Sailing through the history of the gay community in Venice can be compared to a journey along its winding canals. This illustrious seaside city, which has become a thriving cultural centre, tells a rich and layered story.
Exploring the hidden narratives of Venice’s queer community allows us to grasp a different aspect of this fascinating city, a web of stories that wind their way through the centuries, pushed and shaped by the currents of social and cultural change.
By consulting well-preserved archives and documents, a fascinating portrait emerges of a queer subculture dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with well-defined meeting places and social life. These testimonies, sometimes tragic, sometimes heroic, reveal to us the very essence of a city that has always known how to reinvent itself, in every age and circumstance.
In this long and compelling narrative, you will find an in-depth look at the figure of transvestism in cat masks during the Carnival of Venice, a time when the law turned a blind eye and allowed men to freely express their sexuality. We will follow the history of male prostitution in Venice, up to the arrival of homosexual sex tourism, and discover how the city managed to survive and thrive despite historical and social changes, from the Middle Ages to Fascism up to the present day.
This article invites you to immerse yourself in a gay history of Venice that not many people know about, and to discover a world that hides behind the splendid façade of the golden palaces and the waters of the intricate canals.
Middle Ages and Renaissance: from persecution to the culture of masquerade
In the Middle Ages, the practice of ‘sodomy’ was considered a sin heavily punished by the Catholic Church. In Venice, in the 1400s, there are documents stating that queer people from all walks of life were burnt at the stake for having relations with people of the same sex. The authorities condemned and persecuted so-called ‘sodomites’, creating a climate of fear and repression.
Rolandina Roncaglia, the first trans person we know of in Italy, who lived as a prostitute for seven years, was unfortunately discovered and burnt at the stake on 28 March 1355 (source: ‘Italia Arcobaleno’ by Giovanni dall’Orto).
Yet, despite these convictions, the gay underground life in Venice was very active. Men used masks to hide their identities and thus escape judgment and persecution. This masking strategy became a fundamental part of Venice’s homosexual subculture, allowing the community to exist and thrive despite the challenges.
The mask of the Gnaga
The culture of masquerade reached its peak during the Venice Carnival. Gay and bisexual men were able to circumvent the city’s laws at this time of year, when many rules were ignored. Laws against improper behaviour were not enforced if the person committing the act wore a mask. In particular, gay and bisexual men adopted a cat mask and dressed in women’s clothes. We are referring to the mask of the Gnaga, which still exists today: it is, as Giovanni dall’Orto well explains on page 200 of the essay ‘Italia Arcobaleno’, ‘a male dressed as a woman, who covers his face with a half cat mask, and goes around the city emitting the whining calls of cats in heat, making explicit proposals to passers-by. Sometimes he carries a basket of mewing kittens on his arm’.
This masquerade allowed them to meet and sleep together incognito, thus avoiding persecution.
“Il ponte delle tette” (The Bridge of Tits): the competition between male and female prostitution in the Venetian Renaissance
In the late Renaissance period, the popularity of male prostitutes in Venice reached such levels that they outclassed even courtesans. So much so that the community of prostitutes, concerned about the surge in male prostitution, requested the intervention of Bishop Antonio Conarini.
In response to these concerns, prostitutes were allowed to expose their breasts in specific areas of the city. The aim of this measure was to accentuate their femininity and thus counteract the attractiveness of male prostitutes, transgender people and transvestites. As a tribute to this particular practice, one of the bridges in the city’s red-light district was renamed the ‘Boob Bridge’, a name that persists to this day.
During the Renaissance, the presence of a much more structured homosexual subculture in Venice came to light. This Venetian gay community found its refuge in underground and secret places in the city, in barbershops, pastry shops, taverns and undeveloped land. The authorities and the Church were aware of these activities and tried to suppress these practices, enacting laws to police such places. However, despite the constant persecution, Venice’s homosexual community not only survived but continued to flourish, contributing to a vibrant and, at the same time, resistant culture.
Libertinism: the growth of the queer community in the Venetian aristocracy
During the 16th and 17th centuries, a wave of secular and materialistic thought, known as ‘libertinism’, permeated the “Serenissima” aristocracy (“Serenissima” is one of the nicknames that was and is used to indicate the ancient “Republic of Venice,” which was known as “Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia).
This philosophical current advocated indulgence in physical pleasures and denied the existence of any sexual crime, with the exception of rape. This period marked a significant turning point in the LGBTQ+ history of Venice, with homosexuality beginning to become more visible and accepted.
With the advent of the 18th century, trials for homosexuality became less frequent and homosexual life became even more openly manifested. Male prostitutes became an increasingly common sight, often seen walking in St. Mark’s Square. Venice became a hotspot for homosexual tourism, attracting visitors from all over Europe.
18th to 19th century: the rise of Venice as a destination for homosexual tourism
Between the 18th and 19th centuries, Venice underwent a remarkable socio-cultural transformation that saw it emerge as a major destination for homosexual tourism. During this period, male prostitution became an increasingly widespread and accepted practice, reaching a peak in prevalence in the 1700s and 1800s.
