11 June 2021
‘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.
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, (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, 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
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]
17 April 2020
Recently while cataloguing, amongst donations I came across a Slovenian gay poetry book Tracing the Unspoken by Milan Šelj (2019). I found it so intriguing that I was compelled to read it right through to the end without a break.
This is the first English language translation of the Slovenian original Slediti neizgovorjenemu (2018), translated by Harvey Vincent, a New York director, actor and teacher based in Paris, and a founding member of the American Theater Group of Paris. It is published by the American-based A Midsummer Night’s Press in their Body Language imprint devoted to LGBT voices.
Cover of Milan Šelj, Tracing the Unspoken, (New York, 2019). Awaiting shelfmark
Šelj is an award-winning Slovenian poet and translator. He was born in 1960 and has lived and worked in London since 1992. He is the author of four poetry collections of which the first, Darilo (Gift), published by ŠKUC-Lambda in 2006, was described as ‘one of the most explicitly homoerotic poetry books in Slovenia thus far’. The essence of the book Tracing the Unspoken, as Gregory Woods describes it, is about ‘the individual who tries to make sense of desire’. It is not surprising that it is the unspoken that lures the reader; the emotional and sexual tension created by the universal language of desire, obsession and love. The writing is explicit and virile. Page after page, the compact stream of thoughts captures and guides through fragments of narrative that give meaning to words we would not be able to voice ourselves.
Excerpt from Tracing the Unspoken, p. 45. Awaiting shelfmark
An excerpt that caught my attention and resonates with the current times of lockdown will hopefully offer some comfort or escape in bridging distances with loved ones.
You have no idea how small this town is. Desperation is stifling and centuries old. Why don’t you cut off your shirtsleeves and send them to me? I’ll embrace myself with them when I’m not able to shorten your absence. To save myself, I’ll search for consolation between the scraps of fabric and let your scent linger on the cuffs.
Lora Afrić, Languages Cataloguing Manager
Milan Šelj, Slediti neizgovorjenemu (Ljubljana, 2018) YF.2019.a.11088
Milan Šelj, Gradim gradove (Ljubljana, 2015) YF.2016.a.15174
28 June 2019
I am very lucky: I live in a country where, since 2008, homophobia is illegal, and I work for an institution which actively promotes diversity in all its aspects. I am very lucky: I come from a country where, even though homophobia is not yet strictly speaking illegal, the LGBTQ movement has been active since its early stage: 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots, when the journal FUORI! was founded by one of the first gay associations in Italy. F.U.O.R.I., besides being the acronym of ‘Fronte unitario omosessuale rivoluzionario italiano’, as a word in itself means ‘Out’.
One of its founders was Mario Mieli (1952-1983), who, after spending some time in London as a student, where he took active part in the London Gay Liberation Front, went back to Italy and founded the journal in Turin.
Mario Mieli. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons
In 1972, Italy witnessed the first public demonstration by homosexuals in Sanremo. This was a protest against the ‘International Congress on Sexual Deviance’ which was organised by the Catholic-inspired Italian Centre for Sexology. 40 marchers attended, from different gay associations, such as the French Front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire (FHAR), the Belgian Mouvement Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire (MHAR), the British Gay Liberation Front, the Internationale Homosexuelle Révolutionnaire (IHR ), and the recently founded FUORI.
In 1977, Mario Mieli published the essay Elementi di critica omosessuale, translated into English as Towards a Gay Communism: Elements of Homosexual Critique (London, 2018; ELD.DS.284733)
Mario Mieli, Elementi di critica omosessuale (Milan, 1977) X.519/41490
The first gay liberation movement in Italy, was attempted by Aldo Mieli (1879-1950), a scientist and pioneer of gay rights; he was in contact with the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, one of the co-founders of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which campaigned for the repeal of the law criminalising homosexuality in Germany. Aldo Mieli was the only Italian to participate in the first International Congress for Sexual Reform organised by Hirschfeld in 1921 which took place in Germany and led to the formation of the World League for Sexual Reform (further congresses were held in Copenhagen in 1928; London in 1929; Vienna in 1930; and Brno in 1932).
