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11 June 2021

I libertini - Same-Sex Desire in Italian Baroque Literature

‘Italy is full of libertines and atheists’, records French scholar and librarian Gabriel Naudé in the early 17th century. The philosophy of libertinism involves the disregard of authority and convention, especially in religious or sexual matters. Libertine ideas in Italy survived the Counter Reformation and were still in circulation in Europe until the Enlightenment. Sexuality –including homosexuality – was considered in positive terms.

The multiple dynamics of sexual desire emerged in vernacular literature in Italy from the beginning, despite being overlooked by literary criticism. Homosexuality in ancient Rome is a popular subject of studies, with Petronius’s Satyricon considered as ‘the first gay novel’ (Byrne Fone, 1998). Neri Moscoli and Marino Ceccoli, contemporaries of Dante and Petrarch, were leading exponents of the homoerotic Perugian school, sodomiti perugini, but their genre was assimilated by the traditional critics to comic poetry. They were not alone. Numerous authors of the Italian canon celebrate same-sex love in their works: Boccaccio, Poliziano, Boiardo, Ariosto, just to mention some names influential or active around the historical period I am focussing on.

Even though the accusation of sodomy was broadly used against artists and writers, not many were actually charged. Goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) proudly proclaimed his love of men in his art, in his life and in front of a Florentine court, as he was condemned to prison in 1557. His wonderful autobiography was published in 1728 with a false imprint, i.e.: a fake foreign place of publication to escape censorship. The first English translation, by Thomas Nugent, appeared in 1771.

Portrait of a bearded man

Cellini, Benvenuto. "Portrait of a bearded man" graphite, paper. Royal Library Turin, Public Domain

The two main centres of circulation for libertine ideas in the Italian peninsula at the time were Venice and Rome.

In papal Rome, despite theological condemnation of sodomy, homosexuality was popular behind closed doors. The son of Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ de’Medici, Giovanni, fosters a homoerotic and homosocial culture at his court when he becomes Pope, under the name of Leo X.

In Venice, the Accademia degli Incogniti was active in the mid-17th century and the most freethinking intellectuals of the period would meet under its name.

Antonio Rocco (1586-1652), a priest, philosopher and libertine, was a member of the Incogniti. Known for the L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, (‘Alcibiades Schoolboy’), a bibliographic rarity, of which the British Library owns the first edition, once again, with false imprint. This was part of the Private Case collection, a collection of erotic printed books that were segregated from the main British Museum library in the 1850s on grounds of obscenity. L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, published anonymously (it was initially attributed to Pietro Aretino), was censored for a long time for being an apology of pederasty and very few copies survived.

The book, in form of a Platonic dialogue, describes a schoolmaster’s efforts to seduce his young student, Alcibiades:

Sono naturali quelle opera a cui la natura ci inclina, de’ quali pretende il fine e l’effetto.
Those acts to which we are inclined by nature are natural, and she has seen to their end and their effects.

Front page of L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola

Front page of L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, (Oranges [i.e. Geneva], 1652) P.C.23.a.12.

More political is the literary production of another member of the Incogniti, Ferrante Pallavicino. Pallavicino leaves his noble family in Piacenza to live a picaresque and, sadly, short life. He writes against the Pope and the Catholic Church, against the Jesuits, against the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish domination. He was only safe in Venice, where he wrote his irreverent novels and satires. The Pope deceived him and had him beheaded in Avignon in 1644, aged 28. The anticlerical Il Divortio celeste ('The Celestial Divorce', Italy, Villafranca; 8005.a.47.(1.)) became incredibly popular in Italy and in Protestant countries.

Pallavicino also wrote Il principe hermafrodito, (‘The Hermaphrodite Prince’ Venice, 1656; 246.a.13.(3.)) a novel which explores the theme of transvestitism and cross-dressing, both common ingredients of the Baroque theatre and the Venetian opera, together with a more nuanced approach to issues of gender.

Portrait of Ferrante Pallavicino

Portrait of Ferrante Pallavicino, from Le glorie degli Incogniti; overo, gli huomini illustri dell’Accademia de’Signori Incogniti di Venetia. (Venice, 1647) 132.b.3.

The Hermaphrodite Prince discovers that they are, in fact, a Princess. They take a male lover and dress as a woman to facilitate their encounters. The Prince will take the throne and govern as a Queen, with the lover on their side:

Io sono la Principessa e il Principe nel composto medesimo. Sara’ estinto il Principe, […] Rimarra’ la sola Principessa, per felicitarsi con quella maggior copia di piaceri […] Rinuncio a mentito nome e a mentite spoglie, per non piu’ mentire negli amori.
(I am the Princess and the Prince in the same body. The Prince will no longer exist […] only the Princess will remain; to enjoy abundant pleasures […] I surrender my name and my disguise, so that I will no longer lie to my love. [my translation]).

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

References/Further Reading:

Franco Mancini and Luigi M. Reale (eds.), Poeti Perugini del Trecento: Codice Vaticano Barberiniano Latino 4036 (Perugia, 1996) ZA.9.a.9677(2)

Marco Berisso, La Raccolta dei poeti Perugini del Vat. Barberiniano Lat. 4036: Storia della Tradizione e Cultura Poetica di una Scuola Trecentesca Studi (Accademia Toscana Di Scienze E Lettere “La Colombaria”; 189). (Florence, 2000) Ac.82/2[Vol.189]

Benvenuto Cellini, Vita di Benvenuto Cellini ... da lui medesimo scritta ... Tratta da un’ottimo Manoscritto (Colonia [i.e. Naples] 1728) 673.h.15.

Benvenuto Cellini, The Life of Benvenuto Cellini: A Florentine Artist ... Written by Himself ... and Translated from the Original by Thomas Nugent, (London, 1771) 786.g.4-5.

Giorgio Spini, Ricerca dei libertini: la teoria dell’impostura delle religioni nel seincento italiano. (Rome, 1950) 4606.m.4.

Gary P. Cestaro (ed.), Queer Italia: Same-sex Desire in Italian Literature and Film (New York, 2004) YC.2006.a.3655

Edward Muir, The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2007). YC.2007.a.13138

Maurette, Pablo. ‘Plato’s Hermaphrodite and a Vindication of the Sense of Touch in the Sixteenth Century.’ Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 3, 2015, pp. 872–898. 7356.866000 JSTOR [subscription only] 

04 June 2021

Translating the French Revolution: Italian printing culture during the revolutionary Triennio, 1796-1799

The British Library holds the largest collection of printed material on the French Revolution outside of France. As we know the French revolution was not limited to France but affected the historical trajectory of numerous countries in Europe and around the world. One of the first European areas where French revolutionary ideals found a fertile soil was the Italian peninsula. In 1796 the French Army, led by the young general Napoleon Bonaparte, defeated Austrian and Sardinian troops. On 15 May 1796 Bonaparte entered Milan, which rapidly became the most active political laboratory of the peninsula.

Plans for the Foro Buonaparte in Milan

Giovanni Antonio Antolini, plans for the Foro Buonaparte in Milan, city side, c. 1801. Part of Napoleon’s ambitious but unfulfilled plan for remodelling the city of Milan (Image from Wikimedia Commons 

During the revolutionary Triennio, the period between the arrival of the French troops led by Bonaparte and the French defeat in 1799, there was a veritable explosion of print culture: 40 new periodicals in Milan, ten newspapers printed in Venice in 1797 alone; 20 serial publications in Genoa, and smaller centres such as Brescia or Ferrara also produced their own revolutionary newspapers. The British Library holds two periodicals that are exemplary of this Italian revolutionary press: the Giornale della società degli amici della libertà e dell’eguaglianza (‘Journal of the Society of Friends of Liberty and Equality’) and the Osservator piemontese (‘Piedmont Observer’).

Giornale della società degli amici della libertà e dell’eguaglianza

Giornale della società degli amici della libertà e dell’eguaglianza (Milan 23 May 1796) [PENP.NT309]

The first newspaper was the work of the physician Giovanni Rasori, a vocal supporter of a democratic republic. Rasori had travelled to Britain and France, and his newspaper reflected his familiarity with the two countries. Translations of French or English works appeared frequently, such as Volney’s Ruines or tracts by radicals, such as William Morgan’s Facts Addressed to the Serious Attention of the People of Great Britain Respecting the Expence [sic] of the War and the State of the National Debt (London, 1796; RB.23.b.7561). In a similar vein the Osservatore piemontese published long extracts from Joseph Priestley’s Lectures on History and General Policy (Birmingham, 1788; 580.h.16).

Both newspapers presented the Italian translations of British works through the intermediary of a recent French translation. Rasori translated Morgan’s work as it appeared on the columns of the Parisian Moniteur Universel (Gazette nationale, ou, le Moniteur universel France, Paris, 1789-1810; MFM.MF17), while the authors of the Piedmontese newspaper commented and published large excerpts of Priestley’s work which had been translated into French in 1798.

First issue of Osservator Piemontese

First issue of Osservator Piemontese (Turin 1798) P.P.4175

The arrival of the French armies in the Italian peninsula favoured the publication of works that were previously forbidden. The translations of these texts appeared in periodical publications thus making more difficult for researchers to find them. These texts were partially reprinted in periodical publications, as those presented above, or were collected in anthologies such as the Biblioteca dell’uomo repubblicano. The British Library holds the prospectus for this anthology published in 1797 in Venice (awaiting shelfmark). The ambitious plan was to print 15 volumes containing the main works of philosophers like Rousseau, Voltaire and Mably. However the Peace of Campo Formio (27 October 1797), when France ceded Venice to the Austrian Empire, put an end to this effort of creating a first comprehensive compilation of political thinkers crucial to understanding the political basis of the French revolution.

The brief interlude of the Italian republics was not an ephemeral season in the Italian history. On the contrary the last years of the 18th century served as the basis of the development of new kinds of Italian political thinking, rooted in a lively exchange with other European traditions such as the French Enlightenment and the British radical movement.

Niccolò Valmori, Postdoctoral research associate at King’s College, London, working on the AHRC funded project ‘Radical Translations: The Transfer of Revolutionary Culture between Britain, France and Italy (1789-1815)’

Further reading:

Radical Translations Project website

Valerio Castronovo, Giuseppe Ricuperati, Carlo Capra (ed.), La stampa italiana dal Cinquecento all’Ottocento (Rome, 1976). X.989/90090(1)

Giorgio Cosmacini, Scienza medica e giacobinismo in Italia: l'impresa politico-culturale di Giovanni Rasori (1796-1799) (Milano, 1982). X.329/20279

Katia Visconti, L’ultimo Direttorio: la lotta politica nella repubblica cisalpina tra guerra rivoluzionaria e ascesa di Bonaparte, 1799-1800 (Milano, 2011). YF.2012.a.13963

Carlo Zaghi, Il Direttorio francese e la repubblica Cisalpina (Rome, 1992). YA.1992.b.2989

 

28 May 2021

The Fiery End of the Paris Commune

This is the third in a series of blog posts marking the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, a radical, popular led government in power between 18 March and 28 May 1871. Discover the first two posts (A Burglarious Attempt to Declaw the Lion and The Toppling of the Vendôme Column) on our blog. 

On the evening of 21 May, Versaillais troops climbed over the tattered south-western fortifications of Paris, and the week which would define the Commune began. Known as la semaine sanglante, or Bloody Week, Paris would suffer a ferocious bloodletting.

By the next morning, the Arc de Triomphe flew a tricolour rather than the Commune’s red flag. While the communards had hastily built hundreds of poorly-constructed barricades in the boulevards, some 110,000 troops marched through the city, amongst which were thousands of prisoners of war released by Prussia.

The communards grew disillusioned with the situation. Attempts to trade prisoners with Thiers had been repeatedly denied. The Parisians sought Auguste Blanqui, a legendary figure of French radicalism through the nineteenth century, in exchange for all 74 prisoners held by the Commune, including the liberal archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy. The repeated rejections, as well as continuous reports on the brutality of the Versaillais troops, saw Darboy and five fellow clerics killed on the night of 24 May. These executions provoked outrage.

The death of Darboy is a key point of anti-Commune propaganda, but it was far from the only one. A slew of reports and images followed the Versaillais march through Paris, as myth-making began to efface the thousands who were killed by the encroaching troops.

Fires which could be seen for miles around engulfed Paris and accompanied the march. Historians generally believe the initial fires to have been started by the missiles launched into Paris by the Versaillais, as well as some being set by Parisians to cover their retreats further into the north-western arrondissements as the army slowly took the city back. They left the city in ruins, with several of the city’s key cultural sites including the Tuileries Palace, the Hotel de Ville and Louvre, partially or completely destroyed.

Anti-Communard print depicting a Petroleuse

‘A Pétroleuse: Ah! If her man saw it’, Paris: Imprimerie J. Moronval, (1871)

The denigration of the Commune rose from the ashes of la semaine sanglante. After the final conflicts around Belleville in the north-west of the city, a wave of conservative imagery made clear who they thought were responsible for the fires. Laying the blame of the destruction of Paris on the so-called ‘pétroleuses’, the image above captures the essence of this discourse. We see a woman with almost pig-like features, almost certainly an artistic device to dehumanise her. She carries a torch and a can of petrol, presumably looking for some cultural asset to destroy or some aspect of natural order to subvert.

The caption further indicates the double crime these women were accused of committing – first, the crime against the state and the status quo, and secondly, the crime against her family, her husband and the natural order. The pétroleuse is amongst the most prominent devices of anti-Communard prints, and she is repeatedly invoked to remind viewers of the supposed horrors of women who did not conform to gendered expectations.

Anti-Communard print

‘After the Prussians… My sons with the stranger’ By Emile Gogny, Paris: Imprimerie Lemercier et Cie (1871)

The crimes of the Commune are made clear in this wonderfully macabre print. An aghast female warrior grasping her broken sword looks down at the ground in front of her, to see a range of incendiary devices. Around her, a deluge of destruction emphasises the various aspects of the Commune’s sins.

To the left, we see a communard about to use a holy relic to smash Jesus on the crucifix. Above this morbid scene are soldiers in combat on the boulevards of Paris. To the right we see the corpses of clergymen, punctured by bayonets. In the top right, we see the infamous pétroleuses, setting fire to the buildings of Paris. At the top, we see Death, looking down upon all that is his, scythe in hand. This is a powerful image that reminds us of the forcefulness of anti-Commune propaganda, and that the caricature and print collection at the British Library (14001.g.41, Cup.1001.i.1, Cup.648.b.2 and Cup. 648.b.8) does not just contain humorous lampoons of political figures, the public, and their idiosyncrasies.

Absurd bloodshed marked the end of the Commune. The remaining embers of resistance were routed on 28 May, and thousands of prisoners were executed in public sites which today remain, often without a trace of this barbarity. One of the few memorials is at Père Lachaise cemetery, resting place of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde, where a simple plaque commemorates 174 National Guard members shot against the wall, and the rest of the deaths through la semaine sanglante. The four thousand who survived were transported across globe to live in France’s penal colony, New Caledonia, before a general amnesty in 1880.

The Commune did not die on 28 May, 1871. The myth of the female fire starters fuelled fears of social revolution across the globe for decades after the fires of Paris, and the pétroleuse is still synonymous with 1871. The Commune itself has a complex role in the French memory. Through this year, Paris’s municipal government has controversially staged events to commemorate the Commune. It remains prescient that people will die for a cause they believe in while others prioritise of cultural and social losses over the losses of human life. Far beyond dying, 150 years later the Commune still leaves no one neutral.

Anthony Chapman, CDP Student at the British Library and Royal Holloway, University of London

Further reading:

Morna Daniels, ‘Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune’, Electronic British Library Journal, (2005), pp. 1-19, 

Gay Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris: Images of the Commune, (Ithaca, 1996), YC.1997.a.1077

John Milner, Art, War and Revolution in France, 1870-1871: Myth, Reportage and Reality, (New Haven, 2000). Document Supply m00/44939

David A. Shafer, The Paris Commune, (Basingstoke, 2005). YC.2006.a.16941

Robert Tombs, The Paris Commune, 1871, (London, 1999). YC.1999.a.3641