The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance (Bodley Head, 2020) is a new history of a familiar era. Focusing on the years 1492-1571, it covers topics including developments in art and literature, the early years of European colonialism, the Italian Wars of 1494-1559, and the impact of the Reformation and religious change. It suggests that the Italian Renaissance was far stranger and darker than many of us realise, and that sex and sexuality played an important role in this unsavoury side of the sixteenth century.
NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about?
Fletcher: I’m trying to do two things with the book. One is to give people who come across the work of the ‘famous names’ of the later Renaissance—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael or Machiavelli—some context. The other is to bring together a series of narratives that are often treated separately: the Reformations, the rise of European empires, later Renaissance culture and the Italian Wars of 1494-1559.
NOTCHES: How do we know about sex and sexuality in Renaissance Italy? Are there any problems with/ limits to the surviving sources?
Fletcher: We have a good range of sources, from law and trial records to letters, literary sources (including plenty of satire), and visual culture. These are often mediated via government officials or elite writers: we don’t hear so much from lower-ranking people or from women.
NOTCHES: Many people will associate the Italian Renaissance with salacious stories of high-class courtesans and papal ‘nephews’- but is that an accurate representation of how things really were?
Fletcher: There’s definitely a ‘courtesan culture’ in sixteenth-century Italy and examples of women like Tullia d’Aragona who combined that role with a career as a writer. You have the tale of Pope Julius III (r. 1550-1555) making his lover a cardinal, and plenty of noblemen had mistresses and illegitimate children. But that’s only part of the bigger picture: it’s a bit like focusing only on the expensive end of escorting in a study of the sex industry today. There was also a great deal of official harassment: for example, prostitutes were often required to wear a symbol of their status, such as a yellow scarf.
NOTCHES: We also associate this period with nude paintings. Was there a lot of sex/ nudity in Renaissance literature and art, and if so did this reflect changing attitudes/ behaviours?
Fletcher: There’s certainly nudity in Renaissance art and literature, though not always in sexual contexts: it’s a notable element of religious painting too. In her book on the Italian Renaissance Nude Jill Burke has explored the rise of the female nude in the context of changing attitudes towards beauty. As printing became more widespread with it came printed pornography, including the notorious I Modi, published and banned in the 1520s, which depicted a series of sixteen sexual positions without a classical gloss to give them respectability. Series showing the Loves of the Gods were more acceptable, and the decoration of the Palazzo Te in Mantua, the summer palace of the city’s rulers, likewise drawing on ancient myth, is explicitly sexual.
NOTCHES: Some of the stories in your book suggest that Renaissance sexual attitudes benefitted men (especially powerful men) far more than women. Would it be fair to say that the Renaissance (or at least this aspect of it) was more fun for men than woman?
Fletcher: In short, yes. Women’s honour was focused very much around their chastity and to ignore that risked severe social censure. Men had a great deal more sexual freedom. On the other hand we do hear of women who broke the rules, like the writer Chiara Matraini, who as a widow had a very public affair with a married poet.
NOTCHES: You mention that sex between men was extremely common in parts of Italy during this period. Why was this, and was everyone happy about it?
Fletcher: The attitudes towards sex between men were contradictory. From a Christian point of view sodomy (a term that incorporated all sorts of non-procreative sex) was a sin. On the other hand certain types of sexual relationship between men could be socially acceptable, especially where these were between older/higher status active partners and younger/lower status passive ones. Gary Ferguson’s recent book on Same Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome deals with the case of a group of migrant men who had sex with men, and raises important questions about the greater risk of persecution facing marginalised communities.
NOTCHES: How much impact did syphilis have on Renaissance Italy?
Fletcher: The ‘pox’, often identified as syphilis, was first noted in Italy shortly after the French invasion of 1494, hence the name ‘French disease’. In its initial phase it seems to have been particularly pernicious and was exacerbated by poor harvests, a severe winter and the presence of troops (which put further pressure on supplies); it was often seen as God’s punishment for ill-living. Numerous well-known figures fell ill, including the duke of Ferrara and the future pope Julius II. Good personal care, which wasn’t available to all, helped the wealthy survive: the marquis of Mantua lived for twenty-three years after his initial symptoms.
NOTCHES: Did you find anything that particularly surprised you? And/or did you come across anything particularly interesting which you had to leave out of the book?
Fletcher: As I went through the biographies of the leading military commanders, I was struck by just how many of them were also accused of domestic violence or rape. That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise given that we know that rape was widespread in the Italian Wars, but it’s a part of the story that hasn’t featured in the literature. I would have liked to dig down more but decided that would have to wait for an article.
NOTCHES: How (if at all) are Renaissance ideas about, and experiences of, sex relevant today?
Fletcher: Those issues around interpersonal violence and military violence, and rape as a weapon of war, are still very present in conflicts today. Some of the arguments about clerical celibacy that came to the fore with the Reformation are still going on in the Catholic Church. And I’m interested in the parallel between the fairly routine acceptance of same-sex relationships in some Renaissance circles and how young people are thinking about sex now.
NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?
Fletcher: Immediately after my first degree (which wasn’t in History) I was elected convenor of what was then the National Union of Students Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Campaign. I learnt a lot informally about the history of sexuality in that role, and although it’s never been a primary focus of my academic research I do keep coming back to it in different contexts.
NOTCHES: What are you working on now that this book is published?
Fletcher: At the risk of becoming a “Sex and Violence” cliché, I’m close to finishing a couple of articles that build on the book’s discussion of gun culture, and have more work still to come on aspects of the Italian Wars.
Catherine Fletcher is Professor of History at Manchester Metropolitan University. A historian of Renaissance and early modern Europe, her books include Our Man in Rome (Bodley Head, 2012), The Black Prince of Florence (Bodley Head, 2016), and The Beauty and the Terror (Bodley Head, 2020). She tweets from @cath_fletcher
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