On the morning of 9th April, 1476 an anonymous note appeared on the square near the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. It read:
‘I notify you, Signori Officiali, concerning a true thing, namely that Jacopo Saltarelli… [who] dresses in black and is about 17 years old… has been a party to many wretched affairs and consents to please those persons who exact certain evil pleasures from him. And in this way he has… served several dozen people about whom I know a good deal, and here will name a few: Bartolomeo di Pasquino, goldsmith who lives in Vacchereccia. Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, who lives with Andrea de Verrocchio. Baccino, a tailor, who lives by Or San Michele… Leonardo Tornabuoni, called il teri; dresses in black. These committed sodomy with said Jacopop, and this I testify before you.’
And as thus, this striking accusation that mentions Leonardo da Vinci can serve as a stepping point into the LGBTQ+ culture of Renaissance Italy; which will be discussed in this post.
Renaissance: A Brief Introduction
Traditional Historiography of the Italian Renaissance emphasises that this period emerged after the ‘Dark Ages’, when the majority of the knowledge of the ancients was lost or forgotten. It was a time of great cultural changes across Europe. One of the key features of the period which is highlighted by traditional Historiography is the re-discovery and consequently growing interest in ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, like Plato and Plutarch. Such changes are explained by some shifts from feudal-based to a more capitalist-based economies. The translated arguments, coupled with the gradual emergence of the printing press allowed the texts to be incorporated firstly into various cultures on the Italian peninsula and then spread to other European cultures European cultures via the trade routes. Consequently, traditional Historiography of the Renaissance implies to a large extent that Renaissance was a relatively new trend that came as a result of various socio-political and economic changes.
Yet, such an approach often side-steps the possibility that the Renaissance emerged from the Mediaeval monastic culture and its interaction with the scholars from the Islamic world. There is a possibility that the phenomena of the European Renaissance should be seen within the context of such events, like the Sack of Constantinople in 1453; whereby Byzantinian scholars brought over and translated the works of Aristotle. Such changes and arguments, thus, were added to the already existing knowledge of the classical authors, like Tacitus. Consequently, whilst traditional Historiography emphasises an idea that the Italian Renaissance resulted as a result of socio-economic changes within Europe, newer trends of Historiography emphasise that the Europe was constantly in a cultural dialogue with the Islamic world.
Late 14th or early 15th century Italy, or Italian states, was a quite different place in terms of its approach to the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals. Homosexuality, or as it was known then ‘sodomy’, was considered as a serious crime. The severity of punishments varied from region to region given the uneven distribution of power and influence of the Catholic Church, which was one of the key forces in dictating contemporary laws. For example, whilst sodomy was punishable by death in Bologna, in Tuscany the punishment was or castration and and Pisa it was paying fines. Certain cities, in order to fight homosexuality, even created special armed forces for that specific purpose, such as Venetian Signori di Notte (Lords of the Night). As a result, one can conclude that the Renaissance Italy was by no means a safe space for LGBTQ+ community, given relatively wide-spread prosecutions that took place.
LGBTQ+ Cultures in Venice and Florence
However, despite this, two large homosexual communities became prominent in Venice and Florence. Such communities included men from all kinds of background, with the greatest fraction of evicted sodomites came from non-elite circles. The records tell of shoemakers, weavers, clothes dealers, butches and even clergy. The possible reasons for emergence of such communities remain unclear. Whilst the likeliest reason for the Venetian community emerging and growing was tied to relative passivity from the State in attempting to deal with what many religious figures saw as an issue and relative political stability, the Florentine reasons for the growth of homosexual community is a peculiar one.
As mentioned above, historians are not entirely clear why Florentine community grew. Florence, oppositely to Venice, was often politically unstable and was often shaken by class conflict. During the Medicean regency arrests involving sodomy went up at an rapidly increasing rate. There were so many convictions in 1432 that the fine of 100 florins was judged insufficient and in 1440 the tariff increased. This change proved to be counter- productive as the magistrates complained that the majority of the evicted “sodomites” were too poor to pay the new fine and thus the fine was lowered. However, the issue with the new fine was that it was so low that the income from it damaged the city’s economy. As the result of this, the fine was lowered once again to 10 florins in 1459. Yet, this trend was reversed with the rise of Girolamo Savonarola, who argued in his public sermons that the reign of the Antichrist had begun and to prevent people of Florence facing a Doomsday they should reject all of the socio-cultural developments of the Renaissance. Conclusively, the fines and prosecutions increased. Consequently, whilst it is not particularly clear why the Florentine homosexual community grew despite the constant shifts in prosecutions, it is possible to suggest that some wider socio-economic factors came into play; which yet remain to be uncovered.
Suggested further reading:
- If you’re interested in wider Renaissance culture and how it developed Peter Burke’s The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society is a good place to start as the book outlines developments of the Renaissance in sufficient depth and breadth.
- If you’re keen on getting some hands onto primary sources about Da Vinci, may we suggest that you take a look at Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists . Please be aware that Vasari isn’t writing just about Da Vinci.
- If you’re interested in LBTQ+ culture in the Renaissance, M. Rocke’s Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence is a good place to start. Although be aware that the text is quite specialist as it assess contemporaneous legal documents.