What is Homosexuality in Italian Renaissance Culture?

homosexuality in renaissance art

How can the Italian Renaissance artworks help us to understand the societal and cultural contexts of homosexuality in that period?

Around the 14th and 17th centuries, the Renaissance became regarded as the transitional age of medieval and contemporary Europe. The name comes from the French word ‘ rebirth ‘ and is determined by its renaissance in visual culture and regeneration of the creative standards of beauty and by its aesthetics, a juxtaposition of its ‘ sweet and beautiful ancestors ‘ (Johnson, Geraldine A., Renaissance Art: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2005). Perhaps a wave of fine art arose with this new focus on aesthetics and esthetics unlike those seen before or after.

Not only were artistic techniques and practices brilliantly developed, they have led to the creation of “a remarkably self-confident identity” (Brotton, Jerry, The Renaissance: A very brief introduction, 2006, by Oxford University Press). Even where the motivation or emotion behind a painting is difficult to grasp, they can still be identified as “recognizably modern” (ibid.). This is because people lacked “a strong sense of personal identity” (Ibid) before the fifteenth century, and the time is indicative of this shift in intellectual ignorance.

The period so deeply rooted in the growth of one’s culture that the Renaissance is supposed to expose gay identity history. Many critical thinkers and Renaissance artists have accused themselves of having homosexual identities because the homoerotic undertones some read from their work. While only a small number of Italian Renaissance people have been sufficiently educated to publish, it is more useful and productive to look at works of art that made the Renaissance so famous for (Reed, Christopher, Art and Homosexuality: The History of Ideas (Oxford University press, 2011). Therefore, a deeper understanding of the views of homosexuality and their effects on Renaissance society can be accomplished through an analysis of the lives and works of the Italian Renaissance artists.

Approach to exploring the history of art and sex.

homosexuality in renaissance art

Regardless of the time and related ideas regarding orientation, owing to the self-expressive nature of art, glimpses of the impulses of artists, including those of the same sex, are known to have entered many pieces. To many, the Italian Renaissance is a prime example of an era where homoerotic connotations can be explored in the works of some of the most famous artists of the time.

The view that the Renaissance is rich in homoerotic topics is not generally universal in its attractiveness, so there are a range of opinions on the subject. While this presumption can imply issues in the field of study, because consensus in the assessment of experts is always assumed to be academic success, it doesn’t actually apply.

Nevertheless, a convergence of historian ideas or opinions is generally not a achievement of agreement within the field in the studies of human sexuality and art throughout history, rather a result of a lack of evidence of homosexual society accessible to scholars (Ibid). For example, the vast range of opinions on homosexual significance and impact on the culture and art of the Italian Renaissance, academical as well as otherwise, represent the relatively large quantity of evidence for such in-depth theoretical discussions. Nevertheless, this ambiguity is not surprising because of the subjectivity of fiction, individuality and even society.

The very definition of sexuality and imagination makes a lot to be seen. A wide variety of questions would emerge, for example, if one would ask a group of people from any culture about the nature of sexuality, art or history. This is an important part of the appeal of this type of study because the diversity of opinions is more often available to entertaining and fascinating academias, and sometimes it creates problems in learning. The goal in analyzing the role played by homosexual identity in certain past periods should not, however, be to discover some universal truth on which all historians can agree, but to flourish in the context of such disparities and to use the similitudes and variations that may be identified to better understand human sexuality today.

It is also worth noting that it is dangerous to draw on the prior modern concepts or ideals, as with any historical analysis. The interpretation of earlier eras is often mixed with contemporary values and viewpoints, generating assumptions that do not include objective substances and lead to confusion in learning. This is especially important to note when researching human sexuality history. Obviously, as humans evolved, affection for members of the same sex has developed, both biologically and romantically. Nevertheless, the fact is that the definition of “Homosexual” as an individual identity did not exist until around the 19th century (Mondimore, Francis Mark, A Natural History of Homosexuality (John Hopkins University Press, 1996). So what might seem like homosexual behavior to modern and Western eyes might have had no sexual intentions, let alone homosexual ones, in the sense of that period.

