- Biographies from the Alps to CapriThe Year in Italy
There is a double advantage in reading Italian biographies published this past year. Not only discovering Italian lives, but also undertaking a virtual trip through "lived" Italian places. It happens in any biographical piece, but this year Italian writing seems to have been strongly landscape-based. In this article, I follow a peculiar path according to an itinerary through the "where of life." Far from being mere settings of life stories, these "where" become metonymies in the hands of the autobiographers, or, as James Olney would say, "metaphors of lives," place-metaphors. An island as youth, a mountain as passion, cities as homes or jails, a factory as a collective experience, a marble quarry as the forge of genius. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that last year's 7th conference of the Accademia della Biografia in Anghiari (Tuscany), was titled "I dove della vita. Luoghi e non luoghi" [The where of life. Places and non-places].1
This spatial turn was hinted at already by last year's winner of the Commisso Literary Prize for biography: Vite minuscole, the belated Italian translation from French of Pierre Michon's 1984 book, Vies minuscules. With its stress on the sacredness of memory, it is no wonder the book attracted attention. Michon's words are a monument to small lives that counted little for the world but are the world for the narrator. The pages resurrect inconsequential characters—the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—from a village in the unforgettable, bucolic landscape of Limousin in central France. There, lives interlace with the majestic trees and grassy fields of the deep countryside. It all starts under a chestnut tree:
La provincia di cui parlo non ha coste […] il richiamo del mare i venti di ponente lo riversano sui castagni, purificato dal sale nel suo lungo cammino. […] Trent'anni e lo stesso albero che era lo stesso, lo stesso bambino che era un altro.
[The province I am speaking of has no coasts (…) the west winds, purged of salt and coming from far off, pour over the chestnut trees there. (…) Thirty years, and the same tree that was the same, and the same child that was another] (15–16).2 [End Page 69]
The chestnut trees solidly stand there watching lives pass by.
Capri, sun, and youth. Through these elements Sergio Lambiase characterizes the short glittery life of Adriana Capocci Belmonte in Adriana cuore di luce. A lively girl from a well-to-do family, Adriana died at 26 in Naples in 1944, just before the bombs destroyed the city. She was too young to accomplish much in her life, but old enough to become a nostalgic icon of youth and pre-war Italy. Old enough to creep into the pages of a novel and become the doomed protagonist of Anna Maria Ortese's Il porto di Toledo. Old enough to survive as the vital sexy body of the painting "Spazialita' solare o Adriana a Capri" by the Futurist Enrico Prampolini. In the portrait, her body, full of energy, emanates warmth and illuminates the painting. Behind her, the island of Capri. Adriana spent her sophisticated life in palaces of Naples, trips to Greece and India, and lazy summers in Capri and Palinuro, flattered, coveted, and beloved by devoted intellectuals, such as novelists Alberto Moravia and Ortese. Biographer Lambiase, as Prampolini before him, identifies the sensual youth of this woman with the landscape of sun-drenched Capri, and reconstructs her friendships and experiences through letters and pages of her private journal. He imagines Adriana in summer 1938 in the family-run island pension, affordably elegant and sober:
Dalle finestre della pensione, Capri, con la cima del campanile in primo piano e le isole del Golfo all'orizzonte, invitava ad andarle incontro. Impossibile resistere alla voglia di far tardi, di lasciarsi solleticare dal vento caldo della sera, di raccogliersi nell'abbraccio di un paesaggio marino senza uguali.(180)
[From the pension's windows, Capri enticed her, with the tip of its belltower in the foreground and the islands of the Gulf in the horizon. Impossible to resist the desire to...