Call yourself The Sodomite?  That was okay in the Renaissance, ‘but absolutely not in public’

Call yourself The Sodomite? That was okay in the Renaissance, ‘but absolutely not in public’

“The first thing that struck me were the differences,” says Marlisa den Hartog. “Like how, as a woman, you had to have sex regularly, otherwise the uterus would become blocked. But if you get to know such a period better, the similarities are just as fascinating.”

Marlisa den Hartog conducts research into how people thought about sexuality and gender in the Italian Renaissance. “It is a well-known cliché that history holds up a mirror to us. I see it more as a hall of mirrors: sometimes you see very strange things, like that idea of ​​the blocked uterus. And sometimes you come face to face with an uncomfortably recognizable image: for example, the belief that if a woman wears certain clothes, she is actually ‘asking for it’.”

Why did you want to investigate the sexual codes of conduct from this period?

“We know the Renaissance as a cultural heyday. But it is also a very dynamic time in the field of sexuality: there is the development of anatomical science and of course the rediscovery of texts from classical antiquity. People read about different sexual morals in it, and that almost results in a kind of cultural relativism. And the most exciting thing for me: the debate about the role of women that is taking place in Italy at this time.”

Could you call it a sexual revolution?

“That suggests too much that things got better for everyone at that time. This time is certainly freer for men, but not necessarily for women. Class plays an important role in this, and so does age. Young men from the upper class had the most freedom, while young women from the upper class had the least freedom.

“But there is a big difference with the period afterward: during the Counter-Reformation, the rules became much stricter, for example with regard to premarital sex and prostitution, and there was more censorship of literature. This is how the Decameron of Boccaccio on the list of banned books.”

During the Counter-Reformation, the rules became much stricter, for example regarding sex before marriage

Yet it was not just freedom, happiness for the men, you write.

“No that is right. On the one hand, it is a macho culture, in which men brag a lot about their sexual achievements. But there were also conflicting codes, such as that a real, rational man had to be able to control himself. That could also be very complicated.

“And there was also pressure to perform. For example, a marriage was only valid if you had had sex. There is a good example of a man whose first marriage was dissolved because he had failed to consummate it. When he wanted to remarry, a very public process arose. He had to carry a certain weight with his erection, and even deflowered a girl from an orphanage, with people actually watching. All to show that he could do it.”

And during the Renaissance people drew inspiration from Classical Antiquity. Did that also change sexual morality?

“It mainly played out in discussions about homosexuality. According to Christian morality, that was a mortal sin, and you could also be prosecuted for it. But the cultural elite saw that ancient texts dealt with homosexuality in a much more relaxed way. Within that group, an ideal emerged in which a relationship between men was seen as uplifting.

“There is also an artist today, Gianantonio Bazzi, who prided himself on the name Il Sodoma, aka The Sodomite. That gave him status: it showed that he had a libertine, free way of looking at sexuality.

“But that had limits. At one point, when he had won the horse races, it was announced: “The winner is Il Sodoma.” A huge riot then broke out. According to the artist biographer Giorgio Vasari, he narrowly escaped stoning. So you had to know very well where you could say things and where you couldn’t. It was fine within the elite, but absolutely not in public.”

The traditional idea was: women are naturally loose, so you have to keep them short. That idea is then attacked

You say that a kind of feminist debate is also emerging. What did that look like?

“Yes, the querelle des femmes, ‘the women’s debate’. It all starts with the Italian-French Christine de Pisan, who wrote a treatise in 1405 in which she stated that women were equal to men. A debate then arises that also reflects on the double standards that applied to men and women. Why do men actually get more sexual freedom than women? The traditional idea was: women are naturally loose, so you have to keep them short. That idea is then attacked. There are even people who say: it is actually unfair, we should let go of that double standard.”

And there is also discussion about the importance of consent or ‘consent’.

“Yes, I even spoke at one point consentimento against, in a story about a noble man who has sex with a lower-class woman. Her father finds out and then becomes very angry. You then see that the man of nobility protests that it happened with the consent of both parties. He apparently considers this agreement an important point to defend himself with.

“Rape is also a crime in this day and age, but there are all kinds of ways in which sex without consent is condoned. First of all, there is no such thing as marital rape. And beyond that, there is the idea that if women say no, they are just putting on a play to appear chaste.”

Sometimes it seems as if nothing ever changes, as if our ideas about sexuality remain constant

Ideas such as ‘when a woman says no, she actually means yes’ are still heard five centuries later. What does that say?

“Consciously or unconsciously, we apparently still have all kinds of clichéd views about sex. When you see that banga lists are still being produced, you can become a bit despondent. Sometimes it seems as if nothing ever changes, as if our ideas about sexuality remain constant.

“At the same time, of course, a lot has changed. For example, we should not forget that in the Renaissance women received corporal punishment and prison sentences for adultery. Or that women in medieval France had to walk naked on the streets, as we say Game of Thrones know.

“So you have to find a balance: on the one hand, not overestimating, but also not underestimating, how important those similarities are. It especially makes you think about where we get our own written and unwritten rules from.”




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