C. Bruna Mancini, Sguardi su Londra. Immagini di una città mostruosa. Liguori Editore. ISBN: 88-207-3844-9.
Great cities – that is large as well as eminent cities – have always cast a spell over the imagination, and London is still, even after the loss of Empire, recreated as an object of wonder at least once in every generation. An engaging and adventurous book from Italy, dealing with monstrous images of London, is fitting recompense for the long devotion of thousands of British authors to Italy. The London in Bruna Mancini’s account is not the “new Rome” vaunted by London authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, except in so far as the monstrousness of the city derives from the “opes, fumum, strepitumque”, the wealth, smoke and hubbub, which these authors loved to quote, applying Horace’s description of one great imperial city to a later one. The equation of London with ancient Rome was already made in Italian in the mid-eighteenth century, when Piero Verri wrote to his brother in 1767 to express how far in advance England was of the Continent:
My friend, it is natural that our self-esteem resents our national inferiority, and yet the English are right insofar as they have a marked superiority over the whole of the European continent. They are not wrong when they regard foreigners as slaves since the Europeans, owing to their political institutions, are actually slaves …
These same advantages led to London becoming the first city to experience characteristically modern stresses and anxieties, and this duality in its historical relations with the rest of Europe produces in Mancini an excited mix of horror at what we have, and envy that we have had it so long and in such striking measure.
This lively and immensely readable book is one of the latest a not inconsiderable number of Italian contributions to our understanding of the literature, visual art and filmography of London. Like most of its predecessors, it is fascinated by late-Victorian images, steeped in mystery, indefinability and suggestions of the supernatural, but it takes in a larger sweep, finding pre-echoes of these things in accounts of London after the Great Fire, and reaching forward to film, psychogeography and futuristic visions, and concluding in a perceptive treatment of “cyberbia”, an electronic and virtual city. Along the way we have been shown how the concept of the metropolis as a text to be read and interpreted appears in belles lettres long before it enters literary criticism, and how this text is a net formed from the intersection of innumerable narratives. Here the semantic pair, text/textile (testo/tessuto), is frequently called into service, but this, and other verbal tricks are not simply clever shows of postmodernity, but genuinely help the reader into the argument. Here, one feels, one is in the hands of a critic who relishes and exploits disjointed, postmodern units of sense, but at the same time enjoys the architectural craft of building complex sentences and massive paragraphs, all under impeccable syntactic control, as though the book were a verbal transposition of Piranesian visions of monstrous, perpetual prisons.
The effect is quite different from that of the similar material when it appears in Peter Ackroyd’s work, for example. The latter enhances the strangeness of fact and perception partly by locating things, by saying, in effect, “here, on this familiar street, is such and such”. After all, to the Londoner, the metropolis, however oppressive and incomprehensible at times, is also the place in which one confidently gets on the number 73 bus. Dr Mancini is an observer from without, and the unalleviated strangeness of her London is shocking and revealing. Although she does not deal with the recent upsurge in interest in the experiences of immigrants to London, the reader is suddenly confronted with a complex of phenomena which convey the awfulness (in both senses) of the city to those who are devoured by it. All this, of course, is to say that Dr Mancini is following in the robust Italian tradition of finding a theme or genre, and working at it relentlessly. The monstrousness of London fits perfectly into a tradition which is strongly informed by ideas, which takes naturally to notions of utopias and dystopias, and which looks back half a century to the volcanic eruption of the stranger aspects of romanticism and the gothic in the work of Mario Praz.
There are a few, unimportant errors or geography or nomenclature in the book, but such things occur in all writing on London, even by Londoners. We all have our own versions of the city which we stand by, and these versions are probably only held together by an overarching belief that somewhere there is a taxi-driver with the perfect “Knowledge”. What Dr Mancini reveals to us is the existence of very serious Italian work on London, set in an urban sociology which is only partly translated in English. It seems that there is an alternative world of research to tap into here, and there is no better way into it than by means of Dr Mancini’s lively book. Something of its quality can be seen in an article of hers in an earlier issue of Literary London Journal, “Imagined/Remembered Londons” (2.2 September 2004).
To Cite This Article:
David Skilton, ‘Review: C. Bruna Mancini, Sguardi su Londra. Immagini di una città mostruosa’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 2 (September 2006). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2006/skilton.html. Accessed on [date of access]