Italy, Vampires in

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Religious scholar Massimo Introvigne is a Dracula researcher and founder of the Italian branch of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula.
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Poster art from the 1998 Italian event celebrating the vampire.

Italy, Vampires in

(pop culture)

In Italy, the vampire phenomenon took on a modern identity when a “vampiric plague” hit Serbia and other lands in Eastern Europe in the seventeenth century. Italians contributed to the animated international debate that began on the nature of this phenomenon, which ultimately contributed to and inspired nineteenth-century vampire literature. Within the debate various positions reflective of different theological and ideological positions were articulated throughout the centuries.

As the vampiric plague was beginning, a Franciscan from Pavia, Ludovico Maria Sinistrari (1622–1701), included vampirism in a study of demonic phenomena, De Daemonialitate, et Incubis, et Succubis, and offered a theological interpretation of them. Far from the contemporary rationalism of the Enlightenment that emerged in the following century, he thought of vampires as creatures that had not originated from Adam (i.e., humanity). While they had a rational soul equal to humans, their corporeal dimension was of a completely different, perfect nature. He thus enforced the idea that vampires were creatures that parallel human beings rather than opposite, chthonious, underground beings. (The oddness of Sinistrari’s views may be because his study was a hoax. It was reportedly written in the nineteenth-century by Isidore Lisieux, which would account for the fact that the study was not mentioned by Italian authors through the 1700s.) Credit for initiating the modern view of vampirism is usually given to J. H.

Zedler, whose Grosses volständige Universal-Lexicon aller Wissenschaften und Künste, (1745) saw vampirism as a superstition used to explain what were in reality certain diseases. However, two years earlier, in his 1743 Dissertazione sopra i vampiri, Cardinal Giuseppe Davanzati, noticing that the belief in vampires mostly occurred in rural and less-populated areas of the world, labeled vampirism as simply the “fruit of imagination,” arguing that such a belief was not found in the metropolitan milieus of Western Europe.

Davanzati’s work was looked upon with favor by the then Pope Benedict XIV who as Prospero Lambertini (1675–1758) wrote what remained for many years the standard Roman Catholic sourcebook on miracles and the supernatural, De servorum Dei beatifications et Beatorum canonizations (Rome, 1934). As pope, he reprimanded some Polish bishops who were making their belief in vampires too public. While the first edition of his book did not deal with vampires, the second edition added two pages punctuating his negative conclusions on the subject.

Nevertheless, reports of vampirism became a more widespread phenomenon in the mid-eighteenth century throughout the central and eastern parts of Europe. Accounts that were documented in Traité sur les apparitions et sur les vampires ou le revenans d’Hongire, de Moravie (1749) by French Benedectine scholar Dom Augustin Calmet became a source of inspiration for vampire novels throughout the following centuries. Gerhard van Swieten’s Remarques sur les vampirisme (1755) suggested that vampirism was a superstition generated out of ignorance. The opinion recanted Calmet’s tales and represented the triumph of the scientific rationalism that predominated in the culture of the late eighteenth century.

The Literary Vampire: In the early nineteenth century, the first literary works on vampires and vampirism began to appear, mostly in Northern Europe. Reportedly, a vampire-oriented literary tradition also began in early nineteenth-century Italy with the opera Il Vampiro by A. De Gasperini (first presented in Turin in 1801), however, a copy of the opera has never been found in Italian libraries and there is some doubt it ever existed.

Romanticism, a popular literary movement that reflected on inner human experience, itself enforced a mythic image of the vampire with its emphasis on the symbology of blood, the night, melancholy, and the “erotic tenderness for corpses.” Mostly in the northern part of Europe, from superstitious popular belief, vampirism was introduced to the literate metropolitan milieu through the literary works of Novalis, Goethe, and John Keats. In 1819 John Polidori created Lord Ruthven, the protagonist in his short story, “The Vampyre” (translated into Italian as “Il Vampiro” in the twentieth century). Vampires especially began to appear in French and Russian literature, in the works of Charles Nodier, Charles Baudelaire, Alexandre Dumas, Alexey Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gògol.

