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Anna Maria Ortese's palette: Colors and achromaticity in Neapolitan Chronicles.

Vision and deformation

The intent of my work is to retrace the function of colors in shaping Anna Maria Ortese's imagination and defining her peculiar gaze.

Anna Maria Ortese's color palette has been mentioned just once and in terms that are not exactly flattering. Through a comparison with Elsa Morante, it has been stated that "le tinte della Ortese, cosi spesso simile a un pittore che mischia sulla tavolozza troppi colori, e che non sapendo scegliere lascia infine colare sulla tela un grigio informe e uniforme dove ogni realta e ogni simbolo si perdono" (Marchesini, 2015). Far from being invaded by too many nuances, Ortese's pages instead reveal a small number of well-balanced shades. The following statement about Proust can also be applied to Ortese: "non fotografa, dipinge: i suoi ritratti non fissano dettagli sulla carta, liberano essenze nell'aria che lasciano il lettore libero di interpretarle e seguirle dove vuole" (Marangoni, 2014:18).

Each volume of Ortese's is surrounded by a different coloristic atmosphere; as well as tracing back some of their literary genealogies, this article will attempt to systematize their usage, differentiating the functions of the various color series. I will limit my analysis to Neapolitan Chronicles, showing how through the contrast between colors and achromaticity Ortese has given life to a pictorial writing, which uses deformation as the key to a more lively and acute perception of the world.

Before moving on to analyze the specific components of Ortese's palette, it is important to ask ourselves which perceptual filter the writer embraces. As she explained in a famous quote on Raphael's sky, the intent of the writer is to transfigure reality so as to obtain that "creazione seconda" which is superimposed onto it, "diventando piu reale del reale" (Ortese, 1997: 13).

We find the perfect visual translation of this image in another fragment of Corpo Celeste, a glossary or "preciso autocommento alle proprie opere" (Borghesi, 2015: 8). In those pages, Ortese recalls a trip from Libya to Italy at the age of 13: the ship left behind a blue trail which altered the appearance of the sea, which continued to change while remaining apparently the same: "Cosi, c'era questo problema del tempo; le dimensioni e i luoghi dove le cose passavano. Cosi, le cose passavano! E irrevocabilmente, sembrava. Percio tutto quanto accadeva, se la sua parte seconda era il non esistere piu, era cosa illusoria" (1) (Ortese, 1997: 13).

We will see how different colors express different "sentimenti del tempo". More importantly, however, what needs to be considered is the gaze through which the writer translates life's deeds, surprising in its beauty and ferocity. Kafka used to say that the most authentic reality can be unreal: in her work, Ortese puts this principle into practice through an opposite process, always meaning to build a second-level reality. It has been rightly underlined how a visionary onirism "leads her to transform every realistic narrative into a grotesque apparition, and every fantastic metamorphosis into a disturbing psychic tale" (Pietrantonio, 2012), thematizing the ostranenie evoked by Sklovskij in a famous quote:
And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us
feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool
of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a
thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By
"estranging" objects and complicating form, the device of art makes
perception long and "laborious". The perceptual process in art has a
purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a
means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself
is quite unimportant. (2) (Sklovskij, 1990 [1925]: 7, emphasis in

The artist's task, Sklovskij explains, is to distance reality from consumption and the habitual gaze, to bring the reader back to perceive its fragments in their tridimensionality and truth, as if we saw them for the first time. (3) The author will have to get lost in the forest of reality in order to extract, through skillful and unpredictable moves, a new presentation of reality that overcomes dry naturalism as well as the symbol's unreal rigidity. Building on a genealogy deeply rooted in certain 19thcentury authors, Ortese does create a new reality, based on its "salti, scarti" (Ortese, 1977: 8) compared to the average perception's horizon, as she underlined in Porto di Toledo's preface. The feverish and terse atmosphere of her pages arises from this succession of unfulfilled expectations. The more the author opposes resistance to her object, performing what Carlo Emilio Gadda (1993 [1928]: 789) defined as a necessary deformation, the more this transfiguration will result in an effective outcome:
Solo una superficie gelida ed elegante--assolutamente immobile--potra
riprendere il moto scompigliato di un albero scosso dal vento, o il
levarsi fresco di belva di un'onda verde del mare. Il mare non riflette
il mare, ne l'albero l'albero. Solo in qualcosa di natura profondamente
diversa e contraria, la natura e l'animo tragico delle cose si
riflettono. Questo e cio che si dice qualita estetica. E la qualita
dello specchio, che si oppone e percio la cattura--alla cosa
specchiata. (Ortese, 1997: 13)

Neapolitan Chronicles' estranged gaze

Ortese improved the transfiguring quality of her mirror in Neapolitan Chronicles (1952), a hybrid book--including both short stories and reportages--that presents a variety of procedures designed to increase the difficulty and duration of perception previously underlined by Sklovskij. (4) Using narrative modes only apparently belonging to the neorealist tradition, the author narrates "contro il reale," (5) as is evident in the opening short story, "Un paio di occhiali" (A pair of eyeglasses).

