It's entirely coincidental that I'm covering this article on "The Italian Taste" (i.e., homosexuality) in late 18th century France right after airing the podcast on Anne Lister's courtship strategies that included her slang term "going to Italy" for engaging in sexual relations with women. It was fairly common for historic cultues to attribute either the practice or the origins of homosexual relations to some other neighboring culture. The English tended to view France as the origin of non-normative sexual practices, while France looked to Italy. (Though it depended to some extent on which specific practices were under discussion.) So while it's unclear to me whether Lister had picked up on an existing phrase, or was simpy following an existing trope that same-sex relations were more prevalent or more tolerated in Italy, I can't help but think that there's a connection here. And while Blanc's article leaves room for wondering how much of his discussion is genuinely relevant to f/f relations (as opposed to the annoyingly frequent tendency of male authors to assume women's experiences follow men's, and not bother to question the matter), there is no doubt that Lister is specifically discussing women.
Blanc, Olivier. 2001. “The ‘Italian Taste’ in the Time of Louis XVI, 1774-92” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3
Blanc, Olivier. 2001. “The ‘Italian Taste’ in the Time of Louis XVI, 1774-92”
(A great deal of this article focuses fairly specifically on male same-sex relations, so I have cherry-picked the details relating to women. Some of the generalizations included her may not be applicable tom women.)
This article looks at the topic of “libertinism” in the definition of “sexual relations outside marriage” during the era of Louis XVI in France. There is a problem with sources in that significant rapid shifts in public morals in the aftermath of the revolution meant that later memoirists often self-censored events of the author’s youth. And contemporary writings often had political motivations for satire and exaggeration. But there are also more reliable records, including legal contracts drawn up between lovers that gave some sort of formal standing to non-marital relationships.
Ca. 1780, extramarital relations were common and practiced publicly within the court and urban centers such as Paris, by both men and women. For the nobility and the wealthy, marriage was for economic and dynastic purposes, with little concern for personal emotional fulfillment. In contrast, the common people tended to follow traditional moral teachings under which adultery was discouraged and carried on in secret. This was even more the case for same-sex relations, which were condemned among the middle and lower classes but tolerated among the aristocracy.
While the terminology of same-sex relations generally had a negative tone, one phrase “the Italian taste” treated them positively, alluding to the sophisticated history of Italy. And the existing legal statutes against homosexuality were often bypassed when the offender was of high enough social status. (Most of the specific persons mentioned in this discussion are male, perhaps due to the major focus of legal persecution being male same-sex relations.)
Despite the prevalence of same-sex relations among the court and nobility, Louis XVI himself was more conservative and often had to be dissuaded from dealing more severely with offenders, as detailed in the often scandal-filled records of the royal court.
Certain salons were known for attracting those of “Italian taste” and publications of their habitués sometimes included support for same-sex desires. Among the salons, the duchess de Villeroy (Marguerite-Henriette d’Aumont) was known for organizing dinners for women and for her patronage of the actress Mademoiselle Clairon with whom she had a sexual relationship. De Villeroy was known for hosting a wide circle of aristocratic women known to have sapphic relations. (Once again, the vast majority of this section deals with men.)
In addition to the semi-private space of the salons, libertinism flourished in public spaces such as clubs, cafes, bath-houses, gardens, bookshops, and theaters (though many of these may be relevant only for men). Women such as Madame Joly de Fleury (the “Madame de Furiel” of the pornographic novel L’Espion Anglois which started the “Anandrine Sect” motif) and the actress Mademoiselle Raucourt appeared in public in men’s clothing accompanied by their female lovers. In addition to Raucourt, other actresses known for taking female lovers included Carline (Gabrielle Malacrida).
Somewhat contradictorily, under the Empire, although homosexuality was decriminalized, it also became less socially acceptable, along with the decline in tolerance for heterosexual libertine relations. The tide had turned and bourgeois morality became the norm for those in power.
(The footnotes for this article reference a great many primary sources for the details, in case the reader wish to follow up…and reads French.)