In 1910, the publisher Giuseppe Garibaldi Rocco wrote a letter to the anthropologist and sexual scientist Paolo Mantegazza expressing his concern about what was happening in Italy as a result of the release of a circular by the prime minister and minister of the interior, Luigi Luzzatti,1 through which the government put into practice – perhaps for the first time with such effectiveness – a concrete repression of what was considered “obscene” material, with the aim of pursuing “this holy and civilised crusade against the spread of immoral publications”.2 Rocco wrote:
Most Honourable Doctor Paolo Mantegazza,
forgive me if I dare to disturb the peace of your holiday to inform you of the very serious abuses that are being committed in Italy to the detriment of science and art. I have no doubt that, a few months ago, you read in the newspaper about the MP Luzzatti’s circular letter, which encourages the authorities to suppress every pornographic publication. If the above authorities had carried out the order in its proper sense, it would certainly have been a good thing; but instead, ignorant as they are, it is painful to note, they abandoned themselves to an unrestrained orgy of seizures without any respect for science and art.3
Rocco was likely concerned about the state of his business. As the owner of the Società Editrice Partenopea in Naples, several years earlier Rocco had begun publishing sexual-scientific books with a popular slant, including many reprints of Mantegazza’s most famous works. Hoping to appeal to the anthropologist’s sensitivity, Rocco proceeded to inform him that the circular had so alarmed the book sellers “that they no longer want to display even your publication”.4 The publisher called upon Mantegazza as an “authoritative and wise” voice to write a pamphlet that would outline “this damned morality in science and art, so that it may serve as a guide to those who must protect it”.5 In this way, Rocco hoped that Mantegazza’s words could “make him [Luzzatti] understand how difficult it is to establish the boundaries of modesty in relation to the press, and that this task can only be entrusted to people of sound principles who are not blinded by false prejudices, and not by officials who can barely read”.6
Rocco’s request remained unheeded, as Mantegazza died a few weeks later. However, this letter shows that Mantegazza was recognised, at least in certain circles, as a guiding figure on boundaries between science and obscene. This likely stemmed from the fact that around twenty-five years earlier, the sexual scientist was involved in a crucial moment in the development of what was considered obscene in Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century, namely the publication of his Gli amori degli uomini (“The Love of Mankind”), an anthropological analysis of sexual habits worldwide. The book enjoyed immediate success but also caused a great scandal, sparking Italy’s first heated public debate on what science could publicly say about sexuality.
The episode is interesting because it stands at the crossroads of a number of processes that intersected with contemporary society’s conception of morality and the development of new disciplines interested in the study of sexuality. After Italian unification, the affirmation of a new bourgeois morality and consequent separation of society into separate spheres constituted the context in which the modern concept of pornography took shape, and from which emerged two important disciplines – sexual science and anthropology – both of which seek to study human sexual behaviour from a scientific point of view.
Anglo-Saxon historiography of recent decades has begun to explore the connections between these phenomena from many perspectives. In particular, historians have highlighted that sexual science and pornography were two interconnected phenomena at their origins and that they developed through a mutual influence.7 Some attention has also been given to the trajectories assumed by the dissemination of scientific works on sexuality and their trade.8
In Italy, the emergence of sexual science has only recently become an object of interest for historians, who have paid particular attention to discourses related to female same-sex desires. Chiara Beccalossi’s research has certainly made an important contribution to the study of the medical–psychiatric discourses that were at the base of the emergence of sexual science in the second half of the nineteenth century in Italy.9 For her part, the literary historian Charlotte Ross has begun to explore the relationship between sexual science and pornography while also addressing the ambiguities that characterised Mantegazza’s sexological texts. However, the meaning of his sexual science in relation to the erotic–pornographic discourses circulating in the socio-cultural milieu of post-unification Italy remains largely unexplored.10
By focusing on Mantegazza’s case, this article intends to contribute to current historiography by investigating links between sexual science, anthropology and pornography in the second half of the nineteenth century in Italy, with the aim of showing how the scientific and pornographic dimensions of the origins of Italian sexual science were not entirely self-excluding. First, by addressing the strong ambiguity that characterised Mantegazza’s work, this article describes the debate surrounding the publication of the book titled Gli amori degli uomini, paying particular attention to the correspondence between Mantegazza and his publisher, Emilio Treves. Second, by analysing Mantegazza’s erotic library, it shows that his books shared similar discourses and languages with the most popular pornographic literature of the time. Finally, by considering the ambivalent uses that readers made of this kind of books, this article reflects on the blurred boundaries that existed at the time between sexual science, anthropology and pornography, and argues that Mantegazza consciously exploited this “fluid milieu” of genres to better disseminate his sexual science.