However, the most significant event of this period was the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1889 with the adoption of the Zanardelli penal code. This legislative step represented a historic turning point, freeing the city from a long tradition of repression and triggering a new era of freedom and acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community.
With the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Venice became a very attractive destination for wealthy gay and bisexual men from all over Europe. Many of these were people fleeing from countries where homosexuality was still persecuted and stigmatised, especially from Northern Europe. They came to Venice attracted not only by its rich culture and numerous tourist attractions, but also by the opportunity to freely explore their sexuality without fear of persecution. In particular, the common practice of male prostitution, often associated with gondoliers, became an important attraction.
Venice’s reputation as a sort of ‘sex tourism capital’ was consolidated during this period. According to historian Beccalossi, this was due to a number of factors. Among them, the city’s long democratic tradition, with the doge elected by the people, played an important role. Likewise, the culture of courtesans, also mentioned by the writer Lord Byron in his works, helped to create an image of Venice as a city of free and sophisticated pleasures. Finally, Venice’s strategic location and the presence of its harbour, which facilitated the arrival of merchants, sailors and travellers, contributed to making it a leading international destination.
The difficulties during fascism and the post-war revival
With the rise of fascism at the beginning of the 20th century, the experience of homosexuals in Italy, and in Venice in particular, underwent a drastic transformation. If until then homosexuals had enjoyed a certain acceptance in the lagoon city, the arrival of the fascist regime led to a radical reversal. Venice lost its liberal reputation and many homosexuals were forced to seek refuge in other places, such as Morocco, where they could live out their sexual orientation more freely.
During the fascist regime, homosexual life in Venice was marked by repression and fear. This dark period represented an abrupt end to the cultural and social ferment that had characterised the previous years.
However, with the fall of fascism and the end of the Second World War, Venice’s LGBTQ+ community experienced a new phase of rebirth. The post-war period was a period of renewed development for homosexual life in the city, a movement fuelled by both local residents and tourists.
Nevertheless, since the 1980s, a combination of an exodus of the population and an increasingly intolerant attitude on the part of the authorities gradually excluded Venice from the gay tourism circuit. The situation has only improved in recent decades, with the advent of social media that has helped to breathe new life into Venice’s gay scene, offering new opportunities for interaction and visibility for tourists and LGBTQ+ students living in Venice.
Venice today: a renaissance of LGBTQ+ life
Today, Venice is witnessing a renaissance of LGBTQ+ life. From a city that once persecuted homosexuals, Venice has transformed into a global centre for the queer community. This change is also reflected in the cultural sphere, with the introduction of the QueerLion, an award dedicated to queer-themed films at the Venice Film Festival, confirming the radical change in the city’s attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community.
Moreover, every year in Venice there is the Pride, lately known as Laguna Pride, a full day celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community in Venice and beyond.
The Imaginary of gay Venice in Literature
The homosexual imagery of Venice has profoundly influenced literature. Works such as Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ and Frederick Rolfe’s ‘Desire and the Quest for Everything’ offer an insight into homosexual life in the city during the Belle Époque.
Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ (1912) is one of the most influential literary works of the 20th century, from which a film adaptation was created by director Luchino Visconti in 1971. Thomas Mann’s novel tells the story of an elderly German writer who travels to Venice and falls madly in love with a young Polish boy. The protagonist’s forbidden desire and the fascinating setting of the lagoon city combine to create a queer representation of Venice at the time.
Another important contribution to homosexual literature is Frederick Rolfe’s ‘Desire and the Search for Everything’ (written in 1909 and published in 1934). This work, which mixes eroticism, persecution, egocentrism and religious and esoteric influences, is framed by the languid and picturesque backdrop of Venice in the Belle Époque period. The title evokes the Platonic concept of the lost half, of the ideal love that completes the human being.
The history of gay Venice is extremely complex and multifaceted. It began in an era of deep repression and persecution, with masks and secrets constituting the only defence against censorship and sanctions. Despite the difficulties, a vibrant homosexual subculture managed to thrive, taking advantage of any glimmer of freedom it could find.
Over time, the city went through a golden age of homosexual tourism, becoming a haven for those seeking freedom and acceptance. But it also faced dark times, such as the rise of fascism, which brought the LGBTQ+ community back under the threat of repression.
Today, Venice is committed to celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community and recognising its rich culture, both with the city’s annual Pride and with ad hoc cultural offerings.
Explore live the secret history of gay Venice from the Middle Ages to the present day
Do you have a passion for history, culture and LGBTQ+ rights? Our tour operator Quiiky Travel organises a 3-hour itinerary in gay Venice, Monday to Sunday.
In addition to the classic Venetian landscapes and monuments, you will have the unique opportunity to explore the lesser-known corners and deeper secrets of the city’s LGBTQ+ community. Immerse yourself in the richness of Venetian gay life, from Lord Byron to Casanova, and discover how Venice has been a beacon of tolerance and welcome over the centuries.