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Simona Di Martino (University of Warwick): I am a PhD candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Warwick, funded by the School of Modern Languages and Cultures. I am working on late eighteenth-century sepulchral literature in Italy, advocating the existence of an autochthonous Gothic strain whose origins I am currently investigating.

In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe wrote that “The death of a beautiful woman – is – unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”, a clear signal that the taste for the macabre, which originated in the Baroque, was still appreciated even centuries later. The Gothic fashion in Europe had already flourished in the eighteenth century, intermingling itself with Romanticism and leaving behind the legacy of the Baroque. According to most critics, the Gothic and its gory themes have never really arrived in Italy. The marginal and short-lasting period called Scapigliatura, which is the most comparable kind of literature to the Gothic novel, appeared quite late in the nineteenth century and has been studied in relation to the ‘fantastic’. However, the whole eighteenth century in Italy is rich in deathly and macabre motifs, both in literature and the visual arts, motifs which cannot be considered entirely an import from foreign models (the British in primis) as generally maintained by scholars.

The depiction of death, and particularly that of a beautiful woman, had already doubtless been the most poetical topic in Italian sepulchral literature of late eighteenth century. Studying this strain, so far neglected by critics, is a very fascinating project to pursue in my opinion, for it allows me to conduct different research focusing on various cultural branches and resulting in composite interdisciplinary work. Furthermore, this kind of investigation would cast a new light on thematical threads across centuries so as to mark a visible continuity between the macabre fashion of the Baroque and Romanticism and reaching to the Italian making of the nation.  

I apply the classical canon of beauty, according to which female beauty was traditionally perceived by poets, to the women’s corpses constellating late eighteenth-century works. I follow the short and the long canon described by Giovanni Pozzi (respectively focusing on the face or on the whole body) as well as Massimo Peri’s theory of ‘tetracromatism’ and Elisabeth Bronfen’s theories of the external gaze on dead bodies. My aim is to approach the primary sources by reversing the classical topos of beauty and highlighting the taste of macabre which crosses the centuries. Together with aesthetic reflections on the human body, my study involves the examination of ekphrasis (written description of works of art) emphasising both classical models and medieval themes, such as the visual Dance macabre and the poetical Triumphus mortis. It is important to note that also the Christian world represents a common ground for reflections on the body, portrayals of death and the world of ‘visions’ – particularly relevant in sepulchral literature. Therefore, considering Christian implications is crucial in order to shape a realistic cultural background of that time. Specifically, Philippe Ariès’ Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present constitutes a fundamental work on the changing of funereal practices and grief habits, which finds confirmation in my literary sources.

Gustave Doré – Dante Alighieri; Henry Francis Cary (ed) “Canto XXXI” in The Divine Comedy by Dante, Illustrated, Complete, (London, Paris & Melbourne: Cassell & Company, 1892) Retrieved on 13 July 2009, public domain. The influence from Dante’s Divine Comedy in Varano’s Visioni sacre e morali is one of the most visible evidence of sepulchral/pre-gothic literature’s autochthonous roots.

General overview

My project investigates the rise and the evolution of the sepulchral theme in Italian literature from the late eighteenth century to the first ten years of the nineteenth century, tracing meaningful topoi as core parts of pre-gothic motifs. My study begins with the analysis of Alfonso Varano’s Visioni sacre e morali, completed in 1766 and posthumously published in 1789, and focuses on its reception by successive authors. I employ a thematic, lexicographic, and reception-oriented approach with the aim of tracing the circulation of specific motifs across a determined time-span, bringing together relatively neglected authors of the pre-revolutionary era (not only Alfonso Varano but also Salomone Fiorentino, Aurelio de’ Giorgi Bertola and Ippolito Pindemonte) and canonised protagonists of Italy’s later literary history, such as Ugo Foscolo and, partly, Giacomo Leopardi and Alessandro Manzoni.

