Clanbook Giovanni, or how a “western” and “rich” culture can be appropriated

A note about content: this was written after perusing the 2nd edition Clanbook Giovanni by Justin Achilli.
After a couple of friends noted that there were notable differences, I borrowed the Revised edition (by Stolze and Chambers), too. When possible and relevant, I’ll add a note about the Revised. I’ll preface with saying that the writing seems much, much better, and that most of the racist slurs thrown around to look edgy seem to be mostly gone.

Let’s start simple and from the beginning, shall we?
“Giovanni”.
Really?

Giovanni: what’s in a name.

Clanbook Giovanni, Vampire 2nd Ed.

The name of the vampire house (bloodline, splat, whatever: “character class”) is “Giovanni”. Allegedly from Augustus Giovanni, a guy (presumably of Roman/Latin origins) that lived around the year 1000 AD and drank Cappadocius’ blood to become a vampire (or rather, to become a more powerful one).

Of all the possible surnames, Giovanni. Giovanni is never a surname in Italian. NEVER. Besides, it’s a Jewish first name: unlikely that a Roman patrician would use it, even as a first name. It would have been easy to look up a list of (for example) Roman Gens names, if you really have to choose a surname… which is already weird, since people didn’t have a surname back then.

This is like having “Clanbook Bob”. It sounds extremely dumb to an Italian. Seriously: at best it sounds stupid and hilarious, impossible to take seriously.

You know what it makes me think? That the writer(s) never even bothered looking up… well, anything. If this is the first impression, I can only anticipate ignorance and lazy writing (spoiler: I get it in spades).

Revised: oh, I see that the authors of the Revised at least tried to come up with a plausible explanation. The whole history chapter (and the whole book, I suspect) is both much better written and much, much better researched. Still, the explanation about a Roman “Jovian” family sounds like a Marvel no-prize. Close, but no cigar. Still sounds dumb, but hey, I guess they were bound to use the same name, since it was already in the wild. The latin name was Jupiter, not Jove (that’s English), for starters. Roman families didn’t have surnames, and even if you accept this story, the vulgar name coming from Jovians would have been Gioviani, not Giovanni (again, Giovanni is Jewish)… and anyway if you end up with “Giovanni” as a family name in modern Italy you have lost without even starting. It’s irredeemable.

All Italians are mafiosi

Well of course they are.
Your Italian clan has one non-magical non-fantastical characteristic? They are mafiosi. And bankers, sure, but a mafioso style family running off-the-record banks for criminals. Talk about perpetuating stereotypes, uh? I know Americans have this myth of they “old mob”, in no small part fueled by the popularity of the Il Padrino series of movies, but… listen, this is serious shit, ok?
Mafia (and the other, maybe even worse organizations, that Americans simply don’t know because they are not “pop culture”) is one of the cancers of my country. They infiltrated the economy and politics so deep it’s probably the weight that will eventually pull us under. They made the life of a lot of honest people a living hell. They killed lots of good people. They killed kids in acid to send a message.
Think it’s a cool and fun bit of background? Well it doesn’t sound very funny to me.

This is about “haha funny” as me writing an “American” splatbook for a game and saying all white americans are members of the KKK, because hey, “white american = racist slaveowner”, right? Not that funny anymore, uh?

Oh and I’ve seen the paragraph about “La Cosa Nostra”. Leaving aside the basic ignorance about the terms used (that’s pretty much the leitmotif of the book), since it’s “Cosa Nostra” (no article) and it’s an american organization… the book narrator manages to sneer at the Mafia for being disorganized thugs and says the Giovanni keep mostly away from them… while in the 99% of the rest of the book it’s made extremely clear that the Giovanni are a mafia family and are run exactly the same way.

I’ll maybe talk later about how this could have been done right.

