Owing to social prejudice, images of gender nonconformity are extremely rare before the twentieth century. Giuseppe Bonito’s The Femminiello (1740–60), a recently discovered painting from 18th-century Naples that is now on view in our European galleries, is a testament to that city’s exceptional, long-term acceptance of local cross dressers known as femminielli.
The term, which might be translated “little female-men,” is not derogatory, but rather an expression of endearment. These beloved members of Neapolitan society come from the poorest neighborhoods of the city and are often the youngest of many children. Coddled by their mothers, they are brought up cross dressing from an early age, yet do not try to conceal their birth sex completely. Rather than being stigmatized, they are deemed special and are appreciated as almost a third sex. Most significantly, femminielli are widely thought to bring good luck. Neapolitans take them gambling and bring newborn babies for them to hold to this day.
The painting seems to represent preparations for an evening of gambling because the young man has taken off a necklace of red coral from the Bay of Naples—also thought to bring good luck—for the femminiello to wear. Social status is reflected in the femminiello’s ruddy skin, missing teeth, and goiter, then a common condition among the poor. Historians have suggested that this type of genre painting reflects theatrical performance. Certainly, Neapolitan images often feature a grinning figure looking out to engage the viewer as an actor would do. We are invited to consider the artist’s playful inversion of traditional views of gender, which contrasts the pretty face of the young male with the femminiello’s more masculine mug.
In spite of Neapolitan acceptance, this is the only known image of a femminiello before photographs made at the end of the 19th century. We are grateful to Fred Ross and the Ross Family Fund of Equity Foundation for supporting the purchase and restoration of this rare example of gender bending in the early modern period.
Reprinted from an article in the Museum’s Portal member magazine written by Dawson Carr, Ph.D., The Janet and Richard Geary Curator of European Art.