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Topographies of Writing in The Bravo

Anna Scannavini
(Università dell'Aquila)

Placed on line March 2011

Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 1 (Fenimore Cooper: Fresh Biographical and Historical Contexts) at the 2009 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts

©2009 by The James Fenimore Cooper Society
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers
No. 26, pp. 11-15
Steven Harthorn and Shalicia Wilson, Editors

Return to ALA Cooper Panels Articles & Papers

Translated in 1832, The Bravo raised in Italy much attention, due not only to Cooper's fame as an American author, but also to the book's political reflections on the local scene. The novel's metaphorical intention was pushed on the background, contributing—here more than elsewhere—to engrain the story into the history of Venice.1 This teased sensibilities that were severely put to task by the Venetian present. In the 1830s—and down to 1870—Italy was divided into a number of different states, most of which were under the influence of Austria, when not under its direct rule. Such states had their own cultures and languages, sometimes deeply rooted in their past. Venice, in particular, still retained proud memories of its ancient power and splendor, and had resented bitterly the surrender to Austria by Napoleon. Intellectuals read The Bravo as a matter of historical romance and felt offended by its many inaccuracies as to the city's usages and customs.2 Cooper, they claimed, had ignored Venetian history and had simply inflated the bias of Pierre Antoine Daru's 1819 History of Venice, a text written to justify Napoleon's betrayal, and a contribution to the construction of Venice's "black legend."

In the following decades, the attacks have melted away as scholars accepted that Venice must be taken as the inspirational kernel of a political metaphor. Its crucial role in the book's construction and ideation, however, has diverted attention from other components of the novel, which not only sustain its concrete texture, but are also politically loaded in their turn. Among them there are the detailed socio-geographical references to Italy interspersed in the narrative as a subtext. Arguably inspired by Cooper's first-hand observations, many of them bring to bear his personal apprehension of the country, compounding it with the historical representation and putting under stress The Bravo's perception of variance. If it is true that "local color [...] abounds" in the book "with the same amount of truth" as Cooper's American novels, although "with less freshness and originality" (Romey 268-69), it can be argued that truth and a minus of original synthesis can be traced back to Cooper's memories and to the special pathos that he brought to them. Such pathos renders The Bravo a more complex book than can be surmised. As the narrator calls to task the peninsular topography and its folklore, features other than Venice provide the terrestrial coordinates on which the city's contradictions are performed. And, in so doing, they also entail a positioning as to the country politics of Cooper's own time.


The peninsula plays an important role in characterization. So much was perceived by Venetian reviewers when they complained that the book's Italian insertions did not belong to the language spoken in the city. And it is quite clear that some of the used expressions were typical of other Italian states. "Don" and "donna," for instance, are not Venetian, but they were (and still are) perfectly plausible in Rome or in Naples and Sorrento, the places where the Coopers domesticated themselves to the country and its customs, and where James Fenimore picked up local koines and language ways.3 Several characters, on the other hand, are from the South, as the dialogue between Gino and Stefano in the first chapter makes clear. Stefano keeps in Sorrento his felucca "La Bella Sorrentina" and is a liegeman of Don Camillo, a Neapolitan nobleman, and the duke of Sant'Agata of Calabria. Stefano and Gino are both from there—"countrymen by birth," as the narrator says, with a possible reference to the open problem of Italian reunification.4

In his double characterization as a sailor and a Southerner, Stefano brings to the story his perspective and displays, in his "Calabrian dialect," a repository of folklore, both local and regional (1831, Vol. I:7; all subsequent quotations from this edition). He alternatively appeals to San Gennaro, the Vesuvio or the "curato" of his village. In the short space of a period, he quickly unravels a whole catalogue of the Italian coasts: from "the channel of Piombino" to "the Faro of Messina" to "Santa Maria di Leuca" in Puglia (I:17). He is also witness to the possibility of a diverse ending of The Bravo, since at the "headlands of Otranto" he met "a rover of strange rigs" (I:23) which is clearly the American "Eudora" of the rejected chapters that Schachterle found at the American Antiquarian Society (2006). The chapters were intended to follow the two high class lovers, Camillo and Violetta, in their escape from Venice, but were abandoned when Cooper decided to follow instead the tragic ending of Jacopo Frontoni, the "bravo" of the title.


