Scott on Ferguson, 'Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity, and Community in Early Modern Europe'

Author: 
Gary Ferguson
Reviewer: 
Braden Scott

Gary Ferguson. Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity, and Community in Early Modern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016. 232 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-0237-2.

Reviewed by Braden Scott (McGill University) Published on H-Histsex (December, 2020) Commissioned by Clinton Glenn (McGill University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54849

Doing the history of homosexuality is an increasingly complicated task: the modern invention of homosexual identity, countless meanderings within high theory, and arguments between historicism and unhistoricism can all derail affective observations of historical artifacts. While it may be tempting for a modern gay man to find his sexual identity mirrored in the biographies of the Roman emperor Hadrian or the Florentine sculptor-architect Michelangelo, we are incessantly reminded that temporal distances rupture sexual acts and their period-specific social understanding. In Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome, Gary Ferguson addresses and advances questions that surround same-sex desire in the history of sexuality studies while delivering an exceptional examination of archival sources that document the complex international events surrounding a group of men in Renaissance Rome. The accounts of the men involved, in the words of the author, “invite us neither to seek in the past mirror images of ourselves nor to construct a breach between ‘us’ and the rest of history” (p. 158).

In 1578, Christian authorities in Rome executed a group of predominantly Iberian men after trying them for charges of sodomy. The diverse group of men were arrested at the church of Saint John at the Latin Gate during a wedding ceremony that they had discretely organized for two of their brethren. Although this event is Ferguson’s central case study, the author opens his introduction with the contemporary issue of same-sex marriage. While new definitions of marriage have been emerging in global legislation in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, some countries have strengthened laws against homosexuality, and their actions have become fodder for divisive opinions among scholars of the globalization of homosexuality. The author reveals that his intention is indeed anachronic: “in opening this study with recent and ongoing efforts for the legalization of same-sex marriage, I mean to suggest the interest of pursuing engaged interactions between the sixteenth and the twenty-first centuries” (p. 8). This ambitious aim of Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome is intended to catch the attention of both historians of Renaissance Europe and historians of sexuality.

The book is divided into three parts: “Stories—Observers,” “Stories—Actors,” and “Histories.” The first part makes use of judicial and legal documents, ambassadorial dispatches, and newsletters while the second part makes use of personal accounts. Each chapter of the first two parts expands out from a single primary source. Together, the chapters move along through the events of the case as Ferguson unfolds the public and private events surrounding the marriage, arrests, trials, and execution. In the concluding pages, the author emphasizes how select cases from the histories of sexuality do not fit within the school of philosopher-historians who “maintain that not only homosexuality, but more generally sexuality itself, was a product of the nineteenth century” (p. 156). The author maintains “we must not overlook the ways in which aspects of the behaviors of the San Giovanni group are bound up with and reflect universalizing structures of desire and sexual activity typical of the sixteenth century—the ways in which, that is, they are necessarily implicated in the structures and habits of their particular culture, from which it would be a mistake to seek to extricate or abstract them” (p. 157).

The first four chapters of part 1 unfold the tedious nuance of terminology and cultural references. Each chapter begins with a single written record that documents the event of the men at the Latin Gate or, in the case of the third chapter, provides a preface to better understand societal reception of the event. The first chapter tackles with a French report that conveys the identity of the men, both as Iberians and as members of some kind of community within Rome. The second chapter is a Venetian account that reveals sixteenth-century attitudes toward sodomy and the growing crises in heterosexual marriage. The third chapter makes use of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century texts that foreground the power structures implicated in marriage between opposite sexes—a power structure that translated into pederasty, the same-sex relationship between a younger and an older man. Other than a brief mention of same-sex relations between men of the same age—a clever foreshadowing of the author’s next section—the chapter retains the repeated adage that premodern sexuality was generally pederastic. The fourth chapter finds in accounts of the arrests and execution intersectional prejudices of race, religion, and sexuality against the men at the Latin Gate. At this point, the reader is left with a clear picture of the social backdrop behind the event; a picture that is, for the most part, well known and repeated in most histories of Renaissance sexuality.

In part 2, the predictability of “how-to-do-the-history-of-Renaissance-homosexuality” takes a massive shift. The following five chapters continue to closely examine primary written records, but instead of observing accounts of eyewitnesses, these seek to understand the men who were arrested and executed. In the fifth chapter, Ferguson amplifies his intentions: “and so I feel the vain imperative to preserve what flotsam of these sunken lives manages to traverse time’s ocean and wash up on our twenty-first-century shore” (p. 83). The sixth chapter finds the closest analogues to oral histories, literally placing “voices on trial” (the title of the chapter). Ferguson mines the testimonies of the men at the Latin Gate for clues into their lives and finds cases of intimate bonds between men of the same age and masculine stature that suggest long-term coupling, and evidence of their sexual preferences to include versatility—passive and active anal pleasure. Ferguson’s close attention to the historical record disrupts nearly all modern theorization that positions pederasty as the historical sexuality, to which he responds that as historians of sexuality, we must “revise this view” (p. 93). Ferguson does not simply drop the mic at this point; he moves on to the seventh chapter, where he continues to present additional written accounts that evidence versatile male-male desire within a broader context of sixteenth-century Rome. Again, Ferguson finds a rich intersectional angle, and connects the men at the Latin Gate with young Jewish men in Rome who found lustful ways to enjoy their Sabbath. Chapter 8 continues with intimate accounts of diverse sexuality among the men: pederasty, versatility, and preferences among men of the same age that we now call “bottom” and “top.” Other than pleasure, these men were part of a discreet society, and Ferguson posits that while the ritual of marriage provided a performative conjugation, it may have also acted as an initiation into a subcultural male-male sexual community. Chapter 9 knocks the point of marriage and community home, and continues to offer invaluable insight into facets of Renaissance men’s lives that clairvoyed campy punch lines in televised sitcoms: “if Valez was a good friend of Vittorio, one of the intended spouses, he denies that the two ever slept together. If this is true, the reason likely had to do with what they enjoyed doing in bed, for both men were sexually passive” (p. 127).

