The Literary and Scientific Stakes of Transgender in Eighteenth-Century Italy and England: The Case of Catterina Vizzani

Clorinda Donato is the author of the October volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment seriesThe Life and legend of Catterina Vizzani: sexual identity, science and Sensationalism in eighteenth-century Italy and England. In this new volume, Clorinda Donato analyses the medical, societal, and narrative transcultural stakes in the life story of the transgendered Catterina Vizzani, and the right to live free from social stigma and the resulting physical danger suffered by transgender people both yesterday and today. In this blog post, she demonstrates the importance of bringing to light this first account of early modern transgender identity.

The power of narrative prose to capture, represent, and inspire transgender lives bursts forth in the pages of the new anthology, Resilience, reminding us that identities remain invisible until they are featured in fictional enactments, documentaries, and life stories. At such moments, through narration, aesthetic and political spheres are collapsed, acquiring perspective-changing potential for readers who begin to imagine themselves and others in the participatory life of society, whether the intent of the narration is to be uplifting or condemning.  By being present, and performing their lives on the page, transgendered lives acquire agency, one of the purposes of a publication like Resilience, to name but one of the many LGBTQ+ publications that have rendered queer lives visible in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Resilience is relatively new and reminds us of one of the most important publications in North America addressing the LGBTQ+ community, Out, in circulation since 1992.  Out represents all aspects of LGBTQ+ life, including discrimination and the life-threatening scenarios to which the diverse, non-CIS community is subjected on a daily basis, with violence against those identifying as transgendered extremely high. As of September 2020, Donald Padgett reports in Out, 30 transgender people have been killed in the United States and Puerto Rico this year, the highest annual death toll ever. Reading through their stories of death and burial, the terms ‘misgendered’ and ‘deadnamed’ emerge often. In death, there is no peace, and their gender classification is often erroneous, with the wrong pronouns and forms of address being used, and with no care taken even to assure accuracy in the person’s name, with birth names often used instead of the names transgender people have chosen for themselves.

Closely mirroring our own twenty-first century narrative trajectory and debate about gender and sexuality are parallel publications appearing in eighteenth-century Europe, about the transgendered Catterina Vizzani/Giovanni Bordoni, whose life story was interwoven into a medical novella penned by the anatomist from Rimini, Italy, Giovanni Bianchi (1693-1775). His 1744 novella, Brief history of the life of Catterina Vizzani, Roman woman, who for eight years wore a male servant’s clothing, who after various vicissitudes was in the end killed and found to be a virgin during the autopsy of her cadaver, constitutes the first recounting of early modern transgender identity in Italy, and even Europe, with the intent of memorializing transgendered life and normalizing it for readers.

Clorinda Donato’s translation: Brief history of the life of Catterina Vizzani, Roman woman, who for eight years wore a male servant’s clothing, who after various vicissitudes was in the end killed and found to be a virgin during the autopsy of her cadaver.
Figure 1: Giovanni Bianchi, Breve storia della vita di Catterina Vizzani, Romana, che per ott’anni vestì abito da uomo in qualità di Servidore la quale dopo varj Casi essendo in fine stata uccisa fu trovata Pulcella nella sezzione del suo Cadavero (Venice, Simone Occhi, 1744), title page.

From the time Catterina Vizzani, a young Roman woman, began wooing the woman she was attracted to, she did so dressed as a man. Fleeing Rome to avoid the wrath of her friend, Margherita’s father, and a potential trial for sexual misdeeds, Catterina Vizzani became Giovanni Bordoni, transitioning and becoming a male in spirit, deed, and body, through what was the most complete physical change possible in the eighteenth century for a transgendered man: the permanent use of a dildo, considered a true body part by Vizzani/Bordoni, and also Bianchi. The novella was also published in England, thanks to its English-language reworking by none other than John Cleland, author of the erotic 1748 novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill. As can be seen from the title pages below, Cleland made significant, sensationalizing changes to the title in both the 1751 and 1755 editions of the novella that he published:

Figure 2: Giovanni Bianchi, An Historical and physical dissertation on the case of Catherine Vizzani, translated by John Cleland, 1st edn (London, printed for W. Meyer, in May’s-Buildings, near St. Martin’s Lane, 1751), title page.

Figure 3/4: Giovanni Bianchi, The True history and adventures of Catharine Vizzani, translated by John Cleland, 2nd edn (London, printed for W. Reeve, […] and C. Sympson, […], 1755), frontispiece and title page.

Giovanni, like the transgender people who were killed for their sexuality in 2020 as documented by Out, would also die for his gender, and upon his death, would be ‘misgendered’ and ‘deadnamed’ exactly like transgender people some 276 years later, for the story is based on the autopsy of the body that Bianchi performed and his desire to undo the misgendering and deadnaming for posterity. However, when Bianchi’s slim volume made its way into Cleland’s orbit, he immediately seized upon the possibility of exonerating himself after the legal debacle that had ensued following the publication of Fanny Hill. The Brief History of Catterina Vizzani, whose title he would sensationalize, offered him with a golden opportunity to present himself as a writer concerned with the public good by warning girls who passed as men of the stigma that awaited them, were they to continue in their ‘lewd’ (Cleland’s term) behaviour. Indeed, Cleland’s intentions in reworking the story are completely different from Bianchi’s; Cleland blames Catterina as depraved, likening her to so many ‘female husbands’, who passed as men and about whom Henry Fielding had already written ominously in The Female Husband, 1746.  Meanwhile, Bianchi normalizes Vizzani/Bordoni, by showing them in human interaction, building their lives, planning a wedding, and making a new life. Cleland, as we have seen, uses Vizzani as a cautionary tale of social disintegration and ruin, which naturally, resulted in the most dire of consequences for Catterina, whom he never can ‘transition’ to accepting as Giovanni Bordoni, all of which is explained in the set of ‘needful remarks by the English editor’ he added to Bianchi’s Brief history, in which he explicitly argues his case for Catterina as negative exemplum. Nothing could contrast more starkly with Bianchi, who demands respect for all lives, seeing his role as doctor as that of succoring and saving every living being so that they could live the most fulfilling lives possible, with whomever they wanted.

Despite Cleland’s divergent representation of Catterina Vizzani/Giovanni Bordoni in his ‘translation’ of Bianchi’s novella, the work, nonetheless has made a tremendous impact on the representation of LGBTQ+ sexualities in the eighteenth century. Considered a salient example of Sapphic love and exclusive lesbianism prior to our reading of Vizzani/Bordoni as transgender, despite Cleland’s spin, the work proves what we set out to establish at the opening of this blog: narration of LGBTQ+ lives renders them visible. It is hoped that the availability of Giovanni Bianchi’s text in a faithful English translation for the first time in my volume will finally restore to Catterina/Giovanni all of the visibility, dignity, and agency to LGBTQ+ lives that the Italian author intended.

-Clorinda Donato, California State University, Long Beach

The Life and Legend of Catterina Vizzani: Sexual identity, science and sensationalism in Eighteenth-Century Italy and England is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

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