In 1886, Mantegazza published Gli amori degli uomini, the last work in his so-called Trilogy of Love, with which the anthropologist set out to study what he called “love”, but which we understand today as human sexuality. Mantegazza was an eclectic intellectual, certainly one of the most popular and widely read scientists in post-unification Italy. He began his scientific career as a physician and taught pathology at the University of Pavia for about a decade. In 1869 he moved to Florence, where he had obtained what is considered the first chair of anthropology in Italy.11 In that period, Mantegazza developed his anthropological method, which provided the basis of his scientific research on sexuality. In fact, Mantegazza was not only convinced of the need to study every aspect of the human being, including sexuality, but he also believed that sexuality itself should be studied in all its forms, both those deemed normal and those considered pathological.12 Therefore, after publishing the Fisiologia dell’amore (“Physiology of Love”) (1873), a sort of psycho-philosophical treatise on love as a feeling, and the Igiene dell’amore (“Hygiene of Love”) (1878), a treatise on the physiology of reproduction, Mantegazza decided to write an essay on what he called the “ethnology of love”.
In the two volumes that compose it, Mantegazza ventured a detailed description of various human sexual habits. Through a diachronic and cross-cultural perspective, the anthropologist explicitly addressed issues such as rites to consecrate the advent of puberty, the various forms of intercourse, instruments to increase pleasure, sexual “perversions” marriage rites, prostitution and so on. Like many of Mantegazza’s works, it is a fluently written and pleasantly readable essay that caught the public eye.
In the aftermath of unification, the Risorgimento elites who had assumed the reins of the new-born Italian state engaged in a redefinition of not only the political foundations of the nation but also of the society in its aspects related to family, gender roles and morality. In opposition to the libertine customs associated with the ancient regime, middle-class Italians were convinced that the legitimacy of their enterprise also depended on the integrity of their sexual mores. In fact, the notion of virtue, understood as the central quality of the new Italian citizens, had a profound sexual connotation, albeit defined through clear gender asymmetries. Whereas for men virtue was closely linked to virility, as opposed to the indolence and effeminacy of which they had historically been accused, female virtue was closely linked to modesty, reticence and purity of the soul – qualities that should characterise what was deemed to be a respectable woman.13 These asymmetries reflected an increasing division of society into separate spheres: the public sphere, which belonged to men, and the private one, where women reigned.
Along with this process, over the course of the nineteenth century, a number of contexts within which sexuality had been more casually exhibited in the ancient regime gradually diminished, acquiring an increasingly private dimension. Explicit depictions of sexuality moved into the realm of the illicit, acquiring an obscene value and giving rise to the modern concept of pornography.14 However, medicine remained – at least in theory – one of the few areas in which it was acceptable to deal with sexuality.
When, in the summer of 1885, Mantegazza proposed the publication of Gli amori degli uomini to his publisher, Emilio Treves, the latter was dubious from the start. At the time, Treves was one of the most famous Italian publishers and undoubtedly the most important in the field of popular science. After travelling in France and England during his early years, Treves sought to establish in Italy a system of editorial production that, by combining books and magazines, would arouse the interest of a middle-class audience in popular, educational and entertainment genres.15
As early as July, Treves wrote to Mantegazza expressing his disapproval of the publication and the remuneration requested, because, he said, “the respectability of my house does not allow me to draw from the title of the book and the summary all the profit that others would be able to give to you, by presenting it as a pornographic book”16. The fact that Treves refers to his “respectability” as a publisher reflects the legislative background on the publication of obscene material, which was rather loose in Italy at the time, unlike other countries such as France,17 Germany18 and especially England. Even the new criminal code, the so-called “Zanardelli Code” (1889), did not provide for sanctions against the production of such material – only against its public offering – making it fall within the more general category of indecent exposure. As seen above, it was not until around 1910 that there was a concrete attempt to move from safeguarding of public modesty to targeting obscenity in itself, in the name of “moral tutelage”. On this occasion, for the first time, the government were explicitly called into question “scientific or pseudoscientific books, which bore titles concerning diseases, obnoxious, physical and moral, or abnormal sexual relations or excitements to anti-fertilizing practices, etc.”19
At the time of the publication of Gli amori, therefore, the Italian government did not directly discourage the publication of works pertaining to so-called “sexual perversions”.20 This attitude of relative tolerance had a certain influence on the emerging sexual science, in particular on the dynamics related to the publication of the research conducted. This allowed Italian scientists to be somewhat freer to investigate the topics they deemed most appropriate and to use, on occasion, rather explicit descriptions of sexual behaviours in their writings.21
The position of the publishers, however, was different: they often became the target of indirect censorship, as they were primarily responsible for publications. In fact, it was the publisher who mediated between the author and the market: through cuts and changes, he could make a text more or less suitable to the audience’s demands and more or less exposed to potential condemnations or moral reproaches.22 It is therefore understandable that Treves, aware of his position as mediator between Mantegazza and his readers, felt the weight of responsibility for the publication of Gli amori, as is clearly shown in the correspondence.
The initially moderate tone became more heated once the contract was signed and Treves was finally able to read the contents of the manuscript, which Mantegazza had cleverly waited to send him. Treves wrote furiously to Mantegazza:
I have read […] the 3rd and the 4th chapters [Intercourse and its types; The devices of voluptuousness] in the layout and I have seen that everything, the whole book, crosses the line of indecency, to comment decently. I also understand why you did not want to show the manuscript before the contract was signed.23
Treves repeatedly invited Mantegazza to cut the parts that he said “cross[ed] all the limits”.24 He also added:
I knew the subject had to be daring, but I had assumed that you would treat it with the same delicate grace as in other works of yours. But here all the veils are torn; everything is raw and brutal. In conclusion, do you want to rescind the contract – amicably – without scandal? [...] There is also the danger that the book will be seized. It would certainly have to be, if the law were the same for everyone. Why is Aretino forbidden, who teaches 34 manners while your book teaches 48?25
Thus, a man like Treves immediately perceived Gli amori as a work that clearly crossed the boundaries of what could be publicly said about sexuality, which could only be accepted through a “veiled” and indirect narrative. Undoubtedly, the book – in the form the author would have wished it to be published – was an essay that pushed the boundaries of what was considered obscene, even though (according to Mantegazza) it was a book of science. A close look at the correspondence shows not only Treves’ leading role, but also the equally important position of Mantegazza, who was sure of the morality of his work, forcing Treves to concede: “you are now the absolute master. [...] We are both unwillingly resigned: you to the modifications, I to having any part in the book”.26 Finally, Treves obliged him by assuming sole responsibility for the work and signing an agreement whereby, in the event of seizure, he would have been liable “not only morally, but also materially for damages and interest”.27 He also insisted on cutting a few more daring passages and agreed not to include images in the text. In the end, in spite of Treves’s attempts to impede publication, Mantegazza successfully achieved his goal.
The climate of relative autonomy in Italy in which scientists dealing with sexuality worked did not shield Mantegazza from heavy criticism following the publication of Gli amori degli uomini. In fact, as Treves warned, the work aroused great scandal.
Criticism and condemnation came from both Roman Catholic and secular circles. Gli amori was indeed put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum a few months after the publication, together with the other two volumes of the Trilogy.28 Giacinto Belmonte, consultant of the Index, explicitly defined the work as “pornographic”, a text in which “Mantegazza gathers together all the ugliness of the corrupt human flesh, unbridled by reason”.29 He went on, enumerating the reasons why it had to be considered dangerous:
This book is bound to spread corruption among people, families and society. With great misfortune, it is written in a loose, clear and, I would say, elegant and bewitching style. The man of profound knowledge will certainly be disgusted by it, but the inexperienced youth, the multitude filled with everything without knowing anything, the vain and gossipy women, in short, all the people who are light-hearted and always fond of the new and the strange will receive a mortal wound in their soul.30
Raffaele De Martinis, who was also called upon to comment on Gli amori, was more measured in his criticism, stressing that the “miseries of love” were a matter “that the scholar of medical science must know for therapy, but that it is a mistake to make its knowledge commonplace”.31
What emerges in general from the censor’s comments is the fact that it was not the topic of the book itself that was of concern. In other words, the fact that sexuality could be the subject of medical research by scientists was not questioned. Instead, what worried them most was the popular dimension that characterised the Trilogy, and in particular Gli amori. The language used was too explicit for a popular audience such as those who had been reading Mantegazza’s works for years.
Most newspapers at the time seemed to share the same fears, printing several articles that harshly criticised Mantegazza’s choice to publish a work about which it was not easy to give “readers and especially women readers” much information because “the subject and even the title are too rough”, and above all described with “great cruelty”.32 Even the Corriere della sera, a renowned national newspaper, objected mainly to the language used, which was considered not at all scientific. Indeed, the journalist wrote:
He could certainly have published an important book [...] if he had used that explicit and precise language that is proper to science. But Mantegazza’s book is not a scientific book. It is a collection of news and anecdotes [...] he did not want to make a book for study, but for simple enjoyment.33
These testimonies confirm that even in the Italian context, the concept of the obscene – an “empty category” in itself – acquired a meaning when considered in relation to the socio-cultural framework of the time, in particular to the potential recipients – in this case, potential readers. In fact, a text was perceived as dangerous, and therefore obscene, when it could be read by categories of people considered to be incapable of preserving their own morality because they were more susceptible to corrupting influences, namely women, young people and the working classes.34
However, even those who had legitimate access to potentially obscene material did not generally appreciate Gli amori degli uomini, especially in Italian academia, where it appear the essay was rarely received as a scholarly work. Certainly, scholars who circled around Cesare Lombroso, the father of criminal anthropology and who was, at the time of the publication of Gli uomini, in open opposition to Mantegazza, were very critical about Mantegazza’s scientific dissemination. For example, in the closing years of the century, Alfredo Niceforo sent Lombroso two letters, reassuring his master that the re-edition of Scipio Sighele’s work, titled La mala vita a Roma (“The Criminal Underworld in Rome”) (1898), did not contain any “Mantegazzian pages” and that, therefore, it was also “accessible to ladies ... imagine that!”.35
Even abroad, several distinguished scholars did not recognise the scientific value of Mantegazza’s intellectual production. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, for example, in the introduction of the first edition of Psychopathia Sexualis, argued that the Fisiologia dell’amore should be regarded as “merely clever causerie” and therefore it “cannot be considered in the light of scientific research”.36 Even Sigmund Freud, in his famous Dora case – on the basis of which he developed his theory of hysteria – referred to the Fisiologia dell’amore not as a scientific work, but as a book “of that sort”,37 that is to say, able to arouse the sexual imagery of a sensitive young girl like his patient. It was only in the early twentieth century, when a new generation of sexual scientists emerged, that an explicit scientific value of Mantegazza’s works on sexuality was properly recognised. Iwan Bloch for example, one of the protagonists of the so-called “anthropological turn”, explicitly considers Mantegazza to rank “among the founders of ‘anthropologia sexualis’”.38
After countless articles condemning him, including the accusation of immorality raised by the famous writer and journalist Matilde Serao, Mantegazza decided to publish a letter in her newspaper Il Corriere di Roma titled I falsi puritani (“The False Puritans”). In the article, the anthropologist makes a heartfelt defence against the accusations of obscenity levelled against him, using a series of strategies common among sexual scientists at the time. First of all, Mantegazza stressed the scientific character of his work. In what he considered to be an ongoing battle over the significance of what he calls “scientific modesty”, Mantegazza adopted a stark position:
In science, the obscene does not exist, otherwise it is a psychic phenomenon, which is studied and analysed under the same lenses and the same crucibles with which we dissect all that is human, the high and the low, the beautiful and the ugly, the ignoble and the sublime. […] Everything human belongs to the science that I adore above all others [anthropology], and whoever only studies human ideals or only examines their baseness cannot understand, not even in the epidermis, this manifold, profound, intricate, versatile, protean creature that is a human being.39
These statements are consistent with Mantegazza’s sexual science. Indeed, Mantegazza was a positivist scientist who advocated the need to study human behaviours through the experimental method – that is, through observation and comparison of data using physical, physiological, chemical and statistical criteria. The experimental method was therefore considered by Mantegazza as the criterion that determined the boundaries of what was to be deemed science. Convinced of the primacy of science in understanding reality, Mantegazza claimed the legitimacy of the scientific study of sexuality as an integral part of human nature. At the same time, they confirm that he understood sexual science as one of several disciplines that compose anthropology, which, therefore, sharing the same methodological basis, sought an all-encompassing analysis of human sexual behaviour.
