This article, “Forever Florence,” is by Felice Picano and is from from the Fall 2004 issue of The Out Traveler. It is one of my favorite writings about Florence. I wanted to share it with you and I hope that you enjoy it.
My first night in Florence, I was walking home late from dinner to my pensione in the mostly residential Santa Croce (central west) side of town. Fog had begun to creep up from the Arno river. I don't know what I was thinking, perhaps how quiet the town was at 11 p.m. or how I should take a look the next day into the huge library, the Biblioteca Nazionale, I'd just passed. When I turned I faced a long double row of buildings, identical in the misted-over streetlight, all the shops closed for the night. There was a succession of arched doorways, and in the first doorway I walked by were two young men kissing. Not just kissing, they were necking passionately, hands all over each other, inside each other's clothing, oblivious of me, of anyone or anything but their mutual passion.
I began smiling then, and as far as Florence is concerned I've never stopped smiling. One of the most beautiful and best-maintained cities in Europe, from the beginning Firenze, literally "the flowery one," has been thoroughly sexy, thoroughly gay, and thoroughly welcoming. There, even my high school Italian was tolerated, if at times politely corrected. Unlike in Rome, where I lived almost a year. When I spoke Italian there, they called me Professorino--little professor--interrupting before I was through to tell me the dialect word I should have used.
Unlike so many others, I never fell in love while in Florence, alas, but on a later visit I made a friend, a book clerk working at the well-known Feltrinelli bookstore, and it was Flavio who expostulated the much-used "Ah, certo!" ("of course") to the anecdote of my first night in town. He explained, "The great Michelangelo lived directly across the street. His spirit haunts la citta, you know, and drives men to seduce other men."
It was at the end of that same visit that I found myself chided one night by my dinner companions for never having seen their famous Duomo. Obediently, the next rainy afternoon I dragged myself to the spectacular cathedral in the center of the city. In truth, I'd had my fill of Italian churches. So I took in the view from atop the dome, which was admittedly pretty cool, and I was back downstairs, exiting, when a young cleric passed by with candle-lighting equipment in his hands--and a considerable tenting effect at crotch level.
I never found out whether he was a postulant, priest, deacon, dean, or what, but, hypnotized by the sight, I followed him through the main body of the church, past a nave, and into a dim chapel, where he'd found an isolated spot near a large pillar and was just standing there, waiting. Waiting for me, it turned out. No sooner had I joined him than he began kissing me.
Fanciulli was a word the young cleric used for boyfriends when we chatted later. And that's the very word that comes up time and time again in Michael Rocke's study of homosexuality in Florence, Forbidden Friendships, a book that confirms, if any confirmation was needed, just how gay Florence has been historically--or at least from the time of record-keeping about such matters, the 15th century on.
Naturally, while in Florence I'd heard the stories of famous artists of the Renaissance. How young Leonardo da Vinci, the most beautiful youth in the city, had aristocratic men fighting over him but was eventually spirited away by Francis I, king of France - now, that's a sugar daddy! - and didn't return until he'd grown a beard. Or how Donatello, who, like Leonardo, never married and kept a studio full of apprentices, sculpted his statue of David, the first fully free-modeled statue since classical times. Only when it was shown did others get the joke literally behind the masterpiece. Goliath may have been defeated--his head cut off, and young David standing atop it--but from the rear view the slain Philistine's helmet feather erectly rises along the boy's legs, poking at his naked butt. It is as though Donatello is saying, "The boy's so beautiful, even the dead can get it up for him."
We think of Botticelli in the context of his Venus and other lovely women, but he never married either, and he also kept apprentices in style. The story goes that he was utterly taken with one lad and was so proud of his beauty that he painted him naked, sleeping, taken from life, in a piece titled Venus and Mars, where, let's
recall, Venus is fully clothed. The gesture was intended to show his friends and enemies the young man's ineffable beauty. But the boy, although willing, turned out to be faithless, so Botticelli painted him again, this time as the North Wind in his famous Primavera saying, in effect, that the boy blew hot and cold and also--impugning his masculinity--that he blew, period.
On another trip to the city I began hanging out in a café in the Piazza Santa Trinita, between the bridge of the same name and the chic shopping street Via de Tornabuoni. Seeing me writing all the time, one waiter, Titone, began calling me "the poet." He told me he'd grown up around the corner and that another poet, Lord Byron, had lived nearby, after he'd fled England. Byron's vengeful wife, tired of his infidelities with both men and women, accused him of sleeping with his own sister. So Byron was forced into exile. Fancy exile, I found out, since he stayed with the unmarried William Beckford, a British millionaire and author of the justly forgotten Gothic novel Vathek. According to Titone, Byron satisfied Beckford and all of his live-in boys. "Ha un cazzo grande!" the waiter assured me. When I asked how he knew Byron's size, Titone began limping away, crowing, "The clubfoot! God compensates!"
