The following passage is excerpted from the author’s introduction to his new translation of a book written in 1525 by Antonio Vignali (1500-1559), a young Italian nobleman from Siena, entitled La cazzaria, or The Book of the Prick (Routledge, 2003). La cazarria was by far the bawdiest of many 16th-century Italian treatises on sex, in this case a dialogue between Arsiccio (Vignali himself) and his sexually naïve friend Sodo. Moulton notes early on that the book is openly homoerotic and that “It is clear that Arsiccio … very much prefers to have sex with men and is willing to openly assert and defend his preferences.”
AS WELL AS being a political allegory and an erotic myth, La cazzaria is also an apologia for sodomy. In this, Vignali’s dialogue represents a vernacular continuation of the humanist Latin tradition of learned—and often homoerotic—bawdy.
When Vignali wrote La cazzaria, Italy had long been notorious throughout western Europe as a hotbed of sodomy. The term “sodomy” was by no means a precise one in the period; it was used to refer to a wide variety of transgressive and nonprocreative sexual activities. In general, though, it referred to sexual activity between men, especially anal sex. So strong was the popular association of Italy with sodomy that in early modern Germany, the word for “sodomite” was Florenzer. There is as yet no detailed study of male homoeroticism in 16th-century Siena, but Michael Rocke’s Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence makes it clear that sex between men was an integral part of urban life in Tuscany. While homoerotic relations were by no means simply tolerated and the penalties for those convicted of sodomy could be very harsh indeed, sexual activity between males seems to have been common at all social levels.
In Lives of the Artists, Vasari records a story that may provide some insight into Sienese homoeroticism in the early 16th century. In 1515 a horse owned by the Sienese painter Giovanbatista Bazzi won the Palio, the town’s horse race. After the race it was the custom to shout the victor’s name in the streets of the city. On this occasion, instead of yelling “Bazzi!” the assembled crowds shouted “Sodoma! Sodoma!”—the nickname Bazzi had acquired through his open sexual interest in boys. The shouting of this provocative name brought the more conservative elements of the city into the streets in protest, and a riot ensued.
This story suggests the ambivalent place of homoeroticism in Renaissance Italian culture.