Both dialogue and rejected chapters acquire meaning on the background of a network of Italian landmarks. At its center, a series of didactic passages illustrates the configuration and geography of Venice and of its marine environment. The descriptions are oriented on the cardinal points, creating a network of references and a map for the reader: "A glance at the map," the narrator observes, will define Venice, both geographically and geologically, as the product of "the south-east wind called the Sirocco" (I:47). And the Sirocco typically sweeps the Adriatic sea, which is oriented in its same direction, reaching out towards the East and nurturing the naval (past) power of the city.

At other times, place names can be uttered in a quieter fashion. The Bravo begins and ends with the description of St.Mark's Square after sundown. In both cases the narrator tells that the sun falls "behind the mountains of the Tyrol." The use of Tyrol as a reference point is odd enough to require discussion. The region is not exactly to the west, but further away to the north-west, almost on the borderline with Austria. I cannot think of anybody who, speaking in Venice, would take that as a horizon, and it must be inferred that the one who—behind the narrator—addresses Tyrol is, instead, the author. As Cooper writes to Samuel Rogers, this is the region the family passed on their way out of Italy (L&J II:178); as a consequence, the gesture of pointing north moves the novel to the authorial present—and invites, somehow, to look towards Austria. And the overshadowing presence of Austria is in fact redoubled when the Alps are inscribed as the wall which bounds the mainland of Venice—its ancient hinterland, and an Austrian domain at Cooper's time—just before Antonio's assassination, probably the climax in the novel's indictment of power: "The city and the Lagunes, the gulf and the dreamy Alps, the interminable plain of Lombardy, and the blue void of heaven [laying] alike in a common and grand repose" (II:121-22).

Forays into the present situation are also active in the shaping of the plot. Don Camillo, the higher class protagonist is a representative of central-southern Italy. He is the duke of Sant'Agata, dwells in the court in Naples and has important relatives in the Papal States. Violetta Tiepolo, on the other hand, is also connected to Rome by way of her uncle—the "Roman marchese," it will be remembered, drowned in the accident that made her and Camillo meet. This creates a series of movements. Rome is constantly referred to as Camillo's most important asset and protection in the Republic. Its shadow will eventually allow the two lovers to successfully escape:

"This might arrive, father, were we to continue within the grasp of St. Mark," interrupted the Neapolitan; "but once beyond his borders, 'twould be a bold interference with the right of a foreign state to lay hands on our persons. More than this, I have a castle, in St. Agata, that will defy their most secret means." (II:161)

Interestingly enough, Camillo's multiple connections with the rest of the country, and with Cooper's apprehension of it, are brought together in his names. All of them variously appear in Gleanings. Sant'Agata is particularly interesting. Since Stefano keeps his felucca in Sorrento, it can be argued that the imaginary location of the estate is the same "Sant'Agata sui due mari" told of in Gleanings and later used in the Wing-and-Wing (Gleanings 125). Its qualification as "Calabrian" is clearly stretched, but it might find a reason in the characterization of Stefano as a peasant, and possibly in Cooper's desire to remove the dukedom further south. A similar dislocation finds a correspondence in Camillo's family name. It might have been heard in Naples as belonging to a family come to Italy with the Angevins, and appointed dukes of Laurito, a village of Cilento way down towards Calabria.5 Don Camillo, on the other hand, is the way Napoleon's brother-in-law was "styled" in Rome (Don Camillo Borghese), as Cooper humorously observes in Gleanings (26).

Be it as it may, the whole configuration tells of the authorial way of using knowledge and affections to create suitable templates on which to append his Italian insertions, a contention supported by his habit of leaving gaps in the manuscript when he could not at the moment remember an Italian word or character's name—and also by a few mix-ups that clearly escaped Bentley's notice: is Gino a "Monaldi" or "Baruffaldi"? What is the first name of Jacopo's father?6 That the author shopped for names in the family's first-hand experience is also evidenced by the fact that the family names of ordinary characters are invariably southern, included the eponymous hero, Jacopo Frontoni.


