Conference in Verona in the history of dissident sexualities in Italy

On 21-22 September 2015, I attended a conference at the University of Verona, organised by the PoliTeSse Researdch Centre (Politics and Theories of Sexuality – Department of Philosophy, Pedagogy, Psychology), along with TeSIS Department (Time, Space, Image and Society), CSC (Interuniversity Centre of Cultural History).  The confrence was entitled ‘Tribadi, Sodomiti, Invertite and Invertiti, Pederasti, Femminelle, Ermafroditi… A History of Homosexuality, Bisexuality and Gender Transgressions in Italy’. It explored the ways in which sexual dissidence has been pathologized, legislated on, and repressed since the medieval period, as well as how it has been represented and articulated, including in a more subversive and combative vein.


I presented a paper:

Se questa è una colpa, di questa colpa io vivrò’: la rappresentazione del desiderio dissidente ne L’eredità di Saffo (1908), ed in altri testi (pseudo) scientifici dell’epoca

This was drawn from research completed for my recent book on discourses on desire between women in late 19th and early 20th century Italy (see my publications list).

The entire conference (which was in Italian) was recorded and is available here:

Posted in 19th century, Homo/Lesbophobia, Posts in English, Researching 'lesbian' literature, Same-sex desire | Leave a comment


Here are some of my publications on sexuality and gender.


  • ‘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 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Babini Beccalossi Riall

  • ‘Queer Embodiments: Fluidity, Materiality, Stickiness’ in Silvia Antosa (ed.) Queer Crossings. theories, Bodies, Texts (Milan: Mimesis, 2012)

queer crossings

  • ‘Identità di genere e sessualità nelle opere di Goliarda Sapienza: finzioni necessariamente queer’ in “Quel sogno d’essere” nell’opera di Goliarda Sapienza. Percorsi critici nel caleidoscopio artistico di una delle maggiori autrici del Novecento italiano, ed.Giovanna Providenti (Rome: Aracne, 2012)

771-8 copertina

    • Co-edited with Daniele Albertazzi, Clodagh Brook and Nina Rothenberg, Resisting the Tide: Cultures of Opposition in the Berlusconi Years 2001-06(London: Continuum, 2009). I contributed the following chapters:
      • ‘Feminist Activism and Practice: Asserting Autonomy and Resisting Precarity’, co-authored with Manuela Galetto, Chiara Lasala, Sveva Magaraggia, Chiara Martucci, and Elisabetta Onori;
      • ‘Collective Association in the LGBT Movement’.

    Resisting the Tide

  • Co-edited with Susanna Scarparo, special issue of Italian Studies: Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Italian Culture: representations and critical debates, Vol. 65 No. 2, July 2010
  • Italian Studies

    Co-edited with Loredana Polezzi, In corpore: Bodies in Post-Unification Italy (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007). I contributed the chapter: ‘”Porno girl da fumetto”: Bodies and Sexuality in the Work of Isabella Santacroce’.

In corpore

Posted in Bibliographies and References, Feminism, Queer, Researching 'lesbian' literature, Same-sex desire | Tagged | Leave a comment

Isabella Grassi and same-sex love

In England, as Laura Doan has observed, the 1920s was a period in which ‘[f]or lesbians in particular, the blurring of categories of gender and the greater dissemination of sexual knowledge made possible new paradigms for self-understanding that paved the way for subcultural formation’(2001 xix). In Paris, women who identified as lesbians were forming a visible alternative culture, exploiting the spaces of the developing modern city as a setting in which to explore and articulate their own identities (Winning 2006). This was not the case in Italy, where debates and representation remained extremely constrained. At the beginning of the decade, it appears that the socio-cultural taboos about lesbianism and female same-sex desire were functioning relatively well, constraining women who felt such desires to isolated anguish. One striking example is provided by the diaries of Isabella Grassi (1886-1936), later president of FILDIS (Federazione italiana laureate e diplomate Istituti superiori;  the Italian Federation of Women with Degrees and Diplomas) from 1922-1935. Isabella’s diaries and letters from 1920-21, when she was aged 34-35, indicate that she felt attracted to women, in particular to her married friend Tersilla Guadagnini, whose soul, she writes in an unsent letter, she felt perfectly reflected her own.[1] Isabella experienced a profound connection with Tersilla, and expressed a growing desire for increased intimacy:


voglio con lei legami non solo spirituali, ma affettivi, poichè così forse verrà un giorno in cui lei stessa mi comprenderà meglio e io e lei potremo fonderci assieme.[2]

[I want my connection with her to be not only spiritual but emotional, since perhaps this might mean that one day she will understand me better and she and I will be able to fuse together].


