The 'Hundred Old Novels,' which must have been composed about the end of the thirteenth century, have as yet neither wit, the fruit of contrast, nor the 'burla,' for their subject; their aim is merely to give simple and elegant expression to wise sayings and pretty stories or fables. But if anything proves the great antiquity of the collection, it is precisely this absence of satire. For with the fourteenth century comes Dante, who, in the utterance of scorn, leaves all other poets in the world far behind, and who, if only on account of his great picture of the deceivers, must be called the chief master of colossal comedy. With Petrarch begin the collections of witty sayings after the pattern of Plutarch (Apophthegmata, etc.).
What stores of wit were concentrated in Florence during this century is most characteristically shown in the novels of Franco Sacchetti. These are, for the most part, not stories but answers, given under certain circumstances-- shocking pieces of naivete,with which silly folks, court jesters, rogues, and profligate women make their retort. The comedy of the tale lies in the startling contrast of this real or assumed naivete with conventional morality and the ordinary relations of the world--things are made to stand on their heads. All means of picturesque representation are made use of, including the introduction of certain North Italian dialects. Often the place of wit is taken by mere insolence, clumsy trickery, blasphemy, and obscenity; one or two jokes told of Condottieri are among the most brutal and malicious which are recorded. Many of the 'burle' are thoroughly comic, but many are only real or supposed evidence of personal superiority, of triumph over another. How much people were willing to put up with, how often the victim was satisfied with getting the laugh on his side by a retaliatory trick, cannot be said; there was much heartless and pointless malice mixed up with it all, and life in Florence was no doubt often made unpleasant enough from this cause. The inventors and retailers of jokes soon became inevitable figures, and among them there must have been some who were classical-- far superior to all the mere court-jesters, to whom competition, a changing public, and the quick apprehension of the audience, all advantages of life in Florence, were wanting. Some Florentine wits went starring among the despotic courts of Lombardy and Romagna, and found themselves much better rewarded than at home, where their talent was cheap and plentiful. The better type of these people is the amusing man (l'uomo piacevole), the worse is the buffoon and the vulgar parasite who presents himself at weddings and banquets with the argument, 'If I am not invited, the fault is not mine.' Now and then the latter combine to pluck a young spendthrift, but in general they are treated and despised as parasites, while wits of higher position bear themselves like princes, and consider their talent as something sovereign. Dolcibene, whom Charles IV had pronounced to be the 'king of Italian jesters,' said to him at Ferrara: 'You will conquer the world, since you are my friend and the Pope's; you fight with the sword, the Pope with his bulls, and I with my tongue.' This is no mere jest, but the foreshadowing of Pietro Aretino.
The two most famous jesters about the middle of the fifteenth century were a priest near Florence, Arlotto (1483), for more refined wit ('facezie'), and the court-fool of Ferrara, Gonnella, for buffoonery. We can hardly compare their stories with those of the Parson of Kalenberg and Till Eulenspiegel, since the latter arose in a different and half-mythical manner, as fruits of the imagination of a whole people, and touch rather on what is general and intelligible to all, while Arlotto and Gonnella were historical beings, colored and shaped by local influences. But if the comparison be allowed, and extended to the jests of the non-Italian nations, we shall find in general that the joke in the French fabliaux, as among the Germans, is chiefly directed to the attainment of some advantage or enjoyment; while the wit of Arlotto and the practical jokes of Gonnella are an end in themselves, and exist simply for the sake of the triumph of production. (Till Eulenspiegel again forms a class by himself, as the personified quiz, mostly pointless enough, of particular classes and professions.) The court-fool of the Este retaliated more than once by his keen satire and refined modes of vengeance.
The type of the 'uomo piacevole' and the 'buffone' long survived the freedom of Florence. Under Duke Cosimo flourished Barlacchia, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century Francesco Ruspoli and Curzio Marignolli. In Pope Leo X, the genuine Florentine love of jesters showed itself strikingly. This prince, whose taste for the most refined intellectual pleasures was insatiable, endured and desired at his table a number of witty buffoons and jack-puddings, among them two monks and a cripple; at public feasts he treated them with deliberate scorn as parasites, setting before them monkeys and crows in the place of savory meats. Leo, indeed, showed a peculiar fondness for the 'burla'; it belonged to his nature sometimes to treat his own favorite pursuits- -music and poetry--ironically, parodying them with his factotum, Cardinal Bibbiena. Neither of them found it beneath him to fool an honest old secretary till he thought himself a master of the art of music. The Improvisatore, Baraballo of Gaeta, was brought so far by Leo's flattery that he applied in all seriousness for the poet's coronation on the Capitol. On the feast of St. Cosmas and St. Damian, the patrons of the House of Medici, he was first compelled, adorned with laurel and purple, to amuse the papal guests with his recitations, and at last, when all were ready to split with laughter, to mount a gold- harnessed elephant in the court of the Vatican, sent as a present to Rome by Emmanuel the Great of Portugal, while the Pope looked down from above through his eye-glass. The brute, however, was so terrified by the noise of the trumpets and kettledrums, and the cheers of the crowd, that there was no getting him over the bridge of Sant' Angelo.
