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The Twisted Legend Of The Italian Lover

Where have you gone, Casanova? A new book surveys the dark side to the myth of the Italian male's seductive gifts, from ribald ancient Rome to Berlusconi's bunga bunga. But don't give up on him yet.

Mirella Serri

ROME — Theopompus of Chios, a historian from the 4th century BC, described the lack of inhibitions that the ancient Etruscans enjoyed in Histories Book 43. If a visitor knocked on the door of a gentleman who was indisposed, his servant would inform the visitor that his master was making love and would attend to him soon.

For both sexes at that time, it was normal to walk around naked and enjoy the open air. Or indulge in sadomasochistic pleasures, as is depicted on a grave in Monterozzo in which two men whip a woman who caresses them. Back then, it would be fair to say, there was a very different common sense of decency and management of personal privacy.

Skipping forward a few centuries, during Rome's Republican era, the scenery changed dramatically. Privacy was practiced — well, at least more than before. The erotic performances were not ostentatious, but the authority of the public figure depended on this. The pater familias, wrote Seneca, granted the right of life and death over his loved ones, and sex had to be active and never passive, never denying a man's role as ruler. Woe, then, if it became known that the women or slaves (bisexuality was widely practiced) tried anything for their own pleasure.

"The husband of all the wives, and the wife of all husbands," is how Julius Caesar was described, a true Roman and double winner — in battle and in bed.

The legendary leader is credited as an early embodiment of the Latin lover stereotype. Seduction has been an art for Italian men since Ancient Rome, and they're considered experts in many parts of the world.

The new Italian book Storia Erotica d'Italia (The Erotic History of Italy) by Cinzia Giorgio explains the legends from Casanova to the great dancer Rodolfo Valentino.

The Italian playboy stereotype is universally known, writes Giorgio, not only because it has ancient origins, but also because it has been kept alive for so long thanks to the persistent inequalities between men and women. It was sustained for centuries because of the Catholic Church and the foundations of patriarchal societies laid even further back.

From Raphael to Berlusconi

The ancient Roman historian Livy fed the legend that his countrymen were the only ones to be so passionate and gifted. He claimed that no direct sexual assault took place during the Rape of the Sabines, but a seduction based on promises by the Romans and then a betrayal of those promises.

This aura continued to illuminate the Italian male (as narrated by 13th century author Giovanni Boccaccio in his works, especially The Decameron) through to the Dark Ages, when the obstacles to conquering the fairer sex became almost insurmountable. The Canon Episcopi handbook for bishops described how to combat witchcraft, but also spread the idea that seductresses and abandoned hotels were accompanied by the devil. Yet, the medieval playboy retained his manly appeal.

A man's reputation was enhanced by the number of his conquests. One-third of the Renaissance great masters trinity, Raphael died at the age of 37 because of too much sexual activity, according to famed art historian Giorgio Vasari. The same goes for Ludovico Sforza, "the Moor," who had many close encounters with 16-year-old Cecilia Gallerani, depicted by Leonardo da Vinci in The Lady With The Ermine.

Yet another example is the legend of Niccolò Paganini, composer and seducer, whose allegedly generous endowment fed many rumors. Former Prime Minister Francesco Crispi ended up on trial for his amorous adventures, and Benito "the ladykiller" Mussolini reportedly had multiple trysts daily — although each of them lasted a maximum 15 minutes. (Not to mention Silvio Berlusconi and his infamous bunga bunga parties.)

Accompanied by changes in the mentalities of women, the myth has lost its sheen. But, dear Italian men, don't lose hope! Madonna's T-shirt in the music video for "Papa expand=1] Don't Preach" that says "Italians do it better" is still pretty popular. Let the legend continue.

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