This also refers to the study of Period art and culture. The Renaissance art has, because of its influence, become an integral part of Euro-American culture, and for the majority of the 19th and 20th centuries, mass reproductions of popular Renaissance paintings surrounded society. This familiarity allows citizens to overlook the difference between modern culture and the Renaissance, which could lead them to try and apply modern concepts and ideals in examining the period of time (Reed, Christopher, Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2011). Take, for instance, Doni Tondo’s painting by Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (see Appendix, Figure 1).

Doni Tondo, a bright colored painting on a gold-framed oval canvas, shows the Holy Family in front of a multitude of young, healthy, naked men. The pictures reflect Michelangelo’s search for a “natural” family and lifestyle (represented by the Holy Family that dominates the foreground), with his gay impulses being repressed and forced aside (represented by the plethora of male naked men that inhabit it background). While this definition is fascinating, it can not be confirmed whether or not it is accurate. It is most likely that the piece is simply a piece of religion that does not symbolize much more than that explicitly shown (along with the marital unity between the families of Doni and Strozzi for whom it was commissioned) that homosexual behaviors in the Renaître do not typically exclude one from the family norms of the time.

Many of the most famous homosexual figures of the Renaissance, as now, were husbands and fathers (Ibid). It is also true that marriage was seen as a threat to an artist like Michelangelo’s creative liberty, so it is probably not true that he mourned particularly his loss of a wife or child in or without his artistic works and procedures (ibid).

Similarly, in works like Michelangelo’s iconic Statue of David (see Appendix, Figure 2), contemporary representations of homoerotic beauty are often misinterpreted as a reflection of his homoerotic desires. Like the statue of David, several, if not most, Michelangelo’s works focused on the aesthetics that accompany the ideal form of the man, enabling him to glimpse the sexual preferences of Michelangelo. The Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci has the same fascination for male mechanics. His journals exhibit his lifelong study of the male body.

Similar to Michelangelo’s claims, this fascination is often speculated to represent Da Vinci’s true homosexual desire. Da Vinci’s renowned Mona Lisa (see Appendix, Figure 3) was speculated to depict a self-portrait of Da Vinci in drag, making some foolishly claim that the piece represents an expression of its homosexual identity.

All these claims are based on little concrete evidence, while they are valuable in developing dialogue on sexuality and literature. Historians, criticizers and connoisseurs of art today might theorize that the collections of certain influential artists of the Renaissance reflect their sexual desires, as if a modern man were to spend his life sketching barely veiled and promiscuously posed masculine figures. Nevertheless, artistic male obsession, as a product of Italian Renaissance culture and society, was more likely to represent the athletic male figure who was so highly and religiously admired, while the final objective of Renaissance art was a depiction of the ideal human form. Instead of imposing modern values on cultures of the past and trying to examine works of art in a modern context, it is more useful to look at why these pieces appear homoerotic to the modern eyes and how they were perceived and embraced by a culture which traditionally rejected homosexuality [ ibid. ].

In tandem with the issue of adapting modern Western values to classical studies, the all-too-usual misconception that modern Western society would present a normal standard based on exams for other times or regions often presents great danger. If the mind is not accessible to behaviors in an unknown society or time period, its review is blurred by harsh judgment and excessive demands, leading to too restricted conversations and thus restricting what can be uncovered. Conscious research can be performed with these disclaimers of mind.

An introduction to Renaissance homoeroticism.

homosexuality in renaissance art

In the majority of public areas, including religious spaces (Baldwin, Robert, The Renaissance Revival of Homoerotic Sex, Love and Lust, Connecticut College, 2005, art of the Renaissance often had pornographic and homoeric themes. Of example, defining such works as homoerotic does not mean that they were not heterosexual in their appeal. Since human anatomy is not compartmental or so easily categorized that we often believe in the culture of today, the difference between heterosexual and homosexual sexuality is usually difficult to distinguish. It may even be argued that there is no such differentiation, despite culturally entrenched tendencies to describe and apply such a fundamental distinct difference (ibid). This is one of the many examples of contradictions to be taken into account when concerned with the art of the moment and its sexual appeal.

