iconSenso - A Palimpsest
by Alberto Zambenedetti


In his seminal book on hypertextual literature, Gérard Genette wrote: "[e]very object can be transformed, every manner imitated, and no art can by nature escape those two modes of derivation that define hypertextuality in literature and more generally define all second-degree artistic practices, or hyperartistic practices."[1] Although opposing the extension of the notion of 'text' to arts other than literary, Genette maintains the "transartistic nature of derivational practices,"[2] thus allowing his categorizations to be tested in the realm of hyperaesthetic works. The two modes of derivation - or better, of transmodalization - to which he refers are dramatization and narrativization, defined as "alteration[s] in the mode of presentation characterizing the hypotext."[3] When utilizing Genette's theorizations in scrutinizing works that are generated from the crossing of the boundaries between artistic practices - such as adaptations - it is necessary to recur to a linguistic definition of 'text' that can be heretically, yet profitably, extended to visual media: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a text can be denoted as "(A unit of) connected discourse whose function is communicative and which forms the object of analysis and description." The incorporation of the word 'discourse' in the definition postulates an historicized understanding of the flow of the text, of its unfolding in time, thereby of its materialization within a set of epistemological dialectics.

Colin Partridge wrote that "[i]n 1953 when Luchino Visconti began work on a film version of Senso he was adapting a text which, although recently reprinted, was unknown to an international readership and little known to the majority of Italians."[4] His dramatization of Camillo Boito's short novella - despite or because of the alterations, departures, and additions to the hypotext - impregnated it with scholarly and publicatory longevity; in fact, the critical discourse generated by the film inevitably reflected upon its literary source. Hence, when Tinto Brass worked on a second filmic adaptation of the same novella in 2001, he inevitably positioned his Senso 45 in a relationship of textual transcendence with both the work of Boito and Visconti. This relationship is not simply that of hypertextuality - that Genette defines "any relationship uniting a text B [.] to an earlier text A [.] upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary"[5] - but it is a rather self-conscious connection articulated through means of intertextual, paratextual, and metatextual strategies.

The doubling of re-writings of the novella expands even further the spectrum of the critical discourse and allows for the exploration of unforeseen avenues that, once submitted to a rigorous process of designation and contextualization, can yield interesting insights on the works in question on two major levels: first, the texts can be looked at as self-contained works of art and be scrutinized for their formal qualities and narrative strategies; second, they can be put into a dialogic relation allegorized by the notion of the palimpsest as defined by Genette: "[t]hat duplicity of the object, in the sphere of textual relations, can be represented by the old analogy of the palimpsest: on the same parchment, one text can become superimposed upon another, which it does not quite conceal but allows to show through."[6]

Masochistic Melodrama in Senso and Venus in Furs

Although Camillo Boito was never formally a member of the Scapigliati group, their perspective on life, their investigations in the duality of human behavior, their fascination with moral and physical decay, and their images of violence and death reverberate in his literature. As Colin Patridge writes, the Scapigliati "rejected a literary tradition dedicated to evoking ecstatic imponderables such as spirit, soul and sublimity. Instead they focused on the human body and the physical world. These they saw as providing a factual basis in reality and were the one source of beauty, fulfillment, human happiness."[7] However, this focus on the terrestriality of human beings did not result in sybaritic hedonism or in rationalized materialism. Conversely, the Scapigliati pessimistically maintained that "[a]dversity invariably prevailed and humanity struggled amidst destruction, decay and disillusion,"[8] and that "[i]n this dualistic process, humanity was always subject to some colossal betrayal; and hope, the source of illusions, was the most cruel betrayer in a universe manipulated by incessant and inescapable treacheries."[9]

Camillo Boito wrote Senso in 1882, when the Risorgimento, despite its many faults and failures, had succeeded in the unification of the Italian peninsula into a single nation-state, and most of the Scapigliati had passed away. Boito was born in Rome from the marriage of Silvestro Boito and the Polish Countess Giuseppina Radolinska in 1836. The family traveled together between Italy and Poland, until in 1851 the Countess returned to her homeland and left her husband and two sons, Camillo and Arrigo, in the Austrian-controlled city of Venice. Camillo fled the occupied city in 1859 and settled in Milan where he stayed until his death in 1914. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published Venus in Furs in 1870. Born in 1836 in Lemberg, Austrian Galicia, Sacher-Masoch lived in Prague, Graz, Leipzig, Paris, and Lindheim in Hesse, Germany, where he died in1895. Despite the obvious differences, these authors also have some common features that are particularly relevant to the topic at hand: they synchronously spent a consistent part of their lives in territories under the Austrian influence, thus being involved with the tensions that generated the Risorgimento and the Panslavic movement for national independence in nineteenth-century Europe. In addition, they both wrote of supersensual characters whose stories take place, at least partially, in the heterocosms of two major Italian cities, Venice and Florence.

