14. Cori di Didone (Chorus of Dido)
From the poem la Terra Promessa/The Promised Land, by Giuseppe Ungaretti, 1950
Music by Luigi Nono, 1958
From the CD Luigi Nono – Choral Works (Hanssler, Germany 1993)




The shadow disappearing,
In a distance of years,
When grief did not wound,
You hear the then childish
Breast swell, longed for,
And your alarmed eye
Unveil incautious fife of April
From a perfumed cheek.

Scorn, diligent spectre
That makes time inert
And its fury known at length,
Leave the bitten heart!


The evening is prolonged
By a suspended fire
And a shudder in the grass little by little
Seems to reunite the infinite with fate.

Then unperceived, a moonlike echo
Was born and was fused with the shiver of the water.
I don’t know what was more alive,
The grumbling up to the drunken stream
Or the expectant echo that was tenderly silent.


Now the wind has become silent.
Silent also is the sea;
All is quiet; but I cry out
The cry, alone, of my heart,
Cry of love, cry of shame
Of my heart that burns
Since I watched you and you looked at me
And I am nothing any more but a weak thing.

The Promised Land, by Giuseppe Ungaretti
New Directions 10, 1948. Edited by James Laughlin, Blue Ridge Mountain Press, USA


Zero: The thoughts of a friend

From: The Modern History Sourcebook: Benito Mussolini: What is Fascism? 1932

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) over the course of his lifetime went from Socialism – he was editor of Avanti, a socialist newspaper – to the leadership of a new political movement called ‘fascism’ (after ‘fasces’, the symbol of bound sticks used a totem of power in ancient Rome).

Mussolini came to power after the ‘March on Rome’ in 1922, and was appointed Prime Minister by King Victor Emmanuel.

In 1932 Mussolini wrote (with the help of Giovanni Gentile) an entry for the Italian Encyclopaedia on the definition of fascism:

‘Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism – born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put men into the position where they have to make the great decision – the alternative of life or death….

…Fascism [is] the complete opposite of…Marxian Socialism, the materialist conception of history of human civilisation can be explained simply through the conflict of interests among the various social groups and by the change and development in the means and instruments of production…. Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say, in actions influenced by no economic motive, direct or indirect. And if the economic conception of history be denied, according to which theory men are no more than puppets, carried to and fro by the waves of chance, while the real directing forces are quite out of their control, it follows that the existence of an unchangeable and unchanging class-war is also denied – the natural progeny of the economic conception of history. And above all Fascism denies that class-war can be the preponderant force in the transformation of society….

After Socialism, Fascism combats the whole complex system of democratic ideology, and repudiates it, whether in its theoretical premises or in its practical application. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation, and it affirms the immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality of mankind, which can never be permanently levelled through the mere operation of a mechanical process such as universal suffrage….

…Fascism denies, in democracy, the absurd conventional untruth of political equality dressed out in the garb of collective irresponsibility, and the myth of ‘happiness’ and indefinite progress….

…Given that the nineteenth century was the century of Socialism, of Liberalism, and of Democracy, it does not necessarily follow that the twentieth century must also be a century of Socialism, Liberalism and Democracy: political doctrines pass, but humanity remains, and it may rather be expected that this will be a century of authority…a century of Fascism. For if the nineteenth century was a century of individualism it may be expected that this will be the century of collectivism and hence the century of the State….

The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality — thus it may be called the ‘ethnic’ State….

…The Fascist State organises the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….’’


One: On La Terra Promessa/ The Promised Land

Giuseppe Ungaretti’s La Terra Promessa was an ongoing work that occupied this founding figure of Hermetic poetry for twenty five years. Joseph Cary, author of Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale (1993), notes that ‘[…] In the preface to La terra promessa Ungaretti has characterised the main ‘direction’ of his work as that of ‘elevating’ personal experience into ‘ideas and myths.’’ No surprise then that Ungaretti’s engagement with Virgil’s Aeneid serves in part at least as an allegory for Ungaretti’s relationship with Alexandria, the city in Egypt where Ungaretti was born in 1888 to Italian migrants from the countryside around Lucca. Egypt was a major location for Italian migrants in the 19th century and by the 1930s Italians formed the country’s largest expatriate community. Ungaretti lived in Egypt until 1912, when he moved to Paris, aged 24.

