Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549) startled his contemporaries by adopting a provocative sobriquet, Il Sodoma, “the sodomite”. By 1500 he had settled in Siena and was soon the city’s leading artist and a popular, if eccentric, local character. Exactly when he first adopted his opprobrious nickname is uncertain.
Though Renaissance has enjoyed a reputation (hardly deserved) for tolerance, Bazzi was unique in publicly acknowledging his sexual orientation; no other European of comparable note would do so again until André Gide.
How did his contemporaries react? The record is decidedly checkered. Vasari, admitting that Bazzi was popular among the common people of Siena is sternly censorious: “His manner of life was licentious and dishonorable, and as he always had boys and beardless youths about him of whom he was inordinately fond, this earned him the name of Sodoma; but instead of feeling shame he glorified in it, writing stanzas and verses on it and singing them to the accompaniment of the lute.”
In Siena, Sodoma may have avoided harrassment, but in Florence when one of his horses won a race in 1515 there was an ugly incident. Vasari gives this account: “The boys who used to call out the name of the victor after the trumpet had sounded asked him what they should cry, and when he replied ‘Sodoma, Sodoma’ they repeated the name. But when some reverend men heard their shouts they began to say, ‘What ribaldry is this? Why is such a name shouted in our city?’ So before long poor Sodoma, his horse, and a baboon he had with him were stoned by the boys and the mob.
The baboon may surprise the reader, but fondness for animals was another eccentricity for which Sodoma was notorious: “He loved to fill his house with all manners of curious animals… The animals were so tame that they were always about him, with their strange gambols, so that his house resembled a Noah’s ark”
Called to the Vatican to join the galaxy that included Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Perugino, and Signorelli, Bazzi so pleased Leo X that the pope made him a Cavalier of Christ; henceforth the proud artist signed himself “Antonio Sodoma, Knight of Siena”.
The persistent theme of Vasari’s life (the book) is that Sodoma might have been a great painter had it not been for his buffoonery, laziness and “bestial” pursuits.
Raphael admired him and defied the terrible pope Julius II by declining to paint over his designs in the Vatican.
From “Homosexuality & Civilization” by Louis Crompton