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social sciences

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With more than 60 million inhabitants, the Republic of Italy is the fifth largest country in Europe and the 23rd most populous country in the world. Located principally on the Italian peninsula in south-central Europe, Italy is a democratic republic.

Although it is a founding member of the European Union, Italy lags beyond other member states in the protections and respect it accords to glbtq citizens, especially gay and lesbian couples.

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With its rich classical and artistic heritage, Italy has historically been an important country for sensibilities. Gay subcultures have been documented in late medieval and Renaissance Florence, Venice, and Rome; and during the Renaissance, was even described in Northern Europe as "the Italian vice."

Yet the Renaissance in Italy was also a time of periodic purges and fierce crackdowns against "sodomites," who frequently suffered the death penalty. Records preserve thousands of accusations of sodomy in Florence and Venice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Notwithstanding the great artistic achievement of the Italian Renaissance, and the contributions of gay artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Cellini, and Caravaggio, the era was also one fraught with danger for members of sexual minorities.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Italy attracted well-off educated homosexual travelers who were fascinated by the classical ideals of male virility and beauty.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries especially, Italy came to be regarded by many glbtq Englishmen, Germans, Scandinavians, and Americans as a psychic (and, in some cases, also a literal) refuge, a place where the inhabitants were passionate and sexually uninhibited.

Northern Europeans and Americans came to think of Italy as a place where they could fulfill their erotic fantasies free of the sexual inhibitions and conventions (as well as the laws) of their homelands. Hence, in much of the literature of the era, Italy is depicted as a place where repressed Northerners traveled to overcome their sexual and emotional restrictions.

Despite this reputation for sexual freedom, it is unlikely that Italy was actually as liberated as it is portrayed in English and German literature, which probably says more about the emotional repression and self-consciousness of the north than it does about the sexual liberation of the south.

One reason for Italy's reputation for sexual permissiveness is that, except for 28 years following the country's unification in 1861, homosexuality was not criminalized in Italy. Even during the dark days of the Fascist dictatorship, the persecution of homosexuals did not reach levels of cruelty comparable to that of Nazi Germany.

Yet, this lack of repressive legislation does not mean that Italians were necessarily more progressive in their attitude towards homosexuality than other Europeans. On the contrary, while homosexuality was not itself criminalized, it was in effect rendered invisible.

Italian Unification

Modern Italy may be dated from the founding of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, which was the culmination of the long struggle for Italian unification. The Kingdom of Italy survived until 1946, when the Republic of Italy was established.

Most of the different states into which the Italian peninsula was divided in the early part of the eighteenth century were deeply influenced by the Napoleonic Code, which had been applied to the peninsula during Napoleon's domination. Under the Napoleonic Code, private homosexual behavior was not considered a crime.

The one notable state in which homosexuality was criminalized was the Kingdom of Sardinia, whose ruling monarchy took the military initiative to unify the country in the war against Austria in 1859 and in Garibaldi's expeditions of 1860 and 1861.

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Arcigay is the leading glbtq activist organization in Italy today.
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