Read Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence by Michael Rocke Online


The men of Renaissance Florence were so renowned for sodomy that "Florenzer" in German meant "sodomite." Indeed, in the late fifteenth century, as many as one in two Florentine men had come to the attention of the authorities for sodomy by the time they were thirty. In the seventy years from 1432 to 1502, some 17,000 men--in a city of only 40,000--were investigated for sodThe men of Renaissance Florence were so renowned for sodomy that "Florenzer" in German meant "sodomite." Indeed, in the late fifteenth century, as many as one in two Florentine men had come to the attention of the authorities for sodomy by the time they were thirty. In the seventy years from 1432 to 1502, some 17,000 men--in a city of only 40,000--were investigated for sodomy; 3,000 were convicted and thousands more confessed to gain amnesty. Michael Rocke vividly depicts this vibrant sexual culture in a world where these same-sex acts were not the deviant transgressions of a small minority, but an integral part of a normal masculine identity.In 1432 The Office of the Night was created specifically to police sodomy in Florence. Seventy years of denunciations, interrogations, and sentencings left an extraordinarily detailed record, which Rocke uses to its fullest in this richly documented portrait. He describes a wide range of sexual experiences between males, ranging from boys such as fourteen-year-old Morello di Taddeo, who prostituted himself to fifty-seven men, to the notorious Jacopo di Andrea, a young bachelor implicated with forty adolescents over a seventeen-year period and convicted thirteen times; same-sex "marriages" like that of Michele di Bruno and Carlo di Berardo, who were involved for several years and swore a binding oath to each other over an altar; and Bernardo Lorini, a former Night Officer himself with a wife and seven children, accused of sodomy at the age of sixty-five. (Mortified, he sent his son Taddeo to confess for him and plead for a discreet resolution of his case.) Indeed, nearly all Florentine males probably had some kind of same-sex experience as a part of their "normal" sexual life.Rocke uncovers a culture in which sexual roles were strictly defined by age, with boys under eighteen the "passive" participants in sodomy, youths in their twenties and older men the "active" participants, and most men at the age of thirty marrying women, their days of sexual frivolity with boys largely over. Such same sex activities were a normal phase in the transition to adulthood, and only a few pursued them much further. Rather than precluding heterosexual experiences, they were considered an extension of youthful and masculine lust and desire. As Niccolo Machiavelli quipped about a handsome man, "When young he lured husbands away from their wives, and now he lures wives away from their husbands." Florentines generally accepted sodomy as a common misdemeanor, to be punished with a fine, rather than as a deadly sin and a transgression against nature. There was no word, in the otherwise rich Florentine sexual lexicon, for "homosexual," nor was there a distinctive and well-developed homosexual "subculture." Rather, sexual acts between men and boys were an integral feature of the dominant culture.Rocke roots this sexual activity in the broader context of Renaissance Florence, with its social networks of families, juvenile gangs, neighbors, patronage, workshops, and confraternities, and its busy political life from the early years of the Republic through the period of Lorenzo de' Medici, Savonarola, and the beginning of Medici princely rule. His richly detailed book paints a fascinating picture of a vibrant time and place and calls into question our modern conceptions of gender and sexual identity....

Title : Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence
Author :
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ISBN : 9780195122923
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 384 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence Reviews

