PRINT December 1989

Robert Kushner

Edited, translated front the Italian, and with a commentary by Lynne Lawner, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1989, 132 pp., 47 black and white illustrations.

Let’s face it: some people like sex; some don’t. It’s always been this way, and, one imagines, will always remain so. But all too often the sex-haters win out.

Consider this scenario. We are in Rome in 1524. Probably in the Vatican itself. A well-placed artist decides to make a catalogue of 16 positions of sexual intercourse—beautiful, profoundly earthy drawings of stately, statuesque women making it with beefy hunks in luxurious surroundings. These lovers are not pictured as celestial gods or historical heroes cavorting with goddesses and wenches. They are real people doing “it.” The text refers to some of them by name, from which we know them to be sophisticated courtesans, politicians, and mercenaries. The couples are not engaged in polite foreplay. They are actively linked in a bewildering and impressive array of explicit couplings. Yet the artist is no anonymous pornographer but Giulio Romano, Raphael’s star apprentice, still at work on Vatican frescoes at the time.

Now take these tidbits (or titbits, as M.F.K. Fisher insists that some delicacies should be called) and have them engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi, Rome’s most noted metal engraver. Add a dose of graphic, ribald sonnets by the literary enfant terrible of the day, Pietro Aretino. What a production. This is no back-room smut; this is high-class erotic entertainment.

Where can you see it? You can’t! This magnum opus of the loins was so successfully repressed by Pope Clement VII that only one complete image and a handful of fragments survive. Today’s I modi is reconstructed from an incomplete set of wood-cut copies. Original plates and impressions were destroyed, the artists banished, forced to flee, or imprisoned. As a result of this ecclesiastical vendetta, conducted with a fervor that makes even Jesse Helms seem pallid, we have no complete record of this remarkable endeavor. Any parallels to today’s art/political climate? You bet.

I modi addresses sexuality head on, in a way we are generally unused to, except in pornography. Here, however, sexuality is evoked with verve, wit, and elegance. Many viewers, then and now, would be uncomfortable with the frank enjoyment of this book. Even we sex lovers (if indeed this dichotomy exists) are often shy of public advertisement of our appetites. But once that shyness is overcome, Lynne Lawner’s compilation and translation of the extant materials is a breezy, spicy, racy romp. Perfect for the proverbial cold night in a woodsy cabin, with someone special, of course.

My only argument with the book is Lawner’s failure to translate slang words—fottere, cazzo, potta—into our English equivalents. She feels this “helps give an ‘archaic’ flavor to the sonnets, keeping them from being nothing more than pornographic exercises.” But her avoidance of English sexual vocabulary unnecessarily distances us from the original. Why not say: fuck, cock, and cunt?

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this naughty little book. I applaud Lawner for elucidating this obscure document so well. But I’m angry that the originals are lost, possibly forever. It is sad that today’s lovers are deprived of the full glory of this erotic masterpiece. Enjoy this book, but try not to look at it alone.

—Robert Kushner