European studies blog

11 June 2021

I libertini - Same-Sex Desire in Italian Baroque Literature

‘Italy is full of libertines and atheists’, records French scholar and librarian Gabriel Naudé in the early 17th century. The philosophy of libertinism involves the disregard of authority and convention, especially in religious or sexual matters. Libertine ideas in Italy survived the Counter Reformation and were still in circulation in Europe until the Enlightenment. Sexuality –including homosexuality – was considered in positive terms.

The multiple dynamics of sexual desire emerged in vernacular literature in Italy from the beginning, despite being overlooked by literary criticism. Homosexuality in ancient Rome is a popular subject of studies, with Petronius’s Satyricon considered as ‘the first gay novel’ (Byrne Fone, 1998). Neri Moscoli and Marino Ceccoli, contemporaries of Dante and Petrarch, were leading exponents of the homoerotic Perugian school, sodomiti perugini, but their genre was assimilated by the traditional critics to comic poetry. They were not alone. Numerous authors of the Italian canon celebrate same-sex love in their works: Boccaccio, Poliziano, Boiardo, Ariosto, just to mention some names influential or active around the historical period I am focussing on.

Even though the accusation of sodomy was broadly used against artists and writers, not many were actually charged. Goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) proudly proclaimed his love of men in his art, in his life and in front of a Florentine court, as he was condemned to prison in 1557. His wonderful autobiography was published in 1728 with a false imprint, i.e.: a fake foreign place of publication to escape censorship. The first English translation, by Thomas Nugent, appeared in 1771.

Portrait of a bearded man

Cellini, Benvenuto. "Portrait of a bearded man" graphite, paper. Royal Library Turin, Public Domain

The two main centres of circulation for libertine ideas in the Italian peninsula at the time were Venice and Rome.

In papal Rome, despite theological condemnation of sodomy, homosexuality was popular behind closed doors. The son of Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ de’Medici, Giovanni, fosters a homoerotic and homosocial culture at his court when he becomes Pope, under the name of Leo X.

In Venice, the Accademia degli Incogniti was active in the mid-17th century and the most freethinking intellectuals of the period would meet under its name.

Antonio Rocco (1586-1652), a priest, philosopher and libertine, was a member of the Incogniti. Known for the L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, (‘Alcibiades Schoolboy’), a bibliographic rarity, of which the British Library owns the first edition, once again, with false imprint. This was part of the Private Case collection, a collection of erotic printed books that were segregated from the main British Museum library in the 1850s on grounds of obscenity. L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, published anonymously (it was initially attributed to Pietro Aretino), was censored for a long time for being an apology of pederasty and very few copies survived.

The book, in form of a Platonic dialogue, describes a schoolmaster’s efforts to seduce his young student, Alcibiades:

Sono naturali quelle opera a cui la natura ci inclina, de’ quali pretende il fine e l’effetto.
Those acts to which we are inclined by nature are natural, and she has seen to their end and their effects.

Front page of L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola

Front page of L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, (Oranges [i.e. Geneva], 1652) P.C.23.a.12.

More political is the literary production of another member of the Incogniti, Ferrante Pallavicino. Pallavicino leaves his noble family in Piacenza to live a picaresque and, sadly, short life. He writes against the Pope and the Catholic Church, against the Jesuits, against the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish domination. He was only safe in Venice, where he wrote his irreverent novels and satires. The Pope deceived him and had him beheaded in Avignon in 1644, aged 28. The anticlerical Il Divortio celeste ('The Celestial Divorce', Italy, Villafranca; 8005.a.47.(1.)) became incredibly popular in Italy and in Protestant countries.

Pallavicino also wrote Il principe hermafrodito, (‘The Hermaphrodite Prince’ Venice, 1656; 246.a.13.(3.)) a novel which explores the theme of transvestitism and cross-dressing, both common ingredients of the Baroque theatre and the Venetian opera, together with a more nuanced approach to issues of gender.

Portrait of Ferrante Pallavicino

Portrait of Ferrante Pallavicino, from Le glorie degli Incogniti; overo, gli huomini illustri dell’Accademia de’Signori Incogniti di Venetia. (Venice, 1647) 132.b.3.

The Hermaphrodite Prince discovers that they are, in fact, a Princess. They take a male lover and dress as a woman to facilitate their encounters. The Prince will take the throne and govern as a Queen, with the lover on their side:

Io sono la Principessa e il Principe nel composto medesimo. Sara’ estinto il Principe, […] Rimarra’ la sola Principessa, per felicitarsi con quella maggior copia di piaceri […] Rinuncio a mentito nome e a mentite spoglie, per non piu’ mentire negli amori.
(I am the Princess and the Prince in the same body. The Prince will no longer exist […] only the Princess will remain; to enjoy abundant pleasures […] I surrender my name and my disguise, so that I will no longer lie to my love. [my translation]).

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

References/Further Reading:

Franco Mancini and Luigi M. Reale (eds.), Poeti Perugini del Trecento: Codice Vaticano Barberiniano Latino 4036 (Perugia, 1996) ZA.9.a.9677(2)

Marco Berisso, La Raccolta dei poeti Perugini del Vat. Barberiniano Lat. 4036: Storia della Tradizione e Cultura Poetica di una Scuola Trecentesca Studi (Accademia Toscana Di Scienze E Lettere “La Colombaria”; 189). (Florence, 2000) Ac.82/2[Vol.189]

Benvenuto Cellini, Vita di Benvenuto Cellini ... da lui medesimo scritta ... Tratta da un’ottimo Manoscritto (Colonia [i.e. Naples] 1728) 673.h.15.

Benvenuto Cellini, The Life of Benvenuto Cellini: A Florentine Artist ... Written by Himself ... and Translated from the Original by Thomas Nugent, (London, 1771) 786.g.4-5.

Giorgio Spini, Ricerca dei libertini: la teoria dell’impostura delle religioni nel seincento italiano. (Rome, 1950) 4606.m.4.

Gary P. Cestaro (ed.), Queer Italia: Same-sex Desire in Italian Literature and Film (New York, 2004) YC.2006.a.3655

Edward Muir, The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2007). YC.2007.a.13138

Maurette, Pablo. ‘Plato’s Hermaphrodite and a Vindication of the Sense of Touch in the Sixteenth Century.’ Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 3, 2015, pp. 872–898. 7356.866000 JSTOR [subscription only] 

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