“Sodoma, Sodoma, Thus Cried The Boys”: A Reappraisal Of Gianantoni Bazzi’s Life And Work

The
farther
back we go
from
modern into
earlymodern
history, the
harder it
gets to
document
those facets
of an artist’s
personal life
that might
provide an
anchor for
claims to
discern forms
of homosexual authorial intention—without the probability of which, gay/lesbian studies might indeed
collapse into the baldest claim of its detractors, that it is naught but meaningless psychospeculation.
But if ever there was a there there in Renaissance art, it was the Lombard painter Gianantonio
Bazzi (1477-1549), whom all his contemporaries, including art historian Giorgio Vasari, nicknamed
“Sodoma”—roughly the equivalent of “fag.” When his horse won a race and the heralds asked what
owner’s name should be called out by the boys who led the steed through the streets, Bazzi replied
“Sodoma, Sodoma”—arguably the first coming-out statement in Western history. But throwing scorn
back at his mockers backfired: outraged spectators attacked him for his insolence, and he narrowly
escaped a stoning.
A frank and comprehensive reconsideration of the painter’s life and work, and the historiography
of its critical reception, through the lens of gender studies is long overdue. The last monograph on him
in English, by Andrée Hayum (1968), was published before Stonewall, and follows the polite but
nonetheless constricting line of that era: “The question of the origins of the peculiar nickname does not
concern me, nor do speculations about his private personality” which are deemed “essentially fruitless.”
Amid the explosion of new art historical interests and methods that was born at the same time as gay
liberation, the subsequent literature on Sodoma is surprisingly sparse.
In terms of the questions posed by this conference, Sodoma is an artist whose work can be, and
has been, said to “look queer” ever since Agostino Chigi, the papal banker, paid Bazzi
to fresco Alexander the Great and his male lover Hephaestion in Rome’s Villa Farnesina,
which Chigi shared with his female mistress. While a full-scale reappraisal of Sodoma’s
oeuvre is beyond the scope of a short conference paper, I outline and summarize
several questions and methods suggested by the intersections between Sodoma’s life
and his art:
1. The Life: Better-than-average biographical material documents the artist’s
sexual interests, and provides rare glimpses into the lived reality of social life for a
known homosexual. I concentrate briefly on three issues. First is his reputation for
surrounding himself with beautiful boys, which has not yet been discussed in light of
discoveries by Michael Rocke and others about nascent urban homosexual cultures in
early modern Italy. Second, his parallel reputation as a fop and fancy dresser: recent
research by historian Helmut Puff has highlighted the role of material culture in
formulating and enacting sexual subcultures, and extravagant clothing was seen as a
marker of other effeminate or sexual deviancies. And third, the question of camp: did
Bazzi sing mocking songs about his own proclivities to turn aside criticism with selfdeprecation,
and/or was he an early activist, willing to risk public displeasure in order
to insist on some measure of dignity amid disapproval?
2. The Work: There is ample material for “gay readings” in both iconography
and stylistics. As a follower of Leonardo da Vinci (himself a homosexual), Sodoma
developed a softly modeled style emphasizing warm tactile flesh and dreamy sfumato,
which lend his many androgynous nude males, often based on homoerotic classical
prototypes, a notable erotic appeal. Many of his subjects are pretexts for male nudity
or intimacy, whether sacred—his famous Saint Sebastian and others in intimate
communion with Christ—or classical.
3. Historiography: Following Vasari’s censoriousness, scholars avoided the issue of Bazzi’s
sexuality altogether until the early 20th century; some English translations of Vasari deliberately
altered the term “Sodoma.” Interest in the artist as a creative historical figure who could be claimed
as ancestor by the rising homosexual community began in Germany, with an article in Magnus
Hirschfeld’s pioneering Journal of Sexual Intermediates by Elisar von Kuppfer, himself a gay artist
(1908); Italian criminology then contributed useful documentation. Tennessee Williams’s 1950s
poem “San Sebastiano de Sodoma” canonized the artist’s best-known altarpiece as a gay icon, and
the saint as “an emperor’s concubine.”

On 14-16 November,
Queering Visualities:
The First International
Conference on Queer
Visual Culture, was
presented by the
Humanities Institute at
SUNY-Stony Brook,
bringing together
scores of art
historians, cultural
critics, artists, and
others to consider
what we mean when
we say that something
looks queer. One of
several co-sponsors,
CLAGS hosted part of
the conference at the
Graduate Center. In
one of the dozens of
presentations, Queens
College and Graduate
Center art historian
James Saslow
described the life and
work of the
Renaissance artist
Gianantonio Bazzi,
known to his friends
as “Sodoma.” A
summary of Saslow’s
talk follows.