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Travel Literature  
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Travel has afforded gays and lesbians both freedom from the restraints of their own cultures and the erotic stimulus of exotic sexual customs and partners.

The development of travel literature in relation to gay and lesbian sensibility has been one of the least understood areas of modern cultural history and anthropology.

Before approximately 1800, the development has been even less clear, especially the degree to which travel was a means of coping with homosexual desire, rather than indulging or satisfying it. Scholars have assumed that travelers in history harbored no erotic or sexual curiosity: Thus even the much discussed Grand Tour of the Enlightenment was shorn of its significant erotic components.

The Old Model of Travel Literature and Its Subversion

The old model was that travelers voyaged to other countries to inspect foreign customs and practices, antiquities and shrines, for purely educational purposes, a view that omitted the traveler's erotic curiosity because such a topic was considered impolite for public discussion until our generation.

Travelers to Greece and Rome offer perfect examples of the "polite school" of interpretation of the Grand Tour, one in which all discussion was couched in the terms of neoclassical retrieval, archaeological marbles, and cultural enrichment; yet the record shows that travelers were as impressed with the sexual customs of the natives.

Richard Payne Knight's discovery in the 1780s of priapic fertility cults in Sicily demonstrates the point. When the English Society of Dilettanti privately published Knight's Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786) there was near hysteria among educated circles in London because neoclassical retrieval had been discussed in these terms. Nevertheless, at home it became clear to what degree eros and travel commingled.

The essence of travel over the Alps was the discovery of landscapes and customs at variance with practices at home. In the sexual domain, these new images--couples, partners, lovers, arrangements of social classes--combined to provide an entirely new education for the traveler.


Italy and the Italians stimulated the northern European imagination most: Here in the sunny Mediterranean south, amid the ruins of a Roman past, social relations between men and women appeared to flourish in another realm than anything known at home.

Seymour Conway, one of the travelers in Horace Walpole's circle, wrote on departing Florence in 1752, "there are but two things at all thought of here--love and antiquities, of which the former predominates . . . ." Conway's sentiment continued to be echoed down through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as travelers returning from Italy publicized the erotic liaisons they had seen there, prompting those who had never traveled south to construe Italy and points farther east as the home of homosexual relations.

The anonymous author of Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy in England (1729) reiterated the point, and Daniel Defoe even claimed that boys could be bought there for almost nothing. The variety of homo- and heterosexual arrangements--the Italian institutions of the lover, mistress, gigolo, and cisisbeo, in which a married woman takes a male lover--differed from patterns in northern Europe.

As William Beckford commented, the Mediterranean was "the place for sinners of a certain sort." Travelers on the Grand Tour personally witnessed networks clustered around the great villas in Florence (Earl of Tylney), Rome (Cardinal Albani), and Naples (Sir William Hamilton and his erotic wife "Emma" were the subject, for example, of many paintings depicting nubile female beauty).

Conway's perception about "love and antiquity" crystallized into a paradigm of "eros and retrieval" that informed every aspect of the neoclassical movement, about which so much has been written and which has such significant implications for the history of collecting and connoisseurship.

Greece and the Balkans

Northern Europeans' travel beyond Italy to the Balkans and Greece was rare before 1800. Both locales had rich associations with homosexuality, however. In ancient Greece, of course, men and boys had been institutionally encouraged to become "lovers" (erastes and eromenos), and by 1760, dictionaries explained that "" derived from the Bulgarian "bouger" or "bugger," pushing farther east than Italy the home of sodomy and birth of man-boy love.


Those, such as Jesuit missionaries, who traveled still farther east returned with vivid accounts of homosexuality in Turkey and the Levant, and even points farther east in the Orient. By approximately 1800, an Orientalism developed that linked turqueries to all-male harems, and Turkish spies to cults of oriental . One nineteenth-century account described English travelers as having been bathed by boys in lemon oil under the moonlight in Persepolis.

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