In Ann Radcliffe’s “The Italian”, the very first thing that we see
described is a veiled woman:
“It was in the church of San Lorenzo at Naples, in the year 1758, that
Vincentio di Vivaldi first saw Ellena di Rosalba. The sweetness and fine
expression of her voice attracted his attention to her figure, which had a
distinguished air of delicacy and grace; but her face was concealed in her
veil. So much was he fascinated by the voice, that a most painful curiosity
was excited as to her countenance, which he fancied must express all the
sensibility of character that the modulation of her tones indicated” (5).
Even without knowing anything about Gothic elements, this indicates very
clearly what the quality and tone of the book are going to be like.
Vivaldi’s pursuit of the veiled woman is a signal that his is the pursuit of
the mysterious, with the certainty that it will be beautiful. This certainly
does seem to be a great fascination in the novel; it is a component and
often a catalyst for that anxiety which runs throughout.
It is this anxiety which causes the heightening of our emotions; our
emotions are heightened as we watch the characters’ pursuit of the
mysterious; and our curiosity is excited more and more until we are nearly
begging for its gratification. But Radcliffe heightens our emotions without
satisfying our curiosity, or at least not enough. For example, the very
first chapter establishes a sense of mystery about the assassin in the
Church. The Englishman inquires as much for himself as for us about the
assassin. His concern and state of shock invoke our own inquiry into this
odd circumstance and then his Italian friend tells him a mystery without
actually telling him anything:
“‘He the assassin sought sanctuary here’, replied the friar; ‘within these
walls he may not be hurt'”(2).
He makes it clear that there is a story here but that it is long and
suspenseful, maybe shocking:
“‘It is much too long to be related now; that would occupy a week; I have it
in writing, and will send you the volume'” (3).
What it is exactly, or what the tale is going to be is only hinted at in a
very curiosity invoking way: as if it is a secret.
Instead of the Englishman and his Italian friend going down to the
street caf and relating the story, the Italian friend says that he will
send him something written the following day and then the passage stops. We
are tempted, as is the Englishman, by these curious circumstances and yet
nothing is revealed to us other that the implication that soon all will be
revealed (after a couple hundred pages). What Radcliffe does is that she
creates our sensation of terror; she suspends our disbelief that much
longer, building our curiosity and our need to know to a brilliant height
and then-nothing: the story takes a different turn and gratification is
postponed while our expectation and anticipation is increased.
This happens in the very beginning passage in which Radcliffe
starts “The Italian” by providing just enough information to suck us into
her tale and, then, just as we expect pay off, she postpones it a little
further while providing just enough information to keep us intrigued. And,
before we know it, we, the reader, are entangled in her Gothic quicksand and
greedily reading in search of the secrets she buries before our eyes. When
Vivaldi rushes into the Villa after the mysterious cloaked figure that has
escaped him, he emerges pale: we know something has happened and await his
tale but he tells us nothing, he refuses to say anything and, thus, we are
left suspended in the wake of mystery. Another example when we are suspended
in the wake of mystery occurs when Vivaldi and Paolo are in the dungeon
imagining the garments lying on the floor to be moving. We do not find out
whether or not these garments belong to someone murdered until the end of
the novel; so this incident leaves us in a state of suspense:
‘It moves!’ exclaimed Paolo; ‘I see it move!’ as he said which, he started
to the opposite side of the chamber. Vivaldi stepped a few paces back, and
as quickly returned; when, determined to know the event at once, he raised
the point of his sword, and perceived, beneath, other remains of dress,
heaped high together, while even the floor below was stained with gore (77).
This leads me to speak of imagination, which is such a huge part in
telling the story. There is such an enormous emphasis on perceptions, belief
and feelings. It seems that everything that happens is filtered through the
lens of one of the various characters. There is a constant projection of
their thoughts into what is happening:
“As they passed, Paolo observed, that the walls were stained with what
appeared to be blood” (74).
It did not necessarily have to be blood, but we see it through Paolo’s
perceptions, which leads us to the most sordid conclusion. Immediately after
this, they see a figure standing in the shadows which disappears by the time
they arrive; Vivaldi and Paolo conclude that it must have been an evil
spirit to haunt them.
Although it can be argued that is the sense of the impending danger
that gives the book its impetus, it is more probable that it is the
perception of the impending danger, of the gruesome, of the revealing that
which is dark, which is the impetus. That is a significant difference. By
doing this, Radcliffe wants to make sure that we are in sync with the
characters thought by thought and breath by breath. A cloudy sky cannot just
be shown as a cloudy sky, which would seem depressing to some or not
important to others; it has to take the perception and imagination of
Vivaldi to make it foreboding. It is also significant that Radcliffe
purposefully constructs characters of a susceptible nature, characters that
are easily swayed by appearances and not facts.
By creating the character of Vivaldi, it seems that Radcliffe has
created a character that is more susceptible than the average person to the
“sublime” and the “gothic”. He calls the strange monk “super-human” on
numerous occasions, overly excited to prove himself correct. The narrator
even says as much, hinting that after all the trouble Vivaldi put himself
through to discover the identity of the monk, a simple, rational explanation
would be disappointing. It seems as if Vivaldi is searching for trouble, in
a sense, and he does not shy away from dangers. It also seems that he enjoys
the clandestine nightly excursions to the “arch” where the strange monk
To Ellena, just like to Vivaldi, a simple rational explanation
would also be disappointing. In volume 2, when Ellena is taken to Spalatro
and locked in her room overnight, she begins to suspect an attempt on her
life. In the darkness, she imagines moving shadows and creaking floors, yet
she is unable to confirm her fears. Instead of using her common sense by
thinking that if they really wanted to her dead, they would have killed her
before she reached the cabin, she prefers the non-rational explanation of
Spalatro trying to assassinate her. Like to Vivaldi, to Ellena just a
rational explanation would be disappointing and, to us, the audience, such a
rational explanation would decrease our sensation of terror instead of
increasing it, which would, in turn, be disappointing to our expectations.
Ellena’s fears certainly do not seem to be based on evidence. Even
when Spalatro brought her the meal, I was not sure if Ellena’s fears were
justified. It seemed that Ellena was looking for someone to assassinate her,
so anything she saw would be a part of that conspiracy; everything Spalatro
did would be suspect and it was. Her susceptible nature often led her into
the suspicion out of which the novel’s Gothic tone is constructed; just like
Vivaldi’s and Paolo’s susceptible natures lead them to jump to most
horrifying conclusions earlier in the novel.
When talking about perceptions, it is impossible to omit the
distinction between the real and unreal in “The Italian”. The strand of
reality, interwoven with fantasy, seems to be a driving force in the plot.
In the episode involving Ellena, her suspicions are confirmed; her fantasy
becomes confirmed as reality as her fears about Spalatro’s intentions are
confirmed (although not until the end). Of notice is also Vivaldi’s constant
desire to solidify his fantasy (getting married) with Ellena; as if the real
thing will finally restrict the fearful possibilities into a single reality.
Yet it is this reality from which Vivaldi derives his fearful fantasies. It
is this drama between what is real and unreal that gives the novel its
impetus. For example, when Marchesa is speaking to Schedoni, they are both
thinking of murder, but both refuse to ‘say’ it, as if doing so would make
it more ‘real’ than merely thinking about it.