Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 31, 2011
Paula Findlen, Wendy Wassyng Roworth, and Catherine M. Sama, eds. Italy's Eighteenth Century: Gender and Culture in the Age of the Grand Tour Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. 504 pp.; 51 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780804759045)

Following an efflorescence of critical work on the subject over the last twenty-five years, the European Grand Tour has emerged as a focus of innovative interdisciplinary scholarship. The significance of ancient and Renaissance art to the Grand Tour itinerary—together with the emergence of modern display practices and attendant opportunities for the exercise of aesthetic judgment—have conspired to guarantee the Grand Tour’s special appeal to art historians. The subject’s enduring interest is surely also due to the fact that it has proven especially fertile ground for art history’s disciplinary move toward thinking beyond national borders. The Grand Tour was founded on the experience of boundary crossing, and the best recent work on the subject has explored how the touristic encounter with real and imagined Italian geographies put productive pressure on national, class, and gender identities. Italy’s Eighteenth Century: Gender and Culture in the Age of the Grand Tour is an important addition to this literature, charting new territory by examining Italy in the age of Enlightenment with a view from inside.

Like Paula Findlen’s excellent introduction, the collection reflects a “multidisciplinary conversation about the state of this field” (1), with authors hailing from the history of science, history of art, history of music, literature, and gender studies. The collection makes available in English the recent work of established Italian scholars who are united with their North American counterparts by their scrupulous mining of archival sources; the generous footnotes shed light on a veritable treasure trove of primary documents.

The volume’s ambitious core contribution is couched methodologically: to unsettle the tendency to examine Italy of the Grand Tour primarily through the eyes of foreign visitors whereby “Italy” emerges as a sort of afterimage, a composite of lived experiences, mythic tropes, and memories. This approach, shared by many of the foremost Grand Tour scholars, has yielded fundamental insights about foreign perceptions of Italy, albeit one that Findlen observes can threaten to reduce the site to “an itinerary rather than a living, breathing entity” (4). This volume proposes to expand our understanding of the place and period by examining the particular cultural episodes of the Italian peninsula “in its own terms” (7). The volume’s emphasis on the view from within rewards readers with new perspectives on Italy’s eighteenth century and, given Italy’s role as cosmopolitan center, Europe’s eighteenth century more generally.

The collection scrutinizes selected institutions and individuals with an eye to broader discursive and representational practices. Among other topics, essays explore women’s changing relationships to public sites of intellectual and cultural life and examine the challenges posed by women and men whose behaviors or bodies put them at odds with societal norms. Settecento Italy emerges here as a vibrant period marked by contests over gender roles, with particular emphasis on women’s access to knowledge and their exercise of intellectual and cultural power. As several authors note, the new opportunities and attendant tensions characteristic of the period must be understood against the backdrop of the increasingly secular nature of public life and expanding access to the intellectual fruits of Enlightenment culture.

If there is little reference to the classical and Renaissance artistic heritage that guided tourists’ Italian itineraries and that so often anchors Grand Tour scholarship, readers will be fascinated to discover an alternative human topography. As essay after essay attests, many of the women and men discussed were nothing short of national monuments in their own right. International visitors made pilgrimages to anatomical wax modeler Anna Morandi Manzolini’s studio in Bologna, to artist Angelica Kaufmann’s Roman salon, to Maria Gaetana Agnesi’s philosophical discourses in Milan, to the performances of acclaimed castrati Balatri and Farinelli, and to the celebrated improvisations of poet Corilla Olimpica. The volume’s thirteen essays bring to light new constellations of historical figures while offering subtle analyses of institutional frameworks, prevailing social conventions, and ideological positions. As a result, even those essays that remain rigorously tied to specific historical individuals offer more than simply biographical recovery work.

As indicated by the collection’s title, gender stands as a unifying concern and dominant theme throughout. If recent writing has amplified our knowledge of women’s participation in the Grand Tour, the term still tends to invoke the legions of men of privilege whose Italian experiences have been the focus of generations of scholarship. The collection’s authors chart a very different terrain, largely dominated by female protagonists whose experiences in the eighteenth-century public sphere are of primary interest. Maria Pia Donato analyzes Roman salon culture, arguing that the salons were crucial in expanding opportunities for women to become critical cultural agents. Roberto Bizzocchi investigates the social phenomenon of married women who enjoyed open relationships with male companions or cicisbei, and Elisabetta Graziosi traces the role of women in Academies like the famed Accademia dell’Arcadia. A cluster of essays by Susan Dalton, Catherine M. Sama, and Paola Giuli restore to view what are in some cases long-overlooked figures such as dogaressa and translator of Shakespeare Giustina Renier Michiel; poet, playwright, and translator Luisa Bergalli Gozzi; and numerous women improvisers.

