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Florence, Italy: The History of Homosexuality in the Renaissance City
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"There is nothing new under the sun."
Historians can attest to the validity of that statement- particularly those who study human sexuality (a topic brimming with social moires and religious taboos). The attitudes towards homosexuality, for example, have fluctuated throughout history and cultures.
This article will focus on homosexuality in Florence, Italy- even though the documentation available is scarce and sometimes unreliable. Also, since this city has always been patriarchal in nature, only men will be discussed. Of course, this is not meant to imply that lesbianism and bisexuality were not as rampant.
The phallus has long been worshiped by ancient civilizations as a symbol of power and fertility. Long before the Romans founded Florence, Tuscany was inhabited by the Etruscans. While much of this intriguing culture is shrouded in mystery, the Etruscans did leave behind an array of sophisticated funerary artifacts thanks to their obsession with death. In addition, we have human figurines, whimsical creatures fashioned from ceramic, and erotic frescoes.
Theopompus (a Greek historian who lived in the 4th century BC) wrote the following in regard to the Etruscans "...the servants bring in sometimes courtesans, sometimes handsome boys, sometimes their own wives. When they have taken their pleasure of the women or the men, they make strapping young fellows lie with the latter...They (the Etruscans) certainly have commerce with women, but they always enjoy themselves much better with boys and young men. The latter are in this country quite beautiful to behold, for they live lives of ease and their bodies are hairless."- quoted from the book The Origins and Role of Same Sex Relations in Human Society (copyright 2009 by James Neill).
When the Romans conquered the area, they absorbed the Etruscan culture into their own. Roman men were already as sexually permissive as the Greeks. For example, it was not uncommon for them to marry and bear children with their wives, yet take pleasure in young boys. While men around the world still lead this kind of double life today, they aren't as blatantly open about it as their predecessors.
In time, Christianity permeated the pagan world and with it came the repression of human sexuality. The Christian bible was loaded with rules and regulations governing the body and family life. Sodomy became a forbidden practice, along with fornication, adultery, masturbation and lewd conduct. Sex was seen by clergymen as a necessary act for the sole purpose of procreation- not for the sake of pleasure.
The Catholic Church succeeded in creating a superficial veneer of "modesty" during the middle ages with its anti-sex mentality, but they could not prevent sex from happening behind closed doors- including sodomy.
The prevalence of homosexuality was so high in Florence that medieval Germans applied the words "sodomite" and "Florentine" (Florenzen) interchangeably. In fact, the German verb zuflorenzen means "to sodomize."
The Florentine, Dante Alighieri, wrote the Inferno in the 14th century and during his visit through Hell he speaks to two sodomites. They were both Florentine.
Apparently, Dante's dire warning failed to inspire fear in readers. Between the years 1432 and 1502 the Florentine magistrates (who called themselves the Office of the Night) "carried out the most extensive and systematic persecution of homosexual activity in any pre-modern city."- Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (copyright 1996 by Michael Rocke). According to Rocke, approxiamately 17,000 men were charged with sodomy during the 70 year existence of the Office of the Night. Keep in mind that Florence had roughly 40,000 inhabitants at the time.
Given the homoerotic art created in the fifteenth century, this should not surprise anyone. Botticelli's pretty boys and Donatello's David are perfect reflections of the Renaissance mentality towards young, beautiful men.
Since the Renaissance signaled the "rebirth" of classical humanistic teachings, and the ancient Romans naturally (and eagerly) embraced bisexuality and homosexuality, it is no surprise that high-profile people adopted these attitudes, too. For example, Michelangelo was supposedly gay and rumored to have had a close association with a good looking young man named Tommaso de Cavalieri. Also, Leonardo da Vinci was arrested for sodomy at the age of twenty-four.
What about today? Florence is a progressive city and its native inhabitants are open-minded and hospitable. Likewise, the international expat community is vibrant, embracing people of all backgrounds.
A Google search for "gay bar in Florence, Italy" results in Piccolo Cafe, a historic bar in the Santa Croce neighborhood. I had the pleasure of meeting the owner, Antonio, who founded Piccolo Cafe over two decades ago as a place where people can meet, talk, exchange ideas, etc. The cozy interior encourages intimacy, stimulating conversation, and laughter. Most importantly, there is no concept of "gay scene" in Florence since everyone is part of the community as a whole.
I decided to check out Piccolo Cafe with a friend and had a wonderful time. This is the type of bar that you can wander into alone and chat with everyone around you. I particularly enjoyed the mixed crowd- people of all ages, genders, nationalities (lots of Americans), and sexual orientations. Oh, and the music is fabulous.
Piccolo Cafe: Borgo Santa Croce, 23, 50122 Firenze (tel. +39 055 200 1057)
For more information, visit the Piccolo Cafe Facebook page: Click Here.
By the way, the bar boasts a glittering modern day phallus that (according to Antonio) everyone feels compelled to photograph. Myself included.
Thank you for reading!
C. De Melo
Author & Artist