History of Homosexuality: Renaissance Edition

During the Renaissance, wealthy cities in northern Italy —Florence and Venice in particular — were renowned for their widespread practice of same-sex love, engaged in by a considerable part of the male population and constructed along the classical pattern of Greece and Rome. This gave rise to a number of proverbs illuminating the views of the common people towards the practice; among them: “If you crave joys, tumble some boys.” But even as many of the male population were engaging in same-sex relationships, the authorities, under the aegis of the Officers of the Night court, were prosecuting, fining, and imprisoning a good portion of that population.
From the second half of the 13th century, death was the punishment for male homosexuality in most of Europe. The eclipse of this period of relative artistic and erotic freedom was precipitated by the rise to power of the moralizing monk Girolamo Savonarola. In northern Europe the artistic discourse on sodomy was turned against its proponents by artists such as Rembrandt, who in his Rape of Ganymede no longer depicted Ganymede as a willing youth, but as a squalling baby attacked by a rapacious bird of prey.
The relationships of socially prominent figures, such as King James I and the Duke of Buckingham, served to highlight the issue, including in anonymously authored street pamphlets: “The world is changed I know not how, For men Kiss Men, not Women now;…Of J. the First and Buckingham: He, true it is, his Wives Embraces fled, To slabber his loved Ganymede” (Mundus Foppensis, or The Fop Display’d, 1691).
Focusing back on Florence
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), was one of the greatest painters and most versatile geniuses in history. He was one of the key figures of the Renaissance, a great cultural movement that had begun in Italy in the 1300's. His portrait Mona Lisa and his religious scene The Last Supper rank among the most famous pictures ever painted.
Leonardo, as he is almost always called, was trained to be a painter. But his interests and achievements spread into an astonishing variety of fields that are now considered scientific specialties. Leonardo studied anatomy, astronomy, botany, geology, geometry, engineering, and optics, and he designed machines and drew plans for hundreds of inventions.
Because Leonardo excelled in such an amazing number of areas of human knowledge, he is often called a universal genius. However, he had little interest in literature, history, or religion. He formulated a few scientific laws, but he never developed his ideas systematically. Leonardo was most of all an excellent observer. He concerned himself with what the eye could see, rather than with purely abstract concepts.
Little is known about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. He kept copious notebooks, but these contain only sketches and speculations. Much of what we know of him comes from tax records, legal documents, and secondhand sources.
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452, in the town of Vinci. His father was Ser Piero, a lawyer; his mother, Caterina, came of a peasant family. They were not married. The boy's uncle Francesco may have had more of a hand in his upbringing than by either of his parents. When Leonardo was about 15, he moved to the nearby city of Florence and became an apprentice to the artist Andrea del Verrocchio. He was already a promising talent. 
In 1476, just as Leonardo was becoming a master in his own right, probably functioning as a partner to Notebook sketch Verrocchio, he was suddenly plagued by scandal. Along with three other young men (apparently because the young men who were charged with him came from powerful and wealthy families), he was anonymously accused of sodomy. In Florence was a criminal offense, even though in most cases the authorities looked the other way and the general culture attached little social stigma to homosexuality.
Leonardo was 24 years old at the time. The accusation specifically charged him with a homosexual interaction with one Jacopo Saltarelli, a notorious prostitute. The charges were brought in April, and for a time Leonardo and the other defendants were under the watchful eye of Florence's "Officers of the Night"--a kind of Renaissance vice squad.
However, the charges were dismissed in June, due to a lack of witnesses and evidence. It is probable that the Medici family brought had something to do with this outcome, as another of the defendants was Lionardo de Tornabuoni, and Lorenzo de Medici's mother had been a Tornabuoni.
 The period immediately following the case was a productive one for Leonardo. Sometime in the mid-1470s, he worked on the Portrait of Ginevra de Benci. In 1478, he received what was probably his first commission: a religious group wanted him to paint an Adoration of the Shepherds. He did a few preliminary sketches but then abandoned the project. Vitruvian man by Leonardo da Vinci
