Ravenna 2.5




Review by Stefano Evangelista

Yvonne Ivory, The Homosexual Revival of Renaissance Style, 1850-1930, Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 256 pp.

In the conclusion to her The Homosexual Revival of Renaissance Style, 1850-1930, Yvonne Ivory lucidly summarises the premises of her study (153):

Our notion of the Renaissance was invented in the nineteenth century by historians and art historians from France, Germany, Great Britain, and Switzerland. Our notion of the homosexual was invented in the nineteenth century by sexologists, lawyers, and political activists from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, and Great Britain. Our notion of individualism is deeply indebted to nineteenth-century political and aesthetic debates engaged in by thinkers from Germany, Great Britain and the United States.

Her intent is to show how these concepts closely interact with one another across British and German culture in the period that goes from the ‘invention’ of the Italian Renaissance by nineteenth-century historiography to the 1930s. Ivory studies the reception of Renaissance Italy among a heterogeneous group of British and German intellectuals that comprises historians, sexologists, philosophers and writers. At the core of her argument is the idea that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homosexuals were strongly drawn to the Italian Renaissance as a discursive field which celebrated the individual personality, recasting non-conventional behaviour and even criminality in the positive terms of individualism or even genius. If the mid century invented the Renaissance, the fin de siècle thus inverted it, using it to forge a distinctive style for its emergent homosexual subculture. As must already be evident, Ivory is a close follower of Michel Foucault’s influential hypothesis on the discursive formation of homosexuality and of his critical practice. Her methodology is rooted in the practice of discourse analysis, through which she brings together cultural and intellectual history with biographical and textual readings.

The study develops over two sections: the first is devoted to a cultural history of the revival of Renaissance individualism; the other to the analysis of literary texts. In the first section the focus is mainly on historiography and sexology. Ivory charts the rise of interest in a “liberatory, Renaissance-inspired individualism” (3), on which homosexual authors seize in their struggle to forge for themselves a positive identity that overthrows the pejorative connotations imposed on same-sex desire by the nineteenth-century legal and medical establishments. Ivory’s readings of Victorian Renaissance historiography build on the influential work in this field by critics such as J.B. Bullen and Hilary Fraser. But her specific interest is in the sexual question. Drawing on classic studies by Jacob Burckhardt, Jules Michelet, John Addington Symonds, Vernon Lee and Walter Pater among others, she argues that mid-century historiography bequeathed to the fin de siècle a series of associations between individualism, aestheticism, crime and beauty that proved to be so influential for the (self)perception of homosexual intellectuals that their legacy is still alive today in twenty-first century popular culture. According to this model, the twin notions of Renaissance personality and Renaissance style were construed as a precedent for the unconventional erotic choices and semi-clandestine lifestyle of modern homosexual men, who could think of themselves (and, if successful, make others think of them) as the inheritors of a prestigious Renaissance tradition.

This context provides the basis for a detailed analysis of late nineteenth-century English and German sexology, a predominantly repressive discourse according to Ivory, against which homosexual men elected Renaissance-inspired individualism as an antidote. Ivory’s analysis here rests mainly on an impressive knowledge of German sexological science. The argument moves confidently between Germany and England, displaying the full strength of the comparative methodology. Ivory can therefore persuasively argue that English authors such as Symonds and Carpenter, who shared a lively interest in sexology, developed a host of individualist ideologies and practices in reaction to the taxonomic principles of science, appropriating discourses of individualism most famously formulated in the German context by Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s idea that individuals should constantly question the need to obey the law migrated into the homosexual subcultures of the two countries, intersecting in this process with the fast-gathering ideologies of anarchism and utopianism. Building on this link, the book suggests a strong argument for the participation of homoerotic desire in these influential movements for the subversion of bourgeois values.

After setting up this intellectual background, Ivory moves on to detailed readings of three literary authors: Oscar Wilde, Thomas Mann and Vita Sackville-West. The first of these three chapters – one of the most engaging parts of the book – presents a “genealogy of Wilde’s engagement with the Renaissance” (84), from his undergraduate days to the mature writings of the 1880s. The main argument here is that the discursive field of the nineteenth-century construction of the Renaissance, set out earlier in the book, enabled Wilde to develop a theory of personality in which self-realisation justified crime and sexual dissidence. Ivory puts forward a parallel reading of Wilde’s Renaissance play, The Duchess of Padua, and the incomplete and more obscure Cardinal of Avignon. She traces to these writings a persistent association of “criminality, dissident sexuality, and the cultivation of the aesthetic” (95) that would go on to inform Wilde’s distinctive style in the late 1880s, and provides a persuasive and original reading of the paradoxical alliance of individualism and socialism in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” and of the defence of crime on aesthetic grounds in “Pen, Pencil and Poison”.

