In 1764 Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto. [Image: British Library]
Walpole (1717-97) was the son of Robert Walpole, recognised as Britain’s first Prime Minister, and was variously a Whig politician, a dilettante, an antiquarian and the creator of the wonderful Gothic masterpiece, Strawberry Hill, his house in Twickenham.
Walpole’s book – often considered to be the first Gothic novel – has the lot: a giant supernatural helmet that crushes a bridegroom to death, thwarted love, tragic stabbings, lustful noblemen, vengeful fathers, sword fights, ghostly happenings and much, much more. Frankly, attempting to summarise the plot is impossible but a short extract gives the flavour:
Manfred, whose spirits were inflamed, and whom Isabelle had driven from her on his urging his passion with too little reserve, did not doubt but that the inquietude she had expressed had been occasioned by her impatience to meet Theodore. Provoked by these conjectures, and enraged at her father, he hastened secretly to the great church. Gliding softly between the aisles, and guided by an imperfect gleam of moonlight that shone faintly through the illuminated windows, he stole towards the tomb of Alfonso…
After the success of the first edition, purporting to be a translation of an ancient manuscript, Walpole came clean for the second edition and admitted to writing it. It was hugely popular, spawned an entire genre of fiction and inspired numerous stage melodramas.
I was recently on a small ship cruise in the Mediterranean in the footsteps of Edward Lear and found myself in the Italian port of Otranto. Obviously the priority was to seek out the castle. I had visions of gothic towers, creepy turrets, gloomy dungeons, gargoyles… Actually, it is nothing like that at all, which was rather a disappointment.
It is known as The Castello Aragonese, was rebuilt by Alphonso II of Naples in 1485–98 and is an aggressively militaristic edifice with not a gargoyle in sight. Over the entrance is the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58) who owned southern Italy when it was part of the Kingdom of Aragon.
An impressive castle – but not, I fear, the house of horrors of Walpole’s imagination, unless one pictures the huge coat of arms taking off on those strange wings behind it and crashing down on some unfortunate bridegroom…
Napoleon stationed naval ships in Otranto harbour from 1804 and in 1808 created the hereditary title Duc d’Otrante for his Minister of Police Joseph Fouché when the town became duché grand-fief in the satellite Kingdom of Naples. The dukes now live in Sweden and the title is still extant, apparently without any gothic nightmares to haunt the family.