Italy and the Gothic

By Demata, Massimiliano | Gothic Studies, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Italy and the Gothic


Demata, Massimiliano, Gothic Studies


It would not be an exaggeration to argue that, without Italy, the development of the Gothic Novel would have been very different. Italy was a major source of inspiration for the late eighteenth-century British Gothic novelists.More than France, Spain or Germany, Italy was the Gothic writers' favourite geographical and historical background, and Italian characters and settings were used so extensively that the genre often came to be almost entirely associated with Italy. Writers viewed 'Gothic Italy' (almost an oxymoron, given the Northern and Protestant nature originally associated with the term 'Gothic' as opposed to the dominance of Catholicism which was seen as the most distinctive feature of Italian society and history) as a nest of enormous narrative potentialities: Italy was represented as a place of violence and passion, ruled by a feudal and despotic nobility and under the influence of a degenerate Catholic clergy; its landscapes were pictured with castles, churches and ruins whose labyrinthine and claustrophobic architecture was the novels' perfect physical and psychological setting.

For one thing, though, the Gothic Novel was hardly the first expression of Britain's interest in Italy. Britain had often engaged very thoroughly with Italian culture ever since the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and Walpole, Radcliffe and their imitators made extensive use of the traditional view of Italy and its very rich reservoir of themes and characters.However, in so doing, they often expanded (and, sometimes, subverted) commonplace notions about Italy. In many Gothic Novels, Italy appears as merely a set of conventions, whose adherence to reality most writers rarely bothered to verify. Gothic novelists strengthened the stereotype of Italy as a violent and backward reality by creating and exploiting what would soon become the typical Gothic paraphernalia, made of ruined castles, ghosts, dark forests, sentimental heroines, wicked villains and the dramatic landscapes of the Alps and the Appenines. Yet, the use of Italian topics made by Gothic writers went well beyond the set of conventions and tropes which soon became commonly associated with Gothic novels and, generally, to the popular perception of Italy in Britain. Modern literary criticism has rarely addressed the fact that the aura of strangeness and mystery associated with Italy by novelists often had subtle aesthetic and ideological implications. Italy effectively was a complex narrative, in which writers often played out (more or less consciously) a cultural agenda in which moral, aesthetic and political standards were often subverted.

The history of the British Gothic Novel suggests that Italy took centre stage from day one and, more than any other geographical or historical setting, was the basis for the plots and themes of most of the main works. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1765), traditionally identified as the first work of the genre, was based around the southern Italian city of the same name, even though, as Walpole himself acknowledged, he only chose the name because it had a fascinating sound.His short novel featured all those elements associated with Italy which would soon become part of the Gothic machinery: a tale which,Walpole claimed, was told in a medieval manuscript, with dark and labyrinthine castles, mysterious prophecies, and a corrupt and violent aristocracy. Critics have often dismissed Walpole's version of Italy presented in Otranto as hardly realistic in terms of historical or geographical accuracy. And yet, he knew Italy very well as he had famously visited it together with Thomas Gray in 1739-41, and the moral and aesthetic background of the novel derived from his own Italian experiences.Ann Radcliffe continued and strengthened the Italian trend. Italy was the background of her three most important novels, A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Italian (1797), and of most of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Radcliffe used Edmund Burke's ideas on the sublime in her visual representation of Italy, and especially in the landscapes of the Alps and Appennines, which she knew through her extensive reading of travel books.

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