Pietro Aretino was one of the key players in the early years of the printing press. He was one of the first people to push the bounds of publishing, and might be said to be the original proponent of the free press movement. Though he was a shrewd and somewhat uncouth character, as well as an avid practitioner of blackmail, he still played a pivotal role is advancing literary freedom to the place where it is today.
Aretino was born in 1492, the son of a cobbler. He hated his father's poverty, and throughout his life preferred to be called "Pietro of Arezzo". But it seems that history loved him not, for those historians who remember him all refer to him by the name of his serfly father. At a young age, he moved to Perugia with his mother, where he was frequently in the company of intellectual men who were perhaps the greatest influence on his choice of profession. It was in Perugia that he first came to be interested in writing, painting, and the arts. At the age of 25, Aretino came to reside in Rome, living in the household of a wealthy banker who was a patron of the arts. It was here that he came to associate with many artists and lower members of the upper-class and aristocracy.
At this point, Aretino began to consider the vast power to be gained by means of publishing, primarily through means of slander and blackmail. He began to pay attention to political gossip, printing those juicy pieces that he was not paid to keep quiet about. In exchange for favors, Aretino was happy to diminish or demolish the reputation of the political enemies of his benefactors. This meant that he was not very popular in the upper circles, but was so greatly feared that none truly dared to confront him on the issue.
Not all of Aretino's notoriety stemmed from blackmail; he had other scuffles relating to freedom of the press. In 1524, he published Sonetti Lussuriosi (also known as La Corona di Cazza), a book of lewd sonnets containing illustrations of various sexual positions. Fueled by outcry from others in the Church, the in 1527 pope declared the book obscene, and the Church suppressed every printed copy of the book (it is speculated that members of the clergy kept copies for their own personal enjoyment). In 1528, Sonetti Lussuriosi was on the Vatican's first official index of banned books. For a short time during this ordeal, Aretino had to flee the country.
Shortly after returning to Italy, he had to flee once more as he was the target of a nearly-successful assassination attempt. Once Aretino utilized his surprisingly large amount of political power to address this threat, he returned to Venice, where he spent the rest of his life. Most of his writings from that point onward were scathing political commentaries, generally in the form of periodicals. Among the material that he published (though did not write) were tales of brothel affairs, anti-erudite comedy, and other forms of "crude" entertainment, generally featuring sex.
Pietro Aretino died in 1556.
"Nothing, it appears to me is of greater value in a man than the power of judgment; and the man who has it may be compared to a chest filled with books, for he is the son of nature and the father of art."