The parody of what is solemn or sublime, which here meets us in the case of a procession, had already taken an important place in poetry. It was naturally compelled to choose victims of another kind than those of Aristophanes, who introduced the great tragedians into his plays. But the same maturity of culture which at a certain period produced parody among the Greeks, did the same in Italy. By the close of the fourteenth century, the love-lorn wailings of Petrarch's sonnets and others of the same kind were taken off by caricaturists; and the solemn air of this form of verse was parodied in lines of mystic twaddle. A constant invitation to parody was offered by the 'Divine Comedy,' and Lorenzo il Magnifico wrote the most admirable travesty in the style of the 'Inferno' (Simposio or I Beoni). Luigi Pulci obviously imitates the Improvisatori in his 'Morgante,' and both his poetry and Boiardo's are in part, at least, a half-conscious parody of the chivalrous poetry of the Middle Ages. Such a caricature was deliberately undertaken by the great parodist Teofilo Folengo (about 1520). Under the name of Limerno Pitocco, he composed the 'Orlandino,' in which chivalry appears only as a ludicrous setting for a crowd of modern figures and ideas. Under the name of Merlinus Coccaius he described the journeys and exploits of his fantastic vagabonds (also in the same spirit of parody) in half-Latin hexameters, with all the affected pomp of the learned Epos of the day ('Opus Macaronicorum'). Since then caricature has been constantly, and often brilliantly, represented on the Italian Parnassus.
About the middle period of the Renaissance a theoretical analysis of wit was undertaken, and its practical application in good society was regulated more precisely. The theorist was Gioviano Pontano. In his work on speaking, especially in the third and fourth books, he tries by means of the comparison of numerous jokes or 'facetiae' to arrive at a general principle. How wit should be used among people of position is taught by Baldassare Castiglione in his 'Cortigiano.' Its chief function is naturally to enliven those present by the repetition of comic or graceful stories and sayings; personal jokes, on the contrary, are discouraged on the ground that they wound unhappy people, show too much honour to wrong-doers, and make enemies of the powerful and the spoiled children of fortune; and even in repetition, a wide reserve in the use of dramatic gestures is recommended to the gentleman. Then follows, not only for purposes of quotation, but as patterns for future jesters, a large collection of puns and witty sayings, methodically arranged according to their species, among them some that are admirable. The doctrine of Giovanni della Casa, some twenty years later, in his guide to good manners, is much stricter and more cautious; with a view to the consequences, he wishes to see the desire of triumph banished altogether from jokes and 'burle.' He is the herald of a reaction, which was certain sooner or later to appear.
Italy had, in fact, become a school for scandal, the like of which the world cannot show, not even in France at the time of Voltaire. In him and his comrades there was assuredly no lack of the spirit of negation; but where, in the eighteenth century, was to be found the crowd of suitable victims, that countless assembly of highly and characteristically developed human beings, celebrities of every kind, statesmen, churchmen, inventors, and discoverers, men of letters, poets and artists, all of whom then gave the fullest and freest play to their individuality. This host existed in the fifteenth and sixteenth cen- turies, and by its side the general culture of the time had educated a poisonous brood of impotent wits, of born critics and railers, whose envy called for hecatombs of victims; and to all this was added the envy of the famous men among themselves. In this the philologists notoriously led the way--Filelfo, Poggio, Lorenzo Valla, and others--while the artists of the fifteenth century lived in peaceful and friendly competition with one another. The history of art may take note of the fact.
