(Boylove Documentary Sourcebook) - Age-Structured Male Homosexual Activity in Renaissance Florence

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David (ca. 1440–1460). Bronze sculpture by Donatello. Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

From Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence by Michael Rocke (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). Footnotes omitted.

Regarding the traditional societies of medieval and early modern Europe, the most persuasive view now holds that homosexual behavior usually occurred between an “active” adult and a “passive” adolescent, and that most males who engaged in sex with other males probably also had sexual relations with females. Only in the eighteen century, and then, it seems, above all in northwestern Europe (England, the Netherlands, and France), did this pattern gradually begin to be replaced by a new model.


The Florentine evidence, abundant in biographical detail, offers the best documented case presently known among traditional European societies for the absolute prevalence of homosexual behavior organized around age difference and a rigid distinction in sexual roles. To summarize briefly, same-sex sodomy in Florence normally involved an adult male over the age of eighteen who took the “active,” dominant role with a “passive” adolescent usually between the ages of twelve and eighteen to twenty. Even in the few exceptions, such as sex between adolescents, partners’ relative age disparity usually still determined their sexual role. Reciprocal or role trading sexual relations were rare and limited almost entirely to adolescents, while it was rarer still for adult males to take the sexually receptive role. The predominant, virtually normative, social form of homosexual behavior in Florence was thus what might be called “pederasty,” though this particular term does not appear in local sources and was apparently unknown to all but a refined literary elite. Age-graded homoerotic relations like this, of course, were an ancient institution in the Mediterranean region, and seem to have persisted strongly throughout this area during the medieval and early modern periods, if not longer.

The evidence from Florence, however, not only underlines the continuing prevalence of this hierarchical configuration, but further suggests that the conventions governing sexual relations between males operated within a framework of cultural premises about masculinity, status, honor, and shame that, with some possible variations, was widely shared among societies around the Mediterranean basin. Occasional comments in laws, trial proceedings, sermons and literature, and above all the unstudied remarks of informers reveal that Florentines commonly construed homoerotic relations in terms of life stages and gender. The highly structured form of these relations helped to distinguish boyhood from manhood and to mark out the transition from the one to the other; correspondingly, the respective sexual roles (active or passive, dominant or subordinate) were perceived according to conventionally denned gender dichotomies as manly or womanly. In the ways in which it was enacted and understood, then, homosexual sodomy in Florence was intimately bound up in notions of male status and identity, and played an important role in the cultural construction of masculinity.


The licentiousness of Florentine boys scandalized Bernardino of Siena early in the fifteenth century, as it did many informers later. As the preacher told his congregation in Florence in 1425, “I’ve heard of those boys who spruce themselves up and go around boasting about their sodomites, and they make a practice of it for payment, and encourage others in the ugly sin.” The venomous language with which accusers berated boys who “let themselves be sodomized” and the metaphors like “bitch in heat” and “whore” also expressed their disgust over boys’ “profligacy.” These moral judgments aside, evidence from the judiciary records confirms that male adolescents in Florence were often extremely active sexually with men.

When questioned, in fact, most boys admitted to sexual relations with numerous partners during the previous year, sometimes as many as several dozen. That so many boys so commonly reported multiple relations suggests a good deal of complicity on their parts. Some 83 percent of the boys whom the Night Officers questioned from 1478 to 1502 admitted that they had been sodomized; the 387 who confessed named a total of 2,366 partners, to whom should be added another 130 self-accusers who named some of the same boys, yielding an average of between 6 and 7 companions each. A breakdown of these aggregate figures provides an even more telling measure of the “promiscuity” of many Florentine adolescents (Table B.15). Only 25 percent (95) said that they had had just one partner in the past year, and 35 percent (136) one or two. Fully 31 percent (118) were implicated by their own admission or by self-accusers with three to six companions, and another 30 percent (115) had between seven and twenty partners. A small but significant minority had had sex during the previous year with dozens of partners: nine boys had between twenty-one and thirty, and another eight had over thirty companions, including four who were each implicated in relations with more than fifty men. Further, although two-thirds of the confessed relations consisted of a single and evidently casual encounter, in one of every five relations the two companions reportedly had sex at least six times, and in one of six cases at least ten times, “many” times, or “many, many” times. Far from being merely unwilling and inert victims of men’s sexual desires, it appears that many Florentine boys participated actively and voluntarily in the mutual pursuit of sodomy.