We follow a crucial episode in the life of Eugenia Quaglia, a child living with her family in a basso dotted with cobwebs in the poor Vicolo della Cupa; she is almost blind, and desperately needs a pair of glasses. Colors play a key role in the succession of visions that marks Eugenia's heuristic adventure, fitting within a wider reflection extracted from the opposites light/shadow, sharpness/blurriness, intelligence/reason.(6) Colors appear in all their boldness in Eugenia's first "vision," the one she experiences in the opticians shop in Chiaia, symbolizing a harmonious and fatally illusory "beautiful, very beautiful" world. It is a deliberately lush scene, where the girl's point of view--usually balanced by the narrator's gaze--is the protagonist of the scene:
On the sidewalks, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly
smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with
powdered face, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters,
white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes;
and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles looked
like toys, their bodies paired red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys
as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows
so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite
sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of
things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black
aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a cafe with red
and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs
crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the
cafe, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and
embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments
of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of
gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. (Ortese, 2018: 15)

Enumeration, the often altered-sized objects, and the insistent dwelling on unreal colors and childlike shapes (cars are and "look like" toys, handles are silver, and hair is predictably golden) reveal an imagination in technicolor, too emotionally close to the object of vision and incapable of grasping its true essence precisely for this reason. Sharpness, on the other hand, reveals a kind of blindness. In this passage, Ortese makes use of different rhetorical devices in order to add layers to our usual perception of the world's materiality: she isolates a number of details, leading to the emergence of fragments included inside a framed shot (in this case via a curtain, in others from the foreshortened point of observation), favoring a peculiar kind of representation. The extremely detailed vision, in fact, paradoxically shapes a more nuanced reality.

In the lushness of perceptions, we find the infantilism of this point of view. Eugenia is unable to isolate elements from this tranche de vie that allow for its understanding, as well as its translation on an aesthetic level. All her perceptions are binaries: either she sees colorful visions, as when leafing through illustrated newspapers, (7) or she has black and white apparitions. Conversely, being short-sighted allows her to keep the 'right' distance, to experience a painfully objective view of the world. In looking at the sky from the marchesa's window, the child perceives the abyss of the condition into which her relatives have sunk (and into which she herself will soon sink):
She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The
apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below
there was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and
going... like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they
going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of
bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it
tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around
them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God,
with the wind, the sun and out there the purifying sea, so vast...
(Ortese, 2018:29)

This passage includes all the most significant elements of Neapolitan Chronicles imagery. The world is revealed by colors through an estranged gaze which observes from a vantage point--a view from above, the "chin planted on the iron railing" of a balcony--deviating from the normal perception horizon. Epitomized in the procession of men-ants, in the holes, in the image of the well, gray and black are opposed to the trespassing of blue, declined in the sea variants and above all in the sky (descriptions of the sky in Ortese's work usually have precise narrative functions of transition, or premonition, as well as acting as breaks to move in another direction). (8)

Neapolitan Chronicles is clearly pervaded by the first color series, also thanks to the contrast resulting from the fleeting apparitions of the second one. Aunt Nunziata's looks--her brown robe, plus the "bony shoulders, gray as stones [...] paw-like hands with brown, scaly skin" (Ortese, 2018: 19, 26) -- epitomize this pervading dullness and disillusionment. Dullness slowly pervades even the innocent figure of Eugenia. Her description--her face like a "little old lady's, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails" (Ortese, 2018: 18) -- echoes the tradition of Verismo, where the character's sense of isolation is highlighted by an impersonal narrator through poignant physical details often paired with zoomorphic metaphors. (9)

Eugenia's destiny is prefigured by the marchesa's severe judgment, which aims to reaffirm the absence of physical beauty that will exclude her from the flow of life: "God wished to save you, my dear! You're not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won't have opportunity for evil" (Ortese, 2018: 30). Contrary to her creator (in writing this short story, Ortese was inspired by her childhood memories), (10) Eugenia is sad but not too surprised by this cruel response. The consciousness of class distinctions will bring her to the acceptance of "going back to nothing" (Ortese, 1997: 76), unable to make sense of her being in the world. "Bound like a mouse in the mud of her courtyard" (Ortese, 2018: 22), she will not succeed in escaping grayness in the finale, where the colorful enumeration of the incipit is made into a frightening black-and-gray appearance relying on the very same rhetorical and perceptual principles:
With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a
moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two
thousand, a hundred thousand [...] The courtyard was like a sticky
funnel, with the narrow end towards the sky, its leprous walls crowded
with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black,
with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the
pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of
paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of
ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who
looked at her lovingly. (Ortese, 2018: 33)

The balconies of the beginning become "two thousand, a hundred thousand", while the courtyard reveals a painful scene resembling one of Goya's Black Paintings, (11) a personal favorite of the author's--namely, the final image of the crowd standing in front of Eugenia looks like the dancing crowd of the Sabbath, with its deformed and ghastly apparitions. Vision means coming to terms with many other nasty details of a reality which has always been around her and that it was better not to see, as suggested by both her aunt and the marchesa. This "misadventure of the gaze" (Farnetti, 1998: 138) thus opens and ends by opposing colorful visions which reveal an illusory depiction of reality with its intolerability and immutability.