Inaccuracy as to regional names does not really subtract to the representation of characters, even if backslides into exoticism are obviously not unknown to Cooper's narrators. Working in a multilayered fashion with diverse sources, his works typically include more than one discursive mode. What is of interest is that such shifts in mode allow a series of covert authorial interferences, all of which point not only beyond Venice, but also towards Italian popular classes, contributing in The Bravo to the construction of "complex and changeful characters" which, contrary to Gleanings, are able to reflect their intended "social and political" roles (Conron and Denne, Gleanings, xli).

Social and political reflections emerge clearly in the contradictory half-disbelief in the Council and half-will to be deluded again which characterizes the insurgent fishermen. But they are also crucial in the featuring of Antonio, Jacopo and, eventually, Gelsomina. As it develops, their part of the narrative comes to embody a deep revolutionary urge and a search for "justice" that disturbs the Italian opening epigraph—"justice in the palace and bread in the streets." To my understanding, the epigraph has two possible meanings. The first one would suggest that a just government creates a general state of well being. The other tells that freedom is not necessary as long as the population is kept decently fed and satisfied. Both interpretations obtain in The Bravo. The oligarchs' pretense of freedom is kept up by public festivities and small allowances to the crowd, as shown by the final delusion into acquiescence of the insurgent fishermen.7 Antonio, Jacopo and Gelsomina, on the other hand, keep on putting forward the other interpretation, to the point that their insistence on asking for justice becomes irrepressible, and they must violently silenced. Class conflict is especially figured by Antonio, not only because of his vocal protests, but because he is the foster-brother, and a class doppel-ganger, of his persecutor Gradenigo.8 As a consequence, he is drowned in the Lagunes—in an attempt to literally erase him from the scene. His death is so crucial as to mark the beginning of the end, and the need for the author to return to Venice and its tragedy.

The motif of class struggle was not&ndasg;and could not be—developed to its end, however, and Italy's place in the narrative was left to fluctuate in search of another explanation. Since evidence shows that the authorial uses of the country are basically rooted in anachronism, such explanation must be searched in Cooper's apprehension of the country as it begins to emerge in The Bravo. Conron and Denne investigate the subtly distinctive ways in which Cooper later would make Gleanings "a book 'without politics,'" depriving it of "a major element of that synthesizing intelligence [Cooper] brought to the matter of Europe" (xl). That something was missing must also have been Cooper's feeling if he wrote to Greenough in 1838 that he had "not done justice to Italy, or myself, in the book on that country," ascribing the failure "to circumstances I could not control. I wanted time to do what I think I could easily have done, with such a subject" (qtd. by Conron and Denne, Gleanings, xxix). Cooper is certainly referring to the difficulties he found in placing the book with his publishers. From an Italian perspective, however, his phrasing leaves crucially open the question of what "the uncontrolled circumstances" were, and what the need for more "time" to control them.

In The Bravo, "the uncontrolled circumstances" emerge in the links that connect pathos and anachronism to the lower classes. The motif is nicely summarised by Gelsomina. The daughter of the gaoler, Gelsomina grew up in the Venetian jail. This notwithstanding, she takes her name from a house helper, which was with the Coopers in Sorrento and seems to have shared the same characters of the fictitious girl (Susan Fenimore Cooper 251). In a single intense passage, that same Gelsomina is identified not with the South, but with the whole country: "The abashed girl hung her head, and the color which glowed about her temples was like the rosy light of her own Italy" (III:153). If Gelsomina is Italy, she entails and revises in national terms Antonio's and Jacopo's predicaments. And it is remarkable that her name is never forgotten in the manuscripts.


The figure is neatly linked to a pre-political—but not apolitical—apprehension of the Italian people and keeps together the spontaneous rebellion of the fishermen and that of Antonio, as well as the more reflective political epiphany of Jacopo. Not even Jacopo, however, expresses a full-fledged political project, and it can be argued that this is the ultimate reason why he—and Antonio—must die.

That Jacopo could not—at his age and time—elaborate a political project is all too reasonable. The absence of a political project, however, seems to cut deeper than that, requiring us to go back to Daru. In an article on the historiography of Venice in the nineteenth century, Claudio Povolo tackles the problems raised by Daru's History of Venice and, interestingly enough, endorses him by observing that criticism directed at his work was mostly dictated by a defensive attitude—besides using, of course, the book's obvious weaknesses. In particular, Povolo contends that his critics did not see (or did not want to see) that Daru had clearly understood how "the institutional blockage" that had caused the collapse of Venice (Povolo 496-97) was rooted in the city's failure to renew its own system of government, opening it up to the mainland nobility. Since it did not have a structure of citizenship, Venice did not possess the means to include its municipalities and lost control of the "terraferma" (501). Its ruling classes were not able, in other words, to rethink a process of national foundation and consolidation.