Commentators seem to dismiss far too hastily a reading of the tormented affair of Countess Livia with Lieutenant Ruz in the light of Sacher-Masoch perhaps because the gender configuration is reversed, the woman being the masochist and the man the torturer. Clotilde Bertoni writes that "these allusions, more than suggesting a sadomasochistic configuration of the liaison, tend to accentuate the stripping of the plot from conventional embellishments, they illuminate that scandalous potential of sensuality, which is able to avalanche over the conventions and pierce the moral parameters."[10] However, the points of contact of Senso and Venus in Furs seem to be too many and too strong to be simplistically overlooked.

In order for the masochist to liberate such tensions in the context of a love relationship, an elaborate combination of circumstances, all of which are prescriptive and entangled, needs to be set up. With variation and qualification, the affairs depicted in Senso and Venus in Furs share the essential traits of a masochist scenario:

Supersensual Characters

The necessary prerequisite for the enactment of masochistic rituals is the participation of supersensual characters: both Livia and Severin - the protagonist of Venus in Furs - self-nominate themselves as such. In the first pages of her scartafaccio, her discontinuous journal, Livia writes: "Venice communicated with my senses far more than spirit. I knew nothing about the history of its buildings; I understood little of their beauty. They attracted me less than the green water, the starry sky, the silvery moon, the golden sunsets; and I especially loved lying stretched out at ease in a black gondola letting my imagination roam in voluptuous fantasies."[11] Few lines down, she continues: "I needed desperately to love."[12] Severin is even more open about his inner world: not only his manuscript is entitled "Confessions of a Supersensualist", but he also argues that "the martyrs were supersensual beings who found positive pleasure in pain and who sought horrible tortures, even death, as others seek enjoyment. I too am supersensual, madam, just as they were."[13]

Victims and Torturers

Once they are established as such, the supersensual characters seek a partner with whom they engage in the masochistic rituals: another masochist who escapes from his or her own masochism by assuming the active role in the ritual. In the words of Deleuze, the masochist is a "victim in search of a torturer and who needs to educate, persuade and conclude an alliance with the torturer in order to realize the strangest of schemes."[14] Livia first meets her lover in a public bath, and she immediately idealizes him through a superficial comparison with Greek mythological figures: "the white-uniformed Alcides-Adonis."[15] Severin has a deeper understanding both of mythology and art, and the first sighting of his Venus in a Carpathian health resort triggers the surfacing of his imaginative power: "there before me, seated on a bench - is Venus; not the marble beauty of a moment ago, but the goddess of Love in person, with warm blood and a beating heart! She has come to life for my benefit like Pygmalion's statue."[16]

Contractual Relationships

Deleuze write that "the contract presupposes in principle the free consent of the contracting parties and determines between them a system of reciprocal rights and duties; it cannot affect a third party and is valid for a limited period."[17] Therefore, the contract is entered into willingly by both parties, and it is a necessary stage in the ritualization of the masochistic practices. Once it is "signed" it ties the characters to one another, and its validity ends only when the trajectory of the masochist ends in his (or her) transformation into a sadist: in fact, in normative masochism "the contract is caricatured in order to emphasize its ambiguous destination."[18] Livia and Lieutenant Ruz enter the contractual relation by means of the commodification of Remigio's loyalty to the Countess: (Livia) "You'll always love me? You'll always be faithful to me? You won't look at any other woman? Will you swear that to me?" (Ruz) "Yes. Of course. I swear. But there's very little time. And I need those two thousand five hundred florins."[19] The agreement that Severin and Wanda sign is of a different nature, but it involves the re-nomination and the commodification of the masochist: the supersensual Severin becomes Gregor, Wanda's slave and "her absolute property."[20]

Pleasure in Pain

It is necessary to disenfranchise the notion of masochism from facile associations with abased sexual perversions. Deleuze wrote that "the masochist is not a strange being who finds pleasure in pain, but [.] he is like everyone else, and finds pleasure where others do, the simple difference being that for him pain, punishment or humiliation are necessary prerequisites to obtaining gratification. [.] The anxiety of the masochist divides therefore into an indefinite awaiting of pleasure and an intense expectation of pain."[21]

In Livia's inner world the entanglement of pleasure and pain is elevated to existential investigation: "I am proud to feel utterly different from other women: I fear nothing from my soul-searching; in my abasement there is courage."[22] Hence, her relationship with Ruz unfolds into an unconventional juxtaposition of the melodramatic and the masochistic: "Sometimes he stealthily pressed his foot against mine: and the pain made my face quite red; but this minor distress pleased me."[23] And again, "[m]y officer-lover of sixteen years ago may not have been a great man, but he was at least a man. He used to hold me by the waist in an iron grip and bite my shoulders until they bled."[24] Livia's imaginative power cannot pierce the screen of the masochistic contract. When she is about to discover Remigio's betrayal, she writes: "I had attained the summit of my hopes; already I felt my lover's arms around me; for him to clasp me passionately to his manly chest I would have given all I had and my life itself, unhesitantly; I already felt his teeth bite into my flesh and I had a foretaste of an indescribable world of the most intense pleasures."[25]

Venus in Furs is the celebration of the marriage of love and violence: the masochistic relationship is highly ritualized, and it anticipates many of the erotic idiosyncrasies that have been explored in twentieth-century arts, from literature to painting, from photography to cinema, and so forth. The distinctive traits of this brand of sexual encounter can be summarized as follows: 1. the masochist subject needs to be tied up, either to a pillar or a column or simply in a way that prevents him or her from escaping; 2. the torturer needs to be attired in the ritual clothes: in the archetypal novel, Wanda is clad in fur.

Moral Qualities

The moral qualities that the masochist values in the torturer are obviously deviant from the standards of Judeo-Christian ethics and the mores of western societies. Deleuze writes that "[w]hat characterizes masochism and its theatricality is a peculiar form of cruelty in the woman torturer: the cruelty of the Ideal, the specific freezing point, the point at which idealism is realized."[26] In her depiction of Remigio, Livia seems to go even further by relating his moral qualities with his physical gifts: "[v]ileness pleased me in that man [.] Even perfect virtue would have appeared insipid and despicable in contrast with his perfect vices. His insincerity, dishonesty, unsubtlety and imprudence appeared to me as signs of a hidden but powerful force before which I was happy, indeed proud, to bend like a slave. The more contemptible his personal qualities, the more splendidly his body glowed with beauty."[27] By the same token, Severin invites Wanda to unleash her most diabolical proclivities: "if it is in you, follow your natural bent. But no half-measures; if you cannot be a true and loyal wife, then be a demon!"[28]

Sadistic Outcomes

The trajectory of a masochist ends in sadism: at the end of Venus in Furs, Severin turns from anvil to hammer. What triggers the resolution of the contract and its liberation from his former enslavement is the incorporation in the narrative of a character named The Greek, whom is bestowed by Wands the power of the whip. This is the recollection of the crucial moment: "Apollo whipped all poetry from me, as one blow followed the next, until finally, clenching my teeth in impotent rage, I cursed myself, my voluptuous imagination, and above all woman and love. [.] it was as though I were awakening from a long dream."[29] In Senso, the discovery of Remigio's infidelity and mischievousness triggers in Livia the desire for revenge, that she inflicts in cold blood: "Without  knowing how, a dark notion - still vague and unfocused - was born and slowly, very slowly it took over my heart and intellect: the idea of vengeance."[30]

The Aftermaths

 Both Senso and Venus in Furs are structured with first person singular narration and a framework. In Sacher-Masoch, the framework is a conversation between Severin and an unnamed friend who dreams of encountering Venus in Furs himself. Severin tries to dissuade him by giving him the manuscript of his memoirs where his misadventures with Wanda are narrated. In Boito's novella, the voice in the framework of the scartafaccio is still Livia's, although it is displaced temporally of sixteen years. Both the characters are bitter and disillusioned and entertain relationships with minor characters that they titillate, subjugating them to their moral and physical tortures and abuses.

From this schematic structural comparison, it is apperent that the relationship between Venus in Furs and Senso is deeper and much more complex than the commentators have been willing to admit. Boito's text does not make direct reference to the work of  Sacher-Masoch, which problematizes the usage of Genette's categorizations in an analysis of Senso in the light of Venus in Furs. However, it is clear that Senso reenacts many tropes that establish an archetypal masochistic scenario, including some minor ones. For instance, they both rely on the notion of spatial displacement, of the sensual voyage: it is the trip to Florence that allows for Severin to change his identity into Gregor, Wanda's servant, and it is the atmosphere of Venice during the Austrian occupation (a moment of true Bahktinian polyglossia) that triggers in Livia the desire to unleash her supersensual nature.