Oh and let’s not forget, these are Venetian mafiosi. Right. The image of the “mafioso” with elegant three-piece suit is already a bizarre Americanization (you’re thinking about the twenties mob in Chigago, guys), but placing them in a distinctly northern city, one of the most proud of their cultural past as an independent country (they used to rule half the Mediterranean)… It’s like, I don’t know… placing your “Bluegrass Headquarters” in New Jersey, or Seattle.

Catacombs in Venezia

How much more ill-researched can this book be? Very.
The “Mausoleum”, the Giovanni central loggia(sic) is in the catacombs of a palace in Venice. Sure, why not? Why not claim the city was once on dry land and the canals are the result of progressive flooding, with the new city built on top, while you are at it? Just in case you are wondering, that’s exactly what the book says.

As anyone who takes the time to open even a basic tourist guide to Venice will learn, the city was built in a lagoon on purpose. The water has always been there. As for the catacombs… try and search for “venetian catacombs” on google, I’ll wait here. That’s right: they only exist in Indiana Jones and in Tomb Raider. There’s an excellent reason, too: Venice buildings stand on foundations made of thousands of wooden poles, stuck in the mud to reinforce it. No “second city”, no place to dig a catacomb, no subterranean dungeons. That very characteristic is one of the reasons many buildings risk sinking in the Laguna.

Revised: at least in the initial historical part it was very precisely noted how Venice started, and so on, so yeah, kudos to the new authors. Still, more “old city under the new city” bullshit. Try google translate on this article on Wikipedia about wells in Venice (long story short: if you dig more than 5 yards anywhere in Venice you end up soaked in the lagoon’s water).

Other, generalized sloppyness

I won’t go in more detail, but basically every time a cultural detail, a name, a word in Italian is used in the book, there is at least a good 80%+ chance of it being wrong, often hilariously so.

Revised: I noticed a new character is mentioned, a woman named Gianmaria. Which is a male name. Besides, he/she would be called (full name, without shortening) Giovanni Maria Giovanni. Only Bon Jovi has a name that approaches that level… (Giovanni Bongiovanni).

Even in the late nineties, a simple inquiry on a newsgroup would have found tens of english-speaking Italians volunteering to help the writers of an RPG splat on Italy.

Why even bother using Italy, if you aren’t going to take a couple of hours to research the basics? What’s the point, if every bit of meaningful content/color is then undermined? You choose Venice, a city with 1500 years of rich history, former Republic, one of the two powers that ruled the Mediterranean Sea, door to the East for most of Continental Europe for centuries, home of one of the biggest Jewish gettos of the renaissance… and you use it as a base for your family of mafia bankers that live in a fricking invisible skyscraper (note: I didn’t find direct references to the nature of ‘invisible skyscraper’ in the books in my quick read-through, but everyone who knows the Giovanni, in Italy, will mention it, so I guess it’s somewhere. At the very least, the Mausoleum is said to have underground dungeons and such).

Fog in Venezia. By Giovanni Dall’Orto (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Sigh. Not even the huge “gothy/emo/dark” potential of Venice is EVER touched upon (and to think I assumed it was the reason it was chosen in the first place!).  No mention of the foggy canals in winter, of the narrow, labyrinthic alleyways (the “calli”), nothing. Not even the freaking Carnevale! The masks, FFS! Might as well be Newark.

Dynamics of Appropriation

All this long rant (and it could have been much longer and more detailed) was to show that yes, even a “rich”, “western” culture can be appropriated.
All it takes is a hegemonic culture, a less powerful one, and the willingness to use and exploit the target culture as “quaint color”, without ever engaging in trying to understand it, representing it only with clumsy stereotypes (thus perpetuating them), and a general uncaring attitude. “I don’t really know if this bunch of letters I bungled up is really a name there, and if that name has maybe some implications regarding ethnicity, culture, class or plausibility… but whatever, I’ll use it anyway, it’s not like those people matter”

One could argue that some cultures have suffered worse (often much worse), and they’d be right, in a sense, but is it really meaningful to make this kind of distinction? It’s always an insensitive use (abuse) of someone else’s culture in an offensive and careless way, be it that you are representing all Native Americans as gullible savages and mix bits and pieces of conflicting traditions, languages and cultures(*), or that you are conflating China and Japan as a single entity, placing katana wielding samurai of the late 1800s side-by-side with Three-Kingdom era Daoist Monks, or that you paint all Italians as Chicago mobsters saying “capice” and “paisano”…

(*) Yes, I just read a Lone Ranger in-depth review. It was painful.