However, neither sexual science nor anthropology, which Mantegazza treated as the allencompassing analysis of human beings, had sufficient credibility at the time to shield him from criticism against the subject of his studies. Like Mantegazza, other renowned sexual scientists had struggled to preserve their professional reputations in “the quagmire between pornography and science”.40 Key works such as Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis were censored in countries like the United Kingdom, where it was accused of being “scientific pornography”.41
Therefore, Mantegazza appealed to the language used and the price of the work, in order to distance himself from accusations of indecency and to demonstrate that the book could not have corrupted the imaginations of “fragile” readers:
What makes a book popular? The style and the price. My book is not popular because of its style, it is not popular because of its price. Libraries rightly do not give it out for public reading, parents should not give it to their youngsters. It is a work of science for scientists. If others read it, that is not my concern.42
In this way, the anthropologist achieved the dual tasks of distancing himself from the taint of immorality and presenting himself attractively in the eyes of his colleagues who were interested in the study of sexuality. “Not only is my book scientific”, Mantegazza goes on to say, “but it is useful, useful to jurists, psychologists and doctors. In it I develop new theories to explain some of the most bizarre human perversions, I scientifically classify many facts that have hitherto been obscure or misinterpreted”.43 It is hard to say that Mantegazza was deliberately lying. For example, the theories outlined in the book about the causes of what he continues to call “sodomy” were discussed and prised on several occasion by important scholars such as Richard Burton, Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds.
However, in spite of his unsuccessful attempts to have his book accepted as one addressed to an audience of scientists, it is more likely that Mantegazza, from the very beginning, intended it as a work for a wider audience. The fluent and captivating register that characterised his works, including Gli amori, certainly made him easier to read than other authors such as Lombroso. Moreover, as we have seen, the “Mantegazzian” language was one of the main reasons he was cast in a bad light in the eyes of his colleagues involved in sexual science. In fact, the popular dimension of the book – like others written by Mantegazza – led to a softening of what was at the time considered to be the proper boundaries of a scientific discipline.
In truth, the work was a great success. According to Mantegazza, it sold over ten thousand copies in the first twenty days after its publication, forcing Treves to immediately publish a second edition,44 which was followed by translations into several languages including French, German, Bohemian, Portuguese and Spanish.45
It seems, therefore, that despite Treves’ misgivings and the numerous accusations of immorality levelled at Mantegazza, the publication of Gli amori degli uomini responded to a certain interest in society at the time. In many ways, the nineteenth century was a time when sexuality became an increasingly central element in people’s lives. The gradual separation of society into separate spheres led to increasing connections between emotions and intimacy, and as a consequence, sexuality became the quintessence of the individual self.46
Although it is difficult to trace the effective relationship that Mantegazza had with his audience, there is evidence to confirm the hypothesis that a certain segment of the population – certainly a majority of men – were keen to know more about their sexuality. In Mantegazza’s correspondence, for example, we find a letter from a physician, Dr Emanuele Malfatti from Leghorn, who wrote to the anthropologist offering his congratulations for the publication of Gli amori and regretting the criticism Mantegazza received. Malfatti described the work as “an out-of-season fruit” and continued:
It is a book written for those who want to know themselves even from the navel down; it is a book that does not make a moral of convention, but wants morality according to science; [...] Your book wants to put Love and its manifestations on the altar of Nature, through which man performs the greatest act that most closely assimilates him to God, that is procreation. Is not God’s greatest attribute that of being Creator?47
Using the language of the anthropologist,48 this letter shows how there was a certain awareness – perhaps awakened by Mantegazza’s works – of the need to reflect, analyze and understand the sexual side of mankind in order to one day achieve a “more frank, truer and safer morality”.49 In fact, Mantegazza first presented himself to his public as an enemy of the bourgeois hypocrisy that, in his opinion, characterised the society of the time, and which had taught people to “blush at the mere sight of a pair of pants”.50 In advocating the need for a complete and profound knowledge of the whole individual, including sexuality, Mantegazza portrayed himself as a sort of liberating hero who was able, thanks to his sexual science, to unmask and replace false, moralistic and dogmatic conceptions of the sexual morality of the time.51
Blurring Boundaries: Terminological and Thematic Overlaps between Medicine, Anthropology and Pornography
