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Fall 2004 | Forever Florence

Fall 2004 | Forever Florence

Connecting to the age-old undercurrents of homo culture in David's hometown

My first night in Florence, I was walking home late from dinner to my pensione in the mostly residential Santa Croce (central west) side of town. Fog had begun to creep up from the Arno river. I don't know what I was thinking, perhaps how quiet the town was at 11 p.m. or how I should take a look the next day into the huge library, the Biblioteca Nazionale, I'd just passed. When I turned I faced a long double row of buildings, identical in the misted-over streetlight, all the shops closed for the night. There was a succession of arched doorways, and in the first doorway I walked by were two young men kissing. Not just kissing, they were necking passionately, hands all over each other, inside each other's clothing, oblivious of me, of anyone or anything but their mutual passion.

I began smiling then, and as far as Florence is concerned I've never stopped smiling. One of the most beautiful and best-maintained cities in Europe, from the beginning Firenze, literally "the flowery one," has been thoroughly sexy, thoroughly gay, and thoroughly welcoming. There, even my high school Italian was tolerated, if at times politely corrected. Unlike in Rome, where I lived almost a year. When I spoke Italian there, they called me Professorino--little professor--interrupting before I was through to tell me the dialect word I should have used.

Unlike so many others, I never fell in love while in Florence, alas, but on a later visit I made a friend, a book clerk working at the well-known Feltrinelli bookstore, and it was Flavio who expostulated the much-used "Ah, certo!" ("of course") to the anecdote of my first night in town. He explained, "The great Michelangelo lived directly across the street. His spirit haunts la citta, you know, and drives men to seduce other men."

A myth, right? The next day I checked the spot, and indeed it was located on Via Buonarroti, and there was Casa Buonarroti, a museum to the artist that I'd never noticed.

It was at the end of that same visit that I found myself chided one night by my dinner companions for never having seen their famous Duomo. Obediently, the next rainy afternoon I dragged myself to the spectacular cathedral in the center of the city. In truth, I'd had my fill of Italian churches. So I took in the view from atop the dome, which was admittedly pretty cool, and I was back downstairs, exiting, when a young cleric passed by with candle-lighting equipment in his hands--and a considerable tenting effect at crotch level.

I never found out whether he was a postulant, priest, deacon, dean, or what, but, hypnotized by the sight, I followed him through the main body of the church, past a nave, and into a dim chapel, where he'd found an isolated spot near a large pillar and was just standing there, waiting. Waiting for me, it turned out. No sooner had I joined him than he began kissing me.

Fanciulli was a word the young cleric used for boyfriends when we chatted later. And that's the very word that comes up time and time again in Michael Rocke's study of homosexuality in Florence, Forbidden Friendships, a book that confirms, if any confirmation was needed, just how gay Florence has been historically--or at least from the time of record-keeping about such matters, the 15th century on.

Naturally, while in Florence I'd heard the stories of famous artists of the Renaissance. How young Leonardo da Vinci, the most beautiful youth in the city, had aristocratic men fighting over him but was eventually spirited away by Francis I, king of France - now, that's a sugar daddy! - and didn't return until he'd grown a beard. Or how Donatello, who, like Leonardo, never married and kept a studio full of apprentices, sculpted his statue of David, the first fully free-modeled statue since classical times. Only when it was shown did others get the joke literally behind the masterpiece. Goliath may have been defeated--his head cut off, and young David standing atop it--but from the rear view the slain Philistine's helmet feather erectly rises along the boy's legs, poking at his naked butt. It is as though Donatello is saying, "The boy's so beautiful, even the dead can get it up for him."

We think of Botticelli in the context of his Venus and other lovely women, but he never married either, and he also kept apprentices in style. The story goes that he was utterly taken with one lad and was so proud of his beauty that he painted him naked, sleeping, taken from life, in a piece titled Venus and Mars, where, let's recall, Venus is fully clothed. The gesture was intended to show his friends and enemies the young man's ineffable beauty. But the boy, although willing, turned out to be faithless, so Botticelli painted him again, this time as the North Wind in his famous Primavera saying, in effect, that the boy blew hot and cold and also--impugning his masculinity--that he blew, period.