Ungaretti began working on The Promised Land in 1935 and it appeared in its first form in the American poetry journal New Directions in 1948, before being published in Italy in 1950 in a collection whose title was La Terra Promessa, and it is this version that Luigi Nono used in his Cori Didone.

A much longer poem, 27 Final Choruses for the Promised Land, appeared in Ungaretti’s The Old Man’s Notebook in 1960 and is also available in Ungaretti’s collected works, Vita di un Uomo (Life of A Man). Here is an extract from that poem:

We pass through the desert with vestiges
Of some earlier image in our mind,
A living man knows nothing else
About the Promised Land.

And here is Allen Mandelbaum, Ungaretti translator and author of The Aeneid of Virgil: A Verse Translation (1982), writing, in the Introduction to The Aeneid of Virgil, about Ungaretti’s relationship with Virgil:

Ungaretti’s Virgil is seen both from the autumn of a civilisation, across the long divides of memory. In the later 1960 choruses, the promised land of Virgil fuses with the promised land of the Bible and with the terminus of all desire. But the ‘true promised land’ is never a certainty.’
Mandelbaum tells us that while translating Ungaretti, ‘these words [from the poet] were often with me: ‘Perennial beauty (but bound inextricably to perishing, to images, to earthly vicissitudes, to history, and thus but illusively perennial, as Palinarius will say) assumed in my mind the aspect of Aeneas. Aeneas is beauty, youth, ingenuousness ever in search of a promised land, where, in the contemplated, fleeting beauty, his own beauty smiles and enchants. But it is not the myth of Narcissus: it is the animating union of the life of the mind; and it is, too, the fecund union of the carnal life in the long succession of generations. […] ‘La Terra Promessa’, in any case, was and still is to begin at the point at which, Aeneas having touched the promised land, the figurations of his former experience awaken to attest to him, in memory, how his present experience, and all that may follow, will end, until, the ages consumed, it is given to men to know the true promised land.’

To which we’ll add this extract from Cary:

‘[…] ‘La terra Promessa’ was to begin with Aeneas’ landing at Cumae, in the land promised to him by the gods; an exultant vita nuova. But precisely at this initial moment of triumph, his memories of the past possess Aeneas. This corresponds to the visitation of the dead – the fundamental concept underlying the whole work; its Virgilian locus and passage was to be the entry to the underworld by Lake Avernus near Cumae. Aeneas first remembers Carthage (Ungaretti’s Africa).


Two: ‘Egypt is the promised land.’

And it is this Africa, this Alexandria, that we find Ungaretti reflecting on in his commentary for the poem Eternity: ‘Alexandria is in the desert, in a desert in which life is more intense than the time of its foundation, but where life does not leave any trace of permanence in time. Alexandria is a city without a monument, or better with hardly a monument to recall its ancient past. It changes incessantly. Time carries it away, at all times. It is a city where the sense of time, of destructive time is present to the imagination before everything and above all.’ We read this in The Alexandrian Aesthetic, by Howard Caygill, an essay in John J. Joughin and Simon Malpas’s The New Aestheticism (2003)

About Ungaretti’s experience of Alexandria, Caygill, by way of a reading of Ungaretti’s collection of poems L’Allegria 1914-1919 writes the following:

‘[…] this intense and specific childhood experience of transience – the city disintegrating into the desert of time or submerged in its sea (Il Porto Sepolto was Ungaretti’s first title for the collection) – is extended to the condition of modernity. Speaking specifically of ‘L’Allegria’, Ungaretti carefully claimed that this experience of temporal and spatial transience ‘Does not just concern philosophy, it concerns a concrete experience of temporal spatial experience from a childhood passed in Alexandria and necessarily intensified, embittered, deepened and crowned by the 1914 – 1918 war,’ Yet this experience was complex: it involved not just the melancholy ‘constant recall of death’ provoked by the ‘annihilating landscape’ of the desert […] but also that of exhilaration before the open horizon of the sea and the promise of adventure that it seemed to offer. Alexandria is for him the port between past and future, death and life, hovering like a mirage between them both.

