Beyond the Autopsy

Autopsy Header

Giovanni Bordoni is best known as an exhumed corpse. Both The Case of Catherine Vizzani (1751) and the few academics who have written on it have disturbed Bordoni by focusing almost exclusively on his autopsy and his genitalia. This section deals with the biological facts of the autopsy, as well as its cultural context and effect on the understanding of queerness as a pathological feature. The Case of Catherine Vizzani (1751) was written to be an anatomical tract, to ignore this would ignore a significant aspect of the text, but remembering Bordoni only as a corpse dehumanises and objectifies him. Bordoni is remembered almost exclusively as Catterina Vizzani, a fact only made apparent to the author and the rest of the world through the autopsy. It is, therefore, traumatic to reduce Bordoni to a transphobic and perpetual return to sex, to be remembered as his body and not his self.  

This section will deal with the anatomical section of the text, in regards to its biological claims, its cultural context and afterlife as an early psychoanalytic tract. We return to the autopsy not to retraumatize Bordoni, but to recognise the impact that the anatomical tract had on the perpetuation of queerphobia and the resonance of this traumatic text in the present day.

The uterus, a foetus, the hymen and female genitals

Re-examining the Autopsy

Bianchi's autopsy of Bordoni proved to his contemporaries that anatomy alone was insufficient to explain queerness. Upon examing Bordoni's genitals, Bianchi found that there were no anomalies, as would be expected from an anatomical lesbian. The prevailing discourse regarding lesbian or transgender activity was that queerness was caused by an enlarged clitoris (often in the form of a phallus) and flaws in the uterus. Bianchi found neither of these and also found that Bordoni's hymen was 'virginal' (although there are no reliable means of testing a hymen for virginity), concluding that he could not have been engaged in the penetrative sex of tribades.

While this finding did not completely do away with the concept of anatomical queerness, it made clear that a new approach was required. The approach offered by Cleland in the observations is psychoanalytic, arguing that Bordoni was influenced by the Italian women in his childhood, who were overly licentious in their speech. The focus on childhood environment as an explanation for adult sexual behaviour would later be popularized by psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, who attempted to explain homosexuality as an 'inversion'. Cleland's view, which was popular in the eighteenth century, was that queerness was a product of national culture. Italy was perceived as a site of extreme sexual freedom, and Italian culture a cause of homosexual and transgender behaviours. The 'Italian disease' was said to be a feature of Italian national character, which could be defended against by adopting an unambiguously cisgender, heterosexual British national character. 

Cleland's explanation for Bordoni's behaviour is so psychologically grounded that he concludes that Bordoni was a man. While Cleland didn't express a clear and unambiguous concept of transgender embodiment, as his explanation cites Bordoni's lack of interest in men as evidence of maleness, this view shows that sex was not the primary indicator of gender. It is commonly believed, without citation, that the idea of gender being separate from sex, and being self-identified is a new concept, but texts such as this show otherwise. Cleland was aware, to some degree, that gender was independent of sex, and that self-identification and performance are what constitutes gender. Cleland's observations are far from a clear statement about gender identity, but they do show that the concept of being transgender existed in the minds of cisnormative people, as early as the eighteenth century.