Palazzo Bembo-Camerini, now Museo Storico della III Armata, Via Altinate, 59, 35121 Padova PD
Palazzo Cattaneo Strozzi, Via S. Martino e Solferino, 37, 35122 Padova PD
Santa Maria degli Angeli Florence, Città Metropolitana di Firenze, Toscana, Italy
Benedetto Varchi (March 19, 1503 - December 18, 1565) was an Italian man of letters. A series of cases of writers, who, being writers, have left us traces of their ideas and aspirations, allows us to glimpse in the Padua of the XVI century an extraordinarily tolerant environment towards homosexuality, at least those of high social class. By a whim of chance many of these were guests in the Palazzo Bembo-Camerini of the cardinal and scholar Pietro Bembo, of whom no homosexual propensity is known, but who evidently must have been broad enough to tolerate those of others. For example, in October 1536 Benedetto Varchi was a guest there for a month, perhaps the XVI-century scholar less inclined to remain silent about his preferences for male loves, and in April 1537 Benvenuto Cellini, while Jacopo Bonfadio lived there and he worked in 1541-1542 as tutor of the cardinal's son, Torquato (and, after Torquato's departure from Padua, lost his job, remained in the city for another two years). In an unspecified square in Padua, the Florentine writer Benedetto Varchi was beaten in 1540 for an enmity born from the too much ardor with whom he had sung of a pupil, Giulio Strozzi, in his verses. Varchi was in Padua for having followed in 1537 his beloved Lorenzo Lenzi, who had moved there to study law at the University. Here Varchi enrolled at the Accademia degli Infiammati, of which Sperone Speroni was also rector. In that same year Piero Strozzi, grandson of the banker Filippo, head of the Florentine exiles (of the family that built that Strozzi palace which is considered the most beautiful palace of the early Florentine Renaissance), entrusted him with the education of the younger brothers Lorenzo, Alessandro and Giulio. But this chore Varchi "did not perform worthily, because he attracted the not unreasonable suspicion that he harbored a dishonest passion for Giulio. Before the end of the year, the young man died as a result of lack of moderation, and after some time the other two students, misled, if we listen to the anonymous biographer of Varchi, by some servants, revealed themselves discontented with the pedagogue. The Varchi was then fired and later suffered a harsh additional punishment." Varchi in fact sang love for his fifteen-year-old pupil both alive and dead, even under the pastoral name of "Carino". In these sonnets, which mix love and pedagogical encouragement, «The morbid inclination is accompanied by the conviction of having sublimated it, a tenacious disposition to ambiguous compromises is not separated from a moralistic bitter habit." The break with Strozzi was however radical. And having in 1540 Pietro Strozzi asked for the return of a book, Varchi refused it and even claimed a sum that Strozzi owed him. The arrogant squire took it badly and "By order of him, Varchi was beaten in a square in Padua and found a note of this kind at home: "Send you part of what you have to get from me, and note me in debt for the rest"."
Born in Florence, the son of a notary, Varchi spent his life in the study and teaching of literature. As a youth, he undertook in-depth study of Latin (though he never mastered Greek), then took a degree in law at Pisa. In 1524, on his father's death, Varchi began practising as a notary, a profession he soon abandoned for literature. In order to earn a living, he then worked as a secretary and tutor for various illustrious patrons. He allied with the opponents of the Médicis and in 1537 joined anti-Médici exiles in Padua, where he gained the protection of the Strozzi family. Having lost their favour, partly because of a homosexual scandal, Varchi moved to Bologna in 1540; precar- ious finances forced him to accept an invitation to return to Florence, and to a reconciliation with Duke Cosimo de’ Médici, three years later. From this moment on, Varchi played the role of a key figure in Florentine cultural life, hailed as a philosopher and perhaps honoured beyond his just due.