Whether or not boys “let themselves be sodomized” to earn money, some sort of material exchange often accompanied sexual relations, with boys receiving what notaries sometimes called a “gift” for their sexual “labors.” Payments or gifts were mentioned in about 20 percent of confessed relations in the 1478–1502 survey, but they were certainly more common than this (some notaries systematically failed to record this information). Payment was not obligatory, however. In another 20 percent of the cases, boys specified that they had received nothing, and a few even said they had refused a proffered gift. Whether money, objects, or a service of some kind, gifts from suitors to their young friends served various functions. In many cases, they represented more than mere compensation for “services” rendered. Often signs of a man’s affection or love for his young friend, they helped mediate personal bonds that went well beyond the sphere of sexual gratification.


In addition to money, payment or gifts often consisted of clothing or other objects, some kind of service, food or drink, or simply the fare in the tavern or inn where the two had eaten or slept. Men who took young friends to taverns usually paid the bill, as did one of fourteen-year-old Jacopo d’Agostino’s companions, who “gave him nothing as a gift, but paid dinner and the hostess” at the Buco, where the two slept together. Some accepted as little as a few sweets, fruit, bread, wine, or a meal. One boy said his friend gave him nothing, but taught him how to swim—and sodomized him many times during their lessons in the Arno, an example that recalls the homoerotic atmosphere of Passignano’s fascinating Bathers at San Niccolò reproduced on page 2.


As many of these examples suggest, sexual interactions between males often involved more than ephemeral, furtive encounters, the casual pursuit or spontaneous gratification of erotic needs and desires. Men and boys commonly formed more stable, durable bonds that presumably furnished both partners with regular sexual pleasure as well as affection and companionship. In describing such relations, informers frequently said that a man, or at times several men together, “maintained” or “kept” a boy (the verb used was tenersi), occasionally adding the phrase “like a woman” or one of its variations. At a minimum, their remarks imply steady, ongoing affairs, which in some cases also involved passionate emotional engagement and substantial material commitments, at least on the part of the older partner who sustained his young friend with gifts and money. A hosier at the Canto del Giglio, for example, reportedly kept his young shop assistant “for his use as a woman,” and “he sends him out so dressed up that he looks like the son of some great master, with rose-colored stockings and a purple hat.” A weaver nicknamed Ciapero was said to have given the fourteen-year-old boy he kept “rose-colored jackets and caps, and velvet belts” and to have done him “a thousand favors.”


That sodomy was often linked to life stages, with unmarried youths commonly having homosexual experiences before marrying and producing children of their own, partly accounts for the appearance over time of different generations of a single family—like the Lorenzi, for instance—before the Night Officers. In 1470 and again in 1474, when he was in his early twenties, the brassworker Jacopo di Lorenzo del Cietina self-confessed to sodomy with three boys; his seventeen- or eighteen-year-old son Domenico appeared in turn in 1496, sodomized by a man who denounced himself. Other fathers and sons are found engaging in sodomy during roughly the same period. For one of numerous examples, in 1492 a boy confessed that Lorenzo, called Broda, had sodomized him; a couple of months later his fourteen-year-old son Piero admitted that eighteen men had sodomized him—the beginnings of repeated sodomitical activity for which he was eventually exiled. In some cases, it appears, boys’ and youths’ homosexual relations might have been tolerated or accepted within their family circle in part because their own fathers had once or still had similar experiences.

Brothers were accomplices in sodomy, however, more often than fathers and sons—traces of fraternal solidarities that provided support for homosexual activity and presumably reflected back on relations within the household as well. Quite commonly, for example, two or more teenage brothers were having sex simultaneously with numerous partners, almost certainly with one anothers’ knowledge and complicity. In 1475 fifteen-year-old Zanobi di Simone Panciatichi was named by three self-accusers and by four more in 1476, and when questioned he divulged the names of twenty-six other men who had sodomized him. Five self-accusers in 1476 also named his thirteen-year-old brother Giovanbattista, who then confessed that he had been sodomized by an additional twenty-two men. In this as in many other cases, the same man sometimes had relations with two siblings: ten of the men the Panciatichi boys named had sodomized both brothers. Other families had several brothers who were implicated at various times and at different stages of their lives. As many as six of Francesco di Rinaldo Cavalcanti’s ten sons came to the attention of the Night Officers for sodomy between 1468 and 1497. The Benintendi brothers mentioned earlier—Francesco, Matteo, and Attaviano—provide another good illustration. Brothers like these probably shared reports of their sexual escapades or love affairs, and found in one another a source of mutual confidence and encouragement.


