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European Art: Renaissance  
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A great deal of evidence about sexuality survives from the Renaissance; its interpretation, however, varies. People did not conceive of themselves in terms of having a sexual identity, so a purely biographical approach to the period is not very illuminating. Instead, one can consider various cultural patterns, especially the conditions of artistic production and the types of subjects and themes represented.

Conditions of Artistic Production and Evidence of Same-sex Activities

Although it was once believed that there was a paucity of evidence about same-sex activities in Renaissance Europe, it is now possible to emphasize the virtual ubiquity of same-sex conditions during the period.

The genders were frequently segregated, especially among the upper classes, in educational and religious institutions, and in most work environments, all sites important to the production and consumption of art. Women were largely enclosed; men consorted with other men in a range of spaces.

Evidence about actual sexual practice varies, but there is often no proof of an artist's "heterosexual" interest. Social historians note the coexistence of various erotic experiences and observe that, as Michael Rocke comments, "males were in general rather flexible about the biological sex of the objects of their desire." Rocke's study of fifteenth-century Florence estimates that two of every three males left some legal record of experience.

Even condemnations of an "unspeakable," "unnatural vice" gave it a discursive existence and spread intimations of what was erotically possible. Attempted censorship increased the piquancy and desirability of overtly sexual imagery.

The issue is not so much the quantity of evidence as the types, and the ways in which it is read for sexual content. Besides straightforwardly positive or negative representations of same-sex activity, scholars are beginning to notice such modalities as satire, burlesque, irony, nuance, and equivocation.

Whether or not various documented practices began in the Renaissance, new kinds of evidence survive. The advent of print culture codified and disseminated forms of oral culture, such as sexual invective, pasquinades (or lampoons), and obscene jokes. Print technology also enabled the wider marketing of erotic imagery, which in turn increased demand. The Reformation sharpened polemic accusing opponents of same-sex sins.

is also evident in artists' writings, including poetry by Michelangelo and Bronzino. Cellini's autobiography, written during house arrest for sodomy, noted sexual encounters with women and, less explicitly, erotic attraction to youths. Offices established to regulate sexual activities received denunciations of artists for sodomy with apprentices or models (Leonardo in 1476, Botticelli in 1502, and Cellini in 1523 and 1557, for example).

Conditions of production in a workshop system favored all-male sociability and erotic contact. Trainees were advised to avoid women; many artists did not marry. Several anecdotes record Donatello's erotic relations with apprentices. A succession of attractive models and pupils enthralled Leonardo. For twenty-six years he endured the antics of his favorite (suo creato) "Salai" ("Satan") who entered his service as a ten year old in 1490 and was his model for depictions of youthful, curly-headed male beauty.

Botticelli, described by Vasari as "extraordinarily fond of those he knew to be students of the arts," was renowned for having nightmares about being married. A poet described the married Giovanni Bellini in bed with a boy. Married with two children, the painter Sodoma nevertheless openly adopted the daring nickname by which he is still known. Cellini pled guilty to the charge of keeping an apprentice for five years "as though he were a wife" (a common expression).

Social gatherings in workshops provided sexual opportunities, and such occasions multiplied in the sixteenth century when artist clubs staged fancy-dress parties or theatrical entertainments. Cellini described a Roman dinner party for artists that was attended by female prostitutes and a seductively cross-dressed youth.

Official disapproval and punitive measures co-existed with a fair degree of tolerance among many patrons and humanists. Bonds between patrons and dependent artists were sometimes eroticized. Particularly in restricted circles, such as a poetic coterie, a courtly elite, or a so-called academy (reading group), homoerotic imagery and wit was appreciated.

Bronzino's double-sided painting of the front and rear of a naked dwarf in the Medici court, for instance, makes several homoerotic allusions. The humanist Willibald Pirckheimer wrote a Greek inscription on his portrait sketched by his friend Dürer: "With erect penis, into the man's rectum."

The interests of certain collectors are telling. For example, Antonio Pèrez, Philip II's Secretary of State until accused of sodomy in 1579, owned Correggio's Ganymede and Parmigianino's Cupid carving his bow.

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Top: Detail from a painting by Giovanni Bellini showing Saints Anselm (left) and Sebastian.
Center: Cupid Carving his Bow by Parmigianino.
Above: Saint George by Donatello.

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