“He looks like he’s stepped out of a painting”: The idealisation and appropration of Italian timelessness through the experience of Romantic Love

Dr Francesca Pierini (Academia Sinica, Taiwan)
Session 5.3: History and Romance

This was an interesting (and at times quite amusing) session looking at a subset of English-language romance authors who set their stories Italy.  Apparently there is a whole Thing where people with Italian ancestry seek their roots in Italy and the ‘fall in love in Italy’ trope references history as a kind of racial purity / cultural appropriation.  The authors aren’t interested modern day Italy except as a canvas for talking about the Renaissance (or at a pinch, the Middle Ages).

Note:  During Francesca’s presentation I realised I had actually read a book kinda like this.  Italian for Beginners by Kristin Harmel.  Which I actually enjoyed a lot at the time, and I’ve even reread it, but I didn’t realise it was a whole thing.

The Glassblower Murano – Marina Fiorato (2008)

Tells the story of Leonora, a young woman who travels to Venice in search of he genealogical past and existential roots.  “Falling in love in Italy” story.

  • Appropriation of a privileged view of history and culture
  • Italy is constructed as a place in partial discontinuity with modernity, unbroken traditions much defined by history, privileged relationship with the past that still informs the present
  • Timelessness and immobility of people and place

It is a clear fantasy of ‘pure origins’ that tells much of the way Italy is perceived in the global taxonomic configuration of cultures

Reference to Said’s Orientalism: with Italy as the exotic place

Juliet – Anne Fortier (2010)

Tells the story of Julie who discovers her ancestor Giulietta was the inspiration / original Juliet for Romeo and Juliet. She is destined to re-live Romeo and Juliet story, and needs to find her Romeo – the descendent of the original Romeo

  • Tied to Shakespeare’s plays
  • Siena is self-enclosed and mysterious, still anchored to a medieval past
  • Portraits and frescos tie to modern day characters – people apparently look exactly like their ancestors who inspired characters in Shakespeare’s plays, and are instantly recognisable as such.

Common features in the novels:

  • Social integration is important to both these heroines.
  • Romantic encounters fit within the personal social development
  • This trope is prominently a feature of novels by English writers, not Italian novelists
  • During the Q&A, someone asked if romance novels by Italian authors are popular.  Francesca said they are, known as Romanci Rosa (pink novels).  However she hasn’t really read many and isn’t looking at them in relation to this paper.
  • The narrative Hot Point is Middle Ages and Renaissance (not back to Roman times)

Francesca also mentioned there is a variant story of (mostly) Americans going to parts of Italy and ‘saving’ the heritage. eg Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, where she buys and restores an old villa.

Update:  Dr Laura Vivanco mentioned on Twitter that there is a similar timelessness trope with books set in Greece (again by English language writers).  However instead of using the Renaissance as the hot point, the focus is on ancient Greece and Greek mythology (Greek Gods).  Thanks for the insights Laura.

2 thoughts on ““He looks like he’s stepped out of a painting”: The idealisation and appropration of Italian timelessness through the experience of Romantic Love

  1. I’ve been doing a bit of searching online and found an article by Francesca Pierini called “The Genetic Essence of Houses and People: History as Idealization and Appropriation of an Imagined Timelessness” in Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Philologica 8.1 (2016): 99–116. That’s available online here: http://www.diacronia.ro/ro/indexing/details/A25126/pdf

    I don’t know how similar it is to her IASPR paper, but there must be a fair amount of similarity as she discusses some of the same authors and texts in both. Some of the texts in the published paper are travel books and I’m not sure the novels would be classified strictly speaking as “popular romance novels”, though there are clearly romantic elements, but again, I’m not sure: I’m only able to judge them by what I could see of the covers, descriptions etc on their Amazon pages.

  2. Thanks for the link. It looks similar, but a bit more detailed than she was able to give in a 20 minute presentation (or 15 minutes plus questions). And of course the presentation itself was really engaging and quite humorous, which isn’t necessarily conveyed in writing.

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