A stone's throw from my preferred café is where the Old Market had been located for centuries, and also the ancient Street of the Furriers, which, according to Rocke's book, were two conspicuous stomping grounds of artisans and working-class 15th-century queers looking for sex. The aristos meanwhile favored the Boboli Gardens, meeting lower-class youths behind the Pitti Palace, and later at night, when the river mists rose from the Arno, outdoor sex was freely available in the corners and doorways of shops along the venerable Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), then filled with grocers, butchers, and carpenters, now a tony leather and jewelry mart by day that's still cruisy at night.
Florence was so devastated by plague in 1348--the population ebbed to 40,000--that everyone was encouraged to make babies. The city fathers founded an Office of the Night to police the widespread homosexuality the city had become known for all over Europe--in Renaissance Germany the word for gay was Florenzer. In the 70-year history of the office, over 3,000 men were convicted of same-sex sodomy, and thousands more confessed to gain amnesty; as many as 17,000--one out of every two men in Florence--were accused. Gay and straight, married and single, the accused came from all ages, classes, areas of the city-state, and walks of life (although, like today, the clothing trade was best represented). "The links between homosexual activity and broader male social relations were so dense and so intertwined," writes Rocke, "that there was no truly autonomous distinctive sodomitical subculture, much less one based on a modern sense" of being gay. In late-medieval and Renaissance Florence, Rocke concludes, "there was only a single sexual culture with a predominantly homoerotic character."
Despite fines, exile, and corporal punishment, the Office of the Night failed in its task and was disbanded after a brief surge of intense gay repression by the followers of the Dominican reformer Savonarola. After he was burned at the stake, his supporters lost credit and the city magistrates decided more or less to sweep the "problem" of widespread homosexuality under the rug.
The pervasive, mostly man-boy homoeroticism that defined Florence for centuries persists to this day. Over lattes and glasses of wine, across counters at the flower-filled outdoor produce markets, in any clothing, book, or butcher store, male clerks, bartenders, and waiters will flirt shamelessly with young men, openly calling them bello and uaglio (beautiful lad and sweet boy, respectively). Who knows how much is traditional banter, how much mere bluff? Living in Rome, I was always invited by Florentine flirters to move to their city and repeatedly told that the SPQR found on ancient Roman shields and obelisks stood for Sono Porci, Quelle Romani, which translates as "Those Romans are pigs." With my looks, in Tuscany, the Florentine men flattered me, I'd be assured of love eternally.
Even the stylish young lesbian couple I met in the lobby of the English-language theater showing Kim Novak as Moll Flanders--said within minutes of our meeting that they had the perfect man for me. Molto gentile, they insisted, handsome, and from one of the Four Hundred families. Fool that I was, looking for love and not a meal ticket, I never showed for the appointment.
Since 1795 homosexuality has been decriminalized in Florence. The age of consent for sex is 14, with male hustlers legal at 18. Italian homosexuals, almost 5 million of whom are eligible voters, according to Arcigay, Italy's largest and oldest gay association, have not thrown their considerable weight behind any particular political party or coalition. In a Roman Catholic nation with an openly homophobic pope issuing antigay decrees, the political situation is still not as open or loose as in much of Northern Europe. Enrico Oliari, who heads Gay Lib, a center-right gay association with about 400 members, rejects the clichÈ that the left is pro-gay and the right is homophobic. He claims that Italy's gay voters have yet to be mobilized by anyone. Although in 2003 the Italian legislature had bills presented on same-sex marriage, the right of gays to adopt children, and banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, none became law. Only the bill annulling a decree that barred gays from giving blood made it through the parliament.
Where can you find romance in Florence? Besides the usual places, museums (don't miss the Uffizi Gallery--formerly Medici government offices, explaining the name), trattorias, palaces, and theaters are all good bets. Gay locals swear by the annual Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the distinguished May opera and concert festival that brings performers and audiences from all over Europe. Many think the off-season is better than when tourists flood the well-known piazzas. And lately gay Florentines have come to prefer living in what used to be older, more rustic villages and byways: new suburbs above the city, toward the town of Fiesole--another worthwhile day trip. I say aim for the spring and summer, when every hillside around the everlasting city of Florence is a patchwork of brilliant colors thanks to the name-giving flowers.
The original article can be found by clicking on the following link.
Another interesting look at Florence, Italy, can be found in David Leavitt’s Florence, A Delicates Case. It is a truly fascinating little book.
Just a side note, the pictures of men in this post are of three very hot Italian actors: Gabriel Garko, Luca Argentero, and Raoul Bova. Some of you may recognize Raoul Bova from the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun.”