It should be no surprise that during the cultural awakening of the European Renaissance, many also felt free to leave the closets of the Dark Ages and explore their sexuality. Such forbidden desires underpinned some of the greatest art of the day, from Shakespearean sonnets to great Italian sculpture. Love letters and contemporary accounts reveal some of the gay romances that prudish historians would later forget, ignore, or actively conceal.
1. King Edward II and Piers Gaveston
The affairs of King Edward II have delivered gossip fodder for centuries. The historical rumors get famously used (in a very historically inaccurate fashion) for homophobic propaganda in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. But the true love of Edward’s life wasn’t a military adviser thrown from a window. It was the first Earl of Cornwall, Piers Gaveston. King Edward I, a.k.a. “Longshanks,” first assigned Gaveston to serve his son. But when the relationship grew too close, Gaveston was exiled. After Longshanks's death, however, Gaveston returned to “advise” King Edward II. Historians document a tremendous love between the two men, though it’s one that ended when enemies, upset at Gaveston’s preferential treatment, hunt him down. He was eventually run through with a sword and beheaded.
2. Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Cavalcanti
Marsillio Ficino, a chief intellectual leader of the Italian Renaissance and the man who first penned the words “platonic love,” also clearly had more than platonic feelings toward the handsome Giovannie Cavalcanti. The affection was demonstrated in numerous love letters, according to historian Rictor Norton. A scholar who translated many of the words of the ancient Greeks — an accepting group when it came to gay love — Ficino professed a connection to the Greek thinkers in part because he shared such a desire. “Although I am not confident that I can follow in the footsteps of such men in their heavenly journey, there is nevertheless one thing I have acquired in full measure from the study of sacred philosophy, virtue, and truth: the joyful company of the man most dear to me,” he wrote to Cavalcanti. The men lived together many years in a villa at Careggio. Norton suggests the entire concept of a love letter may have been an invention of Ficino.
3. Leonardo Da Vinci and Fioravante di Domenico
The quintessential Renaissance man, Leonardo may have been his generation’s greatest artist and scientific mind, but in an age when he had to keep his homosexuality repressed, many historians say he also lived a largely celibate existence. But according to Michael White’s Leonardo: The First Scientist, he did find love in the arms of the younger artist Fioravante di Domenico, who studied at the Academia during Leonardo’s time in Florence. The community around the art school was quietly tolerant, White writes.
4. Federico Gonzaga and Pietro Aretino
An out bisexual in an age of sodomy law enforcement, the poet Pietro Aretino declared himself a “sodomite from birth,” according to researcher Rictor Norton. Letters from longtime associate Federico Gonzaga reveal a complicated relationship between the two. A brother to a cardinal, Gonzaga seemed less able to openly reveal his own sexuality but would serve as a gay pimp finding escorts for Aretino. He does reveal, though, a personal affection as well. “Truly I love you so much that I love you more than the others, and the fruits of your splendid intellect have so impressed you upon my memory,” Gonzaga wrote.
5. Michelangelo and Tommaso dei Cavelieri
As the Renaissance’s greatest sculptor, Michelangelo enjoyed enough power with the Vatican that he did not need to hide his homosexual tendencies. (It probably helped that Pope Julius II, by many accounts, was also gay.) But Michelangelo left few records of specific lovers. The greatest exception may be the erotic stature Victory, modeled on Cavelieri, a lover also referenced in Michelangelo’s homoerotic poetry as his cavalry man, according to historian Rictor Norton. Michelangelo famously liked to “sign” art in his later years by including his own image in his work, and Victory was an example where Michelangelo depicted himself between the model’s legs.
6. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and Etienne de La Boetie (1557)
The French essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne’s famous tome Les Essais became celebrated in its age, even being quoted by William Shakespeare in The Tempest. At the core of the collection of writings was “De l’amitie” (“On Friendship”). La Boetie enjoyed a certain level of fame, achieved through political discourses, when he met Montaigne around 1557 and the two would spend four years together, at which time the principles of civil disobedience in matters of love became instilled in Montaigne, according to Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon’s Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History. But La Boetie would succumb to the plague, and Montaigne would write that he never experienced such love again.
7. Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet
The French diplomat Hubert Languet and English courtier Sir Philip Sydney met and fell in love during a dangerous time, according to historian Rictor Norton. Languet had been a vocal supporter of the Huguenots up until the group was massacred, and Languet and Sydney would flee France together. The men would live a quiet life in Frankfurt and later Vienna. Sydney’s work eventually led to him traveling to Venice with a count, but the men continued to correspond in letters that preserve their romantic feelings for the ages. “My affection for you has somehow come to bewitch my soul,” Languet wrote to Sydney on one occasion.
