Coming Out

The Vatican’s Gay Art Goes on Display

As Pope Francis leads a softening of homophobic attitudes from within the Vatican, tour groups will soon see the gay-themed art on display there.

01.18.15 11:45 AM ET

It’s no secret that certain Renaissance artists never led a straight-and-narrow lifestyle. Their sensual masterpieces reveal a laundry list of prostitution, sex scandals and death by overindulgence.

Raphael supposedly died of sexual excess. Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio were both accused of sodomy with their muse and models (young male prostitutes). And Michelangelo professed his love and desires for men through passionate love poems to Tommaso dei Cavalieri, an Italian nobleman.

Yet, until recently, the religious institutions that hold their glorified works of art most dear refused to acknowledge it. After all, sexual tolerance isn’t something historically associated with the Catholic Church or Vatican’s core principles.

But, with the dawning of a new leader, everything has changed. Pope Francis has, among other things (premarital sex, divorce), given a symbolic wink to the LGBT community—maybe he’s okay with it, maybe he’s not. But he’s definitely not passing judgment. Because let’s be honest: who did they think were snatching up all of those “Hot Priests” calendars anyway?

And nowQuiiky, an LGBT-oriented travel group, is looking to capitalize on the Vatican’s newfound tolerance. Their guided tours discuss the Vatican’s art collection through the gay lens in which they were most likely created.

“[Visitors] discover new ways to look at [the] paintings and sculptures they [are] supposed to know well,” Quiiky’s CEO Alessio Virgili told the Daily Beast. “Intelligent people like to look at the world from a new point of view. It is not [just] a question of homosexuality.”

Virgili, who has worked in LGBT tourism for years, formed the tours after realizing a large interest in Italian history from the tourism community and their openness to new intellectual avenues.

“They certainly [knew] Michelangelo and Leonardo were gay,” Virgili told The Daily Beast. So he began setting up guided tours exploring queer history within the Vatican, using these famous artists as his inspiration. “For a young boy or a man, they could be an icon…nobody thinks [of them as] a person to discriminate.”

The Sistine Chapel, for instance, is one of the world’s most visited sacred sites. And Michelangelo, who painted its awe-inducing ceiling in a handful of years, left many traces of his lustful desires for the male form—women that look like “beautiful men with their muscles” and men in sexually charged positions or locking lips. But, they’re never pointed out on formal tours.

“We have always had a guide telling this history,” Virgili said, “but now [we’ve found] many guides, and many places, and many histories to tell. [We] don’t want to hide it anymore.” He wants the LGBT community to have a better identifying connection with the Catholic faith.

“Pope Francis and his step forward on gay rights has brought back many gay people to the Church,” Virgili said in a press release. “His open mind is almost revolutionary and gay people seem to have appreciated it. Even the Vatican Museums has registered a high presence of LGBT audience in the recent period.”

That’s not to say that the Vatican hasn’t always been frequented by high numbers of LGBT members. Or, that they haven’t existed inside its holy walls for centuries.

In 2013, and article in La Repubblica, the largest Italian daily newspaper, hinted at the existence of an underground gay network amongst the Vatican’s top-ranking officials. The accusation came on the heels of former Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement—a step he took to avoid the fallout from a secret investigation into a previous leak of papal documents, aptly titled “VatiLeaks,” which revealed such a network.

Later that year, Vanity Fair’s Michael Joseph Gross tracked down cardinals, monks and clergymen who lived in Rome and identified as gay (mostly in secret) to understand the ways in which they navigate their dual lives.

It recounts a vast history of gay accusations amongst top officials. Popes John XII (955-964), Boniface VIII (1924-1303), Paul II (1464-1471) and his successor, Sixtus IV (1471-1484), have all faced rumors of sexual romps with fellow men.

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And while the Vatican continues to deny the existence of a “gay lobby,” there’s no escaping the homosexual desires laden within artworks and statues throughout the papal city. Michelangelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is just one example. It is important not to omit the artist’s personal life, Virgili says, in order to completely understand the heroes of antiquity.

Leonardo da Vinci’s same-sex desires can be interpreted in works at the Vatican and in Quiiky’s similar tours throughout Italy. In Milan, they retrace Leonardo’s affair with one of his disciples, Salai, who may have also inspired St. John the Baptist in multiple paintings, including The Last Supper. Similar works, like St. Jerome in Wilderness, reside at the Vatican Museum. As does Caravaggio’s Entoumbment.

It’s a brave attempt. Sure, the supreme ruler of the Catholic faith has persuaded his followers to accept the LGBT community, but that hasn’t stopped the Vatican from shutting down art exhibitions that mix queer identity and religion.

Just over a year ago, an exhibition by Spanish photographer Gonzalo Orquin featuring photos of same-sex couples kissing in various Roman churches, was swiftly threatened by the Vatican and was cancelled before it opened at Galleria l’Opera in Rome.

While the Quiiky tour has yet to receive any feedback (or official recognition) from the papal palace, Virgili hopes to continue spreading the real history that runs throughout its art collection, making more visitors aware of its gay identity and perusing tolerance amongst the masses.