What's in a name? Catterina Vizzani and Giovanni Bordoni

Name header
An actress at her toilet, or miss brazen just breecht

The Case of Catterina Vizzani (1751) is unlikely to be a true historical account of Vizzani's life. It features several scenes which its authors, Giovanni Bianchi and John Cleland, could not have possibly known to have happened without personally having Vizzani recount the text. It was sold as a sensational adventure novel, designed to titillate an audience who had no means to check the accuracy of the text. However, Vizzani was real, the surgical account is based on an autopsy that actually took place, and you can visit Vizzani's grave in Sienna.

Although the title of the text refers to its protagonist as Catherine Vizzani, the narrative makes clear that Vizzani spent their life from the age of 14 as Giovanni Bordoni, a man. We believe that is important that historical figures, semi-fictionalised or otherwise, be referred to with the language that they would have identified with. This is important not only in ensuring accuracy when discussing Bordoni, but also in doing due diligence to all those who are misgendered and misidentified in the present. 

Most accounts of Bordoni refer to him as a butch lesbian, or simply as a lesbian, suggesting that the Bordoni persona was a clandestine means of accessing women or a form of a masculine gender non-conformity. It is impossible to determine the precise way Bordoni identified, as he never gave a personal account of his gender, but there are several instances where the text portrays Bordoni as identifying as a man.

Most significantly, when entering into the register of patients at Hospital della Scalla in 1743, Bordoni identified himself as Giovanni, son of Francisco Bordoni. At this point, Bordoni had been discovered by the authorities attempting to try him for kidnapping as being born a woman, which he intended to use as a defence in court. If Bordoni was simply a disguise used to access women, it would have been of little use once Maria's (his fiancée) father believed he was a woman. Furthermore, after being shot in the leg and being infected with what was likely to be gangrene, Bordoni would have known that he was almost certainly going to die in hospital. If Bordoni had identified as a woman, he would likely have wanted to be recognised as such in death. Only following Bordoni's death did the surgeons discover he was born a woman, and (likely against his wishes) was given a virgin's funeral and buried as Catterina Vizzani.

Bordoni's phallic prosthesis, found after death is further evidence that he was a man. Bianchi refers to a "leathern Machine...stuffed only with old Rags” that was worn by Bordoni and found on his body after death. This prosthesis was likely either a dildo or codpiece, worn under clothes. While this prosthesis could have been used for sexual gratification with Bordoni's numerous female partners, the fact that it was worn by Bordoni even when in hospital suggests further uses. Worn as a permanent prosthesis, this device would not only have improved Bordoni's appearance as a man but also affirmed his gender identity. If Bordoni did experience gender dysphoria, this prosthesis would have been one means of responding to it.

Bordoni's father, Peter Vizzani, when first approached by the Canon at Angiari about his son's behaviour, referred to him as a boy. After Bordoni was accused of starting a fight in which he was stabbed and pursuing women with excessive lust, his father was summoned to testify. The conversation in the text between Peter Vizzani and the Canon shows both referring to Bordoni in male terms until Vizzani realises that his son will be admonished as a man, but acquitted as a woman. At this point, Vizzani tells the Canon that his son is a woman, despite this the Canon does not believe Vizzani and punishes Bordoni as a man. This exchange demonstrates the extent to which Bordoni was immersed in manhood, his father, who knew him only as his daughter, referred to him as a man until it became a threat to Bordoni's life to do so. If Giovanni Bordoni was the persona of a cross-dresser, it would be unlikely that his father recognise this persona as Bordoni's true self, nor would it be advantageous to continue playing this persona knowing that doing so would lead to harsh punishment. Bordoni's dedication to his identity, as well as his recognition by those closest to him, suggests genuine identification with maleness.

The language of the text portrays Bordoni as being, internally, as well as externally male. Bordoni is described as having “a masculine Spirit, as well as masculine Desires” while this line does present masculinity as having essential qualities (in this case courageous) that Bordoni adopts, it also brings intention to his internal gendered self. “Spirit” and “Desires” are both qualities of mind, they suggest that Bordoni mentally perceives himself as a man, rather than as a woman dressed as a man. Whether it be that the act of being Giovanni Bordoni has changed his mental state, or that he had these qualities all along, the text presents him as being internally male.