His status, however, did not keep him from being arrested in 1545 for the rape of a female child, although according to his biographers this was nothing more than a set-up mounted in order to ruin him; Varchi nevertheless had to pay a fine and compensation to the family of the victim. His conviction did not deprive him of Cosimo's favour, and Varchi subsequently held important posts in the Florentine Academy and published on linguistics, aesthetics and popular philosophy. He also wrote hundreds of (rather tedious) Neoplatonic and Petrachian sonnets. Most appreciated today among his large number of works is a history of Florence (covering the period 1527– 1538), the comedy La suocera, several brief works on figurative art and, in particular, a treatise on the Italian language, L'Ercolàno.
From a homosexual point of view, Varchi's work is noteworthy for an uncompromising – and towards the end of his life unfashionable – defence of Socratic love, as cast in the homoerotic formulation of Marsilio Ficino. Varchi's sonnets are explicit, though supposedly chaste, declarations of love, whilst his Latin compositions constitute such veritable confessions that they were damned as ‘scandalous’ by Scipione Ammirato in his Opuscoli (1637). Varchi was thus among the last humanist heralds of Socratic love, and contemporaries displayed open distrust of the ‘chaste affection’ which had inspired his sonnets, for instance those written for the youth Giulio della Stufa. A letter written by the youth reveals that his father expressly forbade him to frequent Varchi, since various rival poets, such as Antonfrancesco Grazzini and Alfonso de’ Pazzi, circulated sonnets in which they took aim at Varchi's homosexual tastes and his relationship with Giulio.
Varchi was perhaps the most significant exponent for a whole generation of homosexuals (which also included Michelangelo) of a Platonism which served as both affirmation and defence. Using this philosophical cover, Varchi left in his writings a real autobiography of his romances. His first documented love (around 1525) was for an adolescent called Giovanni de’ Pazzi, whose father had Varchi attacked and stabbed when he found out that the youth was slipping out of the family house in the dead of night to meet his lover. The following year, Varchi fell in love with one Giulianino Gondi. When Gondi met his death in a street fight, his place in Varchi's affections was taken in 1527 by 10-year-old Lorenzo Lenzi – proof of Varchi's increasingly pedophilic tendencies, though their liaison was probably not a physical one. Varchi wrote many love sonnets for Lenzi, whom he called, with a reference to Petrarch's work, ‘Lauro’. They remained friends for the rest of Varchi's life, and he bequeathed his library to Lenzi; in 1555, Lenzi had come to the aid of Varchi, then suffering financial constraints, by inviting him to Bologna.
Varchi's fourth love affair, in 1537, was with Giulio Strozzi and took place in Padua, where Varchi had followed Lenzi when he went to that city to study law. Piero Strozzi, head of the Florentine exiles in Padua, hired Varchi as a tutor for his younger brothers Lorenzo, Alessandro and Giulio. In his poetry Varchi increasingly openly proclaimed his love for Giulio (whom he called ‘Carino’ in his verses), and turned desperate after the youth's death. Varchi was fired, and the break with the family was so bitter that Strozzi had him ambushed in the street and beaten by one of his servants. Varchi thereupon left Padua for Bologna.
Upon returning to Florence, Varchi found a fifth love: a lad about whom nothing is known except that Varchi celebrated him in his poems with the pastoral name of Iola. From 1553 to 1555, still in Florence, Varchi lost his head to the 14-year-old Giulio della Stufa – the pair became the laughing-stock of the city. When this love came to an end Varchi consoled himself with Cesare Ercolani, a nobleman whom he had met when he was staying in Bologna in 1555; Varchi's L'Ercolàno is dedicated to him. Towards the end of his life, Varchi wrote yet another series of love sonnets (which, for obvious reasons, have remained unpublished) for a 10-year-old boy, perhaps an orphan named Palla de’ Ruccelai, whose praises he sang under the name of Cirillo. This, and his other loves, are detailed in Manacorda's and Pirotti's explicit biographies of Varchi.
It should be said that with the passing of time, the ‘chaste’ and ‘pure’ nature of the love celebrated by Varchi in his sonnets was viewed with ever-increasing scepticism, and he was attacked in numerous verse and prose works by his contemporaries. Probably because of this, Varchi realised late in life that he had gone too far in confronting popular opinion, and he entered holy orders in order to save his reputation. The strategy apparently was successful, and at his death Varchi was buried with full honours in the Chiesa degli Angeli in Florence.
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