Florence, the great market of fame, was in this point, as we have said, in advance of other cities. 'Sharp eyes and bad tongues' is the description given of the inhabitants. An easygoing contempt of everything and everybody was probably the prevailing tone of society. Machiavelli, in the remarkable prologue to his 'Mandragola,' refers rightly or wrongly the visible decline of moral force to the general habit of evil-speaking, and threatens his detractors with the news that he can say sharp things as well as they. Next to Florence comes the Papal court, which had long been a rendezvous of the bitterest and wittiest tongues. Poggio's 'Facetiae' are dated from the Chamber of Lies (bugiale) of the apostolic notaries; and when we remember the number of disappointed place-hunters, of hopeless competitors and enemies of the favorites, of idle, profligate prelates there assembled, it is intelligible how Rome became the home of the savage pasquinade as well as of more philosophical satire. If we add to this the widespread hatred borne to the priests, and the well-known instinct of the mob to lay any horror to the charge of the great, there results an untold mass of infamy. Those who were able, protected themselves best by contempt both of the false and true accusations, and by brilliant and joyous display. More sensitive natures sank into utter despair when they found themselves deeply involved in guilt, and still more deeply in slander. In course of time calumny became universal, and the strictest virtue was most certain of all to challenge the attacks of malice. Of the great pulpit orator, Fra Egidio of Viterbo, whom Leo made a cardinal on account of his merits, and who showed himself a man of the people and a brave monk in the calamity of 1527, Giovio gives us to understand that he preserved his ascetic pallor by the smoke of wet straw and other means of the same kind. Giovio is a genuine Curial in these matters. He generally begins by telling his story, then adds that he does not believe it, and then hints at the end that perhaps after all there may be something in it. But the true scapegoat of Roman scorn was the pious and moral Adrian VI. A general agreement seemed to be made to take him only on the comic side. He fell out from the first with the formidable Francesco Berni, threatening to have thrown into the Tiber not, as people said, the statue of Pasquino, but the writers of the satires themselves. The vengeance for this was the famous 'Capitolo' against Pope Adriano, inspired not exactly by hatred, but by contempt for the comical Dutch barbarian; the more savage menaces were reserved for the cardinals who had elected him. The plague, which then was prevalent in Rome, was ascribed to him; Berni and others sketch the environment of the Pope with the same sparkling untruthfulness with which the modern feuilletoniste turns black into white, and everything into anything. The biography which Paolo Giovio was commissioned to write by the cardinal of Tortosa, and which was to have been a eulogy, is for anyone who can read between the lines an unexampled piece of satire. It sounds ridiculous at least for the Italians of that time--to hear how Adrian applied to the Chapter of Saragossa for the jawbone of St. Lambert; how the devout Spaniards decked him out till he looked 'like a right well-dressed Pope'; how he came in a confused and tasteless procession from Ostia to Rome, took counsel about burning or drowning Pasquino, would suddenly break off the most important business when dinner was announced; and lastly, at the end of an unhappy reign, how be died of drinking too much beer--whereupon the house of his physician was hung with garlands by midnight revellers, and adorned with the inscription, 'Liberatori Patriae S.P.Q.R.' It is true that Giovio had lost his money in the general confiscation of public funds, and had only received a benefice by way of compensation because he was 'no poet,' that is to say, no pagan. But it was decreed that Adrian should be the last great victim. After the disaster which befell Rome in 1527, slander visibly declined along with the unrestrained wickedness of private life.
But while it was still flourishing was developed, chiefly in Rome the greatest railer of modern times, Pietro Aretino. A glance at his life and character will save us the trouble of noticing many less distinguished members of his class.
We know him chiefly in the last thirty years of his life, (1527-56), which he passed in Venice, the only asylum possible for him. From hence he kept all that was famous in Italy in a kind of state of siege, and here were delivered the presents of the foreign princes who needed or dreaded his pen. Charles V and Francis I both pensioned him at the same time, each hoping that Aretino would do some mischief to the other. Aretino flattered both, but naturally attached himself more closely to Charles, because he remained master in Italy. After the Emperor's victory at Tunis in 1535, this tone of adulation passed into the most ludicrous worship, in observing which it must not be forgotten that Aretino constantly cherished the hope that Charles would help him to a cardinal's hat. It is probable that he enjoyed special protection as Spanish agent, as his speech or silence could have no small effect on the smaller Italian courts and on public opinion in Italy. He affected utterly to despise the Papal court because he knew it so well; the true reason was that Rome neither could nor would pay him any longer. Venice, which sheltered him, he was wise enough to leave unassailed. The rest of his relations with the great is mere beggary and vulgar extortion.
Aretino affords the first great instance of the abuse of publicity to such ends. The polemical writings which a hundred years earlier Poggio and his opponents interchanged, are just as infamous in their tone and purpose, but they were not composed for the press, but for a sort of private circulation. Aretino made all his profit out of a complete publicity, and in a certain sense may be considered the father of modern journalism. His letters and miscellaneous articles were printed periodically, after they had already been circulated among a tolerably extensive public.