Giovanni Bordoni: A Transgender Man?

As stated above, we will never fully know how Bordoni self-identified, how he perceived himself, and what maleness meant to him. Without a personal account of himself, we have to rely on how Bordoni is portrayed in The Case of Catterina Vizzani (1751), even if that means the Bordoni presented is partly fictional. However, the figure of Giovanni Bordoni has been used as an example of numerous identity groups: butch lesbians, tribades, cross-dressers and Tommies, most notably. If it is the case that Bordoni was a man, that would make previous labels inappropriate, and inaccurate, and would place him in a genealogy of queer individuals he was not part of.

It may be simpler to not label Bordoni at all, doing so would avoid the challenges of trying to make provable claims about his gender. However, this would make speaking about Bordoni less precise, and less meaningful. While working on this exhibition we realised that fundamental choices, such as choosing which name and which pronouns to use, required critical analysis to resolve. Initially, we opted to use they/them pronouns, because we were concerned that it wouldn’t be possible to prove that Bordoni was a man without his saying so. However, using gender-neutral language would have been misleading, and inconsistent. When choosing which pronouns to apply to historical figures, we select those that match their perceived gender, we call women in history by she/her, and men by he/him, even if those individuals never explicitly stated their preferences. Bordoni, as a man, therefore should be referred to as he/him, applying a higher standard of proof because Bordoni was not cisgender would undermine his gender and our argument. It may be preferable to use gender-neutral language until stated otherwise in the present day, but it is not the norm when discussing the past, and adopting it only for transgender individuals would present cisgender as more ‘natural’ and ‘deserving’ of gendered pronouns.

In the eighteenth century, the term transgender was not used to refer to individuals such as Bordoni. There existed no precise label for transgender people in the period, much as The Case of Catherine Vizzani (1751) does, sexuality, gender and sex were often conflated into labels that are no longer used. The text refers to Bordoni as a lesbian, a term that referred both to one’s exclusion attraction to women and to masculinity in women. Alternative terms such as hermaphrodite and tribade referred to people of all genders who were accused of having an anatomical disposition to homosexual lust and would assign masculine and feminine qualities to those individuals. Bordoni does not fit neatly into any of these categories, which is partly why he was of interest to both Bianchi, a surgeon and natural philosopher, and the reading public.

If Bordoni did not label himself transgender, and the term is a modern invention, how appropriate is it to label him a transgender man? Transgender is both a broad, and precise term.  It is broad in the sense that it can label anyone who identifies as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth. It is precise in the sense that it does not conflate sexuality and sex as aspects of gender, referring only to the way that a person identifies. Showing that a person dressed as a man, or behaved like a man is insufficient to prove that they were trans. However, the evidence we present shows Bordoni’s commitment to being a man, dying for the sake of not being misgendered. When asking whether a cisgender person was a man or a woman, we never demand internal declaration of their gender, but instead rely on inferred qualities, or simply how they presented to the world. Placing the burden of proof for identifying transgender people above this would naturalise cisgender people in a way that suggests being transgender is abnormal, and would be a historical double standard. It would, therefore, be appropriate to call Bordoni a transgender man, the evidence from the text indicates him identifying as a man, and living as his authentic self until his death.

Identifying a transgender man in a text from 1751 may seem surprising, as it appears to many that being transgender is an invention of the past century. By applying careful analysis and examining accounts such as the Bordoni text, we can see that transgender people have existed for much longer than the modern terms we use. By placing transgender lives in their historical context, and demonstrating that being transgender is not a ‘trend’, we can see that much of the contemporary backlash against the trans rights movement has much older historical origins. Culper, like contemporary bigots, was concerned that Bordoni’s transgenderism might spread to others, and lead to sexual predation against women. Invoking cisgender women, as a group to be protected against predatory transgender people, who in Bordoni’s case died for his gender and the woman he loved, may have been appropriated by anti-trans activists but has roots in eighteenth-century misogyny.

What's in a name? Catterina Vizzani and Giovanni Bordoni