  • Tyler
    2019-04-08 18:54

    In fifteenth century Florence a judicial agency known as The Office of the Night left written records that allow this author, Michael Rocke, to put together a uniquely detailed picture of homosexual relations in that medieval city. But what do we learn? I'm of two minds about the result. The author's presentation is weakest where he thinks it's strong, and strongest in its secondary documentation. Rocke's idea is to take the records of thousands of reports and prosecutions for "sodomy" between 1432 and 1502 and put together a picture of same-sex activity sufficient to contrast with our modern ideas of homosexuality. He eventually does achieve his goal, but not by crunching numbers. The author thinks he's doing a scientific study of the records, but he's only playing with percentages. This researcher is fascinated with his subject, but he's too close to it to attain the objectivity needed to present this to the public. His great weakness is his profound understanding of Italian culture during that period, which leads to a failure to establish the necessary premises. A major factor affecting sexual relations between older and younger males in that period was the marriage age; men of any standing didn't normally get married until their thirties. Although it comes up over and over, the writer never tries to explain why men married so late. Nor does he give us any background on the relations between unmarried males and females that would help us understand why young adults seemed to prefer male teenagers to women. Nor does he seem to know anything about the mass of the population, the poor, the servants and slaves, the dispossessed, rural laborers and so on. He assumes his readers already have some knowledge of medieval Florence. For these reasons, along with a weak use of statistics, he cannot show how sodomy, as it was called, fit in with the larger society. This writer has a bad habit, too, of qualifying every conclusion he does reach to the point that it means nothing and contradicting himself as he continues crunching the numbers. He admits that judicial records alone cannot give us a good picture of same-sex relations, but misses the chance to provide enough background to give his conclusions greater weight.Nevertheless, the book becomes a worthwhile read once the author gets the number crunching out of his system. The one thing he does do to good effect is supplement the court records with other documentation, such as personal letters, quotes from sermons, and political edicts, material that opens a window on how people at the time thought about sodomy. This reinforces some of what the court records indicate.The confusion brought out in the book isn't entirely the author's fault, but rather our own. To compare the state of same-sex relations then and now takes extraordinary care, not just because people in medieval Florence had confused notions of what homosexual attraction amounted to, but also because we ourselves do. A big part of this discussion concerns apparently straight men who under certain circumstances turn to other males for sex. The book convincingly establishes that the circumstances that would lead a usually heterosexual man to do this were often drastically different in fifteenth century Florence from what they are today. If that's true it means, among other things, that even now we still do not have a solid enough understanding of male sexuality to explain it or label it. The one common element driving such men, both then and now, appears to be differences in power and status.Another oddity in Florence was that dominant "heterosexual" partners possessed a collective self-consciousness corresponding to the self-awareness that modern homosexuals have of being gay, but one that is missing among modern straight men who have sex with other men. In fact, these dominant males, in their roles as "active" sodomites, constituted a political force strong enough to thwart almost all legal restrictions on same-sex activity. Judges during that period acted consistently to undermine prosecutions of same-sex activity, for the activity itself was widely accepted in society. The story of the fifteenth century in Florence tells of the Church struggling against powerful headwinds through the whole era to make sodomy socially unacceptable. Its attempts to criminalize male sexual relations met with strong and sustained opposition from Florentine society.Despite the statistics the book, as it goes along, does give readers a surprising picture of sexual activity among men at the time. What Rocke cannot show using his preferred method he does show by adding and interpreting other relevant source material. The topic becomes an interesting study after all, and I think readers will be impressed by its unusual findings.