As stated above, in the mid-1880s, Mantegazza published a book on sexual behaviours of Western and non-Western populations worldwide, firmly arguing that it was a scientific work. However, a closer look at the text suggests that the criticism levelled against it was not entirely misplaced. In fact, as already pointed out,52 the language used by the anthropologist and the topics addressed, not only in Gli amori but also to a large extent throughout the Trilogia, “were permeated by both romantic and pornographic elements”.53
As seen above, historiography has started to investigate the connections between sexual science and pornography at its origins. In particular, Sarah Bull investigated the relationships between the publication of scientific books on sexuality and the nineteenth-century pornography market, pointing out that many sexual scientists, including Havelock Ellis and Iwan Bloch, exploited the pornographic publishing market of the time in order to acquire pornographic writings that they used for their scientific research on sexuality.54
Like his transalpine colleagues, Mantegazza likely made extensive use of pornographic material in his research. Indeed, the so-called Psychological Museum, which he founded in 1891, housed a library of more than two hundred twenty volumes of erotic-pornographic literature. Among the volumes were works by the most famous authors of the European tradition, including Pietro Aretino, Lorenzo Venier and Giambattista Marino. The largest part was represented by libertine novels written by, among others, John Cleland, Jean-Charles Gervaise de Latouche, Andréa de Nerciat and Restif de la Bretonne, but also included Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos, and – of course – the Marquis de Sade. The library was indeed considered an integral part of the museum, whose purpose was to collect “documents”55 that should serve to describe human passions. One of the three rooms was dedicated to love: inside it, alongside the objects collected as evidence of various sexual behaviours, volumes of the erotic library were also displayed.56
Although, as we have seen, the legislative context was less stringent in Italy than in other countries, direct references to erotic literature are rarely found in Mantegazza’s writings. The majority of the explicit references in Gli amori come from the tradition of classical literature, as well from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel accounts from explorers, missionaries and, of course, anthropologists. Many of these texts are, in any case, rather ambiguous, especially in including scenes of compliant women at the disposal of the Western male gaze. It is enough to recall Robert Brough Smyth’s (1830-1889) quotation in Gli amori where the anthropologist and geologist describes an Australian ceremony called Jerryale, during which the male participants “stand naked in a line and behind them are the naked young women with nothing but a skirt of emu feathers and a crown of ropes on their heads”.57
These ambiguities were also stressed by the historian Irvin Cemil Schick, who investigating the intertwining of anthropological texts – including Gli amori – and pornographic literature and coined the term “ethnopornography”.58 Therefore, the existence of a unique a source as the catalogue of the erotic library of an anthropologist and sexologist such as Mantegazza represents an interesting opportunity to make a direct comparison. Indeed, a comparison between these texts and the volumes in the library reveals a number of consistent elements in common. The ambiguity of the words, the refinement of the metaphors, the lingering on some themes rather than others, created in his texts a chiaroscuro of sensuality that obliged the reader to perform a continuous decoding, a reading between the lines that marked the back-and-forth between medical science and erotic literature. Sometimes, Mantegazza used descriptions of the animal kingdom as metaphors for the human – describing, for example, the mating of two butterflies as follows: “in the twinkling of an eye, they leap on each other, and with a slow, gentle, prolonged caress, they caress each other with their wings”.59
At other times there appeared ambiguous terms that symbolically referred to erotic intimacy, such as loose hair for women or the chemise, considered the final layer of clothing before nudity. It is well known that the erotic literature of the time was full of such terms.60 In Mantegazza’s library, for example, there was a copy of La Belle sans chemise (1683), an anonymous work featuring a young woman struggling with her confessor.61 Frequent references to this garment can also be found in works such as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748), popularly known as Fanny Hill and deemed to be the first English pornographic novel in the modern sense, in which it can be read, “Polly began to take off her pins, and as she had no corset to unfasten, she found herself in a flash [...] completely naked except for her chemise”.62 Furthermore, in Gamiani, a story attributed to de Musset, the protagonist is seduced by the mother superior who, in order to justify her nudity, says, “One sleeps better without a chemise”.63
A similar use of the word recurs in Mantegazza’s texts. “No hairstyle – he writes – has ever surpassed that of a woman who, by letting her flowing hair fall over her shoulders and breasts, sometimes can have the glory of feeling dressed, even without the help of a seamstress, and even without needing a chemise”.64 Moreover, in L’Arte di prendere moglie (1891), he teased the reader by suggesting that “it is better to make every effort to surprise her [the woman one intends to marry] in her chemise, or even better, completely naked. I am speaking, of course, in a figurative sense: I want her naked of every artifice of coquetry and hypocrisy”.65
