Ann Radcliffe, The Italian (1797)

In The Italian, Radcliffe uses a technique of scene painting to invest particular landscapes with complexes of emotional meaning for her characters. This practice is of interest to a study of sensibility in that it emphasizes personal, affective relationships with scenes of nature. In particular, the view of the bay of Naples comes to represent, for Ellena and Vivaldi, a complex of ideas that links their personal love to a familial and domestic ideal.

The bay-scene appears first in Chapter 1, as Vivaldi makes his initial clandestine visit to the garden:

It was nearly midnight, and the stillness that reigned was rather soothed than interrupted by the gentle dashing of the waters of the bay below, and by the hollow murmurs of Vesuvius, which threw up, at intervals its sudden flame on the horizon, and then left it to darkness. The solemnity of the scene accorded with the temper of his mind, and he listened in deep attention for the returning sounds, which broke upon the ear like distant thunder muttering imperfectly from the clouds. The pauses of silence, that succeeded each groan of the mountain, when expectation listened for the rising sound, affected the imagination of Vivaldi at this time with particular awe, and, rapt in thought, he continued to gaze on the sublime and shadowy outline of the shores, and on the sea, just discerned beneath the twilight of the cloudless sky. Along its grey surface many vessels were pursuing their silent course, guided over the deep waters only by the polar star, which burned with steady lustre. The air was calm, and rose from the bay with most balmy and refreshing coolness; it had scarcely stirred the heads of the broad pines that overspread the villa; and bore no sounds but of the waves and the groans of the far-off mountain,--till a chaunting of deep voices swelled from a distance. The solemn character of the strain engaged his attention; he perceived that it was a requiem, and he endeavoured to discover from what quarter it came. (10-11)

Later in the same chapter, Vivaldi and Bonarmo return to the garden and experience the following:

The night was still, and they now heard, for the first time, murmurs as of a distant multitude; and then the sudden splendor of fireworks broke upon the sky. These arose from a villa on the western margin of the bay, and were given in honor of the birth of one of the royal princes. They soared to an immense height, and, as their lustre broke silently upon the night, it lightened on the thousand up-turned faces of the gazing crowd, illumined the waters of the bay, with every little boat that skimmed its surface, and shewed distinctly the whole sweep of its rising shores, the stately city of Naples on the strand below, and, spreading far among the hills, its terraced roofs crowded with spectators, and the Corso tumultuous with carriages and blazing with torches. (16)

Through these two scenes, birth and death, celebration and funeral, anticipation and memory are invoked and associated with Ellena, in Vivaldi's experience of her. Invoked, however, as impressions after the manner of painting which, like Vivaldi's experience of happiness, makes the reader feel "as if that moment was as an eternity, rendering him independent of all others." (31)

Next, the landscape absorbs associations with the emotions of the trio of Ellena, Bianchi, and Vivaldi, through their "excursions" on the waters around Naples. Over the course of these trips, the three characters enter into the scenery of the bay, making it their own. They accumulate associations with its details, and their memories will make the landscape more poignant in later viewings.

Then, one evening while in the pavilion of the villa Altieri, Bianchi

surveyed with languid eyes, the scene that spread before the pavilion. The strong effulgence which a setting-sun threw over the sea, shewing innumerable gaily painted ships, and fishing-boats returning from Santa Lucia into the port of Naples, had no longer the power to cheer her. Even the Roman tower that terminated the mole below, touched as it was with the slanting rays; and the various figures of fishermen, who lay smoking beneath its walls, in the long shadow, or stood in the sunshine on the beach, watching the approaching boats of their comrades, combined a picture which was no longer interesting. (37-8)

...a picture which was no longer interesting to her, that is. Here, birth and death become individualized, and the life of Naples is depicted in its historical perspective and in the minutiae that comprise its current existence. Bianchi, Ellena, and Vivaldi are united as elements in the social life of the town, but the scene evokes different responses in each viewer.

After Ellena has been kidnapped, Vivaldi returns to the scene:

A few fishermen and lazzaroni only were loitering along the strand, waiting for boats from St. Lucia. Vivaldi ... paced the edge of the waves, listening to their murmur, as they broke gently at his feet, and gazing upon their undulating beauty, while all consciousness was lost in melancholy reverie concerning Ellena. Her late residence appeared at a distance, rising over the shore. He remembered how often from thence they had together viewed this lovely scene! Its features had now lost their charm; they were colourless and uninteresting, or impressed only mournful ideas. The sea fluctuating beneath the setting sun, the long mole and its light-house tipped with the last rays, fishermen reposing in the shade, little boats skimming over the smooth waters, which their oars scarcely dimpled; these were images that brought to his recollection the affecting evening when he had last seen this picture from the villa Altieri ..., seated in the orangery with Ellena and Bianchi. (106)

Near the end of the novel, the bay-scene returns. While hiding away in the convent of Our Lady of Pity, Ellena resorts to a spot from which she can view the scene:

as, from beneath the light foliage of the accacias, or the more majestic shade of the plane-trees that waved their branches over the many-colored cliffs of the bay, it brought back to memory, in sad yet pleasing detail, the many happy days she had passed on those blue waters, or on the shores, in the society of Vivaldi and her departed relative Bianchi; and every point of the prospect marked by such remembrance, which the veiling distance stole, was rescued by imagination, and pictured by affection in tints more animated than those of brightest nature. (369)

Here, the visible scene is augmented by memory and imagination. Ellena's watching is a dutiful, methodical, hope-maintaining reconstruction of the personal bonds that have given her life meaning, as they have been written into the landscape of the bay.

In the final chapter of the novel, Ellena and Vivaldi establish their new homestead. Scenery is fundamental to its constitution, and it combines some motifs from the bay-scenes with others from the mountain-scenes elsewhere in the novel. Finally, there is the element of happy, rational, English ordering:

The style of the gardens, where lawns and groves, and woods varied the undulating surface, was that of England, and of the present day, rather than that of Italy; except "Where a long alley peeping on the main, exhibited such gigantic loftiness of shade, and grandeur of perspective, as characterize the Italian taste."

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
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