GLBT History Month (in Church): Cardinal Borghese (1576 – 1633), Homoerotic Art Lover

October has been declared GLBT history month. Yes, I know I’m a little slow here, but as I noted yesterday, domestic and family issues the last couple of weeks have  left me distracted, and severely short of time.  No, I don’t know who has decided this, but no matter. Queer history is important, and October is as good a time as any to look at it seriously. I will be paying particular attention to general queer history at my dedicated satellite site, but I will also be posting here on some notable figures in the history of the Church. By marvellous serendipity, October 7th is the feast day of the Roman saints and martyrs, the lovers Sergius & Bacchus, who are by far the best known of the queer saints. Thanks to the attention lavished on them by John Boswell in both his books, they can be viewed informally as the patron saints of same sex lovers – but also of queer history.There are many other notable gay and lesbian figures in Church history. There are the obvious examples of the many other gay, lesbian and cross-dressing saints, there are the many less than saintly bishops and cardinals who are known to have had sex with men; there are others who may have remained technically chaste and celibate but disclosed their nature by the lavish patronage they bestowed on homosexual artists and the frankly homoerotic artworks they purchased – and the prominent churchmen who achieved fame or notoriety for the hatred and popular homophobia they whipped up against men who loved men. I hope to cover a selection of all these during this month of GLBT History (in Church).

The name “Borghese” will be familiar to many art lovers and tourists in Italy from the name “Villa Borghese”, the palace which was designed by the architect Flaminio Ponzo from sketches by Cardinal Borghese himself, and which housed his impressive art collection.
The mere existence of this collection and its magnificence poses important questions about the institutional Catholic Church. What does this vast wealth that this collection represented, have to do with pastoral care, outreach to the poor, or preaching the Gospels? The questions become even murkier in the light of its manner of acquisition:

In 1607, the Pope gave the Cardinal 107 paintings which had been confiscated from the studio of the painter Cavalier D’Arpino. In the following year, Raphael’s Deposition was removed by force from the Baglioni Chapel in the church of San Francesco in Perugia and transported to Rome to be given to the Cardinal Scipione through a papal motu proprio.

At this site, however, I am not interested in exploring the iniquities of the historical church. Instead, what interests me here is the nature of the artists and the works in the collection. Several commentaries of the collection note its substantial number of clearly homoerotic works, and he bestowed direct patronage on several well -known homosexual artists – Caravaggio the best-known among them.
He was also implicated in numerous scandals around his homosexual interests, including a close friendship with one Stefano Pignatelli, who acquired such a strong influence over Borghese that the Pope banished him entirely. Borghese thereupon fell into a long and serious illness, from which he only recovered once his dear friend was eventually allowed to return.
Pope Paul V then made the best of a bad job with Pignatelli, and made him a cardinal.
Although the implications are clear, and contemporary allegations plentiful, there appears to be little hard evidence for a specifically sexual relationship between Borghese and Pignatelli. If there was such a relationship  though, Pignatelli will not have been the first to owe his cardinal’s red hat to sexual favours granted.

This is how it is described in Aldrich & Wetherspoon, “Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History: From Antiquity to the Mid-Twentieth Century

He was adopted by his uncle who, when became pope with the name Paul V, made him Cardinal at age 29. His uncle’s favour allowed Borgese to accumulate an immense fortune, which he used to acquire which he used to acquire the vast land-holdings where he built Villa Borghese, now one of the most important Museums in Rome.

Scipione was oriented towards his own sex, and this led to full-blown scandals. In 1605, soon after being made a cardinal, Borghese wanted to bring to Rome Stefano Pignattelli, his intimate “friend”.

Paul V compelled Stefano to move out of Shipone’s house, but the cardinal doubled his love for his friend and succumbed to a severe melancholy which resuletd in a long and serious illness. Only when Stefano was allowed to return to Rome to look after Scipione, did the cardinal recover.

Shipione’s uncle the pope, thereupon decided that in order to keep a check on Pignattelli he must co-opt, rather than combat, him. He had Stefano ordained, the beginning of a carreer which led to his becoming a cardinal in 1621. But Stefano died in 1623. Scipione died ten years later.


Also see:

Recommended Related Books:

Aldrich, Robert and Wotherspoon, Garry: Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History: From Antiquity to the Mid-Twentieth Century

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Bray, Alan: The Friend

Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization

Greenberg, Stephen F: The Construction of Homosexuality

Jordan, Mark D: The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism

Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality

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