When it comes to touring the Vatican Museum, not only are there illustrations of buttoned-up cardinals and stern religious beliefs, but a revelation of underlying LGBT history. Explore the museum’s unexpected stories of gay Renaissance artists and gender-bending symbolisms.
It’s a bastion of tradition, customs and ceremony, but inside this vast 500-year-old bubble of Catholicism are symbols and stories which not everyone sees. This was a Vatican tour with a twist, one which explored the gay symbols and stories woven into centuries-renowned art. On this occasion though, I wouldn’t be using the hackneyed earpiece or private museum guide; instead, I would be admiring this collection of ancient and classical art through the alternative lens of Quiiky’s Untold History tour.
Brainchild of its CEO and founder, Alessio Virgili created Quiiky so people of any orientation can interpret the sometimes-hidden symbols inside the Renaissance masters’ works and explore the history of gay rulers during the Roman Empire.
While the Vatican does not officially approve or disapprove of the Quiiky Tour, the company is free to operate with their own professional guides. And notably in 2016, Pope Francis made Catholic history by calling for the church and priests around the world to be more tolerant and accepting of gays and lesbians.
“As long as you’re not submissive, it’s OK!” jokes my guide, the gregarious Tiberio Tassinari. The ‘submission’ refers to Hadrian, he explains, the Roman emperor crowned in AD117. As we start our tour beside Hadrian’s shiny marble bust, Tassinari explains how the emperor took male lovers but with Hadrian the dominant sexual partner, and not the submissive, he was generally accepted by the Roman citizenry. “Although, after Hadrian’s male consort Antinous drowned in the Nile in AD130, he made him a god,” adds Tassinari.
Tassinari used to work for the Vatican Museum itself, leading hundreds of guests around its myriad rooms, but now, since working with Quiiky, he illustrates the history of the religious art and its gay symbolism using his own flamboyant spins and humorous asides.
With a sweep of his hands, Tassinari leads us to another room to view what he describes as ’a sexy naked guy’ in his melodious Italian accent. It is Alexander the Great’s commissioned statue of Apoxyomenos by the sculptor Lysippus, who chose to depict him in an overtly athletic and chiseled form; Lysippus used a curved instrument known as a Roman strigil to depict the sweat trickling down the s body. On the day of our visit, Apoxyomenos had been cordoned off, and viewable only from the front “A shame,” sighs Tassinari, “His [backside] is one of the best ever!”
“Pope Francis and his step forward on gay rights has brought many gay people back to the Church.”
We move on to Belvedere’s Apollo. As we approach it, Tassinari exclaims “Twink!” That’s gay-speak for a young homosexual guy with an effeminate look. In fact, this marble sculpture, which shows the Greek god draped in fine cloth with his hand outstretched, inspired Michelangelo’s depiction of the young Jesus in his masterpiece, Pieta.
“Now we go to see the hunk!” declares Tassinari. The ‘hunk’ he’s referring to is the muscle-bound sculpture of Laocoön—a stark difference in body composition from the ‘twink’ appearance of Apollo. You could almost compare Laocoön to a brawny modern-day comic book character—if you imagine that character being attacked by giant serpents. Tassinari tells us how this piece of art, after Michelangelo’s David, is one of the most famous ‘beefcake’ sculptures in the world, and has inspired many artists to depict bulging muscles in this way.
Similar symbols and figures celebrated by the LGBT community are certainly abundant inside the Vatican. Tassinari describes how Saint Sebastian has long been a martyrizing symbol for the gay community, his arrow-pierced body a metaphor for persecution. We also walk past works by female Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, whose paintings of strong Biblical women have made her a symbol of feminism and lesbian power, an uncommon status for Baroque-era female artists.
The transgender community is also represented, albeit in a more low-key manner, and Tassinari describes some of the gender non-conforming depictions in classic Renaissance paintings, such as the womanly hips of Christ in Raphael’s Transfiguration.
Of course, no visit is complete without a trip to the Sistine Chapel, the historical gathering place for the Papal assembly. Despite the crowds, I am swept up in the grandeur of the artwork, so detailed and exquisite. “Look here!” We follow Tassinari’s gaze to the far end of the room and look up at the altar wall’s The Last Judgement: cleverly sprinkled among the scenes from the Book of Genesis, Michelangelo has painted several same-sex male couples kissing each other.
There’s a timeliness to the creation of this two-year-old tour and the relatively new reign of Pope Francis. “Pope Francis and his step forward on gay rights has brought many gay people back to the Church,” says Quiiky’s CEO and founder, Alessio Virgili, the founder of the Italian Association of Gay Tourism. “His open-mindedness is almost revolutionary and gay people seem to have appreciated it. Even the Vatican Museum has registered a high presence of a LGBT audience in his time.”
Quiiky’s Untold History tour costs $117 (€105) per person. Available Monday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm, the price includes a three-hour tour led by a Quiiky guide, entrance fees to the Vatican’s museums including the Sistine Chapel, and fast-track entry.
Adrienne Jordan is a travel writer with bylines in National Geographic Traveler and BBC Travel. Standout adventures include gorilla trekking in Uganda, cruising the Norwegian fjords, and swimming in the Devil’s Pool in Zambia.