19. Giovanni Bordoni / Catterina Vizzani
This Secret History is a bit on the late side, for which I apologise again — but I think it was worth waiting for!
The person known as both ‘Giovanni Bordoni’ and ‘Catterina Vizzani’ was born to a lower-middle-class family of carpenters in Rome at some point between 1717 and 1719 (Vizzani/Bordoni, who was assigned female at birth, is another difficult pronoun case — again, I’ve gone for following the gender presentation that we know he chose for himself, with both names used where necessary). We know about his life from an account written in 1744 by a university professor, Giovanni Bianchi of Sienna, who had performed an autopsy on his body as a way of trying to figure out his gender and sexuality. Here’s a 1751 English translation of Bianchi’s account of him as a teenager (pronouns are his):
‘When she came to her fourteenth Year, the Age of Love in our forward Climate, she was reserved and shy towards young Men, but would be continually romping with her own Sex, and some she caressed with all the Eagerness and Transports of a Male Lover’ (quoted in Jennings, p.28)
According to Bianchi’s account, Giovanni fell in love with a girl named Margaret, and ‘adopted the practice of dressing in boys’ clothes in order to spend the night beneath Margaret’s window’ (Jennings, p.28). Awww, sort of like an eighteenth-century queer Romeo and Juliet — hence this post’s image. When they were discovered by Margaret’s father, Giovanni ran away to the town of Viterbo, changed his name and began living as male (sadly, that appears to have been the end of the romance with Margaret, too). He went to work as a servant to a canon… and quickly developed a reputation for being quite the ladies man! This is how John Cleland, the English translator of Bianchi’s account, puts it (again, pronouns are his):
[Giovanni was] … incessantly following the Wenches, and being so barefaced and insatiable in her Amours. She had Recourse to several delusive Impudicities, not only to establish the Certainty, but raise the Reputation of her Manhood. (The Doctor [his Italian source] enters into a nauseous Detail of her Impostures, which is the more inexcusable, they not being essential to the main Scope of the Narrative.)
What Cleland is trying (not) to say there with the ‘nauseous Detail of Impostures’ stuff there is… strap-ons, folks!
After more X-rated adventures which I won’t go into here, in 1743 Giovanni fell in love with a girl named Maria and eloped with her to Sienna. Unfortunately, Maria’s family gave chase (it’s a long story involving a *very* annoying younger sibling: you can read more here) and they were caught on the road by her uncle’s soldiers. Historian Rebecca Jennings suggests that ‘[a]fter an initial stand-off, Giovanni surrendered, in the hope that when her sex was discovered, the elopement would be written off as a simple frolic between girls’ (Jennings 28, again, pronouns are Jennings’s). However, there was to be no such luck — there was an altercation with the soldiers: Giovanni was shot through the leg, and he later died of injuries and infection in Sienna.
Bianchi’s account finishes a little dispiritingly - we end the story with full details of the dissection of Giovanni’s body, and the doctor arriving at the conclusion that he could not find any physical cause for his transition or sexual behaviour (not that that would stop the medical profession trying to find a physical location for queerness for… ooh, at least the next two hundred and seventy years...). Nevertheless, it also tells us of the ‘Multitudes, which flocked, from all Parts of the City’ to Bordoni’s funeral — the text implies that this is because they wanted to get a look at his body out of curiousity, but I prefer to imagine that the crowd was actually made up of grieving ex-girlfriends.
If you’re looking for a a swashbuckling plot for an original stage musical or a fantastically bodice-ripping romance hero… to this very day, I’m not sure you could do better than Giovanni.
Full copy of Cleland’s translation of Bianchi’s account at Rictor Norton’s ‘Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England’ sourcebook: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/vizzani.htm Rictor Norton (Ed.), “The Case of Catherine Vizzani, 1755”, Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 1 December 2005 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/vizzani.htm>.
Image and bio by Ria Brodell: http://www.riabrodell.com/_/Current_Work/Entries/2012/5/31_Catterina_Vizzani_aka_Giovanni_Bordoni.html
Google Books link: Rebecca Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Tz2GAAAAIAAJ&q=catherine+vizzani+jennings&dq=catherine+vizzani+jennings&hl=en&sa=X&ei=vIzUUOOHFueM0wWxsoHQBg&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAQ