The Fico, where Giovanni and his cronies from the Red City brigade (see Neighbourhood World: Kings for a day) find themselves drinking one Saturday night, was probably the best known tavern in Florence. A haunt of gamblers, it appears in Francesco Sassetti’s late fourteenth-century novelle as a place of reckless youthful drinking and a century later in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Symposium. It also shows up in a number of Carnival songs, a popular Renaissance genre that traded in erotic double-entendre. The Fico (fig/cunt) and the Buco (hole), a tavern near the Palazzo Vecchio, are often paired together to indicate vaginal and anal sex (see also Neighbourhood World: Tavern tales)

This literary relationship between taverns and sex was grounded in reality. The Fico, in today’s Vicolo del Giglio or very nearby, was in the heart of the prostitution district, the alleyways between the Mercato Vecchio and the Baptistry. City-centre taverns were equally prominent in the topography of sodomy, which was very often an act between men. The abominable vice was condemned, but also partly tolerated by civic authorities, and we know that it was an integral part of male culture and sociability for all classes. As much as half of the male population of fifteenth-century Florence was indicted for sodomy at some point in their lives, but the penalties, usually fines, were relatively lenient. Transgressive though it was, for many men engaging in sodomy was seen as a life stage, so youth were assumed to take the passive ‘female’ role, slightly older males the active ‘male’ role – and there was some expectation that when men got married they would either put it aside or be very discreet.

Giovanni’s story is informed by this culture. In the Fico, he and his Red City friends bump into a group of men belonging to the Prato potenza, a neighbourhood brigade on the other side of the city. When Michele, a member of the Red City, is told he’s being “kept like a woman”, a common accusation, it was a taunt designed to label him as passive, emasculated and lacking in honour. It would have been especially stinging since Michele is an older male. When the men of the Prato threaten to report Michele to the Officers of the Night, set up in 1432 to prosecute sodomy, a brawl between the men of these two prominent street kingdoms inevitably begins … and with that another significant aspect of male culture in Renaissance cities.

David Rosenthal


To cite this essay, we suggest:
David Rosenthal, ‘Sex and the city’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter,

Further reading:

John K. Brackett, ‘The Florentine Onesta and the Control of Prostitution, 1403-1680’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 24 (1993), 273-300

David Rosenthal, ‘The Barfly’s Dream: Taverns, Community and Reform in Early Modern Italy’, in D. Toner and M. Hailwood, eds., Biographies of Drink: A Case Study Approach to Our Historical Relationship with Alcohol (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 14-29

Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)