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Le parole del Verbo: twentieth-century Italian literature and Christianity.

The spiritual disorientation that characterizes the twentieth century has led much contemporary Christian literature to gesture to its roots in periods and authors more firmly anchored to Christianity--for example, through the thematic recurrence to the works of Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), as well as through reinterpretations of texts belonging to the Christian (biblical or hagiographic) tradition. Thus, for example, "Un ladro in casa Manzoni" (in Eroi di vetro. Racconti, 1989), by Italo Alighiero Chiusano, portrays the aging author who, because of his Christian faith, shows no fear of a burglar he mistakes for the devil; Ferruccio Ulivi's La straniera (1991) recounts Manzoni's relationship with his first wife, the Swiss Calvinist "stranger" of the title, whose conversion to Catholicism inspired his own. Christianity in twentieth-century Italian literature is in fact predominantly Catholic, and the Protestant experience--that of the Waldensian austere moralist Piero Jahier (1884-1966), for example, author of the lyrico-realist war diary Con me e con gli alpini (1919)--is cast as "other."

The most important twentieth-century text inspired by Manzoni's Christian experience is Il Natale del 1833 (1983) by Mario Pomilio (1921-1990). The title refers to the date of Manzoni's first wife's death, leading to the writer's confrontation with God and his investigation of the role of suffering in individual and collective history. Pomilio shares with Manzoni a religious and ethical vision that is concerned with freedom, justice, and the responsibility of the Christian conscience. Unlike Giuseppe Berto's (1914-1978) neorealist novel Le opere di Dio (1948), whose ironic title points to God as the capricious author of senseless pain, Pomilio's God participates in human suffering. As in all of Pomilio's work, however, Christianity is an open question inextricably engaged with the present times. It is an interrogation carried out through the narrative conflation of history and fiction. Il cane sull'Etna. Frammenti di una enciclopedia del dissesto (1978), for example, focuses on human decenteredness, loss of metaphysics and religious beliefs, and consequent collapse. On the other hand, Il quinto evangelio (1975) traces the existence of a fifth Gospel through a pastiche of genres that guide the reader through crucial moments in the history of Christianity. This is often considered Pomilio's religious masterpiece, as well as his most original work: the fifth Gospel is a metaphor for the realization of the transcendental within the world of history, for the presence of the Word in the world and across time. Unlike Pomilio's L'uccello nella cupola (1954), historically anchored to traditional Catholicism, Il quinto Evangelio is an essentially post-Conciliar text, displaying contradictory elements and evangelical tensions, and staging the encounter of history, metaphysics, and theology.

Il quinto evangelio ends with a play, Il quinto evangelista, a trial of the fifth Gospel and of Jesus's story. The theme of the trial of Jesus recurs in Giuseppe Berto's La gloria (1978)--a rehabilitation of Judas as a necessary instrument of Providence--and Diego Fabbri's (1911-1980) play Processo a Gesu (1955). An international success, Fabbri's Processo a Gesu is a theatralization of the Gospel through a reinterpretation directly tied to Manzoni's conception of the historical tragedy. Fabbri's God operates miraculously and providentially in the world and within the human soul. Religiosity is woven throughout his work with the reality of the human condition: salvation can be obtained in spite of sin as long as one does not succumb to the temptation of arriving to God without going through Christ, namely, without finding one's place in history. Enrico Pea (1881-1958) also wrote plays inspired by the Old and New Testaments. But the most important Catholic playwright of the twentieth century in Italy is Ugo Betti (1892-1953), whose work explores the problematic of belief through processes of psychological destruction and moral reconstruction: faith is never a dogmatic presupposition, and the evil permeating the world is inevitable because intrinsically human; good is realizable, but only in transcendence. Betti's obsession with the inevitability of absurd suffering and guilt is reflected by his investigative method, as in Frana allo scalo Nord (1935), Corruzione al Palazzo di Giustizia (1944), and Delitto all'Isola delle capre (1950).