8. Marc-Antoine Muret and Memmius Fremiot
The city of love wasn’t tolerant enough to accept the French humanist Marc-Antoine Muret in the 1500s. According to historian Gary Ferguson, Muret took up with Memmius Fremot only to face charges of sodomy. The two men fled the city separately and were convicted in absentia, but Muret continued to communicate with Fremot of their overwhelming love that grew daily. Muret would flee to Venice and later Rome before finding a teaching position in an environment that offered more privacy, according to Aldrich and Wotherspoon.
9. William Shakespeare and Mr. WH
The first edition of the bard’s sonnets published with a dedication to Mr. WH, a mysterious figure many scholars and critics believe to be the “fair youth” referenced directly in the iambic pentameter. While these first 77 poems remain less sexually explicit that later words dedicated to Shakespeare’s presumably female mistress the “Dark Lady,” these early works include some of his most romantic passages of all time, including the famous Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”). The work also contains the clearly homoerotic tendency of showcasing many of William’s more forbidden desires, such as his pining in Sonnet 20 for the “master mistress of my passion.” Is Mr. WH a young earl like William Herbert or Henry Wriothesley? Or maybe a commoner Shakespeare knew through publishing? This secret followed him into the house of death.
10. King James VI and I and George Velliers
The king who united England and Scotland and who was credited with bringing peace to Europe in the 1600s also enjoyed several male relationships, the most noteworthy being with George Velliers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. The restoration of Apethorpe Hall even uncovered a passage connecting the men’s bedchambers, not that the king kept the relationship a secret. James compared his relationship to that between Jesus and John, and he endured a censure for the relationship and suffered mockery by the poet Theophile de Viau. James would ultimately die with Buckingham by his side.
11. Sir Francis Bacon and Tobie Matthew
The father of modern science also experimented in the bedroom. At the risk of own life at a time when some of his relatives were executed for homosexual desires, Bacon had numerous relationships with men. He suffered a censure for the acts in 1621. According to researcher Rictor Norton, the greatest relationship of his life was with Tobie Matthew, who met Bacon when the youth performed in a play at Gray’s Inn. The two were soon lodging together at the York House, and Matthew would inspire Bacon’s famed essay “Of Friendship.”
12. Queen Christina of Sweden and Ebba Sparre
The only child of King Gustav II, the heir to the throne was raised in a largely masculine fashione, and many historians have openly pondered if Christina may in fact have been intersex. Almost certainly, she maintained a lengthy relationship with her lady-in-waiting Ebba Sparre, and even after the lady married, she continued to write suggestive letters back and forth with the queen. As for Christina, she ultimately chose to abdicate her throne and leave the scrutiny endured by royals.
13. Arcangelo Corelli and Matteo Fornari
Corelli, one of the most influential composers of the 17th century, lived in Rome among a circle of gay artists who had favor with Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni and therefore enjoyed a certain level of discretion. While staying at the La Cancelleria, an all-male academy, he developed a long-term relationship with the violinist Matteo Fornari, according to research by Clive Paget. The relationship lasted two decades, and Fornari would oversee completion of some of Corelli’s unfinished works.
14. Francisco Correa Netto and Manuel Viegas
A certain subculture existed around Portugal in the days preceding the Inquisition, and letters from Francisco Correa Netto, a sacristan of the Cathedral of Silves, to Manuel Viegas, a Portuguese musician, testify to the relationship between these two men. Some of the letters from Correa read downright vulgar (“If men sleep with me, it is not to find a pussy. They place the cock between my legs, and there they have their way”) while others show a more tender longing (“My love and bounty: my feelings cannot rest an hour, either by day or night, without bringing to mind your companionship and your sweet words that are continually reflected in my memory”). But according to historian Rictor Norton, the letters also delivered harm to Correa when the relationship went sour. While Correa would destroy Viegas’s letters to him after reading them, Viegas would betray Correa to the Vicar of Silves. Correa never was put on trial, but that’s cold.
15. Giuliano Dami and Gian Gastone
Gian Gastone, the last grand duke of the Medici dynasty, lived an outwardly fay lifestyle in one of the few places in Europe to condone homosexuality. Unlike many of his gay ancestors, he fathered no children. He did take on Giuliano Dami as a mentee and lackey. It’s believed that Dami was a frequent lover for the grand duke, but Dami’s loyalty didn’t inspire fidelity. Indeed, Dami often accompanied Gastone on trips abroad, but would end up serving as a pimp, finding younger men to participate in orgies with Gastone.