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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

The Office of the Night placed drum-shaped boxes in certain churches and invited citizens to denounce, anonymously, any local male who was engaging in sodomy. Florence at that time was the commercial center of Italy, granting bank loans to foreign kings and shipping wool from England to be turned into sturdy and fancy cloth. There was much competition among the ruling families, and the drum box provided a golden opportunity to denounce one's rival in trade. Consequently, the sodomy court's records include virtually every important Florentine family. Most of the Renaissance palaces in the city's historic center are named for those families, as are today's streets and squares. And virtually all of them are named in this book. For instance, there are one Medici family member, denounced eight times, and two Martelli brothers. The Medici palace stands today in what was Via Martelli, and the Palazzo Martelli, across the street, is now a public school.

The first person condemned by the Office of the Night was Florence's highest public official, a 70-year-old patrician whom a 14-year-old barber's assistant claimed had sodomized him. The man confessed and a small fine was imposed.

"Homosexual activity in Florence was widespread and deeply rooted, a tenacious social and sexual reality that the community's disciplinary effort [the Night Office] had to acknowledge and, to a certain extent, accommodate," Rocke writes. The city also responded by licensing brothels where as many as 150 women, mostly foreigners, were available and where most males who engaged in sodomy also looked for sex. Rocke writes that "[o]nly in the 18th century, and then it seems above all in Northwestern Europe (England, the Netherlands, and France), did this [Florentine] pattern begin to be replaced by a new model. After 1700, adult males are frequently found having sex with other adult males . . . and distinctive subcultures developed." The Florence of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance never had what is called today a "gay subculture." Nor could Rocke find any record of transvestism. But then, if the paintings and frescoes of that period are reliable, the city's males were dressed at least as beautifully as the women.

Mary McCarthy in "The Stones of Florence" noted that in 15th century Florence, "the well-turned, sturdy male leg and buttock cased in the tight hose of the day is always painted with a flourish; this leg is seen from all angles, in profile, in demi-profile, full on, and perhaps most often from the rear or slightly turned, so that the beauty of the calf can be shown."

What we now call in the press "oral sex" apparently was a rarity in the Renaissance. But the Night Office's notary made the distinction in Latin: sodomy ex parte / ex parte post, from the front or the back side. Rocke cites a manuscript copy, from around 1525 and found in the Vatican Library, containing the confessions of a very active male prostitute who claimed to have been "surprised and a little afraid when his partner began to fellate him."

"In a letter in 1523 to Niccolo Machiavelli," Rocke writes, "Francesco Vettori [Florence's ambassador to the Papal Court], responded to his friend's concerns about his own son Lodovico's intimacy with a younger boy. Vettori recommended indulgence, and recalled their own youthful experience: 'Since we are verging on old age, we might be severe and overly scrupulous, and we do not remember what we did as adolescents. So Lodovico has a boy with him, with whom he amuses himself, jests, takes walks, growls in his ear, goes to bed together. What then? Even in these things perhaps there is nothing bad.' "

When two brothers of the important Martelli family are accused of petty theft and purse-snatching, their informer gently observed that if "they didn't do these things they wouldn't be able to keep their boys and their whores."

Baccio Bandinelli, who made the two ugliest sculptures on public view today in Florence--the Hercules outside the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio and the seated sculpture of a Medici warrior known as Giovanni delle Bande Nere outside the San Lorenzo church--once called his rival, Benvenuto Cellini, in the presence of the Duke Cosimo, "a dirty sodomite." This silversmith and master sculptor of the Perseus with the head of Medusa won the day with his spirited response:

"Oh, fool, you're wrong: but would God that I knew how to practice such a noble art, since one reads that Jove used it with Ganymede in paradise, and here on earth the greatest emperors and kings in the world use it. I am a lowly and humble wretch, and neither could I nor would I know how to get involved in such an admirable thing."

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