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Arms, wombs and tears: the mother's body in women's writing about war in early twentieth-century Italy.

"Non piu donne che facciano figli solo per se stesse, riparandoli da ogni pericolo, da ogni avventura, cioe da ogni gioia; che disputano la loro figliuola all'amore e il loro figliolo alla guerra! Non piu donne, piovre dei focolari, dai tentacoli che esauriscono il sangue degli uomini e anemizzano i fanciulli ..."

(Valentine de Saint-Point, Il Manifesto della Donna Futurista) (1)

"Tu l'hai ripreso in te stessa, il piu bello de' tuoi nati ... Lo tieni or come quando nel dolce sacrario del ventre contavi, adorando, i moti del corpo informe ancora"

(Ada Negri, "Mater" 920-21)

"L'arte di sorridere, adesso, e l'intima forza morale, per cui ella sa, puo la donna, impedire al velo di lacrime che si forma, spesso, nei suoi occhi, di scorrere, in lacrime, lungo il volto smorto: e, adesso, la forza di ribevere le proprie lacrime ..."

(Matilde Serao, Parla una donna: Diario femminile di guerra 195)

In the three epigraphs above, the mother's body becomes highly charged territory. The passages differ in their perspectives on the physical separation of mothers and their sons (either due to military service or death at the battlefront) and each holds implications for the way the presence and visibility of mothers' bodies in the public realm is conceived. Thus, the representations of the relationship between motherhood and war in these epigraphs is mediated through metaphors of the body, and brings up important questions about the division between public and private, activity and passivity, rebellion and docility, and citizenship and exclusion from citizenship. While Serao reinforces the traditional, rigid separation between public and private realms, belonging to men and women respectively, de Saint-Point promotes the blurring of such boundaries, and Negri expresses a deep ambivalence toward the role of the war mother. For example, in the first epigraph, de Saint-Point, who wrote Il manifesto della donna futurista in 1912 as a response to Marinetti's attack on femininity in the Fondazione e manifesto del Futurismo (1909), demands a total rejection of the association of woman with the private sphere by representing mothers' arms as suffocating and repulsive. In the second epigraph, Negri, who supported Italy's imperialist aspirations, betrays her ambivalent approach to the separation of mother and son deemed necessary for the proper functioning of society. (2) On the one hand the son is heroicized; however, even this heroization fails to console the mother and move her out of the realm of melancholia. The third epigraph represents Matilde Serao's conservative use of the mother's body that surfaces in both Evviva la guerra (1912) and Parla una donna: Diario femminile di guerra in (1916). Serao urges mothers to confine their mourning to the private sphere, and to control and conceal their tears and facial expressions, in order to uphold the respectable division between male participation in and female absence from the body politic.

The period between 1911 and 1918 encompasses a number of events, movements and political attitudes that often worked at cross purposes and which all had a stake in defining the role of the mothers of Italy: the Italian campaign in Libya, the emergence of an organized antimilitarist movement that included socialists and anarchists, the continuing "battle of the sexes" and the women's movement, Nationalism and pronatalism, and Italy's intervention in World War I. While many of these events and ideas influenced women authors' thinking about wartime mothers, one that has received little attention is the role of antimilitarist activity by women. I contend that the influence of the antimilitarist movement, and particularly women's voices within it, played a significant role in the way de Saint-Point, Negri and Serao wrote about war and motherhood. While the three held different positions on Italy's bellicose endeavors, and each author expressed her views in a different genre, their works consistently incorporate and react to strands of antimilitarist discourse that focus on the politics of the mother's body. Therefore, I will also read works by de Saint-Point, Negri and Serao against a representative series of articles published under the pseudonym Vieille Ortie in La difesa delle lavoratrici in January-February, 1916. Ortie's articles both express an antimilitarist stance and articulate what she deems the contradictory way in which mothers proclaim their suffering upon losing a son in war--yet simultaneously limit that suffering to the private sphere, where it has no impact.

In her study of women antimilitarists at the turn of the twentieth century, Mirella Scriboni brings to light the heretofore-undocumented history of women's involvement in the antimilitarist movement of that time. She notes that women journalists and political activists voiced their antimilitarism publically and forcefully, and, in fact, calls their involvement "il protagonismo delle donne nella scena culturale e politica" (25). She goes on to note that, starting in the 1890s, women's antimilitarist discourse privileged the voice of mothers and the imagery of mothers' bodies: "Gia dal discorso in prima persona di queste testimonianze--l'io'/'noi' delle madri--emerge una forte consapevolezza della specificita del soggetto femminile e della condivisione nell'esperienza della guerra, tragedia diretta e dolorosa che passa attraverso il corpo di donna che ha generato le vite mandate al massacre" (Scriboni 18). By foregrounding the physical connection between mother and son, these women positioned themselves as authorities not only on the suffering body, but also on peace, civility and new ways of conceiving citizenship that did not rely on their own passivity and silence.

While maternal love--the special realm of women--is often seen as antithetical to war, participation in war has also been established as an indispensable step in a young man's passage into citizenship, and the State often presents a mother's sacrifice of sons to the greater cause as her supreme and sacred duty. The politicization of the role of Italian mothers as pillars of the new Nation, as fonts of patriotic sentiment to be passed on to their children, and as inspirers of patriotic military deeds, had been heavily utilized as a strategy of the ruling class and political elite since the Risorgimento. Genevieve Lloyd argues that it is, in fact, a requirement of Western societies--solidified by Kant and Hegel--that men establish their selfhood by transcending the realm of women, the domestic, the family (72). In terms of war, Lloyd notes that woman "must be got to perform her own negation. She must be got, that is, to agree to the surrender of her men--a violation of all that she stands for" (Lloyd 72). Antimilitarist women, however, brought politics into the domestic realm in that they idealized the unbreakable connection between mother and son, and then literally inserted mothers' bodies, in the form of authors and activists, into the public conversation about the ethics of war.

Writing in L'avvenire anarchico, textile worker and antimilitarist activist Jessa Pieroni represents this union of politics and private life:

E quando li mandano al macello, i vostri figliuoli bianchi e rosei come fiori di Maggio, voi guardate, piangete e non gridate:
   No! Non vogliamo che i nostri figlioli vadano ad ammazzare i
   figliuoli d'altre madri disperate od a farsi ammazzare da loro, per
   il capriccio di chicchessia! (3)

Typical of this kind of mother-centered anti-war declaration was an appeal to universal maternal empathy, references to a slaughter of the innocent, an expression of shock and outrage at the passivity of Italian mothers and the implication that these mothers could use their bodies as a means of protest and as a physical presence in the public sphere. In this passage, Pieroni, with her use of the simple but powerful, "No!," suggests that mothers have the power to negate nationalist and colonialist interests, and to stop the war. In other words, mothers had a potentially disruptive power that threatened the status quo--and thus the struggle over the meaning of motherhood materialized in the press, in literature, in the ceremonies commemorating the wars, and in government propaganda.

While the antimilitarist use of motherhood as a way into citizenship might have been unconventional, the foregrounding of motherhood as a woman's primary role was already familiar to Italian readers. The difference boiled down to the fact that these antimilitarist women advocated for politically active mothers, and that the terms of this activism were defined by women themselves. As Laura Benedetti notes in The Tigress in the Snow: Motherhood and Literature in Twentieth-Century Italy: "The representations of motherhood found in Italian literature are, almost invariably, images of the mother seen through the eyes of her son. With only a few exceptions, these loving mothers are reduced to a single emotion: unconditional devotion to their offspring"^). This single emotion contributes to the construction of a one-dimensional, passive woman that has historically only been able to speak through her connection to the sorrows of the Virgin Mary. And while some women authors, most famously Sibilla Aleramo, departed from the Madonna model, in the majority of texts by both men and women, mothers suffered in the private sphere. In the antimilitarist appropriation of the power of the maternal position, too, women gained a voice through their experience of pain. However, this voice was meant to enter into the public sphere and not remain solely in the domestic realm. In its ideal form, this voice could not be controlled.

Ada Negri, Matilde Serao, and Valentine de Saint-Point all had to contend with both the Madonna model and its influence on the representation of motherhood in literature from a male perspective. They also produced their texts in an environment in which such disparate figures as the criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who reduced woman to her maternal capacities, F.T. Marinetti, who fantasized about abolishing femininity and biological maternity altogether, and Gabriele D'Annunzio, who glorified the personifications of Italy as mother, attempted to impose their definitions of women and femininity on Italian society. However, these male voices, despite the fact that they were given legitimacy through membership in the patriarchal intellectual establishment, did not drown out those of feminists and antimilitarists during this period of "guerra generale." (4) On the contrary, the various strands of discourse converged to create a platform from which women authors could articulate their positions on war, mourning and participation in the public sphere by engaging with literary and cultural constructions of motherhood. (5) Furthermore, the centrality of the maternal body to these authors' works elicits comparisons between the physical aspects of motherhood and those of war, two experiences considered emblematic and exclusive of the female and male realms respectively.

In order to talk about these separate experiences, the separation of spheres, and the attachment between mothers and sons, de Saint-Point, Negri, Serao and Ortie all draw on the image of mothers' arms. De Saint-Point finds the comforting attributes of the maternal embrace repulsive, while Negri sadly notes the dual nature of arms that welcome and shelter, but also wave good-bye. In Serao's work, women's arms busy themselves with women's work or take on monumental proportions as they congratulate Italian warriors, while Ortie asks why mothers refuse to use their arms to resist the war effort.

Grotesque and Comforting Arms

A propaganda poster from 1918 by Ugo Finozzi entitled "Cacciali via" helps articulate the symbolic importance of women's arms. In it, a matronly peasant woman holds a baby in her right arm, while extending her left arm to rest, palm open, on the back of an Italian soldier, as if to shove him out the door and onto the battlefield. She performs the double-gesture demanded of women during the war: to raise young warriors for Italy and then urge them off to battle. This idealized woman, with her ample bosom, large hands, and firm stance, wears a stern facial expression that conveys both pain and determination. The poster's title holds a double meaning as well. "Cacciali via" could refer to Italian soldiers driving the enemy out of Italy. (6) However, in the context of the State's attempts to shame women into encouraging their male relatives to present themselves for military duty, the imperative also speaks to women who might be seen as excessively exercising their protective qualities, as in another propaganda poster of this era which reads: "Mamma, perche nascondi quel figlio tuo, quel mio fratello, a la furia della battaglia? Perche gli fai gittare in faccia il NOME INFAMANTE di Imboscato?", (7)"Cacciali via" exhorts women to physically push the men of their households out into the public sphere while they themselves stay firmly rooted in the domestic realm, as evidenced by the woman's apron and the baby she cradles.

Valentine de Saint-Point also takes a firm stance against protective mothers in her Manifesto della Donna Fnturista, yet she simultaneously disputes the fact that women should be tied to the domestic sphere. (8) Marinetti and the Futurists had famously exalted war as a positive, creative force and scorned what they considered the weak, feminine aspects of Italian culture in the Fondazione e Manifesto del fnturismo. In her response to Marinetti's manifesto, de Saint-Point aims to carve out a place for virile women in this new militaristic, violent worldview. She declares:

Non piu donne di cui i soldati debbano temere "le braccia in fiore che s'intrecciano aile ginocchia il mattino della partenza"; donne infermiere che perpetuino le debolezze e le vecchiezze, addomesticando gli uomini pei loro piaceri personali o pei loro bisogni materiali! Non piu donne che facciano figli solo per se stesse, riparandoli da ogni pericolo, da ogni avventura, cioe da ogni gioia; che disputano la loro figliuola all'amore e il loro figliolo alla guerra! Non piu donne, piovre dei focolari, dai tentacoli che esauriscono il sangue degli uomini e anemizzano i fanciulli; DONNE BESTIALMENTE AMOROSE, CHE DISTRUGGONO NEL DESIDERIO ANCHE LA SUA FORZA DI RINNOVAMENTO! (Salaris 31-32).

Here, de Saint-Point begins by protesting against the image of woman as it has been constructed through literary and social discourse. Her sarcastic citation, "le braccia in fiore che s'intrecciano alle ginocchia la mattina della partenza," mockingly recalls D'Annunzio's model of needy, morbid femininity. (9)

Yet not only does she ridicule the role of woman as pacifist and protector of the family, she transforms so-called maternal instinct into a monstrosity. Women's arms, so often portrayed cradling a child or a dying soldier, grow into "tentacoli." The "angelo del focolare," icon of post-Risorgimento Italy becomes, in a phallic reversal, a strangling, emasculating "piovra del focolare" who sucks the blood from her victims. On the one hand, de Saint-Point's manifesto critiques the passivity of acceptable female roles during wartime--the pathetic woman pining away at home for her male relatives, the nurturer who creates the antithesis of the battlefront in the domestic realm, the comforting nurse. However, rather than advocating activism in the form of pacifism, de Saint-Point implies that women can use their arms to fight alongside men: "guerriere che combattono piu ferocemente dei maschi, le amanti che incitano, le distruggitrici" (in Salaris 33). She is, in fact, outraged that women attempt to prevent blood from being spilled and accuses them of stealing sacrificial blood from their sons' bodies. On this level she engages with the Christ narrative in that she desires that sacrificial blood be spilled. She longs for the redemptive spectacle of martyrdom, but she also demands the elimination of the passive spectators, i.e., the Mater Dolorosa, from the scenario. She imagines a world in which women are not used as witnesses to men's affirmations of masculinity, but one in which women affirm masculinity in themselves by rejecting the role as public mourners.

Thus, in her rejection of the Mater Dolorosa, she also challenges the very essence of woman according to pseudo-scientific theories of the time: la pieta. In La donna delinquente, la prostituta e la donna normale, Lombroso and Ferrero stressed that through maternity, the strengthening of domestic ties and the resulting weakening of the body, women had successfully been excluded from war: "Ora tale progressiva debolezza l'ha allontanata totalmente dalla guerra"(114). They explained that the domestication of woman's natural cruelty distinguished civilized societies from primitive ones, stating that "la crudelta insomma tende a divenire sempre piu un'eccezione, e la pieta una condizione normale" (115). "La pieta" becomes a primary way in which women's roles in war, such as the nurse and the mourning mother, get defined both conceptually and visually beginning in the nineteenth century. Instead, de Saint-Point substitutes the body of the Mater Dolorosa with a type of body that is too consumed with participating in the public sphere (represented here by war) to offer a protective or mournful maternal embrace. In order to redefine women's roles in war, de SaintPoint reaches back to other mythical women like the Amazons, or, as we will see later, Caterina Sforza, as her models. Thus, de Saint-Point participates in an implicit dialog with the Madonna in her explicit encouragement of cruelty as an antidote to sorrow and empathy.

Conversely, some women poets, like Ada Negri, who supported military action for political reasons, explore the link between mother and son in a way that conforms to more traditional social and literary models. Yet at the same time, Negri also uses the maternal body to express a sense of guilt and responsibility for the suffering of Italy's warrior sons. Negri's war-themed poems cover both the Italian campaign in Libya and World War I. Even her most supportive critics have dismissed the collection as "brutte poesie di propaganda" (Folli 164). (10) However, while the propagandistic elements often overwhelm the other aspects of the poems, Negri also offers a unique attempt at reconciling her pro-war stance with her deeply felt maternal instincts. Her complex approach glorifies the soldier while registering the tragedy and inhumanity of war as a universal experience, and she captures the acute pain of mothers of fallen soldiers while simultaneously depicting mothers as companions, announcers or even causes of death.

All of the poems in Echi di guerra describe relationships between women and soldiers, and the vast majority positions the speaker as mother and the soldier as her son (alternately called figlio, figliuolo, fanciullo, bimbo). Negri focuses on connecting mother and son in their suffering. While the son's ordeal involves physical pain, the primary cause of maternal suffering is the son's departure for the front. However, the two separate experiences often merge into one horrifying sensation. In "Croce Rossa," Negri describes a mother's excruciating wait for news from the front:
   Lascia la madre dalle guance cave
   tremar pei propri figli e i figli altrui,
   in due spezzata, sui
   marmi dei templi mormorando un'Ave:
   o, trasalendo ad ogni carriaggio
   che passi, ad ogni squillo, ad ogni voce,
   tutta ne l'ansia atroce
   spasimare per sete d'un messaggio;
   e pianger, se la nuova sia di morte,
   con l'urlo della came mutilata,
   con la gola squarciata dai singhiozzi (9-20).

Here, the mother, in her grief, experiences the physical sensation of being mutilated. Negri uses words often reserved for describing soldiers' injuries to depict the mother's emotional anguish: "in due spezzata," "l'urlo della came mutilata," "spasimare per sete," "la gola squarciata." These violent images could be applied to a dying soldier himself. Thus, the mother, already linked to the Virgin through her "Ave," becomes even more closely tied to her through suffering and sorrow.

