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  • The Lives of Saints, Sinners, and Everyone in BetweenThe Year in Italy

Quirky Italy is commonly known as a country of saints, artists, and criminals. Eccentric personalities continue to punctuate the biographical production of the past year, reflecting the peculiar characteristics of this nation: its self-complacency, its originality, and its attraction for the odd and the unexplained. The life stories that have captured the attention of publishers belong to saints and demons with many uncommon stories in between—world-renowned entrepreneurs who remain loyal to their small-town roots, an autistic man and an unknown soldier, a vanishing physicist and a murdered cyclist—but include fewer women than expected, among them the strange case of the novelist Elena Ferrante, whose enigma may have finally unraveled this year.

Biographical writing is valued in Italy, a country that treasures memory, just as it cherishes its historical monuments. It is not necessary to be a luminous personality to earn the honor of a biography, as reflected in the overflowing shelves of the Archivio Diaristico Nazionale of Pieve Santo Stefano in Tuscany. This archive of scrittura popolare (people's writing), founded by Saverio Tutino, bestows the honor of memorialization on everyday people. Each year, a Premio Pieve literary prize grants publication to one of these writings salvaged from Italian drawers. In September 2017, the prize was awarded to the epistolary journal by the Venetian Antonio Cocco, an unwitting volunteer in the Foreign Legion, trapped in life's direst snares by a cruel joke of destiny. His one hundred sixty-five letters describe his adventures, beginning with his escape from home after an argument with his high-school teacher. He died at twenty-one in a field in Vietnam. [End Page 611]

the saints

With Italy as the home country of the Vatican, it comes as no surprise that the biographies of the last three popes occupy the first row on the bookshelves: the life of Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, narrated by theologian Elio Guerriero; the life of pope and saint John Paul II, told with abundant affection by his personal friend Robert Skrzypczak and by his photographer Arturo Mari; and the life of the current pope, which interestingly turns the title into a provoking question about whether he might be a Marxist: Papa Francesco marxista?. In his account of the pope's past, author Diego Siragusa focuses on the relationship of the Cardinal Bergoglio with the leftist governments of Latin America, proposing an unexpected philosophical alliance. Italians remain curious about their popes—those odd political figures and still-revered authorities.

Scores of saints have been canonized in recent years by these popes, their lives showcased as extraordinary role models. The Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the Vatican publishing house, commissioned author Nicola Gori to write the biographies of several servi di Dio (servants of God, or people who are on their way to beatification). The most recent publication is Un genio dell'informatica in cielo, covering the short life of Carlo Acutis, who was sustained in his suffering of leukemia by his remarkable Catholic faith and, until his early death at age fifteen, exercised the evangelizing power of the internet. In 2016, Giuseppe Cariddi completed the biography of Saint Francis of Paola, titled Un santo europeo degli umili e dei potenti, which is an examination of the Calabrian saint who lived during the Renaissance and who, although humble, managed to gain an audience with the kings of France. He led a hermitic life, deeply spiritual, but at the same time was capable of negotiating deals and even feigned disinterest in reaching his goals. How odd that so many Italian saints still live in our midst, their deeds immortally recorded on paper.

the sinners

For every saint, a sinner. The Italian penchant for dietrologia (an Italian neologism for the study of what hides behind the scenes, literally, "behind-ology") finds satisfaction in the life stories of the gray eminences who rule from the shadows. Last year's most fascinating antihero is Michele Sindona. In Sindona: Biografia degli anni Settanta, Marco Magnani draws the portrait of a larger-than-life criminal, high-profile lawyer, and banker with no scruples. Sindona unabashedly combined legality...

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