The Renaissance grew from the ashes of the Black Plague, as Italians turned backward toward their Classical-era roots to stabilize a crumbling society. In the wake of the plague, some – like writer Giovanni Boccaccio – worried that Italians had lost all sexual morals, and that women had lost their modesty. As if to confirm these fears, some of the most important Renaissance inventions, like the printing press, were quickly turned into tools for making cheap pornography.
Like sex during the Black Plague or sex on the Silk Road, sex during the Renaissance was a practice in contradictions. Popes told their followers not to have sex before marriage while hosting orgies in the Vatican. Preachers condemned sex while cities legalized prostitution. And female doctors promoted contraception while religious moralists claimed it was a sin. And then there's homosexuality in the Renaissance. Same-sex relationships were incredibly common in Renaissance Florence, where as many as 40% of the male population participated in at least one same-sex relationship. At the same time, Florence's "Office of the Night" investigated the illegal practice of sodomy, which potentially carried a death sentence.
The Renaissance had strict rules about sex, but everyone broke them.
Same-Sex Relationships Were Incredibly Common
In 1432, Florence founded the Office of the Night to investigate "unnatural" sex acts. During a period of 70 years, the office investigated 17,000 men – roughly 40% of Florence's entire male population.
As historian Michael Rocke argues in Forbidden Friendship, same-sex relationships were tolerated in the Renaissance. In fact, they were incredibly common, understood as a normal phase of life. Like the traditions in ancient Greece, adult men in the Renaissance often took younger, unmarried men as lovers, before the younger partners were seen as fully adult. The arrangement, according to Rocke, didn't threaten ideas of masculinity as long as the older partner took the "active" role during sex.
While sodomy was an offense punishable by death, when 243 Florentines confessed to the Office of the Night that they had all participated in homosexual intercourse, the boys were given a fine and sent home.
The Renaissance Invention Of Printing Led To Pornography
The Renaissance saw the invention of printing in Europe, when Johannes Gutenberg developed European movable type around 1450. And it didn't take long for Renaissance printers to realize the possibilities of the new invention to create pornography.
In 1524, a book of erotic engravings called I Modi hit the streets, much to the horror of Pope Clement VII, who banned the book and ordered every copy destroyed. Of course, that didn't work. The anonymous printer just published a new edition, with added dirty sonnets. The book, which showed Roman gods and goddesses having sex, was also known as The Sixteen Pleasures.
The Renaissance Didn't Just Revive Classical Art – It Also Brought Back Orgies
During the Renaissance, Italians tried to revive the classics, bringing back Greek and Roman styles of art as well as recovering ancient texts and applying their theories to society, politics, families, and medicine. However, the classics weren't the only thing the Renaissance brought back. Scandalous Renaissance men like Pope Alexander VI also had a reputation for participating in Roman-style orgies the likes of which hadn't been seen since the Sack of Rome in 410 CE.
In what became known as the Banquet of the Chestnuts, the pope invited noblemen, church officials, and sex workers to the Papal Palace. The night of October 30, 1501 went down in history for its wild orgy and all-night sex games. The pope even offered prizes to the men who slept with the most sex workers that night, personally handing out cloaks, boots, and other gifts to the winners.
Sex Work Was Legal In The Renaissance
The Renaissance emerged in the shadow of the Black Death, which killed as many as 20 million people across Europe. With over a third of the population gone, many cities tried to encourage procreation by legalizing sex work. In 1403, the government of Florence founded an office to promote brothels, and Venice legalized the sex trade in 1358, just 10 years after the plague.
But in spite of the legalized status of sex work, "honest" men and women looked down on the profession. In Venice, sex workers had to wear yellow scarves so that everyone knew who they were. Florence passed a law that ordered them to wear bells so people could hear them coming.