Gothic Cooper: The Shaping of The Bravo

David Lampe (Buffalo State University)

Presented at the 18ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2011.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh C. McDougall, editors. (pp. 64-68).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

“I find Monk Lewis had a story called ‘The Bravo of Venice’ which may induce me to choose another title”

— Letter to W. B. Shubrick (May 1, 1831)

This paper begins with thanks to Lance Schachterle and Hugh C. McDougall, who introduced me to Cooper’s Bravo at the last seminar. 1 After hearing their presentations, I bought a copy of the novel in Cooperstown and after reading it began thinking of ways I could share my enthusiasm about the novel with other readers. My title “Gothic Cooper” does not mean to suggest that Cooper secretly dressed in black and painted his nails, nor that he disliked Romanesque and favored pointed arches and flying buttresses (though in a 1826 letter he did call himself a “great hunter after the Gothic”). Instead I use the term Gothic as the nineteenth-century romantics used it to mean “medieval ... natural, primitive, wild, free, authentic.” (Harmon & Holman, 232).

At our last seminar I dealt with the first of these terms, Cooper’s use of “medieval romance.” This time led by Hugh and by Donald Ringe, the editor of the edition I am using ( Lance Schachterle suggested it since his edition had not yet come out) I read many of the Gothic novels available to Cooper and despite Hugh’s skepticism, began thinking about how Cooper had shaped these contemporary sources to suit his own special purpose.

Lance Schachterle’s lecture drew special attention to the way Cooper frames his novel, those highly wrought first and last paragraphs. Later when I read the opening of Monk Lewis’ The Bravo of Venice I saw the source of the fuller rhetorical treatment Cooper gave to his setting. In both novels the setting is Venice but the difference is between a pencil sketch and an oil painting, between an F. O. C. Darley illustration and a Thomas Cole painting or to use a Venetian comparison between a Guardi or Canaletto canal and the “vivid tints of Titian” (59).

Matthew Gregory Lewis is most famous (or if you prefer infamous) for his novel The Monk (1796) which follows in the English Gothic mode established by Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764/5). Even though a recent reading of that novel suggests Walpole’s comic/parodic purpose, that mixture of ancient castle, abhorrent religious activity (read Roman Catholic) and exotic sexuality did not inspire American imitations though it did become the model for Mrs. Radcliffe and Monk Lewis. 2

Alluding to these works in the “Advertisement” for his lost first novel Skywalk (1797), Charles Brockden Brown claims to write “rational and moral fiction. In the “Preface” to Edgar Huntly (1799 ) he insists his aim is to avoid “puerile superstitions and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras,” a clear denial of “magic, mystery, and chivalry” which Brendan Hennessy calls the formula for the English Gothic Novel (1978). Donald Ringe’s paper presented at the Eighth Cooper Seminar in 1991 focuses on “Social Criticism in the Gothic Mode in Cooper’s The Bravo“ but his book on Gothic in America does not give Cooper more than passing references even though he had edited The Bravo and written a Twayne book on Cooper. This instead leaves the early American Gothic sweepstakes to Brown alone with those tales we all know from Washington Irving’s Sketch Book (1819) and Tales of a Traveler (1824) as runners-up.

My contention in this paper is that Cooper should be seen as a contender in that he did use the Gothic form more fully than Ringe seems to suggest and that he draws his model from the continental tradition of the Robber hero.


’Tis past one o clock in the morning — I sate down at twelve o’clock to read the ‘Robbers’ of Schiller — I had read chill and trembling until asleep — I could read no more — My God! Southey! Who is this Schiller? I came to the part where Moor fires a pistol over the Robbers. Who is this Convulser of the Heart? Did he write his Tragedy amid the yelling of Fiends? — ST Coleridge to Robert Southey, November 6, 1794)

Friedrich Schiller’s first play Die Rauber was written while he served as an army doctor at Stuttgart. After its successful (if scandalous) first production in Mannheim which caused riots, the twenty-two-year-old Schiller left the restricted world of the Duke of Wurttemberg who had sentenced him to fourteen days detention and banned him from writing.

