Past Out: What was the Office of the Night?
|by Rawley Grau|
|During the Renaissance, the city-state of Florence, home to Dante, Michelangelo and many other great writers and artists, was also famous as a hotbed of male homosexuality. On April 17, 1432, after numerous half-hearted attempts to mend their city's reputation, the Florentine city fathers created the Office of the Night to eradicate "the abominable vice of sodomy."
Although "sodomy" included acts such as oral and anal sex between a man and a woman, sexual relations between men caused the greatest furor. In most cases, this involved an older man as the active partner and a teenage boy, sometimes as young as 12, as the passive partner.
Florentines' anxiety about the prevalence of sodomy in their city was closely linked to fears about the plague. The plague was divine retribution for the vice, and sodomites were also blamed for keeping the city's population from increasing.
Six Officers of the Night were elected annually. The office usually proceeded on the basis of anonymous accusations, which citizens dropped in special boxes around the city. In order to convict, the officers needed the confession of at least one of the parties involved.
Interestingly, the penalties for sodomy were much less severe under the Office of the Night than previously. The fine for a first-time conviction was 50 gold florins, about a year's wages for a skilled artisan. But even these penalties were reduced further in the 1450s. People with multiple convictions could get harsher sentences, such as banishment or public humiliation, but these were rarely handed down, and the Night Office almost never sentenced anyone to death (a sentence the law allowed for adults convicted five or more times).
The picture that emerges in 15th-century Florence, especially during the rule of Lorenzo de' Medici (1469-1492), is one of considerable lenience toward sodomy. Still, with the low penalties, people were less reluctant to denounce their neighborsand their own partnersand authorities were more willing to convict. During the 70-year operation of the Office of the Night, over 15,000 people were formally implicated in the practice, with some 3,000 convictionsthis in a city of only 40,000. By comparison, during approximately the same period in Venice, only 411 people were prosecuted for sodomy.
Church leaders and other public figures periodically reprimanded the Night Officers for being too lenient and too susceptible to political influence. Indeed, sexual relations between men and adolescent boys were deeply intertwined in the social fabric of Florentine life, so much so that parents sometimes encouraged their teenage sons to court powerful older men as a way of gaining patronage.
Frustration with the Office of the Night's lenience reached its peak in 1494 with the overthrow of the Medici family by followers of the moralistic Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola, who called on Florentines to "burn the sodomites!" But Savonarola's sway was short-lived. Florentines, especially young men, rebelled against his moralizing, and the severe penalties it inspired, and staged a riot in 1497. Over the next year, Savonarola, who had been outspoken in his criticism of the pope, was himself excommunicated, charged with heresy, tortured, and finally, in 1498, hanged and burned.
The Office of the Night operated a few more years, though the prosecution of sodomy had been largely taken over by other courts. But Florentines came to view the very existence of the "office of the sodomites" as a blot on their honor, and on December 29, 1502, the Office of the Night was closed.
Rawley Grau has won four Vice Versa Awards for his writing on gay and lesbian culture. He can be reached at GayNestor@aol.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 11, No. 3, Apr. 6, 2001.