Pietro Aretino (1492–1556) was born in Arezzo, the son of a shoe-maker. Immensely intelligent, and extraordinarily astute, Aretino went first to Rome under the patronage of Agostino Chigi and later to the ducal court of Mantua. After 1527 he settled in Venice where he and Titian became close friends. A prolific writer of plays, letters, satirical and scurrilous verses, Aretino achieved considerable wealth and influence.
The Portrait of Pietro Aretino has come down to us intact, even though its emphatic foreshortening and compactness give it an air of being snatched from life, as if its subject has been painted unawares. Its point of view is decidedly photographic and a century ahead of its time, anticipating certain half-length figures painted by Ribera and Van Dyck. Yet, finally, the picture bespeaks Titian alone.
Its date can be fixed in 1511–12; the lingering recollection of Bellini, his first master, in the patterns of folds in the green tunic is typical of that moment. On the other hand, the ruffled cuff of the white shirt is painted with the extraordinary naturalness of which only Titian was capable. The paint surface is composed of transparent, sleek layers, and yet incorporates a prodigious force of character. It was with these unwavering observations of a friend in a pensive attitude, that Titian embarked on his lifelong exploration of the psychological portrait.