But with few exceptions, mid-twentieth-century Italy lacks the genre of Christian literature which constituted a current in other European countries at that time; instead, the secular outlook of the Left dominates Italian culture. The early twentieth century, on the other hand, had been a period of spiritual unrest and commitment on the part of many writers, who rejected realism in favor of mystical intuition or a magical recreation of reality. Following his conversion from atheism, Giovanni Papini (1881-1956) wrote a popular biography, La storia di Cristo (1921), an apologetic work criticized for lacking a truly Christian sensibility (due to Papini's theatrical rhetoric) and for reducing Christ to the author's own petty bourgeois level. The work of Nobel-prize winner Grazia Deledda (1871-1936) stages the opposition between sin and remorse, often through the representation of the syncretic rites of ancient Sardinian religious celebrations: processions and pilgrimages are among the most salient expressions of Deledda's moral and religious outlook. Love is repeatedly associated with sin, remorse, and expiation, although suffering purifies and redeems--as in Elias Portolu (1900), Marianna Sirca (1915), and La madre (1919). But the most notable Catholic novelist of the early part of this century is Antonio Fogazzaro (1842-1911), whose Il santo (1905), for example--the third work in a tetralogy which includes Piccolo mondo antico (1895), Piccolo mondo moderno (1900), and Leila (1910)--weaves the story of a mystic with the movement of renewal known as Catholic Modernism. All of Fogazzaro's work reflects this interest in modernist ideas, which sought to liberalize and modernize Catholic dogma.

Fogazzaro's spellbound vision of a reality subject to the numinous recurs in some of Guido Piovene's (1907-1974) work, characterized by a tormented moral introspection and by characters suspended between good and evil, and always prone to ambiguity and lying. Lettere di una novizia (1941), Piovene's most successful work, tells of a young woman who enters the convent so as to hide a crime; the epistolary narration of her escape slowly reveals her profoundly evil soul, unveiling her sincerity and her sins only as she sets up her defense and thus arouses the reader's pity. Tormented spiritual struggles also characterize the work of Silvio d'Arzo (1920-1952), especially his poignant story "Casa d'altri" (1953).

Despite the lack of a Catholic current such as in France, Christianity plays nevertheless a central role in several Italian authors who have chosen to remain outside Catholic orthodoxy. In his multifarious production Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), for instance, experiences his diversity all the more profoundly as it contrasts with his Catholic upbringing. Although always critical of the Catholic Church (because of its collusion with Christian Democratic bureaucracy and its inability to oppose consumerism through its dogmas and traditions), Pasolini's writings display an attraction for the unconscious, emotional, irrational facts of religion: Teorema (1968), both a short story and a film, is a parable on the irruption of the sacred in the industrial bourgeoisie; the film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964), dedicated to Pope John XXIII, interprets the crisis of religion and the rebirth of faith, ecumenism, and the social involvement of religious consciousness, historicizing the essence of Catholicism through the figure of an anarchist Christ. On the other hand L'usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica (1958), obsessively pervaded by the tone of a sensual ceremonial Catholicism, includes texts which rewrite, often transgressively, the genre of the Christian hymn and the "sacra rappresentazione."

The work of Ignazio Silone (1900-1978) is also saturated with Christian elements, although he always remained critical of the Catholic Church. In Vino e pane (1937) the socialist protagonist's political resistance finds support in his rediscovery of the Christian heritage. Although it indicts the official alliance of the Church with the Fascist government, the novel portrays the essential values of Christianity as coinciding with those of the atheist protagonist and of his political opposition to Fascism. This unity is materialized in the wine and bread of the title, which are both physical nourishment (as promised by Socialism) and spiritual fare (the Christian Eucharist). Like the rest of Silone's works, L'avventura di un povero cristiano (1968), a historical play on the life of Pietro da Morrone (pope Celestine V), sets up the conflict between the free individual (intellectual, priest, political organizer) and the masks of power (fascist, Pilate, the pope), as well as the eternal drama of the Christian: How to be in this world without being of this world. Silone's protagonists are always persecuted; yet--like Christ--they win just when they seem most violated and defeated.

The connection between religion and politics is also explored by several contemporary Catholic writers. Carlo Sgorlon's (1930-) novel Il regno dell'uomo (1994) attributes the demise of the former Soviet Union to its rejection of spirituality and God. In Cosi non sia (1985), as in his other works, Gino Montesanto (1922-) is concerned with the question of faith, its inevitable doubts, and the ecclesiastical organization as its instrument of diffusion. In the work of Rodolfo Doni (1919-) the political arena is where the ideal of a better life and the principles of justice and Christian fellowship are proposed. Thus for example in La doppia vita (1980) Doni presents three examples of Christianity in political-social life (De Gasperi, Dossetti, and La Pira), while in Servo inutile (1982) he confronts issues such as the law of celibacy for priests and the church of the poor. Doni's narrative displays the tension between a concrete immanence (such as the problems of work, housing, peace), and a transcendental dimension marked by the certainty of the intervention of Providence in the human world. Thus in Un filo di voce (1993) a young woman mystic makes her contribution against evil by taking upon herself, through the intercession of the Cross, the suffering of others.

