Il Sodoma on the Threshold between the Human and the Divine – Symbolization in Il Sodoma’s St. Benedict Sends Away the Harlots

Ever since Giorgio Vasari used the fresco scene 19 of St. Benedict Sends Away the Harlots, 1505-08 to illustrate a licentious and bestial image of Bazzi, compatible with his nickname Il Sodoma, a whirlwind of controversy arose on the prolific painter. It is indeed very interesting how the scene of St. Benedict and the prostitutes epitomizes several crucial elements in Sodoma’s creativity and the Olivetan order — the gap between the human and the saint; the contrast between the ascetic ideals and the hedonistic pleasures; the imagery of animal – all of which contributes a great deal to our understanding of Sodoma and his art, not as a departure from the idealistic religious values, but rather, as a humanist approach symbiotic with the core values of the monastery.

Teeming with obvious visual appeal, St. Benedict Sends Away the Harlots tells the story of the evil Florentius attempting to corrupt the monks by bringing them nude prostitutes, where St. Benedict was able to resist the temptation and protect the purity of the monks by sending the women away (Sodoma – Oxford Reference, 2016). Vasari presents Sodoma as a person both dangerous and shameful (Ladis, 2008) by stating that he privately painted the women stark naked, and that when the leader

Olivetan monastery saw the completed work, he was so enraged that he demanded the fresco be torn down (Vasari, Barolsky, De Vere et al., 1998). If this account were the fact, it would tell the audience nothing but Sodoma’s loyalty to the original legend. The documented biography of St. Benedict by Gregory  the Great in about 593-94 depicts the harlots as completely naked women, coming in an enticing manner (Forness, 2011), which is not only how Sodoma initially conceived this scene, given that Vasari told the truth, but also completely appropriate for the monastery – how could the monks internalize the Benedictine ideal if they were so easily distracted by mere paintings of nudes? How much hypocrisy would it be, if Sodoma must depicted the harlots conservatively and without sexual appeal, while at the same time the Olivetan commissioner tried to advocate the willpower of abstinence amongst his monks?

As one delves into this fascinating painting, one secret after another uncovers itself. The fresco, beautifully balanced in its composition with two sets of people, captures the pivotal moment of conflict between the humanistic side and the idealistic side of men. On the one hand, the women in the right side whose postures highlight the curved body, dancing feet, and flippant eyes represent lust, and therefore their extended meaning encompasses the human spectrum of desire

On the other hand, the men on the left side, mostly withdrawing but not without a hint of hesitation, embody asceticism, the teaching of St. Benedict, whose face and body show the most stoic refusal to temptation. The scholar Ruth Karras aptly analyzes the symbol of prostitutes lasting from medieval cultural values as an exemplar of humanness. In late fifteenth century, prostitution even stood for the whole spectrum of humanly sins because prostitution symbolizes not only sexual promiscuity but also a greed for money, both of which were considered the severest of sins by Christian standards (2016, p. 6). With his artistic prowess, Sodoma epitomized very well the two conflicting forces of humanity in the hagiographical paining by the two sets of people between whom one can almost feel a gravitational pulling force and a repulsive pushing force at the same time.

A careful “reader” of this fresco may note the donkey amidst the monks, and a little dog running from the harlots toward the men, and refer to Sodoma’s usual tendency to include animals in his artworks. The most plausible explanation is that this donkey represents stubbornness (Boswell & Ellen, 2012, p. 39), and the dog, lust.

