This small picture portrays an undoubtedly legendary incident in the life of Pietro Aretino (1492–1556). The pamphlets written by this famous Renaissance writer, who lived in Venice, were particularly feared by the kings and rulers of his time. The story goes that, to buy Aretino’s silence after a military defeat, Emperor Charles V sent him a gold chain, which Aretino dangles with disdain here as he sits casually in an armchair. Apparently, his only reply to the imperial envoy, who—outraged at such insolence—has moved his hand onto his sword hilt, was “A very poor gift for such a great blunder.”
By choosing this subject, Ingres asserted the independence of creative artists when confronted by men of power. He also demonstrated the great success that anecdotal pictures representing the lives of painters or writers of the past had in the first half of the 19th century. He used the setting within which he placed his composition to evoke the history of painting, positioning a self-portrait of Titian—an artist Aretino greatly admired—in the background to the left. Opposite, two naked young women observe the scene, pulling back one of the bed curtains—a reference to the licentious life of Aretino, who seems to have been surprised while in amorous company.