This is the story of two very different brothers, Charles and Francis de Moor, sons of Maxmilian, the aging Count de Moor. Like the stay at home brother in the parable of the prodigal son, Francis is jealous of his brother Charles who is away at the University of Leipzig. He produces a letter that falsely accuses Charles of running up debts, “seducing the daughter of a rich banker,” and killing her lover, “a brave young gentleman, he mortally wounded in a duel.” To evade justice he has decamped “with seven other of his profligate associates.” The old father weeps bitterly at the loss of his “honourable name” and his “golden dreams” for Charles. Much like Gloucester’s evil son Edmund in King Lear, Francis taunts his father with another false report of Charles’ death at which the old man swoons. Charles returns to visit Amelia and his father only to find the old Count naked and starving in a dungeon. Rather than face his brother and punishment, cowardly Francis commits suicide. Though appalled by the excesses of his rag-tag band of “bankrupt grocers, failed M. A. s and writers from the backwoods of Swabia” Charles has sworn his oath to them and rather than abandon them, accept his inheritance and Amelia, he kills her when they claim her as their “common property” and then turns himself in to an official who because of his large family will welcome the reward.

If this summary sounds like a soap opera or high-pitched melodrama Schiller’s language, characters and staging transcend mere formula as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s letter to his brother in law Robert Southey suggests. And Coleridge’s enthusiasm for Schiller did not fail as he would go on to translate Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy in two parts in 1800. The Robbers is much more complex than many early enthusiasts realized and is not merely sturm und drang posturing, Robin Hood in lederhosen or the Sopranos speaking German. Charles’s entrance speech has him expressing his discontent “This age of scribblers disgusts me, when I read in my Plutarch the lives of great men” As recent critics have noted “we have here a symbol of modernity that began with the Enlightenment: the unease of the powerless individual in a complex society expressed as nostalgia, a longing for the power of the individual to affect history, the yearning for greatness.” Charles’s friend, Spiegelberg, answers him, “You must read Josephus,” where “history is seen as a series of linked events, rather than as the deeds of great men.” 3 Thus the play’s “sophisticated construction” interrogates the very ideas that inflamed the audiences who first heard it. While I cannot prove that Cooper knew Schiller’s play it should be noted that Thomas Abthorpe Cooper (1775-1849), William Godwin’s ward, who won New York audiences in 1797 with Otway’s Venice Preserved (a play and playwright that Susan Cooper knew) and who became America’s “first independent star” during his management of the Park Theatre in New York did play Charles Moore in productions of the play in 1801, 1808, and 1815.


Because of Schiller, outlaws became a special kind of continental Gothic hero. Johann Heinrich Zschokke’s Abaellino, der grosse Bandit (1794) or as it is better known in the English world in Monk Lewis’ translation as The Bravo of Venice (1804) is an instance of this Gothic craze. Lewis began this translation when he visited Weimar in 1792 to “acquire his proficiency in the German language.” Weimar, after all was the residence of Schiller as well as Goethe to whom young Lewis was introduced. Upon his return to Oxford in 1793 he completed the translation before working on The Monk (1795). Published in 1803 The Bravo of Venice went through five editions by 1807 and remained in print till the end of the nineteenth century. Montague Summers summarizes the plot with his usual gothic flair:

The riddling intrigue turns upon the disguise of the Neapolitan Count Rosalvo, who presents himself in Venice as Count Flodoardo, desirous of serving the Republic. He also fills the role of the mysterious and terrible Abellino, a monster of ugliness and ferocity, in which character he is able to penetrate the haunts of the banditti who are terrorizing Venice, and to unmask the conspirators who are plotting her downfall. As Flodoardo he wins the love of the Doge’s fair niece, Rosabella of Corfu; she clings to him even when she believes Flodoardo to be the murderous Bandit; as Rosalvo he weds her and is acclaimed the savior of the City. (1938, 26)

Like Schiller’s hero Charles Moore, the outlaw hero of this novel is really of noble lineage but has not two but three identities. Yet in this novel after exposing false intrigues he is rewarded with marriage. You’ll recall that Sir Walter Scott did the same thing with Robin Hood/Lockleys in Ivanhoe (1819). 4 Zschokke’s novel, which relies on dialog, soon became a popular stage play. Abelino, the Great Bandit was on the New York stage February 11, 1801 with John Hodgkinson (1767-1805) in the title role which he often repeated for benefit performances. After the success of this adaptation by William Dunlap, Lewis himself adapted his translation for stage as Rugantino, or the Bravo of Venice: A Grand Romantic Melo-Drama (1805) with music by Dr. Busby. The bravo, after all, was a well known in European fiction. The classic Italian historical novel I Promessi (1827) has a crew of “bravos,” hired enforcers, who keep the lovers Lorenzo and Lucia apart. 5

Cooper may not have known Manzoni but he did know of Lewis’ novel, as the epigraph of my paper makes clear. But his reference is passing and almost contemptuous. Yet there are, despite Hugh’s skepticism, similarities beyond the title. First, the Zschokke/Lewis setting:

It was evening — Multitudes of light clouds, partially illumined by the moon-beams, overspread the horizon, and through them floated the full moon in tranquil majesty, while her splendour was reflected by every wave of the Adriatic Sea. All was hushed around; gently the water rippled by the night-wind; gently did the night-wind sigh through the Colonnades of Venice.

It was midnight — and still sat a stranger, solitary and sad, on the border of the great Canal. Now with a glance he measured the battlements and proud towers of the city; and now he fixt his melancholy eyes upon the waters with a vacant stare. (1-2).

Not quite “It was a dark and stormy night” (a la Bulwer Lytton) but not too far away. Compare this with Cooper’s opening to The Bravo:

The sun had disappeared behind the summits of the Tyrolean Alps, and the moon was already risen above the low barrier of the Lido. Hundreds of pedestrians were pouring out of the narrow streets of Venice into the square of St. Mark, like water gushing through some strait aqueduct, into a broad and bubbling basin. Gallant cavalieri and grave cittandini; soldiers of Dalmatia, and seamen of the galleys; dames of the city, and females of lighter manners; jewelers of the Rialto, and traders from the Levant; Jew, Turk, and Christian; traveler, adventurer, podesta, valet, avvocato and gondolier, held their way alike to the common centre of amusement. The hurried air and careless eye; the measured step and jealous glance; the jest and laugh; the song of the canatrice, and the melody of the flute; the grimace of the buffoon, and the tragic frown of the improvisatore; the pyramid of the grotesque, the compelled and melancholy smile of the harpist, cries of water sellers, cowls of monks, plumage of warriors, hum of voices, and the universal movement and bustle, added to the more permanent objects of the place, rendered the scene the most remarkable of Christendom. (19)

Cooper does not introduce the moon or shadow till his fifth paragraph, though as Ringe has noted the novel takes place in darkness and moonlight. His emphasis instead is on the “hundreds of pedestrians” who he compares to “water gushing” and then categorizes into a complex listing: first four contrasting pairs (cavalieri/cittandi; soldier /seamen; / dames/females; jewelers/traders — note how place of origin or a modifying detail sharpens their contrast). Then a set of three (Jew, Turk, and Christian — identity by ethnic/ religious origin) the next six (traveler, adventurer, podesta, valet, avvocato, and gondolier — identity by occupation). Then a return to pairs (air/eye; step/glance; jest/laugh; song/melody; grimace/frown) suggesting movement or cause/effect. Then nine single units (canatrice, flute, buffoon, improvisatore; grotesque, harpist, water seller, monks, warriors) which all combine in the “hum of voices, and the universal movement and bustle” and finally “the more permanent objects of the place” — the Lido and square of St. Mark. Cooper’s interest is in the people before the place and he sees them all as creating “the most Remarkable [scene] of Christendom.” As Lance Schachterle suggests, this is certainly one of Cooper’s most highly wrought opening paragraphs. When I read it to an American literature colleague who didn’t know the novel he said it must be Hawthorne.

At the novel’s end after the unjust execution of the title character (Carol or Jacopo Fronti), Cooper returns to many of these same details in the two last paragraphs of the novel:

At the usual hour the sun fell behind the mountains of the Tyrol, and the moon reappeared above the Lido. The narrow streets of Venice, again, poured out their thousands upon the square. The mild light fell athwart the quaint architecture, and the giddy tower, throwing a deceptive glory on the city on the islands.