As the detail picture shows below, despite the damage to the fresco, the texture of the little dog’s coat was painted with fine vividness. St. Benedict holds one hand straight in front of his chest, as if he were gesturing refusal, and his other hand holds some ambivalent entity in a fist, possibly a roll

book, symbolizing that the power of knowledge can help one resist temptation. While Boswell and Ellen touch on the donkey’s symbolic meaning, I’d extend this allusion further in regard to the positioning of the donkey. If the donkey stood with the men, who represent the moral force as discussed above, then the animal serves as a direct symbol of St. Benedict’s obstinacy to hold true to his ascetic ideals; if the donkey were placed on the women’s side, it shows the perseverance of human lust and desire in people’s spirits. Sodoma chose to place the donkey on the men’s side, and he placed a dog that represents lust in the middle, revealing much about his deep understanding of what Monte Oliveto Maggiore needed his Life of St. Benedict to embody.

The scene St. Benedict Sends Away the Harlots was the first scene Sodoma painted on the walls of Monte Oliveto. From the life-like poses of the people to the contrasting facial expressions, he treated the fresco with great excellence. Although many modern scholars spare no effort in vindicating Bazzi of that the nickname Sodoma, some art historians argue that Bazzi was indeed homosexual (Freedberg, 1993, p. 171). The point of this study is not his nickname, but if he were actually homosexual it would have been more remarkable of him to have captured human lust through women and set it in a symbiosis of manlike desire and saint-like asceticism through symbols of prostitution, compositional balance, and animals.



“Il Sodoma.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 15 April, 2016. Sodoma

Cust, Robert Henry Hobart. Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, Hitherto Usually Styled “Sodoma,” the Man and the Painter, 1477-1549; a Study. London: J. Murray, 1906.

Barolsky, Paul, Giorgio Vasari, Gaston Du C. De Vere, David Ekserdjian, Patricia Rubin, Leon Satkowski, and Ralph Lieberman. “Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” The Art Bulletin 80, no. 2 (1998): 380. doi:10.2307/3051239.

Boswell Schiefer, Ellen W. Miracle at Monte Oliveto Renaissance Benedictine Ideals and Humanist Pictorial Ideals in Perspective. University of Cincinnati, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2012. 1515012.

Forness, Philip Michael. “The Life of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great: Translation and Commentary – By Terrence G. Kardong.” Religious Studies Review 37, no. 1 (2011): 67. doi:10.1111/j.1748-0922.2011.01490_5.x.

Freedberg, Sidney J. (1993). Painting in Italy 1500-1600. Penguin Books. pp. 117–119 et passim.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Holy Harlots: Prostitute Saints in Medieval Legend.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1, no. 1 (April 17, 2016): 3-32.

Mladenovic, Ivana. “Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives by Andrew Ladis.” Comitatus Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 39, no. 1 (2008): 295-96. doi:10.1353/cjm.2008.0049.

Sodoma – Oxford Reference.” Sodoma – Oxford Reference. Accessed April 03, 2016.


Who Is Il Sodoma and Who Perpetuated His Ghost

When people think of Il Sodoma, more myths come to their mind than knowledge, more questions are raised than answers found. Il Sodoma was the name given to the painter whose real name was Giovanni Antonio Bazzi,  because Vasari suggested that he had taken an indecent interest in “boys and beardless youth” (Vasari).

Because Vasari disliked Giovanni Antonio, Vasari created a defamatory portrait of him as bestial, licentious, capricious, and undeserving of his artistic achievement.  Despite many modern scholars’ effort to deny this perpetuating image, evidence has shown that Sodoma deserves his nickname. There has been immense attention disproportionally directed to his personal life compared to his career, but he was the leading painter of Sienna in the early 16th century.

Sodoma was a prolific artist of frescoes and easel paintings. Born in Vercelli in Piedmont in 1477, Sodoma studied under a local Lombard artist, the “archaic” Matino Spanzotti. He also studied under the painter Giovenone. Mastering the strong coloration of Lombard school, he absorbed the sfumato of Leonardo Da Vinci in his style.

After early years of study, Sodoma settled down in Sienna, where he was commissioned his first important commission—the frescoes of a little convene, ST. Anna, in Creta. Then he executed the Life of St. Benedict frescoes at Monte Oliveto Maggiore, perhaps his most successful, though controversial commission. His other important works include the fresco despicting St Catherine in the Basilica of San Dominico, Allegory of Celestial Love, Deposition of the Cross, The Marriage of Alexander and Roxanne, The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, St. Sebastian (1525), and Trequenda.

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi was born at Vercelli, in Piedmont, in 1477. His father Giacomo was actually a descendant of a Vercellese noble lineage, but due to unfortunate fate reduced to a shoemaker. Although not affluent, Giacomo Bazzi was a master of shoemaking that he was considered a social equal to a bourgeois (Cust, 1906). Settling in Siena afterwards, Sodoma became one of Siena’s most beloved children “by adoption” (Cust, 1906, 54), due to his long-term contribution to her school of painting.


Spanzotti’s Influence

Martino Spanzotti, one of the leading artists of Lombardy of the time, accepted Giovanni Antonio as his apprentice, since he reached age twelve orthirteen. His father Giocomo signed a conventional, seven-year contract with Maestro Spanzotti, that his eldest son would be a faithful servant of Maestro Spanzotti’s in exchange for the master’s teaching.

Maestro Spanzotti had a style that could be characterized by some sort of dignified simplicity. Spanzotti was traditionally trained and very few of his works survived to present day, but he left a trace in his pupils’ paintings that were very different in their own sense but shared a taste in beauty that reflects his training. Spanzotti had a pronounced influence on Bazzi could be seen not from the apparent, superficial coloration and composition, but from the aesthetics and the eye of Bazzi that in his whole artistic career yearned for beauty.


Leonardo’s Influence

At the turning of the century, Leonardo Da Vinci had achieved enormous popularity around Vercelli and his influence was seen in many artists’ works.  At that time, our artist Giovanni Antonio already had his own style established. And it was not clear whether Bazzi had apprenticed directly with Leonardo, but like many of his contemporaries, Bazzi absorbed his own sip of the strong “Leonardorian” flavor in his soft, multi-layered, and almost therapeutic treatment of textures that was not distinct in his old master Spanzotti’s works. The technique, known as sfumato, is unmistakably Leonardo.


Vasari’s Representation of Il Sodoma: The Lustful, Animal Man

While we can’t discount the value of Giorgio Vasari in bringing life to the prominent Renaissance artists and architectures even six centuries later, that Lives recorded Vasari’s biases and willful distortions is undeniable. Usually, the painters, architects or sculptors who were alive during Vasari’s time and who maintained a good relationship with Vasari, and those artists who met his standards, enjoy a flattering tone in his narration. Whereas the less fortunate ones, who Vasari disliked or rivaled against, suffer undeserved obloquy originated from Vasari’s deft rhetoric of their vices, substantiated or not.

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi is among these unfortunate ones. Vasari prefaced the chapter on him by a metaphysical discussion of how people sometimes owe their success to talent, while other times to fortune. He explicitly attributed Bazzi’s accomplishments simply to his good fortunes. Vasari famously suggested that “Il Sodoma” was the name Giovanni Antonio went by proudly, a nickname that did exist, but due to Vasari, has become the first thing that comes to mind when the world comes to appraise this great painter of multi-faceted personality.

The core criticism that Vasari placed on Sodoma, obviously centers on immorality, because Sodoma supposedly lived in a “Noah’s Ark” (Vasari, Lives, 1550) with a variety of animals, and because he was often seen frolicking with boys and young men (1568), which couldn’t be more scandulous during his time. Some scholars validate this nickname, “Il Sodoma,” by stating that evidence was found that Bazzi indulged in the company by young men and that his wife left him in disgust (Freedberg, 1993), while some argue that the exact historical fact is hard to tell (Cust, 1906).

Apart from his ambivalent sexual orientation, Bazzi’s depiction of animals in his frescoes somehow provoked anger in Vasari, leading him to conclude that Bazzi was just as wild, as licentious, and perhaps as primitive as his artistically expressive animals. It should be an instrument with which Vasari confirmed his judgment of the immorality of Sodoma.

Sodoma, a Nickname Immortalized

“Giovanni Antonio, when young and in good repute, took for his wife in Siena a girl born of a very good family, and had by her in the first year a daughter. But after that, having grown weary of her, because he was a beast, he would never see her more; and she, therefore, withdrawing by herself, lived always on her own earnings and on the interest of her dowry, bearing with great and endless patience the beastliness and the follies of that husband of hers, who was truly worthy of the name of Mattaccio which, as has been related, the Monks of Monte Oliveto gave him.”

— Vasari, Life of Sodoma


Out of all the sins Vasari alleged of Sodoma, the nickname itself is the most damaging and yet probably the most interesting to take a close look at.

It is notable that Vasari’s Lives was published 19 years after Sodoma’s death, and Sodoma did not leave any progeny close to him or pupil devoted to him to defend his reputation by that time (Cust, 1906). Furthermore, unlike Michelangelo or Leonardo, Giovanni Antonio was born to a declined noble lineage and a shoemaker father. Without influential powers in the society to speak for him or elevate his success, Giovanni Antonio acheived his knighthood and artistic accomplishments on his own. After he died, his lack of well-off social connections may play into Vasari’s courage to attack him outside the realm of art. Vasari placed the defamatory line about how the painter acquired his nickname Sodoma in the beginning of Life of Sodoma, as if being a knight and a prominent master of Siena, or having painted the frescoes at Monte Oliveto suddenly lose their glamour, and that the first and foremost quality of the man is his indecent interest in young men.

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi was not documented to have any nickname before Olivetan friars called him Il Mattaccio, the Madman, around 1512. Another circumstance related to the name Sodoma was the Palio in Florence, in the year of 1515. According to Vasari, Sodoma, who was always fond of animls, owned a Barbary horse and it won the race. When asked the name of the owner, he exclaimed “Sodoma! Sodoma!” However, Cust suggests in his 1906 study of Giovanni Antonio that he was invited to participate in racing horses by his friend Jacomo V’ d’Appiano, with a group of people, and that Sodoma was one of their usual racing appellations.

Many of the Renaissance painters and sculptors had ambivalent relationships with young males. The amiable Leonardo and the godly Michelangelo, who also sought male companionship of their pupils or models, both were able to escape Vasari’s poisonous verdict. Just as Ladis claims in “Victims and Villains,” Lives is more of an artistic and literary effort to tell a story, which is compiled from stories the author had heard during his travels, distilled by the author’s own lens of judgment, than a scholar’s rigorous research in pursuit of historical verity.

Name, an important label and the most succinct identification card, deserves due respect or will be prone to misinterpretation that perpetuates generation after generation. Because of Vasari’s Modern debates around the name Sodoma is more like a tug-of-war than an actual evidence-based research, and the latter seems impossible from the scarcity of documentation available. One question to raise, however, is to what extent we should associate one person’s artistic merit with this person’s personal life and idiosyncrasies, if we should at all. Certainly, an artist is not an isolated entity, nor the artist’s works. But inference drawn upon arbitrary guesses can do more damage than justice, as demonstrated by Vasari’s prejudiced account of Sodoma. Once the past is past, nothing can resurrect it better than artworks, but artworks only solidify moments; therefore when we say, let artworks speak for the artist, what they respond is not the full, live person. It is an ongoing debate.


What Exactly is Vasari Criticizing Sodoma about?

A wild and eccentric individual in most Vasari readers’ eyes, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi lived a more ordinary life than people conjure. However, completely whitewashing this artist is not attempted in this book. The man is a mixture of complex characters, which Vasari and modern art historians explored alike. Some art historians chime in to voice a different perspective, that they believe that the main criticism of Vasari was on Bazzi’s intemperate conduct, that caused him to lose his wealth in his late years, and (as Vasari claimed) to have died in want.