The comparison of Jesus's ordeal to the pain of childbirth can be found in the Bible, (John 16:20-22). Furthermore, the manifestation of labor pains in her body at the Crucifixion has also been present in religious doctrine since the Middle Ages. (11) In "Croce Rossa," Negri highlights the shared suffering of mother and son who are not in the same location. However, in religious texts Mary's physical pain occurs during the Crucifixion and Lamentation, when Christ's body is present. Negri, then, describes a lamentation without a body. The mother's arms have no place in the poem because her son's body is absent.

In contrast, in "II saluto delle madri," mother and son inhabit the same space, but the maternal embrace still departs from the tradition of the Pieta, and the significance of the mother's arms becomes ambiguous. Negri even suggests that mothers take an active role in sacrificing their sons.
   O figli, a voi si tendono tutte le braccia materne,
   non per chiamarvi, non per chiamarvi, o figli.
   Ancora sangue da spargere, ancora vite da mietere,
   ancora terra d'ltalia da ristrappare al nemico.
   Tacite a voi si tendono le braccia materne, o figli,
   per benedirvi nel vostro dovere, viventi o morti (1-6).

Negri opens with the image of outstretched maternal arms only to introduce the cruel realization that they are not offering a comforting embrace but rather a gesture of farewell, sending their sons away to do their duty even if it brings death. She subverts the traditional meaning of "le braccia materne"--a phrase that usually suggests safety and the soothing idea of home and childhood--to convey the discontinuity of a mother's role in war. Still, this line of thinking coincides with the notion of the Madonna who accepts the sacrifice of her son and suffers with him. Negri's mothers must first push away in order to receive their dead sons in their sacrificial glory. This portrayal of wartime mothers resides somewhere between the legend of the Spartan Women and the Pieta, expressing an ambivalent attitude toward patriotic duty.

Unlike Ada Negri, Matilde Serao allowed no room for guilt or remorse in her two ultra-patriotic, pro-war collections of essays Evviva la guerra (1912) and Parla una donna: Diario femminile di guerra (1916). In Evviva la guerra, Serao's text celebrating victory in Libya and which includes various articles she published during the campaign, Serao eschews the more popular attributes of the maternal embrace and its relationship to the Madonna, and instead lauds the soldiers who "si gittaron nelle braccia dell'Angelo della Morte" (1). She emphasizes a different aspect of the Pieta: "Cosi, cosi han dato la loro umile vita, questi soldati, questi italiani, semplici soldati, innanzi alia grande memoria dei quali, in atto di ammirazione materna, il nostro animo s'inchina ed e compreso di pieta ma, anche, di profonda reverenza" (13). As opposed to the private, past-oriented sorrow of the mourning Mary, Serao highlights the public, community-oriented component of Christ's sacrifice. She removes Mary's visceral emotion, featured in the Pieta and replaces it with detached admiration and reverence. Serao was concerned with instructing women on how to mourn while maintaining a middle-class sense of propriety. Only in the book's last chapter does Serao allow a brief moment of bodily contact to interrupt her stoic treatise. In her Christmas message to the soldiers at the front, she states that Italian women will keep them constantly in their thoughts and that: "l'amore fara il miracolo di farvi sentire, intorno al vostro collo, le nostre braccia cingervi in indissolubile anello" (132). Serao's circle of women's arms evokes the sacredness and holy sorrow of the Pieta through an allusion to the Crown of Thorns. It also draws on the language of heroism and monuments through an allusion to a crown of laurel leaves, a Roman symbol of victory in war. The fact that these crowns are made of women's arms reinforces the necessary separation between men and women's bodies--bodies that produce men and then witness and legitimize the men's entry into citizenship. Here, Serao describes a moment in which controlled contact between the two, after the initial separation, is allowed: the moment in which a woman's public physical contact, often immortalized in monumental sculpture, announces the warriors' greatness.

Serao reinforces the separation of male and female realms by referring to women's arms in a non-war context as well. In both Evviva la guerra and Parla una donna Serao concerns herself with re-establishing traditional gender roles that had begun to erode during wartime and with minimizing the influence of socialism on the working class. She clearly hoped that controlling mourning practices and how women spent their time during the war might divert time and energy from protests staged by working class women, since these protests held the potential to expose injustices in both how and why wars were being waged. (12) For example, while women's arms come up only once in Parla una donna, the reference celebrates the humble peasant and poor women who busy themselves in modest and appropriate ways. She praises "tutte le opere minori" such as housework and childcare, realized by "le braccia femminili" (114).

Whereas Negri and Serao maintain tragic and dignified registers, Vieille Ortie employs an ironic use of the maternal body. In an article entitled "La menzogna dell'amor matemo," she attacks Italian mothers, the virtues of whom had been so glorified throughout the ages. She performs a complex operation in which she attempts to reclaim the term "donna-madre," a concept that asserted maternity as the natural state of womankind, equated it with passivity, and insisted that it precluded intellectual activity. (13) Yet, unlike de Saint-Point, she argues for antimilitarism using a concept of maternity and femininity that does not preclude intellectual activity or public life. She cites examples of British, German and French mothers who staged radical protests against the war, and describes them as "donne che un'evoluzione intellettuale aveva trasformate in cittadine, capaci cioe di sentire la forza di un principio, la bellezza di un'astrazione, il valore d'un progresso e d'una causa ideale" (1). Ortie then questions the existence of maternal love in Italy entirely, whether in its biological form or intellectual manifestation. She argues:
   Il fatto che nessuna madre abbia saputo porre il braccio coraggioso
   tra il figlio ed il gendarme venuto per requisirlo; che nessuna
   abbia avuto la disperazione sublime di gettarsi perdutamente alia
   protezione dell'essere suo per la difesa e la salvezza di tanti
   altri esseri, smentisce per sempre la leggenda che l'amore della
   madre sia grande e sia eroico. La sensibilite sentimentale che si
   attribuisce alia donna per la sua piu facile impressionabilita, e
   probabilmente una qualite non vera. Forse in lei, amore,
   commozione, tenerezzza non e altro che rettorica e finzione o
   debolezza di nervi. In fondo essa e gretta e vile (1).