The first Romance to be published in Italy, Il Vampiro, written by Franco Mistrali, appeared in 1869. Mistrali’s story, which takes place in Monaco in 1862, was centered on blood and incestuous lovers. It presented the vampire in a literary, decadent, and aristocratic manner that was influenced by the contemporary literature of Keats, Goethe, Polidori, and Lord Byron. The historical folkloric connotations of vampirism, as documented at the time of the vampiric plague, became the subject of Vampiro, a novel written in 1908 by Enrico Boni. It was perhaps the only work that illustrated the popular universe of superstition and fears of the rural culture.

A naturalist approach to the phenomenon was found in the work of Luigi Capuana, Un Vampiro (1904; 2nd ed., 1907). The author aimed at an objective description of facts that could be explained scientifically (vampirism as an hallucination), although some skepticism remained at the end of the novel. In 1907, the same year as the second edition of Capuana’s Un Vampiro was Daniele Oberto Marrama published Il Dottore nero (translation: The Black Doctor).

Significant works on vampires in the following decades included Nino Savarese’s I ridestati del cimitero (translation: The Reawakened of the Cemetery, 1932) Tommaso Landolfi’s Il racconto del lupo mannaro (translation: The Tale of the Werewolf, 1939), Racconto d’autunno (translation: Fall Tale, 1947), Bacchelli’s Ultimo licantropo (translation: The Last Lycanthrope, 1947), and Guadalberto Titta’s Il cane nero (translation: The Black Dog, 1964). As can be discerned from the titles, vampires and werewolves were closely associated in the writings of the Italian authors.

In the wake of the successful Italian movies I Vampiri in 1957 by Riccardo Freda, Tempi duri per i Vampiri (Uncle Was a Vampire) in 1959 by Stefano Steno, and Mario Bava‘s movies in the 1960s, a new wave of commercial vampire horror literature emerged in the form of series, such as I Romanzi del Terrore, KKK Classici dell’orrore, and I Racconti di Dracula (translation: Dracula’s Stories). The most renowned author of a series was Gaetano Sorrentino (a.k.a. Max Dave). In contrast with the commercial literature of those years, a more sophisticated image of vampires appeared in the novels of the authors of these last decades, such as the grotesque and comic vampire (with a benign social criticism) in Il mio amico Draculone (translation: My Friend Draculone) by Luigi Pellizzetti in 1970 and Italo Calvino’s vampire in Il Castello dei destini incrociati (translation: The Castle of Crossed Destinies). There were several works that featured an “existential trickster” representating the ambiguity of life in contrast to death. Also published in the same period was Giovanni Fontana’s Tarocco Meccanico (translation: Mecanic Tarot), where the vampire was used as a literary image in the game of oxymora and metaphors that constitute the author’s “romanzo sonoro” (sound romance).

By this time, the traditional stereotype of the vampire had been replaced by sophisticated, metaphorical images that expressed undefinable images. A new connotation of this archetype, in a total break with the tradition, was developed in Anemia by Alberto Abruzzese (1984). Here the protagonist was a highly-placed officer of the Communist Party who, in his everyday life, gradually discovered, through a series of initiation-like psychological fears and physical changes, his real identity as a vampire. He had to accept his metamorphosis to maintain the balance needed to stand the rhythm of his ordinary life. The play seems to be a commentary on the difficulty of the old Italian Communist Party in adapting to the changes that transformed it into the post-communist Democrat Party of the Left.

Another original approach to the vampire theme can be found in the novels of Furio Jesi (1941–80). He presented a playful vampire in a short story for children “La casa incantata” [“The Enchanted House”]), published posthumously in 1982, but his major contribution was L’ultima notte (translation: The Last Night). An expert in mythology and anthropology, Jesi described vampires as mythological archetypes symbolizing life, drawing on pre-Christian and Oriental traditions (Mesopotamia, ancient Mexico, Greece, Tibet, and India). Dracula himself was used as a symbol of fertility and the endless flow of planetary existence, while the mission of these vampires was to reconquer the earth and human species that were heading toward ecological destruction.

Finally, vampires themselves revealed their identity in Gianfranco Manfredi’s collection Ultimi vampiri (translation: The Last Vampires) (1987). In the several novels of the series, I figli del fiume (translation: The Children of the River), La guarigione (translation: Recovery), Il metodo vago (translation: The Vague Method), and II pipistrello di Versailles (translation: Versailles Bat), the surviving “last vampires” described their historical experience throughout the centuries living side by side with humans, coping with their tricks, and finally, being defeated by them. Here some of the major events that radically changed the course of human history, (such as the Lutheran Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition—a consequence of the vampiric plague—Versailles and Waterloo) were explained from the perspective of the vampires.

