It is strange that the Italian, Camillo Boito (1836-1914), is best known today for his writing, because he originally trained as an artist, and mainly devoted his life to teaching architecture. But then when you read his stories, perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Both he, and his musician brother Arrigo, were associated with the Italian version of the Decadent movement, the Scapigliatura, whose proponents were ‘anti the bourgeoisie, the Church, the Establishment, and tradition, and pro individualism, hedonism, sexual freedom, drunkenness and general degeneracy’ (Roderick Conway Morris). While Arrigo fully identified with the movement, Camillo was always slightly distanced from it. Nevertheless, his short stories and novellas all betray a strong identification with Decadence. Most of them can be found collected in Senso and Other Stories, published by Dedalus Press.
The first, and most famous, story in the collection is the first-hand account of the beautiful and ruthless Contessa Livia. Compelled by her extreme vanity and pride, she stops at nothing to avenge herself on her faithless lover, a handsome but stupid soldier – even if it means the death of five separate people. Her remorseless account of these events, and her satisfaction in bringing them about, classify Livia as an iconic femme fatale, and it is hardly surprising that Luchino Visconti was so enchanted with her that he chose to turn the story into a film.
A wonderfully macabre tale which draws parallels between life and death, art and science, love and pragmatism. It also takes a sly dig at artists who elevate the emulation of a beloved in their work as being somehow superiour and free of exploitation. It is the story of a young man who is intent on depicting the beauty of his lovely and vivacious mistress in his paintings, and how he battles for her with a scientist, who believes that the woman should be his, in death, so that he can examine the anatomy of beauty.
This tale of sexual perversion is the account of a young man driven to despair by the death of his saintly sister, with whom he was passionately in love. He believes he sees her image in a coarse young shop girl he meets, and he succeeds in seducing her. Naturally, the adventure ends in disgrace and horror.
Vade Retro, Satana
The futility of morality is a frequent theme in Decadent writing. Here, the good actions of a pious young priest are rendered meaningless in a society that only thinks of money and pleasure.
The Grey Blotch
A psychological tale in which a man is tormented by a grey blotch in his vision which manifests itself after he rejects a young girl whom he meets in the country. He seduced her, only to be repulsed by her voracious sexuality. He learns that he has driven her into madness, and she eventually dies. The themes of corruption permeate the whole story, as the man wrestles with his conscience, in the form of the grey blotch, as he attempts to argue that his needs are above the family’s that he has ruined.
A comical tale (and yes, the Decadents did have a sense of humour) about a foolish young man who takes up with a beautiful prostitute, unaware of the fact that she is blatantly cheating him. When he is bitten by her, he is possessed with the idea that he has somehow contracted rabies, and desperately tries to save himself.