- Reviewing Mario Pratesi: The Critical Press and Its Influence by Anne Urbancic
A prolific author, critic, and poet, Mario Pratesi shares the fate of many of his contemporaries who, like him, are now almost, if not utterly, forgotten. Anne Urbancic brings him back to life with her engaging and thoroughly [End Page 553] researched monograph Reviewing Mario Pratesi: The Critical Press and Its Influence.
Not only does Urbancic write a good book, but she also tells a good story, Pratesi’s story, thanks to both her ability and the instruments at her disposal, Pratesi’s correspondence kept at the University of Toronto Library, which she has been studying for a long time.
Born to a modest Tuscan family in 1842, Pratesi spent his life teaching and writing. He never managed to have a conventional family of his own or a truly successful career. He was, and remained, one of those intellectuals at the margins. Some of his works were successful and received positive reviews, and those who know his writings consider his works solid examples of Italian verismo. He briefly worked for Niccolò Tommaseo but was fired after he seduced Tommaseo’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Caterina, in an attempt, according to Urbancic, to mimic the formidable author’s successful marriage. He died, “a pathetic old man,” in Florence in 1921. Pratesi’s teaching appointments forced him to travel all over Italy. He seems to have rarely been a happy man, also because he was always plagued by depression and mental illness.
Pratesi is one of the many late nineteenth-century authors who got caught between the cultural modus operandi of their century of birth and the modern ways of the new century. Adopting a critique génétique approach, in her book Urbancic reconstructs Pratesi’s personal and intellectual life mostly by analysing his peers’ reviews of his works. Indeed, there is so little written about Pratesi that Urbancic had to rely almost entirely on primary sources, Pratesi’s writings, and the reviews written during his lifetime. Urbancic deals with Pratesi’s life, his works, and, even more, his frustration, his dissatisfaction, his “suspicion that somehow he had been systemically overlooked as a writer and his talent ignored.” Reviewing Mario Pratesi is divided into four chapters: “Florence,” “Milan,” “Belluno,” and “Florence Once More.” They are headed by a detailed introductory chapter where Urbancic explains in great detail the reasons behind her choice of subject and her critical approach. Each chapter starts with a geographical description of a place of significant importance for Pratesi and a period that was significant in his life. Pratesi’s writings and correspondence add a precious piece to the challenging puzzle that is nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Italian cultural history. Reading Urbancic’s book, we learn about Pratesi, but we also learn about his intellectual circle of (mostly supportive) friends, from Giuseppe Cesare Abba to Vernon Lee, Emilia Peruzzi, Clemente Maraini, and Giacomo Barzellotti.
This book is going to be an indispensable tool for anyone working on the cultural history of post-unification Italy. Reading it taught me a great deal about Pratesi and made me curious about reading his correspondence. [End Page 554] Although Urbancic claims she did not want to write a psychological depiction of her chosen author (“My present study has no intention of painting Pratesi’s psychological portrait”), she gives her readers a compassionate and sympathetic portrait of a man, his life, and his struggle to achieve literary greatness and recognition, all framed in a fin de siècle cultural (and geographical) perspective.