These documents chart an ongoing struggle, as Isabella attempts to come to terms with and to regulate her behaviour, to understand why Tersilla inspires such charged emotions in her, and to acknowledge that it is from Tersilla that she wants to obtain ‘la soddisfazione dei più intimi bisogni dell’animo mio, l’affetto personale’ [the satisfaction of the most intimate needs of my soul, personal affection].[3] I do not wish to impose anachronistic labels on Isabella or her feelings, and would certainly resist categorising her as a frustrated ‘lesbian’; it may be that she wanted an emotional, ‘intimate friendship’ with Tersilla that was not sexual. In her work on ‘intimate friendships’ between women, Martha Vicinus explores a range of ‘emotional, erotically charged relationship[s] between two women’ (2004: xxiv), and is careful to point out that while some women in previous periods may have felt unable to act on their desires, or simply preferred a non-physical relationship to a sexual one, other women might well have understood exactly what they were feeling but simply have chosen not to articulate it explicitly in words (2004: xix). It seems to me that Isabella is genuinely struggling to make sense of her feelings, and that she feels a need to articulate them in writing, in her private journals. Whatever the ‘most intimate needs of [her] soul’ may have been, her diary entries speak eloquently to us across time, of loneliness, incomprehension, and of Isabella’s difficulty in expressing her emotions. Reading her diaries today, it is heartrending to hear of her struggle, of her joy at feeling love, but then to read how she strove to stifle that love herself:


Strano destino questo mio! Essere giunta finalmente ad amare ed essere riamata e dovere io stessa colle stessi mani, coscientemente contribuire alla distruzione del mio amore per il bene della persona amata! Finora per di più non ho amato seriamente […] ed ora che l’ho confessato a Tersilla e a me stessa, deve finire proprio così?[4]

[What a strange destiny is mine! To have finally managed to love and be loved in return and to be compelled myself, with my own hands, consciously to contribute to the destruction of my love for the good of the person I love! Until now I have never loved seriously […] and now that I have confessed to Tersilla and to myself, does it really have to end like this?]


This statement is rather enigmatic, as are many of her entries, but it seems to indicate that she had confessed her feelings to Tersilla but had then decided to prevent things from going any further, perhaps because Tersilla was married.

As Fiorenza Taricone has documented, Isabella was inspired by progressive Christian values, and strove for women’s social, cultural and spiritual elevation (Grassi 2000: 40-46). She read widely, including the Italian translation of Edward Carpenter’s Love’s Coming of Age (Grassi 2000: 40), which includes a sympathetic chapter on the ‘intermediate sex’, based on the German doctor Karl Heinrich Ulrich’s theory of ‘Urnings’ or ‘Uranians’—men or women who felt that their selves were in the wrongly sexed body, and who therefore felt attracted to people of the same sex. While Carpenter reinforces the maternal role as woman’s ultimate goal (Carpenter 1906: 54), he also cites a case studied by Krafft-Ebing of a woman who fell in love with a female friend; he discusses this sensitively and empathetically and comments that such passions are ‘intense’, may be ‘life-long’ and women who experience them may suffer severe depression if separated (1906: 125-26). However, it seems that despite access to potentially helpful literature, Isabella had difficulties making sense of her own feelings for women. Education and privilege alone did not guarantee that women would feel emboldened to act on their dissident desires, or would even have a vocabulary or conceptual framework through which to interpret their feelings, despite the relative increase in bio-medical publications, political debates on sexuality and literary representations of ‘Sapphic’ sexuality.

