SEX and the Renaissance

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Sex and the Renaissance
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Sex and the Renaissance - THE BORGIAS wikiAn Overview

Before the Renaissance, sex and sensuality were seen as sins to be repressed. Its purpose was strictly for reproduction. Religion guarded daily life and each moment in life was spent on the goal of attaining salvation. After the Black Plague, secularism spread and people were less focused on salvation than enjoyment of their short lifetime.

In the Renaissance, sex and sensuality were seen as the first steps towards salvation. From the Neo-Platonist philosophers under Lorenzo de Medici, it was concluded that love of the body was the first step on the long ladder towards a love of wisdom and ultimately of God and therefore it was to be embraced and not hidden away.

Page SymbolThe double-standard existed during that time indicated that men had sexual freedom, often with courtesans and mistresses long before their marriage, whereas women were expected to be virgins at marriage and faithful to their husbands afterwards. A woman and her lover could be killed for unfaithfulness, whereas a man was expected to be unfaithful. It was thought that a woman cannot receive pleasure from anything but a man. Isabella de' Medici was strangled at the dinner table by her husband for being unfaithful. Neither Lucrezia Borgia nor Alfonso d'Este were faithful to each other and Cesare Borgia was rumoured to have at least eleven illegitimate children in his short lifetime.

Sex with their marriage partner was mostly for the purpose of procreating, usually for an heir. Traditionally, it was not seen as something to be enjoyed and respectable women were expected to lie passive during coitus. However, by the fifteenth century, there were contrary opinions. The text of St. Paul 'let the husband render to his wife what is due to her and likewise the wife to her husband' was often interpreted to mean that both sexes should experience satisfaction. There was also widespread acceptance of the theories of the ancient Greek physician Galen, which taught that a woman who experienced orgasm was more likely to conceive a child, and husbands were therefore encouraged to help their wives achieve a climax. It therefore seems likely that despite the official teachings of the Church, many married couples enjoyed a fulfilling sexual relationship.

Page SymbolAn examination of the rape laws at that time indicated that the feelings of women were not considered at all. When a woman was raped, it was seen as damaging to the father or the husband's property and reparations were paid to the father or husband, usually in the form of money or items. The woman could also be killed for being raped. It was only the rape of young girls that was seen as shocking, although the young girl's feeling was still not considered.

The Underground

Page SymbolRome was considered the centre of sin in those times. The ratio of prostitute to respectable women was the highest in Rome. This was due to the high number of clergy in the city with priests, bishops and cardinals attending the court of the Pope. These men could not marry, but they were in no way celibate. All the Renaissance popes were alleged to have children, with the exception of Pope Leo X (who was thought to be homosexual). Many of these women were common whores and not fit to be called Courtesans. These lower women either worked the streets or, most commonly, entered brothels. By the Renaissance, many brothels had wages, diseases and women regulated, however, they were still dangerous places to be. Only the higher clergy enjoyed the courtesans, who would attend dinners, walk down the street with their patrons and live in sumptuous houses throwing feasts and receiving guests. They had greater freedom than noblewomen who were expected to stay respectable and in their homes. Brothels filled the streets of Rome, many of them teeming with diseases. The French invasion of 1494 introduced Syphilis into Italy and soon, many members of the clergy were seen with scars indicating their lack of celibacy (see below).


Dying SlaveContrary to popular belief, homosexuality was rampant in the Renaissance. The renewal of antiquity and the rise of secularism in the Renaissance meant that many old classical practices were renewed in vigour, if they ever died out at all. The Florentine judicial panel Office of the Night was created in 1432 to stop the homosexual activity of the day and the repetitive reinforcement and reintroduction of such laws that prohibited homosexual acts was a sign that the council was not effective in stopping the act. Indeed, Florence was known as the centre of homosexuality with rumours flowing about of many great names, including Angelo Poliziano, Leonardo and Michelangelo. However, such acts were not limited to Florence.

