Eccentricity and Sameness

Discourses on Lesbianism and Desire between Women in Italy, 1860s–1930s

by Charlotte Ross (Author)
©2015 Monographs XII, 310 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 22


Dispelling widespread views that female same-sex desire is virtually absent from Italian literature and cultural production in the modern era, this groundbreaking study demonstrates that narratives of lesbianism are significantly more numerous than has been previously asserted. Focusing on texts published between 1860 and 1939, the author traces and analyses the evolution of discourses on female same-sex desire in and across a wide variety of genres, whether popular bestsellers, texts with limited distribution and subject to censorship, or translations from other languages. All the works are considered in relation to broader socio-cultural contexts. The analysis uncovers a plurality of different sources for these narratives of lesbianism and desire between women, showing how different layers of discourse emerge from or are reworked in and across several genres. From scientists who condemned the immoral and degenerate nature of «Sapphic» desire, to erotic publications that revelled in the pleasures of female same-sex intimacy, to portrayals of homoerotic desire by female writers that call (more or less obliquely) for its legitimization, these texts open up important new perspectives on discourses of sexuality in modern Italy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on Translations
  • Introduction: Approaching the Search for Italian ‘Lesbians’ Past
  • Female Same-Sex Desire in the Italian Context: A Historical Glance
  • Critical Debates: An Overview
  • Approaches to Sexuality, the ‘Lesbian’, and Representation
  • Eccentricity and Sameness
  • Challenges
  • Structure of the Book
  • PART I 1860–1901
  • CHAPTER 1: Pathologies and Passions in Late Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourses
  • Struggles to Silence and Articulate Sexuality
  • Sapphists, Tribades, Inverts and Viragos
  • Ambiguous Diagnoses: Heroic Deviants and Charismatic Case Studies
  • Lombroso: Born Tribades and Sexual Contagion
  • Mantegazza: The Temptations of Tribadic Sex
  • Conclusions
  • CHAPTER 2: Fatal Attractions: Troubling Desires in the Novel
  • Cultural Discourses of Femininity: Dualisms and the Spectre of the ‘New Woman’
  • Oriani: ‘Beyond’ Bourgeois Morality?
  • Cronaca bizantina: Tales from the Tuileries
  • Butti: Abject Attractions
  • Visions of the Future: Lissom Lesbians and Moribund Men
  • Conclusions
  • CHAPTER 3: Flammable Proximity: The Scuola normale femminile and Beyond
  • Obici and Marchesini: Condemning the Flames of Desire
  • Penta: Epistolary Flames
  • Ambiguous Female Friendships
  • From Literature to Lived Experience
  • Conclusions
  • PART II 1901–1919
  • CHAPTER 4: From Pathologization to the Defence of Pleasure: Sexology and its Parodies
  • Voicing Opinion on Sexuality
  • Shifting Gender Roles: Women Wearing the Trousers
  • Quenching the Flames: Surveillance and Conduct Literature
  • Sexological Debates: In the Shadow of Lombroso
  • Reframing Medical Discourses in Erotic Parodies
  • Queering Normative Medical Discourses
  • Conclusions
  • CHAPTER 5: Literary Luxury and Cultural Calls for Female Sexual Liberation
  • Donna Paola: Flaming Epistles
  • Guglielminetti: A Sapphic femme fatale
  • Marinetti and Futurist Approaches to Homosexuality
  • Govoni: Luxuriating in Female Pleasure
  • De Saint-Point’s Manifesto of Luxury
  • Robert’s Sapphic Sensations
  • Conclusions
  • CHAPTER 6: The Desire Without a Name: Visions of a Difference that Might Have Been
  • Mura: Perfidious Designs for a Brave New Love
  • Aleramo: Chimeric Hybridity and Fairy-Tale Androgyny
  • From Transfiguration to Sterility
  • Aleramo’s Ambivalence to Queer Sexuality
  • Conclusions
  • PART III 1920–1939
  • CHAPTER 7: Sexology and the New Woman under Fascism
  • Fascism and the New Woman
  • ‘Girls Like That’ in a Time of Censorship
  • Sexology for the Curious
  • Conclusions
  • CHAPTER 8: Tales of Sexual Initiation and Sapphic Feminism
  • Pitigrilli and da Verona: Male Voyeurism
  • Guglielminetti’s Nora: A New Queer Feminist
  • Stacchini Translates Louÿs: Bilitis as Sapphic Icon
  • Conclusions
