When in Rome


By Michael Joseph Gross

A throng of schoolchildren roll across Rome's Piazza del Parlamento and, clamoring for autographs and handshakes, noisily engulf a bright figure whose long black hair, loose turquoise blouse, and flowing patchwork skirt toss gently in the breeze. The unlikely object of their adulation is Vladimir Luxuria, Italy's first and only transgender member of parliament'who, before her 2006 election, was best known as founder of Rome's avant-garde gay nightclub Muccassassina ('The Cow That Kills'; it's just as absurd in Italian).
'Study hard and get good jobs!' she exclaims and begins to walk away. The school's principal, a squat man with an unruly mustache, stops her, blurting that they've come from the southern region of Puglia (one of the most conservative, least cosmopolitan parts of Italy, not far from Luxuria's own hometown) and asking Luxuria to pose for a snapshot.
Next to me stand an impeccably dressed straight couple who have witnessed this scene, their Roman chins cocked high. The man, glancing pointedly at my T-shirt and cargo pants, rests his load of Gucci shopping bags on the cobblestones, asks in English if I am an American, then says, 'USA, not France, gave the world democracy, and this is why I'm always in my heart a yankee. But I ask you, could there be a Senator Vladimir in America?' Without waiting for an answer, he adds, with gloating pity, 'Something for you to think about.'

For years I have heard travelers' tales about Italian sexuality. The stories, told with judgmental fascination, often feature a stock character who is, in his way, at least as exotic as Vladimir Luxuria: an Italian man, married to a woman, who also has sex with men. Although the wife never explicitly acknowledges her husband's same-sex involvements, she knows the score, and, amazingly, no one's all that broken up about the situation'except for out Italian gay men, who groan with heartsick recognition when you ask about such characters. 'That's why we are all single,' they complain. They also claim that as Rome and other major cities have developed avowedly gay cultures, the number of married gay Italians has dropped. (From Naples south, they say, marriage to women is still the norm for men who love men.)
Then ask one of these 'out' gay guys if his mother knows about him, and chances are he'll say she does.
What was it like to come out to her?
For the Good American Gay, it's tempting to dismiss married gay Italians, and the quasicloseted lot who won't tell Mamma, as hypocrites. Americans fetishize integrity. We assume that coming out is the precondition of a gay man's psychological and spiritual health. But reality is more complicated: If Italy can put Vladimir Luxuria in the senate, why can't its ordinary macho guys leave their wives and come out to their mothers?
Last fall I went to Rome looking for answers to that question. I can't pretend I solved the puzzle, but I can say that the answer involves Suetonius (by way of Michelangelo), epidemic susceptibility to cardiac arrest among Italy's older female population, and one quite suspicious pair of bright red shoes.

Roman sexuality has always been polymorphous and peculiar. In Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250, historian John Clarke explains, 'Romans had sex with people of different genders, in different social situations, at various stages of life.' To a freeborn Roman man, almost any sexual activity with almost any partner was morally acceptable'as long as he took the 'active' role.
Gibbon noted ruefully that, in the bedroom, only Claudius among the first dozen Caesars was 'regular.' His main source for this information was the Roman historian Suetonius, the personal secretary of Hadrian (who deified his teenage lover Antinous after the boy drowned in the Nile and who raised so many monuments to him that, of all the faces of all the human beings who lived in the ancient world, that of Antinous was the most reproduced and survives as the best-preserved). In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius offers a litany of irregularities that makes contemporary tabloids look positively puritanical. Julius Caesar, he tells us, was publicly derided as a hungry bottom. 'He was every woman's man,' sneered one of his political enemies, 'and every man's woman.'
Suetonius, like the rest of the classical world, assumed that every man was bisexual. Nero, who 'gelded' a boy named Sporus and married him, liked to play a sex game where he would dress in furs, pretend he was a wild animal, and 'assail with violence the private parts of both men and women.' He believed that all guys liked getting 'defiled' sometimes but that 'most men concealed that vice, and were cunning enough to keep it secret.'
Italians don't learn this stuff in school. Still, the paradox of semisecret, outrageous sexual openness infuses Roman history, and Christianity's revision of official mores did not eradicate that aspect of this culture. Many churches in Rome are repositories of prodding homoerotic impulses. Walk into the musty, faded baroque interior of Santa Maria del Popolo and gape at Caravaggio's frankly sexual Conversion of Saul. Talk about a hungry bottom: Next to his horse, the future apostle Paul lies prostrate on the road to Damascus, legs up and spread, as the Holy Spirit overtakes him. The rough textures of his horse's coat and heavy flank, and its clear-eyed, implacable expression, add to the eroticism of this pivotal moment in the Christian story of God's relationship with man.
Or approach The Risen Christ in the gloomy Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, built on the site of an ancient temple to the pagan goddess of wisdom. The sculpture, described in every guidebook I've seen with dour phrases such as 'most persons' least favorite work of Michelangelo,' is probably unpopular because it shows Jesus naked. (Or, almost: Counter-Reformation prudes clapped a metal kerchief on his penis.) Even more unsettling, he's hot.
Although Michelangelo had an almost relentless tendency to render biblical figures as mesomorphic gym queens, in this case a hot Jesus makes theological sense. Having just risen from the dead, the Lord's flesh might well be bursting with strength and vigor, as he's depicted here. The sculptor even made the Savior arch the small of his back to accentuate the shape and strength of every muscle from Jesus' trunk down.
The Risen Christ is one of the freshest, most powerful images of resurrection you will ever see. It also has what may be history's best butt.