Love After Loss in Otherworldly Venice

Two loving persons, John and Laura. experienced a big tragedy—the tragic loss of their beloved daughter. Their love seems to have cracked after this tragic event. Can their love after loss still be restored?

Loss after loss can be partially healed – and intimacy restored – experiencing something unexpected and new, incorporating in a couple’s life small doses of the unfamiliar, the magical, and the primal. Don’t Look Now seems to say just this. The novella is set in Venice and it is written by Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca.

John and Laura, the protagonists of the story, experience a reawakening of the senses that brings them close to one another again after the tragic loss of their daughter. While depicting Venice as gloomy and mysterious, the lagoon city acts as a time-travel device, allowing the protagonists to go back in time and offering them, briefly, the illusion of a restored happiness. The beauty and magic of Venice give them a suspended moment of loving and sensual closeness before a tragic conclusion.

The Journal of the Short Story in English published a special issue on Daphne du Maurier’s short stories and novellas. The volume, edited by Xavier Lachazette, will be available online in June 2024. Meanwhile, readers can access the article I wrote on Don’t Look Now here:

The Soothing Encounter with Otherness

When John and Laura take a trip to Venice after the death of their daughter Christine, they are distant from one another. In Venice, they meet middle-aged twin sisters. One of the sisters is a psychic who tells Laura she can see and communicate with Christine. She also tells her that Christine is trying to warn their parents to leave the city at once, as she thinks they are in danger. Whereas Laura believes what she hears from the sisters, John, feeling manipulated, grows increasingly impatient with his wife and annoyed with the old ladies.

Whereas Laura is capable of contemplating and accepting a necessary dose of soothing, otherworldly reality which will help her elaborate and contain her grief for the loss of her daughter, John chooses to hide behind a veil of scepticism which will eventually lead him to ruin.

As the story unfolds, John and Laura, in spite of their opposed attitudes towards the unknown, become less estranged from one another. Venice works its magic on them, bringing them closer, renewing their intimacy. Their encounter with otherness – the lagoon city as an exotic and mysterious location and the sisters as messengers from an otherworldly dimension – generates an intense moment of happiness, acting as a catalyst of positive change in their relationship.

Otherness as Catalyst of Change

Don’t Look Now immediately introduces us to a parallel dimension of doubles and opposites: twin old ladies, the second sight one of them possesses, youth opposed to old age, innocence to corruptness, belief to disbelief. In a sense, the novella can be read as a story of descent into a maze – which Venice very much resembles – from which only those who are emotionally open to the possibility of being challenged find a way out, getting consoled for their loss and partially restored to a peaceful state of mind.

This is why Don’t Look Now is very much representative of an Anglophone literary tradition depicting the South of Europe, and Italy in particular, as a space in which manifestations of the magical, the supernatural, the unorthodox, and the regressive are still present, and there to challenge the British visitor. In other words, Italy has been depicted, for a long time, as the ideal stage for tales that centre on a rational British self who finds himself/herself challenged by a parallel world in partial discontinuity with the contemporary one.

Hence Venice is depicted as a counter-site, a place that represents the ordinary by projecting its counter-image, a microcosm that is in appearance in continuity with the contemporary world, but where ordinary rules can be momentarily suspended in order to make space for a tale of fated ineluctability.

Don’t Look Now places at its centre northern European protagonists constantly challenged by the city’s reiterated foreign character, its web of alleys and the largely incomprehensible behaviour of its natives. In order to navigate the city and to make sense of their journey, the British protagonists need someone situated half-way between their world and Venice’s parallel reality: the psychic twin sister personifies this state perfectly, as she is a medium between two worlds.

Why Italy Is Such a Special Venue in Du Maurier’s Novella

Du Maurier’s novella is a fascinating narrative centred on an ideological mystification. By making use of Italy as the cultural polar opposite of England, as a trope for healing, salvation, sensual renewal, and ultimately damnation, the story consigns the country – which Venice epitomises – to a particular role, relegating it to a magical space outside “real” space and real time, a mirror reflection and a dimension outside history that serves the double function of challenging the symbolic order of the self and reiterating its normative value.