Recurring as well are terms belonging to the religious lexicon, such as “altar” or “Temple of Venus”, repeatedly used throughout the Igiene dell’amore66 as synonyms for female genitalia or to indicate their sacredness, as they were considered the seat of divine voluptuousness. The temple is therefore often the “temple of Venus”, the seat of the “sacred veil, which closes the door of the temple where men are born”.67 Thus, Mantegazza describes a young man approaching love as a “priest initiated into the mysteries of the temple”,68 and he admonishes those seeking only voluptuousness by inviting them to go “to the temple of ectaria and satiate your thirst”.69 Moreover, Il Tempietto di Venere is the title of a book in Mantegazza’s library.70 Similar terms are also used by the Marquis de Sade who, in his La Philosophie dans le boudoir, has one of the protagonists, Mme de Saint-Ange, say: “take a look at my cunt... that’s what the Temple of Venus is called”. 71
There are also many common references to classical antiquity, described both as a place of evil deeds and as the nostalgic ideal of a past in which sexuality was lived without the hypocrisies of the present. Theodora and Messalina are both characters cited as symbols of female lust, if not as actual prostitutes.72 In the Igiene dell’amore, for example, Mantegazza points out that the Byzantine empress “complained about the parsimony of nature, wishing for a fourth altar on which she could offer libations to the god of love”.73
The male counterpart is the figure of the satyr, often associated with Priapus, and the thyrsus – Dionysus’ staff – which was used as a synonym for the male member.74 As early as 1686, Nicolas Venette (1633-1698), physician and author of the famous Les Tableaux de l’amour conjugal, used the term to refer to the exuberance of young men.75 Similarly, Mantegazza wrote, “I met a Romagnolo in his 50s, earthy, with satyr-like features [...] who, as a young man, once embraced 17 women in one day”.76 In Gamiani, on the other hand, the term “wooden Priapus” is used to indicate a phallus.77
If we broaden our scope of analysis to the discourses and themes covered by Mantegazza’s sexual science, we see that even in this case there were evident overlaps, in particular between medical and anthropological discourses and the pornographic literature in circulation during the nineteenth century. For example, many libertine novels often contained information about the contraceptive methods in vogue at the time, which were the same as those Mantegazza suggested in Igiene dell’amore, namely coitus interruptus (which Mantegazza vividly describes as “the retreat before the catastrophe”,78 the “protective glove” and the sponge. The practice favoured by Mantegazza – that is, vaginal douching after coitus – finds its corresponding counterpart in the use of the bidet, described, among others, by Jean-Baptiste de Boyer in Thérèse philosophe, which dedicates an entire chapter – Utilité des bidets (“Uses of Bidets”) – to the subject. Such similarities show how blurred the boundaries were between certain genres at the time. This seems to confirm the hypothesis that just as pornography was used to convey medical and hygienic notions, medical literature on sexuality was also used as erotic material. This is in line with the findings of Bull, who, analysing the medical-erotic publishing market of the time, noted that some publishers, such as Charles Carrington, deliberately exploited the lack of a perceived separation between genres in order to sell medical-erotic works.79
Libertine literature and Mantegazza’s sexual science also shared a similar perspective on sexual pleasure, conceived of as a source of joy and personal fulfilment for both men and women.80 “Ah! [...] How happy they were! How overwhelmed with joy! The pleasure they were enjoying must have been enormous! Ah!... how happy they were!”81 sighed Saturninus, the protagonist of Histoire di Dom Bougre (“The Story of Dom Bougre”), commenting on the sex scene he had witnessed shortly before. Although in Mantegazza’s case the legitimate boundaries of sexual pleasure were those traced by the nuptial thalamus these analogies suggest that Mantegazza was to some extent influenced by libertine literature. This also helps to explain the differences between Mantegazza’s discourse on pleasure in sexual science and the positions adopted by many of his colleagues, who tended to oppose the legitimacy of mutual sexual pleasure – namely, to deny that normal women could experience sexual pleasure.82
Finally, taking into account Gli amori degli uomini in particular, there was a certain overlap between Mantegazza’s descriptions of sexual habits among non-Western populations and a strand of pornographic literature in exotic settings that developed during the nineteenth century. Here, it is possible to identify two main discursive threads. On the one hand, narratives characterised by an evident voyeurism succeed one another, focusing primarily on descriptions of defenceless and submissive female figures at the mercy of Western male readers’ gazes and fantasies. Nonetheless, these narratives are not necessarily intended as an end in themselves but are often included in discourses aimed at relativising Western morality. For example, in order to demonstrate the European hypocrisy of the excessive value placed on maidens’ virginity, Mantegazza recounts that elsewhere it was accorded a negative value – and therefore, brutal methods were used to get rid of it. Some Australian populations used particularly cruel procedures in which “the poor girl is held down by her feet and hands by several men, while an old one introduces first one finger, then two, then three, then four into her vagina”.83