  • Edmund Marlowe
    2019-04-13 13:22

    I believe this may be the most important book yet written on human sexuality. During the generation or so in which historians have been openly discussing variations in sexual behaviour, it has often been shown that modern ways of thinking about sexuality are little more than culturally-induced assumptions and fundamentally different to those made by most historical societies. The available evidence had not however quite amounted to proof until Rocke put it well beyond reasonable dispute with this monumental study of 15th century Florence, unique in what her records are detailed enough to establish.To simplify (including ignoring exceptional individuals who have always existed), only starting around 1700 in northern Europe and only spreading to most of the world in the 20th century, did society adopt its present idea of a heterosexual majority opposed to a homosexual minority mostly comprised of men whose behaviour challenged traditional gender roles. Contrarily, under the old system of thinking which had prevailed since ancient times, it was assumed that men in general were attracted to both women and boys, but not to other men. This assumption survived mediaeval Christendom despite the terrible conflict it implied with Christian condemnation of sodomy. In even sharper contrast to modern thinking, traditional society was far more indulgent of boys taking the passive role than of men doing so, the transitional nature of boyhood avoiding the threat to gender role-playing that everyone supported. The growing understanding of this profound change has been sometimes bitterly contested by so-called essentialists who refuse to believe people brought up with fundamentally different cultural beliefs could have felt differently to them sexually, either because they lack the imagination to escape "the parochialism of our own notions" or because (whether straight or gay) they feel threatened by the implications for the alleged immutability since birth of their own orientation. I find their resistance depressing, as I think knowing our sexual culture and individual tastes could have been constructed differently should be liberating and enrichening. I am therefore glad that Rocke has cleared up the matter for anyone interested and open-minded enough to peruse the mountain of evidence here presented.I shall not attempt more than a very brief summary of what Rocke has established about homosexuality in Florence or how. Florence was unique in having between 1432 and 1502 an "Office of the Night" with the sole purpose of controlling endemic "sodomy." Its extraordinarily thorough records as well as those of the other Florentine courts with jurisdiction have enabled him to draw some irrefutable conclusions about Florentine men in general. Amazingly, "by age forty at least two of every three men had been incriminated" in sodomy at least once, backing up opinions of the time that "nearly no one ... hasn't committed such mischief." Rocke is extraordinarily well-read in the literature of the time, which he uses brilliantly both to illustrate more humanly the court records and to enliven his text.Most of the most salient characteristics of Florentine sodomy will be familiar to students of ancient Greece, though not of course the statistical evidence. "There was only a single male sexual culture with a prominent homoerotic character. ... In Florence, and probably elsewhere as well, sodomy between males assumed a hierarchical form that would now be called 'pederasty'. ... Normally men over the age of eighteen took the so-called active role in sex with a passive teenage adolescent. Relations in which roles were exchanged or reversed were rare and occurred almost solely between adolescents, while sex between mature men was, with very few exceptions, unknown." Sodomising boys was never felt to be incompatible with heterosexual pursuits, though the numbers continuing to be involved with them after marriage were much smaller. As in classical Athens, men married late at thirty, which contributed to the prevalence of pederasty. Some striking differences from ancient Greece were that in Florence pederasty flourished despite fierce official hostility, both men and boys were highly promiscuous and men sometimes fellated their boys.Rocke's findings provoke one extremely important question neither he nor anyone else I have heard of has ever attempted to answer: what effect does ubiquitously-practised pederasty have on a society? The ancient Greeks believed erotic bonds between men and boys were vitally important in transmitting skills and virtues from one to the other and historians such as W. A. Percy have backed them up by underlining the correlation in time between the "Greek miracle" and the institutionalisation of pederasty there. 15th-century Italy in general was considered "the mother of sodomy" and Florence in particular was in Savonarola's words "defamed throughout all of Italy" for it. One might well say exactly the same about their respective reputations at the forefront of the extraordinary cultural flowering known as the Renaissance, a flowering that included the revival of the naked male youth as a worthy subject of art by artists themselves often well known for their love affairs with boys. Is this just an amazing coincidence? I suggest it is a stunning indictment of the intellectual cowardice of our times that decades after abundant evidence has been furnished that at least the two most culturally renowned societies in European history were equally renowned for a now-forbidden form of love, no general study of this question has been attempted.Some may find this a book to refer to or dip into for fascinating insights and riveting anecdotes rather than to read from cover to cover. Though Rocke's style is lucid and elegant, he never strays far enough from balanced examination of the statistical evidence to become less than heavy reading. I can only guess it is this that has held Forbidden Friendships back from the far more widespread acclaim it richly deserves. I strongly urge anyone to read it who has the slightest interest in either how Renaissance Italians thought or its broader sexual implications for humanity.Edmund Marlowe, author of Alexander's Choice, a modern British tale of Florentine-style amore masculino,

  • Leopold Benedict
    2019-03-28 19:15

    Fascinating study of male-male love in Renaissance Florence. It reminds me that our current construction of homosexuality is not without historical alternatives.

