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From cross-dressing in cat masks to honouring queer film-makers at the Queer Lion Award, the history of the LGBTQ community in Venice is as labyrinthine as the city’s convoluted system of canals.
The history of Venice is nothing if not long and complicated. Over the years, this scattering of islands has gone through various changes, from ruling the seas as a major maritime power to becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. And, when it comes to its LGBTQ inhabitants, Venice’s past is similarly complicated. Once a city where gay and bisexual men were burned at the stake, it transformed into a destination for queer people from all over Europe; but what is the city’s LGBTQ scene like today?
Back in the Middle Ages, the practice of sodomy by gay or bisexual men was deemed a sin, and punished heavily by the Catholic Church. In 15th-century Venice, there are records of men of all social statuses, from commoners to nobles, being burned at the stake for their same-sex relations. However, despite the authorities’ best efforts, by the 16th century there was a thriving underground gay scene in the city.
Legend has it that gay and bisexual men even exploited a loophole in the city’s laws during the Carnival of Venice – a hedonistic few weeks of revelry and rule-breaking, Carnival was a time when some laws were deemed void if the perpetrator was wearing a mask. Men would allegedly don a catlike veil, known as the Gnaga mask, and dress up as women to sleep with other men, ostensibly incognito, and without facing prosecution.
Melanie Marshall, an academic at University College Cork whose research concerns gender and sexuality in 16th-century Venice, points to how queer innuendo was evident in the culture of the day. The academic translates one song from the era by Franco-Flemish composer Antonino Barges, a Venice resident, which is clearly dedicated to a male lover; a particularly racy (though perhaps not very poetic) lyric reads, “He so flattens me with his thing.”
In addition to men seeking other men for pleasure, there were those who sought to make a living through their sexuality. The popularity of male prostitutes soliciting other men in Venice grew to such an extent towards the end of the Renaissance that some scholars have suggested they were competing with the female courtesans.
Upset at the perceived loss of business, they allegedly asked the bishop Antonio Contarini to intervene. Consequently, female prostitutes were allowed to display their breasts on the streets of certain parts of the city, in a bid to clamp down on prostitution by transwomen, men disguised as women or simply cisgender men. This inspired the naming of the so-called Ponte delle Tette, or the Bridge of Breasts –a moniker it’s still known by to this day.
According to the research of Chiara Beccalossi, reader of modern European history at the University of Lincoln, this attempt at turning Venice’s men straight was only partially successful. Venice’s prominent male prostitution scene increased until its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries, which overlapped with the relatively early decriminalisation of homosexuality across Italy in 1889 following the adoption of the Zanardelli Penal Code. Venice became attractive to wealthy gay and bisexual men from elsewhere in Europe who faced persecution in their home countries. They flocked to the city for the culture and entertainment, and sometimes to sleep with working-class gondoliers for money. (Writers like Frederick Rolfe mention this in their records.)
Beccalossi says that Venice’s reputation as a “destination for sex tourism” was the result of multiple factors, including the city’s long history of democracy, with the doge (leader) elected by the people; its culture of courtesans, noted by writers like Lord Byron; and its position as a “huge port, where merchants, sailors and travellers were stationed”.
“These factors contributed to a lively homosexual subculture in the centre of the city, which was pretty unique,” she explains. “The homosexual subculture was closely linked to the culture of female prostitution, and the two traditions went hand in hand. Traditionally in Venice, both male and female prostitutes sold their services in the same areas.”
However, despite the wealth of information about men enjoying the company of other men, the history of the rest of Venice’s queer community isn’t so well documented. Marshall admits that when it comes to tracing the histories of lesbian and bisexual women, or of transpeople, things get more difficult. “It’s really hard to get the documentation for that… it just hasn’t made it into the archives in the same way,” she says. “Women didn’t have the same access; I mean they did have access to prints, but not in the same kind of way that men did.”
Marshall adds that despite the lack of archival proof, queer female experiences in Venice “absolutely happened”. While evidence in Venice remains scant, there are recorded cases of same-sex relationships between women in convents in Renaissance Italy – such as the case of lesbian nun Benedetta Carlini – as well as the femmenielli of Neapolitan society, a third gender that some academics have compared to transwomen.
The rise of Fascism in Italy, from around the first quarter of the 20th century until 1943, “drastically” changed life for gay and bisexual men, according to Beccalossi. It became harder for homosexuals to live openly; once welcomed in Venice, they now needed to seek out acceptance elsewhere, with many heading to places like Morocco. Venice arguably lost its liberal reputation with Mussolini’s takeover, and it’s never really got it back.
Today, Venice is no longer seen as a destination for LGBTQ people – or at least, not in the same way it was for gay men in its heyday. For a city so often sold as a fantasy romance destination, it has a distinct lack of queer venues; the sauna Metrò Venezia Club and the sex venue Juice Berry being two of the few examples.
Still, while it lacks permanent LGBTQ spaces, Venice has plenty to offer on its cultural scene, particularly at the Venice Biennale, which has increased its representation of LGBTQ artists in recent years. In 2019 alone, the city plays host to work from Turner Prize winner Charlotte Prodger, visual activist Zanele Muholi and artist Martine Gutierrez.
The LGBTQ community isn’t neglected in the city’s other famous cultural event, either. Since 2007, the Queer Lion Award at the prestigious Venice International Film Festival (also part of the Venice Biennale) has spotlighted the very best of LGBTQ cinema. Daniel N Casagrande, co-creator of the award, says that it can help to launch the careers of queer artists; he highlights how 2018’s winner, Guatemalan film José (2018), got increased visibility because of the award and went on to other festivals.
Despite this, Casagrande considers the Queer Lion more of a global offering than a Venetian one. Generally however, he feels the city is safe and welcoming towards LGBTQ people. “Venice is very tolerant, laid-back and easy-going,” he explains, but he acknowledges the lack of a queer community in the city. “It’s not got a huge gay scene,” he says. “So, to someone from the outside, it may seem small or non-existent.” And like the historical records, Venice’s gay scene is oriented almost solely towards gay men, with very few opportunities for queer women or transpeople to explore their sexuality in the city. More worryingly perhaps, Casagrande also expresses growing concern over the rise of Salvini and Italy’s renewed political shift to the right.
Despite its small size and the difficulties it faces, however, Casagrande maintains a positive outlook about Venice’s queer community. “It’s like a big village – pretty much everyone in the scene knows each other. I’d say it’s a very good scene, overall.”
Like so much of the city’s past, the history of the queer community in Venice has been at times tumultuous; but for now, Italy’s city of love does not discriminate.