The Life and Legend of Catterina Vizzani

BookThe Life and Legend of Catterina Vizzani

The Life and Legend of Catterina Vizzani

Sexual identity, science and sensationalism in Eighteenth-Century Italy and England

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2020:10


October 14th, 2020



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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 a potential trial for sexual misdeeds, she 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.

This volume features Giovanni Bianchi’s 1744 Italian account of Vizzani/Bordoni, published for the first time together with a modern English translation, making available to an English-speaking audience the objective, scientific exploration of gender conducted by Bianchi. John Cleland’s well-known, albeit fanciful, 1751 version of the story has also been reproduced here, shedding light on the divergent sexual politics driving Bianchi’s Italian original and Cleland’s greatly embellished English translation.

Through a close examination of Bianchi’s work as anatomical practitioner and scholar, Clorinda Donato traces the development of his advocacy for tolerance of all sexual orientations. Several chapters address the medical and philosophical inquiry into sexual preference, reproduction, sexual identity, and gender fluidity which Enlightenment anatomists from Holland to Italy engaged with in their research concerning the relationship between the mind and the reproductive organs. Meanwhile, it is the social implications of gender ambiguity which may be analysed in Cleland’s condemnation of women who “pass” as men.

Drawing on the biographies produced by Bianchi and Cleland, the volume reflects on the motivation of each author to tell the story of Vizzani/Bordoni either as a narration of empowerment or a cautionary tale within the European context of evolving sexual opinions, some based on scientific research, others based on social practice and cultural norms.

‘[…] The author Clorinda Donato considers the motivation of Bianchi and Cleland to narrate the life of Vizzani/Bordoni in the European context of the Eighteenth century, with a special attention on scientific research, social practice and cultural norms […] The interesting volume by Clorinda Donato also opens to this possibility of research and interpretation.’
Maria Pia Pagani, Sinestesie

'The story of Caterina Vizzani/Giovanni Bordoni also inspires an articulate volume by Clorinda Donato. [...] In her study, [she] offers a meticulous analysis of the differences between the Italian and English versions. [...] Even more pressing are the knots linked to our present, especially on the side of statements, in the always delicate relationship between nature and culture. [...] That same thread, according to Clorinda Donato, cost Caterina Vizzani/Giovanni Bordoni her life and continues to threaten LGBTQ+ lives today, keeping them poised between visibility and invisibility, exposing them to multiple forms of discrimination.'

Translated from Italian:
'Oggi la vicenda di Caterina Vizzani/Giovanni Bordoni ispira anche un articolato volume della studiosa americana Clorinda Donato, [...] Clorinda Donato propone, nel suo studio, una minuziosa analisi delle differenze fra la versione italiana e quella inglese. [...] Ancora più stringenti sono i nodi legati al nostro presente, soprattutto sul versante delle enunciazioni, nel sempre delicato rapporto fra natura e cultura.[...] Quello stesso filo, secondo Clorinda Donato, costò la vita a Caterina Vizzani/Giovanni Bordoni e continua a minacciare oggi le vite LGBTQ+, mantenendole in bilico fra visibilità e invisibilità, esponendole a molteplici forme di discriminazione.'
Vincenzo Lagioia & Pasquale Palmieri, Doppiozero

Author Information

Clorinda Donato is Professor of French and Italian at California State University, Long Beach, where she holds the George L. Graziadio Chair for Italian Studies and directs the Clorinda Donato Center for Global Romance Languages and Translation Studies. She is an eighteenth-century scholar who researches knowledge transfer through translation and genre adaptation in encyclopedic compilations. She also works on gender in medical and literary accounts. She has published 'Enlightenment Spain and the Encyclopédie Méthodique',(OSE, 2015:11) with Ricardo Lopez. Forthcoming with University of Toronto Press is Translation and Transfer of Knowledge in Encyclopedic Compilations, 1680-1830, co-edited with Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink.