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  • Power and Passion in Sixteenth-Century Florence:The Sexual and Political Reputations of Alessandro and Cosimo I de' Medici
  • Nicholas Scott Baker (bio)

Just over twenty years ago Joan Scott observed that any analysis of gender always and necessarily required an examination of power.1 Implicit in this recognition lies an acknowledgment of the close relationship between sex and power, between the political and the sexual, inherent in European societies and cultures. In the wake of Scott and of Michel Foucault, who also highlighted the relationship between power and sex, many historians have turned their attention to this relationship, producing a burgeoning literature on sexuality and political culture.2 Much of the contribution to this work by Europeanists has focused on eighteenth-century France, with significant contributions also in the areas of late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and France.3 The French Revolution, for example, brought different political organizations, each with its own sexual culture, into a conflict played out in the public sphere of print. This process culminated [End Page 432] in the extraordinary accusations of promiscuity and incest levied against Marie Antoinette during her trial in 1793, which conflated republican fears about monarchy with male fears about female sexuality.4

The French experience, however, had significant and as yet unexplored antecedents in Renaissance Italy. For while the body of research on Renaissance understandings of sexuality, gender, and the body has grown significantly in recent years, its focus has remained more on the social implications of these conceptions than on their relationship to the political.5 Moreover, the Italian context provides a significant opportunity to map the distance between pre- and post-Enlightenment understandings of gender, sexuality, and the body. Because while the sexual-political culture of sixteenth-century Italy shared many features with that of eighteenth-century (or even seventeenth-century) France, it appears more foreign and inexplicable to twenty-first-century eyes than these later periods. As the following examination of the sexual and political reputations of Alessandro and Cosimo I de' Medici will demonstrate, the heteroerotic passions of a [End Page 433] Renaissance Italian prince could be highly problematic. The very behavior that post-Enlightenment Europeans would later consider a demonstration of virility and manliness appeared in sixteenth-century Italy as effeminate and politically dangerous for a ruler.

During the early 1530s, according to the Franciscan chronicler Fra Girolamo Ughi, the government of Alessandro de' Medici (ca. 1511-37), the first duke of Florence, might have enjoyed a reputation for virtue and justice but for the "disordered lust" of the young ruler, which made him hated and feared.6 Several decades later the Venetian ambassador, Vincenzo Fidele, reported that Alessandro's successor as duke, Cosimo I (1519-74), enjoyed great praise for "his exemplary continence and the great account in which he holds particularly the honor of ladies."7 In an age when illicit princely liaisons and their inevitable illegitimate offspring formed part of the political and ethical landscapes, the emphasis these accounts placed on the sexual behavior of the two Medici dukes suggests that something more profound than moral outrage or approval stirred the authors. The contrast of the libidinous and hated Alessandro with the monogamous and lauded Cosimo provided by these two accounts presents a fertile conjunction of images related to gender, sexuality, and political culture in Renaissance Italy. In particular, they shed light on the associations that existed between tyranny, effeminacy, and an overabundance of heteroerotic desire. The political reputations of the two Medici dukes became intimately linked to their sexual reputations.

This insight benefits from the growing body of scholarly literature from a variety of disciplines that has attempted to illuminate and understand Renaissance conceptions of sex, the body, and gender.8 Whether focusing on representations of sexuality in art, literature, medical treatises, or other texts or on actual sexual behavior, these studies have revealed the distance between post-Enlightenment understandings and those of early modern Europe. In Renaissance Europe gender categories existed not in a binary opposition of male and female but rather on a sliding hierarchy determined more, if not [End Page 434] exclusively, by culture than by physiology.9 To be male, regardless of genitalia, was to be...


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