The opposition between colors and achromaticity thematizing the contrast between fantasy and real life dominates the other four pieces of the collection. Its presence is particularly evident in the second short story, "Interno familiare" (Family interior). Anastasia Finizio's inner life is similar to the spectral image of the kitchen in her house:
there wasn't enough coal (the gas was used only for coffee), and
Signora Finizio had needed to add some wood, which had filled the
space with an acrid smoke. A ray of sun, entering through the open
window, lightly rippled that massive gray veil upon which millions of
colored spots sparkled. (Ortese, 2018: 48)

Smoke, which in several fragments of the story deceptively seems to be turning into gold, is a materialization of a non-life where everything passes by without leaving a trace.

Even in this case, the fleeting displays of color symbolize traces of an unreal life, that of the now mature woman-and, not surprisingly, Anastasia is also very plain--who cradles in vain her sentimental illusion. Like Eugenia, after the temporary "apparition" (Ortese defined epiphanies in this unique way), Anastasia could also not avoid settling for a return to "that sort of sleep in which she was sunk" (12) (Ortese, 2018: 48). The masterful use of hues contributes to reinforcing this deadly atmosphere; the opposition between the "smooth and pale" face of Jesus in the Nativity and colors comes back in a digression which is worth our attention:
The background had been made from an immense sheet of royal-blue
cardboard sprinkled with perhaps two hundred starts cut out of silver
and gold paper, and attached with glue. The grotto, dug into the arc
of an undulating, peaceful hill that somewhat resembled Naples, wasn't
large, and you had to stoop down to make out the figures inside, which
were barely thumb-size. St. Joseph and the Virgin, both molded with
the rock they were sitting on, had bright pink faces and hands, and,
bending over the manger, seemed to be grimacing horribly, like people
who are dying. The child, much bigger than his parents (in part for
symbolic reasons), was instead smooth and pale, and slept with one leg
over the other, like a man. His face showed nothing, other than an
apathetic smile, as if he were saying, "This is the world", or
something like that. (Ortese, 2018:55)

While in "A pair of eyeglasses" a truthful reality is revealed through outdoor views, in "Family interior" the universe is miniaturized in cardboard and cork. But even in this case what is at stake is a binary vision, significant only if the reader adheres to certain rules of perception set by the author: if Eugenia had to get up on her tiptoes to admire Naples' coast and apartment blocks, then to see the interior of the grotto we have to bend down. Reality outside the grotto seems happy, identified with the life of the city, directly evoked through scenes involving the courtyards and the sky's surface, doubling that admired by Anastasia shortly before ("Now that window was wide open, and the crudely whitewashed frame enclosed a dark blue sky so smooth and shiny that it seemed fake"; Ortese, 2018: 44). The inside of the grotto has a different atmosphere: pervaded by unreal colors and by St. Joseph and the Virgin's grotesque expressions, this picture thematizes the oppressive role of Anastasia's relatives. That it can only be seen while bending down is an indication of the retreat of the soul of the Finizio family, focused on satisfying their petty personal needs to the detriment of those of their daughter, who supports them. The child's dimension and expression--larger than her parents, yet resigned--are instead a mise en abyme of Anastasia's bovaristic attitude.

The scenario that derives from this silent contrast is translated by Ortese into a soft, pale palette. If in "A pair of eyeglasses" the excess of black and white is mostly derived from Eugenia's lack of sight, here is a Christmas setting which makes every perception discolored:
Not a cloud could be seen, not the smallest spot, or even the sun,
and that fragment of walls and cornices that appeared at the level of
the windowsill--faded, ethereal, like a drawing--seemed the world's
dribbles rather than its reality. (Ortese, 2018: 38)

As in an old photograph, aunt Nana's face is white, as is the robe of Anna, the young sister destined for a premature death; when not consoling herself about the evil of living by smelling a "very white, scented handkerchief (Ortese, 2018: 43), the pale Anastasia stands in the kitchen, plunging her hands into a pond of flour while thinking of how "Antonio's beautiful teeth sparkle in the darkness" (Ortese, 2018:40).

The pervasive presence of whiteness together with the festive setting have elicited parallels with Joyce's Dubliners, (13) Chronicles being its modern and updated Italian version. Yet, Ortese's white is hidden in plenty of seemingly casual brushstrokes, and does not show on the page with the poetic musicality and solemn dabbing of the "softly falling... thickly falling... faintly falling..." (14) snowflakes in The Dead's final page. Still, Anastasia shares the same destiny as Gabriel Conroy, Christmas being a moment of disillusionment for both of them. Contrary to what is evoked by her name, literally meaning "the rising", Anastasia will never rise from her eternal sleep: her initial dream of marital happiness with the young Antonio Laurana is nothing but an emotional anamorphosis.