Maintaining the existence of a relationship of textual transcendence between these two works also implies that Senso's hypertexts might, to a stronger or lesser degree, retain some of the tropes highlighted and described here.

Senso and its Adaptations on Film

Despite being based on the same novella, Luchino Visconti's Senso and Tinto Brass's Senso 45 are born under the star of neighboring, yet almost opposite, visual references. For the imagery of his adaptation Visconti recurred to the Venetian painter Francensco Hayez. Born in 1791, Hayez studied in Venice and in Rome with Antonio Canova, and between the 1820s and 1882, the year of his death, he lived and worked between Venice, Milan, Naples, Rome, Vienna and Paris. His style was formed under the influence of neoclassicism, which is still palpable in his paintings despite their thematic romanticism. Although considerably older than Boito, Hayez lived throughout the events the Risorgimento, and it is not unreasonable to think that Boito might have been aware of the paintings of his fellow countryman. In one of the most celebrated tableaux-vivants in the history of Italian cinema (and perhaps in world cinema), Visconti frames Countess Serpieri and Lieutenant Mahler in the reenactment of Hayez's Il Bacio ('The Kiss' - Fig. 1), which he painted in 1859. Il Bacio is regarded as the quintessential embodiment of Italian Romanticism in figurative arts because of the medieval setting that can be extrapolated from the clothes of the lovers, which recalls images of celebrated lovers, from Romeo and Juliet to Paolo and Francesca. Visconti's choice of incorporating this particular painting in the narrative of his film visualizes Livia's psychology in a crucial moment in the narrative. In Livia's inner world Franz is an idealized romantic hero who risked his life on the eve of a conflict traveling at nighttime in order to reunite with her in the villa in Aldeno.

Conversely, Brass recurred to much less romanticized icons of love: he incorporates in his Senso 45 the famous drawing Pornokrates ('Pornocrates' - Fig. 2) by the Belgian painter Félicien Rops. Rops was born in Namur, Belgium, in 1833 where he studies and lived until 1851, when he moved to the cosmopolitan Brussels. After he completed his studies, he worked between his hometown, the capital, and Paris. He acquainted with Charles Baudelaire in 1864 and realized the frontispiece for the first edition of the Epaves, the poems that Baudelaire had to remove from The Flowers of Evil. Rops spent most of his adult life traveling and drawing all over Europe and North America, and he collaborated with the most celebrated French authors of the period until he died in 1898. The work of Rops had a strong influence on the German-American expressionist George Grosz (1893-1959), whose erotic drawings provide Brass with another source of imagery that, in a transtextual relation with Visconti, he transforms into tableaux-vivants in the long orgy scene. During one of their private outings Livia and Lieutenant Schulz visit a Jewish antiquary who, because of the anti-Semitism of the Fascist regime, converted to Catholicism. The German officer pulls out a leather portfolio that contains some of Grosz's drawings and the antiquary, intrigued, buys them. In the back wall of the cluttered store hangs Pornokrates, who supervises the transaction in her lusty and aristocratic detachment.

The literalization of the iconographic quotation represented by the use of the tableaux-vivant in both the filmic adaptations of the novella seems to substantiate the reading of a masochistic intertext in it. As Deleuze writes, "[t]he scenes in Masoch have of necessity a frozen quality, like statues or portraits; they are replicas of works of art, or else they duplicate themselves in mirrors."[31] Both Visconti and Brass rely on the dynamization of the work of art: the first builds up to the Veermeerian 'frozen moment' through an elaborate scene that culminates into a sweeping camera movement while the music swells on the soundtrack. The second relies on the dynamic quality that is intrinsic in the works of art that he chooses to imitate: Pornokrates is walking her pig while the Grosz's figurines are engaged in frantic sexual activity. Both the directors make an elaborate use of mirror shots that only to some extent are actually functional to the narration. If in the opening sequence of Senso Visconti utilizes the large mirror in the theatre-box in order to frame both the characters frontally together with part of the stage, in the Aldeno sequence the use of the toilet-table mirror does not seem to have any functional quality. Brass makes a creative use of mirror shots in all his films, and Senso 45 makes no exception. This is not to say that they have any purpose other than furthering the spectacularization of the female body and enriching the frame with details and sometimes even enlargements.