  • CHAPTER 9: Loneliness, Disorder and the Disappearing Lesbian
  • Cialente’s Natalìa: From Lesbian Fantasy to Learned Heterosexual Reality
  • Ferro: Disordered Desires
  • De Céspedes: Old Maids and Unread Revolutionary Novels
  • Conclusions
  • Afterword
  • Bibliography
  • Archives Consulted
  • Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Rome
  • Archivio Sibilla Aleramo, Istituto Gramsci, Rome
  • Archivio dello Stato, Milan
  • Archivio della Fondazione Mondadori
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Researching and writing this book has been an incredible journey and I am extremely grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way. Crucial research leave was provided by the University of Birmingham in 2010 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK, awarded me an Early Career Fellowship in 2011, without which the project would have taken much longer to complete. Earlier versions of parts of Chapters 1, 2 and 4 are published in the essay ‘Italian Medical and Literary Discourses Around Female Same-Sex Desire, 1877–1906’ in Italian Sexualities Uncovered, edited by Valeria Babini, Chiara Beccalossi and Lucy Riall (Palgrave 2015). The cover image is reproduced with permission from the Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Rome. The cover of Tribadismo, saffismo, clitorismo (Figure 3), appears courtesy of the Biblioteca delle donne, Bologna. Thanks to the staff at the many libraries and archives where I have consulted sources, including the Archivio dello Stato (Milan), the Archivio della Fondazione Mondadori (Milan) and the Archivio Sibilla Aleramo (Rome). In particular I am grateful to: Claudio Testa and Daniela Loyola at the Archivio Centrale delle Stato (Rome); all the extremely helpful and supportive staff at the Biblioteca delle donne (Bologna); Sara De Giovanni at the Cassero LGBT Centre (Bologna); Luca and Raffaele at the Libreria Igor (Bologna); Ursula Vogt (University of Urbino), who kindly sent me a copy of the special issue of Resine on Marise Ferro; Angelo Cavallo, librarian at the Biblioteca Centrale Giuridica (Rome), who generously sent me PDF scans of vital articles. My colleagues at Birmingham have been supportive and stimulating interlocutors, especially Daniele Albertazzi, Michela Baldo, Clodagh Brook, Monica Borg, Clelia Boscolo, Michael Caesar, Elystan Griffiths, Monica Jato, Ita Mac Carthy, Luca Malici, Joanne Sayner and Alex Standen. Thanks are due to friends and colleagues elsewhere who have discussed my project with me, particularly to Guido Bonsaver, for advice on how to negotiate the Archivio Centrale, to Ursula Fanning, for helpful ← ix | x → conversations about Matilde Serao, and to Chiara Beccalossi and Kate Mitchell for productive exchanges. Friends in Italy also made important contributions, not least by providing much appreciated company while I roved around at conferences and between libraries: Chiara Bertone, Liana Borghi, Antonia Ciavarella and Arcilesbica Bologna, Paola Di Cori, Monica Francioso, Sara Garbagnoli, Paola Guazzo, Giulio Iacoli, Angiola Janigro, Nerina Milletti, Enza Minutella, Laura Parolin, Eleonora Pinzuti, Marco Pustianaz, Giovanna Providenti, Gabriella Romano, Rossella Russo, Monica Cristina Storini, Stefania Taviano, Cristina Zanetti and everyone involved with ‘Immaginaria’, Sara Zanghì. Robert Gordon and Pierpaolo Antonello, editors of this series, were supportive from the outset, two readers provided helpful comments that enabled me to improve the final draft, and Hannah Godfrey at Peter Lang provided assistance in preparing the manuscript. Thanks to everyone who contacted me about my blog (charlotterossresearch.wordpress.com), and to those who came to my talks as part of Birmingham’s Shout Festival of Queer Culture. Support also came from friends and family far and wide: Caroline Bressey, Bethan Cobley, Nicola Gale, Louise Hazan, Hanna Hodacs, Fflur Jones, Lilian Moncrieff, Anna Nichol, Juliet Rayment, Naomi Rokotnitz, Bruce Ross, David Ross, Jane Ross, Miranda Ross, Rob Strand, Cat Tully, and Inca Waddell. Finally, my greatest debt is to Silvia Antosa, who has co-habited with this book for several years, offering insightful advice, patiently proof-reading, and helping me to make it the best it can be. Thank you for your belief in this project and in me.

