Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Italian: Or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents places the story of two young lovers, Vincentio di Vivaldi and Ellena di Rosalba, in a gothic setting. Ellena is a seamstress, and Vivaldi is the eldest son of an old and noble family. The Marchese and Marchesa di Vivaldi oppose the union so vehemently that Ellena’s life is endangered and Vivaldi is held captive and subjected to torture by the Inquisition. Vivaldi is warned early on by the mysterious archway monk to stay away from the Villa Altieri where Ellena lives. Most likely Schedoni’s agent, the mysterious, cowled figure reappears to repeat his warnings.

Vivaldi asks Signora Bianchi for Ellena’s hand, and the signora accepts with the reservations that their different class positions will cause problems. Soon after, she dies mysteriously. The Vivaldis soon begin trying to persuade their son to abandon Ellena. When he refuses, the Marchesa enlists the aid of her confessor, Father Schedoni, a mysterious monk of whom little is known except that he is of the brotherhood at Santo Spirito.

Vivaldi assumes that Schedoni has caused the death of Ellena’s aunt. When he confronts him about it, he enrages Schedoni and incurs his vengeance. Schedoni is instrumental in causing the many problems for the young couple. Abductions abound in The Italian, the first of which occurs when Ellena is getting ready to go into temporary seclusion with the nuns at Santa Maria della Pieta. She is driven instead to a horrid convent presided over by a wicked abbess who is obviously in the Marchesa’s employ. The abbess confronts Ellena with a choice: either take vows and become a nun or marry whomever the Marchesa chooses for her. She refuses both choices. As a result, she is kept in close confinement in a threatening atmosphere and shown tenderness only by Sister Olivia.

As the narrative pans back and forth between Ellena and Vivaldi, Vivaldi and his servant Paolo also become imprisoned when Paolo shoots at...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

The Italian Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like Emily St. Aubert in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ellena di Rosalba is a self-conscious heroine who has the capacity to imagine herself among the ruins of a tower. She is similar to Emily in other ways as well. Of highly refined sensibilities, she can feel empathy for even Spalatro, having, she says, suffered so much herself. Like Emily, she is a victim who fights against her oppression, and even within the constraints of the gothic world of evil, she manages to win. Insofar as Radcliffe’s heroines gain some power of action, Radcliffe has considerably ameliorated the image of the heroine in the novel.

The character of Schedoni, though, is commonly seen as the great contribution to literature of Radcliffe in The Italian. The prototype for the romantic hero-villains to follow, Schedoni, it has been said, is the character upon whom George Gordon, Lord Byron, modeled himself, and upon whom he modeled the heroes in The Giaour (1813) and Lara (1814). In the wide spectrum of his feelings, Schedoni broadens the range of the gothic villain.

Most of the major romantics admired Radcliffe’s works, and some wrote about them, including Sir Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She was an acknowledged innovator in several respects, among which are her use of atmosphere and imagery as elements that give information about the moral, mental, and emotional states of the characters; her combining of the...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

The Italian Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Abbey of San Stefano

Abbey of San Stefano. Religious complex used as a prison to incarcerate the central female character at the behest of an evil noblewoman. This structure serves two important purposes within the novel and supplements the themes of the work. First, the abbey is depicted as a place of coercive power and spiritual and physical darkness. It explains the criminality of the villain, an evil monk, as the environment within which his criminality was encouraged to grow. This representation is furthered later in the novel when the villain himself is incarcerated within the dungeons of the Inquisition. Virtually every religious person encountered in this novel is either a criminal or lacks the moral fiber to oppose criminality. This representation of religious criminality is to be expected in the eighteenth century English gothic novel since anti-Catholicism was deeply ingrained in English culture.

For instance, the novel opens with a scene in which English travelers in Naples are touring a darkened Catholic church. There they see an assassin who has been given sanctuary inside the building. This opening scene prepares the reader for the other religious institutions encountered in the novel and demonstrates that her novel is hardly a sociological study but rather an English fantasy of Italian vice and Catholic corruption.

The dark Abbey of San Stefano serves another purpose, that of illustrating the sublimity of the...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

The Italian Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Ellis, Kate Ferguson. “ ‘Kidnapped Romance’ in Ann Radcliffe.” In The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Discusses the gothic in terms of domestic relations. Ellis sees Schedoni as fulfilling his own wishes to be first in a family circle by insinuating himself into the Marchesa’s confidence. See also herein Ellis’ chapter “Otranto Feminized: Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve, and Sophia Lee.”

Flaxman, Rhoda. “Radcliffe’s Dual Modes of Vision.” In Fetter’d or Free?: British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986. Recognizes Radcliffe as developing a “new descriptive mode and technique,” that mode and technique including something akin to cinematography.

Hennelly, Mark M., Jr. “The Slow Torture of Delay: Reading The Italian.” Studies in Humanities 14, no. 1 (June, 1987): 1-17. Explores Radcliffe’s technique of suspense in the Inquisition segment of the novel.

Howells, Coral Ann. “The Pleasure of the Woman’s Text: Ann Radcliffe’s Subtle Transgressions in The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS...

(The entire section is 402 words.)