Like neighborhood and youth-group camaraderie, the acquaintances and friendships made through the daily contacts in and around the workplace created other compliant networks for sodomitical activity. This was related only in part to the presence in shops of young apprentices or factotums, who were sometimes sodomized by their employers or fellow workers. Often it was the sociable bonds forged in the all-male environment of neighboring shops that provided both companionship and a supportive atmosphere for sodomy.

One of the best examples of sodomitical networks formed around a cluster of workshops comes from a famed landmark of Florence, the Ponte Vecchio.


Between 1478 and 1502, at least fifty people who worked on the bridge were implicated in homosexual relations (40 in the active and 10 in the passive role), many more than once and over long periods of time. Seventeen were convicted at least once, and six denounced themselves. Often these men and boys had more in common than the familiarity that derived from their daily vicinity. Several worked together in the same shop or belonged to the same family. The butcher shop of the notorious Del Mazzante brothers, mentioned earlier, must have been a focal point for the sodomites on the Ponte Vecchio. Not only were all five brothers who worked together there repeatedly implicated and condemned at least once for sodomizing boys, but between 1478 and 1502 four of their employees were also incriminated and two were convicted. Similarly, Antonio di Giovanni Del Massaio, proprietor of a nearby grocery at the bridge, his two sons Tommaso and Jacopo who worked with him, and an employee of theirs, Andrea di Orsino, were implicated often, denounced themselves, or were convicted. Men who worked on the Ponte Vecchio, moreover, sometimes consummated their sexual relations in one anothers’ shops, and often shared the same boyfriends. For just a few examples of the latter, five of them sodomized Francesco di maestro Piero (for which each was convicted), five sodomized nineteen-year-old Domenico da Lamole, and six sodomized twelve-year-old Bartolomeo di Giovanni.

All the different types of relations mentioned with regard to the Ponte Vecchio—clusters of workshops of men and boys implicated in sodomy, groups who worked in the same shop, shared partners among males who worked near or with each other—could be illustrated many times over with a wide variety of examples. By providing a steady source of information and gossip, an indulgent and encouraging environment, and diverse networks of comrades with similar erotic interests, the sociable bonds fashioned in and around the workplace facilitated the pursuit of sodomy.

Even lay confraternities, those “ritual brotherhoods” dedicated to spiritual exercises and charitable works, and a basic institution of male sodality and sociability, could harbor more sensuous forms of bonds and networks among their ranks.


Confraternities indeed recognized that their members might commit sodomy and prescribed measures to discipline them. Their statutes commonly condemned the “wicked vice,” along with other activities considered harmful or immoral, and brotherhoods sometimes expelled members who were found to have engaged in sodomy. The expulsion of three men from the flagellant company of San Paolo in 1469 “because they were condemned by the office of sodomy” illustrates well the tightknit social relations within which sodomy was often practiced. This case involved Francesco Tolli, a cloth trimmer who joined San Paolo in 1466; Matteo di Casino, also a trimmer who not by chance worked with Tolli in the same shop; and Pietropaolo Monti, a clothes dealer who entered the confraternity of San Paolo together with Matteo on the same day in 1468. Not only were they friends, as these ties suggest, but they were also sexually involved with same boy, fourteen-year-old Giovanni di Jacopo di Bongianni, who too worked in Tolli’s and Matteo’s shop. Moreover, the three fratelli all used Monti’s store for their numerous trysts, and Matteo and Monti often sodomized the boy together. Their erotic relations were evidently bound up indistinctly with their other bonds of work, friendship, and spiritual brotherhood. In this context, it is worth recalling the comment of the informer cited at the beginning of this chapter, who evoked a similarly seamless fabric of fraternity, neighborhood, and erotic love to explain the relationship he was denouncing: “This he did out of great love and good brotherhood, because they are in a confraternity together, and he did as good neighbors do.”

Detail of David (ca. 1473–1475). Bronze sculpture by Andrea del Verrocchio. Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

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