While she disparages Italian mothers for their cowardice and lack of conviction, she simultaneously brings attention to the mythology of woman created by the patriarchy: women are sensitive, tender, compassionate, and protective of their children. But she also appropriates this mythology for her anti-war stance; she appeals to maternal love in its ferocity and in its potential for pacifism. She proclaims that while a woman of the middle class can "vantare la sua inazione di fronte alia guerra come sentimento patriottico," poor women's suffering "non e una semplice espressione letteraria" (2). Her scathing words are aimed at bringing anti-war consciousness out of the theoretical realm of literature and into the realm of political action, which to her parallels a shift from the passivity of mourning in private to the physical activity of public protest.

In proposing this shift, Ortie also reconceptualizes the mother son bond as a source of ethical behavior. 11 is no longer a bond that must be broken so that the son becomes a public citizen and the mother retreats into the domestic sphere, but one that permits the interpenetration of the two spheres, and which proposes an "ethics of care" as fundamental to the body politic. (14) Significantly, the dominant image in Ortie's passage is the maternal arm thrust between a son and the state official come to lead him away to war. Here, we return to the protective work of mothers' arms. Like Negri, Vieille Ortie associates them with guilt but only in their passivity--they have not lived up to expectations. She does not refer to the expectations of the State or of a literary/religious construct, but of a growing international community of intellectual women activists. When she mockingly states that not one woman had the "disperazione sublime" to protect her son, she both ridicules the use of cliches that permit passivity and questions the sincerity of those writing these poetic accounts.

While polyvalent images of mothers' arms loom large in these wartime texts, images of wombs, the primary mark of women's difference, also play a significant role in framing the discussion, as do tears, the outward expression of grief. In texts by Vieille Ortie and Ada Negri, wombs and the related pain of birth serve to re-establish the mother-son connection in the same way that arms function in their respective texts. On the other hand, de Saint-Point wants to disrupt the continuity between mother and son by presenting the womb as no more than an unsentimental tool fit to be exposed to the public. The different authors' portrayal of tears and crying follow their more general arguments about the separation of private and public, mother and son. For example, a most stark contrast can be seen between Ortie who demands aggressive demonstrations of weeping in public and Serao who advises women to confine their tears within their own bodies.

Lacerated Wombs and Silent Sobs

Vieille Ortie approaches her attack on maternal passivity by accusing war mothers of permitting patriotic literature to absolve them of their motherly duty to protest the slaughter of their sons. One passage in particular brings us back to the notion of pain shared by mother and son explored earlier in Negri's poetry. She declares:
   Milioni di donne, milioni di madri sono state separate dai figli, a
   milioni di queste eroine dell'amore piu miracoloso, sono state
   tolte le creature piu belle, piu sane, piu valide; a milioni di
   madri, dunque, stando alia leggenda, sarebbe stato amputate il
   cuore e lacerate le viscere; eppure nessuna ha urlato.

   Nessuna ha lanciato un grido, ha tentato un geste, ha osato una
   difesa, ha espresso la sua disperazione, il suo spasimo, la sua
   ribellione (1).

Her reference to lacerated wombs is important because it offers a critique of how women poets, for example Negri in "Croce Rossa," describe the pain of losing a son and brings attention to the literary device of comparing childbirth and mutilation on the battlefield, which also often includes a reference to Mary's pangs during Christ's crucifixion.

Indeed, Negri dedicates an entire poem, "Natale Rosso," to a gory description of a Christ child's birth on the battlefield, thus linking all mothers to the Virgin and all soldiers to her son. She also draws on the tradition, as mentioned above, that depicts Christ's ordeal as labor. She first establishes this link by using the term "doglia" to describe the newborn's physical sensations:
   Piange il divino Infante sullo strame
   ove il pose la Vergine Maria.
   Chiede essa: "O dolce maraviglia mia,
   perche tante ti lagni?... hai freddo?... hai fame?..."
   Ma piange il Bimbo con si aspra doglia
   che la pia donna a se solleva il Figlio:
   ... lo strame e sangue, vivido e vermiglio
   sangue di vena; e va fino alia soglia (1-8).

Negri characterizes the sacrificial son's suffering as labor pains, and, in an anticipation of the Pieta, the mother clasps the child in her arms to comfort him. Yet mother and child are so closely bonded that we cannot understand whose blood covers the bed and trails out the door. Since the Virgin did not suffer actual labor or partorition, we must assume it is the child's, perhaps symbolically attributed back to the mother, "lacerating" her womb retroactively. Negri concludes the poem with what seems to be a plea for peace on Earth: "salva il tuo Dio da questa umana furia che tutta si distempra in sangue" (28). The tone of this poem, as the speaker struggles with the simultaneously transformative and devastating nature of war, differs greatly from the celebratory tone of, for example, D'Annunzio's "II Rina to" in which the infant born on the battlefield in a trench is the "Figlio dell'Uomo," and whose relationship with his mother is obscured by the fact that she is never mentioned. (15)

In Negri's "Mater," the poet struggles with what she conceives as a mother's sacrifice, alternating between guilt, sorrow and patriotic pride, and how she sees the maternal body's ability to act as womb and tomb. Recounting the sorrow of a mother faced with a dead son, Negri writes:
   Tu l'hai ripreso in te stessa, il piu bello de' tuoi nati,
   il leoncello fulvo in cui ti specchiavi, o leonessa:
   quel che donasti senza tremare alla piu grande madre
   di terra e di pietre, tremenda nella sua volonte.
   Lo tieni or come quando nel dolce sacrario del ventre
   contavi, adorando, i moti del corpo informe ancora.