It is, in other words, the same time of day as the opening with the same mountains and the same moon over the Lido. The simile of the first paragraph used to introduce the flow of people (“like water gushing”) becomes here a metaphor (“poured out”). The “mild light” on the “quaint architecture” and “giddy tower” are now seen as “a deceptive glory on the city of islands” since its rulers have been shown to be devious and deceptive.

The final paragraph sets forth this judgment by returning to some of the catalog details from the initial paragraph and then concluding with a scathing sententia, a striking diagnosis of the source of Venetian corruption:

The porticoes became brilliant with lamps, the gay laughed, the reckless trifled, the masker pursued his hidden purpose, the canatrice and the grotesque acted their parts, and the million existed in that vacant enjoyment which distinguishes the pleasures of the thoughtless and the idle. Each lived for himself, while the state of Venice held its vicious sway, corrupting alike the ruler and the ruled, by its mockery of those sacred principles which are alone founded in truth and natural justice.

A highly wrought rhetorical frame for the novel which considers both setting and people-an innovation if you look at Cooper’s earlier novels where there is attention to place and even to people but in a much more casual less formal fashion. A rhetorical flourish can also be seen in the last chapter of Volume 1 of the novel and the last chapter of the novel draws on Dalmatian soldiers and the Carmelite Father Anselmo who preside at Jacopo’s execution to frame and focus on that climatic action.

The other new feature seems to be the changes in authorial voice he adopts. Lewis’ Bravo of Venice makes its authorial presence much too cute:

First, do my readers like the manner in which I relate adventures? Secondly, if my readers do like my manner of relating adventures, can’t I employ my time better than in relating them? When these questions are answered, I may possibly resume my pen. In the mean while, Gentlemen and Ladies, good night, and pleasant dreams attend you! (340)

Cooper’s authorial interruptions are more graceful but also more pronounced than in his earlier novels perhaps because he must provide his readers with more information regarding Venetian geography (37-9) or politics (144-49). But he also has several direct addresses to his reader (90-1, 150, 357) though none as vulgar as Lewis’ commercial appeal. Lewis really pays little attention to setting scenes other than the opening of the novel so he has little need of the frequent occupation Cooper uses (104, 106, 137).

Perhaps more importantly Cooper uses the rhetorical tropes of his flamboyant frame throughout the novel. Mystery is one of the important elements of Gothic fiction and Cooper uses tropes to introduce mysterious characters, circumstances and plots. Much has been made of the moonlight metaphor — but also important is the use Cooper makes of masks and masking which he insists is “sacred in Venice” (113, 119, 135, 141, 235, 254, 257, 258, 261, 284, 297, 300, 301, 308, 316) since it not only allows for holiday disguise but “was as often useful to the oligarchy of Venice, as it was absolutely necessary to elude its despotism” (342). Indeed since masks or other disguise are so important “unmasking” or “uncasing” (41, 50, 77, 135, 308) become an equally important and especially private act. Often, in fact, the mask serves as a synecdoche, a part standing for the whole, and so is addressed as “Signoir mask” (260). In the same way the “face of the corpse” is a synecdoche for the whole body (271, 348) and the bravo’s “stiletto” is antithetical to the “sword” of the state (224, see also 229, 298-9). Or antonomasia (phrase for people, name) as well as personification and skillful simile, the “human heart” figure that ends Volume 1:

On every side he [Jacopo] bent a frenzied eye, and on every side he beheld the profound repose of that treacherous element which is so terrible in its wrath. Like the human heart, it seemed to sympathize with the tranquil beauty of midnight view; but like the human heart, it kept its own fearful secrets (200).


All three of the works I have discussed use only selected elements of the Gothic formula of magic, mystery, and chivalry. There are no unexplained huge iron helmets or bleeding nuns. The supernatural may be invoked but is also explained. Schiller reaches to classical sources most famously Plutarch and Josephus. Charles Moore’s band of robbers, after all are rag tag students. The unexpected and mysterious take stage when Charles rescues his naked and dying father from the dungeon of his own castle.

Chivalry also comes into play for although false Francis cheats in every way possible (he even avoids punishment for his misdeeds by suicide) Charles’ sense of honor means that he must hold to his pledge to his band of brothers. In the end even as he sees the atrocities they commit in the name of justice and freedom, he cannot leave them to live with his betrothed but instead turns himself in to legal authorities.