Part 3 offers a modern reflection of the case of the men at the Latin Gate. Chapter 10 is a reflexive comparison of Ferguson’s historical analyses with the development of sexual identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is a common adage in sexuality studies that “before the eighteenth century there were no such things as a homosexual identity or a homosexual subculture” (p. 154). In this view from high theory, sex acts belong to a social realm of complete alterity, and any familiar expression is simply fallacious misapplication of presentism. It is with this in mind that Ferguson’s study of the exceptional men of the Latin Gate is both daring and significant. In a kind of parallax, written records of persecution have provided rich details of same-sex relationships in Renaissance Europe for studies such as Michael Rocke’s foundational text.[1] Building from this method, Ferguson’s case of personal testimonies offers a rare glimpse into the more intimate lives of his studied subjects, and these reveal complex, diverse forms of sexuality that refute most modern theories of the history of sexuality. There is no doubt that for a historian, the age in question demands a critical command of the specificities of the sixteenth century, but the men Ferguson studies reveal acute subcultural traits that have been categorized as those of modern homosexuality. The author pointedly asks: “should we then think of these men as having a ‘homosexual identity?’” (p. 156).

In place of a conclusion, chapter 11 is an affective denouement that locates this historical case study within the complex paradigm of queer theory. Ferguson finds himself in Rome at the church of Saint John at the Latin Gate, “which provoked strong and contrasting emotions: profound sadness and melancholy, but also anger, a sense of identification, and pride” (p. 160). Ferguson’s confession refutes decades of queer theory that teach us that we are not connected to history’s “sodomites”; our subjective places in time are too temporally removed to acknowledge some kind of kinship, some kind of community. We are told that men in the past engaged in sexual acts, but these acts did not define them and these men were not similar to the modern homosexual in matters of identity. Ferguson’s study is a welcome update to the history of sexuality, and a challenge to the theoretical methods set in place by Michel Foucault in 1976 that David M. Halperin resurged in 1990.[2] The history of homosexuality in the Renaissance has predominantly clung to their orthodoxy of alterity, the distinct separation and succession of historical and modern sexual subjectivity. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, on the other hand, advocated “not to stress the alterity of disappeared or now-supposed-alien understandings of same-sex relations but instead to invest attention in those unexpectedly plural, varied, and contradictory historical understandings whose residual—indeed, whose renewed—force seems most palpable today.”[3] Ferguson’s study contributes to an already present corpus of scholarship that has for decades tended to the palpable, and queried Foucault’s rigid framework with diverse histories of ancient sexuality.[4] More recently, Patricia Lee Rubin provided an entangled reading of historical and modern homosexuality when she tended to the throbbing pulse of masculine posterior views in Renaissance art, and Valerie Traub changed her historical approach to Renaissance sexuality as one of alterity to one that acknowledges “cycles of salience—that is, as forms of intelligibility whose meanings recur, intermittently and with a difference, across time.”[5] It is clear that there is no single way to do the history of sexuality, and that studies such as Ferguson’s are important new additions to the currently shifting methods in the history of sexuality that will “challenge us to rethink or to nuance some ingrained historiographic notions” (p. 93).

Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome will be of interest to historically inclined scholars from all disciplines, but will especially delight historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and art historians (find the tidbits of information about Cellini and Michelangelo). The case of the men at the church of Saint John at the Latin Gate demands attention, and should not be thought of as an exceptional event, but as a new window into the diverse forms of historical sexuality and as a methodological example of the way to excavate these latent pasts.

Notes 

[1]. Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[2]. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité 1: La volonté de savoir (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1976); David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990).

[3]. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, [1990] 2008), 44-48.

[4]. See, for example, Giovanni Dall’Orto, Tutta un’altra storia. L’omosessualità dall’antichità al secondo dopoguerra (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 2015); Amy Richlin, “Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, no. 4 (1993): 523-73; and Simon Goldhill, Foucault’s Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 46-111.

[5]. Valerie Traub, Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 84-85; Patricia Lee Rubin, Seen from Behind: Perspectives on the Male Body and Renaissance Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).

Citation: Braden Scott. Review of Ferguson, Gary, Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity, and Community in Early Modern Europe. H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54849

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