The possibility of change fades in the final episode of the short story (if, in fact, it had ever existed). "I'm coming," Anastasia says in the end, as though to go back to her real life after an even more painful awakening than Eugenia's own. Reality lies in gray, the color of lost hope: "At the same time it was as if that shadow, that sadness had sprung to darken the colors, had taken shape. She sat, like a beggar, in a corner" (Ortese, 2018: 59, emphasis added). Anastasia will be buried in that house full of dust, to serve until death, just like another of her literary ancestors, Evelyn. As in Joyce's Dubliners, the stifling gray and white of these two short stories (one representing childhood, the other an unreached maturity) signify an eclipse of feelings and a beginning of life-in-death, objective correlative of the individual paralysis of a city that prefers to pretend not to see the misery of its inhabitants.

Narrating in black and white: Ortese, Poe, Melville

Through Dubliners, Joyce aimed to "to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city" (Ellmann, 1975: 22) through different stages: from individual paralysis to the analysis of its consequences on society as a whole and on its intellectuals--a structure, mode, and intent powerfully reproduced by Chronicles. Still, Ortese's use of the color palette relies, in my opinion, on a long-standing tradition. The opposition between color and the insistent use of white, black, and gray within Chronicles relates to her love as a reader for the great 19th-century American authors, particularly Poe and Melville. (15)

Although it is difficult to trace a detailed analysis of Ortese's readings, evident echoes and parallelisms prove she read the classics of 19th-century American literature (Dickinson, Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, to mention but a few) from an early age, probably--as with most of her main textual sources--in her teenage years, through secondhand editions. It is not impossible, even though she was not fluent, that she read them in the original language, given her fervor in describing herself as a Bostonian born in the 12th century and her appreciation of the peculiarities of the English language. In Corpo Celeste, she declares that she admires these authors for "una lingua familiare e insieme strana, tutta azione e vision," able to depict like no other humankind immersed in an often hostile Nature:
Gli inglesi hanno--o avevano--virtu celesti: pensavano la natura prima
ancora di pensare Tuomo, la riportavano arnica, quindi, al focolare
domestico. E l'esempio piu lieto e raccomandabile di fraternita con
1'orrore. Per questo potere sull'assurdo, del mare e degli spettri,
venne grande la loro terra, la loro ragione. (16) (Ortese, 1997: 104)

What better reference for that criticism of "natural life," as opposed to a rational one, and, at the same time, an example of fraternity with horror that she aimed at building though her Chronicles') If we want to make use of Genette's categorization, these references would be a case of "textual transcendence," or "all that sets the text in a relationship, whether obvious or concealed, with other text" (Genette, 1997: 11). These readings were decisive in making the book's atmosphere more present to the senses--and therefore more effective.

Ortese was fascinated by the way these 19th-century American authors analyzed the relationship between the visible and the invisible, between truth and fiction. Paola Loreto (2006) showed how Ortese's work has been deeply influenced by the Transcendentalism of Emerson and his disciples, establishing a literary connection between Alonso e i visionari and Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter. I believe it is possible to widen the range of this connection to other authors, tracing back to Ortese's early works.

In Neapolitan Chronicles, particular attention is given to the visual and physical aspects of characters and landscapes, as being crucial in determining both the moral milieu of a city and the nature of the gaze through which facts and personages are observed. Following the painful querelle with the group "Sud" after the book's publication, (17) Ortese declared that her depiction of the city wasn't real, but instead was due to a neurosis generated by her "hate for the so-called reality, that mechanisms of things that arise in time and are destroyed by time." (Emphasis in original) (18)

Still, I believe many of the elements of what Vanessa Pietrantonio (2012) defined as an "estranged gaze" can be justified by going back to a constellation of authors which had a deep and lasting influence on her work. In particular, in Chronicles there is a connection between the use of colors and shades, the ability to formulate a judgment of one's interlocutor, and--very often--the multiplicity and fallacy of these perceptions. This is something Ortese inherited from Melville, who partially derived it from certain works by Poe (one of Ortese's most beloved writers). Both Melville and Poe paid particular attention to linking the external aspects of reality to obsession and anamorphosis, working on the border between normality and deviant behavior; in their hands, the color palette is a powerful means to translate the ineffable and the most complex human feelings into words. (19)

Benito Cereno perfectly epitomizes this peculiar mix of symbolism and naturalism, being the first of our "textual transcendent" sources. In this powerful novella, American captain Amasa Delano (the name of the protagonist of the Porto, Damasa, possibly being a hidden homage) is not able to figure out that what he experienced on the Saint Dominick, a Spanish vessel in dreadful conditions, was nothing but a farce. The few colored "slaves" on the ship are enslaving the white sailors who survived the mutiny; Babo, apparently captain Cereno's trusty servant, is instead a cruel oppressor who menaces him to put his life at risk. Captain Delano's inability to formulate a correct judgment on what is right in front of his eyes is powerfully translated by Melville into the palette: from the very first pages the novel is dropped onto the gray surface of the sea, as if to immerse us in the suspended atmosphere of the story:
The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and
calm; everything gray. The sea, though undulated into long roods of
swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead
that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould. The sky seemed like a
gray surtout. Flights of troubled grey fowl, kith and kin with flights
of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and
fitfully over the waters, as swallow over meadows before storms.
Shadow present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come. (Melville,
2000: 681)

