Les sept Pseaulmes de la penitence de David, par
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Les sept Pseaulmes de la penitence de David, par Pierre Aretin
A Lyon chez Seb. Gryphius. 1540.
“Pietro Aretino and the Psalms” sounds like an oxymoron. After all, it was Aretino who supposedly wanted his epitaph to read, “Qui giace l’Aretin poeta tosco, Che disse mal d’ognun di fuorché di Cristo, Scusandosi col dir: non lo conosco” [Here lies Aretino, Tuscan poet, Who spoke ill of everyone except Christ, Apologizing by saying ‘I don’t know him’.] Aretino may have been exercising his famous mordant wit in a bit of self-deprecating double-entendre here, since the word “tosco” can mean either “Tuscan” or a poetic variant of “toxic, poisonous.”
Known primarily for lascivious, even pornographic, works, Aretino (1492-1556) undertook a translation – or, more exactly, a lengthy paraphrase and individualistic elaboration – of the seven Penitential Psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143, according to the Hebrew/Protestant numbering system). First published in 1534, his Sette salmi de la penitentia di David appeared in ten editions in rapid succession, until the Council of Trent placed all his works on the Index of prohibited books, thus banishing him for a while into almost total oblivion until the Baroque tastes of the early 17th century rediscovered him. However, even before the Council of Trent banned his works, his version of the Penitential Psalms was already being translated in France and would soon thereafter be translated into English verse by Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Translations of Aretino’s Penitential Psalms are extremely rare today – not one is mentioned in the National Union Catalog – and Gordon 1540.A74 is one of only four known copies of the present edition (the other three being held by the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, Harvard University, and the University of Illinois).
Les sept Pseaulmes de la penitence de David, par Pierre Aretin, published in Lyons by Sebastien Gryphius in 1540, is the first edition of the French translation of Aretino’s work. The title page does not name the translator, but the phrase Traduictz d’Italien en langue Francoise is followed immediately by “D’un vray zele.” This was the device of Jean de Vauzelles, a humanistic cleric and translator from Lyons who translated Aretino’s other religious works; he also wrote the preface (and possibly the quatrains) to Les Simulachres et historiees faces de la mort, featuring Holbein’s engravings and first published in Lyons in 1538.
While Aretino dedicated his work to two grandees – Antonio da Leva, a famous general, and Agostino Ricchi, Bishop of Chieti – both of whom were connected to the Emperor Charles V, Vauzelles dedicated his French translation to “Dame Francoyse de la Rie, religieuse soeur du Convent de saincte Clere de Grenoble” who, like the David of the Psalms, gave up the glories of secular life for a life of solitary penance (“ce sainct convent, prison heureuse”). However, her secular life had been in the court of “ce miracle de nature, nostre Royne de Navarre,” whom Vauzelles calls “une si reformee Royne,” suggesting a Reformist bent to his text.
This dedication, the translator’s only original contribution, celebrates the cloistered life and likens the nuns’ songs to those of angels, hoping that the dedicatee and her fellow sisters will fill his words with their spirit, thereby appeasing God’s ire and moving Him to pardon man’s sins. Even here, he is solidly in the mold of Aretino: “pre-Baroque” in his use of long flowery sentences, strong physical imagery, exaggerated parallelisms and alliteration (“plus que clairement clarifiees clergesses de vostre Patronne saincte Claire”).
The dedication is followed by a “Proesme sur les sept Pseaulmes penitenciaulx de David, par Pierre Aretin,” which serves as an introduction to the entire work, all of which is translated almost word-for-word from the Italian. Each of the seven Penitential Psalms is then followed by a text entitled simply “Pierre Aretin,” which serves as an epilogue for the preceding Psalm and a prologue for the following one.
The premise for the seven Penitential Psalms is David’s penance for his double crime of adultery (with Bathsheba, “la dame, que plus que Dieu, et que soymesmes aymoit”) and homicide (of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah), and his desperate attempts to win back God’s pity and pardon. The “Proesme” begins with the word “Amour” and proceeds to expose the poisonous and blasphemous effects it has had on David. This text, like the Psalms it introduces, abounds in dramatic, physical, often violent images; numerous animal allusions; repeated insistence on the five senses, with particular attention to the contrast between illumination and darkness, the eyes being the locus not only of illumination or blindness but also of the copious tears the Psalmist sheds throughout (“la pluye de mes yeulx... le fleuve de ces yeulx... les ondes de mes yeulx estainctes au plaindre, ont estainct le feu de ton tresiuste desdaing.”
Aretino’s treatment of the Psalms is highly individualistic, to say the least. Not only does he expand and elaborate the texts exponentially, he adds elements totally foreign to the original versions of the Psalms as found in the Old Testament: in the first Penitential Psalm (Psalm 6) he mentions the Alps; and in Penitential Psalms 4-7 (Psalms 51, 102, 130, 143) he devotes much attention to Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice served to ransom man from original sin, damning in the process “le peuple Hebraiq~ [qui] pour la coulpe de l’infidele sienne obstination, le congnoistra côme le iour est côgneu des Taulpes, et le Soleil des Chouettes. Et aveugle aux lumieres du nouueau Testamêt, ne receura la verité preschee par la bouche de ton Filz,....” But David himself, according to the epilogue following the final Penitential Psalm, emerged from the dark cave of penitence into the light of salvation, “enflammé du sainct Esprit” so that “sa face sembloit la face de Moyse reluisante de celle divinité.”
Boillet, Élise. L’Arétin et la Bible (Geneva: Droz, 2007).
Pietro Aretino nel cinquecentenario della nascita. Atti del Convegno di Roma-Viterbo-Arezzo (28 settembre-1 ottobre 1992), Toronto (23-24 ottobre 1992), Los Angeles (27-29 ottobre 1992). Tomo I. (Rome: Salerno Editrice, 1995).
Waddington, Raymond B., “Pietro Aretino, religious writer,” Renaissance Studies, vol. 20, issue 3, June 2006, pp. 277-292.
Materials on this page were generously contributed by Bettye Chambers, Georgetown University (2008).