On another trip to the city I began hanging out in a caf? in the Piazza Santa Trinita, between the bridge of the same name and the chic shopping street Via de Tornabuoni. Seeing me writing all the time, one waiter, Titone, began calling me "the poet." He told me he'd grown up around the corner and that another poet, Lord Byron, had lived nearby, after he'd fled England. Byron's vengeful wife, tired of his infidelities with both men and women, accused him of sleeping with his own sister. So Byron was forced into exile. Fancy exile, I found out, since he stayed with the unmarried William Beckford, a British millionaire and author of the justly forgotten Gothic novel Vathek. According to Titone, Byron satisfied Beckford and all of his live-in boys. "Ha un cazzo grande!" the waiter assured me. When I asked how he knew Byron's size, Titone began limping away, crowing, "The clubfoot! God compensates!"

A stone's throw from my preferred caf? is where the Old Market had been located for centuries, and also the ancient Street of the Furriers, which, according to Rocke's book, were two conspicuous stomping grounds of artisans and working-class 15th-century queers looking for sex. The aristos meanwhile favored the Boboli Gardens, meeting lower-class youths behind the Pitti Palace, and later at night, when the river mists rose from the Arno, outdoor sex was freely available in the corners and doorways of shops along the venerable Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), then filled with grocers, butchers, and carpenters, now a tony leather and jewelry mart by day that's still cruisy at night.

Florence was so devastated by plague in 1348--the population ebbed to 40,000--that everyone was encouraged to make babies. The city fathers founded an Office of the Night to police the widespread homosexuality the city had become known for all over Europe--in Renaissance Germany the word for gay was Florenzer. In the 70-year history of the office, over 3,000 men were convicted of same-sex sodomy, and thousands more confessed to gain amnesty; as many as 17,000--one out of every two men in Florence--were accused. Gay and straight, married and single, the accused came from all ages, classes, areas of the city-state, and walks of life (although, like today, the clothing trade was best represented). "The links between homosexual activity and broader male social relations were so dense and so intertwined," writes Rocke, "that there was no truly autonomous distinctive sodomitical subculture, much less one based on a modern sense" of being gay. In late-medieval and Renaissance Florence, Rocke concludes, "there was only a single sexual culture with a predominantly homoerotic character."

Despite fines, exile, and corporal punishment, the Office of the Night failed in its task and was disbanded after a brief surge of intense gay repression by the followers of the Dominican reformer Savonarola. After he was burned at the stake, his supporters lost credit and the city magistrates decided more or less to sweep the "problem" of widespread homosexuality under the rug.

The pervasive, mostly man-boy homoeroticism that defined Florence for centuries persists to this day. Over lattes and glasses of wine, across counters at the flower-filled outdoor produce markets, in any clothing, book, or butcher store, male clerks, bartenders, and waiters will flirt shamelessly with young men, openly calling them bello and uaglio (beautiful lad and sweet boy, respectively). Who knows how much is traditional banter, how much mere bluff? Living in Rome, I was always invited by Florentine flirters to move to their city and repeatedly told that the SPQR found on ancient Roman shields and obelisks stood for Sono Porci, Quelle Romani, which translates as "Those Romans are pigs." With my looks, in Tuscany, the Florentine men flattered me, I'd be assured of love eternally.

Even the stylish young lesbian couple I met in the lobby of the English-language theater showing Kim Novak as Moll Flanders--said within minutes of our meeting that they had the perfect man for me. Molto gentile, they insisted, handsome, and from one of the Four Hundred families. Fool that I was, looking for love and not a meal ticket, I never showed for the appointment.

Since 1795 homosexuality has been decriminalized in Florence. The age of consent for sex is 14, with male hustlers legal at 18. Italian homosexuals, almost 5 million of whom are eligible voters, according to Arcigay, Italy's largest and oldest gay association, have not thrown their considerable weight behind any particular political party or coalition. In a Roman Catholic nation with an openly homophobic pope issuing antigay decrees, the political situation is still not as open or loose as in much of Northern Europe. Enrico Oliari, who heads Gay Lib, a center-right gay association with about 400 members, rejects the clich? that the left is pro-gay and the right is homophobic. He claims that Italy's gay voters have yet to be mobilized by anyone. Although in 2003 the Italian legislature had bills presented on same-sex marriage, the right of gays to adopt children, and banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, none became law. Only the bill annulling a decree that barred gays from giving blood made it through the parliament.