The modern idea of homosexuality was not present in the Renaissance (The term Homosexual was not coined until the late 19th century). Men and women were not bound to their sexual preferences, they were not labeled by their sex partners. Many men who were married with children still engaged in such activities and even Lorenzo de' Medici, who himself was an incorrigible womanizer, was rumoured to have relations with many of his male tutors. It was a pervasive aspect of life that was a part of the male dominated culture in Italy at that time. There was most definitely a network of interlinked activities with various inns, homes and shops dedicated to such pleasures.

Women, in those times, were seen as the root of all evil. They were irrational, incapable of reason or provoking thought and just the property of the men they were bound to (their father if they weren't married, their husband if they were and God if they were nuns). In this renewal of antiquity, men thought that true love could only be between men. It was only men that were said to engage in homosexual behaviour as it was thought that a woman could not derive pleasure without a man. Young boys prostituted themselves, even those from noble families. It was seen as "Good Neighbourliness" and something like a fraternal act to engage in such activities with the younger boys. The boys' families encouraged the attentions of an older man for political gains and the gifts of money and land that the elder lover would customarily give their lover. Like the Greek tradition, it was something that helped the boy into adulthood. Some men developed love towards each other, going so far as to "marry" by holding hands over a church altar. Even the Office of the Night regarded some of these men as married in the eyes of the Church.

Page SymbolThe sexual etiquette of the day deemed the younger man, usually below twenty years of age, as the passive partner while the elder would be the active one. For a younger man to be the active partner to an elder man would mean the loss of the elder man's manhood. However, such etiquette was also determined by social class. If a young man was of a significantly higher social class than the elder, then it would be deemed proper for the positions to be switched.

Michelangelo's Dying Slave (pictured above) is a prime example of the sensuality associated with the male physique. The movement of the slave is reminiscent of the Greek kouros, a figure that was seen as the ideal of beauty in the Renaissance. Aretino the writer also wrote a series of short verses to pictures done by Giulio Romano that became known as the first example of pornography since Roman antiquity. The book does not survive today, but based on the verses done by Aretino, the picture above was drawn.

'The French Disease'

Page SymbolOne of the major consequences of widespread prostitution and infidelity was the spread of sexually transmitted disease. 'The French Disease' was the most common name for syphilis in Renaissance Italy and in the rest of Europe.

Syphilis is a disease which is almost always transmitted by sexual contact via infected lesions, although it can be inherited by a child from an infected mother. It is caused by a bacterium, Treponima Pallidum. Typically, the sufferer develops a lesion, or chancre, which later develops into further sores and rashes, together with headaches, fever and loss of appetite. In the later stages, it can cause damage to the heart and brain and lead to death.

Page SymbolAlthough syphilis seems to have been known in Europe prior to the fifteenth century (when it was sometimes mistaken for leprosy), there was a famous outbreak in 1494 amongst French troops involved in the invasion of Naples. The reasons behind this outbreak are unclear, but many scholars believe that the disease was brought back from the Americas by sailors who accompanied Columbus and were then involved in the Italian wars. Columbus's fellow captain, Martin Pinzon, apparently died from syphilis shortly after his return to Spain in 1493. This outbreak seems to have been particularly serious: many sufferers had pustules all over their bodies and died within a few months.

Right - Illustration dated 1496, believed to be by Albrecht Dürer, showing a man suffering from syphilis. The globe at the top of the picture seems to suggest a cause resulting from an astrological occurence in 1484, but doctors quickly became aware how the disease was transmitted.

durer - syphilis
The returning French soldiers spread syphilis throughout Italy and France and to other countries. The French called it 'the Italian Disease' or 'the Neapolitan Disease', and it was also named 'the great pox' to distinguish it from the more lethal smallpox. It was first called syphillis in a poem written by the Italian doctor Girolamo Frascatoro in 1530 in which a shepherd, Syphilus, is punished with the disease by the god Apollo. There was little by way of effective treatment. The most common method was for doctors to use mercury, sometimes given orally and sometimes by rubbing it on the skin or injecting it. Amongst the artefacts recovered from the 'Mary Rose', the flagship of Henry VIII which sank in 1545, is a giant syringe for injecting mercury into sailors who had caught the disease. Sometimes, a bad bout of malaria was sufficient to cure syphilis.

