock. In societies where the role of women was severely restricted, pornography transgressed social boundaries by often depicting female characters as self-empowered, sexual beings. While these early characterizations were almost always the expressions of male writers, they nonetheless underscore pornographys role of inverting social norms and toying with established social order. A quick review of the last few hundred years would indicate that pornography has had an extremely important, if thankless role, in questioning authority and reflecting social angst about established sex roles.
If anyone can be called the originator of European pornography, it is Pietro Aretino, the man responsible for what has been called the premier stroke book of the Western world. -- I modi. -- or "The Ways." Aretinos work combined 16 sexually explicit sonnets with 16 engravings of couples having sex in varying positions.
Aretino, born in 1492, was one of the first writers to produce forbidden works for the emerging print culture. He was a resident of the Republic of Venice, a journalist, publicist, entrepreneur, and art dealer who made a living writing political tracts and essays. The fact that Aretino managed to create and circulate I modi had as much to do with the social and political conditions of Renaissance Italy as it did with an increasingly literate audience.
The new interest in humanism during the Renaissance inspired an endless fascination with classical antiquity. Intellectuals schooled in Latin and Greek, read Cicero and Virgil, as well as the bawdy tales of Ovid and Catullus. For artists, figures from pagan myths provided an endless excuse to paint nudes or depict erotic scenes. While the portrayal of nude bodies involving contemporary individuals was certainly off-limits, depictions of naked gods and goddesses, satyrs and nymphs were not. Even in religious paintings, images of the Madonna and Child, as well as scenes from the Bible, were greatly eroticized. Given this general climate, Aretino had a built-in audience for material with a sexual theme.
The production of I modi involved three major artists of the Renaissance: Aretino, Guilio Romano and Marcantonio Raimondi. The trouble started in 1524 when Romano, a contemporary of Aretinos and a great Mannerist painter, drew 16 scenes of copulating couples on some walls in the Vatican. One theory is that he was angry over the fact that Pope Clement VII had been late in paying for some work. (It is, however, conceivable that Romano had been commissioned to do this as his teacher, Raphael, had himself once been hired to paint erotic scenes in the bathroom of a cardinal at the Vatican.)
Raimondi, another contemporary who happened to be one of foremost engravers of the time, made copper plates of Romanos I modi (literally, "postures"), printed up copies and circulated them among the higher echelons of Roman society. The Pope, clearly outraged, ordered all prints and copper plates destroyed and made reprinting of I modi punishable by death. Romano fled town, while Raimondi was arrested and left to languish in the Vatican prison -- until the intervention of a powerful Medici and Pietro Aretino.
It isnt clear whether Aretino wrote his piquant sonnets when he heard about Raimondis arrest or whether he penned them after Raimondis release. Whatever the case, the second edition of I modi, containing Raimondis engravings and embellished by Aretinos 16 sonnets, was meant to bait the authorities at the papal court. Aretino had already established a reputation as a free-lance journalist critical of certain politicians, and I modi provided an excellent venue for targeting his enemies. The new edition of I modi was ordered destroyed as well, and to date all that survives are a few fragments of the presumed original engravings in the British Museum, as well as one subsequent 16th-century imitation printed very soon after the first one, possibly in the same year -- 1527.
Aretinos purpose in publishing I modi was certainly twofold: to depict earthy sex in vivid and colloquial terms, but also to mock the papal court as a repository of corruption. Some of those named in the sonnets, for instance, are thought to have been prominent courtesans as well as noteworthy figures of the day. Ultimately, what made Aretinos work so reprehensible in the eyes of the Catholic Church was that he used sex to expose the corruption of the elite and worse, in doing so, informed a much broader audience about papal corruption as well.
Aretino also played with another radical concept by evoking an earthly utopia -- a world of limitless sex and possibility, in which women expressed their desires as vociferously as men. His work is a paean to sex, a celebration of eros, and reflects a powerful reaction against centuries of Church repression. Much of this is also evident in his violation of linguistic taboos: he pushed boundaries by employing the most colloquial language possible. He avoided euphemisms and used words like cazzo, potta and fottere -- "prick," "cunt," and "fuck."
Aretinos influence on the development of pornography did not end with I modi. In a work called Ragionamenti, or Discussions, which he published in 1539, two Roman courtesans discuss what goes on among whores, housewives and nuns (the conclusion: very much the same -- "they all have sex."). While the dialogue form is a literary genre with precedents in Greek literature, it was Aretinos Ragionamenti that most profoundly influenced the proliferation of this genre over the next two centuries. These dialogues, which often involved talk about sex between an older woman and a younger one, werent necessarily written for the purposes of arousal but rather as an excuse to convey information about sex -- as bluntly as possible.
Artists and writers borrowed heavily from the Aretinian tradition long after his death in 1556. (Even the term "Aretinian postures" became synonymous all over Europe with the depiction of acrobatic sex.) In effect, Aretino helped to create a new marketplace for sexually explicit material. With works like I modi and those following, pornography became closely linked to political and religious subversion.
Coming in December: The Enlightenment to the French Revolution
For information on reprinting this series for classroom use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 800-495-1988