Francesca Pierini, Asian University for Women

The Expressive Nature of Italian Beauty

The value of Italian mental culture certainly enhances Italian beauty. As Henry Finck noted, Italian women of all social classes are known for their intellectual indolence. However, their extreme emotional sensitivity compensates for this quality in large part. A natural love of music, beautiful scenery, and blue skies have trained and softened their feelings.

The Italian Cultural Tendency for Expressive Emotions

The Italian climate does not appear to foster a deep artistic culture, but it does foster Italian expressive beauty. Italy’s climate warms the blood and shapes cultural features to express every passing mood. This tendency toward emotional expressiveness gives the Italians a distinct cultural charm and the capacity for graceful modulation.

According to the observations of the German artist Otto Knille (1832-1898) regarding the Italians,

“They pose unintentionally. Their features, especially among the lower classes, have been moulded through mimic expression practised for thousands of years. Gesture-language has shaped the hands of many into models of anatomic clearness. They have a complete language of signs and gestures, which each one understands, as, for instance, in the ballet. Add to this the innate grace of this race … and we see that the Italian artist has an abundance of material for copying, as compared with which the German artist must admit his extreme poverty. Whoever has lived in Italy is in a position to appreciate these advantages…. Think of the neck, the nape, and the bust of Italian woman, the fine joints and the elastic gait of both men and women. Nor are we much better endowed as regards the physiognomy. The German potato-face is not a mere fancy—the mirror which A. de Neuville has held up to us, though clouded with prejudice, shows us an image not entirely untrue to life. We artists know how rarely a head, especially one which lacks the enchanting charm of youth, can be used as a model for anything but flat realism. Most German faces, instead of becoming more clearly chiselled and elaborated with age, appear more spongy, vague, and unmeaning.”

 (As cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 515). 

The German archaeologist and art historian Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768) commented on Italian beauty in the same vein:

“We seldom find in the fairest portions of Italy the features of the face unfinished, vague, and inexpressive, as is frequently the case on the other side of the Alps; but they have partly an air of nobleness, partly of acuteness and intelligence; and the form of the face is generally large and full, and the parts of it in harmony with each other. The superiority of conformation is so manifest that the head of the humblest man among the people might be introduced in the most dignified historical painting, especially one in which aged men are to be represented. And among the women of this class, even in places of the least importance, it would not be difficult to find a Juno. The lower portion of Italy, which enjoys a softer climate than any other part of it, brings forth men of superb and vigorously-designed forms, which appear to have been made, as it were, for the purposes of sculpture.”

 (As cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 515).

Here Henry Finck (1887/2019) once again comments that the “brunette type” of Italians attracts the most admiration from foreigners.

Furthermore, Henry Finck (1887-2019) mentions German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), who wrote about the women of Trent, a northern Italian city. Trent is a town in Austrian Tyrol that used to be part of Austria. However, practically, it consists of an Italian community.

Heinrich Heine claims in his book “Journey from Munich to Genoa” (1828) that he would have felt tempted to stay in this town where

“beautiful girls were moving about in bevies. I do not know,”

and then Heine adds,

“whether other tourists will approve of the adjective ‘beautiful’ in this case; but I liked the women of Trent exceptionally well. They were just of the kind I admire—and I do love these pale, elegiac faces with the large black eyes that gaze at you so love-sick; I love also the dusky tint of those proud necks which Phœbus already has loved and browned with his kisses; … but above all things do I love that graceful gait, that dumb music of the body, those limbs with their exquisitely rhythmic movements, luxurious, supple, divinely careless, mortally languid, anon æthereal, majestic, and always highly poetic. I love such things as I love poetry itself; and these figures with their melodious movements, this wondrous concert of femininity which delighted my senses, found an echo in my heart, and awoke in it sympathetic strains.”

(As cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 515).

What Is Unique About Italian Typological Beauty?

Many Italians believe their people are the most beautiful compared to other cultures and other regions of their own country. The Milanese, for example, claim that the men and women in their cities are the most beautiful. But the Venetians, Florentines, Romans, and Neapolitans all extol their own virtues of beauty. We can’t trust what Italians say about their own region or country because local pride makes them biased. Anyway, we shall acknowledge the unique qualities of Italian beauty. What is unique about it?