Vampire Poetry: It was within two avantgarde artistic movements, the Scapigliatura and Futurism, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century respectively, that an Italian vampire poetry developed. The central topic in this poetry was the vamp, the seductive and fatal vampire woman, caught in her erotic and most aggressive dimension.

These images were heavily inherited by late romanticism and French poetry, in particular the poems of Baudelaire (Les Métamorphoses du Vampire, Le Vampire, La Fontaine de Sang). Within the Scapigliatura movement, the most popular poets to write of vampires were Nicola Maciarello, Arrigo Boito (1842–1918), Amilcare Ponchielli, Ugo Tarchetti, Achille Torelli (1841–1922), and Olindo Guerrini. The most influential Futurist poet was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944).

In the decades following the 1920s, with the exhaustion of the Futurist movement, Italian poetry drew little inspiration from vampirism. In mid-century, authors such as Aldo Palazzeschi and Dino Campana only vaguely alluded to vampires in their work. Since the 1970s however, the lamiai, a Greek vampire entity, appeared in Giovanni Fontana’s Le Lamie del labirinto (translation: The Labyrinth Lamias). In the tradition of the “sound romance,” Tarocco Meccanico developed the image of the vampire as a metaphorical, artistic, and poetic function.

The Cinematic Vampire: At the same time that Stefano Steno’s vampire comedy Tempi Duri per i Vampiri was released in 1959, there also appeared Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (The Devil’s Commandment) (1957), and Caltiki, il mostro immortale (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster) (1959), which brought fame to special photography cameraman Mario Bava. Bava went from being a mere cameraman to directing more than 20 movies distinguished by his use of haunting baroque imagery. Bava’s most important and representative works included: La Maschera del Demonio (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan, Black Sunday, and Revenge of the Vampire), 1961; Ercole al centro della terra (a.k.a. Hercules in the Haunted World) also in 1961, where he mastered colour special effects; La Frusta e il corpo (The Whip and the Body), 1963; I tre volti della paura (Black Sabbath) also in 1963, a series of three short stories; “Sei donne per l’assassino” (“Blood and Black Lace”), 1964; and “Terrore nello spazio” (“Planet of the Vampires”), 1965. Bava’s influence spread internationally and was evident in such movies as Giorgio Ferroni’s La notte dei diavoli (1971), Ray Danton’s Hannah, Queen of the Vampires, Paolo Solvay’s Il plenilunio delle vergini, and the later features from Hammer Films. Some Italian vampire actors should also be mentioned because of the successful roles they played. Many of Bava’s movies starred Barbara Steele, who became the horror vamp of Italian movies. In 1963 she played in La danza macabra (directed by Antonio Margheriti); in 1965 she was in Mario Caiano’s Gli amanti d’oltretomba (The Faceless Monster), and appeared in Michael Reeve’s La Sorella di Satana (Revenge of the Blood Beast). A specialized Italian vampire was Walter Brandi who played in Piero Regnoli’s L’ultima preda del vampiro (The Playgirls and the Vampire), 1960; Renato Polselli’s L’Amante del vampiro (The Vampire and the Ballerina); and Roberto Mauri’s La Strage dei Vampiri (Slaughter of the Vampires), 1962. Finally, Giacomo Gentiomo’s Maciste contro il vampiro (Goliath and the Vampires), 1961, should be mentioned because its style also manifests traces of Bava’s influence. (Bava’s son was also responsible for Fantaghirò, a fantasy series whose star character was a young girl in a fantasy medieval world who hunts witches, ogres, and occasionally, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, tracks down vampire-like creatures. Fantaghirò ran for five seasons on Italian television (1991–95), and was syndicated in several countries (not including the United States.)

