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three pairs of lovers with space



Italy's firm reputation in the Renaissance and earlier as the European country most favourable for Greek love endured into the middle of the twentieth century, so much so that she drew in many of the most famous pederasts from the more repressive countries of the north. As everywhere in Christian Europe, there was a death penalty for sodomy in the 18th century, but it was peculiarly disregarded in Italy.

The sexually frank Life of Gian Gastone, from 1723 to 1737 the last Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, almost certainly written by an insider in his court soon after his death, shows how uninhibitedly the most powerful could indulge in a publicly known and uninhibited life of sex with with boys.

At a more ordinary and telling level, the future philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau recorded how, as a boy of 15 in 1728, an attempt was made to seduce him  in Turin. Though he himself reacted with horror, the reactions of others whom he told is most revealing as to accepting attitudes.

Similarly,  in his autobiography, the Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova, despite his fame resting on his amorous adventures with females, showed himself entirely tolerant and admitted to attraction to boys while describing only obliquely his liaisons with them., is highly revealing as to the tolerant attitudes of the day, as is clear from episodes such as Casanova caught with a boy in his bed, 1743 describes his expulsion from a seminary. Casanova, the "castrato" and her little sisters describes his youthful dalliance with a fifteen-year-old whose gender he was uncertain of, and is remarkable evidence of easy acceptance of liaisons with girls as young as eleven. In 1761, a boy called Corticelli, with whose thirteen-year-old sister Casanova was flirting, came on to him. Soon afterwards in Rome, Casanova surprised the pre-eminent art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, in the act with a boy, and went to the theatre, where his observations of the broad sexual appeal he witnessed of a castrato on the stage led to both reflections and exchanges on it between himself and a boysexual. His account of the Prince of Francavilla and his Catamites illustrates how in 1770 a man of sufficient standing make a show of his love of boys without fear.

Around the same time, an English pamphlet set out the prevailing European view of Italy as "the Mother and Nurse of Sodomy":

How famous, or rather how infamous Italy has been in all Ages, and still continues in the odious Practice of Sodomy, needs no Explanation; it is there esteemed so trivial, and withal so modish a Sin, that not a Cardinal or Churchman of Note but has his Ganymede; no sooner does a Stranger of Condition set his Foot in Rome, but he is surrounded by a Crowd of Pandars, who ask him if he chuses a Woman or a Boy, and to procure for him accordingly.[1]

In the next century the introduction of the Code Napoléon in most of Italy, following French conquest, resulted in a legal toleration that finally matched reality. Ever since then, Italy has been the European country with probably the gentlest attitudes to Greek love, with one brief exception.

A new penal code promulgated in the Kingdom of Sardinia on 20 November 1859 criminalised all "libidinous acts against nature", and with especial harshness where this involved the "corruption" of anyone under 21.[2] As it was precisely this one Italian state that drew all the others into the new Kingdom of Italy constituted in 1861 and imposed its own laws on the whole of the new country, the result was that all male homosexuality once again became a crime. Fascinatingly, however, it was so prevalent in the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south, generally in a pederastic form that was gradually becoming archaic in northern Europe, that an extraordinary exception was made for just that region on account of the "particular characteristics of those that lived in the south".

Italian Youth of the Lictor (founded 1937): a fascist-era postcard

In any case, the new repressive law lasted only a generation. The first "Zanardelli" penal code of the Kingdom of Italy, which came into force on 1 January 1890, decriminalised homosexuality, introduced an age of consent of twelve for all sexual acts, and applied equally to the whole country.[3]

This age of consent was eventually raised by the fascist government through the new "Rocco" penal code, which came into force on 1 July 1931. The age became 16 except with respect to a 14- or 15-year-old who was "already a morally corrupt person."[4]. Despite the new repression that swept over the rest of Europe in the late twentieth century, the article criminalising sex with adolescents over 14 was abolished in 1996.

An ironic footnote to this is that the Vatican, which became an independent state in 1929, adopted the Zanardelli code of the time, with the result that its age of consent remained 12 until 2013 (when it was raised to 18![5]), by when this sovereign manifestation of the power that had harmed Greek love so grievously for so long had the least repressive laws regarding it in the world.

