As stated in the previous post, I thought I would be covering the Renaissance Period and the rest of European history in this post. However, I’ll be breaking it up, covering the Renaissance Period and some of European history now, and I’ll talk about Germany and the writers who spoke out against anti-homosexual laws and Nazi Germany’s treatment of homosexuals in the next post. I’ll post them back to back.
The Renaissance –
In the wealthy cities, especially Florence and Venice, same-sex male relationships were commonplace. Much of the population, including religious and governmental leaders, practiced homosexuality. In 1432, the cities, under the direction of the Roman Catholic church, established the Officers of the Night. They were charged with suppressing the practice of sodomy, and did so by arresting, fining, and imprisoning a good portion of the population. Homosexuality quickly went from being completely legal to being punishable by death.
As we’ve seen, many countries and cultures were accepting and tolerating of homosexuality up until the introduction of Christianity and the stronger enforcement of Roman Catholic values. However, France appears to have been against homosexuality from the start, explaining the recent uproar and rioting over the legalization of same-sex marriage there. During the Renaissance, sodomy was punishable by some of the more violent techniques. First offenders were punished by having their testicles removed. Second offenders were castrated, and third offenders were burned at the stake. It wasn’t until 1791 that France repealed the laws against sodomy. Ironically, with that, France became the first country to decriminalize same-sex practices between consenting adults.
In 1533, King Henry VIII passed the Buggery Act, making all male-male sexual activity punishable by death. That’s not to say that the same people that passed such laws didn’t have homosexual tendencies themselves. Remember, at the time, sex was a form of power, and the male body was looked upon as an object of attraction and desire.
The end of homosexuality as a form of artistic and erotic freedom was put to an end by the Italian Friar Girolamo Savonarola, who claimed through prophesies and visions, that the Italians must turn away from such ‘immoral’ desires, or face the wrath of God. He was later challenged on the validity of these visions, and upon admitting that they were indeed false, was imprisoned.
The sexuality of the Renaissance artist, Leonardo Da Vinci, has long been questioned. It is widely accepted that he would take on young male apprentices, who then were thought to become his lovers. There is no absolute documentation supporting this, however records do exist showing Da Vinci on a ‘watchlist’ of the Officers of the Night.
In retaliation to the physical suppression of homosexuality, a movement in literature began to surface. In 1723, Love Letters Between a Certain Late Nobleman and the Famous Mr. Wilson was published. There is no credit to the original work, but Michael S. Kimmel later republished the series of letters, describing homosexuality during the era.
Fanny Hill by John Cleland was initially published in 1749, and contained a homosexual scene, but this scene was later removed in the 1750 edition. Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplified by Thomas Cannon, was also published in 1749, and was the earliest defense of homosexuality, stating that it was not an unnatural desire. It was immediately suppressed. In 1785, Jeremy Bentham wrote another defense, but it wasn’t published until 1978.
Throughout the Renaissance period, executions for sodomy were commonly performed, and continued until as late as 1835.