FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIPS: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence.<i> By Michael Rocke</i> .<i> Oxford University Press: 372 pp., $35</i>

<i> George Armstrong was for 28 years the Rome correspondent for London's Guardian newspaper and is a regular contributor to the Economist and to this paper's Opinion pages</i>

This is the centenary year of the coining and first appearance in print of the word “homosexual,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in which, in my 1965 edition, the word “heterosexual” can be found only in the addenda of new words. In a world where centennials are routinely and arousingly celebrated, why was this centenary ignored (though our Postal Service, perhaps unwittingly, did issue a postage stamp commemorating Thornton Wilder)? One reason for no celebration, and a compelling one, can be found in “Forbidden Friendships,” a book about a shining city where the Renaissance first came to full flower and where the above-mentioned adjectives and nouns and their categorizing did not exist.

In the span of Florentine history covered by Michael Rocke, mostly 1432 to 1502, the mere concept of, or necessity for, the adjective (later to become a noun as well) did not exist. And by and large, happier years they were for Florence’s males, who, it seems, indulged themselves in recreational sex by “doing what comes naturally.”

Much of this book’s content is statistical but served up in often elegant, never ponderous, prose. At times, the reader may think that he or she has seen a particular slab of statistics scroll past the eyes more than once. But just when the reader fears drowning in stats, damn stats, Rocke tosses out a life preserver of witty comment to entice the reader to move on.

The Florentine man’s sex life began, as it does elsewhere, at about the age of 13 or 14--but Florence’s males often did not marry until they were 30. So what were they up to? A great number of them, both patrician and peasant, took to sodomy. As Rocke explains: “In the later 15th century, the majority of local males at least once during their lifetimes were officially incriminated for engaging in homosexual relations.” It seems to have been taken for granted, as long as it was not flaunted, that the city’s sons were into buggery. But there was one rigid rule: The passive, that is, receptive, partner must be a boy or youth under 20 years of age. The active partner had to be older, usually in his 20s or early 30s. Reversing those roles was considered shocking and a deviation from the “natural order.” Never for one moment, or so it seems, was either partner considered a hopelessly lost pervert or given a slang label that might be translated today as “gay.” It was “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” time.

When this reviewer was a student in Florence in the 1950s, the Renaissance was clearly over. In a country where there were no bars as we know them, only cafes that shuttered early, there could not have been any gay bars. Today there are gay bars in all of the larger cities (call it the Stonewall effect?), and thousands of Italians head each night to those ghetto-taverns to prance, dance and whatever. Da Vinci, Botticelli, Cellini, Michelangelo--they didn’t knowingly hang out together--probably wouldn’t understand any kind of “subculture.” As for the painter known then and now as Sodoma (real name Giovanni Bazzi), well, maybe.

Rocke has gone through all the surviving records of a magistracy set up in Florence in the 15th century exclusively to deal with cases of sodomy. The unique court of six respectable citizens (several of whom were to be incriminated themselves), all over 45, elected annually, seemed to have been partly window-dressing, as Florence had a reputation abroad as the capital of the sodomites and partly as a means to collect fines. Or call it a tax on sodomy. This court was called the Office of the Night, and in a city of about 40,000 people, Rocke estimates that as many as 17,000 were incriminated at least once, but only 60 were condemned to prison, exile or death.

The bylaws were constantly changed. If a youth or man “heard” that he was going to be denounced, he would appear before the Office of the Night, confess and be given the equivalent of a civil absolution after paying a modest fine. If he was a working-class bloke and short of gold florins, he might be asked to donate a sack of flour from his grocery to a convent.

The Office of the Night placed drum-shaped boxes in certain churches and invited citizens to denounce, anonymously, any local male who was engaging in sodomy. Florence at that time was the commercial center of Italy, granting bank loans to foreign kings and shipping wool from England to be turned into sturdy and fancy cloth. There was much competition among the ruling families, and the drum box provided a golden opportunity to denounce one’s rival in trade. Consequently, the sodomy court’s records include virtually every important Florentine family. Most of the Renaissance palaces in the city’s historic center are named for those families, as are today’s streets and squares. And virtually all of them are named in this book. For instance, there are one Medici family member, denounced eight times, and two Martelli brothers. The Medici palace stands today in what was Via Martelli, and the Palazzo Martelli, across the street, is now a public school.

The first person condemned by the Office of the Night was Florence’s highest public official, a 70-year-old patrician whom a 14-year-old barber’s assistant claimed had sodomized him. The man confessed and a small fine was imposed.

“Homosexual activity in Florence was widespread and deeply rooted, a tenacious social and sexual reality that the community’s disciplinary effort [the Night Office] had to acknowledge and, to a certain extent, accommodate,” Rocke writes. The city also responded by licensing brothels where as many as 150 women, mostly foreigners, were available and where most males who engaged in sodomy also looked for sex. Rocke writes that "[o]nly in the 18th century, and then it seems above all in Northwestern Europe (England, the Netherlands, and France), did this [Florentine] pattern begin to be replaced by a new model. After 1700, adult males are frequently found having sex with other adult males . . . and distinctive subcultures developed.” The Florence of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance never had what is called today a “gay subculture.” Nor could Rocke find any record of transvestism. But then, if the paintings and frescoes of that period are reliable, the city’s males were dressed at least as beautifully as the women.

