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I was in Paestum the other week, challenging my fading physical skills in a hotel pool and, at the same time (well, not really—that would’ve got the pages wet) challenging my fading German skills with a copy of something I picked up from the take-a-book-leave-a-book table in the lobby: Ruhe Unsanft (original English title, Sleeping Murder) by Agatha Christie. It is from 1976 and was Christie’s last Miss Marple detective story (although it was written four decades before it was published).
It was pretty good in spite of the terrible title of the original. The German title, however, is a stroke of genius: Ruhe unsanft is a pun on Ruhe sanft, the name of a lovely aria from Mozart’s unfinished opera, Zaide (K. 344) (with libretto—and thus the lovely text to the aria—by Johann Andreas Schachtner). It means, Rest gently; the un- prefix in German does the same thing as in English, so the title of the book is somewhat like wishing Bitter dreams instead of Sweet dreams. The Italian title is a dog: Addio Miss Marple (Farewell, Miss Marple). (Italians like spoiler titles. Just to make sure you get it, the subtitle of the Italian version is Miss Marple’s last case. Spoiler alert: a very Italian title would have been, Miss Marple’s last case, the one where the brother is the murderer).
A leitmotif in Ruhe Unsanft is a passage from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi: "Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young." Webster (1580-1634) was a late contemporary of Shakespeare’s. Webster wrote mostly comedies but is best remembered for two tragedies: The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. They are dark, violent, and macabre and have been called the predecessors of the “Gothic novel” genre of the 1700s. T. S. Eliot said of Webster that he always saw “the skull beneath the skin,” and the character of John Webster puts in a cameo appearance as a boy in the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love, where screen writer, Tom Stoppard, has young Webster say to Shakespeare, “I like it when they cut heads off and the daughter is mutilated with knives” in reference to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.
Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (The Duchesse of Malfy) [he meant Amalfi] was first performed in 1614 at the Globe Theater and is a loose dramatization of the intrigues involving Joan (Giovanna) of Aragon (1477-1510), daughter of Ferdinand I, King of Naples. The events take place in the first years of the 1500s; the play is grisly and winds up with everyone being murdered, including the duchess. (She was murdered in real life, too. That was pretty much par for the course in the waning days of the Aragonese dynasty in Naples, a time that appeals to anyone who likes it “…when they cut heads off and the daughter is mutilated with knives.”) I have never read or seen the The Duchess of Malfi and probably never will, although it does remain relatively popular and is played not infrequently. The basic story is based on a tale in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter (1540-1594), a collection of his translations of “Pleasant Histories and excellent Novelles…out of divers good and commendable authors...” that provide the Italian settings and plots for much Elizabethan drama, including a number of works by Shakespeare. The collection was cobbled together by Painter from many Italian sources including Boccaccio, Gian Francesco Straparola, and—in the case of The Duchesse of Malfy—Matteo Bandello (1485-1561). The tale of his that was the source for Painter and then Webster was his Novella XXVI, Il signor Antonio Bologna sposa la duchessa di Malfi e tutti dui [sic] sono ammazzati (Antonio Bologna marries the duchess of Malfi and both are murdered. I told you they like spoiler titles.)
To me the big mystery is why they all call the place Malfi instead of Amalfi, unless they thought the “a” was an indefinite article in Italian as well as English. My, how veddy English that would be. (—“Oh, John, ask that swarthy little native guide what the name of that town on the coast is.”
—“I have asked, love. Apparently
he doesn’t know. He just keeps repeating that it’s a
Malfi. Look, there’s another one. The coast is
covered with Malfis. We could put our Bed &
Breakfast in that one over there.”)
On the other hand, there is another town in southern Italy named Melfi (famous as the town where the First Crusade was proclaimed in 1089). Amalfi may actually have been founded by settlers from Melfi; the origin of both words is probably an Italic root that means water. But Amalfi has never been Malfi or Malfy. (Italian translations of Webster have the title as la Duchessa di Amalfi.) Maybe Webster didn’t know the difference, or maybe Painter didn’t. Bandello? Even he called it Malfi. He should have known (even if he was from way up north—Castelnuovo Scrivia, population 6, near Torino). That’s still a mystery.
And what of Horace Walpole, you ask? How did he manage to get it right in The Castle of Otranto when surely the conversation must have gone, “You, there—swarthy little native. What’s the name of that place with the spooky castle?”—“Oh, Tranto.”
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