Violence and rape in the Italian fin-de-siècle: Gabriele D’Annunzio’s “La Vergine Orsola”

From Firenze University Press Book: Rewriting and Rereading the XIX and XX-Century Canons

University of Florence
3 min readNov 21, 2022

Michela Barisonzi, Monash University, Australia

At the turn of the 20th century, we see an increase in the production of fictional writings and galatei dedicated to a female audience and characterized by a strong pedagogic focus. At the same time, we find novels and medical treaties, such as those of Cesare Lombroso and Paolo Mantegazza, where women are still presented in a position of biological and moral inferiority.

The rather contrasting female images that emerge from this literature reflect a divided society, marked by the crisis of bourgeois values, the birth of the nationalist movement and the rise of feminism. This chapter analyses the representation of female sexual desire and violence against women in the selected short story, looking at how rape is presented either as a brutal crime, possibly the act of a regression to an animal state, or as an almost normalized consequence, and even a deserved punishment for female sexual agency.

In the latter case, female sexuality can be considered then as the symbol of women’s emancipation and a threat to bourgeois traditional social standards that require repression through rape. As Higgins and Silver point out, rape and sexual violence in general “have been so ingrained and so rationalised” (1991, 2) to be perceived as part of society, “inevitable to women as to men” (ibidem). As I will show, in the case of this short story, rape may be then seen as a natural consequence of deviant female behaviour, compared to the accepted idea of female sexuality. As Foucault points out, two of the three aspects that he identifies as constituting the morality of behaviours have a social denotation, and they refer to the “rule of conduct” (1978, vol. 2, 26), and the “conduct measured through the rule” (ibidem).

Therefore, I will look at how the active sexuality of the protagonist Orsola, arising outside marriage, breaks the social rule of conduct that recognises female sexuality only within the marriage and in terms of procreation. Then, as this aberrant sexuality is measured and condemned through the comparison to the rule, rape emerges as a countermeasure to re-establish the rule while defying it, as it implies sex outside the wedlock. Nevertheless, rape is acceptable within the rule, as an exception that proves the rule, and because it is carried out by a man for whom this rule does not apply.

This double interpretation of rape, as a crime or a punishment, reflects then the constant tension between what is socially acceptable and unacceptable in a period of historical transition characterized by the beginning of a new political, economic, and social era in Italy after the Unification. La Vergine Orsola, as I will show, then highlights and critiques this dichotomy throughout the events narrated, its setting, the use of female stereotypical characters as well as emerging social types, and its language choices.

DOI: 10.36253/978–88–5518–597–4.09

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