Because syphilis was so prevalent in Italy, particularly amongst the local prostitutes, many noted Italians, visitors and foreign rulers caught the disease. These included:

Cesare Borgia - Cesare caught syphilis whilst on a visit to Naples in 1498. Cesare's handsome face was noted by many observers to be marked with the disease: the Mantuan envoy Gian Cattaneo wrote 'he has face blotched beneath the skin as is usual with the great pox'. He sometimes wore a mask to hide the blotches. Cesare seems to have been cured by the violent bout of malaria which he suffered at the time of his father's death in 1503.

Charles VIII of France - Charles lost the treasure he had stolen in Italy at the Battle of Fornovo in 1495, but he and his soldiers took syphilis back to France.

Pope Julius II (Guilano della Rovere) - Giuliana della Rovere was noted in 1499 as suffering for syphilis whilst exiled in France

The Emperor Maximilian - Maximilian contrated syphilis in Italy in 1497 and suffered from mouth ulcers as a result. He declared himself miraculously cured after praying at a German shrine, although it is more likelly that the disease had become dormant.

Francis I of France - Francis suffered from syphilis and was treated with mercury on several occasions from 1523 onwards. He also suffered from gonorrhea, which may have caused the urinary infection that led to his death.

Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua - Gonzaga, an admirer and perhaps lover of Lucrezia Borgia, died from syphilis in 1519.

Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Russia - Ivan is believed to have caught syphilis as a young man. His behaviour in later life became increasingly violent and paranoid, suggesting that it had affected his brain.

Contrary to the theories of some nineteenth century historians, it is highly unlikely that Henry VIII had syphilis, as his extensive surviving medical records do not mention any mercury treatments.

Syphilis continued to be prevalent in Europe until the twentieth century, when successful treatments were developed.

The Lupanar of Pompeii

Page SymbolThe Lupanar of Pompeii is the most famous brothels in the ruined Roman city of Pompeii. It is the oldest known brothel in the world. It is of particular interest for the erotic paintings on its walls. "Lupanar" (Latin also lupanarium) is one of the most common words in Latin for "brothel" and means "den of she-wolves," lupa being misogynistic slang for "prostitute, *****" in a predatory sense. The Pompeii lupanar is also known as Lupanare Grande.

Sex and the Renaissance - THE  BORGIAS   wikiEarly Pompeian excavators, guided by the strict modesty of the time period, quickly classified any building containing erotic paintings as brothels. Using this metric, Pompeii had 35 lupanares. Given a population of ten thousand in Pompeii during the first century CE, this leaves one brothel per 286 people or 71 adult males. Using a stricter standard for identifying brothels brings the number to a more realistic figure including nine single room establishments and the Lupanar at VII, 12, 18-20. Brothels during this period were typically small with only a few rooms. The Lupanar was the largest of the brothels found in Pompeii with 10 rooms. Like other brothels, rooms in the Lupanar were plainly furnished. A mattress on a brick platform served as a bed (pictured left).

Sex and the Renaissance - THE  BORGIAS   wiki

Sexual scene from a wall painting at the Lupanar; the woman wears the ancient equivalent of a bra

134 graffiti have been transcribed from the Lupanar at Pompeii. The presence of this graffiti served as one of the criteria for identifying the building as a brothel. Examples of graffiti from the Lupanar include:
  • Hic ego puellas multas futui ("Here I ****** many girls").
  • Felix bene futuis ("Lucky guy, you **** well," a prostitute's blandishment to her client, or "Lucky guy, you get a good ****").
Page SymbolOther examples can be traced to other locations in Pompeii. Given that persons of wealth generally did not visit brothels because of the availability of mistresses or slave concubines, the names can't be connected to known historical figures. The graffiti do tell stories, however. Various authors respond to each other's carvings in a sort of dialogue.

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