  • Monty Milne
    2019-04-03 14:52

    The Florentine "Office of the Night", set up to police "sodomy", has left an extraordinarily rich trove of material. If you were caught in a compromising position in Florence - or if you thought you might be - you could guarantee immunity from prosecution ("forgiveness") by confessing and naming your partner(s). A frequent result was that if a youth announced he had had sex with a man he then named, this could spark an avalanche of other men hastening to give themselves immunity by confessing that they had also had sex with the same youth. The punishments for those convicted were very varied. Some men were burnt to death or publicly mutilated, but this was generally only in rare cases such as multiple offences including rape. Many were "absolved", or fined, even for repeat offences with multiple partners.The sheer scale of the practice is remarkable. From the Night Office statistics and population studies, Rocke estimates that at one time towards the end of the 15th century approximately two thirds of the male population of Florence were implicated in sodomy. Essentially, everyone who was male was buggering (or being buggered by) everyone else.This all raises fascinating and perhaps uncomfortable questions for anyone who gives thought to the subject of human sexuality today. Contemporary Western culture accepts male homosexuality - broadly speaking - only if it copies the pattern of traditional heterosexual norms - i.e. if you have a monogamous married relationship with another adult of a similar age and status. This is totally foreign to the Florentine experience - indeed, this contemporary Western pattern would have been regarded with particular horror and revulsion as being utterly "contrary to nature." Florentine men liked to have sex with teenage boys, and teenage boys liked to have sex with Florentine men. A lot. And it was generally accepted that almost all men were sexually attracted to teenage boys, and that almost all teenage boys were happy to play the submissive role with men. The typical pattern of sexual behaviour for a Florentine male seems to have been this: starting some time soon after puberty, he began seeking out consensual sexual relations with older men in which he played the passive role; his sexual activity peaking at around the age of fifteen. Once he was over 18 he ceased to play the passive role and started looking for younger males himself; he continued to play the active role in sexual relations with younger males until he reached the age of around thirty, whereupon he got married and confined his sexual interests to his wife. Of course there were many exceptions to this pattern but it seems to have been a remarkably prevalent one. Given how utterly different it is to contemporary understandings of sexuality, it raises a mass of intriguing questions. Rocke deals with some of these questions - such as how the whole understanding of sex between males was understood as part of the wider pattern of relationships - social, political, commercial, cultural - within the Florentine city state. But other questions are left unanswered - such as, why are we so different now? It's as if contemporary discourse about human sexuality has given us a particular set of assumptions, and then we read this book and realise that perhaps almost all of those assumptions are profoundly inadequate for making sense of the fascinating world that Rocke reveals.

  • Karen
    2019-03-29 18:14

    Rocke's findings concerning homosexuality and the male culture of early modern (note, he prefers the terms early modern or late medieval and rarely uses 'Renaissance' - the title is probably the publisher's choice) Florence, add another layer of nuiance to what we already know reguarding the power dynamics that existed between age, gender, and classes. He uses homosexuality to illustrate how Florentine families seemed to use their teenage sons in the same way they used their daughters - to build material and political ties with older men, in a higher social/economic class. Along the way, Rocke fleshed out the youth subculture that formed in a society that barred them from political power and marriage until they reached a certain age. Although I am not a Renaissance historian, this work strikes me as a case where a scholar had access to an incredible trove of documents, but didn't quite know how to make sense of them and resorted to trying to define them by statistics. His statistics don't always seem to add up and he fails to include crucial population numbers that would help to contextualize them. The writing itself is extremely repetitive to the point that one is able to predict which anecdote he is going to pull out of his hat. By page 58 he is already using phrases indicating that he is repeating himself. These and other markers seem to indicate that the work was born out of a disertation. That stated, it is still a highly provocative read, even with some of his claims seeming to be a stretch.

  • Rachel Tidlund
    2019-03-30 12:03

    This was an absolutely amazing book on renaissance Florence. This book gave me something a lot of history books don't, something new to learn and think about. I admit that I love history, but this book definitely gave me something more. I find that a lot of history books get "regurgitated" in a way that makes non-fiction history books somewhat dull to read for most. I love how the author structured the book. I love how he approached the topic and how he analysed facts in certain ways. I appreciate that he gave an opinion without being too biased. He approached the topic relying heavily on data rather than sources, but he used the sources to add depth to the facts. Overall, this book changed the way I look at Florence in a renaissance setting completely. If someone is looking at either history, gender studies, Italian studies, or even just investigating the identities that emerged in Italy, I would greatly suggest this book. I think this is one of the few books that really discusses this topic in depth, and it is amazing and unique because of it. I'd recommend this book in a heartbeat.

  • Nathan
    2019-04-10 17:52

    Forbidden Friendships is a remarkable study of Renaissance Florence and the homosexuals who lived there. Historically, there have been many attempts by societies to purge themselves of homosexuals. Forbidden Friendships is a tale of Florence's attempt at just that, and its a story complete with gangs, political persecution, sex courts, death and broken lives. It's also fascinating and scary. Oh, and a good read.NC

  • Michalyn
    2019-04-11 20:16

    I borrowed this book from my university library and I enjoyed it. It explores the practice of sodomy in Renaissance Florence and how it was policed. Apparently Florence had such a reputation for sodomy that a special office called the Office of the Night was created to police it.Rocke also places sodmomy in the context of socialization and male identity. All in all very insightful and engaging especially for an academic text.