The origins of the unique Italian beauty can be traced back to times of cultural mingling with Greeks and Africans in the south and barbarian invasions in the north of the country.

What Makes Italian Beauty So Special?

In one of his letters, the English poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) extols an Italian beauty of oriental type. He also portrayed Italian culture as natural: “the garden of the world,” where “even the weeds are beautiful.” In Italy, the cosmetic value of fresh air and sunshine is striking. Italians live in a garden, where the sun is mellow and the air is balmy.

What Characterizes Italian Personal Beauty?

Many commonly acknowledge that Italian beauty is of the brunette type. The origin of this Italian type goes back to the cultural mingling that occurred as a result of contacts with Greeks and Africans in the south and barbarian invasions in the north of the country. With the exception of Rome and the Roman Campagna, the natural type of the Latin population is extremely rare.

The Brunette Beauty Type

As Henry Finck and other authors of the 19th century noted (Finck, 1887/2019), the mixture of races created the brunette type of Italian beauty. He compares it to the brunette German beauty type. 

Henry Finck says that according to general consensus, in Germany, brunettes are much more common in the south than they are in the north. Therefore, we can conclude that mixing in the brunette type enhances the blonde type.

It is still unclear whether the admixture of northern blondes improves the brunette type of northern Italy.

Henry Finck commented that according to others’ opinions, it is true that beautiful women abound in Venice, Milan, and Bologna. Naples and Capri, the brunette paradise, are also widely regarded as the regions where Italian beauty is at its best. Here, mostly dark-skinned people have mixed, so the eyes are always a deep brown color.

Many people do not express much admiration for Italian blondes. In Northern Italy, the introduction of blonde blood created lighter tints of the iris. Many people do not favor this type of beauty.

In the same way, these features are also present in South Germany. But the dark eyebrows, long black lashes, and more flexible and rounded limbs typical for this region neutralize the impression of these characteristics.

Italian people are also well-known for their emotional expressiveness. In another article, I show how the climate and cultural traditions of Italy make Italian brunettes so expressively beautiful.

The Italian Value of Beauty and Love

Many cultural characteristics distinguish national beauty standards. In this and previous articles, I describe Italian beauty based on many sources from the last several centuries. Let us explore the archival legacy of love scholarship (Finck, 1887/2019). Here are some of the ways that Henry Finck and other writers of the 19th century described the beauty of Italy. 

The origin of Italian beauty is in the mixture of cultures that evolved from the contacts with Greeks and Africans in the south and the barbarian invasions in the north of the country.

What Makes Italian Beauty Natural?

An English poet, Lord Byron, characterized Italy as “the garden of the world” and said that its “very weeds are beautiful.” These unique qualities can be due to the race as well as the soil. It is because they live in a garden, where the air is balmy and the sun is mellow. Italians can, to some extent, disregard personal hygiene laws. They can thrive in the conditions that would torture others to death.

The cosmetic value of fresh air and sunshine is striking in Italy.

Miss Margaret Collier notes in her book “Our Home by the Adriatic” that in rural Italian communities, even among the wealthy, requesting a bath raises concerns about one’s health.

And Berlioz referred to Italian peasant girls in one of his writings:

 “Carrying heavy copper vessels and faggots on their heads; but all so wretched, go miserable, so tattered, so filthily dirty, that, in spite of the beauty of the race and the picturesqueness of their costume, all other feelings are swallowed up in one of utter compassion.”

Berlioz also spoke of “the beauty of the race,” notwithstanding the national indifference to the laws of cleanliness.

Italian Beauty, Love, and Marriage

The value of beauty and love in matrimonial relationships in the 19th century varied across social groups of Italians.

In rural regions, French cultural practices regarding marriage appear to be prevalent. Miss Collier recalls a young woman who came to see her to wish her luck in her upcoming wedding. When Miss Collier asked the girl the name of her future husband, the girl answered naively, “I don’t know; papa has not yet told me that.”

The peasants, on the other hand, had the freedom to choose their own mates. So, the value of Italian beauty was most prevalent among them. Individual mate selection was also more permissible in nineteenth-century France. Instead of being cynical and making fun of it, the Italians worshiped love as if it were a law.