There is a happy ending to this story, although documentation to confirm the facts is scarce. Although it seems that Isabella never lived out her passion for Tersilla, Paola Guazzo writes that Isabella subsequently had ‘un duraturo legame’ [a lasting relationship] with Gabriella Spaletti Rasponi, President of the Consiglio Nazionale Donne Italiane (National Council of Italian Women; CNDI), until Spaletti Rasponi’s death in 1931 (2010: 116). I have not been able to find evidence of the kind of relationship this was and whether either woman would have identified as ‘lesbian’ in any way, but perhaps this special bond finally gave Isabella the love that she had been seeking in the past, but had not been able to experience fully.

N.B. I’ve not been able to find any images of Isabella. If anyone knows where I might find these, please let me know!


Carpenter, Edward (1906 [1896]). Love’s Coming of Age. A Series of Papers on the Relations of the Sexes. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co. Ltd.

Doan, Laura (2001). Fashioning Sapphism: the Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Grassi, Isabella (2000) Diari (1920-21). Associazione femminile e modernismo. Ed. Fiorenza Taricone. Genoa: Marietti.

Guazzo, Paola (2010). ‘Al “confine” della norma. R/esistenze lesbiche e fascismo’. In Paola Guazzo, Ines Rieder and Vincenza Scuderi (eds), R/Esistenze lesbiche nell’Europa nazifascista. Verona: Ombre Corte, 104-126.

Taricone, Fiorenza (1998). ‘La FILDIS (Federazione nazionale laureate e diplomate) e l’associazionismo femminile (1920-1935)’. In Marina Addis Saba (ed.), La corporazione delle donne. Ricerca sui modelli femminili nel ventennio. Florence: Vallecchi, 127-69.

Martha Vicinus (2004) Intimate Friends. Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Winning, Joanne (2006). ‘The Sapphist in the City. Lesbian Modernist Paris and Sapphic Modernity’. In Laura Doan and Jane Garrity (eds), Sapphic Modernities. Sexuality, Women and National Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 17-34.

[1] Unsent letter, 8 January 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 116.

[2] Diary entry, 8 March 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 136.

[3] Diary entry, 8 March 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 135.

[4] Diary entry, 14 February 1921, cited in Grassi 2000: 127-28.

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Sibilla Aleramo and Mura

1919 was a landmark year for literary representation of desire between women in Italy, since two important novels were published, Il passaggio [The Passage], by Sibilla Aleramo, and Perfidie [Perfidies] by Mura (Maria Volpi Nannipieri), the romantic novelist and journalist.

il passaggio                     perfidie

I’ve written about these texts in my book. They are highly significant publications since despite the potential threat of censorship, and of personal criticism that was often directed at women who wrote about same-sex desire at this time, they both tackle sexual desire and love between women directly. It is actually a central element of both texts.

In Mura’s novel, two women, Sibilla and Nicla, withdraw from high society in Milan to live out an amorous idyll by the sea. The relationship is doomed to fail, following a familiar narrative pattern in which same-sex relationships end badly, often leading to misery and death. What is striking about this story is the detail we are given of the relationship as it unfolds. The narrative focus is on the two protagonists, and even though their relationship breaks up, there is no happy heterosexual ending to cancel out the same-sex love and desire we have read about. Mura wrote many romantic novels, most of which followed the conventions of the genre, recounting the trials and tribulations of a young female protagonist who eventually marries her hero. Some of her novels are quite transgressive for the time when they were written, depicting adultery for example, but this is the only text of hers that focuses on same-sex desire. It wasn’t censored, and she wasn’t openly harangued by the critics; they made quiet digs at her, saying that it was not her best work, and calling it a ‘youthful’ mistake. We don’t know what conversations were had behind closed doors with her editors, and she did not return to the topic, but the book sold relatively well: at least 9,000 copies. Of course, these were insignificant sales compared to other novels she wrote later, but still, it confirms that the novel circulated relatively widely. One of the things I find most fascinating about the novel is something that she writes in the introduction: she talks about a type of woman:

‘la donna quale la società del secolo dicannovesimo ha sognata, e quella del ventesimo sogna […] che riunisce in sé le debolezze di ieri e le libertà di domani […ma la quale] non è ancora sorta, non è ancora e non può ancora esistere’. (Mura 1919: 14-15)

[the woman who was dreamt of by nineteenth-century society, and is dreamt of by twentieth-century society […] who unites within her the weaknesses of yesterday and the freedoms of tomorrow, but who has not yet risen, does not and cannot yet exist].

