Renaissance in Italy: Echoes of Paederastia in Symonds’ Published Work

Today, the literary legacy of John Addington Symonds includes edited versions of his memoirs, biographies he penned of Percy Shelley and Philip Sidney, and of course his privately-printed essay A Problem in Greek Ethics. Yet a large percentage of his work fell into a very different genre: many of his books were sold as a sort of history of Italy, complete with commentary on the art, culture, and natural beauty of the country. The most expansive of these is Renaissance in Italy, a seven-volume series covering important episodes of Italian history and literature, from the dramatically titled first volume The Age of the Despots to The Catholic Reaction, Parts I and II, the sixth and seventh volumes. Originally published during Symonds’ lifetime in 1875, the series returned to print several times after Symonds’ death (including a late publication date of 1914), presumably due to widespread popularity. Though they are not particularly ornamented volumes, the Renaissance in Italy books were printed on quality paper, suggesting that they were truly intended to be read instead of displayed.

Title page of John Addington Symonds, Renaissance in Italy Vol. 3, The Fine Arts. London: John Murray, 1914 . Source: Internet Archive.

The third volume of Renaissance in Italy, subtitled The Fine Arts, first published in London in 1877, is a guide to the art of Italy. It recalls the pieces proudly displayed in galleries across the country, most notably the Uffizi. It opens with this phrase:

“It has been granted to only two nations, the Greeks and the Italians, and to the latter only at the time of the Renaissance, to invest every phrase and variety of intellectual energy with the form of art.”

The Fine Arts, 1.

This line certainly serves its purpose as an eye-catching opening sentence, one that could now be contentious considering the artistic skill of many non-European nations at the time. However, to readers intent on discerning the interests of the author himself, this line lends itself to another reading, revealing the idea that Symonds’ esteem of Italian culture rivals the importance he places on classical Greek authors. Perhaps his interest in each culture can be attributed to his curiosity about paederastia.

We can trace the references in A Problem in Greek Ethics to mentions of paiderastia in classical Greek works, and the presence of many of those same works in Symonds’ library suggests they had a notable influence on his writing, and scattered amidst Symonds’ appreciation of Italian sculpture and painting are a few echoes of paederastia. Though the first publication of The Fine Arts in 1877 predates that of the 1883 A Problem in Greek Ethics, it is likely that he was working on the latter while writing the book, and so it is easy to trace Symonds’ ruminations on paederastia back through his earlier publications. In The Fine Arts, Symonds mentions the pieces of Italian sculptor Donatello, saying of St. George and David:

Donatello, David, 1428-32 Bargello Museum, Florence. Photo by Patrick A. Rodgers via Wikimedia Commons,Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

“Without striving to idealize his models, the sculptor has expressed in both the Christian conception of heroism, fearless in the face of danger, and sustained by faith. The naked beauty of the boy David and the mailed manhood of St. George are raised to a spiritual region”

The Fine Arts, 100.

The two figures are not displayed together today and Symonds’ comparison of them is not intended to suggest that the people they depict took part in a paederastic relationship. Instead, he assigns them roles that are reminiscent of people who assumed paederastic relationships: the pre-pubescent boy and the educated adult man. It is unlikely that Symonds’ intention here was to imply that Italy followed the Greek tradition. Instead, this phrase is a tiny window into Symonds’ mind, where A Problem in Greek Ethics was just beginning to solidify into an idea to pursue.

Donatello, St. George, 1415-1417. Bargello Museum, Florence, Italy. Photo by Rufus46 via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

The Renaissance in Italy series is proof that Symonds was both an astute scholar and a brilliant observer of the world, especially the Italian peninsula that so interested him. Symonds’ books are a reminder to recognize the beauty of the classical history still visible in Italy today, and reading them with an understanding of the pertinence of paederastia to Symonds’ own life only supplements the experience.

Works Cited:

Symonds, John Addington. Renaissance in Italy: The Fine Arts. New edition. London: Smith. 1877. https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.95657/page/n7.

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