My final aim is to reconstruct a sepulchral literary strain at the dawn of Italy’s literary modernity, which supplies later nineteenth-century popular literature with a set of motifs that contribute to the creation of a ‘Gothic’ atmosphere, beyond any strict division into compartments of genre. As Fred Botting argues, the ‘Gothic’ is not strictly a genre, but rather a mode underlying different literary experiences of the modern and contemporary age (from the 1760s onwards), which can be recognised by a combination of coexisting elements: excess, transgression, and self-awareness of their own textual component.[1] For this reason, my project represents a contribution towards an ‘archaeology’ of the Italian Gothic, meaning by this term a historical and thematic reconstruction of the ways Italian culture incorporates and/or autonomously re-elaborates the ‘writing of excess’ informing Western literature at the turn of the nineteenth century. I employ an ‘archaeological’ perspective in order to trace the ‘prehistory’ of the Italian Gothic as it would later emerge in nineteenth-century popular literature. Following Foucault’s statement in Archéologie du savoir, to adopt an archaeological approach means describing discourses in their emergence and transformation, regardless of later canonizations and cultural hierarchies.

Traditionally perceived as marginal within the geographies of European Gothic literature, the Italian domain offers instead, and particularly within the auroral moment I cover, a remarkably fertile field. Sepulchral literature in particular is a very promising field of study. In the past, scholarship has primarily focused on the influence of British ‘graveyard poetry’ on Italian literature, thereby underestimating the largely autochthonous roots of Italian sepulchral poetry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – including Dante, moral Christian poetry of the Baroque, and the Classical eulogy. At the same time, focusing on foreign models’ reception scholars had not considered the specificity of the ways Italian literature, from a Catholic and Classicist standpoint, deals with the ‘abjection’ of death. Investigating the ‘Gothic’ also enables me to detach my approach from distinctions that have informed criticism on the subject for a long time: eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pre- and post-revolutionary, pre-Romantic and Romantic, ‘Italian’ and ‘foreign’, realism and the fantastic, literature and para-literature, and ‘high-brow’ and ‘low-brow’ culture. My work, therefore, inserts itself in the recent critical vogue reinstating the ‘Gothic’ as a powerful notion for re-interpreting specific phenomena of Italy’s modern and contemporary literary history: the historical novel in the mode of Walter Scott, mid-nineteenth-century narratives employing gory themes in order to focus on social issues, paranormal-related fiction in magazines at the end of the century, and the occult revival in the 1960s.[2]

Areas of investigations

In terms of theory and methodology, as stated above, I will adopt a threefold approach: thematic (A), lexicographical (B), and reception-oriented (C). This perspective will allow me to investigate phenomena of thematical continuity, from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century and afterwards, through verifiable data such as semantic fields and word-clouds, as well as publication data testifying to the circulation of a corpus of texts (both poetry and prose). The joint analysis of prose and poetry is indeed one of the characterising features of my approach, in that it enables me to focus on how themes and motifs spread across different genres and writing practices, reinforcing the aforementioned argument about the Gothic being more of a ‘mode’ crossing different forms of writing than a fixed genre.

(A) My thematic approach allows me to trace the evolution of sepulchral themes on the base of specific and recurrent topoi which will become largely popular in later literature, such as: macabre depiction of corpses and ekphrastic representations of death and tombs. An interesting debated topic to this end, which emerges from my study, is the portrayal of Death in terms of gender, which contrasts the male representation of the Biblical Angle of Death and the female Donna in Petrarch’s Triumphs. Recalling Botting’s definition of ‘gothic’, which he relates to the idea of excess, the traditional canon of ‘beauty’ as outlined by Pozzi could be a valuable tool to measure both the presence and the absence of beauty – its percentage of excess – in Varano’s visionary work. Moreover, physical beauty is based on two standards, exemplified as ‘the long canon’ and ‘the short canon’, as mentioned before.  The former is related to the body as a whole, in all its parts, colours, shapes and proportions, while the latter focuses on the face and mainly emphasises the colours. These two canons will be the guidelines for my analysis as far as the body is concerned. The constellation of words from Varano’s Visioni to be examined within this cluster necessarily includes the word ‘corpo’ and its plural ‘corpi’, together with its cognates that are all to be found in the text, namely: ‘cadavere’, ‘cadaveri’, ‘frale’, ‘salma’, ‘salme’, and, as a sineddoche, the word ‘ossa’. In opposition to the materiality of the body, I will also consider the word ‘alma’ and its plural ‘alme’, and the Roman concept of ‘larva’ and its plural ‘larve’. These words, in turn, will require the analysis of other terms, which will be examined accordingly.