Mary McCarthy in “The Stones of Florence” noted that in 15th century Florence, “the well-turned, sturdy male leg and buttock cased in the tight hose of the day is always painted with a flourish; this leg is seen from all angles, in profile, in demi-profile, full on, and perhaps most often from the rear or slightly turned, so that the beauty of the calf can be shown.”

What we now call in the press “oral sex” apparently was a rarity in the Renaissance. But the Night Office’s notary made the distinction in Latin: sodomy ex parte / ex parte post, from the front or the back side. Rocke cites a manuscript copy, from around 1525 and found in the Vatican Library, containing the confessions of a very active male prostitute who claimed to have been “surprised and a little afraid when his partner began to fellate him.”

“In a letter in 1523 to Niccolo Machiavelli,” Rocke writes, “Francesco Vettori [Florence’s ambassador to the Papal Court], responded to his friend’s concerns about his own son Lodovico’s intimacy with a younger boy. Vettori recommended indulgence, and recalled their own youthful experience: ‘Since we are verging on old age, we might be severe and overly scrupulous, and we do not remember what we did as adolescents. So Lodovico has a boy with him, with whom he amuses himself, jests, takes walks, growls in his ear, goes to bed together. What then? Even in these things perhaps there is nothing bad.’ ”

When two brothers of the important Martelli family are accused of petty theft and purse-snatching, their informer gently observed that if “they didn’t do these things they wouldn’t be able to keep their boys and their whores.”

Baccio Bandinelli, who made the two ugliest sculptures on public view today in Florence--the Hercules outside the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio and the seated sculpture of a Medici warrior known as Giovanni delle Bande Nere outside the San Lorenzo church--once called his rival, Benvenuto Cellini, in the presence of the Duke Cosimo, “a dirty sodomite.” This silversmith and master sculptor of the Perseus with the head of Medusa won the day with his spirited response:

“Oh, fool, you’re wrong: but would God that I knew how to practice such a noble art, since one reads that Jove used it with Ganymede in paradise, and here on earth the greatest emperors and kings in the world use it. I am a lowly and humble wretch, and neither could I nor would I know how to get involved in such an admirable thing.”

Rocke makes the point that “males engaged in sodomy came from across the social spectrum” and lists that laborers in textile production were the largest group of those denounced, with 24%; next were the clothing makers, 15%; then the other crafts, merchants, butchers, barbers, with 6.4%; followed by the clergy, 3.6%. Not everyone denounced was listed by occupation.

The Ponte Vecchio in those years was already lined with shops, but mostly butcher shops, not the elegant boutiques of jewelry seen on that bridge today. Five sons of the Mazzante family of butchers were on the bridge, and three of them were denounced frequently. And altogether, “at least 50 people who worked on the Ponte Vecchio were implicated in these survey years.”

One man was denounced for letting his three sons be sodomized by well-placed men because, the father said, “it was good for the family,” meaning most likely job promotions and other upscale favors. The father himself had been denounced twice when he was 14 for being the “lover” of a merchant. (They lived beneath the place that was to become Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last home.)

“And Florentines,” Rocke writes, “hardly had to be told that sex with boys did not lead to unwanted pregnancy, a fact of life that Girolamo Savonarola [the spell-binding Dominican friar then in full-cry] nonetheless adduced to explain why local parents willfully allowed their sons to engage in sodomy.”

Soon after the death of Lorenzo II Magnifico in 1492, Friar Savonarola, a fire-and-brimstone preacher from Ferrara, became virtual dictator of Florence and mobilized hundreds of born-again puritan youths in a kind of Children’s Crusade. Bonfires of the vanities were regularly held, with books, finery and paintings destroyed. (Botticelli donated one of his own paintings but was denounced for sodomy just the same.) This prompted the informal formation of a pro-sodomy group of young, patrician-led hotheads known as the Arrabbiati (“Angry Ones”). Savonarola even denounced the pope, Alexander VI, who was a Borgia from Spain and father of seven children, one of whom was Lucrezia. He ordered the friar to refrain from preaching, and the Florentines took that as a signal to rid the city of him. Savonarola was hanged and his body burned at a bonfire of another kind.

Rocke’s argument in “Forbidden Friendships” against attempts by our contemporaries to plant sexual labels on Florence’s Renaissance males is well summarized with this: “Some scholars, if they have not simply assumed that males who had sex with other males were exclusively ‘homosexual,’ have adopted the seemingly more appropriate word ‘bisexuality’ to characterize Renaissance men’s interest in both sexes. But this anachronistic term is only a hybrid product of the sharply drawn contemporary categories ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual,’ which were lacking in this society, and it probably misrepresents the cultural specificity of the late medieval and early modern understandings of erotic experience and sentiment.”