The Contemporary Scene: After a heyday in the 1960s, the Italian cinematic vampire fell into disfavor and has since made only infrequent appearances. Movies include Fracchia contro Dracula (1985), Anemia (1986, an adaptation of the Abruzzese novel whose showings were limited to several experimental theaters), Vampire a Venezia (1988), and the 1990 remake of La maschera del Demonio. Throughout the 1980s, the Italian literary vampire merged with the Western Europe and North American vampire. Many novels originally written and published in English have now been translated and published in Italy. Italians have also continued to write about vampires both in popular works and more serious fiction. Among the most prominent of the new Italian authors to contribute to the tradition is Patrizia Valduga, notable for the originality of her work. In 1991, she authored Donna di dolori (translation: Woman of Pain) in which the vampires appeared to remind the reader of the horrors of the twentieth century.

Scholarship on vampires has blossomed in the 1990s. Among prominent studies published during the decade are Marinella Lorinza’s Nel dedalo del drago (1993); Vito Teti’s, La Melanconia del Vampiro: mito, storia, immaginario (1994); Carla Corradi Musi’s vampiri europei e vampiri dell’area sciamanica (1995); Mario Barzaghi, Il vampiro o il sentimento della modernita (1996); Massimo Centini’s Dracula un Mito Immortale (1997); and Massimo Introvigne’s La Stripe di Dracul: Indagine sul vampirirismo dall’antiochita al nostri giorni (1997).

In 1995, Introvigne, a religious studies scholar, founded the Italian chapter of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula (c/o Dr. Massimo Introvigne Via Confienza 19, 10121 Torino), the historical and cultural association of people interested in vampire lore and Dracula studies. Introvigne has a significant collection of vampire books, and the Society cooperated with television producer Riccardo Mazzoni in his staging of “Dracula 1998,” the Italian celebration of the Dracula centennial. Centered on a museum display in Milan in the spring, the program included a number of invited guests and several commemorative publications including a substantial survey of the Italian vampire and a new edition of artist Guido Crepax’s Conde Dracula, one of the finest graphic arts versions of the novel.

Many Italians were introduced to vampires through comic books in which vampires began to appear in the 1960s, and vampire stories were soon standard fare in the horror anthologies. While Italian publishers translated and republished many American comics (Vampirella, Morbius, Rune, etc.), Italians were the most prolific among European nations in generating their own characters and stories. Among early independent vampire titles was Jacula, an adult vampire comic featuring a female vampire, reminiscent of the Bad Girl vampires of the 1990s. Jacula went on to become the single longestlasting vampire series ever published, running for 327 issues over a fourteen-year period (1969–82). In the wake of Jacula’s success, several imitations were issued, including the almost equally successful, Zora, which ran for 235 issues (1973–85).

Through the years Italian comics gave Dracula (both Count Dracula and Vlad the Impaler) ample treatment. Other aristocratic Eastern European vampires included Bela Rakosi, who invaded the American West in the 1970s series, Zagor. Zagor, though having no experience with vampires, figured out their weaknesses and dispatched Rakosi on two different occasions. Vampires frequently appear as guest villains in several Italian adventure comics with a horror slant. Even toward the end of the twentieth century, vampire comics were as popular as ever.

Sources:

Agazzi, Renato. Il mito del vampiro in Europa. Poggibonsi: Antonio Lalli, 1979. 257 pp.
Guariento, Steve. “Bava Fever! Italian Gothic, Italian Camp, Italian Psychos (1966–72)” Samhain 37 (May/June 1993): 22–26.
Giovannini, Fabio. Il libro dei vampiri: Dal mito di Dracula alla presenza quotidiana. Bari: Edizioni Dedalo, 1997. 246 pp.
Introvigne, Massimo. La stirpe di Dracula: Indagine sul vampirismo dall’antichita ai nostri giorni. Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1997. 474 pp.
Pattison, Barrie. The Seal of Dracula. New York: Bounty Books, 1975. 136 pp.
Raucci, Vincenzo. Bram Stoker’s Dracula 1897–1997. Monza: Penguin’s Editions, 1997. 64 pp. Rossignoli Emilio de. Io credo nei vampiri. Luciano Ferriani, 1961. 379 pp.
Tardiola, Giuseppe. Il Vampiro nella Letteratura Italiana. Rome: De Rubeis, 1991. 89 pp. Vampiri: Miti, legende, letteratura, cinema, fumetti, multimedialità. Milano: Casa Editrice Nord, 1998. 159 pp.