“Nature is a Mother Most Sweet”: Homosexuality in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Italian Libertinism

  • Giovanni Dall’Orto
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


In his book Homosexuality and Liberation, a fundamental text of the Italian gay rights movement, Mario Mieli entitled one chapter on the history of homosexuals “How Homosexuals—From One Burning Stake to the Next—Became Gay.”1 Even at the risk of over dramatizing a bit, in 1977 it was essential to uncover and denounce the suffering of homosexuals through the centuries. It was necessary to show how homosexuals were an oppressed minority that needed to fight for social equality. Today, in a somewhat more positive social climate, we have begun to recognize the danger of reading gay history simply as a series of persecutions, “from one burning stake to the next.” There have been moments of tolerance in the past at least as important as—and in some cases even more important than—the moments of persecution. We must also look at these periods of tolerance for a proper understanding of our history.


Seventeenth Century Typical Libertine Alternative Morality Secular Ethic Italian History 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Mario Mieli, Elementi di critica omosessuale, (Turin: Einaudi, 1977), translated into English as Homosexuality and Liberation: Elements of a Gay Critique, trans. David Fernbach (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1980). See the title of chapter two, “Come gli omosessuali, di rogo in rogo, divennero gay,” which Fernbach rendered as “Fire and Brimstone, or How Homosexuals Became Gay.” Mieli’s treatise has recently been reissued: Elementi di critica omosessuale, ed. Gianni Rossi Barilli and Paola Mieli (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2002).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    René Pintard, Le libertinage érudit dans la première moitié du XVII siècle (Paris, 1943; rpr. Geneva and Paris: Slatkine, 1983).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Pintard and Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982). I would add that it is amusing to see how scholars of sixteenth/seventeenth-century Italian libertinism and scholars of seventeenth/ eighteenth-century French libertinism struggle to discern continuity between the two main periods of the movement. See, for instance, the attempt to synthesize the disparate definitions of libertinism circulating today made by James Turner, “The Properties of Libertinism,” Unauthorized Sexual Behavior During the Enlightenment, ed. Robert Maccubin, Eighteenth-Century Life 9 (1985), pp. 75–87. Among other things, this essay notes that some scholars place “the first major flourishing” of libertinism too early … around 1650! Which is to say no less than a full century after its first real flourishing in Italy; by 1650 it was already fading away.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Giorgio Spini, Ricerca dei libertini (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1983; 2nd edition).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Giorgio Spini, “Alcuni appunti sui libertini italiani” in: Il libertinismo in Europa, ed. Sergio Bertelli (Milan and Naples: Ricciardi, 1980), pp. 117–24. Protestant scholar Spini accuses Catholics of having used “a godless theory of religion as imposture … for a positive end, that is to defend Catholicism.” He goes on: “Nor is it at all beyond the realm of possibility that this type of polemic contributed to the growth and diffusion of libertine ideology” (p. 121; all English translations Cestaro unless otherwise indicated). In the same volume an amazing example of the use of libertine arguments in religious polemics is studied by Valerio Marchetti, “Nelle fabbriche dell’immaginazione antilibertina: Andrea Cardoini,” pp. 169–80, which deals with a critique of Calvin that ends up turning the “heretic” leader into a diabolical and libertine-style “impostor.” On the other side of the fence, the use of libertine thematics to combat “Catholic superstition” is examinedGoogle Scholar
  6. by Giancarlo Carabelli, “Libertinismo e deismo in Inghilterra” in: Ricerche su letteratura libertina e letteratura clandestina nel Seicento, ed. Tullio Gregory et al. (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1981), pp. 407–16.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    While insisting on its spiritual purity, Saint Aelred of Rievaulx (1110–1167) in the middle ages had defined the relationship between Jesus and John as a “marriage”; see John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 225–26.Google Scholar
  8. 19.
    Cited by Jim Kepner, Becoming a People (Hollywood: National Gay Archives, 1983), p. 19.Google Scholar
  9. 20.
    “O Cristo era afeiçoado a Sâo Joâo porque dormiam ambos.” The witness adds that Michel had said: “ ‘Se Sâo Paulo falou tanto nas molicies, é que alguma cousa obrara nelas,’ dando a entender que S. Paulo cometera o pecado de molicies.” (“If Saint Paul spent so much time talking about mollities it’s because he must have had some experience in the area,” suggesting that St. Paul had commited the sin of mollities), Arquivio Nacional da Torre do Tombo, Lisbon. “Inquisiçao de Lisboa,” n. 10093. I would like to thank Professor Luiz Mott of Bahia (Brazil; for this citation, as well as the one in the note following. On the Latin term mollities (“softness,” often referring to masturbation in medieval theological discussions), see Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), especially pp. 102–06, 168–69.Google Scholar
  10. 23.
    See Ira Wade, The Intellectual Origins of the French Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972).Google Scholar
  11. 25.
    For Antonio Rocco, see also my “Antonio Rocco and the Background of his ‘L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola’ (1652)” in: Among Men, Among Women, Conference at the University of Amsterdam, 22–26 June 1983 (Amsterdam: Universiteit van Amsterdam, 1993), pp. 224–32, 571–72 (much of this has been incorporated into the present essay). For those interested in the tortuous tale of how the book came to be attributed to Rocco,Google Scholar
  12. see Laura Coci, “L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola: nota biobibliografica,” Studi secenteschi 26 (1985), pp. 301–29 and pp. 95–98 of Coci’s edition, L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (Rome: Salerno, 1988). Although difficult to obtain, an English translation now exists: Alcibiades the Schoolboy, trans. J. C Rawnsley (Amsterdam: Entimos, 2000). On the literary and cultural context, see Claudio Varese, “Momenti e implicazioni del romanzo libertino nel Seicento italiano” in: Bertelli, pp. 239–69 andGoogle Scholar
  13. Albert N. Mancini, “La narrativa libertina degli Incogniti: tipologie e forme,” Forum italicum 16 (Winter 1982), pp. 203–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Armando Marchi, “Il Seicento en enfer: la narrazione libertina del Seciento italiano,” Rivista di letteratura italiana 2 (1984), pp. 351–67, provides valuable insights on seventeenth-century Italian intellectuals and libertines. More recently,Google Scholar
  15. see Armando Maggi, “The Discourse of Sodom in a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Text” in: Reclaiming the Sacred: The Bible in Gay and Lesbian Culture (New York: Haworth, 1997), pp. 25–43. A German translation with a reprint of the Italian text was published by Wolfram Setz as: Antonio Rocco, Die Schüler Alkibiades. Ein philosophisch-erotischer Dialog (Hamburg: MännerschwarmSkript Verlag, 2002). This edition proposes ancient texts relevant to Rocco and the Alcibiade, plus a “Nachwort” by Wolfram Setz, Wär ich einem Tag und eine Nacht Alkibiades. Geschichten um ein kleines Buch, pp. 199–255.Google Scholar
  16. 41.
    Jean-Paul Aron and Roger Kempf. Le pénis et la démoralisation de l’Occident (Paris: B. Grasset, 1978).Google Scholar
  17. 47.
    See, however, the collection of essays edited by Catherine Cusset, Libertinage and Modernity (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1998), which includes an essay by Philippe Roger on “The role of female homosexuality in Casanova’s memoirs.”Google Scholar
  18. See also Randy P. L. Conner, “Burning Desire: Claude Le Petit, Libertine Poet,” Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 27, 53 (2000), pp. 421–33,Google Scholar
  19. and James Grantham Turner, Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France, and England 1534–1685 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Gary P. Cestaro 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Giovanni Dall’Orto

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations