Vasari, who disliked him, explained the origin of his nickname the sodomite in this fashion: “His manner of life was licentious and dishonorable, and as he always had boys and beardless youths about him of whom he was inordinately fond, this earned him the nickname of Sodoma; but instead of feeling shame, he gloried in it, writing stanzas and verses on it, singing them to the accompaniment of the lute.”
Sodoma, whose real name was Giovanni Antonio Bazzi and married with children, used his given name in his signature, and Vasari’s story has been questioned by some historians. Vasari also tells us that Sodoma kept a menagerie of strange animals. “So that his home resembled a veritable Noah’s ark.”
What Vasari failed to mention, as was Vasari’s want when he did not care for an artist or his work, is the fact that when on song Sodoma was one of the most original and creative painters of his day, with superb technique and powers of observation. One’s life can be a train-wreck, or perceived as such by people who are either ignorant, bigoted or both, whilst history has shown that a little slice of drama in an artist’s life is an essential ingredient to honing the creative edge that contributes to brave new ways of seeing the world around you. Sodoma was all of the above and his world was condemned by the church, accused by his contemporaries to have been homosexual, and was known from 1512 on as “Il Sodoma” (or “the Sodomite”); a nickname born from spite and jealously; which Bazzi seems to have used with some pride.
Clearly he was a man comfortable in his own skin and probably quite eccentric with a genuine love of food and wine with his personal menagerie (it really did exist) that accompanied him on his travels and included a badger, a selection of birds including a couple of crows and several rabbits that must have cut quite a strange scene when moving about the countryside in central Italy! Arriving at the beautiful monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, just south of Siena, in 1505 (to complete the unfinished fresco cycle on the story of St. Benedict left by Signorelli), his handsome presence with his long black hair, often laughing aloud and in the company of his adored pets must have raised a few eyebrows within the monastic community. However a most amiable contract was struck between him and the Abbot that included as much of the fine wine produced by the monastery as he could drink!
What followed of course was the creation of one of the most important cycles of fresco narrative, superbly conceived and painted by Sodoma ever completed by any artist of the 15th century! Sodoma’s skill at painting a difficult and long narrative of the life of Benedict and weave into the visual telling of the story vignettes of real life that he observed on a daily basis is simply breathtaking. He empowers his figures with a realism and luminosity that is quite unique (as can be seen in the detail image of the tavern girl pouring wine above) and along the way entertains the viewer with a myriad of diverse, complex and ultimately entertaining compositions which include beautiful portraits of peasants at works, youths swimming, monks at work building monasteries, the temptation of Benedict himself by the devil, prostitutes tempting gullible men of God, soldiers and portraits of horses that Leonardo himself would have found fascinating. Sodoma is an artist whose work will intrigue and entertain you as will the story of his life.