GIORGIO BASSANI: SOME BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS.
Giorgio Bassani was born in Bologna on March 4, 1916, into an upper middle-class Jewish family that had lived in Ferrara for many generations. His birthplace, Bologna, is capital of the region of Emilia Romagna, the fertile plain of the Po River valley, in central Italy, and home to the famous university founded there in 1088, making it the oldest university in Europe.
The region takes its name from the Roman Aemilia, the name given to the VIIIth Region by Caesar Augustus. Ferrara, a much smaller provincial town, lies some forty-nine kilometers to the north and slightly to the west of Bologna, always in the region of Emilia Romagna, and is, itself, rather famous culturally and historically for its own university founded in 1391 by Alberto V d’Este and as the site of the famous Renaissance court of the d’Este family whose medieval-Renaissance town center remains practically intact. Both towns were thriving centers of professional, academic, cultural and economic activity a hundred years ago, just as they are today. (Bologna had a population of 490,000 in 1971, 386,000 in 1995; Ferrara, 154,000 in 1971, 135,000 in 1995.)
Giorgio’s father, Angelo Enrico, had been born in Ferrara in 1885, was a licensed although non-practicing gynecologist, and had volunteered to serve his nation for four years during the First World War as a medical officer in the Italian Army. While on a temporary furlough in Bologna, he invited his wife, Dora Minerbi, to join him and Giorgio was born there quite unintentionally, some kilometers distant from his parents’ hometown.
Dora, born in Ferrara in 1883, was well on the road to becoming a professional singer having seriously studied voice when, at age 20, she met and fell in love with her future husband and they married in 1915. Their first-born, Giorgio, carried the name of the patron saint of Ferrara and reminded Enrico and Dora of the feast day celebrating the saint on which they became engaged.
Angelo Enrico Bassani’s parents, Giorgio’s paternal grandparents, were Davide Bassani, born in 1854, a wealthy Jewish landowner and cloth merchant whose shop was deep in the heart of the ex-ghetto of Ferrara, in Via Vignatagliata, and Jenny Hanau, a very beautiful and elegant Jewish teacher of embroidery and needlework at the Jewish School in Ferrara who was from a good family. Davide had begun business with a small industry for producing carton packaging and through hard work and sharp commercial acumen quickly built a position for himself among the town merchants. They had a daughter, Bice, and a son, Angelo Enrico, both of whom studied: Bice became an accountant and Enrico, a doctor. Davide Bassani and Jenny Hanau are buried in the Jewish cemetery in Ferrara near their son, Angelo Enrico who died in 1948, and his wife, Dora who died in 1987.
Giorgio’s maternal grandfather was Cesare Minerbi, born in 1856, was, also, a Jewish doctor, professor of medicine, researcher and head of the main hospital in Ferrara, the Arcispedale Sant’Anna. He was fond of studying languages and geography and literature, as well as performing experiments in his own field of gastroenterology. He died in the fall of 1954 at ninety-nine years of age while still active professionally.
His grandson, Giorgio, wrote his epitaph which can still be seen today on his tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Ferrara.
Giorgio’s maternal grandmother, Emma Marchi, was, also, very beautiful, Catholic, and worked as a nurse in the same hospital as Cesare Minerbi before marrying him. She was a perfect housekeeper for her studious husband and a good mother to their five children: Giacomo, Carmen, Beniamino, Dora and Luisa. Beniamino died at age five of meningitis, Giacomo studied medicine and became head of the hospital in Bassano, and the three girls finished secondary school and, later, studied embroidery, piano and voice, as was the custom for young women from good families in those days. Dora and Luisa even studied French and etiquette in Switzerland. Professor Minerbi treated Davide Bassani’s family and this is how Enrico and Dora met. Emma Marchi died in 1938 and is buried in the Catholic cemetery in Ferrara.
Giorgio Bassani immortalized the figures of Cesare Minerbi and Emma Marchi in his short story, La passeggiata prima di cena. He never wrote about his grandfather, Davide, nor about his grandmother, Jenny, however, even though they were very highly regarded in Ferrarese society. By his own reckoning, he failed to do so because he was much closer to them emotionally since they all lived in the same big house in Via Cisterna del Follo in Ferrara when he was young. Giorgio felt and recognized that Davide Bassani was his most important grandparent, the one he knew best and most intimately, the one with whom he lived the longest and who knew him the best, too.
Giorgio Bassani had a brother, Paolo, who was born in 1920, and a sister, Jenny, born in 1924. Paolo frequented the same Liceo Ariosto in Ferrara as his brother and sister and hoped to become a doctor like his father and grandfather and uncle before him, but the Racial Laws, dating from the fall of 1938, prohibited him from enrolling in a university in Italy. He studied engineering at Grenoble, in France, because all of the slots in the medical schools there had been previously filled by Jews fleeing Italy. In 1940, Paolo was expelled from France for being Jewish, fled as a clandestine to Spain by making his way on foot across the Pyrenees, and back into Italy, where he settled in and around Bologna and actively participated in the CUMER, the Commando Unico Militare Emilia Romagna, as a partisan responsible for installing radio transmitting and receiving equipment along the Apennines and in the area of the Po River Delta. In the 1950’s he married his childhood sweetheart, Valeria Pagnotta, and lived in Rome most of his life. He was very attached to his brother and was very close to him, especially in their last years of life. He died in July, 2001, in Florence, shortly after his wife died in Livorno.
Jenny Bassani suffered the most from the promulgation of the Racial Laws as her academic career was interrupted abruptly after it had barely begun when she was 14 years of age. Her brother, Giorgio, was her teacher in the Jewish School in Via Vignatagliata (number 79), the only school Jews were allowed to attend after September, 1938. She did study voice, drawing, sculpture and painting, privately, for four years, before having to flee Ferrara for Florence where she spent the latter part of 1943, all of 1944 and 1945. She describes her experiences in this period and some family history in her book, L’Anzulon (Edizioni ETS, 2000). After the war, she married Rodolfo Liscia, a doctor from a prominent Livornese family, and had three children, David, Dora and Claudio. She spends her time between their homes in
Antignano, near Livorno, and Florence where she paints and writes and sings in a local choral group. Her latest publication is La storia passa dalla cucina (Edizioni ETS, 2000) in which she recreates her family’s history through family customs and recipes.
Giorgio Bassani lived his life in Ferrara in the big family dwelling in Via Cisterna del Follo until he was forced to flee his hometown in September of 1943. Elementary school, the Liceo Ariosto, schoolmates and friends, summers on the Adriatic sea, piano lessons, tennis at the Circolo Marfisa d’Este in Via Saffi, football, skiing – a normal upbringing for a young, brilliant, upper middle-class Italian at that time in Italy. It is this life at that period in history that Giorgio Bassani chooses to write about
in his novels and to describe in much of his poetry. His sentimental nostalgia for his early life, his deep love for his family and their traditions, for his hometown and surrounding areas characterize his writing while, at the same time, one cannot help but feel his great trauma of suffering through the Racial Laws, persecution at the hands of the Fascists and the very society that bore him, and World War II. He is an integral part of the Ferrarese middle class and, then, all of a sudden, he is persecuted by them: he feels love and hate at the same time.
In the fall of 1934, Giorgio Bassani enrolled in the University of Bologna in the Faculty of Arts and Letters, making a break with the traditional family profession of medicine. He could have become a concert pianist, such was his expertise and talent, but at the age of seventeen, he opted for the field of literature. He often said and wrote that he spent his years preceding his university commitment reading everything he could lay his hands on, even contemporary Italian literature.
The University of Bologna meant the possibility of frequenting Riccardo Bacchelli, Leo Longanesi, Giuseppe Raimondi, Giorgio Morandi and Roberto Longhi. Bassani made his closest friends at that time, too, Attilio Bertolucci, for one, Claudio Varese, Giuseppe Dessì, Antonio Pinna, Franco Dessì Fulgheri, Franco Giovanelli, others. Together, these personalities not only discovered literature and art history together, but, also, militant antifascism.
In 1935, Bassani published his first short story, III Classe, in the Corriere Padano, the Bolognese daily founded in 1925 by Italo Balbo. In 1936, two other short stories followed in the same daily: Nuvole e mare and I mendicanti. Poetry fascinated him even more and he continued to versify.
He, himself, describes the period in his life from 1937 until 1943 which he dedicated almost exclusively to anti-fascist activities (taking up writing poetry again in 1942) as “among the most beautiful and intense of my entire existence” since they “saved” him from the desperation that many other Italian Jews experienced, even though he was not a practicing Jew. In these same years, he travelled extensively between Ferrara, Bologna, Florence and Rome as a result of his political engagement. Being “totally on the side of justice and truth” as he says, he decided not to leave Italy for foreign lands as many were doing. He often attributed these years to the period of formation for his later career as a writer without which he would never have succeeded in fulfilling his goals and dreams.