The Bravo of Venice, the most flimsy of the three, also emphasizes mystery and chivalry as plot elements. Abaelone has a triple identity, he also draws out the spirit of chivalry from the bravos he first encounters. And in the end he is revealed to be noble and is rewarded by marriage.

Cooper’s novel uses little magic (beyond the in initial scene paintings that frame the novel. Mystery is explained in that identity is revealed but not in a way that saves the title character (who cannot save either his father or himself). The marriage in the novel is an entirely separate plot line that not even the evil forces of the doge and his council can corrupt. Nobility, in fact is a barrier to the marriage of the heroine of the novel in the second plot line that Cooper separates from his illiterate Bravo. Finally chivalry in the form of the so-called democratic idealism of the rulers of Venice is shown to be false and corrupt.

I am almost tempted to suggest that as with his first novel, Cooper was tempted to go beyond Monk Lewis’ The Bravo of Venice by using the hack writer conventions of the form (exotic setting, moon lit night time adventures, criminal underworld, double identity, authorial interventions) and adapting them to his own purpose for political and social comment. Or to put it in the terms Robert Daly has suggested, the rhetorical tropes Cooper borrows and adapts from Gothic fiction make us pay attention to detail and give us another way of looking.

Works Cited

  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Collected Letters, ed. E. L. Griggs. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Bravo, ed. Donald A Ringe, Twayne’s United States Classics. New York: Twayne, 1963.
  • ------. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. James Franklin Beard. Vols. 1 & 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1960. 6 Vols.
  • Harmon, William & Holman, Hugh ed. Handbook to Literature. 9ᵗʰ ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.
  • Hennessy, Brian. The Gothic Novel. British Council Pamphlet. London: Longman, 1978.
  • Manzoni, Allesandro. The Betrothed. Trans. Archibald Colquhoun. Everyman Library. London: Dent, 1951.
  • Ringe, Donald. “Chiaroscuro as an Artistic Device in Cooper’s Fiction.” PMLA 78 (l963): 349-57.
  • Schiller, Friedrich. The Robbers. 1792. Trans. Matthew Lewis. Oxford: Woodstock, 1989.
  • Summers, Montague. The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel. London: Fortune, 1938.
  • Zschokke, Johann Heinrich. Abaellino, der grosse Bandit. 1794. Trans. Matthew Lewis as The Bravo of Venice. Rpt. New York: Arno Press/McGrath, 1972.


1 Special thanks are due to Daniel DiLandro, Buffalo State College’s expert archivist who aided me in obtaining books, kindly made photocopies, and even endured my discussions of Gothic forms and Cooper’s fiction.

2 Noting Walpole’s “fondness for excessive display” and “love of mischief” together with Thomas Gray’s bemused response to the novel, Elizabeth R. Napier suggests that Castle be read as a burlesque with delicious ironic moments. The Failure of the Gothic. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

3 Claudia Pilling, Diana Schilling, Mirjam Springer. Schiller, trans. Angus McGeoch. London: Haus, 2005, p.11. Lewis elides this exchange and instead has Charles enter talking about drink. Werner Von Stransky-Stranka-Greifenfels argues that Die Rauber is an historical drama which uses locations from the Hussite Wars (Battle of Taus 1431). He suggests that the plot parallels Richard II and features real locations in the Bohemian Woods and several adjacent castles. Thus he wants to read the play as a Baroque work rather than sturm und drang. “Die Rauber: Structure Models, and an Emblem,” A Companion to the Works of Friedrich Schiller, ed. S. D. Martinson. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005. 89-114.

4 See my “Heirs/Errors of Ivanhoe: Robin Hood in Pre- and Post-Modern Fiction,” Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression, and Justice, ed. Thomas Hahn. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000. 129-139.

5 Manzoni describes at length “della specie de bravi” and especially their exaggerated “quaff, or ciuffo” and velvet caps. I Promessi. Milan: Fratelli, 1968, pp. 33-6. That Cooper does not include either of these details suggests that he may not have known Manzoni’s novel though it was translated by 1828 and reviewed by Poe in 1834.