A Very Gay Coup


It’s well known that Machiavelli drew on his own bitter experience of political humiliation and banishment from Florence in concocting his masterpiece of the dark arts of realpolitik, The Prince. This year is the 500th anniversary of those events. What is less well known is the role played in his downfall by a gaggle of young guys who’d had enough of the city’s repressive and illiberal anti-sodomy laws. 2012 may also therefore be the fifth centenary of the first gay direct action. Of course, modern notions of gay identity didn’t exist in the 16th century, but there is something about this story that conjures up the Stonewall protest and the antics of OutRage! or ACT UP in the late 1980s and ’90s.

By way of explanation I need to rewind a decade or so: Florence’s puritanical Republic of 1494 came about through the zeal of a delusional friar, Girolamo Savonarola, whose policies included the original Bonfire of the Vanities and, of course, the demonization of men who had sex with other men. Savonarola demanded the full force of the law be devoted to the prosecution of sodomy, with increased sentences, including a precursor to “three strikes and you’re out.” All this is reminiscent of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill again before the Ugandan Parliament, with repeat convictions defined as aggravated homosexuality (not to be confused with aggravating homosexuals — I’m sure we all know plenty of them), punishable with life.

Savonarola got his comeuppance: He went the way of the vanities in that bonfire. A flicker of a different sort of flame, that of the individual human spirit, burned briefly, leading one city magistrate to exclaim, “Thank God! Now we can sodomize,” but it didn’t catch. The friar might have been dead, yet for the youth of the Street of the Furriers (where haute couture met the bath house), there was no respite. Florence’s beleaguered sodomites remained an easy target for a superficial veneer of moral opprobrium: The anti-sodomy laws were rigidly enforced and, of course, abused. What better way to discredit political opponents, settle feuds, or pursue a vendetta than an allegation of sodomy? As Michael Rocke’s work has shown, through a special magistracy, the aptly named Office of the Night, prosecutions multiplied.

Things had not always been this way. Under the Medici regime, driven from Florence by Savonarola’s evangelical hounds, the culture had been far more liberal in its attitude toward same-sex love. Young men in particular, the main target of the Republic’s witch hunt, must have looked back wistfully to the days of Carnival drag balls and the inclusive caress of the Platonic Academy.

Recent events show that there’s only so much people can take of state-sanctioned repression of fundamental human identity. The end came with an external crisis; as Machiavelli was to write, “Affairs will always remain quiet within when they are quiet without.” In August 1512 the Republic’s backing the wrong horse in the power struggles of the peninsula brought a Papal-Spanish coalition to the city’s gates, led by the sons of that Medici colossus, Lorenzo the Magnificent. On August 31, as the heat of its summer streets began to drive Florence’s terrified citizens indoors, 30 young men met at the palace of the Albizzi family, passing out weapons and stitching diamond rings (a Medici symbol) to their doublets; described as “shady” by one contemporary, they would call themselves the Diamante club (proving that even then diamonds were a girl’s best friend). Their leader was a local 26-year-old pinup, Anton Francesco degli Albizzi, whose smile, according to a later portrait, was as subversive as his politics, and whose family had suffered persecution under the sodomy laws.

As the gang swanned across the piazza to the Palazzo della Signoria, boisterously catcalling that they’d had enough, the stilettos were out — the slim, pointed blade that is. A message had already been smuggled to the Medici brothers that Albizzi would come to collect them that evening. The palace guards were quickly overpowered and the young men strutted through the Great Hall, where Leonardo da Vinci’s recent battle mural was already fading to shadow. Tanked up with 18 years of oppression and with a cry of Palle (loosely translated as “Balls,” another Medici insignia, but, hey ho), they stormed the council chamber.

Piero Soderini, who had been appointed a sort of dictator for life 10 years earlier, started from his chair when these demimonde fifth columnists burst in. Their demands would have made his head spin. Along with Soderini’s instant resignation, Albizzi’s posse required the Signoria to overturn all convictions for sodomy and cancel all sentences, such as exile, imprisonment, fines, and disqualification from political office of those convicted. They also demanded a complete overhaul of the laws governing same-sex sexual conduct.

This is where Machiavelli comes into the story. The architect of Florence’s foreign policy, he had often sneered at the Furrier Street boys’ hankering after the exiled Medici. In danger of being thrown from his office window onto the piazza below if he didn’t comply, Soderini instructed Machiavelli to surrender the city. When he reached the Medici camp, however, he found Albizzi had pre-empted him: There was nothing to negotiate; Soderini had fled, leaving his subordinate isolated. The other departing magistrates refused to grant a general amnesty, but their pro-Medici replacements didn’t forget Diamante support in forging a bloodless coup; within two weeks convictions and sentences were quashed, and within two years sodomy laws were overhauled to make them more “gay-friendly.”

It is tempting to contemplate Machiavelli sitting in exile brooding over how a bunch of queens had got the better of him, but he was smarter than that: He must have recognized that the coup’s leaders had seized their opportunity, using a crisis to score a victory against their persecutors. His conclusion was a balance of oppressive laws, showing he had failed to learn from what ultimately led to the 1512 coup. There are no winners in laws criminalizing identity.

Brucker, G., “Florence and Savonarola: The Intolerable Burden,” Studies in the Italian Renaissance, G. P. Biasin, A. Mancini and N. Perella eds., Naples 1985, pp. 119-33

Cambi, G., Istorie di Giovanni Cambi cittadino fiorentino in Delizie degli erutidi toscani, I. Di San Luigi ed., 24 vols., Florence 1770-1786, vol. 21, p. 252

Filipepi, S., Cronaca, in Scelta di prediche e scritte di fra Girolamo Savonarola, P. Villari and E. Casanova eds., Florence 1898, p. 507

Guicciardini, F., Storie Fiorentine, Novara 1977, p. 138

Hale, J. R., Florence and the Medici: The Pattern of Control, London 1977, pp. 94-95

Rocke, M., Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, Oxford and New York 1996, pp. 217-21; 228-29

Ruggiero, G., Machiavelli in Love: Sex, Self and Society in the Italian Renaissance, John Hopkins, Baltimore 2007, pp. 138-39

Stephens, J., The Fall of the Florentine Republic, 1512-1530, Oxford 1983, p. 58

Strathern, P., The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, London 2003, p. 261

Trexler, R., Public Life in Renaissance Florence, New York 1980, p. 516.