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Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England
By Alan Stewart
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
FROM SINGING BOY TO SCHOLAR
THE DEATHS, LIVES, AND LETTERS OF ANGELO POLIZIANO
Curly-Headed Quarrymen and Singing Boys
IT MIGHT seem perverse to open an exploration of early modern English humanism and sodomy in the heady artistic circles of quattrocento Florence. Yet this is where, historically, the tradition of homophile apology that structures gay scholarship's relationship with Renaissance England took its inspiration and established its icons. This chapter examines the ways in which a preeminent literary figure, poet and scholar Angelo Poliziano, was appropriated to this proto-gay tradition, and argues that it is in Poliziano's specific place within the complex social structures of quattrocento Florence, as much as in his homoerotic verse, that we can find his vulnerability both to contemporary accusations of sodomy and to later appropriations by a gay criticism. James Saslow has written of the group of late nineteenth-century scholars who were "actively concerned to resurrect and analyze homosexuality as a historical phenomenon," "conceptual pioneers of what is now termed gay studies," and especially of John Addington Symonds, whose studies of Michelangelo, Cellini, and The Renaissance in Italy, drawing on hitherto unconsulted archival sources, "were the first to redress the bowdlerizations and oversights of earlier writers." For Symonds, the English Renaissance and the nascent study of homosexuality were two intensely personal concerns, but he fell short in his copious writings of connecting the two directly. In order to make the associations he wished to highlight, he turned instead to the Italian Renaissance—as indeed in his personal life he turned to Italy:
In the winter of 1875–6 my health, as usual, began to fail. Dr. Beldoe recommended me to go to the Riviera. My wife and I accordingly settled at S. Remo in February. There I wrote a large part of the second volume of my Renaissance in Italy. It has also to be mentioned that I took a fancy there for a curly-headed quarryman from the hills beyond Savona. This amour did not advance far beyond Platonic relations.
As his long-suppressed Memoirs demonstrate consistently, lurking behind each of his major and influential critical works—including the massive Renaissance in Italy—is a string of quarrymen, guardsmen, and coalmen, purveyors of casual sexual liaisons, which appear to have been at least as important to Symonds as the ostensible object of his studies. As Wayne Koestenbaum has written, Symonds was "the first writer in British history who felt that his sexual preference was central to his literary career," his autobiography a work "remarkable for recognizing no bridge between growth as writer and growth as homosexual." When the reader is forewarned, a rereading of the second volume of The Renaissance in Italy, the tome contemporaneous with the curly-headed quarryman from the hills beyond Savona, reveals this preoccupation creeping beyond Symonds's private diary and into the text. Take, for example, his reworking of this already poetic flight by the historian Henry Hallam:
In a villa overhanging the towers of Florence, on the steep slope of that lofty hill crowned by the mother city, the ancient Fiesole, in gardens which Tully might have envied, with Ficino, Landino, and Politian at his side, [Lorenzo de' Medici] delighted his hours of leisure with the beautiful visions of Platonic philosophy, for which the summer stillness of an Italian sky appears the most congenial accompaniment.
In Symonds's hands, the idyll unfolds further:
As we climb the steep slope of Fiesole, or linger beneath the rose-trees that shed their petals from Careggi's garden walls, once more in our imagination "the world's great age begins anew;" once more the blossoms of that marvellous spring unclose ... Savonarola in his cell below once more sits brooding over the servility of Florence, the corruption of a godless Church. Michael Angelo, seated between Ficino and Poliziano, with the voices of the prophets vibrating in his memory, and with the music of Plato sounding in his ears, rests chin on hand and elbow upon knee, like his own Jeremiah, lost in contemplation, whereof the afterfruit shall be the Sistine Chapel and the Medicean tombs. Then, when the strain of thought, "unsphering Plato from his skies" begins to weary, Pulci breaks the silence with a brand-new canto of Morgante, or a singing boy is bidden to tune his mandoline to Messer Angelo's last-made ballata.
