Know your past live your future

Il Sodoma by Liam Hess

Il Sodoma by Liam Hess

Illustration by Elena Durey.

Liam Hess is a freelance writer on culture and fashion, and Editor-at-Large at Buffalo Zine. He contributes regularly to Wallpaper*, BBC Culture, Dazed, i-D and AnOther, and works freelance as a researcher to Hans Ulrich Obrist.

"In the whole world I believe there are no two sins more abominable than those that prevail among the Florentines. The first is their usury and infidelity. The second is so abominable that I dare not mention it.” Pope Gregory XI, 1376

I’m not sure exactly when I first fell in love with St Sebastian, but it was before I knew he was also a queer icon. As a teenager, I had a St Christopher-style pewter necklace with Sebastian in his most famous guise — tied to a tree, body shot through by arrows. I collected postcards from every museum or gallery with a painting of his martyrdom. I always wanted a tattoo, but I was too much of a big gay wuss to get one. Who wouldn’t be attracted to this sensuous, handsome chap? His lithe body contorted to show off every ripple of muscle, arrows elegantly skewed to penetrate his torso, face turned upwards in ecstatic bliss.

The irony is that Sebastian, an early Christian martyred in 3rd century Rome by the notorious Emperor Diocletian, was in reality an over-the-hill soldier ravaged by the barbarities of warfare in the late antique world: think dadbod rather than twink. Yes, he was shot with arrows, but this wasn’t even how he died. After being rescued by a nun and nursed back to health, he kept preaching and was clubbed to death, his body deposited in the Roman sewers. It wasn’t the sexiest demise, but at some point in the early Renaissance, he was reimagined as the nubile, chiselled Apollo with which we’re now familiar.

Later on I discovered Sebastian had been immortalised by queer artists from Derek Jarman to Pierre et Gilles, but it wasn’t until I began studying art history that a more surprising image of Sebastian caught my eye. In my first year of university, flicking through a weighty tome on the Florentine Renaissance, I stumbled upon a particularly ravishing San Seba by the 16th-century artist Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, better known by his pseudonym, Il Sodoma. Yes, the nickname means what you think it does.

 St Sebastian by Il Sodoma

St Sebastian by Il Sodoma

Any Renaissance painter worth his salt is now understood through the critical lens of Giorgio Vasari, who is widely considered the first art historian. An artist and architect himself, Vasari wasn’t exactly known for his equivocality. Rivals would suffer scathing critical blows, and anyone who strayed from the formal parameters of the Florentine Renaissance championed by Vasari’s hero Michelangelo (classical references, compositional balance, accurate perspective — plus more general qualities of clarity, harmony, idealisation and so on) were also likely to suffer humiliation at the hands of Vasari’s acid-tipped quill.

While it’s now recognised as a fairly unreliable historical document, Vasari’s text still entertains with its juicy anecdotes. On the topic of Sodoma, he mentions that “his manner of life was licentious and dishonourable, and as he always had boys and beardless youths about him of whom he was inordinately fond, this earned him the nickname of Sodoma.” Despite Renaissance Florence having an international reputation as Europe’s teeming centre of homosexual iniquity — so much so that across the Alps in Germany a sodomite became referred to as a Florenzer — being publicly referred to as homosexual still carried a very dangerous risk of legal reprisals. Sodoma, however, was unfazed. Vasari continues that “instead of feeling shame, he gloried in it, writing stanzas and verses on it, singing them to the accompaniment of the lute.” Pretty fab, no?

Unfortunately, understanding what it meant to be queer in early modern Europe is a little more complicated than these scandalising, probably exaggerated stories. The tension lay between the revival of interest in the classical world, where sodomy was not just permitted but encouraged, and the moral codes of the Catholic church, in which any sexual act that did not lead to procreation was condemned. Sodoma was not gay in the modern sense of the word, even if he was clearly attracted to both sexes. There’s no mistaking the slavish attention he paid to representing the male form. As with his contemporary Michelangelo, whose sexual inclination towards men is widely known, he also had a tendency to masculinise his women — bulky, androgynous figures with breasts stuck on almost as an afterthought.

So even if Sodoma wasn’t exclusively having sex with men, it’s highly likely that he dabbled in the now distasteful classical tradition of pederasty. Adult men would sleep with teenage boys — the “beardless youths” of Vasari’s account — as a rite of passage, and the emphasis was less on the gender you slept with, and more whether you were the penetrator or the penetrated. Given this problematic practice, why should I find Sodoma inspiring?

In the autumn of last year, I was able to make the pilgrimage to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a Benedictine monastery nestled in a remote corner of the Tuscan hills. In the cloisters are a remarkable fresco cycle, completed over a number of years at the turn of the 16th century by Sodoma, and widely considered his first masterpiece. In one of the early scenes of the life of St Benedict is a self-portrait. Staring out with a sensual pout, and an effete, extended hand, Sodoma stands in the lavish robes of a Florentine noble. He was known to travel with a menagerie of animals, many of which were immortalised in his paintings — here he is surrounded by badgers, swans and a single raven perched by his feet.

 Self-portrait with badgers in a fresco at Monte Oliveto by Il Sodoma

Self-portrait with badgers in a fresco at Monte Oliveto by Il Sodoma

Even if we have to adjust our understanding of what it means to be queer when delving into the annals of early modern history, standing eye-to-eye with Sodoma’s self-portrait, I felt an overwhelming sense of kinship. The mere fact that someone who lived half a millennium ago was willing to put their reputation — possibly even their life — on the line to outwardly present as a “sodomite” is, to me anyway, inspiring enough. We look to our past to find kindred spirits, and whatever the more dubious specifics of Sodoma’s sexual activity, the flamboyant way he led his life appears, to me at least, unashamedly and admirably queer.

The ability of the LGBT+ community to refashion stories, to read queer undercurrents into centuries-old tales, can offer a lifeline with its reassurance of shared history. The repressive circumstances of growing up queer has been linked by psychologists to the fertile and fantastical imaginations that lead to their overwhelmingly large presence in the creative industries. So it’s little wonder St Sebastian’s story was completely transformed from any grounding in historical fact by queer writers and artists. I like to think the way I see Sodoma is similar to how Sodoma may have seen Sebastian: an embodiment of the power of queer imagination, regardless of the radically different cultures they lived in.

Perhaps my admiration for Sodoma has petered out slightly as I’ve grown up, but it’s easy to forget that, as products of their time, our queer forebears were not always perfect. Taken at face value, Sodoma was unapologetically himself. And as an 18 year old, delving into art history for the very first time, that was — and still is — good enough for me.

Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.

Lola Flash by Juno Roche

Lola Flash by Juno Roche

Keith Haring by Russell Dean Stone

Keith Haring by Russell Dean Stone