I arrived in Helsinki via Finnair, early on a Saturday…
Michelangelo featured a a kiss between men in his greatest masterpiece. Leonardo Da Vinci faced charges of sodomy and spent a lifetime exploring androgyny is his art. Historians still argue whether these masters were gay or merely huge fans of male beauty. The naysayers are usually men. And always straight.
In my deluded mind, a trip to Milan was a chance to sip Negronis by a sun-baked pool and admire the beauty of its residents. A relentless 2-day rain storm threw those plans into a very wet bin.
God and the gays
I was in the Milan for a Quiiky Untold History tour. This wasn’t a peek into Donatella’s plastic surgeons or Berlusconi’s fave escort agencies, it was a trip into an ancient past when alchemy, art and religion fused and fought to made Italy a cultural ruler.
Before delving into the wonders of 15th-century art, it seemed rude not to indulge in Milanese nightlife. Lecco Milano is a hip, mixed neighbourhood bar offering food, DJs and a range of cocktails, including one tipple worryingly called GinHB.
The night ended with a game of insane gay bingo at L’Elephante while drinking a killer cocktail called the Bin Laden. Don’t remember how I got back to the hotel. The bar has since closed, so people will have to find terrorist-themed drinks elsewhere.
Myths and masterpieces
The Untold History tour, which focuses on the queer aspects of art history commenced at Castello Sforzesco, built by the Duke of Milan in 1450.
It’s survived a slew of wars and currently houses a number of the city’s art collections and museums. The highlight is the Rondanini Pietà, the last sculpture Michelangelo worked on before his death in 1564.
Michelangelo wrote love poems to men, but his homo prose was censored for centuries. In a 1623 published edition of Michelangelo’s poetry, his grandnephew changed all the masculine pronouns to feminine. For over 250 years, his queerness was erased.
One only has to look at the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, to know that fiddling with Michaelangelo’s poems was a waste of heterosexual energy.
The Pope’s ceiling is a celestial muscle Mary gangbang. Michelangelo celebrates the salvation of gay men by painting gym-honed hunks hugging and snogging in heaven.
A jaunt to the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie gave us a thrilling gawp at Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
One cannot underestimate the power of being in the presence of such an iconic masterpiece. Only 20 to 25 people are allowed in at a time and viewings are arranged in 15-minute blocks.
You’d be advised to book. Waiting lists of 2 months are not unusual. Don’t wear hot pants and a boob tube. Like most places of worship, respectful attire is de rigeur.
Orgies and sodomy
Sounding like the Grindr profile of a queer in Hackney, biographer Walter Isaacson describes Leonardo Da Vinci as, “illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted, and at times heretical.”
Before the Last Supper brought him wide praise and recognition, Leonardo was arrested in in 1476 for sodomy. The 24-year old was named as one of 4 blokes who’d enjoyed ‘wickedness’ with a 17-year-old apprentice of a local goldsmith.
Rather than fear damnation,, Leonardo’s drawings in the later 2 years include a machine, ‘to open a prison from the inside’ and a contraption for for ripping bars off windows.
Leonardo liked the lads, but wasn’t keen on lockdown.
Love of his life
Gian Giacomo Caprotti was nicknamed Salaí (Little Devil) by Leonardo. He joined the master’s workshop aged 10 in 1490, when Leonardo was in his late 30s. This rough trade street-kid evolved into muse, student and faithful consort ’til Leonardo’s death in 1519.
Salaí was almost definitely the model for Leonardo’s St. John the Baptist and also Bacchus. Many argue the Mona Lisa‘s enigmatic smile actually belongs to Leo’s lifetime lover. After Leonardo’s death, it was Salaí who inherited the famous painting. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that Mona Lisa in an anagram of ‘Mon Salai’.
After the eye-popping sights of Milan, we headed to Bardolino on the eastern shore of Lake Garda in Veneto. The town is a picturesque resort offering rustic charm, a soothing vista and a calming lack of nightlife.
We stayed at the Aqualux Spa & Suite, a contemporary palace of pools, saunas and treatment rooms. The food was gorge and my poolside room was a slick delight. All considered, this resort would be suited to sedate families or romancing couples. Chem-crazed gays on the pull should look elsewhere.
Vine and wine
My favourite experience in Bardolino was a visit to the Cavaion Veronese cellar of the Cesari vineyard.
When you’re accustomed to picking wine based on it costing under a fiver, it’s truly astounding to find yourself walking through a vineyard at sunset, surrounded by the living fruit while a handsome farmer explains the harvesting process.
Unlucky in love
A day trip to Verona proved rich in history and a visual thrill. The city’s a Unesco World Heritage Site, having been a Roman trade centre since the 3rd century BC.
It boasts a 2000-year-old arena, a stunning riverside setting and is famously the scene for the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet.
No love lost
One can ponder the balcony and tiny courtyard said to have inspired our William’s tale of feuding families and adolescent co-dependence.
Unfortunately, it’s an architectural fiction and a ghastly scene of frenzied selfie action and chaotic jostling. The Bard-fuelled pebbled yard has all the romance of shopping for hemorrhoid cream in Superdrug.
The artistic highlight was a visit to Castelvecchio, the principal military structure of the Scaliger dynasty that ruled Verona in the Middle Ages.
The Gothic fort houses a museum packed with a largely Romanesque collection that’s heavy on the Jesus and utterly engrossing. Spent HOURS here and learned more about history than my brain could process.
Horse meat fresco
We had a superb lunch at Osteria Sottoriva, the oldest eaterie on the medieval arcade that runs along the bank of the Adige river. As it serves polpette di cavallo (horse meatballs) and trippa alla parmigiana (braised tripe) it’s unlikely to delight vegetarians, but for an authentic regional cuisine, this is a Veronese superstar.
While pleasingly cheap, it’s no place for a quick snack. A sign cockily warns diners of servizio lento. However, when you’re downing carafes of wine, alongside decaying frescoes on a back street in Verona, who cares if lunch takes a few hours?
Hunt the homo
Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo are two of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance and their queerness is often dismissed. While it was fascinating to ponder the homoerotic subtexts in their work, the art itself tends to dominate the experience.
Gay pride was thin on the ground in the middle ages and evidence of gay life is limited and prone to conjecture.
This Quiiky Untold History tour made the best of slim evidence and would be a blessing for those who’re time poor and too idle to study guide books.
It’s standard practice that a jaunt abroad leaves me fatter and further wizened by wine, but this trip also left me plump with arty facts and the sweet nutrition of aesthetic pleasure. Lo amavo!