Although Renaissance thinkers like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci are mostly unsexual, men or women, they are certainly very literally surrounded by love, and there is little hope that their artistic and intellectual ideas wouldn’t be corrupted (ibid.). Nevertheless, during this time, the dominant presence of heterosexual sex should not overwhelm the prevalent influence of homosexual relations. This pervasive homosexual behavior can be seen in comments such as the poet Dante Alighieri’s description of sodomy as ‘ the sin of Florence ‘ (Reed, Christopher, literature, and homosexuality: a history of ideas (Oxford University Press 2011). Yet even during their most brutal days, although moral and legal authorities disapproved of homosexual acts, sermons and laws seemed to change little. The contrary social realities, for reasons which were hard to determine, were that a relatively low tolerance for homosexual activities allowed homoerotic representations to pervade the art of the Renaissance (Baldwin, Robert, The Renaissance Revival of Homoerotic Love, Lust, and Desire).

Practices of the same sex in law.

homosexuality in renaissance art

Efforts to regulate homosexuality have intensified and continued to grow in the Renaissance since the end of the Middle Ages. Judicial repression has become more serious, less instigated by religious authorities, and more by the municipal governments that challenge the church over time for authoritarian power (Reed, Christopher, Art and Homosexuality: A History of the Ideas, 2011). The magistrates of Florence were of very low opinion of homosexuality, creating a special administration in 1432 which penalized the men who worked for homosexual activities called the Office of the Night (Lee, Alexander, The Ugly Renaissance: Love, Greed, Violence and Depravity in the Age of Beauty, 2013), and arresting a fourth of Florentine men on several occasions by the late fifteenth century, causes him Though, this description could be better suited for Venice’s sea-port city. Veneto’s legal documents also report, not only the arrests of large groups of men, but also various attempts to shut down love-related meeting places between men (ibid.).

By comparison to sodomy prosecutions by Italy, which have often been less severe than the rules, Venice cases of heterosexual and homosexual sodomy have usually been sentenced to mutilation and execution. This magnitude has been studied in Venice as a reaction to the similarly broad image as an area for heterosexual pornography or as a weapon for rivalry between the government and the church (ibid.). Nevertheless, it is clear that the definition of homosexuality changed constantly during the Renaissance, and while this confusion and ambiguity must have been distressing for those stuck there, historians benefit from the fact that formerly unregistered homosexual acts were now recorded in legal documents (ibid.).

Unlike the facts, sodomy charges in Florence have not always caused to incarceration and typically have been treated. While it is accurate that in 70 years of operation at the Night Office seventeen thousand people (hundreds per year) (Ibid), including Leonardo Da Vinci, had been accused of sodomy, only three thousand men had been prosecuted. Many people found guilty were punished much less leniently than the essence of the statute (Lee, Alexander, The Ugly Renaissance: Gender, Godliness, Terrorism and Diplomacy in the Beauty Age, 2013).

The significant disparities in Renaissance political, moral and social viewpoints led the Office of the Night to focus its energies on policing abuse and male pornography rather than on the policing of homosexual acts, as it had expected in its earlier years (ibid). While it is hard to explain why such discrepancies could have been widespread during the Renaissance, the theoretical theories that can be discussed can help one to see more clearly how homosexual practices have been found in Renaissance culture.

The essence of the same sex in the Renaissance.

homosexuality in renaissance artv

In fact, this disparity may be because a large fraction of homosexual activity was committed by married family members— men who would likely have portrayed themselves as heterosexual in the current language (Ibid). While this might reflect the widespread popularity of the bisexual unconscious identity during the time, it was most likely simply because the Renaissance men were too promiscuous to limit themselves to one sex (ibid.). Run-ins with the law were less about urges and more about behaviors because of homosexual encounters.