Gray is not only the color of lost hope, but the correlative of the deceiving quality of reality, uncatchable to the human gaze. The very same ship initially appears to Delano's eyes through an image where black and white are carefully dosed:
the ship appeared like a white-washed monastery after a thunder-storm,
seen perched upon some dun cliff among the Pyrenees. But it was no
purely fanciful resemblance which now, for a moment, almost led
Captain Delano to think that nothing less than a ship-load of monks
was before him. (Melville, 2000: 683)

The white sailors are "here and there sparsely mixed in with the blacks, like stray white pawns venturously involved in the ranks of the chessmen opposed" (20) (Melville, 2000: 725).

This ability to use achromatic shades to translate indeterminacy and the chiaroscuro of a character's judgment (and, in some examples, even of the narrator's unreliability) is commonplace in Chronicles. Colors are vestigia of an inability to determine the border between truth and fiction, good and evil. The marchesa initially appears to Eugenia's naive gaze as an apparition in black and white:
The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace
neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along
with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn't see her face very
well--it was a whitish oval patch. (Ortese, 2018: 18; emphasis mine)

The insistence on black and particularly on white, a color traditionally associated with purity in the Christian tradition, is not by accident. By its iteration and the blurred perceptions, soon followed by Eugenia's judgment on the marchesa ("E una buona cristiana," which her father ironically interprets in the opposite way) we are conscious that she is a victim of her lack of sight--and vision; soon, in fact, she will experience the marchesa's lack of empathy.

White is often associated with evil and deformity in Ortese's short stories, its lack of color signifying both an excess and at the same time an absence of meaning (as in Anastasia's meaningless illusion).

If predilection for certain hues comes naturally in a writers' work, white is certainly not a neutral one, being the favorite object of a long literary tradition. Melville devoted an entire chapter of Moby Dick, "The Whiteness of the Whale," to trying to capture its essence. Stemming from Goethe's Theory of Colors as well as Burke's, Ishmael analyzes different declinations of achromaticity, coming to this conclusion:
Or it is that in its essence whiteness is not so much a color as the
visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all
colors; is it for this reason there is such a dumb blankness, full of
meaning, in a white landscape of snow--a colorless, all-color of
atheism from which we shrink? (21) (Melville, 2000: 155)

In his view, white is the color of impiety, and of the hubris of those who aim at knowing the unknowable.

It is very likely that Ortese also had in mind Melville's main source of inspiration, the end of Poe's The Adventure of Gordon Pym, its pages tinged with white. As Borges put it:
L'argomento segreto di questo romanzo e il timore ed il disprezzo del
bianco. Poe immagina alcune tribu che abitano in prossimita del
Circolo Polare Antartico, vicino alla patria inesauribile di quel
colore, e che da molte generazioni hanno subito la terribile vista
degli uomini e delle tempeste della bianchezza. Il bianco e un anatema
per quelle tribii e posso confessare che verso l'ultimo paragrafo
dell'ultimo capitolo, lo e anche per i condegni lettori. (Borges,
2002: 86)

After fortuitously escaping the tribe on Tsalal Island, at the end of Pym the lifeboat is directed towards an even more sinister fate, which will cause it to disappear beneath the waves. The presence of white in the last pages is so insistent that it is hard to remember anything else in the novel--a novel which is, as it has been suggested, nothing but a succession of false perceptions and plot twists. But what strikes us the most, apart from Poe's unsurpassed ability to embody obsessions, is the reversal of our expectations: Poe overturns Christian tradition by using white to signify a non-color that absorbs all others and is, par excellence, an incarnation of evil.

Achromaticity is realized first through the color of water, "being no longer transparent, but of a milky consistency and hue" (Poe, 1999: 215), then by the "gigantic and pallidly white birds" (Poe, 1999: 217) hovering like vultures over the crew on their walk, before a "white, shrouded human figure" wraps the ship in the final whirlpool, its skin "the perfect whiteness of the snow" (Poe, 1999: 217). But the nothingness towards which all human illusions tend is materialized primarily through the "fine white powder, resembling ashes" (Poe, 1999: 216) gradually surrounding the sailors, and obsessively invading the page (after all, "Poe's figure of style is hyperbole," (22) as wisely remembered by Manganelli, 1981). Ten instances of this are listed in fewer than 10 pages, of which the most significant reads as follows:
We were nearly overwhelmed by the white ashy shower which settled upon
us and the canoe, but melted into the water as it fell. The summit of
the cataract was utterly lost in the dimness and the distance. Yet we
were evidently approaching it with a hideous velocity. At intervals
there were visible in it wide, yawning, but momentary rests, and
from out these rests, within which was a chaos of flitting and
indistinct images, there came rushing and mighty, but soundless
winds, tearing up the enkindled ocean in their course. (Poe, 1999:218)