Several Christian texts of the late twentieth-century rewrite New Testament stories. In Ferruccio Parazzoli's (1935-) Uccelli del Paradiso (1982), theological doctrine is mixed with existential questions: the protagonist is a modern-day Saint Peter who abandons his life and family so as to search for his place as Christ's follower. Pasquale Festa Campanile's (1928-1986) Per amore, solo per amore (1983) is the story of the relationship between Mary and Joseph and of Jesus's early years. Ferruccio Ulivi's Trenta denari (1986) is a modern-day interpretation of the story of Judas's betrayal. Piero Orefice's Il saio e la tiara (1979) recounts Christ's second coming announced through the voice of a telepathic young Roman girl. Another historical figure explored by contemporary writers is Saint Francis, the protagonist of Italo Alighiero Chiusano's play Le notti della Verna (1981) and Ferruccio Ulivi's novel Le mura del cielo (1981).

Women writers have also made important contributions to Christian literature in twentieth-century Italy. The suffering of Saint Therese of Lisieux, and the relationship between writing and the body, are interrogated in Elisabetta Rasy's (1947-) La prima estasi (1985)--a sophisticated psychoanalytic account that blends the genres of novel, philosophical essay, case-study, and prose poem. Another important figure in the contemporary literary and religious scene is the theologian and hermit Adriana Zarri (1919-), author of the collection Apologario: le favole di Samarcanda (1990) and the novel Dodici lune (1989). Her recent Quaestio 98. Nudi senza vergogna (1994) is at once a fairy-tale and a realistic novel that explores the possibility of loving at once God and the other, even during sexual union. The poetry of Margherita Guidacci (1921-1992), such as L'altare di Isenheim (1980), expresses themes such as the existential void and the vivid presence of death. In Neurosuite (1970) Christian ethics becomes self-knowledge and a fall towards the other, while Guidacci's poetic representation is allegorical and even visionary, and her Christian ethics moves from the private to the public in order to finally arrive to the transcendental. In this approach she is influenced by her relationship with the contemplative writer Nicola Lisi (18931975), author of fables, dialogues, and visions (including the Diario di un parroco di campagna, 1942) in line with the tradition of Franciscan spirituality and simplicity. Amelia Rosselli (1930-) also experiences poetry as the abolition of all boundaries between inside and outside, private and social, self and other--as, for example, in the poem "Dopo il dono di Dio vi fu la rinascita ..." (Variazioni belliche, 1964), a reflection on the continuity between birth, poetry, and the Incarnation. For this reason the religious contents of poetry are transformed by Rosselli into an expansion of the dark sphere of the individual psyche.

Many major twentieth-century poets repeatedly explore the relationship with the Christian God. Salvatore Quasimodo's (1901-1968) collections are pervaded by an anguished existential quest for God, who does not answer. Giuseppe Ungaretti's (1888-1970) Il sentimento del tempo (1933) is, as the author himself states, a book of religious poetry, where formal complexity reflects an increasingly arduous content; in the later Il dolore (1947) God is dramatically present at the very heart of suffering. The first phase of Mario Luzi's (1914-) poetry is ideologically founded on a Christianity that is both autochtonous and influenced by French Catholic thought. But there are also poets whose production is primarily Christian. The suggestive work of Arturo Onofri (1885-1928) expresses a moral and religious urgency by applying symbolism to a mystical exploration of the universe. Carlo Betocchi (1899-) accepts from the start the position of the ordinary man, and God remains the arrival point of his entire poetic pilgrimage, characterized by a unique blend of traditional forms and modern freedom of expression. Betocchi's ideological background is a rural Catholicism which sees in the objective world a clear epiphany of the divine: poetry is the simple testimony of a reality that precedes it. Ordained a Rosminian priest in 1936, Clemente Rebora (1885-1957) has written poems moved by a disorderly and at times even violent spiritual problematic which attacks language by urging it to change itself into action; his best verse expresses the anguished search to reconcile human existence with a sense of mystery and of the sacred. Rebora's post-conversion works include the collections Via Crucis (1955), Curriculum vitae (1955), Canti dell'infermita (1956), Gesu il fedele (1956). The only writer for whom Rebora felt a spiritual kinship was Giovanni Boine (1887-1917), whose poetry and prose, collected in Frantumi (1918), is a tumultuous blend of themes including mystical experience and the angst inspired by physical dissolution. Finally, in his poetic production David Maria Turoldo (1916-1992), a friar of the Servi di Maria and a well-known participant in the contemporary cultural and artistic world, posits poetry as the voice given to God's silence and to the poor, who have no voice; poetry is grace and penance, purification and prophecy, as well as dialogue with God. In this double commitment to faith and works, God and one's neighbor, form and content, Turoldo's poetry recapitulates the primary characteristics of Christian literature in twentieth-century Italy: a continuous movement between the encounter with the Word and the practice of our human expedients, words.

