I Modi : The “Sixteen Pleasures” That the Vatican Tried to Ban

I Modi : The “Sixteen Pleasures” That the Vatican Tried to Ban

Natasha sheldon - April 30, 2018

Despite extolling the virtues of chastity, sex, and the Renaissance Catholic Church were always profoundly intertwined. Popes regularly kept mistresses and fathered children, while the best Renaissance artists decorated the walls of their ecclesiastical palaces with voluptuous classical nudes. These salubrious works of art were never intended for public consumption but the eyes of potentates and princes alone. However, this all changed in 1524, when some of this private art slipped from the walls of the Vatican into the pages of a book.

Marcantonio Raimondi, a master engraver, created prints of sketches from a prominent room in the papal palace made by the artist, Giulio Romano. The drawings showed sixteen couples from classical history and myth in a variety of sexual positions. Raimondi published his pictures in what came to be regarded as the world’s first mass-produced work of pornography: I Modi or ‘The Ways.’ The pictures were joined in a second edition by the saucy sonnets of satirical poet Pietro Aretino. I Modi’s popularity and content so outraged the Vatican that it destroyed all copies of the book and vilified and imprisoned its authors. So what made I Modi so sought after- and scandalous?

I Modi : The “Sixteen Pleasures” That the Vatican Tried to Ban
Frescos from the Sala di Constantino, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. Wikimedia Commons

Giulio Romano and the Sala di Costantino

I Modi began its life as a series of illicit sketches on the walls of the Sala di Constantino, a room in the papal apartments of the apostolic palace in the Vatican. The drawings belonged to Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael and one of his two principal heirs. In 1508/9, Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to redecorate the Sala and three other rooms as papal apartments. By the time of Raphael’s death in 1520, only the Sala remained. So it fell to Romano, as his master’s artistic executor, to complete the commission according to Raphael’s sketches.

The Sala was a room for receptions and ceremonials, so Raphael had designed its new decorative scheme accordingly. It was a room which celebrated the triumph of Christianity over paganism, with scenes from the life of the emperor Constantine. Constantine’s vision of the Cross, his consequent victory in battle and his baptism were all depicted. Raphael had even been careful to give Pope Miltiades, who baptized the emperor, the face of the then pope, Clement VII.

Romano duly completed the principle scheme according to his mentor’s sketches. However, before Romano added the final colors, he made a few drawings of his own. The story goes that, in a fit of pique at the Pope after the pontiff was late paying him, Romano downed tools and used the time to sketch out a few preliminary drawings of his own of the wall of the Sala. These doodles consisted of sixteen classical couples enjoying sex in a variety of positions.

It is more likely that these designs were made in a moment of inspiration rather than because of a sulk. For Romano was already planning life after his obligations to Raphael were complete. In 1524, he completed the Sala and left Rome for good. Romano moved on to Mantua, where he built a new life as an artist and architect in his own right. One of his first commissions was a new pleasure palace for Federico II Gonzaga, Marques of Mantua: the Palazzo del Te. It was here, in 1526, in the Palazzo’s Sala di Psyche, that Romano began to bring to life the sketches he had started in the Vatican.

The Sala di Psyche was a substantial banqueting room, decorated with scenes from Apuleius’s “The Golden AssMany of the paintings also included intimate scenes between couples such as Cupid and Psyche, Venus and Mars, and Zeus and Olympias- straight from the Vatican sketches. Even if he had seen these initial sketches on the Sala di Constantino, and recognized their reproduction in the Palazzo, Pope Clement VII was unlikely to have been offended. After all, they were in private hands? However, someone else had access to Romano’s sketches, and he was about to make these private couplings very public indeed.

The Birth of “I Modi”

By the 1520’s Europe was in the grip of a revolution in communication: the printing press. By 1500, more than 20 million books had been produced across Western Europe alone. By the 1520s, the number was increasing as presses became ever more efficient. By this time, the printing revolution had gone beyond mere words. Now pictures could also be reproduced en masse as the technique of etching on copper plates allowed the reproduction of existing works of art to be mass-produced on paper.

Marcantonio Raimondi began his career apprenticed to a goldsmith. However, he quickly moved into the field of engravings, launching his new career making copies of the woodcutting of Albrecht Durer and experimenting with his own designs. In 1510, Raimondi moved to Rome. Here, he fell under the wing of Raphael, who trained him and acted as his patron. Together, the two men started a printing enterprise, with Raimondi making engravings based not only on Raphael’s work but other notable artists such as Michelangelo.

By 1524, Raimondi had a respectable reputation in his field. He knew Romano through his links with Raphael. So, to reproduce his work would have been perfectly natural. So, in 1524, as Romano made his way to Mantua to begin his new life, Raimondi published his sixteen Vatican sketches collectively in a book. The Volume quickly acquired several names: ‘The Sixteen pleasures”, De omnibus Veneris Schematibus, or more commonly Di Modi- ‘the ways.” All of the titles reflected the way the book was received: as a guide to the wide variety of sexual pleasures.