Note on Translations

All translations from Italian are my own, unless otherwise indicated. The original Italian text of all quotations is placed in footnotes, although I quote and discuss some key terms in the main body of the text. In line with the publisher’s guidelines, where I refer to a published translation, the title is italicized; where I have translated the title myself, it is neither capitalized nor italicized.

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Introduction: Approaching the Search for Italian ‘Lesbians’ Past

But an entirely different form of vice […] is that of tribadism.

This horrible practice, a type of pederasty in the fair sex, and which is less common in healthy women than pederasty in men, since it is limited to prisons and to institutions for women with syphilis […] seems to me to be very widespread and very difficult to eradicate in mental institutions for women.

Of the 200 female inmates that I treated in Pavia, I counted 10 affected by this vice. The most severely infected is a 50-year-old cretin, who has a virile appearance and is lame and gouty; she was the first to introduce this infamous practice to the institution.


The desire of a woman for another woman is a reciprocal offer and a balanced craving of the body and the spirit.


The world is transfigured […] someone, who is a woman like me […] presses her mouth on my mouth, like this.

— SIBILLA ALERAMO3 ← 1 | 2 →

These quotations draw together some of the many, varied perspectives on sexual desire and love between women in Italy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cesare Lombroso, the influential positivist and criminal anthropologist, played a key (if extremely problematic) role in establishing the science of sexology in Italy.4 Lombroso set the agenda for much of the bio-medical literature on female sexuality in subsequent decades, denouncing sexual desire between women as a pathology which he linked to both psychological and physical maladies, as in the quotation above. However, as revealed by these quotations and explored in this book, while Lombroso’s influence was powerful and long-lasting, cultural discourses on female same-sex desire in this period were quite diverse. They reveal a profound anxiety about but also a cultural fascination with women who desired women; moreover, they permeated several different textual genres. Late nineteenth-century Italian literature occasionally featured Sapphic tales, often denouncing but on occasion seeming to legitimize same-sex desire. Early twentieth-century erotic texts abounded with salacious seductions, some of which also posited the legitimacy of liaisons between women. Scandalous French texts, like Pierre Louÿs’ Les Chansons de Bilitis [The Songs of Bilitis] (1894), which depicts Sappho’s Lesbos, were translated and re-elaborated; Giovanni Stacchini’s 1927 edition, from which I cite above, includes an essay that argues in favour of female homosexuality. Italian women, including the successful feminist author Sibilla Aleramo, also cited above, began to write fictional and autobiographical accounts of the transformative experience of loving and being sexually intimate with other women. Yet these discourses on female same-sex desire in Italy remain largely unexplored, relegated to what Heather Love calls a ‘dark past’, both unknown and unspeakable, tainted with shame (2007: 32). As a result, we lack an in-depth knowledge of this aspect of Italy’s sexual history. ← 2 | 3 →

In probing this particular area of Italy’s dark sexual past this book addresses an enduring void in the critical literature, both in Italian and in English. Its first premise is to contest assertions that there is virtually no cultural representation of lesbianism in Italian texts. Critics have claimed:

There is no canon of Italian lesbian authors, nor is there an Italian lesbian literary criticism. (Russell 1997: 173)

In Italian literature, lesbianism is notable for its almost complete absence. (Duncan 2002: 295)

Certainly, there is a lack of awareness of Italian texts which engage with this subject, and as yet there is no sustained debate on the representation of desire between women in Italian literature. However, it has figured in Italian socio-cultural representation for centuries, and during the last two decades several scholarly analyses of lesbian identities and experiences in Italy have been published.5 In a recent article which calls for this emerging critical debate to be strengthened, Tommasina Gabriele suggests that the perception of a cultural silence may result from what Terry Castle has called lesbian ‘ghosting’: the process by which lesbians are made to seem invisible even when in plain view. Castle has identified a widespread practice of ‘derealization’, in which the lesbian appears in culture or cultural texts only to disappear.6 I agree with Gabriele that lesbians have been ‘ghosted’ ← 3 | 4 → out of Italian culture, and therefore my overall aim is to ‘re-materialize’ lesbianism and desire between women in Italy as topics for both scholarly analysis and broader discussion.

In ‘de-ghosting’ the lesbian in Italian culture, my main contention is that Italian cultural narratives of lesbianism are more numerous and multiple than has been asserted. This is the case both in the late 1990s and 2000s, as I have begun to explore elsewhere (Ross 2004; Duncan and Ross 2007), and during the decades on which this book concentrates, from the 1860s to the 1930s: a highly significant period in the evolution of discourses of same-sex sexuality. Michel Foucault argued that the late nineteenth century was a critical moment in the construction of enduring notions of sexuality; a moment when positivist psychiatry and the coining of new terminology such as the noun ‘homosexual’ led to a shift from perceptions of sexual behaviour as a series of acts, to understandings of sexuality as a defining aspect of identity that affected the individual through to their very soul (Foucault 1998: 43). As critics have noted, this shift was not all pervasive, and built on previous notions of the hermaphrodite, or individuals with indeterminate genitalia or secondary sexually characteristics, as ‘monstrous’ and ‘other’ (Barbagli 2014: 76). For many scientists, however, this development led to a heightened understanding of the homosexual as a distinct ontological category. Publications by medical doctors, psychiatrists and criminal anthropologists, including Lombroso, scrutinized and passed judgment on bodies, desires and sexual practices, especially on those who embodied or enacted perceived sexual ‘abnormalities’ and ‘vice’.


XII, 310
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Homoeroticism Italian literature Desire Censorship
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XII, 310 pp., 6 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Charlotte Ross (Author)

Charlotte Ross is Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies at the University of Birmingham.


Title: Eccentricity and Sameness
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