I Modi

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Surviving fragments of Raimondi's second edition of I Modi in the British Museum[1]

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.[2] 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 Carracci, whose version survives.

Original edition[edit]

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.[3] Marcantonio had worked extensively with Romano's master Raphael, who had died in 1520, producing prints to his design. The engravings were published by Marcantonio 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 Marcantonio—his images were not intended for public consumption. Aretino then composed sixteen explicit[4] sonnets to accompany the paintings/engravings, and secured Marcantonio'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[5] copy with crude illustrations in woodcut, printed in Venice in 1550,[6] and bound in with some contemporary texts was discovered in the 1920s, containing fifteen of the sixteen postures.[7]

Despite the seeming loss of Marcantonio'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.[8] 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.[9][10] The text of Aretino's sonnets, however, survives.

The Restoration closet drama Farce of Sodom is set in "an antechamber hung with Aretine's postures."

Later edition[edit]

Annibale's Loves of the Gods

A new series of graphic and explicit engravings of sexual positions was produced by Camillo Procaccini[11] or more likely by Agostino Carracci for a later reprint of Aretino's poems.[12][13]

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).[14]

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[edit]

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

Differences from antique art[edit]

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').[23]
  • 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).[24]
  • 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, tasselled cushions, bedposts, etc.

Table of contents[edit]

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).[25]

Image No. Title (English translation) Male partner Female partner Sexual position Notes
Carracci Venus Genitrice.jpg 1 Venus Genetrix - Venus Genetrix Female figure study of nude in frontal disposition -
Paris et Oenone.jpg 2 Paris and Oenone Paris Oenone Side-by-side, man on top
Carracci Angelique et Medor.jpg 3 Angelique and Medor Medor Angelique Reverse cowgirl Characters from Roland
Carracci Le Satyre et la Nymphe.jpg 4 The satyr and the nymph Satyr Nymph Missionary position (man on top and standing, woman lying)
Carracci05.jpg 5 Julia with an athlete An athlete Julia the Elder Reverse cowgirl (woman standing) Woman guiding in penis
HerculeDejanire.jpg 6 Hercules and Deianaira Hercules Deianira Standing missionary (woman supported by man)
MarsVenus.jpg 7 Mars and Venus Mars Venus Missionary (woman on top[26])
CultePriape.jpg 8 The Cult of Priapus Pan, or a male satyr A female satyr Missionary (male standing, woman sitting) Statue of Priapus with characteristically disproportionate erection
Carracci Antoine et Cleopatre.jpg 9 Antony and Cleopatra Mark Antony Cleopatra Side-by-side missionary Woman guiding in penis
BachusAriane.jpg 10 Bacchus and Ariadne Bacchus Ariadne Leapfrog - woman entirely supported Woman's legs up not kneeling as usual in this position
PolyenosChrisis.jpg 11 Polyenos and Chriseis Polyenos (fictional) Chryseis Missionary (man on top and standing, woman lying)
SatyreFemme.jpg 12 A satyr and his wife Male satyr Female satyr Missionary (man standing, woman sitting)
Carracci Jupiter et Junon.jpg 13 Jupiter and Juno Jupiter Juno Standing (man standing/kneeling, woman supported [27])
MessalineLisisca.jpg 14 Messalina in the booth of 'Lisica' Brothel client Messalina Missionary (female lying, male standing)
Carracci Achille et Briseis.jpg 15 Achilles and Briseis Achilles Briseis Standing (man entirely supporting woman)
Ovide et Corine.jpg 16 Ovid and Corinna Ovid Corinna Missionary (man on top, woman guiding erect penis into her vagina) Woman deepening penetration by having her legs outside his.
EneeDidon.jpg 17 Aeneas and Dido [accompanied by a Cupid] Aeneas Dido Fingering with left hand index finger (thus little nudity relative to other images) Lesser nudity, though wet T-shirt effect round breasts; Cupid is erect
AlcibiadeGlycere.jpg 18 Alcibiades and Glycera Alcibiades Glycera Missionary (man on top and standing, woman lying and legs up) Man also raised up to right level for vagina by right foot on step
Pandore.jpg 19 Pandora ?Epimetheus (crowned figure) Pandora Side by side The boy with the candle may be a classical reference.[28]