Ortese translates this milky, diseased, and distorted atmosphere to the central pieces of Chronicles. Through reportages that include more fragments of stories, we pass from the analysis of individual destinies to that of collective ones. Compared to the initial stories, "Oro a Forcella" (The gold of Forcella) and "La citta involontaria" (The involuntary city) depict much cruder events. Rather than the often grotesque gallery of portraits, landscape is the real protagonist here, visually translating the desperate situation of a city where "to become emotional would be like falling asleep in the snow" (Ortese, 2018: 168). The atmosphere is invaded by a "torbidita della luce" (Ortese, 2018: 53) and a sense of constant suffocation that reminds us of Poe's worst fear and obsession, that of being buried alive. (23) From the vapors and suffocating fumes emerge brushstrokes of extremely clear, uncluttered lights; the pages of "Oro a Forcella" are invaded by these unexpected and frightening apparitions, which we perceive as if they were emerging from a shrinking lens:
Meanwhile, all around him dwarves of both sexes passed by, respectably
dressed in black, with pale, distorted faces, large sorrowful eyes,
and twig-like fingers held at their chests, careful to avoid
colliding with children and dogs. [...] Most alarming was the number
of children, as could be determined by the black halo hanging over the
head of each. I didn't see the sheets, for which Naples is well known,
only the black hollows in which they were once hung. (Ortese, 2018: 66)

Here the tones are used in counterpoint, as in Cereno or in some scenes of Pym (the Penguin vessel is black and white; the Tsalal inhabitants, their skin and teeth black, fear the white flag and shirts worn by the sailors; black and white rivers on the island flow in parallel, but separate veins), where black and white are nothing but musical themes, echoing the impossibility of making sense of the horror which permeates the human condition.

The last, decisive echoing element is the obsessive presence of a "vague gray flare" of powder, at times resembling smoke, at others dust, pervading the scenes of these reportages. In "Oro a Forcella" we are faced with "the pale, swollen, or bizarrely thin figures of children" playing: "some of them, lying on the ground, were intent in covering their faces with dust" (Ortese, 2018: 66). It is significant that a gesture of penitence of vast and ramified literary echoes is performed by such an agent, (24) as if to highlight the absolute impossibility of the inhabitants of Forcella, Monte Cupa, and Granili escaping that sea of non-hope.

It seems that this is the condition of all of Naples' inhabitants, not just those parts of the weaker strata of society. In the final piece of the collection, "Il silenzio della ragione" (The silence of reason), the Neapolitan writers' declining fate is inscribed in the material history of the city: "a patina, a mysterious concoction of rain, dust had spread across the facades, covering their wounds, and returning the landscape to that rarefied immobility, that expressive, ambiguous smile that appears in the faces of the dead" (Ortese, 2018: 104). Like gangrene, Poe's ash-archetype infests people and landscapes.

The coloristic portrait of the Chronicles is not far from the one Walter Benjamin presented 20 years before:
The fantastic descriptions of many travelers have colored the city.
Actually the color of Naples is gray: a gray or red ochre, or a
whitish gray. And absolutely gray compared to the sky and the sea,
which contributes not just a little to take pleasure away from the
visitor. Because for those who do not grasp the forms, here there is
little to see. The city has a rocky appearance. (Benjamin and Lacis,
1929: 171) (25)

That this spectral color was Ortese's favorite in depicting the soul of Naples is confirmed also by the answer to the debate ("Napoli e grigia o colorata?") led by the weekly magazine Epoca in its column "Italia domanda." (26)

Unlike other writers, Ortese gave a coloristic description of the city--quoted in full in the Appendix--that mixed the tones of artistic prose and moral apologue, revealing its genius loci without a note of complacency. Renewing the correspondence set in Corpo Celeste, Naples is described according to the different feelings evoked by the passage of time, witnessed by changes of color. In this perspective, colors are traces of hope, of a consonance with the true essence of things appearing "only for a few seconds, other times for half an hour, but I don't exclude staying for one day" to disappear into thin air ("Natale nel cuore dell'inverno": Anastasia's story is summarized in this expression). It is a two-faced description, which in some ways foreshadows the dreamy atmospheres and pastels of Porto di Toledo, but in other ways perfectly embodies the tangle of feelings--disdain, painful resignation, tenderness--through which Ortese wrote the Chronicles:
Il fondo di questo mare umano--il popolo di Napoli--e per me di un
grigio tranquillo, uniforme; e una pioggia continua, dalla superficie
verso il fondo, di detriti, esperienze, enorme stupefazione e
rassegnazione [[greater than or equal to]]. La speranza nella
desolazione (Natale nel cuore dell'inverno), che per un momento fece
vibrare esseri stanchi, cede il passo alle certezze monotone, alle
estasi cupe della natura. I troppi colori, il celebre azzurro di
Napoli, si rivelano cosi mutevoli e falsi; il grigio, e il meno
grigio, che talvolta da sangue, autentici, eterni (Ortese, 1952: 4).


