Queer Places:
Palazzo Bembo-Camerini, now Museo Storico della III Armata, Via Altinate, 59, 35121 Padova PD

Jàcopo Bonfàdio (1508 - July 19, 1550) was an Italian humanist and historian. 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).

Born in Gazano on the Garda River and studying in Verona and Padua, from 1532 Bonfàdio worked as secretary to various cardinals and bishops in Rome and Naples, then in 1540 became tutor to Torquato, the son of the humanist cardinal Pietro Bembo (1470– 1547). In the meantime, Bonfàdio's writings had gained him fame; in particular, he was praised for his elegant poetry, and his Lettere famigliari (first published in part by Aldo Manuzio in 1543) went through numerous editions. His fame brought him the offer of a position teaching philosophy at the University of Genoa in 1544. In the same year, the government of the Republic of Genoa offered him the prestigious post of official historian of the state. He wrote a meticulous history of Genoa from 1528 to his own time, but his integrity in researching historical ‘truth’ had fatal consequences. According to the most reliable reconstruction of events, several powerful families, who did not appreciate the way in which Bonfàdio had written about them, took advantage of the fact that the historian had been accused of having seduced one of his students to have him condemned to death for sodomy and beheaded on 9 July 1550; his body was then burned at the stake.

Bonfàdio was one of the very few humanists tried for sodomy to be executed. The connivence of influential persons, which in similar cases was generally successful in at least allowing the accused to escape, in Bonfàdio's case did not happen because of the hatred of the noble families which were offended by his work. The scandal produced by his death sentence was great, and intellectuals throughout Italy mobilised, in vain, to try to save his life. Bonfàdio's execution remained alive in the memory of Italian intellectuals as an unjust act to such a degree that it was still used as a reproof against the Republic of Genoa as late as the end of the eighteenth century. The Genoese government, to save itself from embarrassment, engineered the disappearance of the trial papers at some undetermined moment. With the ‘loss’ of the documents, from the seventeenth century onwards it was possible for ‘patriotic’ scholars to deny that the real cause of Bonfàdio's conviction was sodomy. An enormous number of writings appeared on the issue, and as late as 1970, R. Urbani, in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani, maintained that the charge of sodomy in reality masked an accusation of heresy. This, however, would have been without parallel, since at the time there was no need to mask accusations of heresy. In reality, recent studies, especially the work of Giovanni Delfino, show that contemporary documents agree on the accusation of sodomy. Thus the idea that the scandal was exploited, if not actually framed, for political reasons appears more likely.

Bonfàdio left two moving ‘last letters’ written while he was awaiting the executioner. In one of them, he did not protest his innocence but stated that he did not merit such a heavy penalty. In the other (which some scholars argue to be apocryphal), he wrote: ‘Don't bother to plead for me as best you can against human facts and rumours, because this is a manifest error, since they and we and the memory of those who were or will be, will all be devoured by Time. As for my body, I never had a care about entering the grave, nor do I feel it now. The same care displayed by Nature in making my body, she will display in unmaking it. And if I die now, so will those who make me die now, so that eventually either more or fewer days will settle our accounts.’ They were prophetic words: time has indeed settled the accounts and erased the memory of those who executed Bonfàdio, but not that of Bonfàdio himself.


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