On the other hand, the sexual habits described in Gli amori reflected the contours of a utopian state of nature in which sexuality, free from religious and social constraints, could be lived in complete freedom.84 One of the cornerstones of this narrative strand is certainly Denis Diderot’s famous work Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1772), in which Tahiti is described as a society where men and women experience their sexuality “without shame and without fear”.85 This type of narrative fed the Western erotic imagination with the myth of – as Bougainville himself called it – a new Kythera, a terrestrial Eden where the inhabitants lived “innocent and happy” following “the pure instinct of nature”.86 Echoing the erotic–sentimental education received by the protagonists of several libertine novels, Mantegazza claimed that in many primitive populations: “a girl’s affairs are considered natural actions and not faults. She has not been bought, she has not given her word of fidelity to anyone, she is not the property of a single man and can therefore freely enjoy her youth, granting intercourse to whomever she pleases”.87
These overlapping discourses are illustrative of the increasing connection developing between eroticism and exoticism during the second half of the nineteenth century. In this period, in fact, alongside the publication of new novels, a number of translations of oriental erotic manuals were made available on the European market – many of them originated by a group of scholars from the Anthropological Society of London,88 such as Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights and The Kamasutra – which contributed the increasing aura of obscenity that was growing around anthropology and, at the same time, introducing the Western world to different perspectives on sexuality.89
The vicissitudes surrounding the publication of Gli amori degli uomini reveal that in Italy, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the boundaries between sexual science and pornographic literature were rather blurred. As described previously, the existence of broad thematic and narrative overlaps supports the hypothesis that, in certain circumstances, it was difficult at the time to clearly distinguish what was to be considered science and what was pornography.
According to historians Peter Cryle and Alison Moore, in late nineteenth-century France there was a “fluid milieu” of popular scientific–sexual works characterised by similar discursive forms “that traversed artistic, literary, medical, psychiatric and pornographic genres”.90 Likewise, Bull also argues that a similar publishing market existed in England in the 1880s, a trade that figures such as the publisher Charles Carrington were able to exploit by marketing works of sexual science and actual pornography through the same channels.91
Despite the scant research carried out in Italy on this subject,92 one may suggest that Mantegazza’s works in general, and Gli amori degli uomini in particular, were among the most famous and earliest examples of this “fluid milieu” that was also taking shape in Italy, even if – according to the weak response of legislation on the subject – it did so more slowly than in other cultural contexts. However, unlike the other authors of such works, who tended to be non-specialised doctors – or even quacks – Mantegazza was an established scientist recognised in Italy and abroad. Like many of his colleagues, Mantegazza was aware that his work “operated at the edges of respectable enquiry”.93 Nonetheless, unlike other sexual scientists such as Ellis, he did not attempt to produce scientific texts on sexuality that were free from any pornographic allusions. On the contrary, Mantegazza was able to cleverly exploit the loose legislation on the obscene in post-unification Italy; entrenching himself behind the legitimacy of science, he deliberately forced the boundaries of the obscene and consequently obtained a huge popularity. It is therefore not surprising that Ellis, in response to Mantegazza’s offer to publish a translation of his book, was compelled to decline, confessing: “I should like to translate the Amori degli uomini, but I fear that it would rather shock my respectable fellow countrymen”.94
Mantegazza was certainly very attentive to his financial situation and aware of the profits he could obtain from writing popular works, as historiography has so far sometimes remarked.95 However, he also considered the popular dimension a crucial element of his sexual science. Therefore, this analysis leads to the conclusion that Mantegazza actively exploited the blurred boundaries between sexual science and pornography not only as a means to enrich himself, but also to better disseminate his scientific theories on sexuality. By enriching his books with erotic–pornographic overtones, he ensured that his texts would be read by a variety of readers who, while exploiting it in different ways, contributed differently to the wide circulation of his sexual science. Indeed, the use of erotic language in Mantegazza’s texts helped support his willingness to challenge and relativise the prevailing bourgeois and Catholic morality of the time, showing the citizens of the new-born Italian kingdom that sexuality was an aspect of the human being, and as such merited scientific study and popular understanding.