How it could have been better

Let me end on a positive/constructive note. How could this mess have been better?

1. Name the Clan something else: it becomes its own thing around 1000AD (1400 in the Revised)?  Use a term/name that could have been around at that time. Or some Latin word. Maybe something ironic in Latin. No surnames, as I already said. Or move the Origin to the renaissance and use a properly sounding noble family name (tricky, if you don’t use one of the existing ones).

2. Lose the mafioso theme: an Italian vampire Clan will likely resemble closely a group of noble families of the early renaissance; no mafia needed. Model them around the noble families of the era of the Signorie: a bunch of competing houses, each strongly tied to a mortal noble family (Orsini, Colonna, De’ Medici, Gonzaga…), that nonetheless will (generally) fight together against outsiders. No single central authority in Italy, sorry: doesn’t work like that :)

3. Why only bankers? The heirs of the merchant families of the Renaissance would have a finger in every pie. Let them be the real power that stands behind the halls of power of the mortals. Venice? Sure, for a while, but power moved when the Serenissima Repubblica ended. Have vampires behind the Savoia in the 1800. Have vamps infiltrate the Italian Masons, all the criminal organizations (mafia, ‘ndrangheta, camorra, sacra corona unita), the Parliament, the Senate, the Banks and the Holdings and Foundations that own them. Rogue secret service planning a coup? Have vamps behind it. And most of all, place vamps in the Vatican Curia: that’s where they belong (and where real political and economic power has resided for a long, long time). Hell, the Vatican would probably have more than one clan vying for power.
Definitely move the headquarters to Rome (after having them in Turin and Florence, following the Capital).

4. Exploit the dark and the magical: Turin is bound to have a nest of Necromancers! And do you really think during the Carnevale in Venice vampires don’t go around soaking in the crowd, preying on the revelers? You want catacombs? You are in Rome, there’s plenty of Catacombs to go around!
Some stray death cult could even explain the mummies of Palermo, and so on. There’s so much stuff… but no.

6 thoughts on “Clanbook Giovanni, or how a “western” and “rich” culture can be appropriated

  1. Thansk to Ezio Auditore, now Italians are depicted in a more interesting and likely way. Hopefully.
    Wanna talk about dark magic in Italy? Giuseppe Balsamo Conte di Cagliostro.

    • Yeah, I did not explain it in detail but the foundations for the building were exactly why I thought it was preposterous to the point of being offensive (not to mention the completely out-of-place nature of a glass/concrete cube in Venice).

      I found a very interesting link on Wikipedia to a research about the foundations in Venice, with plenty of photos and schemata. I didn’t link it in the article because it’s in Italian only, unfortunately.

  2. I’ve come back to this post several times in the last six months because it’s such a great example of how shitty cultural appropriation isn’t just a problem that happens to non-white cultures. The power dynamic is obviously all different but exoticisation and poor research can strike in any project based on real culture and as writers we can’t just assume it’s not problematic because that culture is mostly white or first world. It’s still sloppy and makes for sub-par work that will piss people off.

    • Yeah, that sums pretty much what I wanted to show with my article. I know full well other culture got an even shorter end of the stick (my metaphors are getting jumbled…), but it’s still a thing to keep in mind.

      Sidenote: I happen to know some of the people behind the new edition of the Vampire Dark Ages books this time around, and they are doing their best to avoid all this, including hiring writers that are from those cultures in the first place.

      Things can change.

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