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Five things about the modern Vampire's Italian heritage

Vampire castle

The next couple of years are rather special for fans of the gothic. 2018 marks the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and also the sixtieth anniversary of Terence Fisher’s Tomb of Dracula – the first vampire movie starring Anglo-Italian actor Christopher Lee. 2019 will mark 200 years of The Vampyre by John Polidori, an English physician of Italian heritage. Like Frankenstein, The Vampryre is a work born in Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati in Geneva, and was the birth of the modern vampire as we know it.

Here are five things you may not know about the Italian roots of the modern vampire.

1. Ghost Stories at Villa Diodati

“Cinema – for example, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer (1988) – has popularized the image of the ‘Night at Villa Diodati’ as the context in which Frankenstein was born,” explains Dr Fabio Camilletti, an expert in gothic literature at the University of Warwick.

“The scene is set – it was a dark and stormy night in Byron’s villa on lake Geneva, in the cold summer of 1816. Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont are telling ghost stories; Byron proposes that they each write their own tale in a Gothic fashion. Mary Shelley and John Polidori – the two outsiders – conceive their stories, Frankenstein and The Vampyre, in a single night.

“But the truth is actually more complicated. Most probably, no such night ever took place, at least in the way we tend to imagine it, and certainly the composition of Frankenstein and The Vampyre took longer and was more complex.

“Still, thanks to Polidori’s nephew – William Michael Rossetti (brother to poet Christina and painter Dante Gabriel) – we know for sure that ghost stories were told at Diodati – and we know which ones. On 12 June, 1816, Polidori had subscribed to a circulating library in Geneva. There, he most probably found two intriguing volumes, written in French, translated from the German and bearing the curious title of Fantasmagoriana.”

2. British Gothic?

“We tend to think of the Gothic as of a British phenomenon,” continues Dr Camilletti. “The first ‘gothic novel’ was Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764 and the genre that followed principally developed in the British Isles. But let us just consider the scene mentioned above: a circle of British poets and writers – one of which, Polidori, was of Italian descent. They were reading a French collection of German Gothic tales in a villa in Switzerland.

“Since the beginning, the Gothic is, and remains, a quintessentially European and transnational phenomenon, crossing national borders, languages, and expressive codes in the decades of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. This aspect has still remained widely uncharted by criticism, as is clear when we consider how a critical edition of Fantasmagoriana still does not exist in English. Also, critical editions of Frankenstein and The Vampyre mention it among their sources in a cursory manner and focus on more accepted influences such as Milton and Coleridge.”

3. An Italian Vampire in London

When we read about the author, Polidori, we normally learn a few basic things. He was Byron’s physician and the son of Italian exile, Gaetano Polidori. He lived in the shadow of his master, and modelled his charming vampire, Lord Ruthven, on Byron’s features. Also, he committed suicide at the age of nearly twenty-six, following gaming debts, drug abuse, and lack of success after many attempts to breach the literary market.

“Friends and biographers of the English Romantics – such as Thomas Medwin or Leigh Hunt – often depict him, in his nephew William Michael Rossetti’s words, as ‘deficient in self-knowledge, lacking prudence and reserve, and ignoring the distinction between a dignified and a quarrelsome attitude of mind’.

“His major work, The Vampyre, was initially attributed to Byron, and even though there have been many reprints, re-editions, and translations, he never made a penny out of it.

“On closer inquiry, it is difficult not to notice how the deficiencies ascribed to him – lack of ‘self-knowledge’, of ‘prudence’, and of ‘reserve’ – largely coincide with a lack of Englishness, and match with Polidori’s uncertain identity in the terms of national belonging. He learned to speak and write English very slowly and only in a later phase, he refused English company while at school, and in his letters to the family from Edinburgh where he studied medicine, he reiterated how:

I, although born in England, am not an Englishman – No. My disposition is not that of the English. They are automatons: they have no enthusiasm, nor other vivid passion’.

“From this viewpoint, Polidori’s de-humanized portrayal of Lord Ruthven, and the ambiguous mixture of disgust and attraction he causes in his victims, can be read as a confrontation with Byron, but also as a way of coping with Polidori’s own troubled identity, so that his entire literary endeavour can be seen as a failed experiment in integration, sadly culminating in suicide,” says Dr Camilletti.

4. The Ghost of Uncle John

On 25 November 1865, William Michael Rossetti went to visit Mrs Marshall, a medium holding Spiritualist séances in Maida Vale.