As a Sicilian, I feel particularly moved by the events that led to the birth of Italy’s largest national gay organisation, Arcigay. This is what happened: on 31 October 1980, in Giarre (a little town on the east coast of Sicily) two young men, Giorgio Agatino Giammona, 25, and Antonio Galatola, 15, who had disappeared two weeks before, were found dead, hand in hand, each killed by a gunshot wound to the head. The boys were known locally as ‘i ziti’ (‘the engaged’). Giorgio was openly gay and was also nicknamed ‘puppu cô buḍḍu’ (meaning ‘licensed homosexual’, intended in a derogatory way).
The investigations led to the identification of Francesco Messina, Galatola’s nephew, as the murderer. Messina was twelve years old at the time and below the age of criminal responsibility. He initially told the police that Giammona and Galatola had forced him to shoot them and had threatened that otherwise they would kill him, although two days later he changed his story, claiming that he had been pressured to confess.
However, the evidence suggested that the two had indeed been killed by Messina on behalf of the families and apparently with the couple’s own approval, convinced that they could never live peacefully. Italian public opinion had to acknowledge the problem of discrimination against homosexuals. The tragic story is discussed in Miguel Andrés Malagreca’s study Queer Italy: contexts, antecedents and representation (New York, 2007; YD.2007.a.8982).
As an immediate response, the first Sicilian branch of FUORI was founded. A month later in Palermo a group of activits including Nichi Vendola, a young conscientious objector who would go on to be president of the Puglia region from 2005 to 2015, founded Arcigay, the first section of the cultural association Arci dedicated to gay culture. Around the same time, lesbian feminist women founded the first Sicilian lesbian collective – Le Papesse (‘the female popes’).
Unfortunately, even though same-sex relationships have been legal in Italy since 1890, gay marriage is not yet. A lot is yet to be done, but Italy has come a long way, same-sex civil partnerships have been legal since 2016, and not only Puglia but Sicily too has had its first openly gay president: Rosario Crocetta was mayor of Gela (on the southern coast) from 2003 to 2009, and President of Sicily from 2012 to 2017. And just a few weeks ago, on 8 June, my home town, Messina, held its very first Gay Pride march, called ‘Stretto pride Messina’ and promoted with this lovely video.
Giuseppe Alizzi, Curator, Romance Collections
‘Fleeing Dictatorship: Socialism, Sexuality and the History of Science in the Life of Aldo Mieli’ History workshop journal. Vol 72, (2011) pp. 30-51. 4318.650000
Magnus Hirschfeld, The Homosexuality of Men and Women (New York, 2000). YA.2000.a.42619
Gianni Rossi Barilli, Il movimento gay in Italia (Milan, 1999). YA.2001.a.12372
07 February 2014
Last Sunday, the Netherlands Association for the Integration of Homosexuality COC. (N.V.I.H. COC) announced the winners of this year’s Bob Angelo medal. The medal is awarded to a person who has in some way advanced the interests of LGBT people. One of this year’s winners is children’s and teens’ author Carry Slee. Slee writes about LGBT issues in a down-to-earth way, rather than emphasising the ‘otherness’ of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. In doing so, the jury remarked, Slee made a special contribution to the emancipation of young LGBT people especially, by making it easier for them to identify with the characters in her books.
The fight against prejudice for LGBT people in the Netherlands has come a long way, but remains necessary.
The N.V.I.H.-C.O.C. is the world’s oldest still active advocacy group that works to support equal rights for LGBT people and is one of very few gay rights organisations with a special advisory status at the UN. It was founded in 1946 as ‘The Shakespeareclub’, but changed its name to Centre for Leisure and Culture C.O.C.