  1. ^ British Museum collection database
  2. ^ Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum, Pornography in Modern Culture (1987:59)
  3. ^ I Modi: the sixteen pleasures. An erotic album of the Italian renaissance / Giulio Romano … [et al.] edited, translated from the Italian and with a commentary by Lynne Lawner. Northwestern University Press, 1988. ISBN 0-7206-0724-8
  4. ^ Sample quote: “both in your pussy and your behind, my cock will make me happy, and you happy and blissful
  5. ^ Max Sander, who discovered the volume, believes it to be the original 1527 edition; other scholars dispute this. vid. A History of Erotic Literature, P.J. Kearney, Macmillan 1982.
  6. ^ formerly owned by Toscanini, now in a private collection; illustrations here Archived 2011-05-24 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ The images in this edition appear in reverse next to the British Museum fragments, clear evidence that they are copied from a set of prints and not from the original paintings, since engravers and woodcutters of the period do not habitually re-reverse their images, and their quality is such that one might doubt that the artist would even have been capable of doing so.
  8. ^ The Caracci suite contains eighteen images plus frontispiece, however.
  9. ^ R. W. Ketton-Cremer, "Humphrey Prideaux", Norfolk Assembly (London: Faber & Faber) 1957:65.
  10. ^ In the 19th century Jean Frederic Waldeck published a new edition of the work, claiming to be based on a set of tracings he made of the I Modi prints found in a convent near Palenque in Mexico, but more likely a direct copy of a combination of the BM fragments and the Caracci edition, since no such convent exists, and it is hardly likely to have harboured such material in its library.
  11. ^ Francis Haskell, Taste and the Antique, (ISBN 0-300-02641-2).
  12. ^ Erotica in Art — Agostino Carracci in the “History of Art” Archived 2006-11-25 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ IRONIE, article on Carracci’s engravings (in French)
  14. ^ Venus Erotic Art Museum
  15. ^ Theseus's departing ship is visible on the horizon, top right.
  16. ^ This trope did not fully exist in classical art - in frescoes and polychromatic sculptures, Venus was always fair-skinned, but her hair colour could vary from brown through to blond – but became fixed due to medieval and Renaissance art (e.g. Botticelli's Venus and Mars).
  17. ^ A trope copied from classical and Renaissance sources.
  18. ^ An attested epithet of the love/lust goddess Venus, although under that name she was more a mother goddess than a love/lust goddess.
  19. ^ Also, in one or two cases, the women's, though this has far less, if any, precedent in classical sculpture.
  20. ^ See also the modern phenomenon of the beefcake in erotic art.
  21. ^ Though their thighs are often larger than in the examples from classical statuary.
  22. ^ On the other hand, the posture in the engraving is not to be found in any known examples and is probably Caracci's own invention. Certainly archaeological examples usually (though not always) tend to show Priapus's erect and oversized penis hanging down, not standing up parallel with his chest as here, and give less importance to large or oversized testicles than in this engraving.
  23. ^ Male satyrs having sex with nymphs, on the other hand, did appear in Greek myth – as has been taken up in Renaissance art – , though this was more frequently rape in the myths rather than the apparent consensual sex in the engraving.
  24. ^ The men's pubic hair in the engravings does not pose a problem, since pubic hair was depicted on ancient nudes.
  25. ^ "Paul Avril". arterotisme.com. Retrieved 6 December 2010.
  26. ^ Though lying not sitting, and with left foot supported by stool
  27. ^ Or, more precisely, woman partly lying, partly supported by bed, and partly supported on left arm.
  28. ^ To the classical "'Puer sufflans ignes" in Pliny. Also, the satyr who has attempted to join the lovemakers (but been kicked in the groin by the male) has an erection as a result of his voyeurism.

External links[edit]

Media related to I modi at Wikimedia Commons