When you think about lesbians in 18th century Rome, probably the last thing you expect is parental acceptance. And yet that’s one of the many interesting aspects of the life of Catharine Vizzani. Another interesting aspect is that we have a detailed record of her adventures, her loves, and her death at a tragically young age. Unlike many such stories, the tragedy wasn’t a direct consequence of her sexuality, but rather of her disregard for convention in pursuing it.
For the details of Catharine’s life, I’m going to be reading extensively from an English translation of her biography, complete with the translator’s editorial commentary. In fact, let’s introduce you to the overview of her life in his words.
[Note: All quotations from the original text are presented verbatim, with the original spelling and capitalization preserved.]
“ALL our Passions are known to break out into very extravagant Sallies, but Love seems of all to be the most exorbitant; so that no one read in the History of human Nature will wonder, that a bare Report should ever have kindled such an ardent Affection in some, as to send the Persons thus infatuated a wandering, from one Country to another, in Quest of the desired Object; or that others have preferred the Gratification of their Love to Duty and Decency, to Tranquillity and Reputation.”
(Just so you know, this is the usual literary style of the time, so settle back and enjoy the polysyllabic loquacity. We continue.)
“The Subject before me is an Instance, that the Wantonness of Fancy, and the Depravity of Nature, are at as great a Height as ever; and that our Times afford a Girl, who, so far from being inferior to Sappho, or any of the Lesbian Nymphs, in an Attachment for those of her own Sex, has greatly surpassed them in Fatigues, Dangers, and Distress, which terminated in a violent Death. This the following Narrative will manifest, which is a pregnant Example of the shocking Ebulition of human Passions, yet, at the same Time, of a most firm Constancy and Daringness in a young Creature, tho’ with a sad Alloy of Guilt and Precipitancy.
“Our unfortunate Adventurer’s Name was Catherine Vizzani. She was born at Rome, and of ordinary Parentage, her Father being a Carpenter. 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 Transport of a Male Lover. But, above all, she was passionately enamoured with one Margaret, whose Company she used to court, under Pretence of learning Embroidery. And, not satisfied with these Interviews by Day, scarce a Night passed, but she appeared in Man’s Clothes, under her Charmer’s Window; though, in all Appearance, her Pleasure must be limited to viewing Margaret’s captivating Charms, and saying soft Things to her.
“This whimsical Amour went on very quietly for above two Years, but at last Catherine being surprized by Margaret’s Father, just when her Heart was overflowing with fervid Expressions of Love to his Daughter, he rattled her severely, and threatened that the Governor of the City should hear of her Pranks. Catherine was so frightened with Menaces of such a Nature, that she absconded, and went to Viterbo, in a Man’s Disguise, where she took upon herself the Name of Giovanni Bordoni.”
Let’s leave off our author’s long-winded explanations. Catharine, in the guise of Giovanni, finding herself at the end of her finances, took shelter in a church and gained the assistance of one of the church canons in finding employment as a manservant. Having become dissatisfied with her first position, wanted a letter of recommendation from her original benefactor. So she wrote to her mother back in Rome and asked to beg for the letter in the name of Giovanni. Which her mother did, without saying anything about the gender disguise.
This recommendation eventually bore fruit, gaining her a position as footman with the Vicar of Angiari. We’ll return to our 18th century author to tell something of her experiences in that position.
“Never was Gentleman better fitted with a Servant than the Vicar with Giovanni; for, besides Reading, making of Chocolate, and Cookery, she was very dextrous at Pen, Comb, and Razor; in a Word, she was a thorough Proficient in all the Branches of her Employment. The Governor, however, being an austere Man, who made no Allowance for the Impulses of Nature, or the Fervor of Youth, was used not to spare her for 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.”
Now at this point we find a difference of approach between the original Italian author of the biography and the English translator, who is somewhat more prudish. because the translator notes that the original text, “enters into a nauseous Detail of her Impostures, which is the more inexcusable, they not being essential to the main Scope of the Narrative. These, if agreeable to the Italian Taste, would shock the Delicacy of our Nation.”
We can guess at what those “nauseous details” might cover in the later discussion of the instrument by which Catharine gave pleasure to her girlfriends. Let us merely say that Catharine gained quite a reputation with the ladies and provoked the jealousy of a rival who attacked her and wounded her in the neck. The Vicar, her employer, was not very happy with his employee’s behavior but, seeing that the wound was serious, sent off to fetch Giovanni’s (that is, Catharine’s) father. And here’s one place where the story gets even more fascinating. When Signor Vizzani arrived, the Vicar began:
“with the most serious Concern, to lay open to him the Particulars of his Son’s scandalous Dissoluteness, charging it upon the Want of timely Instruction and Chastisement, if not the Influence of a vicious Example. The Carpenter, who could hardly keep his Countenance during a Remonstrance delivered with a dictatorial Solemnity, calmly answered, that, to his and his dear Wife’s inexpressible Grief, their Son was a Prodigy of Nature, and that, in his very Childhood, they had observed some astonishing Motions of Lust, which had unhappily gathered Vehemence with the Growth of his Body; that, however, since such was the Case, and the Vigour of his Constitution was not to be repressed by Words or Blows, Nature must even take its Course; and, as for the vicious Example you are pleased to insinuate, I hope I am no worse than my Neighbours.”
The vicar felt this response showed a want of proper concern and began scolding the carpenter even more vigorously. And you have to think that Signor Vizzani is just about the explode with laughter at the Vicar’s mistake, because the story continues thus:
“The Father, perceiving the Canon to grow warm upon the Matter, put a Stop to his Expostulation, saying, with a Smile, “Reverence Sir, certainly you have few Equals in Christian Zeal, but I must undeceive you, and ask Pardon for not doing it before: This same Child of mine, whose Irregularities have made such a Noise, is no Male, but as truly, in all Respects, a Female, as the Woman who bore her.” He then proceeded to relate the Occasion of her leaving her Home, and rambling in a Man’s Habit. The good Canon was amazed at such frantic Doings, and courteously dismissed the Carpenter.”
