The Renaissance grew from the ashes of the Black Plague, as Italians reverted to 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 producing cheap adult material.
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 engage in intercourse before marriage while hosting sexually charged parties in the Vatican. Preachers condemned fornication 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. Homosexual relationships were incredibly common in Renaissance Florence, but the city's Office of the Night investigated homosexuality, which was then punishable by execution.
The Renaissance had strict rules about sex, but everyone broke them.
In 1432, Florence founded the Office of the Night to investigate charges of homosexuality. During a period of 70 years, the office incriminated 17,000 men in a city that had a population of about 40,000.
As historian Michael Rocke argued in Forbidden Friendship, homosexual relationships were very common in the Renaissance. In fact, they were seen as a normal phase of life. Adult men in the Renaissance often took younger, unmarried men as lovers, before the younger partners were seen as fully adult.
Homosexuality was deemed punishable by execution, but 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 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 adult content.
In 1524, a book of sexual 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 engaging in intercourse, was also known as The Sixteen Pleasures.
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 parties 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 sexually charged games.
The Renaissance emerged in the shadow of the Black Plague, which took as many as 20 million lives across Europe. With over a third of the population gone, many cities tried to encourage procreation by legalizing the world's oldest profession. In 1403, the government of Florence founded an office to promote brothels, and Venice legalized the trade in 1358, just 10 years after the plague.
But in spite of the legalized status, many men and women looked down on the profession. In Venice, those plying the trade had to wear yellow scarves so that everyone knew who they were.