My purse, my person, my extremest means, Lie all unlock’d to your occasions.
—Said by Antonio to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (1.1.46).
While Shakespearean scholars disagree whether or not Antonio and Bassanio were lovers, there is no doubt that Venice has a history in which homosexual acts were common enough to trouble the authorities greatly during the time of the Renaissance. Whether this means there were homosexual subcultures and gay communities as we understand them or whether these acts were institutionalised in the existing social structure is more difficult to know.
In fourteenth-century Venice, the Signori di Notte had been responsible for enforcing the law against sodomy (defined at the time as anal intercourse, whether homosexual or heterosexual, or intercrural sex between men). This responsibility changed early in the fifteenth century when the Council of Ten, the central political body in Venice, declared the Signori to be inefficient. As a result, they claimed, sodomy ruled in the city, as it did in the Venetian Fleet. The Council expressed their surprise that, given the frequency of the sin in the fleet, it was a wonder that “divine justice has not sunk them.”
Fearing the divine judgment brought to bear on Sodom and Gomorrah, the Council of Ten pursued the matter much more vigorously than their predecessors had done. In the fifteenth century, there was a large rise in the number of convictions for homosexual activity. What is impossible to know of this removal is whether the increase in the number of convictions reflects an increase in the number of people engaging in this activity, or whether it is due solely to a more aggressive pursuance of the crime. What is clear is that sodomy was seen as a problem.
It’s been suggested (Ruggiero) that the increased fear of homosexual acts was due to the growth of a homosexual subculture. Records from the fourteenth century show that primarily couples or individuals were prosecuted. Under the Council of Ten in the fifteenth century, the authorities regularly rounded up groups. The authorities also passed all sorts of legislation pertaining to social gatherings, including taking the step of chaining off the portico of a church that was seen as a gathering place for men wishing to participate in homosexual acts. Interestingly, masturbation undertaken by men in one another’s presence was not seen as a criminal act. It was contact between men that was the offence.
As the century progressed, the ruling Council of Ten became more and more concerned by the prevalence of anal intercourse. Despite the tenacity of the Council in applying the law, Venice differed from many other places in differentiating between the so-called passive and active participants by treating the passive one much more leniently, usually letting them off with a light penalty, or no penalty at all. They saw passivity as generally aligned with adolescence.
The city also followed the example of Florence, which in the fifteenth century built municipal brothels for female prostitutes in order to lure young men away from homosexual acts. Female prostitutes in both cities were forbidden from dressing as young men to attract male customers. Venice encouraged female prostitutes in an attempt to stem the tide of sodomy. Legend has it that this is how the Ponte della Tette (Bridge of the Tits) got its name, with female prostitutes baring their breasts to entice male customers to come to them.
Legend also has it that the male prostitutes of Venice responded by appearing in their own windows nude, except for the masks they wore. Because they wore masks when doing so, their actions were legally “play,” and so they weren’t prosecuted. I haven’t yet been able to substantiate this elsewhere, but I like the story!
By the latter part of the seventeenth century, things had changed again. From the 1660s, civil courts narrowed the definition of sodomy and expanded the defences available to the accused, and the punishments became steadily less brutal. It’s possible this was partly due to Venice separating itself further from the Pope’s authority during the sixteenth century following conflict with the Holy See, and the spread of the European Enlightenment, which meant people were less likely to explain catastrophe as divine retribution for ungodly acts.
Whatever the reason for the change, the number of criminal convictions declined, and imprisonment replaced execution as a punishment. Visitors to Venice in the seventeenth century speak openly of male prostitutes, while traveller William Lithgow glumly reports of Italy that he found homosexual acts to be not only rife but celebrated as “…a pleasant pastime, making songs, and singing Sonets of the beauty and pleasure of their Bardassi, or buggerd boys.”
By the eighteenth century, imprisonment had been eliminated, with fines levied instead. By the end of the eighteenth century, these fines were mostly nominal, and the city had one of the most well-known gay communities in Europe. As homosexual relations had been decriminalised not only in Venice but in most of Italy by that time (thanks to the French Penal Code of 1791 and the Napoleonic Code, both of which were enforced as the French conquest spread), it seems there was something about Venice in particular that enabled this community to flourish so openly.
Perhaps it was the atmosphere of the city, so much of it turned over to pleasure seeking of one form or another. Perhaps it was the anonymity for six months of the year granted by carnival, enabling people to be more free than they otherwise might have been. Or perhaps it was simply down to the gondoliers. History has no lack of famous men who have fallen in love with a gondolier, and really, who doesn’t love a handsome gondolier?
Main sources consulted:
Aldrich, Robert. The Seduction of the Mediterranean: Writing, Art and Homosexual Fantasy. Routledge, 1993.
Greenberg, David F. The Construction of Homosexuality. University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Ruggiero, Guido. The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice. Oxford University Press, 1985.
Wasserman, Jack Gumpert. Homosexuality in Venice in the time of Lord Byron, in Byron and Women [And Men] ed by Peter Cochran. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.