From Gothic Italy to Italy as Gothic Archive: Italian Narratives and the Late Romantic Metrical Tale

Article excerpt

In the conclusion to his extensive and authoritative Classic Tour through Italy (1813), the traveller John Chetwode Eustace introduced a discussion of the Italian national character. Invoking an essentially appreciative and laudatory image of Italy - even the Roman Church is vindicated by this self-confessed Catholic author - he denounced the prejudiced exaggerations of those commentators who denigrated Italy by means of worn-out sterotypes:

never surely were any portraits more overcharged, and more totally unlike the original, than the pictures which some travellers have drawn (at leisure apparently), and given to the public as characters of the Italians. If we may credit these impartial gentlemen, the Italians combine in their hearts almost every vice that can defile and degrade human nature . . . Hence, is a scene of lewdness and debauchery to be introduced into a Romance? It is placed in an Italian convent. Is an assassin wanted to frighten ladies in the country, or to terrify a London mob on the stage? An Italian appears; a monk or a friar probably, with a dose of poison in one hand and a dagger in the other. Is a crime too great for utterance to be presented dimly to the imagination? It is half disclosed in an Italian confessional. In short, is some inhuman plot to be executed, or is religion to be employed as the means or instrument of lust or revenge? The scene is laid in Italy; the contrivers and the perpetrators are Italians; and to give it more diabolical effect, a convent or a church is the stage, and clergymen of some description or other, are the actors of the tragedy.1

Eustace here points out what is an evident flaw in contemporary accounts of Italy that offered themselves as reliable sources of knowledge on this country and its culture.At the same time, however, the factual vistas of travel writing begin to shift towards the imaginary domain of fiction and Italy becomes the country depicted in countless Gothic narratives. Thus the Classical Tour confirms to what extent the Italy of the Gothic was a crucially active component in the sociological and anthropological discourses underpinning Romantic-period travel writing in Britain. Eustace's attack is levelled both at this discursive practice and its ostensibly factual values and the fabrications of fictional literature. Indeed, his words vindicate the Catholic Church from age-old accusations by pointing an accusing finger at the popular tales which, by reproducing and diffusing these notions, 'have at length biassed public opinion, and excited a distrust and an antipathy towards the Italian nation'.2

Illuminating Gothic fiction as a multiple structure pervaded by, and infiltrating a variety of signifying practices, Eustace makes plain the dangers implicit in dismissive imaginative geographies of Italy and the concurrent need for correctives. In particular, he stresses the importance of a greater ethical responsibility on the part of the writers: 'The authors of these Tales of Terror ought to recollect, that in amusing the imagination they are not allowed to pervert the judgment'.3 Yet the term 'tales' is aptly ambiguous in this call for moral improvement. It may refer to the horror stories purveyed by travel writings, as well as the products of the Gothic imagination - a kind of protean discursive material with a variety of narrative applications and capable of conditioning apparently reliable interpretations of Italy.

Thanks to its multiple generic references and controversial ideological allegiance, Eustace's judgment usefully unveils constructions of Italy as part of a Gothic conglomerate of discursive practices that respond to the manifold cultural pressures of turn-of-the-century Britain.4 In Eustace's early nineteenth-century context, literary production featured a whole range of texts capitalizing on stereotypes of Italy as a land ridden with violence, vice and other assorted dangers: poems such as Lord Byron's Parisina (1816) and Letitia Landon's The Venetian Bracelet (1829); novels such as Charles Robert Maturin's Fatal Revenge; or, the Family of Montorio (1807) and Louisa Sidney Stanhope's The Nun of Santa Maria di Tindaro (1818), published by the notorious Minerva Press; and a whole series of tragedies from Maturin's Bertram (1816) to Percy Shelley's The Cenci (1819, 1821), Mary Mitford's Julian (1823) or James Sheridan Knowles's The Wife: A Tale of Mantua (1833). …

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