This mother has incorporated her son back into her own body, a body that nurtured him only to ultimately bring him into the world to die. Here, Negri's portrayal of the physical attachment between mother and son in suffering and death moves beyond the patriotic bombast of some of her other proclamations into the territory of melancholy, which serves to undermine the glory in sacrificing for the nation. Yet the reincorporation of the dead hero into the mother's body also suggests the passive participation of the mother in her son's martyrdom and adds another level of ambivalence to the poem.

In her study of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Laura Wittman suggests that the image of the Madonna and the physical attachment between mother and son in the way Italian mothers understood their loss reached beyond political propaganda. She writes that although "the press coverage emphasizes the solitude, the immobility, and the purity of the mourning mothers" other accounts describe many mothers who demanded to be lifted onto the chariot carrying the unknown soldier's remains and then refused to get down, those who kissed the coffins, or "the one who exhumed her son's body herself to return him to his home town." Wittman continues: "since these mothers' gestures express their physical continuity with their dead sons, as opposed to a desire to replace or reproduce their sons' dead bodies, they create a cathartic expressive experience which, I believe, is at the core of the appeal of the Unknown Soldier Memorial. In this experience, trauma is not so much understood as it is 'incorporated melancholically.'"

In her descriptions of the mother-son bond, modeled on the Catholic understanding of the mutual suffering of Mary and Jesus, in addition to her conception of womb as sacred resting place for dead sons, Negri attempts to express the continuity Wittman refers to above and use it as a way to understand traumatic loss. Negri's portrayal of melancholy, like the mothers Wittman describes, occupies a position between what Freud defines as successful mourning, in which the emotional tie to the lost object is severed and the mourner can be consoled by a substitute for what has been lost, and melancholia, or unresolved pathological grief. Recently, scholars and activists have tried to reconceptualize melancholia, attempting to find within Freud's theory the potential for resistance, rebellion and political activism. Building on Derrida's work on the ethical value of melancholia, theorists have invented terms such as, for example, "melancholic mourning," which leads to "an experience of grief that resists neutralization in redemptive fictions ... scorns recovery and transcendence" and renders mourning more aggressive. (17) Serao falls unequivocally on the side of mourning, Ortie unequivocally on the side of resistant mourning, and Negri alternates between presenting consoling, heroic narratives and then undermining them with guilt-ridden mothers who at times remain violently attached to their sons' bodies. De Saint-Point, on the other hand, in her quest to detach woman from the conventions of femininity, rejects melancholy, mourning, and melancholic mourning.

De Saint-Point, as we have already seen, fiercely contests the idea of incorporation and continuity between mother and child. Likewise, her attitude toward melancholy is quite vicious. In her manifesto she, similar to D'Annunzio, transforms the womb into a disembodied instrument of war. In creating a public presence for mothers she shuns the Catholic model and instead resurrects the story of Caterina Sforza as the anti-Madonna per eccellenza:

Che le prossime guerre suscitino delle eroine simili a quella magnifica Caterina Sforza che, mentre sosteneva l'assedio della sua citta, vedendo dall'alto delle mura il nemico minacciare la vita di suo figlio per obbligarla ad arrendersi, mostrando eroicamente il proprio sesso, grido: "Ammazzatelo pure! Mi rimane lo stampo per fame degli altri!" (qtd. in Salaris 33).

De Saint-Point advocates against melancholy by promoting a mechanized detachment from both womb and son.

Returning to Vieille Ortie's accusations, we could say that Negri attempts to both express the pain of and repair the wounds of a lacerated womb while de Saint-Point refuses to allow the lacerations to occur. Unlike Ada Negri, de Saint-Point dehumanizes and depersonalizes the womb, and thus eliminates its role in the emotional connection between mother and son beyond the pride that sacrificing one's son for a greater glory can bring. For de Saint-Point, the womb is no longer a site of pain, sorrow, or even comfort, but rather a utilitarian reproductive tool. The Futurists were sometimes radical to a comic extreme and they often used exaggeration for shock value. However, the theme of maternal cruelty is reflected upon in less sensationalistic ways in other pro-war texts such as Negri's, and de Saint-Point's hyperbolic example reflects a widespread concern about mother's responsibilities during wartime.

In addition to arms and wombs, tears also become a site of contention for these women authors commenting on war. Returning once again to Vieille Ortie's protest in La difesa delle lavoratrici, we can examine another aspect of her criticism of Italian mothers' alleged silence in the face of war. In her first opinion piece, she laments the lack of tears, cries and general uncontrolled demonstrations of agony by Italian women. In her follow-up column of 6 February 1916, she claims this occurred because middle class women had been lulled into a sense of passivity by the models of conventional and proper behavior fed to them by literature, pseudo-science and propaganda. In "La retorica dell'amor materno," Ortie declares her opposition to the "menzogna convenzionale" that transforms the act of caring for others into "una capacita di sacrifici sublimi e impossibili ad altri." She specifically targets "i poeti" for their sensual depictions of maternal bodies and "la Civilta" that has taught women "il rispetto ed il timore della legge" (1). Ortie criticizes Italian mothers for believing these lies about the limitations of their bodies, citing the evidence that, when their sons were sent to war, "nessuna ha urlato." She sees a clear progression from public weeping, to a refusal to be the "soave rifugio di testine bionde," to rebellion (1). Similarly, anthropological studies on mourning reveal a link between transgression and women's mourning. Kimberly Christine Patton and John Stratton Hawley write that "'emotional', discourse-breaking acts like weeping" are a primary way in which women are allowed to enter the public sphere, even when this weeping is, as it usually is, contained within a framework prescribed by male authorities (13). While mourning rituals tend to be presided over by men, there remains the danger that an overly emotional woman will expose the weaknesses of the patriarchal structure to the public. Therefore, careful management of women's tears can maintain the status quo.

