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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

Rocke makes the point that "males engaged in sodomy came from across the social spectrum" and lists that laborers in textile production were the largest group of those denounced, with 24%; next were the clothing makers, 15%; then the other crafts, merchants, butchers, barbers, with 6.4%; followed by the clergy, 3.6%. Not everyone denounced was listed by occupation.

The Ponte Vecchio in those years was already lined with shops, but mostly butcher shops, not the elegant boutiques of jewelry seen on that bridge today. Five sons of the Mazzante family of butchers were on the bridge, and three of them were denounced frequently. And altogether, "at least 50 people who worked on the Ponte Vecchio were implicated in these survey years."

One man was denounced for letting his three sons be sodomized by well-placed men because, the father said, "it was good for the family," meaning most likely job promotions and other upscale favors. The father himself had been denounced twice when he was 14 for being the "lover" of a merchant. (They lived beneath the place that was to become Elizabeth Barrett Browning's last home.)

"And Florentines," Rocke writes, "hardly had to be told that sex with boys did not lead to unwanted pregnancy, a fact of life that Girolamo Savonarola [the spell-binding Dominican friar then in full-cry] nonetheless adduced to explain why local parents willfully allowed their sons to engage in sodomy."

Soon after the death of Lorenzo II Magnifico in 1492, Friar Savonarola, a fire-and-brimstone preacher from Ferrara, became virtual dictator of Florence and mobilized hundreds of born-again puritan youths in a kind of Children's Crusade. Bonfires of the vanities were regularly held, with books, finery and paintings destroyed. (Botticelli donated one of his own paintings but was denounced for sodomy just the same.) This prompted the informal formation of a pro-sodomy group of young, patrician-led hotheads known as the Arrabbiati ("Angry Ones"). Savonarola even denounced the pope, Alexander VI, who was a Borgia from Spain and father of seven children, one of whom was Lucrezia. He ordered the friar to refrain from preaching, and the Florentines took that as a signal to rid the city of him. Savonarola was hanged and his body burned at a bonfire of another kind.

Rocke's argument in "Forbidden Friendships" against attempts by our contemporaries to plant sexual labels on Florence's Renaissance males is well summarized with this: "Some scholars, if they have not simply assumed that males who had sex with other males were exclusively 'homosexual,' have adopted the seemingly more appropriate word 'bisexuality' to characterize Renaissance men's interest in both sexes. But this anachronistic term is only a hybrid product of the sharply drawn contemporary categories 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual,' which were lacking in this society, and it probably misrepresents the cultural specificity of the late medieval and early modern understandings of erotic experience and sentiment."

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