Where can you find romance in Florence? Besides the usual places, museums (don't miss the Uffizi Gallery--formerly Medici government offices, explaining the name), trattorias, palaces, and theaters are all good bets. Gay locals swear by the annual Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the distinguished May opera and concert festival that brings performers and audiences from all over Europe. Many think the off-season is better than when tourists flood the well-known piazzas. And lately gay Florentines have come to prefer living in what used to be older, more rustic villages and byways: new suburbs above the city, toward the town of Fiesole--another worthwhile day trip. I say aim for the spring and summer, when every hillside around the everlasting city of Florence is a patchwork of brilliant colors thanks to the name-giving flowers.

Country Dykes, Italian Style

Amid the vineyards, silvery olive groves, and verdant oaks that dot the slopes of ancient hills, Umbria offers lesbians from the four points of the compass a rare adventure. Just 150 kilometers south of Florence on 12 hectares of unspoiled land is an idyllic retreat called Terradilei (Herland), founded in 1984 by Silvana Manni, her daughter Lorenza, and Lorenza's partner, Alessia Di Matteo. From Easter to September visitors to Terradilei participate in writing, theater, drumming, dancing, massage, and other workshops--all designed to "make women's work visible," says the voluptuous Silvana, a natural-foods gourmet. Dinnertime features a bar with fine regional wines and a vegetarian restaurant serving organic produce from Silvana's gardens. Scrumptious pizzas are baked in a rustic outdoor pizza oven built by Alessia--a concert vocalist, folklorist, and the founder of WIMA (Women's International Motorcycle Association) Italia.

This July, for the third year, Terradilei welcomes women bikers from as far away as Australia and New Zealand to a special event christened by Alessia "Motodilei." In "this place of freedom," as Alessia defines it, bikers rally to fine-tune their engines for a spin through the Umbrian hills. Some locals may have raised eyebrows the first year as the bikers whizzed through town. But now accustomed to tourists of all sorts, most just smile and wave at le donne (the girls).

There is no other place for lesbians like Terradilei. Its inexpensive rates and ideal location make it the paradise you seek at the country's sun-dappled green heart. A renovated farmhouse is the centerpiece, with wooden cottages (some with bath and kitchenette features) and camping sites in adjacent shady fields. And if your stress level demands a vacation without workshops or motorcycles, there are hills and woods to stroll, nearby villages to explore, and a sky-blue swimming pool to sit beside or splash around in.

Due to its popularity, reservations for Terradilei (http://www.terradilei.it) should be made well in advance. Call 011-39-6-3212-0080 for more information.

ESSENTIALS

Accommodations

Inexpensive-Moderate: One of the most comfortable ways to enjoy a stay in Florence is to rent a room in an Italian B&B. MartinDago B&B (Via de' Macci, 84; 011-39-55-234-1415; $90-$150) is a charming historical house with antiques and frescoed ceilings. Rooms are large, with queen-size beds, some with wrought iron canopies. Enjoy the view from the panoramic terrace, where you may sunbathe and have a chat with Gabriele and Sergio, the welcoming owners. At theBed&Bed House (Viale de Mille, 154; 011-39-349-748-7027; $40-$110) you'll find Oriental comfort: Each of the five bedrooms is identified with a separate color. Rooms come equipped with candles and incense and even a stereo featuring ambient music.

Expensive: If you came to Florence to enjoy its history and the spirit of the Renaissance, then Grand Hotel Baglioni (Piazza Unit? d'Italiana, 6; 011-39-55-23580; $260-$530) is a must. The hotel was inaugurated in 1903, and along the corridors pictures from the Alinari Archives depict the historic face of Florence. The rooms, with coffered-wood ceilings and perfectly soundproofed original leaded-pane windows, will make you feel like a Renaissance prince. The roof garden Terrazza Brunelleschi and Panoramic Restaurant both afford breathtaking views of the cupola of S. Maria del Fiore. The Hotel Bernini Palace (Piazza San Firenze, 29; 011-39-55-288-621; $230-$680) is the perfect place for antique lovers. It is located in a 14th-century palace, where from 1865 to 1870 the Italian parliament of the Kingdom of Italy met. Old paintings, frescoed ceilings, and classic wrought iron chandeliers complete the picture.

Speaking of luxury, the Westin Grand Hotel (Piazza Ognissanti, 1; 011-39-055-288-781; $400-$1870) inhabits an 18th-century palace overlooking Florence's River Arno. Named to Cond? Nast Traveler's 2002 Gold List, the hotel pays tribute to Florence's past, with spectacular frescoes, marble inlays, and other decorative touches. The Grand Deluxe and Florentine suites are luxuriously appointed with sumptuous canopies and elegant furnishings.

Nightlife

Tabasco (Piazza Santa Cecilia, 3; 011-39-55-213-000) is the very first gay disco in Italy, founded in 1974 on the grounds of the ancient S. Cecilia crypt, where Dante met Beatrice. And, actually, it is a sort of crypt, with its historic underground atmosphere. Nevertheless, you'll find a modern bar with friendly barmen, a disco, and a cruising area. It used to be a "men only" venue, but women are now also welcome. Locals love to meet at Yag Bar (Via de' Macci, 8R; 011-39-55-246-9022), located in a deconsecrated church from the 12th century. Many fashionable guys and girls from all over Tuscany gather along its huge bar to meet tourists. It's the most interesting bar for lesbians in town. Since 1981 Tenax (Via Pratese, 46; 011-39-55-308-160) has been one of the most important clubs in Italy to discover new trends in music, fashion, and entertainment. Tenax hosts many of the prophets of house music: DJs, producers, and composers alike. The weekly Saturday night party is called "Nobody's Perfect," a house music happening attracting guests from all over the globe.

Restaurants

Inexpensive-Moderate: The Cantina Barbagianni (Via Sant'Egedio, 13; +39-055-248-0508; $15-$40) is a true cellar with a very warm atmosphere made more intimate by the smile of owner Cristina Mattei. Her husband, Chef Bogush, has joined the tradition of Tuscan cuisine with an innovative touch. The menu varies every couple of weeks; pheasant in white wine sauce with pears is a typical offering. At Osteria Masticabrodo (Borgo Allegri, 58; 011-39-55-241-920; $20-$30) you'll rediscover the atmosphere of an early 19th-century local taverna. Dishes are simple, traditional, authentic delights made with fresh ingredients from the nearby market of Sant'Ambrogio.

Expensive: For a very special dinner, Enoteca Pinchiorri (Via Ghibellina, 87; 011-39-55-242-777; $200-$250) is one of the most famous restaurants in Italy, with a special menu and a wine cellar stocked with famous and rare vintages. You'll savor "Pici con le briciole" (home made spaghetti with anchovies, bread crumbs, and pork skin in a white bean soup) in a refined Renaissance atmosphere replete with flowers, crystal, and silver.

Venice Unmasked

Venice is the drag queen of Italian cities. Baubled, bejeweled, bewigged, the city spends a few weeks of every early spring behind the glittering masks of Carnavale and the glamorous facade of the Venice Film Festival and the rest of the time getting ready for the party. Although there are no gay clubs or bars in Venice proper (the closest are in nearby Maestre or Padua), gay travelers with a sense of history will find that this most fabulous of European cities resonates to a distinctly queer vibe--a sensibility that has traditionally encouraged tolerance and individuality.

The core of Venetian life has hinged for centuries on the concept of the mask: one face for society made of papier-m?ch? and one that was only seen in private. In the late 1700s, Carnavale lasted months, and Venetians lived their daily lives behind the facade of the painted mask, never knowing with whom they were playing, or making love to, as masks were rarely doffed, except at home or at church.

"Venetians prefer reflections to the flesh and the mask to either," says the legendary gay novelist Gore Vidal, who has spent much time in Venice and Rome. "It is a city of disguises," writes Jeanette Winterson in her lesbian love story The Passion, set in a fairy-tale Venice of masks and mirrors. "You may lose your soul or find it here."

Many illustrious gay travelers have come to Venice looking for their souls--the freedom of a life lived behind masks, jewels, and gilded illusions. Gay or bisexual writers like Lord Byron, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann all found solace in the arms of this great diva city of Europe. Mann's famous homoerotic masterpiece Death in Venice was the inspiration for another work of gay genius, Luchino Visconti's 1971 film classic of the same name. The death takes place on the shores of Lido, on one of Venice's many outlying islands. Today the Lido is most famous for being the ultraglam headquarters of the Venice Film Festival and is often overrun with actors, directors, and paparazzi. Two of Europe's most fabulous hotels are here: the turn-of-the-century Hotel des Bains (where Death in Venice was filmed) and the Excelsior (now part of the Westin group), which evokes a vintage movie palace. Go upstairs to the Excelsior's Blue Bar, where film stills of Death in Venice's Dirk Bogarde and other famed gay actors shine from their silvery frames on the blue movie-light walls. There are wonderful views of the sea from here, and you don't have to be a guest to enjoy them.

