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A Brief History of Homosexuality in Italy from Ancient Rome to Today

“Little by little, and always at a much slower pace than most other European countries, Italy is changing its attitude towards LGBTQ+ people”

When talking about Italian history and homosexuality, people often spontaneously invoke the rainbow triad: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio. Knowing that three of the most important artists in history shared my same sexuality gives me a bit of comfort, especially considering recent events in my home country.  

After painful years of discussions and many setbacks, Italy finally recognised same-sex civil unions in 2016. Although the country provides same-sex couples most of the rights granted to married straight couples, we still don’t have access to marriage, because, as right-wing politicians and fundamentalist Catholics like to remind us, “marriage is solely that between a man and a woman.” And what about last year, when the Senate blocked a law against homotransphobia? The law, known as “ddl Zan”, sought to punish hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. The senators who voted against it celebrated the news inside parliament by exulting and clapping like their favorite football team had just won the Champions League. Speaking of which, among the over 2,500 Italian professional footballers, I am not aware of anyone who has come out of the closet. Not a single one. 

However, Italy has a rich history of homosexuality that goes beyond celebrated artists to embrace common people too. It’s a history traceable by the sole documents deemed worthy of preservation: court records, trials and convictions (mainly concerning men), which reveal the presence of communities and, in some instances, proper subcultures in many Italian cities since the 15th century. 

Way before then, in the 6th century BC, the Etruscans left frescoes in Tarquinia, Lazio depicting men engaging in anal sex, and the Ancient Greeks had imported their same-sex relations–a form of civil education for young men–to their colonies in South Italy.

Ancient Rome’s social elite, mostly influenced by Greek models, also kept a pretty relaxed attitude towards same-sex encounters, which were almost the norm among the upper class, emperors included. The stars went to Nero, who allegedly married two of his freedmen, and Trajan, famous for his fondness for boys. We all know about the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous from Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian”, which, by romanticising the pairing, may have distorted the way we think about homosexuality in ancient times.

Homosexual relationships the way we intend them today–between two free adults–were rarely allowed. Patriarchy was all the rage in the empire and Roman men, who were obsessed with their virility then as now, could have sex with other men only if they took the penetrative role. Male prostitution was very common, regulated, and taxed for a good profit for the Empire. 

By the Later Roman Empire, a strict concept of sexuality for the lower class had become dominant. Morality had changed towards a substantial condemnation of homosexuality, which found a perfect match in the incipient Christian ethics. Graffiti in Pompeii reveals the homophobia of the average passerby with some added notes of color. One can still read: “Secundus sucks it”, “Ismenus cocksucker”, “Narcissus is the greatest cocksucker”, and the worst insult possible: “Broken ass”. Who knew that, along with numerals and aqueducts, Ancient Romans invented bottom-shaming too?

And just like that, we went from “partying like it was B.C” to legislation prescribing death as punishment for same-sex relations in the 4th century AD. The jurisdiction was passed on to the Byzantines and from there, went straight through the Middle Ages. Contrary to northern European countries, in which the death penalty was executed by hanging or drowning, in Italy the most common punishment for “sodomites” and in some cases for lesbians, was death by burning at the stake. We Italians have always had a flair for the dramatic.  

It isn’t by chance that in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto XV), sodomites are described as running under a rain of fire, condemned to never stop. There, Dante meets his guardian and teacher Brunetto Latini, described with immense affection and respect. It’s one of the Inferno’s most-known pages, still read by hundreds of Italian students every year, which likely makes Latini one of the most famous Italian gay men in history. 

Between the 14th and the 16th centuries, Italy played a privileged role in European history: economy, society and the arts flourished. The almost two centuries of the Italian Renaissance were marked by a renewed interest in classical culture and a rediscovery of forgotten authors, and Plato and his theory of love were brought back to the scene by prominent intellectuals like Marsilio Ficino. A hopeless misogynist, Plato saw the ideal relationship as one between two men, who, by sublimating physical attraction, would be able to reach wisdom and truth. (We’ll never know if the kind of love between Pico della Mirandola and Girolamo Benivieni, two of Ficino’s close friends, was entirely platonic, but it was surely enough for them to be buried together in Florence’s church of San Marco.) 

The City of Lilies was right at the centre of this movement, which guaranteed an unprecedented degree of tolerance towards homosexuals. The “San Francisco of the Renaissance” might not have had the Folsom Street Fair, but people certainly knew how to enjoy themselves. While other cities punished hundreds of people, Florence kept a more relaxed approach to the matter, so much so that the situation seemed completely out of control to the religious moralists of the time. Priest Bernardino of Siena admonished our too libertine ancestors on many occasions, stating in one of his sermons that: “There’s no people in the world more sodomite than Italians.”

Almost two centuries later, things hadn’t changed much when a Scottish traveler wrote about Padua, lamenting that “for beastly Sodomy, it is rife here as in Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologna, Venice, Ferrara, Genoa, Parma not being exempted, nor yet the smallest village of Italy.” 

Sodomy was a crime well into the 18th century, until Napoleon’s Grande Armée conquered half of Europe and extended the post-revolutionary French laws to Italy too. Same-sex sexual activity (for both men and women) became eventually legal in 1890, when the new penal code of the unified country was promulgated. 

Partly because of this new legal system, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italy turned into a refuge for homosexuals from northern Europe and the U.S. Known for the apparent “willingness” of its male population–who were, in fact, in desperate need of money–southern Italy became particularly popular, especially Capri and Taormina.

It is grotesque that, years later, Fascism would punish homosexuals by sending them to confinement in nearby destinations, often extremely poor islands in the middle of nowhere. (Ironically, today, some of these very locations chosen by the Fascist regime to confine homosexual men have become gay holiday venues.) 

Postwar Italy, politically dominated by the country’s Catholic party, didn’t do much against the diffused homophobia of those years. Society cared about gay people only for the wrong reasons, as it happened in 1960 when an investigation on the “homosexual scene” in the northern town of Brescia turned into a massive media case with endless plot twists and unfounded accusations (which included one of human trafficking). When the so-called “Scandalo dei Balletti Verdi ” (“Green Ballets Scandal”) reached TV personalities like Mike Bongiorno, the entire country turned its morbose attention to it. 

In 1971, Fuori! (Out!), the first homosexual organization in Italy, was founded. Mario Mieli, the most famous Italian LGBTQ+ activist, took part in the movement before founding his own organization. A year later, a group of gay people publicly demonstrated for their rights for the first time in the history of the country. 

Since then, the Italian queer community has been keeping an active role in manifesting and demanding rights. Little by little, and always at a much slower pace than most other European countries, Italy is changing its attitude towards LGBTQ+ people. From persecuted to trendsetters, queer people are becoming more and more accepted…as long as we don’t get too close to the Italian parliament or a football pitch! 

Photography of the Nini-Treadwell Collection © “Loving" by 5 Continents Editions