We entered on a raw, late-autumn morning and we were the only people inside. After admiring the beautiful floor, I was led to a truly gothic spectacle: lining shelves on a wall off to the side were 800 human skulls — victims of invading Turks. Mr. Calignano grimaced as he related how bits of the victims’ preserved flesh are still stored in a locked drawer. Once a year in August they are removed and paraded through town streets.
“The Castle of Otranto” was a publishing phenomenon in 1764. Walpole’s short tale describes the supernatural punishment of a usurping Italian feudal prince in a haunted castle packed with what we now consider standard fright stock — secret doors, gloomy tunnels, haunted suits of armor, portraits of ancestors jumping out of their frames. At the time, though, these images were so fresh and shocking that Walpole’s little book became an instant best seller in England.
Modern-day Otranto is a place of seductive pleasures, where a warm afternoon can be passed bathing in azure seas and gorging on nouvelle Italian seafood accompanied by the crisp local Greco di Tufo wine. Sienna Miller has been known to sun herself on the same local beaches where Turkish invaders once stormed the sands waving scimitars on their way to the Castle of Otranto. I paid a few euros and toured the castle’s white corridors alone, seeking signs of Walpole’s ghosts, peering into small, empty, barred rooms, any one of which could have been a dungeon. On the outside, it is a photogenic and perfectly preserved white fortress. But its turrets, gunwales and wide, waterless moat attest to the inhabitants’ defensive terror of the invader hundreds of years ago.
A SHORT flight or a five-hour train trip west across the heel of Italy to Naples allows ample time to dig into the works of a lesser-known gothic master, Ann Radcliffe. She was a reclusive Englishwoman who like Walpole was celebrated in her day for novels, many of which were set in Italy, that pit seemingly supernatural forces of evil, often associated with Catholicism or small-time feudal tyrants, against guileless young women and their brave, thwarted lovers.
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Exploring Italy’s Macabre Past
Radcliffe’s best-known novel, “The Italian,” takes place in 18th-century Naples. Almost every page contains a castle keep, a shadowy ruin and creepy, robed stalkers from the religious orders. The plot is simple enough: a young nobleman of Naples falls in love with a girl of whom his mother strongly disapproves. The mother hires an evil monk to do away with her, but the monk discovers that the girl is actually his own daughter — the product of an illicit affair.
The novel opens with an Englishman surveying the Naples church of Santa Maria del Pianto, which Radcliffe wrote housed “the very ancient convent of the order of the Black Penitents.”
Contemporary visitors can test Radcliffe’s gothic imagination against the lively reality of the teeming city. The church of Santa Maria del Pianto is still there, but it’s not on any tourist map. When I inquired about it, a woman at a news kiosk in central Naples pointed vaguely in a (wrong) direction, sending me through a giant 19th-century galleria with a roof of delicate glass and worn marble floors. Subsequently, my quest led me down crowded, narrow back streets with balconies festooned with laundry and finally to the doorstep of the Hosteria Toledo, where the proprietors laid out a late Sunday lunch of fried frutti di mare and a tomato and basil pasta. The owner’s brother-in-law, a tour guide, was reached by phone to assure me that the church in Radcliffe’s book was definitely “not one of the great churches of Naples.” It does still exist, but in what is now an organized-crime-infested suburb called Secondigliano. I crossed it off the to-do list, reluctantly.
Not those Goths!