This notion is described in Domenico Sabino’s novel On Wives Comfort and Inconvenience, when the Emilia character states that “men are not content with servants children, maidens or prostitutes, but are reclining with boys to satisfy their wild and insane desire,” (Ibid) indicating that “sexual behavior was not seen as a foundation of individual identities in Renaissance Italy.” Where preachers and law enforcement officials denounced homosexuality, their condemnation was more of a contempt for what they thought was a “expression of a juvenile delinquency than a characteristic of an identifiable culture.” The lack of modern notions of homosexuality in the Renaissance is surprising but interesting because, while the Renaissance was renowned for its emergence from a questioning self-knowledge, modern notions of individual identity appear to postpone the Renaissance (Ibid).

Renaissance age stratification Same sex relationships and mythology.

Another reason Florentine leniency may have been the variability of homosexuality. It was generally thought that gay couples had to consist of an older and a younger partner, the elder partner took the lead, the younger assumed a more passive role, and this was true for the most part. This perceived change in age and status in homosexual relationships can translate into the present even as a common stereotype, outside and even within modern homosexual culture, because homosexual couples consist typically of a dominant and submissive partner. The stratification of the modern age of homosexual Renaissance marriages often fits with expectations for heterosexual relationships when men typically marry women of half their age (ibid).

This distinct era paradigm was particularly present in the artwork of the time in a homoerotic sense. The artists of the Renaissance were absolutely obsessed by the depictions of beautiful young people. This obsession is evidenced by works such as Donatello’s David (see Appendix, Figure 4), in which the usually bared Prophet is depicted as a nude young boy whose modesty is sexualised by the long leg caressing feather (ibid). Although the piece is certainly committed to homoeroticism, its development does not actually include definitive details about Donatello’s sexual life. Perhaps the talk about sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s identity is best known. Twice in his life, Cellini was placed under house arrest for sodomy allegation, and even though he denied those claims were true, he was too modest for “a noble custom” acceptable to “the great emperors and rulers” (ibid.). He has created numerous pieces after his sodomy trials as ‘ deficating celebrations of erotic ties between men and young men, ‘ (ibid), such as his statue Ganymede and the Eagle, showing the homoerotic Greek myth of the Ganymede’s rape, in which God Zeus takes the form of the eagle to capture and assault the shepherd’s boy. (See Appendix, Figure 5).

Cellini therefore sculpts to ensure that Zeus ‘ eagle is not as large and terrorizing as the original story, but rather small and positioned next to Ganymede who strokes her feathers in love (Ibid). It gives sculpture a more intimate tale, which indicates a romantic and homoerotic friendship between the two men, rather than the dark and perverted initial message. The more detailed visual depictions of the homoerotic myth (see Appendix, Figure 6) Michelangelo has provided only further modern interpretations of his homosexual identity.

The age stratification pattern was not only present in the works, but the personal lives of artists. Even if questions about Michelangelo’s and Leonardo Da Vinci’s sexual orientations are raised, it is because of relations with far younger gentlemen. In particular, Da Vinci was twice accused of sodomy on a 17-year-old model and kept a ten-year-old trainee, whom he repeatedly studied and painted (Ibid).

The Blurred Lines of Homoerotic and Platonic Friendship.

Even more specifically, Florentine leaders were willing to engage in a little irony because of the Renaissance love for platonic friendship, a concept that was particularly important for Renaissance artists. As Renaissance commentators have a common purpose in the creation of light, a platonic relationship and a connection has been encouraged to strengthen men’s “interests in business and the job” (Lee, Alexander, The Ugly Renaissance, Gender, Greed, Poverty and Depravity in an Age of Beauty, 2013).

Although those connections were “primarily distinguished by the closeness of two individuals in pursuit of the ideal,” it was not uncommon for the familiarity of these relationships to lead to a significant and distinct physical connection. The regularly homoerotic themes expressed in male platony friendship are illustrated in Marsilio Ficino’s 1484 commentary on Plato’s Symposion, De Amore, in which he indicates that homoerotic beauty is an integral part of platonic amitiy. Homerotic male Platonic relationships were thus “given a form of intellectual reasoning that could make homosexual activity easier and justify in the social environment, which officially rejected these activities” (ibid).