 Could it be that her protagonists are seeking to become this ‘dreamt-of’ woman? They haven’t quite managed it since she doesn’t exist at the time of writing, but it seems to me that Mura is inviting us to read the novel as a glimpse of a future of increased sexual freedom in which women are free to love whoever they choose; a time when relationships like that between Sibilla and Nicla may not be doomed to fail just because of their sex.

Aleramo’s Il passaggio is a different kind of novel since it has a strong autobiographical basis. It recounts a three-way relationship between Aleramo, Lina Poletti, a writer and scholar, who Aleramo met at the first National Conference of Italian Women in Rome, in 1908, and the poet Giovanni Cena with whom Aleramo was living at the time. The novel is written in a lyrical, poetic style, and imbued with passionate emotions. We hear how Aleramo fell in love with Poletti, who she calls ‘la favola’ [the fairy tale], and a ‘fanciulla maschia’ [male girl]. She talks about how the world seem ‘transfigured’ now that she has kissed a woman, and how their love is taking her to a higher plane of ecstasy. However, despite her eulogy to same-sex love, the relationship breaks down. This appears to be caused largely by the fact that Aleramo continued to live with Cena while she was involved with Poletti, and in the novel (as well as in her letters and diary from this period) seems to want them both to agree to a polyamorous relationship. As the text ends she is alone, but undaunted; she feels words dance out of her, drawing her on to new possibilities.

Aleramo’s novel is an unapologic celebration of unconventional desire that transgresses not only the categories of heterosexuality/homosexuality, but also of dyadic monogamy. It was well reviewed in France where critics applauded the quality of the prose and the emotional power of the work; in Italy, reviewers were less enthralled, and the novel did not enjoy the success of her previous autobiographical work, Una donna [A Woman] (1906). Yet like Mura’s novel, this text was not censored. As I explore in my book, Aleramo’s approach to same-sex desire was complex and often quite problematic; however she was a trailblazer who broke taboos and who narrated her transgressive desire and hopes for the future in a bold and compelling narrative.


Aleramo, Sibilla. 1919. Il passaggio. Milan: Treves.

Aleramo, Sibilla. 1999 [1906]. Una donna. Milan: Feltrinelli.

Mura, 1919. (Maria Volpi Nannipieri) Perfidie. Milan: Sonzogno.

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Eccentricity and Sameness: new book

I am delighted to announce the publication of my new book, which is the culmination of my research so far on this project: Eccentricity and Sameness. Discourses on Lesbianism and Desire between Women in Italy, 1860s-1930s (Peter Lang, 2015)


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.


«‘Eccentricity and Sameness ’adds a new chapter to the history of same-sex relations between women in modern Europe. Shedding light on Italy’s dark sexual past, Ross explores multiple discursive realms, including sexology and literature, to show convincingly why the study of lesbianism matters.»(Laura Doan, Professor of Cultural History and Sexuality Studies, University of Manchester)

«This is a much needed investigation into one of the least explored areas of modern Italian culture. It makes a significant and valuable addition to the broader field of queer, lesbian and gay studies, which is still too focused on the Anglophone experience. With impressive critical acumen, based on meticulous close reading and historical contextualization, Ross brilliantly details the complex discursive mechanisms through which female same-sex desire was made intelligible. This is an important book – original in its subject matter and sophisticated in its theoretical insights, offering a unique perspective on modern Italian culture.» (Derek Duncan, Professor of Italian Studies, University of St Andrews)

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Researching LGBTQ histories, cultures and identities in Italy

This is a post I wrote for a blog set up by my university for LGBT History month. See the other posts here:

This is my contribution:

I’ve been researching lesbian lives, experiences and stories in Italy for over ten years now and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that this research has changed my life. It has changed my ways of understanding feminist theory and of being a feminist; it has changed my engagement with the label ‘lesbian’, and how I feel about my own identity; it has opened many doors on a whole host of dynamic and fascinating Italian queer subcultures; it has led me to go on my own queer grand tour of Italy, making many wonderful friends along the way. It has been fun, frustrating, moving and immensely exciting, sometimes all at once.

