The Lure of Italy
The period that we think of as the Renaissance was fleeting---slightly less than 200 years, depending on which start and end dates you choose. Many historians consider it to have begun in the second half of the 1300’s, when Italian literature and art began breaking away from the medieval conventions which had circumscribed them for centuries. It was certainly winding down by the mid 1500’s, under the influences of the Spanish occupation and the counter-reformation, events which quashed the violence and vice, and the chaos and corruption of Italy at the expense of her creative and economic energy. Hardly any Englishmen had anything to do with the renaissance, and few of the famous Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights had even been alive when it happened. [There is a line in Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics that seems apropos, though I am likely quoting it incorrectly: “The renaissance was just a bunch of Italians poncing around that the English didn’t hear about until 100 years later.”] And yet, Renaissance Italy exerted a pervasive influence on early modern English popular culture. We know that translations of Italian books, especially the trashy ones like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, from which Webster adapted Duchess, were Elizabethan best sellers. In Shakespeare's comedies references to Italy and her cities can usually be interpreted as “a generically exotic foreign locale”, and he travels there frequently. While some of his greatest tragedies are set elsewhere, even he can see that Italy is the natural background for Othello’s crimes of passion and betrayal, and Romeo and Juliet’s feuding noble families and semi-accidental double suicide. By the reign of James I Italy was the preferred setting for the most horrific tragedies: gothic murder-fests like Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and White Devil, or sordid tales of incest, mental illness, and more murder, like Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. These plays must have sold seats, because they kept writing them.
What exactly was the English’s fascination with Renaissance Italy? Vernon Lee, in her essay “The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists” in her book Euphorion offers some insight:
The crimes of Italy fascinated Englishmen of genius with a fascination even more potent than that which they exercised over the vulgar imagination of mere foppish and swashbuckler lovers of the scandalous and the sensational: they fascinated with the attraction of tragic grandeur, of psychological strangeness, of moral monstrosity, a generation in whom the passionate imagination of the playwright was curiously blent with the metaphysical analysis of the philosopher and the ethical judgement of the Puritan. To these men, ardent and serious even in their profligacy; imaginative and passionate even in their Puritanism, all sucking avidly at this newly found Italian civilization the wickedness of Italy was more than morbidly attractive or morbidly appalling: it was imaginatively and psychologically fascinating.
The essay, which is in the public domain, can be read here. The full book is available from Project Gutenberg. The author’s thesis is that since both the immorality and grandeur of Renaissance Italy so far surpassed anything to be found in England, the stories of them provided fuel to launch English literature to height never before (and perhaps never since?) attained.
And so, we have two Italys. One is the real Italy of the mid 1300’s through mid 1500’s. We can never know exactly what it was like, since we weren’t there, but history and archaeology can give us a general idea. The other is the Italy of the early modern English popular imagination, with its every crime aberration sensationalized and blown out of proportion, loaded with casual anachronisms and, for all relevant purposes, eternal. These two Italys have some character names and geography in common, but they are not in the same world.
And to these two I add a third. Just as those old Elizabethan and Jacobean writers took their inspiration from the real Italy to create a world for their imagination, I have used the Jacobian Italy to create an Italy in the outer solar system, which I call Poison Fruit.
There, now that I have the really meta part out if the way, I can go into specifics. That is, I’ll be as specific as I think I can be without dropping spoilers.