Pietro Aretino, son of a lowly shoemaker, had catapulted himself into fame as a writer of biting satires. But like every Renaissance artist, he needed to find a patron who would give him a comfortable lifestyle while not interfering with his work. In 1528 Aretino decided to attempt a new strategy in the patronage game. Leaving Rome, he established himself in Venice, where few had heard of him. He had a fair amount of money he had managed to save, but little else. Soon after he moved into his new home, however, he threw open its doors to rich and poor, regaling them with banquets and amusements. He befriended each and every gondolier, tipping them royally. In the streets, he spread his money liberally, giving it away to beggars, orphans, washerwomen. Among the city's commoners, word quickly spread that Aretino was more than just a great writer, he was a man of power, a kind of lord.
Artists and men of influence soon began to frequent Aretino's house. Within a few years he made himself a celebrity; no visiting dignitary would think of leaving Venice without paying him a call. His generosity had cost him most of his savings, but had bought him influence and a good name a cornerstone in the foundation of power. Since in Renaissance Italy as elsewhere the ability to spend freely was the privilege of the rich, the aristocracy thought Aretino had to be a man of influence, since he spent money like one. And since the influence of a man of influence is worth buying, Aretino became the recipient of all sorts of gifts and moneys. Dukes and duchesses, wealthy merchants, and popes and princes competed to gain his favor, and showered him with all kinds of presents.
Aretino's spending habits, of course, were strategic, and the strategy worked like a charm. But for real money and comfort he needed a great patron's bottomless pockets. Having surveyed the possibilities, he eventually set his sights on the extremely wealthy Marquis of Mantua, and wrote an epic poem that he dedicated to the marquis. This was a common practice of writers looking for patronage: In exchange for a dedication they would get a small stipend, enough to write yet another poem, so that they spent their lives in a kind of constant servility. Aretino, however, wanted power, not a measly wage. He might dedicate a poem to the marquis, but he would offer it to him as a gift, implying by doing so that he was not a hired hack looking for a stipend but that he and the marquis were equals.
Aretino's gift-giving did not stop there: As a close friend of two of Venice's greatest artists, the sculptor Jacopo Sansovino and the painter Titian, he convinced these men to participate in his gift-giving scheme. Aretino had studied the marquis before going to work on him, and knew his taste inside and out; he was able to advise Sansovino and Titian what subject matter would please the marquis most. When he then sent a Sansovino sculpture and a Titian painting to the marquis as gifts from all three of them, the man was beside himself with joy.
Over the next few months, Aretino sent other gifts, swords, saddles, the glass that was a Venetian specialty, he knew the marquis prized. Soon he, Titian, and Sansovino began to receive gifts from the marquis in return. And the strategy went further: When the son-in-law of a friend of Aretino's found himself in jail in Mantua, Aretino was able to get the marquis to arrange his release.
The circle of influence was growing wider. Time and again, Aretino was able to cash in on the immense political power of the marquis, who also helped him in his many court romances.Eventually, however, the relationship became strained, as Aretino came to feel that the marquis should have requited his generosity better. But he would not lower himself to begging or whining: Since the exchange of gifts between the two men had made them equals, it would not seem right to bring up money. He simply withdrew from the marquis's circle and hunted for other wealthy prey, settling first on the French king Francis, then the Medicis, the Duke of Urbino, Emperor Charles V, and more. In the end, having many patrons meant he did not have to bow to any of them, and his power seemed comparable to that of a great lord.
Aretino understood two fundamental properties of money: First, that it has to circulate to bring power. What money should buy is not lifeless objects but power over people. By keeping money in constant circulation, Aretino bought an ever-expanding circle of influence that in the end more than compensated him for his expenses