Harman Patil (Editor)

I Modi

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Originally published

I Modi httpsimagesnasslimagesamazoncomimagesI5

The Sixteen Pleasures, Vindolanda tablets, Aretino's Dialogues, De figuris Veneris, Rhind Mathematical Papyrus

I Modi (The Ways), also known as The Sixteen Pleasures or under the Latin title De omnibus Veneris Schematibus, is a famous erotic book of the Italian Renaissance in which a series of sexual positions were explicitly depicted in engravings. While the original edition was apparently completely destroyed by the Catholic Church, fragments of a later edition survived. The second edition was accompanied by sonnets written by Pietro Aretino, which described the sexual acts depicted. The original illustrations were probably copied by Agostino Caracci, whose version survives.


Original edition

The original edition was created by the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, basing his sixteen images of sexual positions on, according to the traditional view, a series of erotic paintings that Giulio Romano was doing as a commission for Federico II Gonzaga’s new Palazzo Te in Mantua. Raimondi had worked extensively with Romano's master Raphael, who had died in 1520, producing prints to his design. The engravings were published by Raimondi in 1524, and led to his imprisonment by Pope Clement VII and the destruction of all copies of the illustrations. Romano did not become aware of the engravings until the poet Pietro Aretino came to see the original paintings while Romano was still working on them. Romano was not prosecuted since—unlike Raimondi—his images were not intended for public consumption. Aretino then composed sixteen explicit sonnets to accompany the paintings/engravings, and secured Raimondi’s release from prison.

I Modi were then published a second time in 1527, now with the poems that have given them the traditional English title Aretino's Postures, making this the first time erotic text and images were combined, though the papacy once more seized all the copies it could find. Raimondi escaped prison on this occasion, but the suppression on both occasions was comprehensive. No original copies of this edition have survived, with the exception of a few fragments in the British Museum, and two copies of posture 1. A, possibly infringing copy with crude illustrations in woodcut, printed in Venice in 1550, and bound in with some contemporary texts was discovered in the 1920s, containing fifteen of the sixteen postures.

Despite the seeming loss of Raimondi’s originals today, it seems certain that at least one full set survived, since both the 1550 woodcuts and the so-called Caracci suite of prints (see below) agree in every compositional and stylistic respect with those fragments that have survived. Certainly, unless the engraver of the Caracci edition had access to the British Museum’s fragments, and reconstructed his compositions from them, the similarities are too close to be accidental. In the 17th century, certain Fellows of All Souls College, Oxford, engaged in the surreptitious printing at the University Press of Aretino's Postures, Aretino's De omnis Veneris schematibus and the indecent engravings after Giulio Romano. The Dean, Dr. John Fell, impounded the copper plates and threatened those involved with expulsion. The text of Aretino’s sonnets, however, survives.

Later edition

A new series of graphic and explicit engravings of sexual positions was produced by Camillo Procaccini or more likely by Agostino Carracci for a later reprint of Aretino's poems.

Their production was in spite of their artist’s working in a post-Tridentine environment that encouraged religious art and restricted secular and public art. They are best known from the 1798 edition of the work printed in Paris as “L'Arétin d'Augustin Carrache ou Recueil de Postures Érotiques, d'Après les Gravures à l'Eau-Forte par cet Artiste Célèbre, Avec le Texte Explicatif des Sujets” (“The ‘Aretino’ of Agostino Carracci, or a collection of erotic poses, after Carracci’s engravings, by this famous artist, with the explicit texts on the subject”. "This famous artist" was Jacques Joseph Coiny (1761 - 1809).

Agostino’s brother Annibale Carracci also completed the elaborate fresco of Loves of the Gods for the Palazzo Farnese in Rome (where the Farnese Hercules which influenced them both was housed). These images were drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and include nudes, but (in contrast to the sexual engravings) are not explicit, intimating rather than directly depicting the act of lovemaking.

Classical guise

Several factors were used to cloak these engravings in classical scholarly respectability:

  • The images nominally depicted famous pairings of lovers (e.g. Antony and Cleopatra) or husband-and-wife deities (e.g. Jupiter and Juno) from classical history and mythology engaged in sexual activity, and were entitled as such. Related to this were:
  • Portraying them with their usual attributes, such as:
  • Cleopatra's banquets, bottom left
  • Achilles's shield and helmet, bottom left
  • Hercules in his lion-skin and club
  • Mars with his cuirass
  • Paris as a shepherd
  • Bacchus with his vine-leaf crown and (bottom right) grapes
  • Referring to the best known myths or historical events in which they appeared e.g.:
  • Mars and Venus under the net which her husband Vulcan has designed to catch them
  • 'Aeneas' and 'Dido' in the cave in which their sexual intercourse is alluded in Aeneid, Book 4
  • Theseus abandoning Ariadne on Naxos, where Bacchus finds and marries her.
  • the wide adultery of Julia
  • Messalina's participation in prostitution, as criticised in Juvenal's Satire VI.
  • Referring to other Renaissance and classical tropes in the depiction of these people and deities, such as
  • The contrast between Mars's dark hair and tanned skin and his partner Venus's untanned, fair skin and fair or even blonde hair.
  • Jupiter's full beard
  • the frontispiece image is entitled Venus Genetrix, and the goddess is nude and drawn in a chariot by doves, as in the classical sources.
  • the bodies of those depicted show clear influences from classical statuary known at the time, such as:
  • the over-muscled torsos and backs of the men (drawn from sculptures such as the Laocoön and his Sons, Belvedere Torso, and Farnese Hercules).
  • the women's clearly defined though small breasts (drawn from examples such as the Venus de' Medici and Aphrodite of Cnidus)
  • the elaborate hairstyles of some of the women, such as his Venus, Juno or Cleopatra (derived from Roman Imperial era busts such as this one).
  • Portraying the action in a classical 'stage set' such as an ancient Greek sanctuary or temple.
  • The large erect penis on the statue of Priapus or Pan atop a puteal in 'The Cult of Priapus' is derived from examples in classical sculpture and painting (like this fresco) which were beginning to be found archaeologically at this time.
  • Differences from antique art

    The work has various points of deviation from classical literature, erotica, mythology and art which suggest its classical learning is lightly worn, and make clear its actual modern setting:

  • The male sexual partners' large penises (though not Priapus's) are the artist's invention rather than a classical borrowing - the idealised penis in classical art was small, not large (large penises were seen as comic or fertility symbols, as for example on Priapus, as discussed above).
  • The title 'Polyenus and Chryseis' pairs the fictional Polyenus with the actual mythological character Chryseis.
  • The title 'Alcibiades and Glycera' pairs two historical figures from different periods - the 5th century BC Alcibiades and the 4th century BC Glycera
  • Female satyrs did not occur in classical mythology, yet they appear twice in this work (in 'The Satyr and his wife' and 'The Cult of Priapus').
  • All the women and goddesses in this work (but most clearly its Venus Genetrix) have a hairless groin (like classical statuary of nude females) but also a clearly apparent vulva (unlike classical statuary).
  • The modern furniture, e.g.
  • The various stools and cushions used to support the participants or otherwise raise them into the right positions (e.g. here)
  • The other sex aids (e.g. a whip, bottom right)
  • The 16th century beds, with ornate curtains, carvings, taselled cushions, bedposts, etc.
  • Table of contents

    Note: These prints are late 18th century re-creations of the originals (which have, in turn, influenced later erotic art, such as that of Paul Avril).


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