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Italian Authors in Search of Identity, Part I

Valerie Waterhouse By Valerie Waterhouse Published on August 4, 2017
This article was updated on November 14, 2017
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Italo Calvino

If a nation’s literature maps out its collective consciousness, what do books by these authors, chosen mostly because they tell a very good story, reveal about Italy? Which obsessions appear and reappear? Is there such a thing as ‘Italianness’? And what, if anything, can they tell us about Italian society and identity? This is the first segment of a 3-part series about Italian authors. Part II and Part III follow. 

Many of the works have a strong regional character, being set in Sicily, Sardinia, Naples, Rome, Milan, Turin, Ferrara or the Dolomites. Others are located abroad, on the ocean, or in oneiric ‘nowhere-lands’, but regional identity still intrudes. ‘Much of Italian literature has regional roots,’ wrote Italo Calvino. ‘My home was in San Remo, on the Riviera…it is natural when I tell imaginary stories set in an imaginary country that this country should be like the Riviera where I grew up.’

Several feature a character who simply vanishes or is without a fixed identity. Calvino’s The Non-Existent Knight is an empty suit of armour with no one inside, while in Alessandro Baricco’s Novecento, ‘officially (the protagonist) was never born’. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet  begins with the disappearance of Raffaella/Lina/Lila, ‘who wanted every one of her cells' to vanish into thin air.

Regionalism and abnegation of identity appear to point to an identical theme: the lack of a discernible Italian character. Yet looked at more closely, ‘Italianness’  and an abnegation of identity co-exist, with each predominating at different moments in personal and national histories.

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change
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Italy before unification

Freud, Jung, two world wars and mass migration have placed ‘identity’ among the abiding concerns of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But the Italian obsession with the subject has a flavour all of its own. Italy only united as a nation in 1861, after Giuseppe Garibaldi led an uprising, culminating in the crowning of Piedmontese Victor Emmanuel as the new country’s first king. Before that, it was a bundle of city-states, maritime republics, Papal States and kingdoms, each with its own regional dialect(s), monetary systems and laws. ‘Italian identity’ is therefore little over 150 years old, which may explain why so many Italians still cling to their regional heritage.

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Begun in the rubble of World War II, The Leopard (1958), by Sicilian prince Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, harks back to the Unification of Italy and tells of changes affecting an aristocratic family. It examines the moment when Italy became ‘Italy’, leading indirectly to the destructive nationalism of World War II.

The novel’s most famous line is: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’ -- the view of Tancredi, the Prince of Salina’s favourite nephew, who is off to join the Garibaldini to ensure that the aristocracy have their say.

The trouble with Italy’s unification is that it was imposed upon the masses from the top down. ‘Italianness remained an ideal, legalist concept that failed to penetrate the popular culture and identity,’ writes academic Anna Triandafyllidou in a report for the EU. However, the essential conservatism expressed by Tancredi runs deep through the Italian psyche and literature and is often identified as one of the abiding traits of ‘Italianness’. In The Italians, journalist John Hooper defines it as ‘an aversion to change’, while in A Literary Tour of Italy, novelist Tim Parks notes ‘a powerful tension between the imperatives of political action and the desire to be spared involvement of any kind’. Tancredi may not be afraid of involvement but preservation of the status quo remains the driving imperative.

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Following numerous rejections, The Leopard was accepted by writer Giorgio Bassani, an editor for Feltrinelli publishing house. Bassani’s own great 1962 novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis resembles The Leopard in several ways. Both deal with wealthy families encased in their beautiful villas at a time of seismic change. Both families are reluctant to face that change.

The Finzi-Continis (‘Fake-Little Counts’, as Tim Parks points out) are a rich Jewish family whose elevated social status sets them apart from the rest of the Jewish community in the central Italian town of Ferrara. The story hinges on a romantic relationship between the unnamed narrator and the Finzi-Contini’s beautiful daughter, Micòl. When the discriminatory 1938 Racial Laws are passed, the family invites other members of the community to play tennis within their vast walled and apparently protected grounds. Very early on we are told that most of them were killed in the Holocaust, tingeing the novel with sadness the colour of sepia from the get-go. At the beginning of the novel, the family is ‘remote, unreachable, as though all round them was a protective wall of glass.’ Yet, as the narrator says of his own aunts and uncles: ‘I was aware of how obtuse their minds were, how utterly unable to grasp the realities of the present moment, or to read anything of the future.’ In a few years time, they ‘would be swallowed up by German crematoria ovens, and no way would they have dreamt of ending up like that.’ But it is the ‘state of magical suspension, of glassy, luminous, soft immobility’ that lingers in the mind of the reader, rather than the protagonists' brutal, off-stage end.

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Written by Antonio Tabucchi, an Italian professor of Portuguese literature, Pereira Maintains is set in 1938 in Lisbon during the Salazar Fascist regime. But its protagonist, journalist Dr Pereira, displays many Italian characteristics, including an obsession with food. Despite a heart condition he spends his days eating omelettes and drinking copious amounts of sugary lemonade. More significantly, he shows the same reluctance to face change as the Salina and Finzi-Contini families. Avoiding direct confrontation, Pereira sticks to writing bland obituaries, but when a young revolutionary couple explodes into his life, he is forced to choose between fence-sitting, and deciding to act.  

Published in 1994, the year Silvio Berlusconi first came to power, the novel was seized upon by the political left as a call to action against the media mogul turned prime minister, soon to fire a number of prominent opposition journalists from Italian state TV. Times have changed since the 1990s, with the emergence of il rottamatore (demolition man), former prime minister Matteo Renzi, and the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stella (Five Star) party. However, for the moment, things at a political level have pretty much ‘stayed the same’.

Part II of this article touches on identity in works by more contemporary authors, including Elena Ferrante.

Top photo of Ferrara, where Giorgio Bassani's novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini is set, courtesy Giovy Malfiori


Valerie Waterhouse is a journalist and editor based in Italy, mostly writing about travel and books. She is the editor of the guidebook Time Out Milan and recently wrote the afterword for The ... Show More


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