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City of Night

FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIPS: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. By Michael Rocke . Oxford University Press: 372 pp., $35

November 02, 1997|GEORGE ARMSTRONG | George Armstrong was for 28 years the Rome correspondent for London's Guardian newspaper and is a regular contributor to the Economist and to this paper's Opinion pages

This is the centenary year of the coining and first appearance in print of the word "homosexual," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in which, in my 1965 edition, the word "heterosexual" can be found only in the addenda of new words. In a world where centennials are routinely and arousingly celebrated, why was this centenary ignored (though our Postal Service, perhaps unwittingly, did issue a postage stamp commemorating Thornton Wilder)? One reason for no celebration, and a compelling one, can be found in "Forbidden Friendships," a book about a shining city where the Renaissance first came to full flower and where the above-mentioned adjectives and nouns and their categorizing did not exist.

In the span of Florentine history covered by Michael Rocke, mostly 1432 to 1502, the mere concept of, or necessity for, the adjective (later to become a noun as well) did not exist. And by and large, happier years they were for Florence's males, who, it seems, indulged themselves in recreational sex by "doing what comes naturally."

Much of this book's content is statistical but served up in often elegant, never ponderous, prose. At times, the reader may think that he or she has seen a particular slab of statistics scroll past the eyes more than once. But just when the reader fears drowning in stats, damn stats, Rocke tosses out a life preserver of witty comment to entice the reader to move on.

The Florentine man's sex life began, as it does elsewhere, at about the age of 13 or 14--but Florence's males often did not marry until they were 30. So what were they up to? A great number of them, both patrician and peasant, took to sodomy. As Rocke explains: "In the later 15th century, the majority of local males at least once during their lifetimes were officially incriminated for engaging in homosexual relations." It seems to have been taken for granted, as long as it was not flaunted, that the city's sons were into buggery. But there was one rigid rule: The passive, that is, receptive, partner must be a boy or youth under 20 years of age. The active partner had to be older, usually in his 20s or early 30s. Reversing those roles was considered shocking and a deviation from the "natural order." Never for one moment, or so it seems, was either partner considered a hopelessly lost pervert or given a slang label that might be translated today as "gay." It was "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may" time.

When this reviewer was a student in Florence in the 1950s, the Renaissance was clearly over. In a country where there were no bars as we know them, only cafes that shuttered early, there could not have been any gay bars. Today there are gay bars in all of the larger cities (call it the Stonewall effect?), and thousands of Italians head each night to those ghetto-taverns to prance, dance and whatever. Da Vinci, Botticelli, Cellini, Michelangelo--they didn't knowingly hang out together--probably wouldn't understand any kind of "subculture." As for the painter known then and now as Sodoma (real name Giovanni Bazzi), well, maybe.

Rocke has gone through all the surviving records of a magistracy set up in Florence in the 15th century exclusively to deal with cases of sodomy. The unique court of six respectable citizens (several of whom were to be incriminated themselves), all over 45, elected annually, seemed to have been partly window-dressing, as Florence had a reputation abroad as the capital of the sodomites and partly as a means to collect fines. Or call it a tax on sodomy. This court was called the Office of the Night, and in a city of about 40,000 people, Rocke estimates that as many as 17,000 were incriminated at least once, but only 60 were condemned to prison, exile or death.

The bylaws were constantly changed. If a youth or man "heard" that he was going to be denounced, he would appear before the Office of the Night, confess and be given the equivalent of a civil absolution after paying a modest fine. If he was a working-class bloke and short of gold florins, he might be asked to donate a sack of flour from his grocery to a convent.

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