Compared with the sharp pens of the eighteenth century, Aretino had the advantage that he was not burdened with principles, neither with liberalism nor philanthropy nor any other virtue, nor even with science; his whole baggage consisted of the well-known motto, 'Veritas odium parit.' He never, conse- quently, found himself in the false position of Voltaire, who was forced to disown his 'Pucelle' and conceal all his life the authorship of other works. Aretino put his name to all he wrote, and openly gloried in his notorious 'Ragionamenti.' His literary talent, his clear and sparkling style, his varied observation of men and things, would have made him a considerable writer under any circumstances, destitute as he was of the power of conceiving a genuine work of art, such as a true dramatic comedy; and to the coarsest as well as the most refined malice he added a grotesque wit so brilliant that in some cases it does not fall short of that of Rabelais.
In such circumstances, and with such objects and means, he set to work to attack or circumvent his prey. The tone in which he appealed to Clement VII not to complain or to think of vengeance, but to forgive, at the moment when the wailings of the devastated city were ascending to the Castel Sant' Angelo, where the Pope himself was a prisoner, is the mockery of a devil or a monkey. Sometimes, when he is forced to give up all hope of presents, his fury breaks out into a savage howl, as in the 'Capitolo' to the Prince of Salerno, who after paying him for some time refused to do so any longer. On the other hand, it seems that the terrible Pierluigi Farnese, Duke of Parma, never took any notice of him at all. As this gentleman had probably renounced altogether the pleasures of a good reputation, it was not easy to cause him any annoyance; Aretino tried to do so by comparing his personal appearance to that of a constable, a miller, and a baker. Aretino is most comical of all in the expression of whining mendicancy, as in the 'Capitolo' to Francis I; but the letters and poems made up of menaces and flattery cannot, notwithstanding all that is ludicrous in them, be read without the deepest disgust. A letter like that one of his written to Michelangelo in November, 1545, is alone of its kind; along with all the admiration he expresses for the 'Last Judgement' he charges him with irreligion, indecency, and theft from the heirs of Julius II, and adds in a conciliating postscript, 'I only want to show you that if you are "divino," I am not "d'acqua." ' Aretino laid great stress upon it--whether from the insanity of conceit or by way of caricaturing famous men--that he himself should be called divine, as one of his flatterers had already begun to do; and he certainly attained so much personal celebrity that his house at Arezzo passed for one of the sights of the place. There were indeed whole months during which he never ventured to cross his threshold at Venice, lest he should fall in with some in- censed Florentine like the younger Strozzi. Nor did he escape the cudgels and the daggers of his enemies, although they failed to have the effect which Berni prophesied him in a famous sonnet. Aretino died in his house, of apoplexy.
The differences he made in his modes of flattery are remarkable: in dealing with non-Italians he was grossly fulsome; people like Duke Cosimo of Florence he treated very differently. He praised the beauty of the then youthful prince, who in fact did share this quality with Augustus in no ordinary degree; he praised his moral conduct, with an oblique reference to the financial pursuits of Cosimo's mother, Maria Salviati, and concluded with a mendicant whine about the bad times and so forth. When Cosimo pensioned him, which he did liberally, considering his habitual parsimony--to the extent, at least, of 160 ducats a year--he had doubtless an eye to Aretino's dangerous character as Spanish agent. Aretino could ridicule and revile Cosimo, and in the same breath threaten the Florentine agent that he would obtain from the Duke his immediate recall; and if the Medicean prince felt himself at last to be seen through by Charles V he would naturally not be anxious that Aretino's jokes and rhymes against him should circulate at the Imperial court. A curiously qualified piece of flattery was that addressed to the notorious Marquis of Marignano, who as Castellan of Musso had attempted to found an independent State. Thanking him for the gift of a hundred crowns, Aretino writes: 'All the qualities which a prince should have are present in you, and all men would think so, were it not that the acts of violence inevitable at the beginning of all undertakings cause you to appear a trifle rough (aspro).'
It has often been noticed as something singular that Aretino only reviled the world, and not God also. The religious belief of a man who lived as he did is a matter of perfect indifference, as are also the edifying writings which he composed for reasons of his own. It is in fact hard to say why he should have been a blasphemer. He was no professor, or theoretical thinker or writer; and he could extort no money from God by threats or flattery, and was consequently never goaded into blasphemy by a refusal. A man like him does not take trouble for nothing.
It is a good sign for the present spirit of Italy that such a character and such a career have become a thousand times impossible. But historical criticism will always find in Aretino an important study.