(B) My work employs both historical and etymological dictionaries, and it makes use of repertoires and lexicons that could have been used by authors in their own times. Among the main sources, my examination considers the fourth edition of the Vocabolario degli Academici della Crusca or Dictionary of the Accademici della Crusca (1729-38), available online, whose historical innovation lies in its methodology, unprecedented in the Italian lexicographical tradition.[3] Moreover, I employ the Grande dizionario della lingua italiana (GDLI), published from 1961 onwards, whose final volume was issued in 2002 and which is considered the largest and most important historical dictionary of the Italian language.[4] The quality of this work makes it a reference point for any scholar of Italian language and literature. The GDLI represents an excellent tool for properly understanding the cultural implications of language in its historical evolution. Moreover, it provides a large wealth of examples from the Italian literary tradition, from the fourteenth century to the early twentieth century. GDLI also organises meanings and acceptations of words by using ‘currency’ as a guiding principle. As for the etymological derivation, an indispensable source is constituted by Cortelazzo and Zolli’s Italian etymological dictionary, the DELI.[5] By so doing, my analysis attempts to provide a quantifiable, evidence-based, and archaeological outline of the presence of sepulchral themes in the Italian literary corpus. During the progress of my study, key terms will be discussed in their historical construction, forming semantic ‘clouds’ through which phenomena of thematical pervasiveness can be investigated. Such research will not be disjointed, of course, from literary-historical and, more broadly, historical contextualisation, as outlined above.

(C) My third theoretical approach relies on Harold Bloom’s idea that every new composition is an adoption, manipulation, alteration or assimilation from literary predecessors in certain aspects of the content, literary style or form of a certain work.[6] This is the basis of the concept of ‘literary influence’. However, the study of ‘influence’ has been gradually replaced by the concept of ‘reception’, centering instead on reaction, opinion, orientation and critique, thus shifting from being author-centric to reader-centric.[7] By re-appropriating Jauss’s paradigm of reception, which refers to a historical application of the reader response theory, I will read some of my primary sources (the latest of which will probably be Ugo Foscolo’s Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis) as a reader’s response to older texts (in this case those by Varano and Fiorentino), while at the same time charting the circulation and popularity of the latter across the decades in question.[8] In this way, I will analyse sepulchral literature as the combined product of the reader’s own horizon of expectations and the actual reception (confirmations, disappointments, refutations and reformulations) of these expectations. Therefore, if interpreted through this theoretical lens, sepulchral literary stream acquires the status of a cultural product revealing the attitudes with which the Italian writers of the early nineteenth century perceived and interpreted previous literary models in their own historical age. My semantic and lexicographical analysis will support the study of the linguistic and aesthetic expectations of the readers, which change over the course of the time together with the biopolitical organisation of the dead and the institutionalisation of cemeteries in the Italian context.

Fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco, Trionfo della Morte, in Campo Santo of Pisa, 1336-1341


Scholarship has traditionally considered sepulchral Italian poetry as:

a) a minor stream of eighteenth-century literary taste;

b) an Italian appendix deriving from a broader sepulchral and Ossianic fashion which originated in the British context;

c) an isolated presence within the historical framework of Italy’s literary tradition, marginally influencing works such as Foscolo’s Dei Sepolcri and Leopardi’s ‘canzoni sepolcrali’.

Such marginalisation was also part of the broader, ideological refusal of ‘excess’ – and, therefore, of the Gothic – characterising Italian culture since the early nineteenth-century, whose biases were incorporated by Italian Studies in the very vocabulary of the discipline.[9] As Fabio Camilletti maintains, the alleged ‘absence’ of an Italian Gothic tradition stems from a long-lasting cultural prejudice against the ‘horror’ as a form of aesthetic excess.[10] In other words, representations of death can be accepted in Italian literature only if they do not involve their aspect as abjection, namely – to borrow Foucault’s terms from Naissance de la clinique – the macabre and the morbid.[11] This explains the presence in Italian cultural imagery of typical representations of a monumental and titanic but always measured and decorous death, as portrayed in Neoclassical statuary.

Given this general context, my thesis pivots on three main arguments:

a) Italian sepulchral poetry is rooted in eighteenth-century Italian literature;

b) although influenced by foreign (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) models, it also possessed autochthonous origins;

c) it influenced later literary experiences in a more intense and ramified way than commonly acknowledged.

