Hoes before Bros

Venetian officials sought to stem a ‘plague’ of sodomy by promoting the heterosexual sex trade.

Boys just want to have fun: February scene from the Trivulzio tapestry, by Benedetto da Milano, after a design by Bramantino, Milan, 1504-9. On 26 March 1511 the Venetian diarist Marino Sanudo described how a terrifying earthquake struck the city:

The chimneys were swaying, the walls bursting open, the bell towers tottering, things on high were tumbling down, and the water in the canals – even the Grand Canal – was boiling as if it had fire under it.

The following day the patriarch, Antonio Contarini, addressed the inner cabinet of the republic’s governing Signoria. According to Sanudo, Contarini blamed the earthquake on sinful behaviour and on sodomites in particular: ‘This land is full of sin, mainly sodomy, which is committed everywhere without respect.’ Contarini also revealed that the city’s prostitutes had ‘sent word to him that they cannot make a living. No one goes with them because there is so much sodomy; and even old men get themselves worked over’.

Of all carnal sins sodomy was regarded with the greatest horror. It denied reproduction, challenged the family unit and threatened the natural order of society. It was also associated with the biblical city of Sodom, whose citizens had incurred God’s wrath with their homosexual ways and which had been totally destroyed as a punishment. For many Venetians, the 1511 earthquake was the latest in a series of disasters which seemed to indicate the same kind of divine disapproval. During an outbreak of plague in 1497 the Franciscan monk Timeoto da Lucca delivered a sermon at St Mark’s Basilica in which he called on Doge Agostino Barbarigo to ‘eliminate the causes that lead to the plague’, including ‘the societies of sodomy’. In 1499 the Ottoman Turks beat the Venetian navy at the battle of Zonchio in the Ionian Sea. The Venetians were again defeated at Modon in 1500. An anonymous letter sent to Doge Barbarigo in July that year urged him to purge the city of ‘certain capital vices’, including ‘filthy lust’, in order to restore God’s good will. In 1509 the Venetian army was routed by French forces at Agnadello. The merchant, banker and future doge Gerolamo Priuli also blamed that defeat on Venice’s moral corruption. In his diary he wrote of perfumed young men dressed in shirts open at the chest who ‘incited lust’ with their ‘luxurious and venereal’ behaviour. He also condemned nobles ‘with white beards’ who fell prey to the ‘sodomitic vice’ and paid youths ‘so that they will satisfy them in that vice’.

The Venetian authorities responded to the threat of sodomy with the iron fist of the law. The Council of Ten, which was in charge of state security, took over responsibility for prosecuting sodomy cases in 1418. Over the next 80 years it issued at least six decrees outlawing sodomy and ordering officials to seek it out in public places, on board ships and in private homes. In August 1500 – at the height of the moral panic over the Modon naval defeat – the Ten further decreed that ‘passive’ partners in sodomy cases should be liable to the same punishments as ‘actives’. These could be extreme: beheading followed by the burning of the offender’s body, imprisonment, fines, banishment and lashes. Mutilation was also prescribed. For common male criminals this usually meant the loss of a hand or eyes – thus preventing them from working for a living. But in a spiteful twist, sodomites were ordered to have their noses sliced or cut off – a punishment usually reserved for women. If women were to have the social and economic value of their beauty destroyed, then so should men who took their role in unnatural sexual intercourse.

The state also tried to eradicate sodomy through more persuasive means. This included an unofficial policy of supporting the female sex trade. Prostitution had long been permitted in Venice and was mainly concentrated in the area near the Rialto where meretrices (legal harlots) paid local officials a monthly fee to practise their profession. By the early 16th century Marino Sanudo reckoned that there were 11,654 prostitutes in Venice – about one tenth of the total population. An uncensored press industry allowed the Venetian republic to tacitly support the circulation of messages which promoted prostitution and discouraged sodomy. Two vulgar sonnets in dialect published in this period, for example, allude to the fate of a certain Andrea Zane, presumably executed and burned for sodomy. Officials also allowed – although never formally sanctioned – the open flaunting by prostitutes of their physical attractions from the first floor windows of brothels in the Carampane district. The place names of the Ponte delle Tette (Bridge of Tits) and Fondamenta delle Tette (Canal Path of Tits) date from this time.

In 1516 the Council of Ten gave more specific legal backing to female prostitutes in a decree which sought to stamp out ‘the most wicked and abominable vice of sodomy’. The Ten were particularly alarmed by ‘certain men of 30, 40, 50 and 60 years and above who have given themselves as prostitutes and public meretrices by inviting actives through money and other bad means to commit that shameful and iniquitous act’. The decree duly reaffirmed the penalties for ‘passive’ and ‘active’ males.

The 1516 decree was, however, Venice’s last salvo against sodomy. By the middle of the 16th century the state had more pressing priorities and its laws were clearly having little effect in discouraging men from having sex with each other. Renaissance writers were also beginning to reject the notion of homosexuality as a sin. In Venice in 1531 the Sienese writer and poet Antonio Vignale published La Cazzaria – a ribald dialogue which challenged traditional sexual morality and defended sodomy as part of human nature. The downturn in trade feared by the prostitutes never materialised. Indeed, as Venice’s economic and political power continued to decline, the city transformed itself into the pleasure – and sex – capital of Europe. When Henri III of France arrived on a visit in 1574 he insisted on seeing the famed courtesan Veronica Franco. And this was a man who reputedly dabbled in sodomy.

John-Pierre Joyce is a writer, journalist and teacher based in Venice.