Il candeliere a sette fiamme

Augusto De Angelis (b. Rome, 1888; d. Bellagio, 1944), considered by many the father of Italian giallo (mystery, but literally yellow owing to the original color of the book jackets), was imprisoned for anti-Fascist activities in 1943 and died soon after his release from prison as a result of a brutal beating received from a Fascist. A journalist and author, De Angelis came under the fire of the Fascist propaganda machine the Ministero della Cultura Popolare (Ministry of Popular Culture), or MinCulPop, not only for a series of anti-Fascist articles he wrote for Turin’s “Gazzetta del Popolo” but also for his mystery novels, fifteen of which featured the character Inspector Carlo De Vincenzi of the Squadra Mobile (Flying Squad) of Milan.

The Fascists regarded mystery novels with contempt for their immoral content and Anglo-American origins, and De Angelis’s mysteries were no exception. In fact, the Commissario De Vincenzi series, which was published between 1935 and 1942 in Mondadori’s pioneering collection Il Giallo Mondadori (The Mondadori Mystery), contained elements that would eventually lead MinCulPop to ban mystery novels in 1943. Specifically, De Angelis’s pessimistic intellectual inspector was neither a devout Fascist, nor was he sufficiently virile (he was a humanist who loved poetry, and, to add insult to injury, he psycho-analyzed depraved criminals). Furthermore, the crimes in De Angelis’s novels often occurred on Italian soil, which implied that Fascists could not maintain public order, and they occasionally involved suicide, which was viewed as a weakness unbecoming of the stalwart Fascist nature. De Angelis’s mystery Il candeliere a sette fiamme (The Candelabrum with Seven Flames) (Mondadori, 1936; Feltrinelli, 1963; Garzanti, 1973; Sellerio, 2005) was particularly problematic with respect to the mid-1930’s Fascist censorship of the genre for its sympathetic treatment of the Jewish people.

Il candeliere a sette fiamme begins with an Italian newspaper article announcing the grim discovery of the mummified body of man named William Ellis in a cantina at the Blackfriars Club in London. Within days of this discovery, Inspector De Vincenzi is called to a seedy area of Milan to investigate the seemingly unrelated murder of a man of unknown nationality found in the squalid Specchio d’Oro (Golden Mirror) hotel with a gunshot wound to the neck and his belly slit wide open. After finding seven pools of yellow wax both in the dead man’s room and in that of another guest who fled the scene, De Vincenzi deduces that a candelabrum is at the heart of the crimes. To solve the murders, De Vincenzi and his assistant Brigadier Cruni will travel from Venice to the Middle East in a detective-fiction-meets-spy-story plot involving an English woman, a uomo ragno (spider man), German-Arabs and members of a Jewish organization who play a key role in the nascent Palestinian question.

Owing to the 1936 date of publication of Il candeliere a sette fiamme, the text contains interesting features of the Tuscan literary standard which have largely fallen into disuse. The novel is also important because it’s one of the few instances in which De Angelis uses dialect in his writing; namely, the dialect of Chioggia, a fishing port in the south of Venice’s lagoon in the Veneto region.

The national language of Italy, known as standard Italian, is a literary language based on an elite 14th-century Florentine dialect that was imposed upon the public in 1868. Since that time, the Italian language has undergone a process of restandardization, and certain elements of the standard now appear only in literature. Il candeliere a sette fiamme contains many literary elements including old-fashioned subject pronouns and prepositions. Additionally, there are lexemes that reflect outdated phonetic practices. It should be noted, however, that many of these items are still in use in certain areas of Italy.

The following pronouns have fallen almost entirely out of usage in modern Italian:

egli, esso replaced by lui (Eng. he)
ella, essa replaced by lei (Eng. she)
essi, esse replaced by loro (Eng. they)

In contemporary Italian, the prepositions below have been dearticulated, meaning that they now consist of two separate words instead of one conjoined word.

and its plural pei became per il and per i (Eng. for the, masculine forms)
col and its plural coi became con il and con i (Eng. with the, masculine forms)

The following words contain the diphthong –uo, which has all but disappeared from the more modern forms of these terms as a consequence of monophthongization:

giuoco became gioco (Eng. game)
De Vincenzi, uscito dal ponte, s’era messo ad attendere che i passeggeri si disperdessero nelle sale da giuoco e da fumo, nei salotti e per le passeggiate.
(De Vincenzi, having excited from the bridge, had positioned himself to wait for the passengers to disperse into the game and smoking rooms, the salons and for promenades.)

figliuola became figliola (Eng. girl)
E l’albergatore spiegò che Rosetta era una buona figliuola, che abitava allo Specchio da più di tre anni; faceva i suoi affari e non dava fastidio a nessuno, ma era pazza.
(And the hotel owner explained that Rosetta was a good girl, who had been living at the Specchio Hotel for more than three years; she minded her own business and didn’t bother anyone, but she was crazy.) 

stradicciuole became stradicciole (Eng. small streets or pathways)
La macchina passò per due o tre stradicciuole strette, fra le graticciate dalle musharabye, sbucò sulla piazza principale.
(The car passed through two or three small, narrow streets, between the trellises of the musharabye, it came out on the main pizza.)