Moving from Britain to Germany, Ivory then explores the role of the Renaissance in Thomas Mann’s passage from Pubertätserotik (pubescent eroticism) to Ruhmserotik (the erotics of fame), proposing a suggestive association between sexuality and fame as mutually-informing discourses for the regulation of private and public desires. She argues that the young Mann initially became fascinated with the sense of erotic experimentation which he encountered in the course of extensive research into the period, carried out on nineteenth-century staples such as Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, Pasquale Villari’s biography of Savonarola and Burkhardt’s Kultur der Renaissance in Italien. This fascination, though, was replaced by an interest in the “egotistical individualism” associated with the Renaissance, which the increasingly famous writer used as a model to cultivate his public image and to justify (to himself and others) his pursuit of fame. In this chapter the biographical analysis plays a particularly prominent role, as Ivory reads Mann’s evolving relationship with the Renaissance on the backdrop of key biographical events: his homoerotically-tinted friendship with Paul Ehrenberg, his courtship and marriage to Katja Pringsheim and his negotiations of the literary marketplace are presented to the reader with the help of ample evidence from notebooks, letters and diaries. This biographical context provides the basis for Ivory’s reading of three early works: the intriguing short story “Gladius Dei” – in which Mann conjures a parallel between fifteenth-century Florence and nineteenth-century Munich, complete with a modern-day Savonarola named Hieronymus –, the historical play Fiorenza and the novel Königliche Hoheit (Royal Highness).

The last of Ivory’s case studies is Vita Sackville-West, with whom the book moves on to consider how the set of discursive strategies analysed so far were appropriated by a woman. Sackville-West’s engagement with the Renaissance was deeply rooted in her fascination with her own family history and especially with their impressive country seat, Knole, made famous by Virginia Woolf in Orlando. Sackville-West’s little-known biographical and historical works – notably her historical fiction “The City of the Lily” – yield the by-now familiar themes of crime and extreme individualism and her exploration of these Renaissance tropes is read in parallel with her homoerotic relationship with Violet Keppel. Like male authors such as Wilde and Mann, Sackville-West chose to inhabit the Renaissance as an imaginative landscape in which modern constraints of sex and gender were relaxed and a fluid sexual identity could be formed. This practice, to which Ivory refers as “queer self-fashioning” through the study, takes the form, in Sackville-West’s case, of an imaginative identification with male historical and fictional subjects (especially Giuliano de’ Medici), which connects her to the uniquely masculine tradition analysed in the rest of the book and lends a distinctive gender-crossing quality to her investment in the Italian Renaissance. Ivory’s argument on cross-gender identification is tantalising but the reader is left to wonder whether this interpretative model could be extended to other female writers of the period under study – Vernon Lee being an obvious case in point. The Sackville-West chapter exemplifies a disappointing feature of the study as a whole: the comparative method, which would promise to be its greater strength, is not applied consistently. The English and German sets of material are too often kept too separate. This is a missed opportunity, given Ivory’s palpable knowledge of both cultures and the excellent results achieved when the two are made to speak to each other, as, for instance, in the chapter on individualism and sexology.

Ivory’s talent is for working on the margins of the canon, bringing to light the neglected, fragmented and immature, as is most evident in her readings little-known texts by well-known authors such as Wilde and Mann. The Homosexual Revival of Renaissance Style is an engaging book, in which the author handles an impressive variety of material, which spans historiography, sexology, biography and literary texts. Academics and students interested in the history of sexuality will find in it a persuasive and welcome addition to the recent scholarship on the ancient Greek roots of nineteenth-century male homoerotic writing. In Ivory’s view, the Italian Renaissance was “more resonant” than Hellas to nineteenth-century authors because of the presence of the notions of sin and crime, which could be more readily associated with the social and legal marginalisation of homosexual men in the nineteenth century. And, indeed, the analyses of the problematic negotiations of Renaissance crime, especially in its connection with intellectual and artistic achievement, make for some of the most rewarding passages of the book.

  • Stefano Evangelista is Fellow at Trinity College, Oxford and Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford, UK. He has published a number of articles on nineteenth-century English and comparative literature and is currently editing a volume on the reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe. He is the author of British Aestheticism and Ancient Greece. Hellenism, Reception, Gods in Exile (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).


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