If we measure The Bravo on Povolo's historiographic approach, it is clear that Cooper was both aligned and not aligned with Daru. He readily grasped that the value of Daru was in that it disclosed Venice's inner contradictions. On the other hand, he did not find any way to really inscribe the book's situated notion of the connection between Venice and its "terraferma." The subtext of Italian references reaches out in that direction, but the connection is not perfected as a component of the narrative structure. As a consequence, the defense of abstract principles done in the "Preface" cannot but leave undetermined the meanings that "social protection" and "inhabitants" could take in relation to Italy—and to the Venice of The Bravo. At a time of repression after the failed Italian pushes of the Napoleonic era and after the rebellions of the 1820s, the author's sympathy for the lower classes does not attain, so to say, the Italian "terraferma" of a new national organization.

Would it have been possible to pursue that line of reasoning? Of course not. In order to do so, The Bravo should have been a completely different enterprise, more engrained in the Italian problems, and more radically anachronistic than it could possibly be. It could not, in particular, inscribe the forces that, rooted in the new middle classes, would become the backbone of the Risorgimento. It is quite significant that, in a novel so attentively inclusive of the peninsular topography, the only missing reference is Florence. And yet, Florence was an important passage in Cooper's visit and the place where he supposedly met the Italian intelligentsia of the time, as evidenced by his relation with Vieusseux, the Swiss founder and patron of the "Gabinetto Vieusseux," a crossroads of European and Italian liberals and revolutionaries.9

I would suggest that the difficulty to grasp and inscribe what was actively working underneath the confused Italian situation of the late 1820s is the reason why Cooper eschewed the problem in Gleanings. In The Bravo, mentions of Italy, and of Italian places or people, bring to bear the Italian past and present configuration, and the peninsular topography is relevant in the ideal projection of the text beyond the limits of Venice. This creates an oblique and interesting point of view on the struggle between powerful and powerless that is deeply embedded in The Bravo, but, with the development of the action, the Italian background fades off. The look out from the island of the dead not only evidences Cooper's choice not to follow up with the Mediterranean and the naval chase along the coasts of Italy; it also evidences that the Italian strife toward national unification was in The Bravo an untaken road. Italy's historical and political predicament did not responddash;Cooper must have realized—to his deepest impulses (Franklin). It is at that point that The Bravo returns onto itself, escaping towards other places and other political warnings and targets.

Works Cited

1 Batelli's first translation of novel (1832) did not carry the author's "Preface" somewhat contributing to the process.

2 On contemporary Italian reception, see Goggio; Sullam Calimani 16-18; Scannavini.

3 Cooper tackles the criticism in the 1834 edition of the novel, in terms similar to the ones given here.

4 The felucca's name, "La Bella Sorrentina," is clearly shaped on "La bella Genovese," on which the Coopers travelled form Leghorn to Naples, L&J II:377.

5 Cooper might also have in mind the Prince Jerome Montfort he had met in Florence, Gleanings 26.

6 The term "templates" is used by Schachterle, forthcoming.

7 Also see the Journals: "This system of amusements is like a palliative for a disease, which aides the ravages of the malady while it soothes for a moment -," L&J I:38).

8 The first one to pointedly discuss class conflict in The Bravo is, to my knowledge, John Paul Russo.

9 Among other things, Vieusseux introduced Cooper to Molinari, the publisher of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish; Batelli, the Italian publisher of The Bravo, was an habitué of the cabinet. Cooper is remembered by Tommaseo, in his book on Vieusseux: he tells that Cooper entered his membership in November, and attended the "Gabinetto" regularly, trying the "troubled patience" of his host who, "pressed by tasks" in his office, had Cooper "talking to him at length, and making of the desk his seat" ("il Cooper si sfogava 'in lunghi parlari, e facendo del tavolino sedile'"). In a letter to Vieusseux of December, Leopardi claims that he honestly envies him "the society of the worthy foreigners you mention [...] and that of Cooper," qtd. by Desideri 30-31.