The main primary source

Cover of the 1834 edition

I take as my starting point the Visioni sacre e morali, completed in 1766 by Alfonso Varano, a fairly successful author in his own age, but largely neglected in later decades (although he would be one of Leopardi’s models in composing Appressamento della morte). Varano heralds several of the features characterising sepulchral-related literature in late eighteenth-century Italy, such as a strong relationship with literary tradition (in particular Dante) and a substantial independence from non-Italian models, contrary to one of the main assumptions of scholarship working on Italian ‘graveyard poetry’. Visioni sacre e morali, is a collection of twelve lyrical compositions, correlated one with another, which were composed between 1749 and 1766. I chose this work primarily as it demonstrates my idea about Italian sepulchral literature as an autochthonous phenomenon, not uniquely derived from Anglo-Saxon sources. This hypothesis, which gives a new dignity and a new important role to Varano’s work, has already been maintained by several scholars, including Binni, Cerruti, Mazziotti and Verzini, but has never been fully developed or taken as a starting point for a critical reappreciation of the sepulchral theme in the Italian canon.[12] The role of Visioni sacre e morali as a source for later literary works has been recognised by Binni, Verzini, Spaggiari, and Penso who have remarked how excerpts from Varano’s work are included by Leopardi in his Crestomazia italiana[13] and have stressed his influence on Foscolo’s and Monti’s poetry.[14] Furthermore, the novelty of Varano’s poetry, re-negotiating Catholic ethics through the re-appropriation of the medieval genre of visio, forms an important source for Leopardi in composing his Appressamento della morte, one of the works reintroducing Dante’s terza rima as a model for nineteenth-century religious-inspired poetry.[15] Several scholars have discussed both Varano’s fortune in his own time, as is confirmed by the numerous editions of Visioni in the late eighteenth century, and his decline in later decades, which confined him to the ‘minor’ authors of the Italian eighteenth century’.[16]

My corpus also includes other texts belonging to the genre of Italian graveyard poetry. Among these, I will analyse excerpts from Salomone Fiorentino’s highly popular Elegie in morte di Laura sua moglie. Like Varano’s work, selections from Fiorentino’s Elegie are included in Leopardi’s Crestomazia. Moreover, the closeness, in thematic terms, between Fiorentino’s work and Varano’s Visione X invites one to read them in parallel. Indeed, Fiorentino seems to be a good example of an author who has been influenced by Varano, contributing to the popularisation of visio as a genre throughout the late eighteenth century.

Simona Di Martino, PhD student in Italian Studies, University of Warwick

[1] Fred Botting, Gothic (London: Routledge, 1996).

[2] The notion of ‘Gothic’ is a recent import in Italian Studies. As Stefano Lazzarin has demonstrated, the critical debate on Italian fantasy literature has been largely monopolized by the notion of the ‘fantastic’ coined by Tzvetan Todorov, and only in recent times have scholars tried to expand their corpus through an intentionally broad understanding of the ‘Gothic’ (Stefano Lazzarin et al. (eds.), Il fantastico italiano: bilancio critico e bibliografia commentata (dal 1980 a oggi) (Florence: Le Monnier, 2016)). These include, from different perspectives: Francesca Billiani and Gigliola Sulis (eds.), The Italian Gothic and Fantastic: Encounters and Rewritings of Narrative Traditions (Madison and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007); Fabrizio Foni, Alla fiera dei mostri: Racconti pulp, orrori e arcane fantasticherie nelle riviste italiane 1899-1932 (Latina: Tunué, 2007); Fabio Camilletti, ‘“Timore” e “terrore” nella polemica classico-romantica: l’Italia e il ripudio del gotico’, Italian Studies, 69.2 (2014), 231–45, p. 244 and Italia lunare. Gli anni Sessanta e l’occulto (Bern: Peter Lang, 2018).

[3] Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, Quarta edizione 1729-38 (Firenze: presso Domenico Maria Manni).

[4] GDLI: Grande dizionario della lingua italiana, ed. by Salvatore Battaglia (Torino: UTET, 1961-2002). The critical opinion has been expressed in Pietro G. Beltrami and Simone Fornara, ‘Italian Historical Dictionaries: From the Accademia Della Crusca to the Web’, International Journal of Lexicography, 17 (2004), pp. 357–84.

