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  • The Medici Aesop: A Homosocial Renaissance Picture Book*
  • Gillian Adams (bio)

The recent special issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (Fall 1998) on lesbian/gay literature for children and young adults illustrates how explicit the agendas are of such modern books as Heather Has Two Mommies (1989) and Daddy’s Roommate (1991) in their effort to promote a greater tolerance for alternative lifestyles and to present positive images of same-sex families. In his introduction to the issue, Kenneth Kidd addresses the problem of earlier, less explicit literature, literature that is “fundamentally homosocial, or concerned with same-sex friendships and family bonds” (114). Using Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows as an example, Kidd comments, “Not a gay text per se, it is certainly about . . . gendered male-male interaction” (115). Claudia Nelson’s essay in the same issue about homodomestic patterns in stories from turn-of-the-century British boys magazines, some of which she terms “homoemotional love stories” (121), is an illustration of another kind of children’s fiction that, while also not a “gay text per se,” is “fundamentally homosocial.” But the further back we go in time, the more difficult it may be to decide where a work fits on what Nelson terms the homoemotional-homoerotic-homosexual continuum (120), and whether it is merely a mirror of prevailing male culture, “proto-lesbian/gay” (Kidd 116), or is deliberately designed to introduce the reader to homoerotic or even homosexual themes, perhaps even to celebrate them. One of these problematic early works for children comes to us from the Italian Renaissance, a small, beautifully illuminated manuscript collection of fables known as the Medici Aesop, dated about 1480. In his introduction to the facsimile edition of the manuscript, now in the New York Public Library, The Medici Aesop: Spencer MS 50, Bernard Fahy remarks that there is “a high degree of probability” that it was made for a Florentine [End Page 313] child to facilitate the study of Greek (10). Internal and external evidence indicate that the child was the eight-year-old Piero de Medici, son of Lorenzo de Medici, “Il Magnifico,” at the time the most wealthy and powerful man in Florence.


In order to substantiate Fahy’s claims that this work was actually written and illustrated for the eight-year-old Piero de Medici, that it was commissioned by his homosexual tutor, Angelo Poliziano (10), and that it contains homoerotic material, it is necessary to elaborate at some length on its cultural context and the particulars of its creation. This historical discussion is the more necessary because of the most significant feature of the work: its stunning set of miniature illustrations. In his 1983 study Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze, Norman Bryson argues for the priority of the material circumstances in which art is created, its social context, the historical position of the viewing subject, and the intrinsic connection between the control of images and authority: “the image must be understood . . . as . . . the articulation of the reality known by a given visual community” (13). If Bryson’s claim, which is consistent with that of new historicists in regard to texts, is true for painting, it should hold even more true for illustration, whose semiotic system is so bound to the text.

The context in which the Medici Aesop was created may be divided into two areas, the social and the domestic. John Boswell’s first chapter in his Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century describes the difficulties in determining the existence of a gay culture in the past and the distinction between that culture and occasional same sex activity, given not only the vagueness of certain terms and texts, but the bracketing of that culture’s existence and the deliberate mistranslations and omissions by historians and translators. 1 Other difficulties occur in periods when the majority of gay people married and had children but “obviously devoted the bulk (if not the entirety) of their erotic interest to persons of their own gender” (Boswell 10). Moreover, those who took the active role in homosexual activity...

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pp. 313-335
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