One might think that this would be the end of Catharine’s employment with the Vicar, but once her wound was healed he found that rather than lose such a useful servant, he was willing to put up with her continuing lascivious behavior (and continued disguise) and kept her on for another three or four years.
I’ll skip over several other adventures and move on to when Catharine (still as Giovanni) took on a new position and was given responsibility for her employer’s house in a town called Librafratta. It was in that place that she went just a little too far. I’ll let our 18th century translator take up the tale again.
“Among other Charmers, he [that is, Catharine] had the Presumption to offer his Addresses to a very lovely young Gentlewoman, Niece to the Minister of the Village; and prosecuted them with such Ardour and Success, that they both grew passionately in Love with each other.
“The Uncle, knowing the Temptation of Beauty, and the Lubricity of Youth, kept a strict Guard over his Niece, till an advantageous Match, which was in Agitation, should be concluded; but Giovanni’s Person and Blandishments preponderated against all other Consideration; and, after eluding the Uncle’s Attention, in several Midnight Interviews, Giovanni, proposed to the young Lady to carry her off at an appointed Time, and that afterwards they should make for Rome; where, by Means of an honest Priest of his Acquaintance, their Passion should be confirmed and sanctified by the Offices of the Church:
“This Overture was not only agreed to, but applauded as the greatest Mark both of his Love and Virtue. To carry this Scheme into Execution, Giovanni had provided two Horses, on which they were to set out very early one Morning about the Middle of June, in the Year One Thousand, Seven Hundred, and Forty Three. The Evening before this important Expedition, Giovanni’s Mistress, her Discretion not being equal to her Beauty, took her younger Sister apart, and told her, that her Uncle’s rigid Humours had now worn out her Patience; that she had determined not to be mewed up at that Rate any longer; and that Giovanni, who would do any Thing for her, was to be her Deliverer, having provided two Horses against the Day of Day, on which they were to post away to Lucca, and from thence to Rome, where they were to be married.”
Letting the secret out to her sister was a big mistake, because the sister blackmailed the eloping couple into taking her along. Catharine agreed to go along with the scheme, but the problem was that they only had two horses, so the sisters rode while Catharine walked which slowed them down a bit. Still, they made it to Lucca and hired a carriage, but were further delayed by a minor carriage breakdown. Well, in the mean time the girls’ uncle had discovered their absence, figured out what had happened, and dispatched his chaplain and a couple of servants to chase after them with a promise of significant reward for bringing Giovanni (that is, Catharine) back for punishment.
The pursuers caught up with them a little ways past Lucca. And now we’ll return to our original text:
“The Chaplain, to make short Work of it, called out to the Servants to fire upon Giovanni, who, having perceived them at some Distance, had leaped down from behind the carriage. The Servants, pursuant to their Leader’s Command, presented their Pieces at Giovanni, who having a masculine Spirit, as well as masculine Desires, not at all daunted at such a threatening Sight, drew a Pistol which hung at her Belt, and presented it towards the Chaplain. This unexpected Resolution put them to a Stand, and both Sides continued watching each other’s Motions, whilst the poor Girls were shrieking, and wringing their Hands; ’till Giovanni, considering that her Sex would secure her from any very bad Consequence of this Affair, and that one Girl’s running away with two others might, in a Court of Justice, if it should go that Length, be slightly passed over as a Frolick, rather than severely animadverted upon as a Crime, thought it adviseable to surrender; and, turning contemptuously from the commanding Officer to the Servants, who were known to her, she delivered up her Pistol, telling them they were welcome to do their Office.
“The Chaplain, however, irritated at her Petulance, if Jealousy or Avarice were not rather the Motives to such an Inhumanity, after her Submission, stormed at one of the Servants, whose Name was Miniato, for not firing, and threatened him with an Oar in the Galleys, if he delayed a Moment; whereupon he let fly, aiming at Giovanni’s Thighs, upon a Supposition that a Wound in those Parts would be the least hurtful, and hit the poor Creature in the left Thigh, four Inches above the Knee; the same Shot killing a fine hound, and fracturing a Leg of a Boy of about twelve Years of Age, who happening to come by, had stopt, as it was very natural, to see what was the Matter.”
The two shooting victims were taken off to a nearby hospital. Catharine, fearing for her life, confessed her true identity to one of the nuns who attended her and requested that the matter be kept secret unless she died of the wound, in which case she wanted to be buried in women’s clothes. This request, alas, needed to be carried out a short time later. After her death, they found hidden under the pillow of her hospital bed a stuffed leather device that she had worn as part of her imposture and that had contributed to some degree to her success with the ladies.
The rest of the biography is not particularly edifying. On discovering her true sex, a post-mortem examination was made to determine whether any physiological abnormality had caused her desire for women. The author seems rather shocked and startled to find her body to be ordinarily and unremarkably female. During this era it was fairly common to blame lesbian desires on certain anatomical abnormalities. The observation of counter-examples such as Catharine Vizzani failed to undermine this theory.
So what are we to make of Catharine’s life? In the mid-18th century in Rome, a carpenter and his wife recognized that their daughter’s sexual orientation was toward women and they not only shrugged and accepted it, but continued to support her when she was in need. And though Catharine had most of her romantic adventures while posing as a man, at the very least her first girlfriend--and possibly others--knew that she was a woman and enjoyed the courtship. And the sex. It’s quite clear from the observations of others that Catharine was rather good in bed. And if she’d only had a bit more caution about eloping with the nieces of important people, who knows what sort of happily ever after she might have achieved?