Opinion
3 min

The gay Medici

Renaissance Florence was a homo hotbed

Credit: Eric williams

The House of Medici, especially its gayer members, is one of my favourite topics of conversation, much to the chagrin of my friend Ryan. The Medici family was a guiding social influence in Florence, Italy, during most of the Renaissance. I became infatuated with Florence in my early 20s and decided the Medici story was like a great fantasy novel, with rogue generals, a malevolent giant and fabulous inventors. I enjoy regaling Ryan with historical anecdotes, my face lighting up and nervous giggle going haywire, as he makes snide comments. When I said I would write a column on the Medici, he said, “Haven’t you written about them a dozen times already?” My revenge: I dedicate this column to Ryan.

It is generally accepted that the Renaissance began in Florence sometime in the 14th century and ended in the 17th. It might have begun when the poet and scholar Petrarch (1304–1374) unearthed lost manuscripts and learned that the ancient Greeks and Romans had endorsed a life of ambition and reliance on human reason, rather than one of superstition and self-denial. He decided this was something that could be recreated.

The Medici family crest is a bunch of red balls (frequently six) on a field of gold. One story goes that in the eighth century, Charlemagne granted the insignia to Averardo de’ Medici for killing a giant (remember the giant I mentioned, Ryan?). In reality, the crest probably references the medieval Medici occupation of money changing, the red balls symbolizing coins. By the 14th century, the family was well established in Florence and about to get rich from the Medici Bank.

Many of the Medici were great supporters of humanism (the great driving idea behind the Renaissance), funding the search for ancient manuscripts, founding libraries and patronizing scholars and many great artists, including Brunelleschi, da Vinci, Botticelli and Donatello (okay, fine, I did mention the Medici in my column about Donatello; that’s one time, Ryan!).

Their wealth and shrewdness eventually made them hereditary monarchs. Alessandro de’ Medici became the first Duke of Florence in about 1530, and Cosimo I de’ Medici became the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. Over time, there were four Medici popes and two Medici regent queens of France. The Medici reign in Italy ended in 1737 with the death of the last Grand Duke, Gian Gastone.

Gian was homosexual, so it was thought unlikely he’d produce an heir. Nonetheless, his sister arranged for him to marry Anna Maria Francesca of Saxe-Lauenburg in 1697. Anna Maria refused to move to Florence, insisting they live in Ploskovice Castle, her home in Bohemia (located in the modern-day Czech Republic). They were both distressingly unattractive and despised one another. She spent her time chattering at her horses, while he got drunk and romped with the groom Giuliano Dami. He and Dami were lovers and occasionally took off to Prague, where Dami played pimp, finding boys for Gian. When an heir seemed impossible, Gian was called back to Florence by his father, never to see his wife again.

In 1723, Gian became Grand Duke, and after a brief productive period he sank back into his habit of brooding, drinking and screwing men. He spent much of his time in bed, entertained by an entourage of paid boys known as the Ruspanti, named after the ruspi (coins) they were paid. The handsome young men had sex with Gian and put on ridiculous dramas while he bellowed dirty comments until he passed out.

Gian’s ancestor Ferdinando II, Grand Duke from 1621 to 1670, was more gallant. Despite loving men, he managed to produce heirs. One day, when his mother, Maria Maddalena of Austria, handed him a list of homosexuals and demanded their punishment, he added his name to the list. When he asked what she thought the punishment for homosexuals should be, she said they should be burned, so he tossed the paper into the fire and said, “VoilĂ , your command has already been accomplished.”

I suppose Ryan just doesn’t appreciate how I never shut up about the Medici. In which case, this column won’t win him to my cause. My goal here, however, isn’t persuasion, but revenge! Machiavelli would be proud.