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Italian Literature  
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Homosexuality as a Metaphor for Moral and Political Corruption

One of the most common metaphorical uses of homosexuality is as an indicator of the moral and political corruption of the state. Dante in his depiction of the sodomites in the seventh circle of Hell in cantos 15 and 16 of the Inferno explicitly links the allegedly widespread practice of homosexuality in Florence to the political decline of the city and to the moral decadence of the Florentine people.

From a theological point of view, the sinners are already damned, but in these cantos Dante's respect for the individuals he meets and interest in the politics of his native city appear to override his condemnation of their vice. The sodomites he encounters are all from Florence, and Dante makes the most of his conversations with them to expound his views on the city's decline.

Florence in this period was riven by factional infighting. Dante's criticism relates more particularly to the fact that the city's increased prosperity had led to a general slackening of moral standards especially among the newly enriched classes. Homosexuality is associated with unnerving social change. This perceived relation is one that will be taken up by a number of later writers.

Sodomy in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance periods was often referred to as the "Florentine vice." In 1494, when the Medici regime in Florence fell, one of the main charges leveled against it as an indicator of its depravity by its leading opponent, the revolutionary, fanatical priest Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), was that it was excessively given over to the practice of . An intimate connection was adduced between homosexual acts and political turpitude.

Some centuries later, the Enlightenment thinker, Cesare Beccaria, argued in Dei delitti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments [1764]) that "la greca libidine" ought to be discouraged since its occurrence did indeed signify the waning of civilization; he placed it on a par with infanticide and adultery. Unlike Savonarola, however, Beccaria advocated prevention rather than immolation as the correct response.

That the association of homosexuality and social decline does not belong solely to the past is amply demonstrated in twentieth-century literature. It is a fairly common topos among left-wing writers attempting to portray the decadence and moral bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie. In her short novel Valentino (1957) and later in Caro Michele (Dear Michele [1973]), Natalia Ginzburg uses the figure of the male homosexual to symbolize the cruel indifference of men to women in a society where human relations are essentially sterile.

Homosexuality and Fascism

A more overtly political note is given to this theme by antifascist writers for whom the struggle against tyranny is often represented as the prerogative of a virile working class. In novels such as Ignazio Silone's Fontamara (1933) and Le terre del Sacramento (The Estate in Abruzzi [1950]) by Francesco Jovine, the antifascist hero is big, muscular, and morally upright. His normative heterosexuality forms an essential part of his political credentials.

Conversely, supporters of the Fascist regime are invariably sexually suspect. Their sexual ambivalence is inseparable from their political misallegiance. The most overt example of this occurs in Alberto Moravia's novel Il conformista (The Conformist [1951]). Marcello, the main character, is shown to be a supporter of Mussolini on account of the absence of a strong father figure in his life.

As a child, he is seen as effeminate by his school friends. He is almost seduced by an older man who promises to give the boy a gun in exchange for what he, the man, wants. There is a brief struggle in which the gun goes off and Marcello flees, leaving the man for dead. Indelibly marked by these experiences, Marcello is portrayed as a cold and repressed figure, a homosexual.

As an adult anxious to feel part of society, he imitates its values and is prepared to kill for them. He marries a woman he does not love to prove his normality yet later learns that she has had a lesbian affair in the past.

In this novel, the malfunction of middle-class Italian society is represented through the metaphor of sexual aberration. Moravia's thesis is that Mussolini's attraction for this class lay in his ability to compensate on some level for its lack of manliness. In this way, Moravia avoids any substantial political critique of the system.

In the work of Cesare Pavese and Vasco Pratolini, it is the figure of the lesbian that is used to suggest the moral emptiness or absolute wickedness of the regime.

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