Homosexuality in Renaissance Florence

by Paul Varnell on May 28, 1998

First published in the Windy City Times May 28, 1998.

THE MAJOR PROBLEM IN RESEARCHING gay history is the virtual absence of reliable source material. The public record usually expunged references to gays, gays themselves were largely silent or silenced, and literary sources and histories, written by our opponents, are defamatory.

In that light, fifteenth century Florence is uniquely valuable. During the Renaissance, Florence developed a reputation for being pervaded with homosexuality - "sodomy" in the language of the time. Smarting from this reputation, reeling from population loss suffered during the Black Death, and pressured by homophobic clerics, in 1432 the city government set up a judicial panel called "The Office of the Night" exclusively to solicit and investigate charges of sodomy.

Remarkably, most of the records of that body survived in the city archives and provide the basis for Michael Rocke's historical reconstruction of Florentine homosexuality, "Forbidden Friendships."

Rocke's book received excellent scholarly reviews, but little popular attention, when it was first published two years ago. Now issued in softcover (at half the hardbound price), it deserves a wider readership by gays who may find the lives of men half a millennium ago and across the seas a distant mirror of our own lives, full of fascinating similarities and disconcerting differences.

By Rocke's reckoning homosexuality really was pervasive in Florence. In the small city of just 40,000 people, he estimates that 17,000 men were incriminated on charges of "sodomy" during the 70 year existence of the Office of the Night. That amounts, he points out, to nearly half the male population of the city during two generations. Whether Rocke's population estimates are accurate or not, such a prevalence for allegations of sodomy is remarkable and would appear to implicate a substantial minority of the male population over two generations. And that estimate no doubt misses others who did not come to judicial notice.

To explain the high number of sodomy reports, Rocke points to the city's unusually late average age of marriage for men, roughly 30 to 31, and the large number of men who remained lifelong bachelors-approximately 12 percent of the male population.

These facts produced a large population of young, unrooted, sexually vigorous males in a city where many women were sheltered by their families or otherwise inaccessible. This led many men to engage in sex with other males. Unsurprisingly, most of those accused of sodomy, or who voluntarily confessed, were younger than 35 or unmarried older men.

Generally, the older partner in the sexual relationship was expected to penetrate the younger one, very much in the classical fashion; no doubt there was an expression of power or dominance in the arrangement. However, there were also reports of older men who sought to be penetrated, and some who sought reciprocal relationships.

Even more, although historians routinely claim that fellatio was widely viewed with distaste in the Mediterranean area, it was a far from a rare activity. It was specifically mentioned in 12 percent of the case reports and was likely unreported in others.

Properly wary of imposing anachronistic models on the past, Rocke repeated stresses that these men were not "homosexual" much less "gay," and that they were not involved in anything like a modern gay subculture. No doubt, as Rocke says, many men whom we would not call homosexual engaged in sodomy since it was such a pervasive part of the drinking, gambling and open sexuality of the single male culture. But despite his protests, clearly some men had a lifelong preference for homosexuality.

Some men pursued young males throughout their lives, sometimes falling in love with their partners and developing relationships lasting two, three or even four years. If they were single, that was likely their primary sexual outlet. If they were married, some still preferred their young men to their wives. One man confessed to a friend (the friend was Machiavelli) that had his father "known my natural inclinations and ways, [he] would never have tied me to a wife." That sounds like a very modern recognition of a homosexual orientation.

Some men apparently undertook homosexual "marriages" in which the men swore fidelity to each other holding hands over the bible on a church altar. Even the "Office of the Night" appeared to regard such men as married to each other.

Similarly, if there was not a discrete "subculture," there were interlinked networks of sodomites who tended to gather for drinking and gambling at certain taverns or brothels (one tavern was suggestively named "Buco"--"the hole," slang for anus), who loaned their homes to friends for assignations with other men, who worked in certain shops or clustered about them, and who tended to congregate in certain parts of town, particularly along the "Street of the Furriers."

"In addition," Rocke acknowledges, "to the copious evidence on their shared sexual experiences, glimpses of their sociable activities appear frequently in the judiciary records: dinners together in inns or homes; gatherings in workshops, homes, or taverns to drink and gamble; trips together to country houses on feast days, and so forth" (p. 189).

Many of these "sodomitical" relationships were apparently tolerated and even encouraged by parents and relatives who saw that they could gain protection and political advancement from a son's well-placed lover. In addition, since older lovers customarily gave their partners gifts or money from time to time, families often welcomed the financial gain.

Florence seems to have been fairly tolerant of youthful sodomy or contacts that did not become too open and notorious. Despite the large number of accusations, fewer than 3,000 men were convicted (less than 20 percent of those charged), many others never paid their fines, and some were let off even when they were clearly guilty. When pushed too hard to punish people severely, the "Night Office" itself engaged in kind of passive resistance, once refusing to convict anyone for 14 months.

One of the most interesting elements is the way in which "sodomites" occasionally resisted the pressures on them. In the small nearby town of Prato, the box where sodomy accusations were to be deposited was repeatedly ripped down.

During the reign of the fanatic and homophobic friar Savonarola in the 1490's, young patrician males, no doubt involved in sodomy, staged a "wild riot" inside the Cathedral during the friar's Ascension Day sermon to protest his puritan crackdown.

Just a few years later on August 31, 1512, a group of 30 young aristocrats staged history's first gay rights demonstration by charging into City Hall, forcing a senior justice official to resign and demanding that the council revoke the sentences of all those who had been exiled or deprived of office for sodomy. (Remarkably, after a palace coup by the Medici family two weeks later, those demands were actually acceded to.)

The recovery of this and much other material makes Rocke's book fascinating and occasionally startling reading, as well as a confirmation of our own continuity with the past.

A final note: The general reader may find the numbers crunching in the first chapters slow going. He may want take the numbers on faith and start reading with Chapter 4 or 5 on friendships and social relations, then go back to pick up the foundations of Rocke's analysis after seeing what interesting results they support.

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