Erasmus in Italy

Erasmus spent the years from 1506 to 1509 in Italy; there he took his doctorate in theology, worked at the printing house of Aldus Manutius preparing a number of manuscripts, most notably his vastly enlarged edition of the Adages, and hobnobbed with the high and mighty in Rome. Now, Italy in those times was the only place in Christendom where a homosexual had any chance of getting along. It was an open secret that a number of the rich and famous were discreetly gay, and no great social opprobrium was attached to their lifestyles. Florence was the gayest of the cities in Italy; its reputation as a hotbed of sodomy was so great that the German word for sodomite in those days was “Florenzer”. If Erasmus were indeed gay, he would have been safest in Florence, or at least somewhere in Italy. Yet it appears that he spent only six weeks in Florence, and even then it was only because his true destination, Bologna, was under siege by the Papal army. When Bologna surrendered, Erasmus bolted Florence and got to Bologna in time to witness the Pope’s triumphal formal entry into Bologna, a week after the surrender. Erasmus spent the next two years in Bologna and Venice; much of that time spent working on his greatly expanded edition of the Adagia. When his work with Aldus was completed, he travelled south. Significantly, he skipped over Florence and stopped in Siena. From there he made several extended visits to Rome over a period of four months.

While in Rome, Erasmus was toasted by the princes of the church. Cardinals and archbishops showered him with honors and wealth, begging him to remain with them in Rome. Domenico Gramani, Cardinal of St Mark, invited Erasmus to his palace and there engaged the Dutch scholar in delightfully erudite conversation. He showed Erasmus his vast library containing treasures the like of which were hardly equalled in all of northern Europe. He offered Erasmus a place in his palace, promising him that everything he desired would be made available to him. But Erasmus had already decided to leave, and when he gave the Cardinal the bad news, Gramani made Erasmus promise that he would drop by for one last visit before his departure from Rome. But Erasmus, fearing that he would be unable to resist the Cardinal’s blandishments, skulked out of Rome without honoring his promise, and hurried out of Italy.

My point is that in Italy Erasmus had a golden opportunity to live a gay lifestyle with the lowest risk in all of Europe, and he spurned that opportunity, choosing to live instead in the intolerant north. He had plenty of other reasons to stay in Italy: proximity to the holy places of the Catholic Church, the unequalled libraries, and the society of learned men. Scholars still debate why Erasmus decided to leave; with hindsight, it seems like a bad decision. The best explanation is that he was determined to maintain his independence. But whatever his reasons, his decision certainly provides us with a significant indirect argument against the ’Erasmus was gay’ hypothesis. While it remains only indirect, we must remember that all of the arguments in favor of the hypothesis are also indirect; this argument has the advantage of requiring little in the way of subjective interpretation.