The Renaissance Patriarchal Standards.

homosexuality in renaissance art

It desire for Platonic love is partly due to the misogynetic thinking so highly valued in the Renaissance patriarchal society. Humanism in that day was based upon the revival of classical ideals and the study of Greek and Roman philosophy, while Greek philosophy which influenced Renaissance ideals believed that, in its ‘ heroic, all-powerful, triumphant, divinely perfect, ‘ females were spiritually and physically inferior to the male bodily (Baldwin, Robert, The Renaissance reconstruction of Homoerotic beauty, lust and desire). This refers to an analysis of the alleged homoeroticism of the time, in that the classification of men as the most desirable sex “allowed homoerotic love to have a certain reputation as the most genuine, intellectual, and sanctified love of everyone” (ibid.).

In his love essay, Symposium, classical Greek philosopher Plato “extinguishes the divine nature of homoerotic love in even the most romantic physical expression as characteristics of the greatest heroes and the most virile nations” (ibid) in passages such as “But the celestial love comes from a goddess whose features are feminine but exclusively males … This both misogynist and homoerotic meaning is displaied not only in Plato, but also in works such as one of Michelangelo’s numerous sonnets devoted to 15-year-old nobleman Tomasso Cavalieri, whom in his mid-fifties he supposedly fell love (Baldwin, Robert, The Renaissance Revival of Homoerotic Beauty, Love and Desire).

The love of what I am thinking about ascends: a woman is different, but her love is all manly wise in the head.

The one love is rising, the other downwards; the spirit shows it, while the senses are going, and its arrow at the base quarry always flies.

In the Greek metaphysical ideal, the male body was ideally proportionate, and thus more attractive and aesthetically pleasing than that of female Renaissance artists, like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, as seen in sonnets, such as those previously studied. This serves as a response to the prevailing hypothesis, that the representations of female figures by Da Vinci and Michelangelo had such masculine characteristics because they saw a larger proportion of nude men than women and perhaps put more energy in presenting the attractiveness of the male body which they so enjoyed.

In a modern perspective, what seems to be homosexual desires may simply reflect women’s Renaissance values that even the most illuminated citizens of the period were not excluded from. Of example, it still needs discussion as to why these principles could have been extended to influential artists of the time. And there was also a homoerotic logic behind the male physics philosophy.

The lack of lesbian focused homoerotic material in literature and otherwise is also the product of the Renaissance’s patriarchal value system. Sexual behavior among women was illegal in the time, but Renaissance definitions of sex only focused on phallic penetration. There was therefore a serious condemnation of the relationships between women and the usage of artificial phallus, while anything in which they participated without a phalllic object was not regarded as sex or punishable formally (Reed, Christopher, Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas (Oxforde University Press 2011).

This is the complete absence of women suing women in Venice and Florence for sexual misconduct compared to the large numbers of men prosecuted (ibid). Clearly, this almost non-existent evidence of sex between women in the Renaissance does not mean, however, that it was probably thought to be shameful (Ibid). Likewise, there is no evidence of Renaissance woman artists requiring no investigation of female artists who might have been falsely convicted of sapphire as it is for male artists and their sodomy trials (ibid.).

Examining these aspects of Renaissance society and the works of art which they illustrate can be seen to show that the ways in which the Renaissance people perceived the same sexual behavior and homoerotic esthetics have been complex and contradictory. Distinguishing opinions of law, church, artistic society and the general public gave rise to a diverse perspective on homosexuality, so renowned for its valuable perspectives and in-depth understanding.

This diversity is reflected not only in the works of prominent Italian Renaissance artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti but also in their personal lives and relations. It is not to assume that all artworks and artists who are genuinely perceived as gay from a contemporary point of view, as this can not be said for sure. However, the modernly perceived homoerotic cosmetic approach that appears to be rampant in Renaissance art helps us to understand better perspectives of same-sex love over time, and subsequently how understanding of homosexual identity has been enlarged over time.

Thank You.

Written by WikiRush Staff


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