Turning now to laic morals, and beginning with the relations of the sexes, we should remind ourselves at the outset that man is by nature polygamous, and that only the strongest moral sanctions, a helpful degree of poverty and hard work, and uninterrupted wifely supervision, can induce him to monogamy. It is not clear that adultery was less popular in the Middle Ages than in the Renaissance. And as medieval adultery was tempered with chivalry, so in the Renaissance it was softened, in the lettered classes, by an idealization of the refinement and spiritual charms of the educated woman. Greater equality of the sexes in education and social standing made possible a new intellectual comradeship between men and women. In Mantua, Milan, Urbino, Ferrara, and Naples life was graced and stirred by the prominence of attractive and cultivated women.

Girls of good family were kept in relative seclusion from men not of their own household. They were sedulously instructed in the advantages of premarital chastity; sometimes with such success that we hear of a young woman drowning herself after being raped. She was doubtless exceptional, for a bishop proposed to raise a statue to her.21 In the Roman catacombs a young gentlewoman strangled herself to avoid seduction; her body was borne in triumph through the streets of Rome, with a laurel crown on her head.22Nevertheless there must have been considerable premarital adventure; otherwise it would be difficult to account for the extraordinary number of bastards to be found in any city of Renaissance Italy. Not to have bastards was a distinction; to have them was no serious disgrace; the man, on marrying, usually persuaded his wife to let his illegitimate progeny join the household and be brought up with her own children. To be a bastard was no great disability; the social stigma involved was almost negligible; legitimation could be obtained by lubricating an ecclesiastical hand. In default of legitimate and competent heirs bastard sons could succeed to an estate, even to a throne, as Ferrante I succeeded Alfonso I at Naples, and as Leonello d’Este succeeded Niccolò III at Ferrara. When Pius II came to Ferrara in 1459 he was received by seven princes, all illegitimate.23 The rivalry of bastards with legitimate sons was a rich source of Renaissance violence. Half the novelle turn on seductions; and usually such stories were read or heard by women with only a momentary lowering of the eyes. Robert, Bishop of Aquino, toward the close of the fifteenth century, described the morals of the young men in his diocese as unashamedly corrupt; they explained to him, he tells us, that fornication was no sin, that chastity was an old-fashioned tabu, and that virginity was on the wane.24 Even incest had its devotees.

As for homosexuality, it became almost an obligatory part of the Greek revival. The humanists wrote about it with a kind of scholarly affection, and Ariosto judged that they were all addicted to it. Politian, Filippo Strozzi, and the diarist Sanudo were reasonably suspected of it;25 Michelangelo, Julius II, and Clement VII were less convincingly charged with it; San Bernardino found so much of it in Naples that he threatened the city with the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.26 Aretino described the aberration as quite popular in Rome,27 and he himself, between one mistress and another, asked the duke of Mantua to send him an attractive boy.28 In 1455 the Venetian Council of Ten took official note “how the abominable vice of sodomy multiplies in this city”; and “to avert the wrath of God,” it appointed two men in each quarter of Venice to put down the practice.29 The Council noted that some men had taken to wearing feminine garb, and that some women were adopting male attire, and it called this “a species of sodomy.”30 In 1492 a noble and a priest, convicted of homosexual acts, were beheaded in the Piazzetta, and their bodies were publicly burned.31 These, of course, were exceptional cases, from which we must not generalize; but we may assume that homosexuality was more than normally present in Renaissance Italy until the Counter Reformation.

We may say likewise of prostitution. According to Infessura—who liked to load his statistics against papal Rome—there were 6,800 registered prostitutes in Rome in 1490, not counting clandestine practitioners, in a population of some 90,000.32 In Venice the census of 1509 reported 11,654 prostitutes in a population of some 300,000.33 An enterprising printer published a “Catalogue of all the principal and most honored courtesans of Venice, their names, addresses, and fees.”34 On the roads they frequented taverns; in the cities they were the favorite guests of young blades and fervent artists. Cellini recounts his night’s lodging with a courtesan as an incident of no moment, and describes a dinner of artists, including Giulio Romano and himself, in which each man was required to bring a woman of low resistance. At a higher level the banker Lorenzo Strozzi gave a banquet in 1519 to fourteen persons, including four cardinals and three women of the demimonde.35

As wealth and refinement increased, a demand arose for courtesans with some education and social charm; and as in the Athens of Sophocles hetaerae rose to meet this demand, so in the Rome of the late fifteen century, and in the Venice of the sixteenth, a class of cortigiane oneste— genteel courtesans —developed, who rivaled the finest ladies in dress, manners, culture, even in hebdomadal piety. While the simpler prostitutes—cortigiane di candela—practised in brothels, these Roman hetaerae lived in their own homes, entertained lavishly, read and wrote poetry, sang and played music, and joined in educated conversation; some collected pictures and statuary, rare editions and the latest books; some maintained literary salons. To keep up with the humanists many of them took classical names—Camilla, Polyxena, Penthesilea, Faustina, Imperia, Tullia. One scandalous wit, in the pontificate of Alexander VI, wrote a series of epigrams beginning with a number in praise of the Virgin or the saints, and then, without a blush, continuing with several in honor of the distinguished courtesans of his time.36 When one such, Faustina Mancina, died, half of Rome mourned her, and Michelangelo was one of many who wrote sonnets to her memory.37

