For over a century his novels were mandatory reading for generations of youth eager for exotic adventures. In Italy, his extensive body of work was more widely read than Dante - and even today, he remains among the 40 most translated Italian authors. Many of his most popular novels have been adapted as comics, animated series and feature films. He is considered the father of Italian adventure fiction, the father of Italian pop culture and the grandfather of the Spaghetti Western.
Emilio Salgari was born in Verona to a family of modest merchants. From a young age he had a desire to explore the seas. As a teenager he studied seamanship at a Naval Academy in Verona, but poor marks kept him from graduating. Nevertheless, early in his career he began signing his tales Captain Salgari, a title he once defended in a duel when his claim to it was questioned.
Salgari began his career as a reporter with La Nuova Arena, and as his powers of narration grew so did his reputation for having lived a life of adventure. He claimed to have explored the Sudan, met Buffalo Bill in Nebraska, and sailed the Seven Seas. His early biographies were filled with adventurous tales set in the Far East, tales he claimed were the basis for much of his work. The Captain, however, never ventured farther than the Adriatic.
After a failed attempt to become a naval officer he turned his passion for exploration and discovery to writing. He wrote more than two hundred adventure stories and novels, setting his tales in exotic locations, with heroes from a wide variety of cultures.
Foreign literature and newspapers, travel magazines and encyclopedias were the source of his inspiration and helped him give life to his gallery of heroes. He wrote four major series: The Pirates of Malaysia; The Black Corsair Saga; The Pirates of Bermuda; and a collection of adventures set in the Old West. Salgari’s heroes were mostly pirates, outlaws and barbarians, fighting against greed, abuse of power, and corruption.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Salgari did not argue for colonization. His most legendary heroes Sandokan, The Tiger of Malaysia, a Bornean prince turned pirate and his loyal lieutenant Yanez of Gomera led their men in attacks against the Dutch and British fleets. They even declared war on James Brooke the dreaded White Rajah of Sarawak and attempted to force him from his throne. The Black Corsair and Captain Morgan battled against injustice in the Caribbean, while Salgari’s pirates of Bermuda fought for American independence.
Though knighted by the Queen of Italy and wildly popular, Emilio Salgari lived hand to mouth for most of his life until, overcome by personal tragedy, he committed suicide in 1911. His tales were so popular that soon other writers were hired to pen works under his name, adding another 50 novels to his “canon”. His style was imitated by many but no other Italian adventure writer ever managed to duplicate his success.
Salgari's work was imitated in one form or another by many others who came after him. Italian adventure literature is a continuation of Salgari's work. Many late 19th century writers like Luigi Motta and Emilio Fancelli penned further Sandokan adventures imitating Salgari's style: fast-paced, filled with great battles, blood, violence and punctuated with humour.
The style soon spread to movies and television. One example is iconic Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone, whose outlaw heroes were inspired by Salgari's piratical adventurers. There have been over 50 cinematographic adaptations of Salgari's novels, and many more inspired by his work (corsair stories, jungle adventure stories, and swashbuckling B movies like Morgan, the Pirate, starring Steve Reeves).
Fellini loved Salgari's books. Mascagni had over 50 Salgari titles in his library. Umberto Eco read Salgari's works as a child, as did many Latin American writers (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, to name but a few). Che Guevara read 62 of his books. Guevara's biographer Paco Ignacio Taibo II remarked that his anti-imperialism could be seen to be "Salgarian in origin".
There is some debate as to the first adaptation of one of Salgari's novels. Cabiria directed by Giovanni Pastrone bears many similarities to Emilio Salgari's 1908 adventure novel Cartagine in Fiamme (Carthage is Burning). Salgari, however, was never credited, Gabriele D'Annunzio billed as the official screenwriter. In fact D'Annunzio had been brought on board to help revise the film once it had been shot, earning the credit by changing the title to Cabiria, changing the name of some of the characters and rewriting the captions, using more grandiloquent expressions than those employed by Pastrone. The three-hour movie with its grand proportions and cast of thousands created a sensation throughout Italy. It pioneered epic screen production and foreshadowed the work of D.W. Griffith, Eisenstein and others.
Vitale De Stefano brought Salgari's pirates to the big screen in the early 1920s with a series of five films shot over two years including Il corsaro nero The Black Corsair and La Regina dei caraibi (The Queen of the Caribbean). Lex Barker appeared as the tiger hunter Tremal-Naik in the 1955 B-movie The Mystery of The Black Jungle, while Sandokan was played by muscle man and Hercules star Steve Reeves in Sandokan the Great and The Pirates of Malaysia aka The Pirates of The Seven Seas. Ray Danton took his turn playing the pirate in Luigi Capuano's Sandokan Against the Leopard of Sarawak (aka Throne of Vengeance.) and later reprised the role along with most of the original cast in Sandokan Fights Back (aka The Conqueror and the Empress).
In 1976, the landmark Sandokan TV miniseries played throughout Europe. It starred Kabir Bedi in the title role and brought in over 80 million viewers a week. Bedi has been considered the quintessential Sandokan ever since. He later reprised the role in the late 90s in a series of sequels.
Though popular with the masses, Emilio Salgari was shunned by critics throughout his life and for most of the 20th century. It wasn't until the late 1990s that his writings began to be revisited and new translations appeared in print.
Though Salgari's novels have been popular in Europe and Latin America for over a century, at present only five titles are avaialble in English.
The last two tiles were published posthumously.
Cristina Della Coletta. World's Fairs Italian Style: The Great Expositions in Turin and Their Narratives, 1860-1915.(Book review)
Jan 01, 2009; Cristina Della Coletta. World's Fairs Italian Style: The Great Expositions in Turin and Their Narratives, 1860-1915. Toronto: U...