In their filmic adaptations of Boito's novella, both Visconti and Brass made significant changes and alterations to the original, according to their respective goals. On the one hand, it is widely acknowledged by the commentators that Visconti was interested in transforming the novella into an allegory for the socio-political scene of World War II, and for this reason he amplified the few references to the Risorgimento: for instance, he included some extended battle-sequences that are only hinted in the original text. In his Senso history moves from the background to the foreground and intertwines with the masochistic melodrama to deliver not only the facts but also his reading of them in the light of Gramsci. On the other hand, Brass reworked the text and emphasized the erotic qualities of it, espousing it with the imagery of Rops and Grasz but also including several references to the iconography of Italian Cinema. By setting his Senso 45 in 1945 German-occupied Venice, Brass allowed his film to naturally incorporate the Neorealist experience that blossomed with Visconti's Ossessione (1943) and ripened in the years that followed. The acknowledgment of his sources is reworked in two sequences that establish a relationship of textual transcendence with both the aforementioned film and Rossellini's Rome Open City (1945). However, if the latter is simply reenacted, and its use is marginalized in the flow of the narrative, the Ossessione is integrated in a scene that revels in its transtextuality: frontally framed while sitting in a movie-theatre a man and his lover talk about the woman's husband. On the soundtrack, Bragana - the cuckolded husband in Ossessione - is heard singing. A stout, bearded man enters the theatre and shoots the lovers. After having declared that with the murderous crime he rescued his honor, he points the gun at his temple and fires it. A cutting board ironically reveals that the highly staged scene belongs to yet another film, the apocryphal Tradimento directed by Flavio Calzavara, a director who collaborated with the Fascist regime -played by Tinto Brass himself. Hence, the mise-en-abîme of the affair trope is historically contextualized within the brief but significant presence of the Scalera Studios at Giudecca Island during the Fascist Salò Republic, which also serves the narrative function of motivating Helmut's presence in Venice and on the set.

Both Visconti and Brass, in their respective adaptations, made significant alterations and additions to the characters' background, psychology, motivations, and narrative function.


In Boito's novella the Countess is from Trento, at the time complacently part of the Austrian empire, where she resides with her husband. She is thirty-nine years old when she picks up the scartafaccio and writes of her affair with Lieutenant Remigio Ruz. At the time of the affair, July 1865, Livia was twenty-two. Visconti makes Countess Serpieri "Veneta" and supportive of the cause of the future Italian constitutional monarchy, recontextualizing the character both geographically and politically. In addition, Livia's age is undetermined and she could be argued to be in her early thirties. The provenance of Brass's Livia Mazzoni is unspecified, her age is raised to forty-one, and she does not seem to be concerned with politics.

Livia's Lover

Lieutenant Remigio Ruz is to Boito's imagination a ruthless and exploitative character who embodies Livia's understanding of the romantic hero not without qualifications. In fact she confesses that "[o]n only two occasions - and then only for fleeting instants - would I have liked him to be different."[32] He is twenty-four at the time of the affair, and he is part of the forces of occupation. Franz Mahler does not differ much from this description, only in the fact that his age is unspecified and that, perhaps, he is not straightforwardly posed as completely exploitative from the beginning of the narrative. Conversely, Helmut Schulz is attributed the worst moral qualities from the incipit, and if his cowardice is attenuated, his malice is even greater. He is significantly younger than Livia (twenty-eight), and he is a German SS officer.

Livia's Husband

Boito depicts him as sixty-two-year-old Count who "had been one of the representatives of the Tyrolean nobility in the Diet of Innsbruck,"[33] smells of tobacco, eats too much and cursed the nationalistic ambitions of Piedmont. Visconti amplifies relevance of Count Serpieri in the narrative and makes him an exemplary case of trasformismo. Brass juggles with the two, making Carlo a sixty-nine-year-old high functionary of the Minculpop who, according to Livia, "once aroused, knew no peace until he possessed me."[34] Politically, Signor Mazzoni is seen devising a stratagem in order to stay afloat after the end of the war despite his direct involvement with the Fascist Party.

