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Italian Literature  
 
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Italy figures large in the Western imagination: The novels of Henry James, E. M. Forster, Thomas Mann, and more recently Edmund White testify to the persuasive romance of Italy as a favored location for the gay writer.

External perceptions of Italy, however, continue to oscillate between two contrasting mythical poles. It is either seen as the prehistoric land of sexually available nymphs and shepherds or is condemned to remain the cenotaph of high culture in which homosexual aesthetes can vent their artistic sensibility.

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Both versions have probably played a part in the varied constructions of gay identity but say little about the historical realities and cultural representations of homosexuality in Italy itself.

The Problems in Discovering a Homosexual Tradition

The discussion of homosexuality in Italy is complicated also because it is difficult to view the peninsula as a single historical or geographical unit before Unification in 1870, and even today Italy is marked by enormous social and cultural diversity.

Although many similarities between individual towns and states could obtain, there were also countless variations due to the type of government, the nature of foreign influences that may have held sway, the religious climate, and the very great differences that existed between urban and rural communities.

It should therefore be remembered that there is a certain artificiality in establishing links of continuity between writers whose national allegiances can be considered sometimes tenuous. Moreover, political division and economic underdevelopment led to Italy largely missing out on the bourgeois cultural revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Perhaps the most significant loss to the country and to this project is that Italy had little part in the great novel explosion of the period. As a result, Italy did not until more recently have a strong tradition in the very genre that has as its fundamental motivation the negotiation between the individual subject and society.

If homosexuality itself has had a discontinuous, fragmented history and a precarious inscription in literature, perhaps for this reason alone the Italian experience with its frayed edges, silences, and contradictions can somehow stand as emblematic of that shattered past and tradition.

The Name of the Rose

The complexities of representing homosexuality in literature and locating it in its social context have been most tellingly explored in recent years in a novel that only with a great effort of the imagination would normally be classified as gay, Umberto Eco's Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose).

Published in 1980, the work operates on a number of levels. It is a compelling detective story, a historical novel set in the Middle Ages, a compendium of arcane period detail, a fictional exemplification of semiotic theory, a metaphorical exploration of the troubled Italian political situation of the 1970s, and much more besides.

What unites these disparate threads is that they all in some manner relate to the intimate bonds between men that structure the ways in which society functions. Such bonds have been referred to as "," a term that uneasily brings together the political and erotic aspects of relationships between men.

The main character in the novel is William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk who has been invited to a monastery in the north of Italy to take part in talks aimed at reconciling the warring factions of the church, itself the archetypal bastion of male authority.

He is accompanied by a young German novice, Adso, who is the story's narrator and who acts as William's scribe and assistant throughout the course of the events related. They are bound together by the type of affection that has long been thought to characterize relations between an older and younger man. William is the teacher, Adso the disciple. The erotic nature of these bonds is made more explicit on their arrival at the monastery.

The monastic community has been torn asunder by homicide and it is soon apparent that one of the possible motives is (homo)sexual jealousy among the monks. The novel is about power and about the ways in which power between men operates. It is finally revealed that in this monastery supposedly devoted to celibate learning, unauthorized access to the library shelves is often most expediently gained through the exchange of illicit sexual favors, which of course must remain secret.

The homosocial community of men is defined in terms of its uncanny potential for homosexuality: homosexuality in the guise of criminality. The homosexual as outlaw haunts this community.

In the novel's other main plot, the negotiations between the different factions of the church, the charge of homosexual behavior is used to discredit the various dissenting (often non-Italian) groups classified as heretical.

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