Sta cheto, soddomitaccio!

The medieval term ‘sodomy’ covered a multitude of activities including incest, sex with nuns, and bestiality.  In fact any sexual activity which deviated from that approved by the Bible. Sodomy came to be a byword for homosexual behaviour in the Renaissance. In 1527, a Florentine noble was fined for the explicit crimes of per buggerone. By 1600, Francis Bacon was promoting masculine love as a specific erotic category (his mother wrote to him complaining of his ‘foul sins’ with various male servants), and specifically homosexual activity was one of many subversive pursuits which flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries.

As this ‘unmentionable vice’ grew, so too did the authorities attempts to persecute its practitioners. A sixteenth century source claims

The mighty impose penalties on those who [commit sodomy] for no other reason than this: since it is their own profession, they don’t want common people to use it.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), an Italian sculptor and goldsmith, was convicted of sodomy in 1557; by which point the phrase had become almost synonymous with ‘seducing young boys’. While Cellini may privately have had no regrets, he was furious at his public outing. His sentence included a heavy fine and four years imprisonment, which was reduced to four years house arrest after the intervention of the Medicis. The following is his own account of his outing by rival artist Bandinello:

Bardinello ‘turned to me with that most hideous face of his, screaming aloud: ‘Oh, hold your tongue, sta cheto, soddomitaccio! [you filthy sodomite]’ At these words the Duke frowned, and the others pursed their lips up and looked with knitted grows toward him. The horrible affront half maddened me with fury; but in a moment I recovered presence of mind enough to turn it off with a jest; ‘You madman! you exceed the bounds of decency. Yet would to God that I understood so noble an art as you allude to; they say that Jove used it with Ganymede in paradise, and here upon this earth it is practised by some of the greatest emperors and kings.  I, however, am but a poor humble creature, who neither have the power nor the intelligence to perplex my wits with anything so admirable.’ When I had finished this speech, the Duke and his attendants could control themselves no longer, but broke into such shouts of laughter that one never heard the like. You must know, gentle readers, that though I put on this appearance of pleasantry, my heart was bursting in my body to think that a fellow, the foulest villain who ever breathed, should have dared in the presence of so great a prince to cast an insult of that atrocious nature in my teeth; but you must also know that he insulted the Duke, and not me; for had I not stood in that august presence, I should have felled him dead to earth. When the dirty stupid scoundrel observed that those gentlemen kept on laughing, he tried to change the subject, and divert them from deriding him; so he began as follows: ‘This fellow Benvenuto goes about boasting that I have promised him a piece of marble.’ I took him up at once. ‘What! did you not send to tell me by your journeyman, Francesco, that if I wished to work in marble you would give me a block? I accepted it, and mean to have it.’  He retorted: ‘Be very well assured that you will never get it.’ Still smarting as I was under the calumnious insults he had flung at me, I lost my self-control, forgot I was in the presence of the Duke, and called out in a storm of fury: ‘I swear to you that if you do not send the marble to my house, you had better look out for another world, for if you stay upon this earth I will most certainly rip the wind out of your carcass.’

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  • December 15, 2009 - 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Yes, he has a wonderful style and is very entertaining. I’m amazed his autobiography is not more widely read. For anyone interested, it can be accessed here:

  • December 15, 2009 - 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I remember – as a very young girl – reading a copy of the Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini under the bedcovers at night. I thought he was wonderful! A very ‘lively’ character.

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