Myths of Male Same-Sex Love in the Art of the Italian Renaissance


  • Ann Haughton History of Art Department , University of Warwick



Italian Renaissance art, art history, Apollo and Hyacinth, Apollo and Cyparissus, pederasty, sexuality


Visual culture has much to contribute to an understanding of the history of sexuality. Yet, to date, the depiction of pederasty in the art of the Renaissance has not been covered adequately by dominant theoretical paradigms. Moreover, the interpretive approach of traditional art historical discourse has been both limited and limiting in its timidity toward matters concerning the representation of sexual proclivity between males. This article will address the ways in which Italian Renaissance artistic depictions of some mythological narratives were enmeshed with the period’s attitudes toward sexual and social relationships between men.

Particular attention is paid here to the manner in which, under the veneer of a mythological narrative, certain works of art embodied a complex set of messages that encoded issues of masculine behaviour and performance in the context of intergenerational same-sex erotic relationships.  The primary case studies under investigation for these concerns of gender and sexuality in this particular context are Benvenuto Cellini’s marble Apollo and Hyacinth (1545), and Giulio Romano’s drawing of Apollo and Cyparissus (1524). By incorporating pictorial analysis, social history, and gender and sexuality studies, new possibilities will be offered for evaluating these artworks as visual chronicles of particular sexual and cultural mores of the period. Furthermore, this article will consider how visual representation of these mythic narratives of erotic behaviour between males conformed to the culturally defined sexual and social roles relating to the articulation of power that permeated one of the greatest milestones in art history.


Download data is not yet available.


Barkan, L. (1991), Transuming Passion: Ganymede and the Erotics of Humanism, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Bartkey, S. L. (1991), Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (Thinking Gender), London: Routledge

Bayer, A. (ed.) (2009), Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Bernardino of Siena (1989), Prediche volgari sul campo di Siena, 1427, Vol. I, ed. Carlo Delcorno, Milan: Ricerca

Barringer, Judith M. (2002), The Hunt in Ancient Greece, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Bremmer, Jan N. and A. Erskine (2010), The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Bull, M. (2005), The Mirror of the Gods, London: Penguin

Cellini, B. (1995), La Vita, trans. J. Addington-Symonds, London: Everyman

Cole, M. (2005), Cellini and the Principles of Sculpture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Davidson, J. (2007), The Greeks and Greek Love, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Dinshaw, C. (1999), Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, Durham and London: Duke University Press

Downing, J. (1990), Myths and Mysteries of Same-sex Love, New York: Continuum

Dover, K. J. (1978), Greek Homosexuality, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Finucci, V. (2003), The Manly Masquerade: Masculinity, Paternity and Castration in the Italian Renaissance, Durham and London: Duke University Press

Foucault, M. (1978), The History of Sexuality: The Will of Knowledge, Vol. 1, trans. R. Hurley, London: Penguin

Gurven, M. (2009), ‘Why do men hunt?’, Current Anthropology, 50, 51–73

Halperin, D. (1990), One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, New York: Routledge

Hamilton, E., and H. Cairns (eds) (1961), The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Hartt, F. (1958), Giulio Romano, New Haven: Yale University Press

Homer (1919), The Odyssey, Book VIII, (Hom. Od. 8.250), trans. A.T. Murray, Cambridge, MA., London: Harvard University Press

Ovid (1975), Metamorphoses, Book X, trans. Frank Justus Miller, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

O’Donnell, K. and O’Rourke, M. (2002) Love, Sex, Intimacy and Friendship between Men, 1550-1800, London: Palgrave Macmillan

Lear, A. and Cantarella. E. (2009), Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty, London and New York: Routledge

Martines, L. (1974), ‘A Way of Looking at Women in Renaissance Florence’, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 4 (1), 15–28

Matthews-Grieco, S.F., (ed.) (2010), Erotic Cultures of Renaissance Italy, Farnham: Ashgate

Mazo-Karras, R. (2003), From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Milner, S. J. (ed.) (2005), At the Margins: Minority Groups in Premodern Italy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Percy III, W. A. (1996), Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece, Urbana: University of Illinois Press

Plato (1961), The Collected Dialogues of Plato, trans. Hamilton and Cairns, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Pollock, G. (1988), Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art, London and New York: Routledge

Pope-Hennessy, J. (1985), Cellini, London: Macmillan

Rocke, M. (1996), Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Ruggiero, G. (2010), ‘Hunting for birds in the Italian Renaissance’, in Matthews-Grieco, S. F. (ed.), Erotic Cultures of Renaissance Italy, Farnham: Ashgate

Ruggiero, G. (1985), The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Saslow, J. (1989), Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Saslow, J. (1986), Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society, New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Segre, A. (1892), ‘I dispacci di Cristofo da Piacenza, procuratore mantovano alla corte pontificale’, Archivia storico italiano, Ser. 5: t.10

Servadio, G. (2005), Renaissance Woman, London and New York: I B Tauris

Simons, P. (2011), The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Talvacchia, B. (1991), Taking Positions: On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Van Gennup, A. (1960), The Rites of Passage, London: University of Chicago Press

Vasari, G. (1999), Le Vita de’ piu eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori nelle redazioni dell 1550 e 1568 (trans. G. du C. de Vere), New York: Random House

Williams, C. (1999), Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Woodfield, I. and H. Brown (eds.) (1984), The Early History of the Viol, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wolfthal, D. (2010), In and Out of the Marital Bed: Seeing Sex in Renaissance Europe, New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Classical male statue