At the end of the nineteenth century, British and American lesbian artists settled around Florence, Italy, renovating neglected Renaissance estates. Contemporary accounts describe the hillside region as colonized by a “cult of women.” These women restored, refashioned and theorized gardens as places of queerly mythic erotic encounter. In this lecture Professor Thomas will explore how design features such as nymphaeums, water parterres, secret gardens, grottos and boscos provided both refuge and open-air expression for lesbian subjectivity. Remembering that the first documented use of the term “sexuality” refers to plants, Professor Thomas puts the fields of landscape architecture and queer theory into conversation, arguing that queer theory needs to build a history of lesbian desire that is animated as much by landscape as by other women. Drawing from recent theory on “vibrant matter” and “plant thinking” that sees land and plants – the non-animal generally – as mobile, sentient and desiring, this lecture will propose that ruined and replanted Italian landscapes shaped modern lesbian relationships to materiality and estate.
Kate Thomas is the K. Lawrence Stapleton Professor of Literatures in English at Bryn Mawr College. She publishes and teaches on Victorian literature and material culture, gender and sexuality studies and food studies. The author of Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal and Victorian Letters (Oxford UP, 2012) and the forthcoming Victorian Informatics (University of Pennsylvania Press), she has also published on queer ecology, vegetal poetics, uncanny gardens, and back-to-the-land socialist sex politics. Recipient of a 2019 Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture from the American Academy in Rome, she is currently working on a book project entitled “Lesbian Arcadia,” which examines the co-relation of literature and landscape for expatriate Anglo-American lesbians living in Italy across the fin-de-siècle.