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.

Winner of the American Association of Teachers of Italian's 2021 book award in the 1800-Present: Film, Media, & Cultural Studies category.

'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

'Drawing from impressive and exhaustive archival research, this highly original and engaging study focuses on the question of sexual identity in early modern Italy and England. [...] This timely study skillfully and persuasively weaves contemporary relevance into the discussion by exploring questions of gender fluidity, sexual politics, and cultural norms.'American Association of Teachers of Italian (AATI) from their 2021 book awards.

‘[…] 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

‘Clorinda Donato’s book on the Catterina Vizzani story demonstrates the importance of an informed approach to the biographical treatment of alternative sexualities and constitutes a rich and valuable addition to the historiography of queer sexuality in early modern Europe.’
Sara F. Matthews-Grieco, Early Modern Women

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.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
List of figures11
Introduction: Giovanni Bianchi, John Cleland and the Breve storia: an overview of Italian and English eighteenth-century sexualities21
Gender in translation23
Synopsis of Giovanni Bianchi’s Breve storia25
Synopsis of John Cleland’s translation of the Breve storia: [An] His[toric]al and phy[s]ic[al] dissertation on the case of Catherine Vizzani (1751) / The True history and adventures of Catharine Vizzani (1755)28
Female masculinity30
Genesis of the project32
Anatomical study in Italy and Holland37
Reading and writing Vizzani: Cleland’s translation38
A preliminary note on translation41
Place, space and agency43
The cicisbeo45
Gender studies, queer studies and the Italian peninsula47
Geographies of sexualities: mapping sexuality in Bianchi’s life and the Breve storia49
Chapter 1. Situating Giovanni Bianchi: the biography of an anatomist man of letters61
The geopolitical landscape of Italian science: academies, universities and intellectual life in Rimini and Siena69
A contested reputation in Siena: Bianchi’s university career72
Chapter 2. An apology for same-sex love: Bianchi’s discourse to the Academy of the Defective79
Chapter 3. The literature of science and sexuality in eighteenth-century Italy and its fourteenth- to seventeenth-century European precedents101
Dutch and Italian precursors in the discourse of generation and the practice of autopsy101
Religious autopsies, domestic autopsies and science: Bianchi’s parody114
A ‘chaste’ performance of militant gender-crossing in seventeenth-century Rome: Spanish warrior Catalina de Erauso, the monja alférez123
The evidence: the materiality of Vizzani’s guilt and exoneration127
Chapter 4. Technologies of gender identity in eighteenth-century Italy and England: the story of Catterina Vizzani’s autopsy131
The structure of the Breve storia140
Medicine and autopsy in the Breve storia147
Taking ‘a freak of this kind into her head’: Cleland on dissection, cause and blame166
Chapter 5. Novelistic prose in eighteenth-century Italy: Cleland in Italy, Bianchi in England and the cultivation of Boccaccio among men of science and letters171
Gozzi’s 1764 La Meretrice, the 1810 La Meretrice inglese and the debate over the novel and morality175
The novel in eighteenth-century Italy184
Narrating anatomy: anatomists and Boccaccio187
Bianchi and Boccaccio197
Chapter 6. The transgendered familial and working spaces of Catterina Vizzani/Giovanni Bordoni and their narrators199
Cleland’s reimagined spaces of English domestic transgression222
Chapter 7. Translating transgender: Giovanni Bianchi and John Cleland writing queer desire in the eighteenth century227
Eighteenth-century gender trouble and its textual resonance231
Queering eighteenth-century prose232
Narrating Catterina/Giovanni’s life237
Translation samples comparing Giovanni Bianchi’s text in my translation with John Cleland’s translation241
Chapter 8. Cleland’s motivation: Catterina Vizzani as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu255
Chapter 9. The entangled lives and writings of John Cleland and Giovanni Bianchi: biographical synergies and a shared sexual vision275
Giovanni Bianchi’s doing and undoing283
In Lode dell’arte comica (1752)285
Appendix: the texts293
A note to the three Vizzani texts: John Cleland’s translation, my translation and Giovanni Bianchi’s original293
John Cleland’s translation: [An] His[toric]al and phy[s]ic[al] dissertation on the case of Catherine Vizzani, containing the adventures of a young woman, born at Rome, who for eight years passed in the habit of a man, was killed for an amour with a young295
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 cadaver316
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 vari Casi essendo in fine stata uccisa fu trovata Pulcella nella sezzione del suo Cadavero328