 Although Leonardo managed to be fairly productive in Florence, it is not surprising that he left. He was not able to complete either of the major commissions he received, the two "Adorations." He was charged with sodomy. Although many biographers gloss over this issue, quickly stating that the case was dismissed, it is important for two reasons.
 First, it was perhaps the start of a lifetime of paranoia on Leonardo's part (I don't blame him). He often drew grotesque pictures of gossiping townspeople, and he rated calumny, or malicious gossip, as a serious evil.
The second major implication of the sodomy case is, of course, the question of Leonardo's sexuality. Homosexuality was common in quattrocento Florence, and several things indicate that Leonardo was probably gay. He never married or showed any (recorded) interest in women; indeed, he wrote in his notebooks that male-female intercourse disgusted him. His anatomical drawings naturally include the sexual organs of both genders, but those of the male exhibit much more extensive attention. Finally, Leonardo surrounded himself with beautiful young male assistants, such as Salai and Melzi.
No witnesses appeared against them and eventually the charges were dropped. It must be said that often anonymous charges like this were brought against people just for a nuisance. Renaissance Florentines didn't make the distinctions we make about sexuality today and apparently it was common for young men to get into sexual relationships; in fact, the word "Florenzer" was German slang for "homosexual". 
 While at the studio, he aided his master with his Baptism of Christ, and eventually painted his own Annunciation. Around the age of 30, Leonardo began his own practice, starting work on the Adoration of the Magi; however, he soon abandoned it and moved to Milan in 1482.
In Milan, Leonardo sought and gained the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, and soon began work on the painting Virgin of the Rocks. After some years, he began work on a giant bronze horse, a monument to Sforza's father. Leonardo's design is grand, but the statue was never completed. Meanwhile, he was keeping scrupulous notebooks on a number of studies, including artistic drawings but also depictions of scientific subjects ranging from anatomy to hydraulics. In 1490, he took a young boy, Salai, his handsome, thieving apprentice into his household, and in 1493 a woman named Caterina (most likely his mother) also came to live with him; she died a few years later. Around 1495, Leonardo began his painting The Last Supper, which achieved immense success but began to deteriorate physically almost immediately upon completion. Around this same time, Fra Luca Pacioli, the famous mathematician, moved to Milan, befriended Leonardo, and taught him higher math. In 1499, when the French conquered Lombard and Milan, the two left the city together, heading for Mantua.
Leonardo had no relationships with women, never married, had no children, and raised many young protégés, including one nicknamed "Salai" which means "offspring of Satan", sketches of whom are shown above. Salai stole things, broke things, lied, and was generally a, well, devil; if he were a mere student or servant he would have been sacked. It's not hard for me to see how this imp would be attractive to Leonardo (or to me, now that I mention it). He stayed with Leonardo for over twenty years, and appears many times in Leonardo's sketchbooks. Leonardo left the Mona Lisa to Salai.
 In 1500, Leonardo arrived in Florence, where he painted the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. He was very Notebook sketch interested in mathematics at this time. In 1502, he went to work as chief military engineer to Cesare Borgia, and also became acquainted with Niccolo Machiavelli. After a year he returned to Florence, where he contributed to the huge engineering project of diverting the course of the River Arno, and also painted a giant war mural, the Battle of Anghiari, which was never completed, largely due to problems with the paints. In 1505 Leonardo probably made his first sketches for the Mona Lisa, but it is not known when he completed the painting.
In 1506, Leonardo traveled to Milan at the summons of Charles d'Amboise, the French governor. He became court painter and engineer to Louis XII and worked on a second version of the Virgin of the Rocks. In 1507, he returned to Florence to engage in a legal battle against his brothers for their Uncle Francesco's inheritance. In this same year, he took the young aristocratic Melzi as an assistant, and for the rest of the decade he intensified his studies of anatomy and hydraulics. In 1513, he moved to Rome, where Leo X reigned as pope. There, he worked on mirrors, and probably the above self- portrait. In 1516, he left Italy for France, joining King Francis I in Amboise, whom he served as a wise philosopher for three years before his death in 1519. 


Popular posts from this blog

Daily life of Roman life: Slavery

History of Homosexual: Ancient Greece

History of GLBT in the World