In April of 1938, he published yet another short story, Un concerto, in Letteratura which he would later on, in 1940, publish in his first volume, Una città di pianura, in Milan with the Officina d’Arte Grafica A. Lucini & C. under the pseudonym Giacomo Marchi, the first name taken from his much beloved uncle Giacomo and the last name taken from his even more beloved Catholic grandmother.
In 1939, Giorgio Bassani succeeded in graduating from the University of Bologna despite the Racial Laws, having completed a thesis on Niccolò Tommaseo under the direction of Carlo Calcaterra. Tommaseo was an Italian writer and literary critic, born in Dalmatia in 1802, who knew Alessandro Manzoni. Tommaseo worked in Florence from 1827 until 1834 on the “Antologia”, a literary journal founded by Giovan Pietro Vieusseux. He is best known for publishing in 1830 a Nuovo Dizionario de’Sinonimi della Lingua Italiana. He was politically involved in the unification of Italy and lived in Venice, Turin and Florence where he died in 1874 after having published his four volume Dizionario della Lingua Italiana from 1857 onward.
His closest friends at that time were Francesco Arcangeli, Attilio Bertolucci, Fiorenzo Forti, Augusto Frassinetti and Franco Giovanelli, as well as Vincezo Cicognani and Sergio Telmon with whom he shared political ideals. Having been forced out of a teaching position at the Liceo Ariosto in Ferrara because he was Jewish, he taught language, literature and geography in the Jewish School in Via Vignatagliata in the old ex-ghetto where the Jewish community had set up classes for their children expelled from public schools because of their race. His students at the time, can even recall, today, his enthusiasm for contemporary art and literature in which he was well-versed. He continued to publish under his pseudonym in literary magazines while maintaining close ties with former classmates and professors at the University of Bologna.
Because of his anti-Fascist activities, Bassani was arrested in May of 1943 and imprisoned in Via Piangipane in Ferrara. His sister, Jenny, provided him daily with good meals and clean laundry. His Da una prigione describes this period in fourteen letters to his family. With the fall of Fascism on July 26th, he is freed from prison. He married a young Jewish woman from Ferrara on August 4th and, together, they flee, outfitted with false identities, first to Florence for a few months and, then, to Rome, until the end of the war. To make ends meet, the fugitive then known as Bruno Ruffo translated Hemingway and Voltaire in between clandestine political encounters within the Partito d’Azione – Carlo Ragghianti, Antonio Delfini and Manlio Cancogni. His Pagine di un diario ritrovato describes his experiences in Rome in 1944.
Immediately after the war, in 1945, after having decided to remain in Rome, Bassani published with Astrolabio Storie dei poveri amanti e altri versi, poems that he wrote from 1939 to 1945. A second edition came out in 1946. Forced into various occupations to make ends meet, he clerked in public offices and, then, became a teacher in a public school in Velletri, a small town just outside of Rome. The cinema opened up new opportunities for him: the role of a professor in Emmer’s Le ragazze di Piazza di Spagna. Ubaldini published yet another collection of his poems in 1947: Te lucis ante. 1946-47.
American Marguerite Chapin, Princess Caetani of Bassiano, contacted Giorgio Bassani early in 1947 and invited him to collaborate with her on an extension in Italy of the literary journal Commerce that she had successfully published in France before the war. When her Botteghe Oscure came out in 1948 taking its name from her palazzo on the street of the same name in Rome, he was editor, a true genius in ferreting out the best in prose and poetry worldwide. Bassani was the first to publish in Italy in this highly refined international review T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, René Char, Henri Michaux, Roger Caillois, Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, Antonin Artaud, Isaak Dinesen, W. H. Auden, Truman Capote and Robert Graves. He successfully brought Mario Soldati, Italo Calvino, Attilio and Bernardo Bertolucci, Giorgio Caproni and Pier Paolo Pasolini to the attention of the broader Italian public, as well. Botteghe Oscure closed in 1960.
In 1949, Bassani began teaching Italian language and literature at the Istituto Nautico in Naples, continued writing poetry and began working as a scriptwriter for the cinema: Soldati’s Le avventure di Mandrin, and Antonioni’s I nostri figli (I vinti) came out in 1952, Visconti’s Senso and Soldati’s La provinciale in 1953, Blasetti’s Tempi nostri-Zibaldone n.2, Soldati’s La donna del fiume, La mano dello straniero and Il Ventaglino (Questa è la vita), Zampa’s La romana in 1954, Trenker’s La prigioniera della montagna in 1955. In 1951, Mondadori published Un’altra libertà, another collection of poetry, and, in 1953, Sansoni put out La passeggiata prima di cena (written between 1949 and 1951). Roberto Longhi and Anna Banti invite him to be on Paragone’s editorial board in 1953 and it is in that journal that he published Gli occhiali d’oro in 1958.
