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“Beautifully but shamefully printed up”: reading the erotic in sixteenth century European poetry

“Beautifully but shamefully printed up”: reading the erotic in sixteenth century European poetry

Lecture by Dr Linda Grant 

In this talk, I will start by looking at an infamous ‘obscene’ book from sixteenth century Italy: Pietro Aretino’s sonnetti lussuriosi and the ‘pornographic’ engravings that accompanied them, together known as I Modi. The first edition was burned on the orders of Pope Clement VII – but a defiant second edition was produced in 1527 in Venice.


Using this volume as a launch pad, we will explore the concept of the ‘erotic’ in sixteenth century European poetry. ‘Erotic’ is a notoriously difficult term to pin down whether as a description or a critical term. What is deemed ‘erotic’ in literature is relative and subjective. It is also shaped by, and understood through, historicised cultural and aesthetic norms. Distinctions between what is defined as ‘erotic’, ‘pornographic’ or sexually explicit are difficult to delineate and tricky to enforce. The contention of this paper is that the tensions between the erotic and transgressive may be used to interrogate, contest, possibly even subvert social, political and cultural hierarchies.

This argument nuances the idea that a coherent theory of literature existed in the Renaissance, derived from the commendation of virtue and condemnation of vice, that literature should ‘teach and delight’. Instead, we will explore the complicated, even contradictory, responses to the erotic in poetry: on one hand, it is seen as frivolous, wanton, lascivious and scurrilous; on the other, it is the site of an eager and, perhaps, unruly readers’ and writers’ pleasure. By uncovering the hermeneutic possibilities of literary eroticism, we will explore the cultural potential of the ‘erotic’ in sixteenth century European book culture.