Mrs Marshall’s method involved a sort of primitive Ouija board. Questions were asked, and then her husband went slowly down a printed alphabet with a pencil, stopping whenever a rap was heard. At some point, after having conjured a number of more or less convincing spirits, one of those present asked if there was someone who wanted to communicate:

– Yes. – Who? – Uncle John. – [One of the gentlemen] said: ‘I had no uncle of that name’. I then said: ‘Is it my Uncle John?’ – Yes. I asked for the surname by the alphabet, but could not get it. Then: Is it an English surname? – No. – Foreign? – Yes. – Spanish, German, etc., etc., Italian? – Yes. – I then called over five or six Italian names, coming to Polidori. –Yes. – Will you tell me truly how you died? – Yes. – How? – Killed. – Who killed you? – I. – There was a celebrated poet with whom you were connected: what was his name? – Bro. This was twice repeated, or something close to it the second time. At a third attempt, ‘Byron’. – There was a certain book you wrote, attributed to Byron: can you give me its title? – Yes. – I tried to get the title [viz.: The Vampyre] several times, but wholly failed. – Are you happy? – Two raps, meaning not exactly.

“John Polidori haunts the Rossetti family in many ways, of which Mrs Marshall’s séance table is only the most literal one,” say Dr Camilletti. “It is difficult not to see the shadow of ‘Uncle John’ in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s complex relationship with his Italian heritage, in his refusal to travel to Italy and, at the same time, in the omnipresence of Italy in his literary and pictorial works, and eventually (if we believe in psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytic theory of family secrets) in the role suicide plays in all of his life, from the death of his wife Elizabeth Siddall to the slow self-poisoning that would bring him to death in 1882.

“Most of all, as Italian critic Franco Pezzini highlighted, it is at least eloquent to remark how, if the modern type of the ‘male’ vampire – i.e. Dracula – begins with Polidori’s Lord Ruthwen, the archetype of the ‘female’ vampire is largely an invention of the artworks of his nephew, who, in the late 1870s, would also be the neighbour of a young Irish playwright named Bram Stoker. In a sense, it is as if that the modern vampire myth originated from the secrets and the obsessions of a single family of Italian expatriates.”

5. Dracula and the Dolce vita

“After Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Stoker’s Dracula, we tend to connect vampires to the hazy forests and ruined castles of central Europe, and therefore we easily forget how Polidori’s The Vampyre was largely set between Italy and Greece,” continues Dr Camilletti.

“Moreover, early testimonies about vampires come from Mediterranean countries and notably from Italy, as happens with humanist Antonio de Ferraris (XVI century), Greek-Italian theologian Leo Allatius (XVII century), or with archbishop Giuseppe Antonio Davanzati, who in 1739 wrote a dissertation of vampires of which a copy has recently been discovered in the Warwick Library .

“This came full circle in 1958, when Terence Fisher’s film Tomb of Dracula – starring Christopher Lee (whose mother was Italian) in the role of the vampire Count – reached Italy. It created a veritable ‘vampire craze’ in the country of Dolce vita. Vampires inspired fully Italian productions to pick up the Gothic genre. Works produced included world blockbusters such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) and Black Sabbath (1963) as well as anthologies like Ornella Volta’s and Valerio Riva’s The Vampire, and pop songs, such as Bruno Martino’s Dracula cha cha cha (1959).

In November 2018, the MRC at Warwick will host an exhibition on vampires and Italy, with a launch event on Halloween night.

22 May 2018

Fabio CamillettiFabio Camilletti is Reader at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Warwick. In 2015 he completed the first complete edition and Italian translation of Fantasmagoriana, and is currently working on new translations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1818 and of Polidori’s The Vampyre. He has also explored the uncanny presence of Polidori in the Rossettis’ family romance in his forthcoming The Portrait of Beatrice: Dante, D.G. Rossetti, and the Imaginary Lady (Notre Dame University Press, 2019) and the reception of Dracula in the Italian 1960s in his Italia lunare. Gli anni Sessanta e l’occulto (Peter Lang, 2018) and L’uomo che credeva nei vampiri (with Anna Preianò and Massimiliano Boschini, Profondo Rosso, 2018).

He is also the author of a Guide to Gothic Literature (Odoya, 2018) and recently received a BA/Leverhulme grant on Fantasmagoriana and other anthologies of the supernatural in early nineteenth-century Europe.