The Amazing Latin Love and Latin Lovers

The genre of romantic novels has been prolific for recent centuries, not only in Europe but also in the Latin-speaking worlds of Europe and Latin America. The terms “Latin love” and “Latin lover” are commonly associated in the minds of many people.

What Is Latin America?

In public view, Latin love is strongly associated with Latin American and South American countries of the American continent, such as Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica. The term “Latin America” refers to the countries of that region where people predominantly speak Spanish, Portuguese, and French—the languages of Latin linguistic origin. However, the term is widely overlaps with other terms, such as Central America and South America. Many other countries, such as Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil, may also be considered, in some sense, Latin American ones.

The character of the Latin lover resembles, in some respects, the “macho man”, but only partially.

What Is a “Latin Lover”?

The cultural stereotype of the Latin lover, however, has another origin. The notion of the “Latin lover” first appeared in the writings of Ancient Rome in its original Latin language. The idea and image changed throughout the centuries as the romantic literary genre evolved over time (Johnson, 2009).

The modern term “Latin Lover” was coined early in the 20th century. It became a label for the Italian-born American actor Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926), who was a popular character in several well-known silent films. He was a sex symbol of the 1920s and became an early pop icon. The modern stereotype of a “Latin lover” portrays a romantic, sensual, and passionate man of Latin or Romance European origin.

Is this also true for Latin America? This may also be accurate when considering popular media imagery portrayed in Argentine tango and Brazilian carnivals. Nevertheless, Michael Schuessler (2014), a professor from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, disagrees with this way of interpretation. He noted,

“this a stereotype promoted by people from the United States. There they see the Latin Lover as someone exotic and attractive. In the US, the figure of the Latin Lover was converted into that of a sex symbol, whereas in Mexico it is the reverse. Here the sex symbol is the blond – we Mexicans have always found them attractive. Moreover, the blonde gringas are seen as the ultimate sexual conquest. And we see this a lot in the novels of José Agustín, Ricardo Garibay, a little in those of Carlos Fuentes, such as Frontera de Cristal, in which bedding a gringa is the maximum sexual conquest that a Mexican macho can aspire to. I think this comes from the way many gringas come to have sexual flings with the beach boys in Acapulco. And of course, the gringos do the same…”

Schuessler (2014).

What Does Love Look Like in Latin America?

Many readers familiar with European literature may recognize Walter Scott and Alessandro Manzoni as classic authors of romantic love novels. In the same way, some of the romantic novels published in Latin American literature from the middle to the end of the 19th century present magnificent examples of the romantic literature genre with unique stories of Latin American love. A particular romance has become the “national novel” in almost every Latin American country (Sommer, 1994).

The 20th century was a good time for modern Latin American romantic love writing to flourish (Faris, 1992; Kenwood, 1992, ed.).

Gabriel García Márquez Is Talking about Love

For example, the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014) is probably the most well-known writer of Latin love internationally. He portrayed the Latin American concept of love vividly and wonderfully. The quotes nicely compiled by Frannie Jackson (2014) from several of his romantic novels vividly illustrate what romantic Latin love is:

1. “It’s enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment.”— One Hundred Years of Solitude

2. “The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.” — Love in the Time of Cholera

3. “Think of love as a state of grace; not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.” — Love in the Time of Cholera

4. “It was the time when they loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity.” — Love in the Time of Cholera

5. “There is always something left to love.” — One Hundred Years of Solitude

6. “She had never imagined that curiosity was one of the many masks of love.” — Love in the Time of Cholera

7. “Only God knows how much I love you.” — Love in the Time of Cholera

8. “They were so close to each other that they preferred death to separation.” — One Hundred Years of Solitude

9. “There is no greater glory than to die for love.” — Love in the Time of Cholera

10. “The girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.” — Love in the Time of Cholera

(Jackson, April 19, 2014).

Slim Scholarly Knowledge about Latin Love

Romantic novels are well-known worldwide. However, scholarly studies on romantic love in Latin America are sparsely published in English. Therefore, our current cultural knowledge that international scholars have about love in Latin America is fragmentary, patchy, and piecemeal so far (Karandashev, 2017; 2019). Nonetheless, research interest in the topic of romantic love has been growing among Central and South American scholars in recent decades. Therefore, we’ll learn more about what Latin love is in the coming years.