The author would like to thank the anonymous referees for constructive criticism of the manuscript, and Angela Borghesi for her generous comments. Finally, the author would like to thank the Civitella Ranieri Foundation and Centre for Italian Modern Art for the fellowship that made this research possible.


(1.) Ortese often focuses on the notion of time, e.g. when referring to Manzoni's The Betrothed; see Ortese (1997: 103).

(2.) See also Ginzburg (1996).

(3.) Sklovskij (1990 [1925]: 10): The purpose of the image is not to draw our understanding closer to that which this image stands for, but rather to allow us to perceive the object in a special way, in short, to lead us to a "vision" of this object rather than mere "recognition".

(4.) Ortese ranges from the isolation of a detail, on which a series of ramifications are built ("The involuntary city"), to the accentuation of a view from below ("A pair of eyeglasses"), or to the emergence of fragments of reality inside of a shot--a curtain, or a foreshortened vantage point--which promotes an increased vision and a more nuanced reality.

(5.) Critics agree in defining Chronicles as a book which overcomes the traditional boundaries of neorealist literature. See Cattaneo (1975: i-ix); Clerici (2002:245-257); Savettieri (2010).

(6.) On these binaries, see Ortese (1997: 138): "Per ragione io continuo a intendere la conoscenza, o anche la 'visione' del vivere, del complesso di leggi--non visibili ma riconoscibili--che rendono possibile la vita". For an analysis of the main elements of this collection, see Baldi (2010); Contarini (2003); Re (2012).

(7.) "Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room [...] looking at a section of a children's comic, with lots of bright-colored figures. There was a small blue river and a vast meadow and a red boat going... going... who knows where" (Ortese, 2018: 21).

(8.) As in another reference in the short story, where Eugenia "raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly" (Ortese, 2018: 22).

(9.) As in Verga's Rosso Malpelo, Eugenia is often compared to an animal: "Non guardo Eugenia, come fosse un gatto" (Ortese, 2018: 11); "Eccomi qua, zia! e corse come un cane" (Ortese, 2018: 13). In an interview with Luca Clerici, Ortese openly mentioned her debt to Verismo: "Si, il modulo era quello verista" (Clerici, 2002: 246). On the sense of isolation in these two characters, see Seno Reed (2002).

(10.) "Non ci vedevo bene, forse gia da piccola, ma non me ne accorgevo. Poi l'oculista mi disse di mettere gli occhiali: erano lenti leggere [...] Dunque subito misi questi occhiali e fui presa da una nausea violenta: era la disperazione di vedere tutte le crepe dei muri, tutto il lercio, quel che mai avrei voluto guardare: tutto il vecchiume stava li, nel mio quartiere. Era insopportabile. Poi mi passo, ma fu un impatto grave con la verita delle cose; per questo l'ho ricordato nel racconto" (Clerici, 2002: 246).

(11.) The last chapter of the book, "The Silence of Reason," also echoes a famous work by Goya; reproductions of Goya's paintings were printed in the last issue of Sud (July-September 1947: 22, 24-25). Ortese wrote an article about Spanish painters, listing the owner of the 'Quinta del Sordo' as the most influential for her work (Ortese, 2011). On Goya's possible influence, see Ghezzo (2003).

(12.) On the notion of sleep in Ortese's work, see Wood (1994).

(13.) See Bubba (2014); De Gasperin (2014: 133-138).

(14.) Joyce (2000: 275). Cavagnoli (2012: 121-131) provides an effective analysis of the rhetorical function of adverbs in this passage.

(15.) Specifically on these two authors' reception in Italy, see the journal Studi Americani, in particular Giaccari (1959); see also Stella (1977).

(16.) Melville's Moby Dick and Poe's Horror Tales are quoted in a list of readings: see Battista (2008: 65). Poe is openly mentioned as an influence in Chronicles' afterword, "Le giacchette di Monte di Dio": "In the first stories there were lights, sounds, emotions, and, in the background, the anguish of an inconceivable--because of his horror and grace--Edgar Allan Poe, whose uncanny pages I had first encountered" (Ortese, 2018: 190).

(17.) All the stages of the querelle are retraced by Borghesi (2015) and Clerici (2002: 240-258).

(18.) The "sea" as disorientation (Ortese, 2018:10-11): "The horror that I attributed to the city was my own weakness." On this aspect, see De Caprio (2003).

(19.) On the presence of colors in Poe and Melville's oeuvres, see at least Clough (1930); Creeger (1960); Pierce and Rose (1992).

(20.) This image is a parallel to the initial one: "Climbing the side, the visitor was at once surrounded by a clamorous throng of whites and blacks, but the latter outnumbering the former" (Melville, 2000: 684).

(21.) Ishmael's thoughts on achromaticity have many precedents: for example, in Greek philosophy the "essence of the world" is already achromatic. For a social and literary history of the color white, see Castoldi (1988).