In surviving correspondence and memoirs from the 1890s to the 1960s, writers such as Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, André Gide, Frederick Rolfe (whose letters from Venice were exceptionally explicit for the time), Norman Douglas (in his memoir Looking Back), Michael Davidson and Roger Peyrefitte all enthused about the beauty and sexual willingness of Italian boys. Douglas, most of whose well-documented adult life was spent in Italy, was perhaps the greatest figure in modern European pederasty, as may be deduced from the most thorough biography of him by Mark Holloway.The alleged pederastic antics of the German industrialist Friedrich Alfred Krupp in Capri led to a major scandal in 1902.

In 1924, the German writer Franz Schoenberner visited the fashionable little Sicilian town of Taormina and later wrote a vivid account of the pederastic community of foreigners and local fisherboys  that had long become established there.

An American initiated in war-time Naples, 1943-67 begins as a soldier's account of his chance initiation into pederasty with a boy prostitute in war-time Naples.

"Ischia" is the aforementioned Davidson's account in his Some Boys of his liaisons with that island's ever-willing adolescent inhabitants in 1951-3, "Rome" his description of the post-war venues for man/boy trysts in the Eternal City, A Meeting of Three Like Minds in Capri, 1951 his and his friend Robin Maugham's reminiscences of a visit to that island's renowned but very old and already-mentioned Norman Douglas, "Naples" an account of a misadventure in that city in 1958, and Catania in Sicily, 1959 his account of what he witnessed there of the open sexual antics of boys.

Matzneff in Italy, 1962-73 is a French writer's description of his brief liaisons with boys during visits to Italy, mostly Venice, and Matzneff in Sicily, 1976 is the same man's account of his stay in the part of the country with the strongest tradition of Greek love.

"I Wear His Ring as Part of Him" is a letter from a German gratefully recalling the transformative love affair he had in Italy 1966-9, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, with a sophisticated man in his fifties.

Modern Italy in Boys for Sale is a brief account of boy prostitution in the 20th century, mostly in Naples.

According to the Swedish photographer Nicola, who visited Naples in the 1970s and took stunning photographs of boys proudly disporting their beauty in minimal swimwear, during his first visit there was still a flourishing prostitution scene of boys of 13 or 14 "who cruised Via Roma around midnight", but it had disappeared by the time of his second visit.[6]

This was symptomatic of a broader, sharp decline of Greek love in southern Italy. It had continued to be prevalent there until such a late date largely because the social customs concerning the unmarried there had more in common with pre-18th century Europe or Islamic lands than with most European countries of the same era. The virginity of unmarried girls was strictly preserved with sexual segregation outside the family usual, and a compensatorily indulgent view was taken of the sexual behaviour of boys with other males. All this was so thoroughly swept away in the 1970s by the grim tidal wave of feminism from the north, that when the new wave of mass hysteria over Greek love followed later in its wake, there were few signs of the cultural clash that might otherwise have intervened.


[1] Anon., Plain Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy in England, ca. 1731. It should not be supposed that educated Englishmen were ignorant of what went on sexually in Italy. This was the age when every young English gentleman with aspirations to culture spent a year or two on the Grand Tour, of which a stay in Italy was the essential component. See Ian Littlewood’s Sultry Climates: Travel and Sex since the Grand Tour (London: John Murray, 2001) for the importance of sexual adventure as part of The Grand Tour experience.

[2] Codice penale per il Regno di Sardegna, Libro II, titolo VII - "Dei reati contro il buon costume", articles 420-425. 

[3] Article 331.1 of the Codice Penale per il Regno d’Italia, published in Rome in 1889.

[4] Article 609.4 of the Codice penale, Regno d’Italia, published on 26 October 1930, made 14 the age of consent, but article 530 (abolished on 15 February 1996) introduced a lesser offence  of corruption of a minor under 16, which included “acts of lust” on him unless he was “already a morally corrupt person.” The ambiguity of this article was to be a useful resource for blackmail. It was presumably, for example, what the blackmailer had in mind who caught Michael Davidson in Naples with his 15-year-old brother in 1958.

[5] Law No. VIII of 11 July 2013, entitled "Supplementary Laws on Criminal Law Matters".

[6] Destroyer magazine IX (Berlin, June 2009) p.15.




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