Giorgio Bassani won the Veillon International Prize in May of 1957 for his book Gli ultimi anni di Clelia Trotti put out by Nistri-Lischi in 1955. Although the long short story is fictional in nature, the protagonist, Clelia Trotti, greatly resembles Alda Costa, a Ferrarese schoolteacher, an outsider persecuted for her leftist ideals, whom Bassani frequented from 1936 until May of 1943 when he was arrested. He often said that they had a common political bond and that she mirrored his ideals in many ways.
The best ten years of his teaching career Bassani spent at the Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica “Silvio D’Amico” in Rome beginning in 1957, where he held one course for actors and another for directors which included Racine, Corneille and Moliére – dramatists whose work he truly loved. He set the highest standards for his students at the Accademia by lecturing to them in a very direct and schematic manner, expecting them to read the great works of theatre in their original language, always with an eye to the poetic. Among his students were Gianni Elsner, Carmelo Bene, Giancarlo Giannini, Gabriele Lavia and Ugo Pagliai.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s bestseller Il Gattopardo owes its appearance on the Italian literary scene to Bassani’s discovery of this masterpiece and its subsequent publication in 1958. Elena Croce, an old friend of Bassani’s, asked him to read the manuscript and left it for him with her concierge. He often recounted opening the large manila envelope, reading the first page and immediately labeling it a true find, a real masterpiece. It came out in November, after very careful editing on his part as an editor for Feltrinelli, with a Preface written by Bassani, himself, who described his first meeting with the author and labeled the novel a “poema nazionale”, a national
poem. Later on, the book was made into a prize-winning film by Visconti starring Claudia Cardinale and Charleton Heston.
In 1960, Einaudi published Una notte del ’43 and Le storie ferraresi and the Ferrarese movie director, Florestano Vancini, began filming his version of the former which took the title La lunga notte del ’43. Le cinque storie ferraresi included in a single volume La passeggiata prima di cena, Gli ultimi anni di Clelia Trotti, Una lapide in Via Mazzini and Una notte del ’43. Bassani had worked and reworked these stories for decades.
Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, perhaps Bassani’s most popular and well-known novel, came out early in 1960 with one hundred thousand copies being sold in less than five months. This clamorous success was immediately reviewed and publicized throughout the nation. It has been translated into over one hundred languages and has seen various editions worldwide. Bassani took it all in stride commenting that his themes and characters jumped out at him begging to bear witness to the story he had to tell. Later on, in 1970, the book was made into an Academy-award winning film by the same title starring Dominique Sanda and directed by Vittorio De Sica. Bassani was so upset with the final version of the movie script he, himself, had contributed to, that he went to court to distance himself from the film. Today, the film carries the subtitle “freely taken from a novel by Giorgio Bassani”. His essay, Il giardino tradito, lists the reasons for his displeasure.
His novel Dietro la porta, published by Einaudi in 1964, is partly autobiographical and recounts his secondary school years in Ferrara. In the same year, Bassani is named Vice-President of RAI, the Italian state radio and television station, and the year after, President of Italia Nostra, an organization he helped found dedicated to the preservation and conservation of Italy’s monuments and natural beauty. In 1966, after leaving his position at the RAI, he published with Einaudi Le parole preparate, a collection of his essays.
In 1972, he published with Mondadori L’odore del fieno, and in 1973, he reissued his stories of Ferrara after completing with Mondadori under the title Dentro le mura. In 1974, he published a collection of newly-conceived poems in Epitaffio with Mondadori and all of his short stories and novels dealing with Ferrara in a single volume entitled Il Romanzo di Ferrara. In 1978, he published with Mondadori yet another volume of non-traditional poetry under the title In Gran Segreto. In 1980, he published the definitive reworked version of Il Romanzo di Ferrara, his very own Divine Comedy as he defined it. He collected all of his poetry together into one volume in 1982, published by Mondadori as In rima e senza. In 1984, Di là dal cuore, the definitive edition of all of his essays, is published by Mondadori, and he considered it his “intellectual diary”.
In the late 70s, Bassani taught Italian literature in several North American institutions among which Indiana University, Berkeley and Queen’s University.
He received two honorary degrees; the first from Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, in 1980, in Arts and Letters, and the second, from the University of
Ferrara in 1996 in Natural Sciences for his dedication in saving Italy’s artistic and cultural heritage and environment.