- The Empire of Stereotypes: Germaine de Staël and the Idea of Italy
Robert Casillo's study of the idea of Italy in Germaine de Staël's novel Corinne is an outstanding piece of research, and a timely and welcome addition to a growing body of literature on Northern European and [End Page 461] North American perceptions of Italy spanning some five centuries, albeit with a particular focus on the age of the Grand Tour and the early nineteenth century. The breadth of scholarship in this book is remarkable: the impressively detailed footnotes alone contain enough material for several future studies. Casillo has clearly exercised considerable restraint in the selection of the material included in his main text and has managed to balance an easy narrative flow with a detailed and rich bibliographical apparatus. This extremely well-structured study combines a solid historical approach with theoretical and sociological concerns and material.
As Casillo notes, Staël's novel Corinne 'remained crucial to the definition of Italy in Northern Europe and North America' (p. 2) throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Whilst acknowledging Staël's major contribution to the Romantic view of Italy, Casillo also shows that she followed in the path of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers, and in turn became an important source for early- and late-nineteenth-century travellers and writers including Stendhal.
As well as being a study of Staël's Corinne – with many references to On Literature – this volume also analyses the clichés and stereotypes which surrounded the idea of Italy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in particular. Casillo investigates how these ideas amount to an actual 'construction' of the myth of Italy. His study blends theoretical and philosophical concerns central to the study of Orientalism, Freudian theory, and feminist perspectives, with Benedetto Croce's idea of the 'grain of truth' underpinning many stereotypes: an idea which Casillo describes as a 'useful corrective to the notion of travel-writing as pure construction' (p. 4).
In chapter 1, 'Decline and Discovery', Casillo analyses the idea of the perceived and real decline of Italy, focusing on literature and the arts in relation to the country's economic and social weakening in the post-Renaissance period. The relative merits of English (Northern) and Italian (Southern) European civilization – a central theme of Corinne – are also Staël's main concerns in On Literature, which took a dismal view of Italian literature, national character and history. In Corinne, Staël rather dramatically changed her perspective and both partook of and fostered a new interest in contemporary Italian society and politics. That new interest would have a great impact on the European perception of the Italian national struggle in the age of the Risorgimento. Yet, as Casillo rightly points out, the Italy of Staël in Corinne is both 'a personal utopia [End Page 462] satisfying Staël's desire for a passionate and self-expressive existence beyond the constraints of the Bourgeois North' (p. 45), as well as a country whose values cannot be fully embraced. The dialectic between North and South, which for Casillo is evidence of 'the author's newly discovered ambivalence between these cultural spheres' (p. 46), shows a fundamental ambiguity in the portrayal of both cultures which is ultimately biased against the South. The defense of Italy in the novel is voiced by both the narrator, who, as Casillo notes, shares Staël's ambivalence, and Corinne who challenges the prejudice, ignorance and misinterpretation of the North, but ultimately will come to internalize some of the negative prejudices levelled against herself and the country she represents, in her path to self-destruction.
In chapter 3, 'The Empire of Stereotypes', Casillo analyses the stereotypes which were commonplace within the travel tradition to which Staël belonged. They include Italian military cowardice and the related effeminacy of Italian men; the portrayal of the Italians as deceivers and hypocrites; the Italians as a tyrannized people lacking in discipline and hence...