The University of Vermont

Works Cited

Berto, Giuseppe. Le opere di Dio. Roma: Macchia, 1948.

Betocchi, Carlo. Tutte le poesie. Milano: Garzanti, 1996.

Betti, Ugo. Teatro completo. Bologna: Cappelli, 1957.

Boine, Giovanni. Frantumi. Firenze: La Voce, 1921.

Chiusano, Italo Alighiero. Eroi di vetro. Racconti. Milano: Mondadori, 1989.

--. Le notti della Verna. Torino: Fogola, 1983.

D'Arzo, Silvio. Casa d'altri, racconto lungo. Firenze, Sansoni, 1953

Deledda, Grazia. Romanzi e novelle. Milano: Mondadori, 1955. 4 vols.

Doni, Rodolfo. La doppia vita. Milano: Rusconi, 1980.

--. Un filo di voce. Milano: Mondadori, 1993.

--. Servo inutile. Milano: Rusconi, 1982.

Fabbri, Diego. Tutto il teatro. Milano: Rusconi, 1984.

Festa Campanile, Pasquale. Per amore, solo per amore. Milano: Bompiani, 1984.

Fogazzaro, Antonio. Tutte le opere. Milano: Mondadori, 1930-1945. 15 vols.

Guidacci, Margherita. L'altare di Isenheim. Milano: Rusconi, 1980.

--. Neurosuite. Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 1970.

Jahier, Piero. Con me e con gli alpini. Firenze: Libreria della Voce, 1919.

Lisi, Nicola. Diario di un parroco di campagna. Firenze: Vallecchi, 1942.

Luzi, Mario. Tutte le poesie. Milano: Garzanti, 1988

Montesanto, Gino. Cosi non sia. Milano: Rusconi, 1985.

Onofri, Arturo. Poesie scelte. Parma, Guanda, 1960.

Orefice, Piero. Il saio e la tiara. Milano: Rizzoli, 1979.

Papini, Giovanni. La storia di Cristo. Firenze: Vallecchi, 1921.

Parazzoli, Ferruccio. Uccelli del paradiso. Milano: Mondadori, 1982.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. Teorema. Milano: Garzanti, 1968.

--. L'usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica. Milano: Longanesi, 1958.

--. Il Vangelo secondo Matteo. Milano: Garzanti, 1964.

Pea, Enrico. La passione di Cristo. Brescia: Morcelliana, 1940.

Piovene, Guido. Lettere di una novizia. Milano: Bompiani, 1941.

Pomilio, Mario. Il cane sull'Etna. Frammenti di una enciclopedia del dissesto. Milano: Rusconi, 1978.

--. Il Natale del 1833. Milano: Rusconi, 1983.

--. Il quinto evangelio. Milano: Rusconi, 1975.

--. L'uccello nella cupola. Milano: Bompiani, 1954.

Quasimodo, Salvatore. Tutte le poesie. Milano: Mondadori, 1995.

Rasy, Elisabetta. La prima estasi. Milano: Mondadori, 1985.

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Rosselli, Amelia. Variazioni belliche. Milano: Garzanti, 1964.

Sgorlon, Carlo. Il regno dell'uomo. Milano: Mondadori, 1994.

Silone, Ignazio. L'avventura di un povero cristiano. Milano: Mondadori, 1968.

--. Vino e pane. Milano: Mondadori, 1955.

Turoldo, David Maria. Canti ultimi. Milano: Garzanti, 1991.

--. Poesie. Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 1971.

--. O sensi miei. Milano: Rizzoli, 1990.

Ulivi, Ferruccio. La straniera. Milano: Mondadori, 1991.

--. Le mura del cielo. Milano: Rizzoli, 1981.

--. Trenta denari. Milano: Rusconi, 1986. Ungaretti, Giuseppe. Vita d'un uomo. Tutte le poesie. Milano: Mondadori, 1986.

Zarri, Adriana. Apologario. Le favole di Samarcanda. Milano: Camunia, 1990.

--. Dodici lune. Milano: Camunia, 1989.

--. Quaestio 98. Nudi senza vergogna. Milano: Camunia, 1994.

Twentieth-Century Italian Literature & Christianity Annali d'italianistica 15 (1997). Edited by Dino S. Cervigni.
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Author:Mazzoni, Cristina
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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