A review of Forbidden Friendships. Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence by Michael Rocke, Oxford, 1996
Staggeringly important insights hidden in a scholarly gem *****
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.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 17 June 2014.