Borderline Crossings: Dissecting Isabella Andreini's Queer Bod(ies)
When the great Italian poet, actress, academician, Isabella Andreini, died in June 1604 of a miscarriage on her way home from a two-year stint performing in the French Court of Henry IV, her fame was such that she was awarded the unprecedented honour of a state burial in Lyon. Caught out making the difficult journey back into Italy, her "queer" body had cost her life. A consummate professional required to travel from court to court at the whim of her patrons, she could not afford to acknowledge any such career impediments as another pregnancy at the age of forty-two. At the same time, as one of the first generation of actresses to revolutionize the Italian stage, she had only been able to succeed in her career as the leading lady and co-director of the prestigious Gelosi company because she had the protection of a husband, fellow actor Francesco, to name as the father of her (seven) children. Of necessity, she had created an offstage identity which accorded her the same iconic worship that she was given for one of her on stage impersonations-the chaste and beautiful gentlewoman.
But actresses who appeared on the Commedia dell'Arte stage from the 1560s on were by no means limited to representing their own biological sex, and behind Isabella Andreini's respectable persona, were hidden many other hybrid bodies which she cultivated in order to que(e)ry the dominant gender constructions of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Although our modem day definition of queer applies to different intersections of identities, Andreini's practices can be labelled queer in their "articulat[ion ofl of a radical questioning of a social and cultural norm, notions of gender, reproductive sexuality and the family" (Cherry Smith, Queer Notions: Lesbian Talk, London: Scarlet Press, 1992, 20).
What I propose to do in this paper is to atomize some of the queer bodies which Isabella fashioned to facilitate her desire for the fame usually denied to her sex. By re-examining traces left behind in portraiture, her writings, but focusing specifically on her cross-dressed stage performances, I hope to show that her androgynous poses suggest ways in which "we could...go on to recast or reinvent the terms of our sexualities, to construct another discursive horizon, another way of thinking the sexual" (Teresa de Lauretis, "Queer theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities, an Introduction," Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, no. 3.2, iv.)
If we look first at the succession of portraits which were made of her, a progressive masculinization takes place. In the last portrait she has copied the hairstyle and clothing of a powerful woman of the Court of Marie de Medici and there are few traces left of the earlier coquette. On the coin that was struck after her death, she appears in profile, crowned with laurel like a Roman god. On the reverse side of the coin, she is portrayed as a heroic figure but with breasts, sounding a trumpet held in her right hand as an announcement that she has achieved the eternal Fame she sought for. The trumpet in her left hand which signals the infamy normally attached to the outlaw (actress), is resting idle, an indication that she had overcome the restrictions usually imposed on her class and sex. Whether or not she had actually won the laurel crown by coming second in a poetry contest held with Tasso in which they were both measured against Petrarch, the representation of her with the crown has the effect of "queering" her--an effect which Ferdinando Taviani describes as part of the propaganda intended to glorify her performative powers to transform what he considers her inferior class, gender, and professional status.In fact, the key to understanding Andreini's "queerness" is in her awareness of the performativity of gender, Even her Lettere where we might have expected to find personal revelations, turns out to be a collection of the set speeches which Andreini used in her performances. Its queerness derives from Andreini's deployment of the discursive practices shaping both male and female discourses of petrarchan love. Her facility in sustaining contrasting dialogues between them foregrounds her self-reflexive knowledge of the constructedness of both genders. In addition to referring to records describing her famous performance in 1589 on the occasion of the wedding of Ferdinand I de'Medici to Christina of Loraine, when she impersonated every male member of her company as part of her famous portrayal of madness, the paper reconstructs some of the queer effects created by her frequent performance of cross-dressed heroines. While these resconstructed performances are my main interest here, I will build the evidence of her queer representations by referring to her role as the "tough" nymph Filli in her own pastoral Mirtilla, constrasted with her leading male role in Tasso's Aminta. My conclusion suggests that a dissection of Isabella Andreini's queer bod(ies) reveals that her example confirms that the Italian stage encouraged the representation of hybrid characters caught at the intersections of male and/or female subjectivities. Without doubt the actual appearance of women such as Andreini in female roles on the stage (unlike the English stage where the presence of the actress was delayed for another hundred years) increased the potential for toying with the possibilities of less rigidly binarized gendered identities. Finally, even if Isabella Andreini's "queering" of sexual categories was no more than a staged experiment which would quickly be elided back into a male universal, she has left enough traces behind to allow us to follow her over those crossed borderlines once again.