Matilde Serao also sensed the rebellious potential of tears and thus encouraged mothers to stifle them, especially in public. She proposed instead that women conceal their mourning behind the veil of a "feminine smile." (18) Not only should they commit themselves to this brave face, Serao emphasizes, but women's ability to withhold tears and smile through their pain is particular to their gender, and a trait that Serao calls "il sacro altruismo del dolore":
   L'arte di sorridere, adesso, e la intima forza morale, per cui ella
   sa, puo la donna, impedire al velo di lacrime che si forma, spesso,
   nei suoi occhi, di scorrere, in lacrime, lungo il volto smorto: e,
   adesso, la forza di ribevere le proprie lacrime, ricacciandole
   nell'oscuro lago che e in fondo al cuore ... e, infine, la forza di
   comporre in calma il proprio viso, di dare, a questo viso, anche la
   serenita: e, infine, con un miracolo, la forza di sorridere, di
   sorridere invece di piangere (195).

Serao exalts the exemplary women who have the strength to keep their pain to themselves, emotionless on the outside, and describes her idea of the ideal female facial expression during these times of pain as "fievoli sorrisi" (196). (19) Serao's condescending text, in which she returns over and over again to the theme of class and regional unity, presents the anti-melancholic mother role as the only decent option for Italian women. She vehemently criticizes "il grottesco femminile," which she defines as female autonomy and activism, and scoffs at the idea that women should desire anything more than existing "in aiuto del loro uomo, dei loro uomini, padri e figli, mariti e fratelli, e fidanzati" (197). Instead, Serao draws on the Pieta as the image of passive and dignified suffering that Italian women should mirror. She claims that the art of stifling ones tears is "un puro esercizio di coraggio e di pieta: ma e una disciplina di virtU e dignita: ma e il sacro pudore del dolore: ma e il sacro altruismo del dolore!" (197). The silent suffering of mothers, demonized by Vieille Ortie and celebrated by Matilde Serao, contributes to the marginalization of women's voices and their possibilities for verbal engagement with the issue of war.


For Foucault, the body is "the object and target" of an authority that aims to render it "docile" (136; 138-9). The usefulness of women's bodies in the production and mourning of soldiers relies on the docility of these same bodies. As we have seen, de Saint-Point, Serao, Negri and Vieille Ortie describe and encourage a range of different behaviors in terms of the control and rebellion of maternal bodies in the context of the larger struggle between antimilitarist and pro-war propaganda. The regulation of space functions as a fundamental tool in the disciplinary process as well, and in these works there is also an underlying concern with space and movement that parallels the degree of obedience to social norms each author promotes.

Serao, the most restrictive of the four, insists that mothers be confined to the domestic realm. She limits the movement of their bodies as well--in addition to mandating the stifling of sobs, she suggests that women force their faces to remain "serene," with no trace of even a grimace. The embraces she describes take on monumental or religious proportions, and always reinforce women's supporting role in war. Furthermore, she never allows for the transgressions of the norms of mourning. Likewise, Ada Negri's attitude toward the war comes across in the spaces and movements of her mothers as well. However, Negri's mothers are expansive and often make wild gestures. They spread out on an altar, jump at the sound of a passing carriage, they wail, they spread out their arms, they clasp their sons to them. While these movements often take place in private, they also sometimes intrude into an imagined battlefield, reinforcing the melancholic bond between mother and soldier. On the other hand, Negri's mothers are very much turned inward, and never mourn in non-sanctioned public spaces where their force could challenge the status quo.

Conversely, de Saint-Point pushes women out of the home and onto the battlefield. Her mothers make uninhibited and immodest movements, and use their bodies with force whether they are in public or private, whether they are suffocating, heroically displaying their reproductive organs, or engaged in combat. Finally, Vieille Ortie encourages women to fully enter into the public realm not just in a hyperbolic or imaginary sense, but to take to the streets and become citizens. She incites them to act with their bodies in protest, to use themselves as barriers against authority, to publically weep with abandon.

In the works examined in this essay, images of wartime mothers' bodies, the spaces they inhabit, and the movements they make allow the authors to express complicated and opposing opinions not only about their support for war in general, but also about the status of women in relation to the body politic. In these texts, the body's performance of three activities becomes particularly important. Representations of birth, separation of son from mother (i.e., departure for military service or death in war), and mourning serve to highlight the exclusion of women's bodies from the body politic and the oppressive norms that govern (and, according to some of the authors, should govern) their participation in public life. While de Saint-Point, Negri, Serao and Ortie did not directly enter into a dialog with each other about these issues, their concern with mothers' bodies and behavior in their war-themed works reflects the central place of the politicization of motherhood during the nationalist-antimilitarist struggles of the early twentieth century and its heightened importance leading up to the imperialist rhetoric of the Fascist period.


Benedetti, Laura. The Tigress in the Snow: Motherhood in Italian Literature in Twentieth-Century Italy. Toronto: U Toronto P, 2007. Print.

Boss, Sarah Jane. Empress and Handmaid: On Nature and Gender in the Cult of the Virgin Mary. London: Cassell, 2000. Print.

Clewell, Tammy. "Mourning Beyond Melancholia: Freud's Psychoanalysis of Loss." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 52 (2004): 43-67. Print. D'Annunzio, Gabriele. Versi d'amore e di gloria. Milano: Mondadori Meridiani, 2004. Print.

de Saint-Point, Valentine. "II manifesto della donna futurista." Le futuriste, Donne e letteratura d'avanguardia in Italia (1909-1914). Salaris, Claudia (a cura di). Milano: Edizioni delle donne, 1982. Print.

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Freud, Sigmund. "Mourning and Melancholia." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Strachey, James (ed. and trans.). Vol. 14. London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953. 243-58. Print.

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University of New Hampshire


(1) This and subsequent citations from II manifesto della donna futurista are taken from Claudia Salaris, Le futuriste: Donne e letteratura d'avanguarda in Italia (1900-1944). (Milan: Edizioni delle donne, 1982): 31-36; 32-33.

(2) Negri wrote "Mater" and the other poems examined in this essay between 1911 and 1918. They are published together under the title Echi di guerra, an appendix to the 1948 Mondadori edition of Poesie.

(3) Jessa, Pieroni, "Alle madri," L'Avvenire anarchico, 3 May 1912

(4) Scriboni characterizes the period between 1885 and 1918 as one of "guerra generale in Europe (11).

(5) It has been generally accepted that a side effect of World War I was the opportunity for women to leave the domestic realm in order to fill jobs left vacant by men sent to the front. In addition to the changes in labor patterns and female visibility the war also precipitated changes in women's writing. For example, Lucia Re outlines how World War I offered women writers the opportunity to participate in theorizing "a shift in the role and images of women and the feminine" in that "the war influenced gendered articulations of space and time." Lucia Re, "Maria Ginanni vs. F.T. Marinetti: Women, Speed, and War in Futurist Italy." Annali d'Italianistica: A Century of Futurism 1909-2009 27 (2009): 103-123.

(6) Thomas Row offers this interpretation in "Mobilizing the Nation: Italian Propaganda in the Great War." The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 24 (2002): 141-169; 157.

(7) "Appello alle madri" (1918).

(8) It should be noted that while de Saint-Point originally supported the war and held strong ideas about the regenerative qualities of violence, she, too, became an antimilitarist after the war.

(9) See also, Barbara Zecchi, "II corpo femminile trampolino tra scrittura e volo. Enif Robert e Biancamaria Frabotta: settant'anni verso il tempo delle donne," Italica 69.4 (1992): 508.

(10) This judgment appears in a chapter of Penne leggere: Neera, Ada Negri, Sibilla Aleramo. Scritture femminili italianefra Otto e Novecento (Milano: Guerini, 2000), that attempts to show how Negri's work has been unfairly ignored after her death due to unnecessarily harsh criticism from the likes of Benedetto Croce and to Negri's association with Mussolini.

(11) Sarah Jane Boss, Empress and Handmade: On Nature and Gender in the cult of the Virgin Mary. (London: Cassell, 2000) 200. Boss maintains that since the Counter-Reformation, the union between Mary and Jesus has often been expressed as the shared pain of childbearing during the Crucifixion.

(12) Lucia Re writes: "[T]he feelings of most Italian women towards war, and the public perception of their loyalty, were decidedly mixed. Although Turin was the main centre of unrest against the war which was almost universally disliked by factory workers, anti-war feelings were widespread among the working and peasant classes across the peninsula, and some of the most violent and vocal anti-war demonstrators were women. Women initiated the tragic 1917 general strike in Turin, shortly before the dramatic Italian defeat at Caporetto. The army was called upon by the authorities to control the crowds and fifty civilians--men, women, and children--ended up dead, with hundreds wounded. Women's opposition to the war, in Turin, Naples, Sicily, and elsewhere, was due fundamentally to the shortage of bread. Neither the Socialist party nor Giolitti's government initially took this seriously in political terms. How could the bread riots of a few 'donnette' be mistaken for a revolution? But the fear of women's unrest and demonstrations became larger and larger in the popular imagination, and mythical tales arose about military train convoys stopped by menacing women lying on the tracks only to turn into harpies who seized the tram's military commander and mercilessly killed him." Lucia Re, "Futurism, Seduction, and the Strange Sublimity of War," Italian Studies 59 (2004): 83-111; 90.

(13) Paolo Mantegazza was one of the first to use the term, which will later be appropriated by Fascist theorists. In Le estasi umane (1887) he writes: "La donna e sempre madre: madre anche quando e vergine. Ogni cosa, ogni creatura che la donna ama, e per lei anche un figlio. La bambola nell'infazia, il fratello nell'adolescenza, l'amante ... son sempre figliuoli della donna ... La donna e imbevuta di maternite e ne porta il sacro stampo in tutto il suo organismo" (Mantegazza 155).

(14) See Susan Moller Okin: "Gender, the Public and the Private." Ed. David Held. Political Theory Today (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991) 77.

(15) The poem appears in: Gabriele D'Annunzio, Versi d'amore e di gloria. Eds. Lucian Anceschi, Anna Maria Andreoli and Niva Lorenzini (Milan: Mondadori, 2004) 13-14.

(16) Laura Wittman, The Tomb of the Unknoivn Soldier, Modern Mourning and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011) 242.

(17) See Derrida 74; Clewell 54-55; Rae 22.

(18) This attitude toward grieving may have also been influenced by the widespread phenomenon in Victorian-era Europe of the demonization and denial of displays of grief (Gorer 128). Freud, in "Mourning and Melancholia," sought to counter that demonization, however his ideas on the possibility of an abrupt and complete end to grief still reveal the cultural climate of the period.

(19) A few years later, however, despite her conservatism regarding women and exaggerated exhaltation of Italian troops in this work, Serao expressed strong anti-war sentiments in her novel, Mors tua ... romanzo in tregiornate (1926).
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