I Modi : The “Sixteen Pleasures” That the Vatican Tried to Ban
Pope Clement VII by Sebastian del Piombo. (c. 1531)Wikimedia Commons.

I Modi was a revelation. For the first time, for just a few coins, ordinary people could enjoy the sort of racy art on display on the walls of the wealthy and privileged. The book was ogled lewdly in taverns- or used for inspiration in bed. Here was how the other half had sex: not as an impulse to be endured or to feel guilty about or as a way of having children but as something to enjoy, and savor. It was the antithesis of what The Church had always told the general populace.

I Modi also displayed the blatant hypocrisy of an institution that preached the sinfulness of lust while its prelates looked at similar pictures on their private walls. So the book had to be suppressed. Pope Clement ordered every copy confiscate and destroyed. While Romano, the source of the original sketches remained untouched because he had produced his work for a private, privileged audience, the Vatican arrested Raimondi for daring to shed light on the secret mores of the aristocracy and the church. For a year he languished in the Vatican jail, his reputation and business in ruins. However, help was at hand.

I Modi : The “Sixteen Pleasures” That the Vatican Tried to Ban
Pietro Aretino by Titian c1545. Wikimedia Commons

Aretino’s Sonnets

Pietro Aretino was a satirical poet and writer who had the favor of Pope Clement VII. During the former Giulio de Medici’s candidacy for the papal crown, the man who was known as “The Scourge of Princes” had lent his pen to the Medici cause. When Medici became pope in 1523, Aretino found himself in high favor. Aretino’s own writings were controversial. So he had a particular fellow-feeling for the imprisoned Raimondi and began to petition for his release.

Arentino was successful. However, his fascination with I Modi did not end there. “After I arranged for Pope Clement to release Raimondi,” he later recalled, “I desired to see those pictures which has caused the [Vatican] to cry out that their creators should be crucified. As soon as I gazed at them, I was touched by the spirit that had moved Giulio Romano to draw them” In 1526, Aretino visited Giulio Romano at work on the Palazza de Te and was privileged to look at the pictures in the Sala di Psyche. Soon after, He and Raimondi entered into a partnership, bringing out the second edition of I Modi in 1527.

Come view this you who like to fuck,” wrote Aretino provocatively in the introduction to the second edition, “without being disturbed in that sweet enterprise…with all respect to hypocrites, I dedicate these lustful pieces to you, heedless of the scurvy strictures and asinine laws which forbid the eyes to see the very things that delight them most.” A poem now accompanied each picture, mimicking a dialogue between the sexual partners. These Sonetti Lussuriosi –lewd sonnets or sonnets of lust- were pretty direct. “Open your thighs,” began one, which accompanying the image of a highly aroused gentleman, expectantly grasping the legs of his lady, “so I can look straight at your beautiful…”

Perhaps both Arentino and Raimondi believed that in the case of this second edition, they could trade on Arentino’s favor with the Pope and avoid censure. However, that favor only went so far, as they were soon to learn. For Arentino’s sonnets were not just explicit; the poet used them to depict the men in I Modi not as classical figures but as certain prominent men of power. When the Pope’s Datuary, Giovanmatteo Giberti opened the book to find that Arentino had turned him into a sixteenth-century porn star, he ordered Arentino’s arrest.

Arentino fled to Venice, a city more conducive to his pen. Raimondi, meanwhile escaped a second spell in prison, only later to be thoroughly financially ruined. As for I Modi, once again the Vatican gathered up all available copies and burnt them. Although attempts were made years later to recreate the book using Raimondi’s original plates and Arentino’s sonnets, the Vatican left no copy of the first or second edition in existence. Unless, of course, some papal official saved a copy for the Vatican library, where the pictures and the sonnets could be enjoyed in the way the Church preferred such material: safely in private.


Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Guardian – Marcantonio Raimondi: The Renaissance Printer Who Brought Porn to Europe

The Sixteen Pleasures: The Vatican’s 16th Century Sex Guide, Karen Strike, Flashbak, March 26, 2017.

Giulio Romano, Encyclopedia Britannica, October 29, 2008.

Marcantonio Raimondi, Encyclopedia Britannica, April 8, 2009

NGP Rague – Marcantonio Raimondi, the Famous Engraver of the Great Raphael

Atlas Obscura – Europe’s First Pornographic Blockbuster Was Made in the Vatican

Artsy – How Renaissance Artists Brought Pornography to the Masses

Collection Online: Nine fragments depicting the ‘Loves of the Gods’ (I Modi), The British Museum

Sex and Punishment: Four thousand years of judging desire, Eric Berkowitz. The Westbourne Press.

Frescoes in the Sala di Psiche (1526-28), Web Gallery of Art.

“The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800”, Lucien Febvre and Henri Jean Martin, New left books, 1976.

Salon – The Renaissance Origin of Porn: Inside “I Modi,” The 16th-Century Sex Manual Masterpiece

Daily Art – Historyi Modi: History of Erotic Art