Very few novels were published in Italian in the nineteenth century that represented female same-sex desire. The vast majority of texts that discussed desire between women were medical texts, published from the 1870s onwards. This was the beginning of Italian sexology–the scientific study of sex and sexuality. Inspired by new debates elsewhere in Europe on the newly-coined category of the ‘homosexual’, pathologists, medical experts and criminologists such as Cesare Lombroso began to disseminate their ideas about what they, following Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Carl Westphal, called ‘sexual inversion’: broadly understood as the inversion of the sexual instinct towards someone of the same sex, and the feeling that the person’s psychological gender differed from their biological sex. Key terms that designated women who desired women included ‘tribade’, which evolved from the Greek, meaning women who gain sexual satisfaction together, and ‘saffiste’ (Sapphists), evoking the myths surrounding Sappho and her cult of women followers on Lesbos. Nerina Milletti has compiled a ‘Dizionario lesbico’ which provides a much fuller list of the many terms that were used (http://www.women.it/les/dizionario/diz0.htm). The noun ‘lesbian’ was not widely used until well into the twentieth-century, but these terms worked in an analagous way, designating women who desired other women as a specific group. This labelling had both positive and negative consequences, as female same-sex desire began to become more visible, and speakable; however the most audible voices were those of male scientists who considered such women to be psychologically diseased, deviant and decadent. As in other contexts, and as is still the case today, ‘tribades’ and ‘sapphists’ provoked a complicated mix of reactions; they were the object of condemnation but also of enduring voyeuristic fascination.
In these sexological texts, one major point of reference was France, especially Paris, which functioned as a backdrop to and shorthand for erotic fantasies, sexual libertinism and general lasciviousness. Novels such as Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), based on the life of the historical figure Mlle Maupin, the cross-dressing swordswoman, opera singer and seductress, were often cited by sexologists as ‘proof’ that sexual ‘deviance’ was getting out of control and needed to be curtailed. This and similar novels were also mentioned by Italian writers as a way to obliquely introduce female same-sex desire–for example, characters might just happen to be reading this book, or looking at a piece of French art. What I find interesting about this interplay of allusions is the way in which scientific arguments call on fiction to back themselves up, while this fiction both represents ‘real’ events (that have been romanticised and freely adapted), and transports the reader into a fictional realm of erotic fantasy, distanced from the Italian context by virtue of being fictional, and through the allusions to French culture. It is a game of assertions and disavowals, of condemnations and lascivious consumption–a game in which the women represented are often sexually objectified, instrumentalised to add a touch of scandal that might help sales, and portrayed as devilish. However, there are some interesting surprises even in this period.
One of the few Italian novels to represent female same-sex desire was Alfredo Oriani’s Al di la’ [Beyond] from 1877, which was republished in 2011 (although it is not yet translated into English). This tells the story of Mimy and the Marchesa Elisa de Monero in Bologna, at the end of the nineteenth century. Mimy is married to Carlo, and having an affair with Giorgio. Oriani sets up a game of seduction and betrayal in which both Mimy and her husband fall for the Marchesa, who is irresistibly seductive, gallopping on her horse, swimming like a robust sailor, citing poetry and reclining in exotically draped interiors. The Marchesa transcends the pettiness of Bolognese society and its narrow sexual mores; she reads French novels, contemplates French art and even writes love letters to Mimy in French. Rather strikingly, the novel ends with a successful elopement, as Mimy and Elisa run away together after a night of passion in a bed draped with animal skins, and the men are left looking rather pathetic. Oriani was certainly not seeking to write a pro-lesbian treatise; he wanted to satirise bourgeoise decadence. However, perhaps despite Oriani’s intentions, it can be read as a sort of proto- ‘lesbian’ novel, with quite a strong political message about the inadequacy or brutality of many men, about the fascination of strong, emancipated women like the Marchesa, and about the possibility of a lesbian ‘happy-ever-after’, which is still incredibly rare in novels about lesbian relationships. In Italy, it wasn’t until at least the 1990s that any short stories or novels depicting female same-sex desire ended with a couple that was happy and still together, and these are decidedly in the minority; for the most part, relationships end in tragedy, and often in death. This is not specific to Italy, or course. As Vito Russo has documented (The Celluloid Closet, 1987), the history of LGBTQ representation is littered with the symbolic cadavers of those who transgress too far, who provide fascination during the novel or film but need to be killed off at the end to restore the heteronormative order, or to get past the censors. Given that 20th century representations of lesbian desire so often ended in tragedy, the ending of Oriani’s novel is doubly striking and becomes more subversive. Of course, the fact that Mimy and Elisa have to elope is itself a form of eradication of the characters. They can continue their passionate self- and mutual discovery and adoration, but it can’t happen in Italy; it has to happen elsewhere. We are not told where this elsewhere is, but it may well be in that ever-present fantasy realm of French literature and art.