While doing research for my novel The Towers of Tuscany, I can across a law that was on the books in Florence for a couple of centuries at least. From my point of view, the law provided me with some great plot fodder. Historical novelists like nothing better than to have support for their wild imaginings in the form of a bona fide primary source.
Anti Cross-Dressing Law
“It is established that no woman is to go about the city or suburbs dressed in ‘virile’ clothing, nor any man in female clothing. And the Podesta is required, in the first month of his term of office, to have it proclaimed through the city that no woman or man is to dare or presume to do this, and that she who contravenes is to be whipped through the city, from the communal palace to the place where she was found.”
Now why, I asked myself, was such a law considered necessary? When you think about it, you realize that laws are only established when a need arises. In other words, at some point before this law went on the books in medieval Florence, the powers that be (aka the Church) must have determined that enough women were dressing in virile clothing to make a law necessary. There would be no point having such a law if no woman ever went “about the city or suburbs dressed in “virile’ clothing.” And what was this about men dressing in female clothing? Did young men of Florence really put on women’s gowns and go out in public? Well obviously they must have. Or at least enough men and women contravened the cultural norms by cross-dressing to require a law to forbid them from doing it. The worthy law makers of medieval Florence doubtless considered that gender bending led transgressors down a slippery slope to genderless hell. And they couldn’t have that!
Punishment for Women Only?
I noticed a phrase in the law that revealed the real threat. The phrase is “and that she who contravenes is to be whipped through the city, from the communal palace to the place where she was found.”
Hmmm. What happened to a man who was caught dressing like a woman? Did he get whipped? I rather doubted it, although I have no proof for that opinion other than a strong suspicion. It seems to me that the spectacle of men dressed in women’s gowns and swanning about the piazzas during a festival would be seen as the relatively harmless high jinks of noble young swains with too much time on their hands. But what possible reason could a woman have for dressing as a man (in “virile” clothing)? It seems unlikely to me that a bunch of young women got together, pulled on their brothers’ tights and smocks, and went carousing through the streets for a lark. In medieval Florence, young women would never have that much freedom. So why, we must ask, would a woman dress as a man?
My hunch is that a woman dressed as a man because she wanted to do things she was prevented from doing when she was dressed as a woman. And how subversive is that? Of course, such a transgression had to be punished.
Which leads me to Sofia in The Towers of Tuscany. When Sofia runs away from her husband and makes her way to Siena, she knows she cannot make the journey as a woman. Instead, she chops off her hair and dresses as a boy. One day, while walking through Siena with her protector, the painter Luca Manzini, Sofia realizes just how risky her disguise is. In the passage that follows, Sofia Carelli, the heroine of The Towers of Tuscany is called Sandro by Manzini. This is the name she takes when she transforms herself from woman into boy in order to become a painter in Manzini’s workshop.
Excerpt from The Towers of Tuscany
They had almost crossed the campo when a knot of people emerged from a side street. Most were shouting and laughing. Sofia caught a glimpse of a young boy cowed and bleeding in the centre of the crowd. Behind him, a large man cracked a whip over the boy’s bloodied shoulders. She heard a scream and an answering chorus of whoops and jeers.
“Come, Sandro! This isn’t something you should see.”
“What’s he done, master?” Sofia had no wish to see any of God’s creatures tortured, but she couldn’t understand why Manzini would worry about shielding her. At home in San Gimignano and in her travels with her father, she had all too often seen terrible punishments inflicted on wretches who may or may not have done much to deserve them.
“Monna Giuliana will be angry if we get home late. Leave the poor girl to her fate.”
“Her?” Sofia snapped her head around just as the whip whistled through the air and landed with a splash onto a back now almost stripped to the bone. Sofia saw close-cropped hair and a linen cloth bound across two straining breasts. Anguished eyes shone from a face splattered with blood.
“Sandro!” The maestro grabbed Sofia’s arm and steered her into a side street. “Wipe that look off your face. You’ll betray yourself.”
“I don’t understand, master. Why do they torment her?”
“She’s being punished for dressing as a boy. Siena’s law is very clear about these abominations.” He paused, then quoted: “No woman is to go about the city or suburbs dressed in virile clothing, nor any man in female clothing.”
“Female clothing? What man would want to dress as a woman?” Sofia was so surprised at the notion that for a moment she forgot the girl.
“In my youth, it was quite common.”
“For sport. Often during Lent young men looking for novelty borrowed clothing from their female relations and charged about the city, playing, cavorting, the richer ones jousting on horseback. Some even whitened their faces. There was so much hilarity and drinking that the council had to put a stop to it. The law that poor girl is suffering under comes from that time.”
“She doesn’t deserve to be whipped.”
“What does she deserve?”
“I, well,” Sofia stammered. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”
“No, I know you haven’t.” Manzini lowered his voice so that she had to strain to hear him. “Which is why you must be doubly careful not to be found out.”
Behind her, another roar followed another scream—long and agonized. Sofia focused all her will on imagining the colours and lines of the Martini frescoes. The figure of the Mary in the Maestà fresco had glowed, her face the most purely rendered Sofia had ever seen. Mary was Mother of them all—the perfect woman, the holiest of protectors. But the image of the Mother of God kept dissolving into the bloodshot eyes and terrified expression of a young woman who wasn’t any older than Sofia herself.
Does Sofia herself get caught and whipped through the streets of Siena for dressing as a boy? I’m not telling!