The observant reader might detect some unexpected intruders into Hallam's scene, most obviously the pensive Michelangelo and the brooding Savonarola; both these, I would argue, are meant to signify to that observant reader the nature of Symonds's appropriation of Hallam's history. Michelangelo was—then as now—a reference point for homosexuality. Far from being cell-bound, Girolamo Savonarola exerted great energy in attacking what he saw as prevalent vices, allegations to which the men at Fiesole were vulnerable. In his sermon of 1 November 1494, Savonarola urged Florence: "Abandon, I tell you, your concubines and your catamites [cinedi]. Abandon, I say, that unspeakable vice, abandon that abominable vice that has brought God's wrath upon you, or else: woe, woe to you!" On Savonarola's own death at the stake just four years after his antisodomy sermon, Benevenuto del Bianco, a member of the Council of Ten, was heard to remark: "And now we can practice sodomy again!" That the Medici group feared him is well established: when Savonarola held his infamous Bonfire of Vanities in 1497 and 1498, several of Lorenzo's intimate circle threw their works into the flames.
The scene is artfully menace-free, its emphasis on youth, music, and male company, its possible threats (women, Savonarola) elaborately absent. And this complete acceptance is necessary, for Symonds wants to identify Poliziano as one of the key "humanists of the third age," a third age which, in the context of the invention of printing, and a renaissance in Italian, saw the gradual disappearance of "the vagrant professors of the second period," and the emergence of a new "republic of letters" crystallizing "round men of eminence in coteries and learned circles," the emergence, in fact, of "the age of the academies" with Florence as the "capital of learning," and Lorenzo as "the master spirit of this circle." The garden at Fiesole works simultaneously as a representation of this new "republic of letters," the most eminent of "coteries of learned circles," in Florence, encircling Lorenzo himself, and as the erotic fantasies of a Victorian homosexual. This "republic of letters" provides Symonds with first, a conveniently distant culture about which to make his polemical points and second, a culture in which certain social structures are very clearly defined and understood. Florence thus takes on an iconic significance, standing for "the Renaissance," without dangerously implicating English culture.
This gathering clearly draws on what were to become Symonds's obsessions. From his essay "The Renaissance" in 1863 he produced a body of work that deliberately drew parallels from the ancient world, the Renaissance, and his contemporary society. Greece and Italy were a constant source of inspiration: as Robert Aldrich points out, Renaissance in Italy "was for many decades the standard English language study of the Renaissance. In a variety of genres ... [l]ate nineteenth-century attitudes towards Italy, the Renaissance and Antiquity, as well as enlightened attitudes towards homosexuality, owed more to Symonds than to any other writer in English." But today Symonds is best remembered for the side-effects of his immersion in Greece. The final chapter of his Studies of the Greek Poets dealt with "Greek love"; a decade later he produced A Problem in Greek Ethics (1883), which Jeffrey Weeks has described as "the first serious work on homosexuality published in Britain," and later A Problem in Modern Ethics (completed by 1890, published in 1896), which reached a new view of homosexuality through a survey of the literature on the subject, and went on to propose legal changes. More crucially, Symonds coauthored with Havelock Ellis the first (German) edition of Sexual Inversion: his family pressured Ellis into removing Symonds's name posthumously from the text before the first British printing in 1897.
Evidently the garden at Fiesole is designed to represent the Renaissance appropriation of the Platonic symposium. And yet this neoplatonic academy falls short of the idyll Symonds desires. The homoeroticism is evident: while Michaelangelo is "lost in contemplation" and Pulci declaims his Morgante, Poliziano's contribution to Symonds's Fiesole is represented not actually by the poet himself—although he is physically present—but by a singing boy, bidden to tune his mandolin to the poet's "last-made ballata." In this picture is encapsulated Symonds's interest in the poet—a poet of song, indeed of singing boys. But the fantasy cannot be sustained. Trouble-free though Fiesole may appear, Symonds cannot suppress the tension that underlies the situation. Poliziano is bound to Lorenzo by more than a symposium. Symonds describes how Poliziano entered into Lorenzo's household and undertook the tuition of his sons,
until their mother Clarice saw reason to mistrust his personal influence. There were, no doubt, many points in the great scholar's character that justified her thinking him unfit to be the constant companion of young men. Whatever may be the truth about the cause of his last illness, enough remains of his Greek and Italian verses to prove that his morality was lax, and his conception of life rather Pagan than Christian.
