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Italian Literature  
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In his two short novels, Tra donne sole (Among Women Only [1949]) and La bella estate (The Beautiful Summer [1940]), Pavese portrays the life of the decadent, bohemian bourgeoisie of Turin in the 1930s. In the first of these, two of the numerous minor characters are revealed to have had a lesbian relationship, but its significance is trivialized as merely the result of boredom or emotional immaturity, the sign of the moral stagnation of their class.

Similarly, in La bella estate, Amalia contracts syphilis after a sexual encounter with a female artist. Again the idea of a relationship between women is used simply to underline male political, sexual, and emotional impotence and the extent of moral apathy in a particular class.

A more disturbing picture emerges in Pratolini's Cronache dei poveri amanti (A Tale of Poor Lovers [1947]), which offers a panoramic vision of the lives of the inhabitants of one Florentine street. These simple folk are dominated by the figure of the elderly, bedridden Signora, who controls the affairs of the street from her top floor apartment through a network of informants dependent on her in a number of ways.

Beautiful in her youth, she exploited her charms to lead men to their destruction, but now she is grossly disfigured, and her physical deformity directly expresses her evil nature. Moreover, she forces her young female attendants to submit to her lascivious caresses.

Pratolini makes explicit the parallel between her manipulation of those around her and the tyranny of Fascism. Physically and morally, she is likened to Mussolini. Fascism is a lesbian. There can be no greater condemnation.

The theme of homosexuality and Fascism receives a different treatment by Giorgio Bassani in Gli occhiali d'oro (The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles [1958]). The novel is set in Ferrara during the 1930s and focuses on the disgrace of Athos Fadigati, a well-established doctor in the city.

Fadigati is known to be homosexual yet initially his position--and especially his discretion--protects him from public disapproval. Finally, however, the Ferrarese bourgeoisie can no longer turn a blind eye once he begins to flaunt his relationship with a good-looking younger man by whom he is shamelessly exploited and humiliated. Public derision is compounded by the criminal behavior of his companion, and the story ends in Fadigati's suicide.

The novel is told from the perspective of a young Jewish boy and becomes a kind of parable of the alienation of the formerly integrated Jewish community in Italy after the introduction of the Race Laws in 1938.

Bassani adds a new dimension to the familiar topos that Italian homosexual relations have tended to follow the Greek intergenerational model. In Italy, the pedagogical rather than the erotic nature of relations between men of widely differing ages has often been stressed.

The Poetry of Michelangelo

This tension between purity of intent and carnal longing is at the heart of the poetry of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). The tension is worked out through the use of typical Petrarchan conceits such as the inaccessibility of the loved one and the idealization of physical beauty, or through characteristic imagery such as the icy fire.

As a poet, Michelangelo is perhaps best known for the sonnets and madrigals inspired by Tommaso de' Cavalieri whom Michelangelo met in 1532 when Tommaso was twenty-three. Michelangelo's poetic innovation lies in his reworking of a set of conventions that previously had been employed solely to express heterosexual love.

The innovation required only the alteration of pronouns revealing the gender of the beloved, but in doing so, the poet is able to make a personal statement within a rigidly coded poetic form. The conventional nature of his poetry is indicated when later he deploys similar imagery and conceits to address Vittoria Colonna, a female poet whom he greatly admired.

James Saslow in his book The Poetry of Michelangelo notes that the Petrarchan tradition provided Michelangelo with a ready framework in terms of which to express his unrequited love. In addition, a form so dependent on the structure of paradox could well convey the poet's own apparent anxiety toward homosexual feelings and the extent to which they came into conflict with his Christian faith.

The Acceptance of Homosexuality in the Renaissance

It should not be supposed, however, that the anguished tone of Michelangelo's lyric poetry exhausts the ways in which homosexual desire was experienced in the Italian Renaissance. Other writers offer a more accepting view of the place of homosexuality in society.

Pietro Aretino's play Il marescalco (The Stablemaster) is a case in point. First produced in 1533 for the court of Mantua, which provided a haven for Aretino after he had encountered problems with the official censors in the less liberal Papal States, the play has as its central character a man whose erotic preferences are unambiguously homosexual. That this preference is a definite aspect of his personality rather than simply a vice among others is clear.

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