The verbs below are reflective of the assibilation of the Latin noun ending –tio, which also became palatalized in some areas of Italy. This means that the Latin –tio has both an archaic pronunciation of –zio (Eng. –tso) and a contemporary pronunciation of –cio (Eng. –cho).

pronunziò also pronunciò (Eng. he pronounced)
Ma la parola stessa che pronunziò gli suonò all’orecchio nuova e stranamente piena di significato. Il candeliere!
(But the word itself that he pronounced sounded to his ear new and strangely full of meaning. The candelabrum!)

annunziò also annunciò (Eng. he announced)
L’austista arabo, senza volgersi verso De Vincenzi, annunziò: “Rosetta”.
(The Arab driver, without turning toward De Vincenzi, announced: “Rosetta.”)

De Angelis employs the dialect of the coastal town of Chioggia (Venetan: Cióxa; Latin: Clodia) in the Veneto region of Italy to depict the speech of local fisherman during the Venetian episode of the mystery. Notably, this dialect was immortalized in Carlo Goldoni’s classic play “Le baruffe chiozzotte (The Chioggian Brawls),” which debuted in Venice in 1762. Although the sentences below are in a mixture of dialect and Italian, I have highlighted a common dialectal word from each.

ostrega (literally Ital. ostrica; Eng. oyster but used as Ital. caspita; Eng. goodness)
Ostrega!… No savaria… Ma lu podeva anca… andar in malora…
(Ital. Caspita! Non lo so. Ma lui poteva anche… andare in malora…
Ing. Goodness!… I don’t know… But it could have also… gone to ruin…)

paron (Ital. padrone; Eng. master)
Lo troveremo al pontile di Rialto, paron… Dovria esser una vera maledizion che nol ghe fosse…
(Ital. Lo troveremo al pontile di Rialto, padrone… Dovrebbe essere una vera maledizione che nonché fosse…
Eng. We’ll find him at the Rialto wharf, master… It would be a true malediction if he wasn’t there…)

sior (Ital. signore; Eng. mister)
Mez’ora fa, sior…
(Ital. Mezz’ora fa, signore…
Eng. A half hour ago, mister…)

The language of De Angelis’s mysteries is perhaps most interesting for what it does not contain: there is no Fascist terminology, nor are there direct references to the regime. The clear absence of Fascism from these texts was undoubtedly the biggest threat to De Angelis’s safety under the watchful eye of Minculpop.

Note: Three Italian publishing houses have republished some of the novels in the Inspector De Vincenzi mystery series. The most recent publisher is Sellerio, which began the ongoing process of republishing the entire series in 2002. In my opinion, De Angelis’s mysteries are of tremendous historic value both because they’re among the first Italian novels of the genre and because they reflect the effects of Fascist censorship laws in terms of content. I find it highly ironic that Minculpop’s censorship of mysteries—specifically that these novels could only portray crimes committed by foreigners in exotic locations—lent extra elements of glamour and intrigue to the Inspector De Vincenzi series and presumably to all mysteries written during the Fascist era.

In Translation: Unfortunately, the Inspector De Vincenzi series has not been translated into English. I hope that eventually some or all of the books are translated for historical record.

On Facebook: Augusto De Angelis has a Facebook page, but it hasn’t been maintained most probably due to the relative obscurity of the author. This is a shame given De Angelis’s obvious talent and the tragic consequences of his writing under the Fascist regime.

On Television: Between 1974 and 1977, TV adaptations of Il candeliere a sette fiamme and two additional De Angelis novels, L’albergo delle tre rose (The Hotel of the Three Roses) (Mondadori, 1936; Feltrinelli, 1963; Garzanti, 1972; Sellerio, 2002) and Il mistero delle tre orchidee (The Mystery of the Three Orchids) (Mondadori, 1942; Feltrinelli, 1963; Garzanti, 1972; Sellerio, 2002), aired on Italy’s RAI with actor Paolo Stoppa interpreting the role of Inspector De Vincenzi. I haven’t seen these movies, but I’ve read that they were highly successful in Italy owing to Stoppa’s portrayal of De Vincenzi. Check out this clip from the De Vincenzi TV series on YouTube.

Notable Blog: Mondadori maintains a blog for the above-mentioned collection Il Giallo Mondadori. Many of the titles are American and British since these inspired the detective fiction/mystery genre in Italy. The one I’d most like to read is number 3062: Sherlock Holmes e la tragedia del Titanic (Sherlock Holmes and the Tragedy of the Titanic).

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