Niccolò Franco, 1515-1570: Ink Stained Wretch

We sometimes take for granted that whole first amendment thing and forget that the price of a loose pen has at times been more than a mere libel suit.  Take for example the case of Niccolo Franco, a bit of a wastrel, certainly too clever by half, and yet not quite clever enough to keep himself out of trouble.

He was born in Benevento in 1515 of a good family and given all the advantages that a modest but reasonably prosperous family of that time and place could give.  He was quick to take it all in, mastering Latin, as one does, chiefly to get at the racier bits of Martial, Petronius and Catullus, also as one does.  He combined his flair for language with a taste for the low life and contention.  A good time for him was a brothel with free flowing wine and loose women and petty (and even not so petty) criminals.

Without question, diversion of sorts can be had in this kind of slumming, but there’s not a lot of money in it, at least not for the punters.   In the days before the mass market, a writer interested in making money had to butter up the upper classes.  Franco went to Naples where he published at his own expense a volume of Latin couplets (Hisabella) meant to flatter the Isabella of Capua, wife of Ferrente Gonzaga.  It got him an invitation to dine and to recite the more obsequious portions, but nothing in the way of a sinecure.

Off to Venice, that den of Renaissance vice, where he presented his Tempio d’Amore, a book which shot gunned the flattery to a wider audience of rich and appreciative women.  (The work itself was a rip-off of Iacopo Campanile‘s Opera Nuova Nomata vero tempio d’amore, praising some Neapolitan women.  Campanile was already dead, so it wasn’t as if anyone cared.)  If that wasn’t attraction enough, Venice was also the home of Pietro Aretino.

Aretino was a man after Franco’s own heart – infamous,  dissolute, outrageous, sharp-witted, larger than life – the embodiment of all that the young Franco could aspire to be.  The older man found his jokes funny and his company congenial and so employed Franco as his secretary and drinking and whoring companion.    Not a bad living, as Aretino at the time was making seriously good money by menaces.  That is to say, the rich and the proud (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, among other) paid him off to not write the spot-on lampoons that made them look foolish.  In not writing about those who paid this protection money, Aretino found that much more time to scribble out his out-and-out pornography, a genre still in its printed infancy and making the kind of money that first adopters of technology in open minded societies tend to make.

Things went along swimmingly until about 1538.  In that year the first volume of Aretino’s Lettere, the printing of which Franco instigated and expedited, came out and was a huge best seller.  The young hanger-on who made it happen quite understandably wanted in.  After all,  Aretino was living in the Palazzo Bollani Erizzo on the Grand Canal and enjoyed the affections of, among others, the courtesan Angela del Moro, and he wasn’t that much better a writer, surely.  Old fart didn’t even know Latin.

Franco’s ambition led to quarrels between the two, the elder calling the younger an ungrateful upstart, the younger calling the elder, well – Old Man, I suppose.  Franco’s temper was not improved when his own work, Le Pistole Vulgari (Letters to the whores),  went straight to the remainder pile.  Bitter,  Franco began to shoot his mouth off in public.

Unfortunately for him, Aretino had more friends than he did,including one Ambrogio Eusebi, compliant husband of Marietta Eusibi, one of Aretino’s many mistresses, who lay in wait for Franco one evening and came at him with a knife.  Franco survived witha  gash to the face, but clearly it was time to get out of town.   He was off to Mantua to throw himself on his old patrons the Gonzagas.  He tried to go legitimate, while at the same time venting his spleen with some pornographic and anti-Aretino works  (Rime contro Pietro Aretino, Priapea), abusing the older man  as  atheist, a sodomite, a blackmailer, a rapist and a pedophile.  Nothing new there, but who doesn’t like a good literary feud, especially if you’re one of the people whom one of the parties has given trouble to in the past?  If any of this bothered Aretino, there is no record of it.

Franco couldn’t stay in Mantua forever, and so went south to find work in Calabria, or Naples, where he wrote to-order broadsides,  poetry, pornography,  invective for whomever happened to be his patron at the time.  It was not without risk – at least one two month jail sentence resulted from some of his work – but it kept him more or less solvent.

Eventually he found his way to Rome, which, given his known contempt for the church, was something of a bold move.  Perhaps he felt that his known enmity towards the wicked Aretino might provide him some cover.  Whatever his thinking, he made himself available for some pointed barbs on behalf of Alessandro Pallantieri against Paul IV.  (Pallantieri was a thoroughly nasty piece of work who liked them young and didn’t care much how he got them.)

Franco backed the wrong horse, and did so in the wrong city.  This wasn’t Venice, were anything could be expected and you couldn’t wind up in the soup, do what you like.  Roman clerics took themselves seriously, and power could turn on an all too frequent papal election.  Worse, Franco had arrived just as the counter-reformation was getting into full swing. He seems to have learned nothing from his run-in with Eusebi, and trusted too much in the protective powers of his patron. When Pallantieri fell out of favor, it was open season on Franco.  The writer was carried off by the Inquisition who devoted two years of torture and interrogation in which he was given the chance to recant and repent.  He wouldn’t do it.  His contrariness was too deep within him.  In the end, his interrogators threw in the towel and had him escorted to the Ponte St. Angelo to be hanged.   Pallantieri was beheaded the following year.

Franco’s literary output is best left to lit critics, who cite his anti-classicism and rabid disdain for Petrarch, the touchstone of vernacular Italian writing, and other respectables like Pietro Bembo.   To each his own.  Franco’s work, even the dirty stuff, is easily found if you have a taste for that sort of thing.

And Aretino?  Pope Clement VII enrolled him as  knight of St. John, and Julius II as a Knight of St. Peter.  He died in 1554,  it is said of asphyxiation, or simply his chair falling backwards, after a bout of laughter brought on by a particularly smutty story.  It seems there were these two sisters in Arezzo….

His work was put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – six years after his death.

In publishing, as in so much else, timing is everything.

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