Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."
In the dream life of 18th and 19th Europe, Italy and the Gothic were conjoined twins.
The first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto
(1764)---a spookhouse ride whose oubliettes, subterranean passageways, and doors that slam shut by themselves still stock the Gothic prop room---is set in Italy. In fact, the first edition purported to be a translation of a 16th-century manuscript by an Italian cleric named "Onuphrio Muralto," rediscovered in the library of "an ancient Catholic family in the north of England." Ann Radcliffe's hugely influential Mysteries of Udolpho
(1794), which provided seed DNA for all Gothic romances to come, takes place partly in Italy, in a gloomy medieval pile in the Apennines where Our Heroine is menaced by the sinister Count Montoni. (Radcliffe had used Italy as a backdrop before, in A Sicilian Romance
(1790), and would again, in The Italian
(1796), where a diabolical monk named Schedoni puts a twisted face on the terrors of the Inquisition.) To Northern Europeans, especially the English, Italy reeked of cultural atavism---the inbred depravity of a decaying aristocracy and the perversions of Papism (paganism in a reversed collar, as far as protestants were concerned).
It's as if the sheer antiquity of the place---all those Roman ruins, haunted by the godless shades of all those parricidal, pedophilic Caesars Gibbon described in such scandalous detail in the Decline and Fall
(1776-1788)---deformed the Italian psyche, warping it under the accumulated weight of a thousand years of perversion and profanation, scheming and throat-slitting.
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