Suppressed or Added Characters

At the time of writing her scartafaccio, the mature Livia is soothed by the young lawyer Gino, who is instrumental in depicting her transformation from anvil to hammer, according to the masochistic intertext. The Countess thus reports of her suitor: "This little Gino bores me. He looks at me with eyes so open that they make me laugh, but sometimes they send a chill right through me; he tells me he can't live without the consideration of an affectionate word; he implores, weeps, sobs."[35] Certain of her appeal and toying with his affection, she writes: "Yesterday, losing all patience, I called on him to leave me in peace and not try to seek entry to my home again; I said that if he had the audacity to show himself again in my presence I'd order the servants to throw him out and I'd report his behavior to the Count. The little lawyer [.] got up from the sofa, tottered for an instant, and then left without a glance in my direction. But he'll be back, he'll be back, I can bet on that."[36] At the news of Gino having abandoned her suit and having gotten engaged to a far less capricious "eighteen-year-old ninny,"[37] the Countess writes with disdain: "So much for male constancy! So much for enduring passions! 'Countess Livia, I am distraught, I will kill myself. Your beauty will leave me at peace only when I have spilled the last drop of my blood. Treat me like a slave, but let me adore you like a goddess.' Sentences straight from a melodrama."[38] After having reached the end of the masochistic trajectory, Livia is ready to dismiss the vocabulary that she employed in describing her relationship with Remigio when directed towards her. Visconti delivers an open-ended film and does not investigate the life of Livia in the aftermath of Mahler's execution, whereas Brass replicates the figure of Gino by conflating him with Giacomo, the coachman, who in Boito's novella accompanies Livia to Verona and assists with her to Ruz's execution. In fact, Signora Mazzoni's wise lawyer and counselor Ugo - who is significantly older than Gino - becomes a complicit anvil after her transformation into a sadist. Throughout the film she controls his desire for her, and when the time is ripe she binds into another contract with him that replicates the original masochistic one: when she receives the letter with which Helmut tells her that his desertion stratagem has worked, she promises Ugo that she will sleep with him if he escorts her from Asolo to Venice. After Schulz's execution, she pays her dues to the ardent lawyer.

Having shifted the focus of the novella from the masochistic melodrama to the historiographic, Visconti adds a new character that has the function of bridging the two narrative nuclei: Countess Livia's cousin, the revolutionary Marquis Roberto Ussoni. In Visconti's vision, the historical intertext of the Risorgimento intertwines with the masochistic melodrama in two major ways: 1. Ussoni is arrested and sent into exile because he challenges Mahler in a duel; 2. the money that Livia gives Franz - so that he can bribe the doctors and desert the infantry - comes from the resistance and not from her savings (like in Boito) or her husband (like in Brass). For this reason, Livia's behavior is doubly tainted: she is unfaithful to her husband as well as to the cause that would unite her country.

Despite the noticeable differences, the films have also some similarities. Coherent with his historiographic project, Visconti sets the first encounter of Livia and her lover in a public space but moves the action from Boito's public bath to the theatre La Fenice. It is because of the nature of the collective gathering of Austrians and Italians that the patriotic protest takes place. In addition, Visconti uses this particular setting in order to create an intertextual relationship with Verdi. Last but not least, the building provided him with a backdrop of unparalleled splendor, which most certainly is well combined with the pictorial taste of the director. Brass retains the idea of setting the encounter in the public arena of theatre, yet the action on the stage is not provided by the notes of Verdi. Interested in the depiction of the spectrum of gender relations, Brass frames a moment in an unidentified stage production when a betrayed husband reprimands his unfaithful young wife. Like in Visconti's, a partisan protest interrupts the show and prompts Helmut to make a display of his understanding of the historical period he inhabits.

The focus on the political issues bleeds into the masochistic melodrama with more or less strength in both films, but the two directors make a different use of the narrative potential and the ideological resonance of this theme. The climactic scene is particularly interesting because it summarizes the different attitudes, and it represents one of the most significant departures from the hypotext. In the novella - once Livia has reached Verona and made sure that Remigio Ruz, no longer a lieutenant, is sheltered where he wrote - the Countess climbs the stair to her lover's apartment and finds him in the company of another woman: "I was unable to move; I was nailed to my place, eyes fixed, ears straining, throat burning."[39] Livia does not manifest her presence to the lovers, and she eavesdrops on their conversation. The young girl asks him about his relationship with the Countess, and he replies: "I care for her as little as possible but I did have need of her. We wouldn't be here together, my love, is she hadn't given me the money that I told you about. Those damnable doctors made me pay dearly to protect my life."[40] Ruz self-nominates himself as an exploitative character and continues: "I must write to Trento - to my generous supplier. Every tender word to her brings us in more money."[41] Livia's reaction is crystallized in the following words: "At that instant my heart rose up in rebellion: My love was desecrated."[42] Without confronting the man, the Countess flees his lodgings and enters a café, where he sits in the shadow and ruminates on the her next move. In the café she overhears a conversation between officers and a street-girl. The topic is once again the notorious Lieutenant Ruz and his misconduct, including his alleged sickness and his status of protégé of Countess Livia. Already persuaded to administer her vengeance in cold blood, Livia is suggested the modality by the unaware interlocutors: "if there is the slightest suspicion he's lying, the lieutenant and the four doctors will be shot within twenty-four hours, the officer as a deserter in time of war and the others as conspirators and accomplices."[43]

