Obviously we know there have been gay people living in society for as long as society has existed. There are hints toward homosexuals in history books, religious texts and official records, but with moral taboos preventing even acknowledgement that same-sex relations even occurred, it’s difficult to pull together any kind of accurate picture of what being gay actually used to be like. Was there any kind of gay community? Did gay people really keep their sexuality hidden all their lives? Well the answer might actually be different than we expect.
While this may hint that there were a lot of gay people in Florence, it actually points more toward bisexuality and sexual experimentation. The custom at the time saw men not marrying until they were in their early thirties, with a large proportion not marrying at all. The city was strictly Catholic and, as such, the young women of Florence were kept chaste under the omniscient eyes of their families. With young men living as bachelors, but with young women completely out of reach, it became common for the men to satisfy their sexual urges with each other, right until they got married. In fact, it was so commonplace that when the unpopular friar Savonarola became Florence’s leader in the 1490s, preaching against sodomy, a riot broke out in the cathedral in protestation.
Machiavelli, a resident of Florence at the time, once wrote that a friend had admitted to him that had his father “known my natural inclinations and ways, he would never have tied me to a wife”. This outlook on what appears to be the social inclusion of homosexuality is not that far from a modern interpretation of Gay Rights. There even appears to have been a sub-culture, with its own gay scene. Centred around the ‘Street of Furriers’, gay men were known to congregate in shops and bars, with one shop even called ‘Buco’ (a slang word of the anus, literally meaning ‘The Hole’). The court records are filled with references to large networks of gay friends, who regularly socialised and slept together.
Upon its dispansion, the record of homosexuality in Florence ends. There is no doubt that society continued in the way it had before, except we have no written proof that shows how long these liberal attitudes lasted and when it was that they veered back toward conservatism. What these records do prove is that while we see the integration of gay people into society as a relatively modern advance, liberal attitudes toward homosexuality have been in existence a lot longer than we might already have thought. We already knew that homosexuality was commonplace in Roman times, as well as their prominence in various tribal cultures further afield too, but these Florentine records show that in a western, Christian community, homosexuality was just as much a part of their daily lives, just as accepted, but also just as contentious, as it is today. With clear evidence that it was just the Christian authority that was attempting to enforce a conservative attitude on its people, it just shows that even at the height of the Church’s power, people still had the proclivity to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions about homosexuality. Surprisingly, in fifteenth century Florence, this conclusion appears to have been acceptance and assimilation.