[5] DELI: Dizionario etimologico della lingua italiana, ed. by Manlio Cortelazzo and Paolo Zolli (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1979-1988).

[6] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

[7] Robert C. Holub, Reception theory: a critical introduction (Methuen, 1984); see also: M. A. R. Habib, Modern literary criticism and theory: a history (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

[8] Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).

[9] Aloisi and Camilletti, ‘Introduction’, in Archaeology of the Unconscious, pp. 1-12, p. 5.

[10] Camilletti, ‘“Timore” e “terrore” nella polemica classico-romantica’; see also Maria Antonietta Frangipani, Motivi del romanzo nero nella narrativa lombarda (Rome: Elia, 1981) pp. 8-9.

[11] Michel Foucault, Naissance de la clinique: une archéologie du regard médical (1963), transl. by A. M. Sheridan Smith, The Birth of the Clinic: an Archaeology of Medical Perception (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

[12] Walter Binni, Preromanticismo italiano (Napoli: Edizioni Scientifiche italiane, 1947); Marco Cerruti, Storia della civiltà letteraria italiana Vol. V (Turin: UTET, 1992); Anna Maria Mazziotti, ‘Per una rilettura delle “Visioni” di Alfonso Varano’, La Rassegna della Letteratura Italiana, LXXXV (1981), 114–30; Riccardo Verzini, ‘Introduzione’, in Visioni sacre e morali (Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso, 2003), pp. 9–37.

[13] Giacomo Leopardi, Crestomazia italiana poetica, cioè scelta di luoghi in verso italiano insigni o per sentimento o per locuzione, raccolti, e distribuiti secondo i tempi degli autori, dal conte Giacomo Leopardi (Milan: Stella, 1828) pp. 284-326; Giacomo Leopardi, Crestomazia italiana. La poesia, ed. by Giuseppe Savoca (Turin: Einaudi, 1968) pp. 234-268.

[14] Walter Binni, ‘Leopardi e la poesia del secondo Settecento’, La Rassegna della Letteratura Italiana, LXVI.3 (1962), 389–435; Walter Binni, ‘L’esperienza leopardiana tra fanciullezza e adolescenza, fra educazione cattolica, attrazioni della Restaurazione e sviluppi storico-personali’, in La protesta di Leopardi (Florence: Sansoni, 1980), pp. 25–36; Verzini, pp. 9-37; William Spaggiari, ‘Monti, Minzoni, Varano: gli esordi poetici’, in Monti nella cultura italiana I, ed. by Gennaro Barbarisi (Milan: Cisalpino, 2005-2006), pp. 27–28; William Spaggiari, Geografie letterarie. Da Dante a Tabucchi (Milan: LED Edizioni Universitarie, 2015) pp. 27-28; Andrea Penso, Un libero di Pindo abitator. Stile e linguaggio poetico del giovane Vincenzo Monti (Rome: Aracne editrice, 2018) pp. 16, 34, 39, 42, 46, 49, 50, 64–70, 91, 95, 104, 108–110, 113, 116, 126, 192, 200, 202, 241, 251.

[15] Giacomo Leopardi, Appressamento della morte, ed. by Christian Genetelli and Sabrina Delcò Toschini (Rome: Antenore, 2002).

[16] See for example: Terenzio Mamiani, ‘Poeti italiani dell’età media ossia scelta e saggi di poesie dai tempi del Boccaccio al cadere del secolo XVIII’, in Parnaso italiano (Paris: Baudrij, 1848); Mario Fubini, ‘Introduzione’, in Lirici del settecento, ed. by Bruno Maier (Verona: Riccardo Ricciardi Editore, 1959) pp. XLVII-LII. Lirici del secolo XVIII con cenni biografici (Milano: Sonzogno, 1877), pp. 69-73; Poesia del Settecento, 2 voll., edited by Carlo Muscetta e Maria Rosa Massei, (Turin: Einaudi, 1967) see vol. II, pp. 1849-1872; Antologia della letteratura italiana, edited by Maurizio Vitale, (Milan: Rizzoli, 1967) see vol. IV Il Settecento e l’Ottocento, pp. 389-394; Poesia italiana del Settecento, edited by Giovanna Gronda, (Milan: Garzanti, 1978) pp. 195-198.