Historiography Saturday: Caligula

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Caligula (“little soldier’s boot”) was the nickname of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, one of the more notorious Roman emperors. While the firsthand accounts of his reign have nearly all been lost to history, the surviving contemporary and posthumous accounts do not paint a flattering picture: over a short period the new emperor went from a beloved favorite of the army to a leader known for irresponsible spending habits and wanton cruelty. When he planned to move to Alexandria from Rome, a political play that would have crippled the Senate, he was assassinated.

From the initial biographies to an infamous film adaptation, Caligula’s story has been used as a morality play for the past two millennia, making it difficult to discern what his reign was really like. The more outrageous claims, like his relationship with his favorite horse, were likely rumors, but broader accusations of sexual deviancy (incest and homosexual relations, for example) are more difficult to address, along with the assertion that he was insane, in part due to a Roman cultural meme that paired perversity and madness with poor governorship. (Seneca’s description of Caligula as appallingly ugly and pale might be a more accessible ad hominem to a modern audience.) It is possible that Caligula was bisexual, but not impossible that accounts of him as the passive partner in same-sex intercourse were intended as slander given the Roman expectations for adult male sexuality.

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Gianni Versace

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Gianni Versace’s name is so famous as a brand of designer clothing that it’s easy to forget there was ever a person attached to it. The openly gay Italian designer took elements of Andy Warhol, Greco-Roman art, and the newer movements of abstract art, and spun them into furniture, fragrances, accessories, and – of course – clothing. He worked on numerous supplementary design projects, including more than a dozen films and Michael Jackson’s HIStory World Tour; he even held an acting role in the 1997 movie Spice World, until he was unexpectedly murdered by a spree killer and the incomplete scenes had to be deleted. Vogue magazine maintains a designer profile for him with a list of his fashion accomplishments, including pioneering jeans as catwalk couture and selling leather bondage dresses; a photographic essay on Versace from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries is available here.

Even after death, Versace’s brand lives on in an official website and its affiliated boutiques.

Michelangelo

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Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni had the good fortune to be raised in Florence, Italy, during the Renaissance, where its status as a cultural hub made springboarding to fame after an apprenticeship with a muralist possible. “Il Divino” (“The Divine One”) was a master of many media, including paints; poetry; architecture; and his first love, sculpture. His figures are known for their dynamism, emotional range, and anatomical study, the products of Michelangelo’s own scientific study into the art of the human body. His notable works include the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (which took him four years to complete); several depictions of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child; and the 17-foot high sculpture David, a piece commissioned as a monument to Florence’s glory. He also holds the honor of being the first Western artist to have a biography published about him while he was still alive.

While much of Michelangelo’s romantic and sexual life was speculation (and subject to the usual disclaimers on differing language and other social behaviors), he did reportedly fall in love with Tommaso de’ Cavalieri; even after the young man married, Michelangelo remained devoted, creating numerous poems and works of art for him. His male nudes and other poems are also filled with homoeroticism – so much so that his nephew removed the male pronouns when he published his uncle’s writing. Per Wikipedia, he did demonstrate what may have been romantic affection for a widowed friend of his, lamenting that he was never able to kiss her face before she died, so there is also a chance that he may have been bisexual. For a full account of the context surrounding Michelangelo’s plausible homosexuality, read here.

Benedetta Carlini

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Sister Benedetta Carlini was well on her way to becoming a saint when her canonization was derailed by an affair with either Jesus or a fellow nun. She had all the signs of sainthood going for her: stigmata, visions, even an alleged death and resurrection, all diligently inspected by Church officials. The various internet accounts of her downfall vary widely, but a New York Times book review gives the most complete summary, adapted from Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.

As an extension of the traditional view of nuns as brides of Christ, Carlini staged an elaborate wedding between her and the Son of God, with one of her fellow Sisters as a stand-in. During the ceremony she allegedly spoke with Jesus’s voice, proclaiming herself “empress of all the nuns.” Her hubris, combined with the sexual relations she had with aforementioned fellow nun, were enough for the Church to declare her visions the work of the Devil rather than God, and to have her detained in her convent for the remaining 35 years of her life.

How Carlini’s story is interpreted depends on the religious beliefs of the reader as well as historical fact. From a Christian viewpoint it is not necessarily impossible for Carlini’s miracles to have been authentic, which puts a very different spin on her affair with the other nun. She is listed here as a lesbian because it is the closest term available, though the term defies the historical context that encouraged elaborate miracles and legitimized sexual relationships with Christ.