Through footnotes and cross-references, Symonds directs his reader to "The well-known scandal about Poliziano's death" (p. 354 n.1) and to some Greek elegiacs, specifically the Doric couplets on two beautiful boys, and the love sonnet to the youth Chrysocomus (p. 348, n.2). There is an almost touching crudity in the way Symonds ensures that the erotic Greek poems and the lurid accounts of his death are precisely signposted, in contrast to the rather broad brushstrokes of much of his work. It is not surprising then, as Symonds took his place at the forefront of the early study of homosexuality, that his picture of Renaissance Italy should hold sway amongst critics sympathetic to his rose-tinted vision and that Poliziano should find his way into the writings of Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis, and finally into The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse and the Encyclopaedia of Homosexuality. But I shall be arguing that the most important signal that Symonds picks up on is the dispute between Clarice de' Medici and Poliziano, a dispute centering on the incompatibility of traditional kinship structures through which Clarice understands her social status, with new service relations that appear to bypass those structures, through which Poliziano has reached his intimate position in the Medici household. Following Symonds, gay critical references to Poliziano deal mainly with two areas: his homoerotic verse, and allegations and speculations about his sexual activities, the literature and the life usually considered separately. But Symonds is not merely referring his reader to the poetry but to the poetry in association with the story of "the cause of his last illness." It is to that last illness that I now turn.
Deaths of the Author
When the Basel publisher Nicholas Episcopius Junior came to produce his edition of Poliziano's works in 1553, twenty years after the last revision, he added several new items. Prefatory notices of praise were taken from previously published works by Poliziano's former student Petrus Crinitus, from Erasmus, Tito Vespasiano Strozzi, and from the punning epitaph on his tomb: "In this tomb lies Angelo, who had one head, and, strangely enough, three tongues."16 Except for the two lines of Erasmus, Episcopius appears to have lifted these recommendations directly from the source of his biographical notice, from Paolo Giovio's Elogia verts clarorum virorum. This collection, published in 1546, brought together a series of short biographical sketches of famous men of letters; it obtained wider currency over the following few years as Giovio was lured from Rome to the Florentine court of Cosimo de' Medici, and his works were subsequently published in profusion by Lorenzo Torrentino; the Elogia appeared in a successful vernacular translation by Torrentino's associate Hippolito Orio in 1552, the year of Giovio's death. The governing conceit of the sketches was that these were word-pictures to accompany portraits of the men hanging in Giovio's villa at Como. Corresponding closely to the traditional blazon format, his portraits nonetheless did not shy clear of the less acceptable aspects of their subjects. In the case of Poliziano, Giovio found himself with plenty of intriguing material with which to play. Indeed, when Episcopius came to appropriate the sketch for his edition, he found himself compelled to remove two sentences, toward the end of the piece, which told of how an insane love borne by Poliziano for a boy threw him into a fatal sickness. Burning with desire, and scorched by the searing fever, the poet snatched up his cither and sang verses to the limits of his strength until finally, delirious, life abandoned him, and he met a disgraceful death.
The story is clearly scandalous. Sodomy was illegal in Florence, and the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries witnessed a heightened rhetoric against the offense. The punitive measures instituted included in 1432 the evocatively named Ufficiali de' notti, a tribunal that received and investigated anonymous accusations of various crimes, including sodomy: among the familiar names falling foul of this body were Leonardo da Vinci in 1476 and Botticelli in 1502. The Florentine diarist Luca Landucci records the reformation of certain laws against the "vizio innominabile" on 29 December 1502, and tells of the fate of a group of men convicted under that accusation in March 1505/06. Penalties were severe: grown men could be castrated; boys between fourteen and eighteen years were subject to a heavy fine of 100 lire; for boys over eighteen, the penalty rose to 500 lire. Procurers could pay for their wrongdoing with a fine or the loss of a hand; repetition of the crime led to the loss of a foot. Fathers of accused boys were treated by the law as procurers; the house in which the act of sodomy took place was destroyed; indeed, matters reached such a pitch that "anyone found day or night in a vineyard or a locked room with a boy who was not a relative was suspect." This late fifteenth century panic appears to have been a specifically Florentine phenomenon: Venice experienced a similar tightening of laws over half a century earlier (in 1418, 1422, 1431, and 1455). During its seventy-year tenure from 1432 to 1502, the Ufficiali de' notti adjudicated cases involving over ten thousand men and boys and convicted around two thousand. Florence evidently provided a fertile breeding ground for gossip and accusation: even Giovio himself became posthumously the subject of a scurrilous epitaph generally ascribed to Aretino: "Here lies Paolo Giovio, hermaphrodite, / who knew how to play both husband and wife." Evidently Episcopius found the passage unacceptable, even within a sketch that made no bones of Poliziano's famously odd face, his rows with rival scholars, and his generally unsavory character.
Excerpted from Close Readers by Alan Stewart. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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