While the majority of the collection’s essays concern women, gender is on the whole expansively conceived and revealed as a conceptual category in transformation during this period. Findlen’s introduction forcefully argues that gender must be understood as fundamental to examinations of eighteenth-century Italy. As she observes, if prevailing Grand Tour stereotypes of Italians turned on “perceptions of gender,” one particular aspect of the country’s purported cultural distinctiveness emerges repeatedly: the leitmotif of sexual ambiguity (17). Scholars have plumbed the juicy depths of foreigners’ anxious fascination with Italy as a site for sexual experimentation and deviant pleasures (as attested by the British text of 1749 that declared “Italy [is] the Mother and Nurse of Sodomy,” Anonymous, Satan’s Harvest Home, 1749, cited in George E. Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, 65). While Findlen invokes the familiar image of Italy as despoiler of foreign manhood and encourager of degenerate, effeminate masculinities (vividly in evidence in the so-called “macaroni” imagery circa 1770), the volume’s contributors do not revisit this terrain. Instead, themes of sexual ambiguity and the fluidity of gender roles are pursued in relationship to castrati, lesbians, and women scholars among other subjects. By focusing upon Italian figures and institutions, authors reveal that the anxieties and debates familiar from the view from elsewhere are likewise to be found within.

One of the strongest sections of the volume, “Enlightened Sexualities,” faces the matter of gender head on. Essays by Martha Feldman and Roger Freitas concern the lives and representations of castrati, who functioned as veritable lightening rods for period thinking about gender and sexuality. Feldman’s gripping account of the lives and writings of Balatri and Farinelli examines castrati representation and self-representation, with an eye to how they engaged period narratives of sexual difference. Freitas connects famed castrati androgyny with period enthusiasm for effeminate masculinity, drawing into his analysis a wide range of idealized representations of youthful male beauty. As Feldman and Freitas demonstrate, the swan song of castrati popularity at the turn of the nineteenth century may be tracked in relationship to burgeoning anxieties about gender malleability in an age of Enlightenment sexology, on the one hand, and to the explicitly commercial aspect of the singers’ profession, on the other. Findlen introduces the remarkable case of Catherine Vizzani, an eighteenth-century lesbian whose amorous adventures and anatomy claimed the interest of physician Giovanni Bianchi (whose professional pursuits included collecting hymens procured from dead virgins). Bianchi’s anatomical study of Vizzani shows Enlightenment sexology in the making as the physician struggled with an unruly subject whose corporeal envelope (especially her normal-sized clitoris) refused to reflect any physical trace of her deviant desires. Anatomy is likewise at the forefront of Rebecca Messbarger’s fascinating study of Anna Morandi Manzolini whose studio was visited by Grand Tourists and medical students alike. Messbarger compellingly marshals Morandi’s career as a corrective to scholars who have asserted a dichotomous model in which the presumed “male gaze” of the anatomist was directed exclusively toward the female body in the guise of waxen Venus or Eve. Not only did Morandi’s corpus include representations of female and male anatomy, but the male body was also ideologically anchored by her to its reproductive functions—a critical point for ongoing debates about the shift away from Galenic or Aristotelian views of sexual difference.

Two of the collection’s essays were contributed by art historians. Focusing on images of female saints, Christopher M. S. Johns detects a radical change in representational habits of sacred art set against the backdrop of what he terms a “Catholic Enlightenment” (332). Wendy Wassyng Roworth explores Angelica Kauffman’s life in cosmopolitan Rome with particular focus on the “Casa Zucchi,” where the artist lived and entertained such luminaries as Goethe and Herder. Examining the Casa Zucchi’s architectural spaces and interior design (including Kauffman’s two reception rooms, one described as a “temple of the muses” (164)), Roworth considers how we might understand these spaces as symbolic of Kauffman’s artistic and social ambitions.

Despite the relative dearth of explicitly art-historical analysis, historians of eighteenth-century visual culture will find much of interest in the volume: from the grotesquely riveting illustrations of Morandi’s anatomical ceroplasty to caricatures and portraits of castrati. Furthermore, a number of essays offer productive analyses of how gender and aesthetic theory intersected in the period. In her provocative case study of Venetian salonnière and author Giustina Renier Michiel, Dalton considers how women were given entrée into the aesthetic realm: writing by Melchiorre Cesarotti (following Hume, Shaftesbury, and Du Bos) privileged the viewer’s emotions over reason, a position that had important implications for women. In Giuli’s account of women improvisers—like the celebrated Corilla Olimpica who was crowned poet laureate on the Capitol steps in Rome in 1776—we discover that by the second half of the eighteenth century such women occupied a privileged position in the context of a “new poetics of enthusiasm” (323).

If one volume alone cannot fully realize the ambitious aim—vividly sketched in Findlen’s introduction—to track the intersecting cultural dialogues between tourists, visitors, and indigenous Italian populations, Italy’s Eighteenth Century nevertheless constitutes a crucial step toward that goal. The collection moves us toward a more richly textured sense of the political, geographic, and cultural diversity that comprised the Italian peninsula in the eighteenth century. Filled with original work and suggestions for new avenues for future research, the book reminds us how much remains to be unearthed about this remarkable period.

Sarah Betzer
Assistant Professor, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia