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29 January 2008

A gentleman's servant elopes

Giovanni Bordoni (1719 - 1743). Born Catterina Vizzani in Rome, her father a carpenter. At age 14 she courted a beloved while wearing men’s clothes, and continued the practice for almost two years until her beloved’s father caught her.

Through a priest in Rome, Giovanni obtained work as a gentleman’s servant, being generally appreciated except for his incessant courting of young women. He even claimed to have venereal disease (which explained to his laundress the occasional blood on his clothing). He was wounded in the neck after encountering a rival for one of his beloveds. His master wrote to the priest in Rome who met with Giovanni’s father and was ascertained of Giovanni’s body-sex, but kept the secret from the master.

Some years later, in June 1743, Giovanni eloped with the niece of the local priest and her sister. The party was pursued and apprehended, and Giovanni was wounded in the thigh. He was eventually brought to the Hospital della Scala in Siena, and came to the attention of Giovanni Bianchi (1693-1775), commonly known as Janus Plancus, Professor of Anatomy. Giovanni died from a fever that developed from the wound – at the age of 24.

Under his pillow was found a 'leathern contrivance' stuffed with rags that he normally wore fastened below his abdomen. The public expressed great interest in the fact he was a female virgin, and some of the more devout thought that Catherine was 'nothing less than a Saint, having preserved her Chastity inviolate, amidst the strongest Temptations'. Bianchi attempted to find that Bordoni had an oversized clitoris, but it was not so. He wrote up his findings, which were translated anonymously into English with a commentary. It has recently been established that the translator was John Cleland, the author of Fanny Hill. Cleland, despite the libertinism of his novel, was shocked by the account of Giovanni and urged that such women should be severely punished.

Not the nineteenth-century vocalist.

· Giovanni Bianchi. Breve storia della vita di Catterina Vizzani…. Venezia: Occhi, Simone 32 pp 1744. Anonymous translation into English by John Cleland: The True History and Adventures of Catharine Vizzani. 1751. Available online at
· Roger Lonsdale. “New Attributions to John Cleland”. Review of English Studies. 30,1979. p276-80.

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