Homosexuality in Renaissance Florence: The Ambiguities of Neoplatonic Thought

Written by: Jamie Gemmell

Renaissance Italy is popularly portrayed as a realm of carnal debauchery. One only needs to watch Tom Fontana’s Borgia (2011-2014) to understand common conceptions of Renaissance Italy as a realm of brutal acts, orgies, and affairs. Yet, is there any truth to these depictions? On the subject of sexual activity, Michael Rocke has argued that fifteenth century Florence was awash with sodomy. He suggests that two thirds of men were officially implicated by the age of forty. In the final four decades of the fifteenth century, 17,000 Florentine men had been accused of sodomy by the Office of the Night (an institution founded to investigate homosexual relations). These statistics seem to substantiate our popular conception of the Renaissance. However, sheer statistics undermine the complex dynamics of homosexual relations in fifteenth-century Florence. 

This was not only a story of licentiousness. Men grappled with their “carnal” desires and scrutinised them through the intellectual tools available to them. One of these tools was Neoplatonism, the revival and re-interpretation of Plato and the Neoplatonic texts, most associated with Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and his informal Florentine Academy. Understandings of Ancient Greek thought provided a framework for Florentine men to engage with homosexual relations, creating a discourse that could both justify and condemn their actions. 

Broadly, the Neoplatonists of the fifteenth century sought to integrate Christian theology with Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy. The dominant figure behind this was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) who translated and provided commentaries on thirty-six of Plato’s dialogues. Ficino reinterpreted the Neoplatonists’ metaphysical system. He accepted the hierarchy of the system, dividing the universe into various stages leading to a higher unity. However, instead of equating total unity with the Neoplatonic “One,” he equated it with God. Through contemplation and spiritual love, the soul could ascend through this hierarchy and achieve unity with God.

For the Renaissance Neoplatonists, spiritual love was a route to ascend to God: a Christian reinterpretation of Plato’s Diotima’s ladder. Beginning with an appreciation for the “Vulgar Venus” (the beauty of the sensual world) one could use contemplation to ascend to an appreciation for the “Heavenly Venus” (the beauty of the intelligible world) and, eventually, ascend to unity with God. Fundamental to this was the idea that “the form of the body” could be used to reach the “higher beauty of the Soul,” allowing for an affection towards the physical that was consistent with Christian theology.

In the context of Florentine male homosexual culture, the Neoplatonic concept of love provided a route to explain and justify sodomy. Male homosexuality in Florence was widespread, and relatively accepted as long as it followed existing relations of power, despite Church doctrine denouncing the practice. This meant the most common form of male homosexual relations was pederasty, an “active” older male and a “passive” adolescent. Inverting this situation was viewed as a threat to the existing social system, hence Salvi Panuzzi, a prolific sodomite, was only sentenced to death once he had admitted to being sodomised. The Neoplatonist concept of love provided a route to understanding pederasty by arguing “heavenly love” was “more properly directed…towards men.” As the male intellect was deemed superior to the female, it was deemed close male bonds provided a better route to unity with God through love.

Whilst the Neoplatonic idea of love could justify male homosexuality, it could condemn it too. Following the work of the “Florentine Academy,” an informal circle surrounding Marsilio Ficino, there was a shift away from the broad conception of love as a spiritual bond between males. Baldesar Castgilione’s The Courtier explicitly connected heterosexuality and Neoplatonic love, claiming “a kiss,” between man and woman, represented “a union of souls.” This demonstrated a distancing from the view that a bond between males was the best way to ascend to God. Elsewhere in the work Castiglione criticised Socrates for “loving more the beauty… in boys…” emphasising a shift towards heterosexuality. This shift demonstrates Neoplatonic ideas on love could be used to condemn, as well as explain, the culture surrounding male homosexual culture.

The ambiguity of the relationship between Neoplatonic love and male homosexual culture is fully revealed through the work of Michelangelo. Michelangelo was likely a homosexual and showed deep affection towards Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a young Italian nobleman. Michelangelo’s complex relationship with Cavalieri, and homosexuality more broadly, is suggested in his Ganymede and Tityos, a pair of images which make explicit use of Neoplatonist thought. In the former, Ganymede, the mythical Trojan boy, said to be the beloved of Zeus, is depicted ascending to heaven, carried by an eagle, referring to the way a spiritual bond between men could lead to greater unity with God. In the latter, Tityos is attacked by an eagle, portraying the risk of descending into carnal desires. In these pieces, Michelangelo used Neoplatonic love to both justify and condemn male homosexual behaviour. Neoplatonic thought therefore served as a paradigm through which men could understand their homosexual desires.  

The Neoplatonic concept of love had an ambiguous relationship with the culture surrounding male homosexuality in Florence. The revival of Plato’s dialogues and their integration with Christian theology could function as a method to justify homosexuality. The emphasis on spiritual love provided an avenue for men to understand and explain their sexual relations with other men in a world where such practices were condemned as sinful. Yet it could criticise such practices too through a renewed emphasis on heterosexuality and the spiritual connection between man and woman. This inherent ambiguity is portrayed in the work of Michelangelo who struggled to cohere his homosexuality with Christian devotion. Neoplatonism provided a lens through which he could express the internal conflict between acceptance and condemnation. Ultimately, the relationship between Neoplatonic love and male homosexual culture in Renaissance Florence cannot be used to reduce the Renaissance to a descent into debauched pleasure. Instead, the reality was far more complex and dynamic.    

Thumbnail of Punishment of Tityos
Thumbnail of Rape of Ganymede


Primary Sources

Buonarroti, Michelangelo, “Punishment of Tityos,” Windsor Castle Royal Library.

Buonarroti, Michelangelo, “Rape of Ganymede,” Fogg Art Museum.

Castiglione, Baldesar, The Courtier, Trans. George Bull (London, 1967).

Cattani da Diacceto, Franceso, “Panegyric on Love,” Trans. Luc Deitz, in Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts, ed. Jill Kraye (Cambridge, 1997). 

Ficino, Marsilio. “A Friendship is Lasting which is Forged by God,” in The Letters of Marsilio Ficino (London: 1975).

Ficino, Marsilio, “Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love,” in The Civilisation of the Italian Renaissance: A Sourcebook, ed. Kenneth Bartlett (Lexington, 1992)  

Secondary Sources

Adamson, Peter, Hobbs, Angie, and Sheppard, Anne. “In Our Time: Neoplatonism.” Interview by Melvyn Bragg, BBC Radio 4, April 19, 2012. Audio, 41:57.

Bullough, Vern, Sexual Variance in Society and History (New York, 1976).

Dall’Orto, Giovanni, “‘Socratic Love’ as a Disguise for Same-Sex Love in the Italian Renaissance,” Journal of Homosexuality 1 (1989), 33-66.

Field, Arthur, “The Platonic Academy in Florence,” in Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, his Philosophy, his Legacy, eds. Michael Allen; Martin Davies; Valery Rees (Leiden, 2002).

Hankins, James, Plato in the Italian Renaissance (Leiden, 1991).

Kraye, Jill, “The Transformation of Platonic Love in the Italian Renaissance,” in The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader, ed. Keith Whitlock (New Haven, 2000).

Kristeller, Paul, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters III (Roma, 1956).

Kristeller, Paul, Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts (New York, 1961).

Panofsky, Erwin, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, (New York, 1939).

Rocke, Michael, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (New York, 1996).

Rocke, Michael, “Gender and Sexual Culture in Renaissance Italy,” in Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy, eds. Judith Brown; Robert Davis (London, 1998).

Saslow, James, Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society (London, 1986).Wildberg, Christian. “Neoplatonism.” Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy, January 11, 2016.

Image: https://www.rct.uk/collection/912771/recto-the-punishment-of-tityus-verso-the-risen-christ

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