I began my academic career as a scholar of literature, having had a solid, if rather conservative education during my BA degree and my MA. My first introduction to queer theory and theories of sexuality came about through friends and partners, rather than through seminars. At the time (the early 2000s) there was very little discussion of LGBTQ issues at Italian Studies conferences so I did a great deal of reading and thinking on my own and it took several years before I felt sufficiently prepared to begin presenting papers and publishing articles on this subject. It wasn’t a particularly easy route to take: there was relatively little published research to guide me (there were some very important trailblazing studies on male homosexuality in Italy, especially in literature, but very little on lesbians and desire between women); what’s more, every time I gave a paper in a new environment I was unsure of the reaction I might get, and it meant effectively coming out in the workplace once more. However, over the last decade the field of Italian Studies has developed in really progressive ways. Most subject-area conferences will now have at least one, sometimes more panels on LGBTQ issues and many interdisciplinary conferences have been organised in Italy; some fantastic, meticulously-researched articles and monographs have been published, both in Italian and English, which have enabled me to develop my own projects. I’ve been supported by colleagues and friends, and met many inspiring people in Italy who are gathering queer histories and campaigning to improve LGBTQ rights (Italy still lacks adequate anti-discrimination legislation and civil unions are not officially recognised, for example). I’ve conducted some interviews myself, and have been extremely moved by the generosity, honesty and friendliness of all those who have participated in my projects. Being ‘out in the field’ is an emotional experience, which may involve interviewing someone about their experiences of homophobia, learning about some of the fantastic socio-cultural and political initiatives that are going on, or going to Pride Parades and hearing inspiring speakers rally the crowds. Over time, I have become not just an onlooker but involved in the LGBTQ movement in Italy, in my own small way.


This photo shows the Pride parade held in Palermo, Sicily, in 2012 (source: The city’s first Pride parade took place in 2010, and it has now become an annual event.

It has made a huge difference to have been supported by my own institution, the University of Birmingham, both intellectually, through crucial dialogues with colleagues, and financially. I’ve also been lucky enough to win funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). During this time, I’ve become increasingly aware of the differences between the UK and Italy in relation to LGBTQ rights. I’ve spoken about this at length with friends in both countries, and shared some important Italian work on homo-lesbo-bi- and trans-phobia with LGBTQ communities in Birmingham, thanks to the Shout festival. In 2013 I hosted a screening of and discussion about the 2010 documentary Diversamente etero (Twisted Straight) by Elena Tebano, Milena Cannvacciuolo, Marica Lizzadro and Chiara Tarfano, which reflects on lesbophobia and lesbian invisibility in contemporary Italian culture, in particular on Italian Big Brother (

In the UK today, while attitudes and legislation have improved significantly in recent years, there is little room for complacency about LGBTQ rights, since homophobic attitudes still abound; sadly, there remains an enormous amount of work to be done in Italy, where queer individuals and families are not protected by law. But there are many things that make me hopeful: the swiftness of some of the changes I’ve seen in the last decade; the number of researchers now working on LGBTQ issues in Italy, in a wide range of disciplines and based all over the world; the sheer resilience of many of the people I’ve met. My research has never been ‘just a job’ to me and I hope it will continue to help me grow as a person. Most of all, I hope that my research is making a difference, and improving awareness of, critical engagement with and the ‘speakability’ of lesbian lives, experiences and identities in Italy, and beyond.

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Goliarda Sapienza’s ‘French Connections’

See the link below for a video of a talk I gave at the conference ‘Goliarda Sapienza in Context’, held at the IGRS, London, on 1 June 2013. It was organised by Alberica Bazzoni, Emma Bond and Katrin Wehling-Giorgi. Thanks to everyone who made it such a rich and stimulating event.

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