It had to tread very carefully and meetings were held in secret, because of the semi-illegal nature of homosexuality in those days. Article 248bis of the Dutch Penal Code rendered non-heterosexual activity practically illegal. It wasn’t finally scrapped until 1971.
Advocating equality for LGBT people remains necessary, even in the Netherlands with its reputation of tolerance towards people of different sexual orientation. The British Library’s Dutch language collections include works on the history of homosexuality in the Netherlands. D.J. Noordam, Gert Hekma and Rob Tielman all discuss the infamous prosecutions against homosexual men in 1731, resulting in severe punishments, including death. We can get a glimpse of these practices from a series of sentences, handed to 33 men accused of ‘sodomy’. They all went on trial at the Court of Holland, Zeeland and Vriesland on the 5 October 1731. The verdict is printed as a standard document of barely two pages long, in which only the name of the defendant needed to be inserted. They were all sentenced to banishment for life from the lands under the jurisdiction of the Court and all their goods were confiscated.
Sententien van den Hove van Holland, tegens verscheide Persoonen ter saake van gepleegde sodomie: in dato 5 October 1731. (’s Gravenhage, 1731) BL shelfmark D.NA.4.
The British Library holds two bound volumes of the journal Vriendschap (‘Friendship’), COC 1950-1954. The recommended book lists it contains give a clue as to which authors were gay.
This journal was superseded by Dialoog, co-edited by the Dutch novelist and polemicist Gerard van het Reve.
The Netherlands’ best novelist, Louis Couperus, was known to be homosexual, although he could not openly express this. He hints at it in some of his novels, such as De Komedianten (‘The Comedians’). Similar authors are Anna Blaman (1905 -1960), and Gerard Reve (1923-2006). While Blaman and Reve were gay, Harry Mulisch (1927-2010) was straight. Yet he wrote Twee Vrouwen (‘Two Women’), generally regarded as a very sensitive depiction of lesbian relationships. The novel brought him great acclaim from the international lesbian movement. (Dutch lesbians were less impressed: see Marita Mathijsen, Twee vrouwen en meer: over het werk van Harry Mulisch [Amsterdam, 2009; YF.2009.a.26196].) In 1979 the novel was made into a film with Bibi Andersson and Anthony Perkins.
In the 1980s the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard Nederland was founded and a few years later published a small guide to Amsterdam for gays and lesbians. It lists gay cafes and bars, coffee shops, clubs, shops and cinemas.
In the 21st century the topic of sexual diversity has become mainstream in Dutch literature – and not just for adults.
Marja Kingma, Curator Low Countries Studies
D.J. Noordam, Riskante relaties: vijf eeuwen homoseksualiteit in Nederland, 1233-1733. (Hilversum, 1996) YA.1996.b.1210.
Gert Hekma, Homoseksualiteit in Nederland van 1730 tot de moderne tijd (Amsterdam, 2005) YF.2005.a.7764
Rob Tielman, Homoseksualiteit in Nederland. [2e druk.] (Meppel, 1982.) YA.1994.a.4386
Vriendschap : Maanblad voor de leden van het Cultuur- en ontspanningscentrum. (Amsterdam, 1950-1954) Cup.820.cc.17.
Dialoog : Tijdschrift voor homofilie en maatschappij. (Amsterdam, 1969- )
Louis Couperus, De komedianten (Rotterdam, 1917) 012582.bb.15. [English translation: The Comedians. A story of ancient Rome … trans. by Jacobine Menzies Wilson (London, 1926) 12582.t.13]
Anna Blaman, Op leven en dood. (Amsterdam, 1955) 012580.b.11. [English translation: A Matter of Life and Death (New York, 1974) X.989/35532]
Gerard Reve, The Acrobat and other stories (Amsterdam, 1956) X.908/35371.
Harry Mulisch, Twee Vrouwen (Amsterdam, 2008). YF.2012.a.14789