The most renowned of these cortigiane oneste was Imperia de Cugnatis. Made rich by her patron Agostino Chigi, she adorned her home with luxurious furniture and choice art, and gathered about her a bevy of scholars, artists, poets, and churchmen; even the pious Sadoleto sang her praise.38 Probably it was Imperia whom Raphael took as his model for the Sappho of his Parnassus. She died in the flower of her beauty at the age of twenty-six (1511), and received honorable burial in the church of San Gregorio, with a marble tomb engraved in the finest lapidary style; and half a hundred poets lamented her in classic elegies.39 (Her daughter killed herself rather than submit to seduction.40) Almost as renowned was Tullia d’Aragona, illegitimate daughter of the Cardinal of Aragon. Admired for her golden hair and sparkling eyes, her generosity and carelessness with money, her grace of carriage and charm of conversation, she was received in Naples, Rome, Florence, and Ferrara like a visiting princess. The Mantuan ambassador at Ferrara described her entry in an undiplomatic letter to Isabella d’Este (1537):

I have to record the arrival among us of a gentle lady, so modest in behavior, so fascinating in manners, that we cannot help considering her something divine. She sings impromptu all kinds of airs and motets…. There is not one lady in Ferrara, not even Vittoria Colonna the Duchess of Pescara, who can stand comparison with Tullia.41

Moretto da Brescia painted a bewitching portrait of her, looking as innocent as a novice nun. She made the mistake of outliving her charms; she died in a wretched hut near the Tiber; and her total belongings, at auction, brought a dozen crowns ($150?). But in all her poverty she had kept her lute and harpsichord to the last. She left also a book that she had composed On the Infinity of Perfect Love.42

Doubtless that title reflected the Renaissance fashion of talking and writing about Platonic love. If a woman could not commit adultery she might at least allow herself to arouse in a man a kind of poetic gallantry that made her the object of verses, courtesies, and dedications. The devotions of the troubadours, the Vita Nuova of Dante, and Plato’s discourses on spiritual love had begotten in a few circles a fine sentiment of adoration toward woman—usually another man’s wife. Most people paid no attention to the idea, preferring their love in a frankly sensual form; they might write sonnets, but their goal was coitus; and hardly once in a hundred cases, despite the novelists, did they marry the object of their love.

For marriage was an affair of property, and property could not be made dependent upon the passing whims of physical desire. Betrothals were arranged by family councils, and most young people accepted without effectual protest the mates so assigned to them. Girls could be betrothed at the age of three, though marriage had to be delayed till twelve. In the fifteenth century a daughter unmarried at fifteen was a family disgrace; in the sixteenth century the age of disgrace was deferred to seventeen, to allow time for higher education.43 Men, who enjoyed all the privileges and facilities of promiscuity, could be lured into marriage only by brides bringing substantial dowries. In Savonarola’s day there were many marriageable girls who, for lack of dowries, had failed to find a husband. Florence established a kind of state dowry insurance—Monte delle fanciulle, or fund of the maidens—from which marriage portions were given to girls that had paid small yearly premiums.44 In Siena there were so many bachelors that the laws had to inflict legal disabilities upon them; in Lucca a decree of 1454 debarred from public office all unmarried men between twenty and fifty. “The times are not favorable to matrimony,” wrote Alessandra Strozzi in 1455.45 Raphael painted half a hundred Madonnas, but would not take a wife; and this was the one thing in which Michelangelo agreed with him. Weddings themselves consumed enormous sums; Leonardo Bruni complained that his matrimonium had squandered his patrimonium.46 Kings and queens, princes and princesses spent half a million dollars on a wedding while famine raged among the people.47 When Alfonso the Magnificent of Naples married, he set up tables for 30,000 diners on the shores of the Bay. Lovelier was the reception that Urbino gave to Duke Guidobaldo when he brought from Mantua his bride Elisabetta Gonzaga: ranged on a hill slope stood the ladies of the city, beautifully dressed; before them their children carried olive branches; mounted choristers, in graceful formation, sang a cantata that had been composed for the occasion; and an especially comely matron, impersonating a goddess, offered the new Duchess the loyalty and affection of the people.48

After marriage the woman usually kept her own name; so Lorenzo’s wife continued to be called Donna Clarice Orsini; sometimes, however, the wife might add her husband’s name to her own—Maria Salviati de’ Medici. In the medieval theory of marriage it was expected that love would develop between man and wife through the varied partnerships of marriage in joy and sorrow, prosperity and adversity; and apparently the expectation was fulfilled in the majority of cases. No love of youth for maiden could be deeper or truer than that of Vittoria Colonna for the Marquis of Pescara, to whom she had been engaged from the age of four; no loyalty could have been greater than that of Elisabetta Gonzaga, accompanying her crippled husband through all his misfortunes and exiles, and faithful to his memory till her death.

Nevertheless adultery was rampant.49 Since most marriages among the upper classes were diplomatic unions of economic or political interests, many husbands felt warranted in having a mistress; and the wife, though she might mourn, usually closed her eyes—or her lips—to the offense. Among the middle classes some men assumed that adultery was a legitimate diversion; Machiavelli and his friends seem to have thought nothing of exchanging notes about their infidelities. When, in such cases, the wife avenged herself by imitation, the husband was as like as not to ignore it, and wear his horns with grace.50 But the influx of Spaniards into Italy, via Naples and Alexander VI and Charles V, brought the Spanish “point of honor” into Italian life, and in the sixteenth century the husband felt called upon to punish his wife’s adultery with death, while preserving his pristine privileges unimpaired. The husband might desert his wife and still prosper; the deserted wife had no remedy except to reclaim her dowry, return to her relatives, and live a lonely life; she was not allowed to marry again. She might enter a convent, but it would expect a donation of her dowry.51 In general, in the Latin countries, adultery is condoned as a substitute for divorce.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!