The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Rinaldo Rinaldini, The Bandit Chief (1799-1801)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Rinaldo Rinaldini, The Bandit Chief (original: Rinaldo Rinaldini, der Räuberhauptmann) was written by Christian Vulpius. Christian August Vulpius (1762-1827) was the brother of Goethe’s mistress Christiane Vulpius. In Vulpius’ lifetime he was the most popular and prolific author of räuberromane (he wrote 140 of them). Vulpius was also a poet and songwriter of some talent.
The protagonist of Rinaldo Rinaldini is based on the thief Angelo Duca, hanged in Salerno in 1784, who acted in much as Rinaldini does in Vulpius’ hands, protecting the weak and making his band of thieves act in a relatively moral way.1
The titular character of Rinaldo Rinaldini is a noble-minded Corsican bandit. He leads a gang of thieves in a rebellion against both French control of Corsica and the stifling conventions of contemporary society. Rinaldo Rinaldini begins with Rinaldo talking with Altaverda, an old peasant, who points out that Rinaldo’s men are not just bandits, but are also bad men. Rinaldo is miserable. He never wanted to be a thief or a leader of thieves. He was happy living the bucolic life of a herdsman. But he was drafted by the Army, and a cruel and stubborn officer began giving him dangerous orders and mistreating him, so Rinaldini, a vehement proponent of complete self-determination, killed the officer and went on the lam. Now he is the leader of a large gang of bandits, but they are interested in loot rather than overthrowing the existing government.
Rinaldo gives orders to move camp, but he finds some of his men trying to rob a local peasant. Rinaldo shoots the men threatening the peasant, which restores order in the gang. Picaresque adventures follow. Rinaldo fights with the troops who are pursuing him, but after a pitched battle Rinaldo’s men are slaughtered and Rinaldo is believed to be dead. He leaves the area, determined to begin life as someone else somewhere else. He meets a group of Romany and buys a girl, Rosalia, from them, to be his maid. Rinaldo encounters the terrible Baptisello, a bandit chief who is Rinaldo’s moral opposite. They fight, and Rinaldo kills him. Rinaldo encounters the remnants of his bandits and reforms them into an active gang. Posing as “Count Dalbrogo” Rinaldo visits his friend the Prince at the court and meets Aurelia, the Prince’s daughter. Rinaldo sees that Aurelia’s husband, Baron Rovezzo, is treating her badly, so Rinaldo leads his gang of thieves into the Baron’s castle, has him flogged, plunders the castle, and then takes Aurelia with him. Posing as “Count Mandochini” Rinaldo travels to Naples and meets a mysterious man, The Old Man of Fronteja (original: Der Alte von Fronteja), who sees through Rinaldo’s disguises. The Old Man claims to have Rinaldo’s best interests at heart and warns Rinaldo that the Schwarzen, the agents of the French government, are hunting him. Rinaldo resumes wandering and ends up in idyllic, rural Pantalaria, but the Old Man follows him there and tells him to return to Corsica, since Rinaldo’s friends in Corsica believe that the Old Man murdered Rinaldo and are threatening the Old Man’s life in revenge. Rinaldo is eventually cornered by the Schwarzen and commits suicide rather than by hanged.
Rinaldo Rinaldini was staggeringly popular at the turn of the nineteenth century. Despite running to six volumes, it sold extremely well and inspired two sequels. By 1858 it had been reprinted in eight editions and had been translated into over thirty languages. Numerous editions have been published since then. Along with Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers and Heinrich Zschokke’s Abällino the Great Bandit, Rinaldo Rinaldini inspired the craze for räuberromane in England at the turn of the nineteenth century. Rinaldo Rinaldini was one of the best-selling books in Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Rinaldo Rinaldini, for all its influence on the räuberroman genre, is not a pure example of the form, however:
Vulpius’s once so celebrated Räuberroman built on the convention of the noble outlaw established by Schiller, who referred to Robin Hood in Die Räuber, to which it added something like the Vehmgericht of Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen and Benedicte Naubert’s Hermann von Unna, together with allusions to the supposedly Illuminist-inspired conspiracy against the crowned heads of Europe that was the talk of the continent. It was to prove a heady combination. Rinaldo Rinaldini includes hand-to-hand combat with the local militia, the contradictory and therefore interesting figure of the peripatetic good-hearted bandit or compassionate criminal whose whole life, like that of Angelo Duca, is ‘an imposture in behalf of justice’, and who is also a picaro and, thanks to the influence of Goethe’s Crugantoni in Claudine von Villa Bella (1776), a Casanova. His many disguises, masquerades, and adventures packed with gripping incident, his many amours, the chastisement of evildoers, the ‘Black Judges in secret’ and their agent, the man in black, and the ‘honourable’ dagger that saves Rinaldo from the ignominy of the scaffold, combine to make him an engaging, contradictory figure.2
Rinaldo Rinaldini is melodramatic and sentimental. Like the other räuberromane the dialogue is turgid, the characters impassioned, and the plot a mixture of the picaresque and the didactic. The novel has many clichés, from dark and stormy nights to hysterical outbursts of tears to trap doors and disguised protagonists and antagonists. The prose is almost primitive, although it could be the translation which renders it so stiff. The novel attempts to be philosophical, with Rinaldo bemoaning his fate (on several occasions) and various characters telling him to either be content with his lot or throw in with various movements and do something moral with his life. But Rinaldo is more interested in self-pity and independence than in working with others to atone for his sins; he admits that he has done more bad things than good with his life, but he still feels no compulsion to use his abilities and money for the good of others.
Interestingly, political conspiracies and secret societies are substantial elements within Rinaldo Rinaldini. One of the men who attempts to recruit Rinaldo is a sorcerer who is the leader of “the Black Judges in Secret.”3 They grew “tired of the yoke of a tyrannical government” and are “resolved to rule ourselves.”4 They offer Rinaldo their leadership, but he declines it. The Black Judges are later involved in an attempt to overthrow the Corsican government. This conspiratorial element would become a common subplot in Gothic novels, and Rinaldo Rinaldini has an argument for being the first major conspiracy novel. (But see: The Black Coats Adventures).
The Old Man from Fronteja calls himself “a true theosophist” and is a Rosicrucian, although that word is never used. He claims to have “unveiled” the “sacred science of the Egyptians”5 and has various mystical powers, including the ability to summon visions of the future. While sorcery was common enough in the Gothics, tracing it theosophy and the Rosicrucians was not, and the Old Man would go on to be the basis of the titular character in Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni.
Print: Christian August Vulpius, The History of Rinaldo Rinaldini, Captain of Banditti. Philadelphia: Perry, 1848.
For Further Research
Patrick Bridgwater, The German Gothic Novel in Anglo-German Perspective. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013.
1 Bridgwater, The German Gothic Novel in Anglo-German Perspective, 422.
2 Bridgwater, The German Gothic Novel in Anglo-German Perspective, 423-424.
3 Christian Vulpius, The History of Rinaldo Rinaldini, Captain of Banditti, volume 2 (Philadelphia: Perry, 1848), 143.
4 Vulpius, Rinaldo Rinaldini, volume 2, 143.
5 Vulpius, Rinaldo Rinaldini, volume 2, 47.