Male Homosexual Activity in Renaissance Florence

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David (circa 1440). 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).

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.

[...]

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.

[...]

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.

[...]

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 (circa 1473–1475). Bronze sculpture by Andrea del Verrocchio. Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

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