Catherine Vizzani

Catherine Vizzani is the topic of today’s episode of The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast with Heather Rose Jones

Episode 34d

This is the exciting and somewhat surprising story of an 18th century Italian woman who received a surprising level of acceptance for her sexual orientation, both from her parents and from an employer.

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Transcript

please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect

Music] this is Heather Rose Jones with a lesbian historic motif podcast this weekly podcast looks at lesbian themes in history and literature and historic research into gender and sexuality we talk about current historical fiction with queer female characters including fantastic versions of the past and have interviews with authors who write those stories and in months when we have a fifth show we’re proud to present new original lesbian historical fiction for your enjoyment sometimes the hours of the week just aren’t there to get a brand-new podcast out and you pull out a show from a couple years ago to find new listeners this reprise is in honor of the paper I gave a couple weeks ago on cross-dressing women though I cut off my examples in the early 17th century so Katherine bit Sonya wasn’t part of the data this show originally aired in January 2017 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 Katherine Fitz Ani another interesting aspect is that we have a detailed record for 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 and pursuing it for the details of Katherine’s life I’m going to be reading extensively from an English translation of her biography complete with the translators editorial commentary in fact let’s introduce you to the overview of her life in his words all our passions are known to break out into very extravagant sally’s 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 bear report should ever have kindled such an ardent affection in some as to send the persons less 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 tranquility and reputation and 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 fantasy 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 virile and 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 abolition of human passions yet at the same time of a most firm constancy in daring the scene on young Kreacher though with a sad alloy of guilt and precipitancy our unfortunate adventurers name was Catherine vitani 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 and 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 enamored 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 men’s clothes under her charmers 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 surprised by Margaret’s father just when her heart was overflowing with fervent 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 Bertoni let’s leave off our authors long-winded explanations Catherine 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 and 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 her to beg for the letter in the name of Giovanni which her mother did without saying anything too about the gender disguise this recommendation eventually bore fruit gaining her a position as footman with the vicar of an GRE will return to her 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 dexterous at pen comb and razor in a word she was a thorough proficient in all 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 winch’s and being so barefaced and insatiable in her amours she had recourse to several delusive impute isset ‘is 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 was somewhat more prudish because the translator notes that the original text quote enters into a nauseas detail of her impostures which is the more excusable 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 end quote we might guess at what those nauseas details might cover in the later discussion of the instrument by which catherine gave pleasure to her girlfriends let us merely say the catherine 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 employees behavior but seeing that the wound was serious sent off to fetch Giovanni’s that is Catherine’s father and here’s one place where the story gets even more fascinating when signor vit Sahni arrived the vicar began with the most serious concern until they opened to him the particular zuv his son 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 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 vigor of his Constitution was not to be repressed with 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 show to want a proper concern and began scolding the carpenter even more vigorously and you have to think that senior vit Sahni is just about to explode with laughter at the Vickers mistake because the story continued thus the father perceiving the cannon to grow warm upon the matter put a stop to his expostulation saying with a smile reverence sir certainly you have hue equals in Christian zeal but I must undeceive you and ask pardon for not doing it before this same child of mind whose irregularities have made such a noise is no male but as truly and in all respects of female as the woman who bore her he then proceeded to relate the occasion of her leaving home and rambling in a man’s habit the good Canon was amazed of such frantic doings and courteously dismissed the carpenter one might think that this would be the end of Catherine’s employment with the vicar but once her wound was healed he found that rather than lose such useful servants he was willing to put up with her continuing lascivious behavior and continued disguise and kept her on for another three or four years the lesbian talk show relies on support the support of you our listeners the support of those who like and review our show on their favorite podcast app the support of our patrons on patreon and the support of our sponsors we hope you’ll continue to enjoy and support the lesbian talk-show I’ll skip over several other adventures and move on to an Catherine still as Giovanni took on a new position and was given responsibility for her employers health in a town called Libra FATA it was in that place that she went just a little too far a letter 18th century translator take up the tale again among other charmers he that is Catherine 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 that temptation of beauty and the lubricity of youth kept a strict guard over his niece to let an adventitious match which was in agitation should be concluded but Giovanni’s person and blandishments preponderating 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 is 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 1743 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 humors had now worn out her patience that she had determined not to be mew’d up at that rate any longer and that Giovanni would who would do anything for her was to be her deliverer having provided two horses against the day of day on which they were to post away to Luka 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 Catherine agreed to go along with the scheme but the problem was that they only had two horses so the sisters road while catherine 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 meantime the girl’s 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 catherine back for punishment the pursuers caught up with them a little ways past lucca and now we’ll return to the original text the chaplain to make short work of it called out to the servants to fire on giovanni who having perceived them at some distance had leapt down from behind the carriage the servants pursuant to their leaders 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 girls running away with two others might in a court of justice if it should go that length be slightly passed over as a frolic rather than severely animate verted upon as a crime fought it advisable to surrender and turning contempt mostly from the commanding officer to the servants who were known to her she delivered up her pistol telling them that 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 if 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 the 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 happened to come by had stopped as it were very natural to see what was the matter while the two shooting victims were taken off to a nearby hospital Catherine fearing for her life confessed her to identity to one of the nuns who attended her and requested them that the matter be kept secret unless she died of the wound 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 for 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 a nun remarkably female during this era it was fairly common to blame lesbian desires on certain anatomical abnormalities the observation of counter examples such as Catherine Fitz ani failed to undermine this theory so what do we make of Catherine’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 Catherine 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 catherine was rather good in bed and if she had 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 [Music] I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the lesbian historic motif podcast if you want to follow up on anything we’ve covered see the show notes for links and to contact me with questions book announcements or topic suggestions if you enjoyed this podcast please read it and subscribe on itunes stitcher or pod bean and consider supporting our patreon and if you’re on facebook check out the lesbian talk show chat group [Music]