The men of Renaissance Florence were so renowned for sodomy that "Florenzer" in German meant "sodomite." Indeed, in the late fifteenth century, as many as one in two Florentine men had come to the attention of the authorities for sodomy by the time they were thirty. In the seventy years from 1432 to 1502, some 17,000 menin a city of only 40,000were investigated for sodomy; 3,000 were convicted and thousands more confessed to gain amnesty. Michael Rocke vividly depicts this vibrant sexual culture in a world where these same-sex acts were not the deviant transgressions of a small minority, but an integral part of a normal masculine identity.
In 1432 The Office of the Night was created specifically to police sodomy in Florence. Seventy years of denunciations, interrogations, and sentencings left an extraordinarily detailed record, which Rocke uses to its fullest in this richly documented portrait. He describes a wide range of sexual experiences between males, ranging from boys such as fourteen-year-old Morello di Taddeo, who prostituted himself to fifty-seven men, to the notorious Jacopo di Andrea, a young bachelor implicated with forty adolescents over a seventeen-year period and convicted thirteen times; same-sex "marriages" like that of Michele di Bruno and Carlo di Berardo, who were involved for several years and swore a binding oath to each other over an altar; and Bernardo Lorini, a former Night Officer himself with a wife and seven children, accused of sodomy at the age of sixty-five. (Mortified, he sent his son Taddeo to confess for him and plead for a discreet resolution of his case.) Indeed, nearly all Florentine males probably had some kind of same-sex experience as a part of their "normal" sexual life.
Rocke uncovers a culture in which sexual roles were strictly defined by age, with boys under eighteen the "passive" participants in sodomy, youths in their twenties and older men the "active" participants, and most men at the age of thirty marrying women, their days of sexual frivolity with boys largely over. Such same sex activities were a normal phase in the transition to adulthood, and only a few pursued them much further. Rather than precluding heterosexual experiences, they were considered an extension of youthful and masculine lust and desire. As Niccolo Machiavelli quipped about a handsome man, "When young he lured husbands away from their wives, and now he lures wives away from their husbands." Florentines generally accepted sodomy as a common misdemeanor, to be punished with a fine, rather than as a deadly sin and a transgression against nature. There was no word, in the otherwise rich Florentine sexual lexicon, for "homosexual," nor was there a distinctive and well-developed homosexual "subculture." Rather, sexual acts between men and boys were an integral feature of the dominant culture.
Rocke roots this sexual activity in the broader context of Renaissance Florence, with its social networks of families, juvenile gangs, neighbors, patronage, workshops, and confraternities, and its busy political life from the early years of the Republic through the period of Lorenzo de' Medici, Savonarola, and the beginning of Medici princely rule. His richly detailed book paints a fascinating picture of a vibrant time and place and calls into question our modern conceptions of gender and sexual identity.
From the fiery sermons of Bernadino of Siena, Savanarola, as well as from general gossip, modern students of 15th-century Italy have long suspected that Florence witnessed a great amount of sodomy. Rocke, an independent scholar teaching in Florence, persuasively demonstrates that "homosexual behavior constituted a pervasive and integral part of male sexual experience, of the construction of male sexual identity, and forms of sociability." Using the city's rich judicial records, especially those of the Office of the Night, a magistracy set up to root out sodomy, Rocke shows that between 1432 and 1502 perhaps 17,000 menor one in two in a total population of about 40,000came to the attention of civil authorities for homosexual acts. Rocke presents a careful and nuanced appreciation of language and concepts of gender and sexual roles, but a solid conclusion would have further strengthened his case. The value of this highly important study rests on the book's lucid prose and its learned contribution to our understanding of human, or at least Western, sexuality.Bennett D. Hill, Georgetown Univ., Washington D.C.