(22.) "La sua figura di stile e l'iperbole. Scegliendo l'esagerazione e la coerenza, rifiutando la comunicativita sociale e la semplicita, Poe si pone alle radici, malate e vitali, della letteratura, dell'arte moderna; e il letterato, nel momento in cui la letteratura si fa teratologia, inventrice di mostri e di miracoli" (Manganelli, 1981: 36).

(23.) "I firmly believed that no incident ever occurring in the course of human events is more adapted to inspire the supremeness of mental and bodily distress than a case like our own, of living inhumation. The blackness of darkness which envelops the victim, the terrific oppression of lungs, the stifling fumes from the damp earth, unite with the ghastly considerations that we are beyond the remotest confines of hope, and that such is the allotted portion of the dead, to carry into the human heart a degree of appalling awe and horror not to be tolerated--never to be conceived" (Poe, 1999: 201). Ortese was inspired by this peculiar obsession, especially in describing the evil atmosphere, suffocating vapors, and shadows of Granili in "The involuntary city."

(24.) In various Mediterranean traditions preceding Christianity, from Greek to Egyptian, sprinkling one's face with ashes was already a symbol of purification and mourning. In Chronicles, the figures of children bear a particular importance in this sense, being the bearers of the loss of hope and at the same time the only possibility for change.

(25.) See also Bloch (1998 [1925]). On the rocky and sometimes red appearance of the city, see also some passages of "The Gold of Forcella": "Farther up the narrow street there was a terrific commotion, a buzz of mournful voices, and a wave of colors, red and black predominant. An old woman was sitting near a stone at the corner and I stopped to ask her what all those people were doing" (Ortese, 2018: 63);"Through a veil of dust, the sun gave off a reddish glow that had lost all cheerfulness" (Ortese, 2018: 64).

(26.) This article is listed under entry no. 239 in the Bibliography of the crucial Clerici (2002: 674).


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Anna Maria Ortese, Il grigio: autentico, eterno

Come tutte le citta piu antiche che moderne, piu abitate che costruite, dove l'elemento natura predomina sulla ragione, Napoli non ha un colore definito, ma mille colori, oppure il grigio, oppure il nero assoluto. Poca e la differenza tra una citta come Napoli, e il mare. Anche qui, il colore non e nelTacqua, ma viene stabilito di volta in volta dai rapporti del fondo con la corrente, le nuvole, il succedersi degli astri, il variare o cadere del vento. Il fondo di questo mare umano--il popolo di Napoli--e per me di un grigio tranquillo, uniforme; e una pioggia continua, dalla superficie verso il fondo, di detriti, esperienze, enorme stupefazione e rassegnazione, Ma, alla superficie, alita il vento, passeggiano le nuvole, si muovono meccanicamente gli altri: la magia delle cose scuote continuamente gli uomini, le donne, i ragazzi, tutti essere delicatissimi, li eccita, li incanta. Ora questa citta e tutta rossa, ora celeste, ora grigia. A volte, un colore dura solo qualche secondo, altre mezz'ora, ma non e escludo possa resistere un giorno, dei giorni.

In dicembre (il suo mese piu umano), Napoli e grigia e rossa, la natura e scomparsa per lasciare posto al fenomeno della cristianita, la grandiosa miseria dei vicoli ha un che di intimo, un dolore tenero pieno di coscienza, di grazia. Subito dopo Natale, la citta diventa azzurra, splende in un modo spaventevole fra pietra e pietra, gli uomini hanno la faccia a terra. Tempo di Pasqua: da Posillipo a Capodimonte, la citta e grigia e viola, gli uomini cominciano a sollevare il viso, fiutano, tra i "sepolcri", Testate. Ma Testate, che per sei mesi riempie di rosa e bianco il suo cielo, stende pennellate di nerofumo su Napoli. D'estate, piu che d'inverno, questo antico popolo, seme di greci e iberici accampati tra Sanita e Chiaia, tra Tantica Paleopoli e il mare, sente la tristezza dei suoi confini. La natura rivela ai napoletani, nell'atto di donarsi, i suoi limiti. I vicoli diventano eccessivamente stretti, le case senza cielo appaiono la maggioranza, le vite senza gioia, o con una sola gioia inventata, d'accatto, si mostrano innumerevoli. La speranza nella desolazione (Natale nel cuore dell'inverno), che per un momento fece vibrare esseri stanchi, cede il passo alle certezze monotone, alle estasi cupe della natura. I troppi colori, il celebre azzurro di Napoli, si rivelano cosi mutevoli e falsi; il grigio, e il meno grigio, che talvolta da sangue, autentici, eterni. (Epoca, 1952 : 4)

Eloisa Morra

University of Toronto, Canada

Corresponding author:

Eloisa Morra, Department of Italian Studies, University of Toronto, 2nd floor, 100 St. Joseph Street, Toronto, ON MSS IJ4, Canada.


DOI: 10.1177/0014585819835795
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Date:Nov 1, 2019
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