Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Historians dismiss the contradictions of Renaissance character by saying that Renaissance man was a microcosm and could display contradictory attitudes at one and the same time but I find it is impossible to reconcile the conscienceless seduction of unwilling girls, with the maintenance of romantic love and honoured friendship: these are separate trends. In a society which displayed both, there might even be individuals who would at one time, or with one lot of companions, attempt one course, and later attempt the other; and no doubt some, like Sordello, would preach one and practise the other. This does not disprove the assertion. What is not clear is how far these two trends coexisted: on the face of it, the conscienceless behaviour should come later than the matrist, although, since such trends start at the top of society and filter down, men of one social rank might be in one phase, while those below them were still in the previous one.

Such behaviour was favoured, and perhaps partly caused, by the inability of the rulers of the Italian states to maintain, for any length of time, social order. Anarchy probably reached its zenith following the death of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, in 1480. In Parma, the governor, terrified by threats of murder, threw open the gaols.

“Burglary, the demolition of houses, public assassinations and murders, were events of everyday occurrence. At first the authors of these deeds prowled about singly and masked; soon large gangs of armed men went to work every night without disguise. Threatening letters, satires, and scandalous jests circulated freely; and a sonnet in ridicule of the government seems to have aroused its indignation far more than the frightful condition of the city. In many churches the sacred vessels with the Host were stolen and this fact is characteristic of the temper which prompted these outrages.” (29)

Only one farther point need be made: The Curia was not above and beyond these trends, but was fully involved in them. Popes such as Nicholas V, Julius II and Leo X display the matrist trend. They were humanists, collectors and patrons of art, kindly and far-sighted men, fond of pleasure, permissive in morality (Leo X, for instance, attended the wedding of a man with his concubine of many years’ standing), but not ruthless and conscienceless. Very different were men such as John XXIII, accused of a catalogue of crimes as diverse as the Malatesta’s, or Alexander VI, who, with his son, Cesare Borgias carried perfidy further than it had ever been carried before.