The Father of Modern Literary Pornography Died From Laughing at a Dirty Joke
Pietro Aretino (1492 – 1556) was an Italian writer, satirist, poet, playwright, and blackmailer. He also created modern literary pornography – erotic literature whose main feature is accounts of sexual relationships that are intended to arouse the reader sexually. Aretino’s whole life seems to have been one long and often seedy adventure, so it was somehow fitting that he died laughing at a dirty joke.
He was born in the Tuscan town of Arezzo to a shoemaker who abandoned the family to go soldiering when Pietro was a child. When he grew up, Pietro abandoned his father’s name, and took the name Aretino, meaning “from Arezzo”. His mother became the mistress of a local nobleman, who raised Aretino and his siblings, and he spent the rest of his life pretending to be a nobleman’s bastard, rather than a shoemaker’s son.
As a youth, he went to Perugia to take up painting for a while, and eventually ended up in Rome, where a rich banker, the patron of Raphael the painter, took him under his wing. Painting was not really Aretino’s thing, however, and he eventually gave up on that. His real talent lay in words, and in 1516 he penned a satiric will of Pope Leo X’s recently deceased pet elephant, which mocked Rome’s leading figures, including the pope himself. The pope was a good sport about it, and the satire was well received, launching Aretino’s career as a satirist. He eventually ended up with the nickname “Scourge of Princes”.
After the death of Leo X, Aretino penned vicious satirical pamphlets supporting the candidature of cardinal Giulio de Medici for the papacy, which helped get him elected as Pope Clement VII in 1523. However, despite the patronage of the new pope, Aretino was forced to leave Rome in 1524 because he had grown too notorious, especially after he composed a dirty poetry collection known as the Lewd Sonnets.
Exile turned into a life on the run for a while, when a bishop who had been victimized by Aretino’s vicious pen hired assassins to take out the satirist. So Aretino hit the road and wandered northern Italy, serving various aristocrats and distinguishing himself with his wit and audacity, and making ends meet every now and then via blackmail. He eventually ended up in Venice and hit it off with the locals. He lived a grand and dissolute life amidst the Ventians for the rest of his days.
It finally came to an end at a party on October 21st, 1556 when his sister told a particularly risque joke. Pietro Aretino laughed so hard that he fell over backwards from his chair, and keeled over then and there. Another version has it that he was done in by falling into a fit of apoplectic laughter after hearing the joke, while yet another variant has it that his death was caused by suffocation from laughing so hard. Whichever version it was, all accounts agree that it was laughter that killed him.