Visconti removes this conversation from the finale and adds a direct confrontation of Livia and Remigio, during which he delivers his famous and problematic monologue on the end of an era. As Clotilde Bertoni writes, "it is implausible that in 1866 somebody could precognize so lucidly the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire that happened fifty years later; and the prophecy on the decadence of the aristocratic world seems even more crooked because [.] the subversive implications of the Risorgimento would be properly domesticated. National unification would not influence, as some fringes of patriots wished, on the societal organization: its would not erode the class-driven privileges."[44] Visconti's Livia endures the humiliations Remigio inflicts upon her when they are directed against her person, including the accusations of having bought his services and of being old and unattractive. What triggers her revenge is the awakening of her political conscience: Ruz confesses her that he was responsible for Marquis Ussoni's arrest and subsequent exile. Livia runs out of the apartment straight to the Austrian quarters, when she commits the last infamous act of the film: delation. Her masochistic trajectory is over: she transfigures her delirious pain into the hammer that strikes the fatal blow onto Remigio.

Brass recuperates Visconti's narrative solution, the face-to-face confrontation, but he strips it of the political allegory and focuses on the masochistic melodrama. Helmut's invective against Livia is powerful and articulate: his consciousness is neither tormented nor piteous. He is lucid and violent, aggressive and vile. Hence, Livia's reaction is an immediate revengeful impulse, which is administered with great determination and conviction.

The execution of Livia's lover is the ending point of the masochistic melodrama in the hypotext and the two hypertexts. In Boito's novella Livia witnesses the event, and so does the woman in whose company Remigio entertained. Countess Serpieri's reaction  to the woman's pietà-like action of bending over Ruz's body is algid: "[t]he sight of that depraved woman brought back all my disgust and with it returned my dignity and courage. I was again made aware of my rights. I started walking towards the exit, at peace, and proud of having performed a difficult duty."[45] Visconti removes both women from the scene, which is performed with simple Germanic efficiency that counterpoints the operatic crescendo with an anticlimactic finale that, according to Bill Simon, recalls the abruptness of Puccini's Tosca. Conversely, Brass recuperates Boito's solution and further complicates it with the inclusion of Ugo, to whom Livia concedes herself right on the spot. This apparently banal epilogue resonates with the words of Bertoni, who writes that Boito "individuated the sourest notes of the tragedy not in the ending, but in the oppressive heaviness of the continuation of life."[46]


The complexity of Visconti's adaptation of Senso is such that, half a century after its realization, it prompts new critical contributions in the light of contemporary research not only in the field of cinema studies. A comparative analysis of the hypotext with Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Fur - informed by Deleuze's reading of it - has led to the postulation that the affair that the novella narrates is an instance of masochistic melodrama. By the same token, a basic structural comparison of Visconti's Senso and Senso 45 has extrapolated the achievements and the weaknesses of both adaptation through a process of mutual illumination. The quadrangle that these works constitute is not to be understood as an inward-looking cloister, but rather as a point of departure for a deeper investigations of the formal, structural, and epistemological relationships they establish with the other works to which they relate. The Visconti intertext in Brass is not limited to the Ossessione scene, but it bleeds into the film in several instances, and it constitutes more than a mere visual reference. The same can be said in regards to the many works that these films reference or incorporate: Hayez, Rops, Grasz, but also Verdi and Rossellini among those who are immediately recognizable.

Ultimately, Senso has become a palimpsest that has been written and rewritten in a period that spans over a century of European history, alternatively incarnating and conflating the tensions of late Scapigliatura, nineteenth and twentieth century Erotica, the Risorgimento, film Modernity, World War II, Neorealism, Partisan Resistance, and Post-Modernism, just to name a few.

