- The Homosexual Revival of Renaissance Style, 1850-1930
Victorianists working across a broad range of disciplinary boundaries have explored the subject of same-sex desire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from a variety of instructive perspectives. Ranging from studies that dissect the urban landscapes populated by same-sex desiring men in fin-de-siècle London to examinations of the culture of female love in the Victorian era, such work reminds us that nineteenth-century historical subjects inhabited a highly variegated sexual landscape. Concerns with self-fashioning and the construction of individual sexual subjectivities also punctuate a number of important scholarly interventions in the rapidly developing field of LGBT history. The creation of sexual identity in this period, for most, involved at least some engagement with the frequently pathologizing and criminalizing representations [End Page 593] of the homosexual that permeated medical, scientific, and legal texts. These negative conceptions were occasionally countered by alternative discourses that drew—as Linda Dowling, in Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (1994), and others have noted—on ancient traditions of same-sex desire and love. In The Homosexual Revival of Renaissance Style, 1850-1930, Yvonne Ivory introduces readers to another component of the history of sexual subjectivities by illustrating how some same-sex desiring men and women in both Germany and England deployed "Renaissance tropes in the service of queer self-fashioning" (138).
Ivory tackles a number of important issues in her discourse-based study, aiming to uncover the origins of a persistent cultural connection between queer sexual identities and style. The contemporaneous emergence of the notion of the homosexual and the late-nineteenth-century preoccupation with Renaissance art and design contributed, in Ivory's estimation, to an enduring association of (particularly male) homosexuality with finely honed aesthetic sensibilities. More significant is Ivory's discussion of how some writers used a variety of Renaissance themes to create positive depictions of same-sex love and desire in multiple published and unpublished works.
These themes or topoi—as Ivory refers to them—originated in several genres of nineteenth-century writing (most notably in the history and art criticism of Jacob Burckhardt, Walter Pater, and John Addington Symonds) and helped foster an ethos of creative, and occasionally defiant, individualism. Each of these authors focused, to varying degrees, on five themes in explaining why the Renaissance was a momentous historical epoch: the intense aestheticization of culture, the focus on reproducing and celebrating the beautiful body, the understanding that criminality was frequently a part of everyday life, the relative toleration of divergent sexual practices, and the rising importance of the individual. By referencing Burckhardt's and Symonds's assertion that the creative capacities of Renaissance artists and patrons often led to more experimentation in matters of sexuality, Ivory's queer Victorian and Edwardian subjects embraced this vision of the past in fashioning their own sexual and aesthetic subjectivities.
The individualist Renaissance tendency toward self-fashioning provided a model of behavior for same-sex desiring people that countered negative stereotypes emanating from the medical and legal establishment. As Ivory notes in her second chapter, the German sex reformer Adolf Brand encouraged personal expression in the first explicitly homosexual periodical, Der Eigene, as a mechanism for combating despotic laws that prohibited sex between men. Similarly, Edward Carpenter challenged traditional morals and British legal institutions by arguing, in an 1887 essay, that morality was highly subjective. Admirers of the Renaissance also found models for resisting the sexological categories that were coming into vogue after the 1870s. Writers like Symonds, Ivory asserts, drew on Renaissance ideas of masculinist individualism in asserting the maleness of same-sex love and rejecting the ideas of sexual scientists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who hypothesized that inverts possessed erotic desires that were contrary to their biological sex.
The ideals of the Renaissance and the emphasis on the cultivation of the self in that period were particularly evident, as Ivory demonstrates in the final three chapters of her study, in the work of Oscar Wilde, Thomas...