Be sure to have a Campari at Marcel Proust's favorite coffeehouse, Caff? Florian. Opened in 1720, the caf? is a jewel box of gilded mirrors and red velvet cushions. After you've finished your drinks, go through the Piazza San Marco at twilight to watch the last rays of the sun slip beneath the waters of the lagoon from the Bridge of Sighs, made famous by bisexual poet and romantic extraordinaire Lord Byron, whose line "I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs" created the myth that the structure was full of romance (it's actually called the Bridge of Sighs because it leads to Venice's prisons).

The experiences may feel insanely romantic and a little unreal, but Venice in all its gay-friendly glory is both. "There is a strong need for magic," says Gore Vidal in his book Vidal in Venice, "for a place that is outside of time, for a postponement of reality. For Venice."

Life From Venice to London on the Orient Express

It's the most classic and elegant way to get to and from Venice, and the most famous. There is sparkling wine and there is Veuve Clicquot. There are trains and then there is The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. The grande dame of all trains is still plying her charming trade on an ultraluxurious day and night journey from Venice to London through the pristine corridors of the Alpine mountain passes as she has done since the last century. The best way to do the trip is to start off with stay at the Orient Express Hotel Cipriani in Venice (the Casanova spa opened this summer) and end up at the Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, another Orient-Express hotel, near Oxford, England. Your own vintage cabin and five-star meals smooth the way, along with the time-honored sleeping charm of all vagabonds--the rocking of the rails.

No, you may not find midnight murders occurring, but you might encounter a mysterious stranger or two.

"The train is popular among very wealthy older men and their young lovers," says one longtime cabin steward. "Sometimes there are fights and the young men get all their new clothes thrown after them into the corridor. We try to find them somewhere else to sleep." One illustrious client is a well-known French industrialist who likes to cross-dress on the side. La Diva, it seems, also has an unusual Gallic twist of humor. "He usually comes to dinner in a full evening gown," says Steward X. "But this one night he came to the formal dinner car wearing a roll of toilet paper wound from his head to his feet." The nonplussed staff elegantly reminded Monsieur that jackets were required and offered a spare one to hang from his Charmined shoulders. "We like passengers with a sense of humor," says X. More Veuve Clicquot, anyone?

ESSENTIALS

(Dial 011 before all numbers)

Accommodations

The Hotel Ciprani (Giudecca, 10, 39-41-520-77-44; $940-$2,931) is considered one of the best hotels in the world--not just in Venice. Located on the eastern edge of Giudecca Island just across the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco, the Cipriani is accessible by free ferry rides from the piazza, helmed by handsome young men in yachting outfits. The hotel itself is a restored villa of a noble Venetian family, and rooms are spacious and modern with picture-perfect views of the piazza. A new spa, named after Casanova, opened this year. Farther out to sea lie the two best hotels on Lido Island: Accessible by free ferry from San Marco and the Grand Canal, the Hotel Excelsior (Lungomare Marconi 41; Lido; 39-41-526-02-01; $353-$3,550) is a movie palace of the 1920s come to brilliant, peacock-like life. The spacious, ocean-breezy rooms sport Arabesque-shaped windows front the Adriatic Sea. Down the lane, the Hotel des Bains (Lungomare Marconi 17, Lido; 39-41-526-59-21; $508-$648) is the Excelsior's older, more refined sister. Rooms are smaller, but the turn-of-the-century atmosphere of quiet privilege that inspired Thomas Mann remains. The gleaming polished wood of the lobby and its belle epoque fixtures are not to be missed.

Getting There

A good way to travel to Italy for the value is through an air-hotel package with Eurovacations.com (877-471-3876). They offer individual three-star to five-star packages from a number of U.S. gateways for peanuts, and have multicity Italy packages that can include rail tickets, breakfasts, transfers, and more for one low price.


The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.
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