Primary Sources

- Bertoni, Clotilde. "Dalla pagina allo schermo: il senso sospeso di un racconto" in Camillo Boito, Senso. Lecce: Piero Manni, 2002, pp. 5-18 and 63-144

- Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985

- Deleuze, Gilles. "Coldness and Cruelty", in Masochism. New York: Zone Books. 1991

- Genette, Gerard. Palimpsests. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997

- Marcus, Millicent. "Visconti's Senso: The Risorgimento According to Gramsci" in Italian Film in the Light of Neorelism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986, pp.164-187.

- Partridge, Colin. Senso: Visconti's Film and Boito's Novella. A Case Study in the Relation Between Literature and Film. Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

- Tinazzi, Giorgio. "Un Melodramma in Abisso" in Il Cinema di Luchino Visconti. Veronica Pravadelli (ed). Venezia: Marsilio Editori, 2000, pp.145-156

On Brass

- Caprara, Fulvia. "Galiena travolta dal sesso", in La Stampa. August 8, 2001

- Codelli, Lorenzo (ed). Nerosubrass. Udine-Roma: Dino Audino Editore, 1996

- Cosilich, Oscar. "Erotismo & Fascismo", in Il Mattino. August 8, 2001

- Iori, Stefano. Tinto Brass. Rome: Gremese Editore, 2000

- Tentori, Antonio. Tinto Brass: Il Senso dei Sensi. Alessandria: Edizioni Falsopiano, 1998


On Visconti

- Bacon, Henry. Visconti. Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002

- Miccichè, Lino. Luchino Visconti. Un Profilo Critico. Venezia: Marsilio Editori, 1996

- Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. Luchino Visconti. Third Edition. London: Bfi Publishing, 2003

- Renzi, Renzo. Visconti Segreto. Bari: Laterza, 1994

Reference Books

- Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema. From Neorealism to Present. 3rd Edition. New York: Continuum, 2001

- Brunetta, Gian Piero. Guida alla Storia del Cinema Italiano. 1905-2003. Turin: Einaudi, 2003

- Brunetta, Gian Piero. Storia del Cinema Italiano. Vol. 1-4. 2nd Edition. Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1993.

- Buache, Freddy. Le Cinéma Italien. 1945-1990. Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme, 1992.


[1]Genette, Gérard. Palimpsests. Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997, p.384.

[2] Ivi.

[3] Ibid., p.277.

[4]Partridge, Colin. Senso: Visconti's Film and Boito's Novella. A Case Study in the Relation Between Literature and Film. Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991, p.41.

[5] Genette, op. cit., p.5.

[6] Genette, op. cit., pp.398-9.

[7] Partridge, op. cit., p.48.

[8] Ivi.

[9] Ivi.

[10]Bertoni, Clotilde. "Dalla pagina allo schermo: il senso sospeso di un racconto" in Camillo Boito, Senso. Lecce: Piero Manni, 2002, p.89. My translation.

[11] Boito, Camillo. Senso, in Partridge, op. cit., p.6.

[12] Ibid., p.7.

[13] Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von. "Venus in Furs" in Masochism. New York: Zone Books. 1991, p.172.

[14] Deleuze, Gilles. "Coldness and Cruelty" in Masochism, op. cit., p.20.

[15] Boito, op. cit., p.7.

[16] Sacher-Masoch, op. cit., p.156.

[17] Deleuze, op. cit., p.77.

[18] Ibid., p.92.

[19] Boito, op. cit., p.17.

[20] Sacher-Masoch, op. cit., p.220.

[21]Deleuze, op. cit., p.71.

[22] Boito, op. cit, p.2.

[23] Ibid., p.8.

[24] Ibid., p.14.

[25] Ibid., p.26.

[26] Deleuze, op. cit., p.55.

[27] Boito, op. cit., p.11.

[28] Sacher-Masoch, op. cit., p.182.

[29] Sacher-Masoch, op. cit., p.269.

[30] Boito, op. cit., p.28.

[31] Deleuze, op. cit., p.69.

[32] Boito, op. cit., p.11.

[33] Boito, op. cit., p.4.

[34] Ibid., p.3.

[35] Ibid., p.9.

[36] Ivi.

[37] Boito, op. cit., p.13.

[38] Ivi.

[39] Boito, op. cit., p.27.

[40] Ibid., p.28.

[41] Ivi.

[42] Ivi.

[43] Ibid., p.31.

[44] Bertoni, op. cit., p.135. My translation.

[45] Boito, op. cit., p.36.

[46] Bertoni, op. cit., p.139. My translation.

© Alberto Zambenedetti

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