The poems of L’Allegria form the space in which ‘the aesthetics of childhood memory and the violent discipline of warfare are not kept apart, but drift into proximity through the simultaneously destructive and redemptive figure of Alexandria. […] Out of the extreme experience of transience and the proximity of death figured in the desert and the trench, emerges hope for the future – the sea of peace. Alexandrian troping forever insinuates hope into despair and despair into hope – Egypt is the exile is the desert is the Promised Land.’ (Caygill)

Africa – Egypt – occupies a unique place in Ungaretti’s development as a poet. Egypt is where Ungaretti found his voice. This is from the Encyclopaedia of World Biography:

While still in school in Egypt, Ungaretti became acquainted with French symbolist poetry, particularly that of Stéphane Mallarmé. The example of the French symbolists, and later that of Paul Valéry and Apollinaire, led him to adopt his particular hermetic ‘technique of obscuration’. Such a closed diction derives its characteristics from the basic symbolist beliefs in the magic qualities of the word and the conviction that the poet is the keeper of arcane secrets. Thus, as Ungaretti once said, true poetry must have the ‘obscure sense of revelation.’ The technique avails itself of all possibilities to give the single word greater relief, be it through abolition of punctuation, typographical or stylistic isolation, or epigrammatic composition. Ungaretti always professed to be preoccupied with ultimate questions of man’s existence, with the mysteries of life, and he gave his entire work the title Vita d’un uomo.

Ungaretti’s first published poem, Il paesaggio di Alessandria d’Egitto, which appeared in Lacerba in 1915, was about the landscape of Alexandria. Here is Viviane Suvini Hand, author of Mirage and Camouflage: Hiding Behind Hermeticism in Ungaretti’s l’Allegria [2000], on Ungaretti’s childhood in Alexandria:

Ungaretti lived in a poor quarter of the city, called Moharrem Bey, inhabited by Arabs, Jews, and migrant labourers from Europe. He spoke Italian at home, but was educated at a French speaking school and as a result of French education, moved to Paris in 1912 where he attended the Sorbonne. It was precisely this hybrid background which contributed to Ungaretti’s sense of being someone with neither roots nor identity. He longed for Italy, (‘that vague place that I loved passionately on the basis of all of the information I had on it, gleaned from family stories’).

It was Ungaretti’s birth in Egypt, making him feel a stranger to his native land and its culture which gives rise to the central contradiction in the poet’s personality – prompting the ‘uomo di pace’ to become a war enthusiast.’

Egypt, the location of his fragmentation and the cause of his sense of displacement, is the location from which a troubling negation is produced. Egypt negates his being, negates his being in Italy, negates the possibility of his being completely Italian, being completely whole. The space between Africa and Europe marks the breadth of his irreconcilable longing for a resolution to his sense of partial presence. Egypt is the anti gravitational force against which Ungaretti propels himself into flight, into modernity, out of Africa and into Italian political life – and into fascism.


Three: ‘one of the very few authentic poets of my generation’

By the time of his death in 1970 Giuseppe Ungaretti had been recognised as one of the greatest Italian poets of the 20th century, ‘the creator and major representative of Italian hermetic poetry’, is how he is described on the Encyclopaedia of World Biography.

In his time he had been part of the inner circle of the Dada movement in Paris, the chair of Italian language and literature at the University of São Paulo [1936], an elected member of the Italian Academy [1942], and the chair of modern and contemporary literature at the University of Rome.

In 1958 Ungaretti’s Cori di Didone (1950) was given a new lease of life by the anti fascist composer Luigi Nono. Regarded as something of a minor piece, Cori di Didone is held by most of the critics we’ve read on the net as being a bit of an aberration in Nono’s work in that it appears to be about love and not politics – a fragment from Nono’s notebooks on the composition, available on the website Fondazione Archivio Luigi Nono Onlus www.luiginono.it, could be seen to attest to this – ‘the particular historical significance – the love between woman and man – the myth (or reality) of Dido is understood here extended to the relationship between men, even of tragic contemporaneity […].’

Ungaretti was no less feted in his twilight years – in Italy by Pier Paolo Pasolini, for whom Hermeticism was a kind of passive resistance to fascism, and in America by the academic mainstream, inviting him to read his poetry at Harvard, to present a series of lectures at Columbia University, and to receive the first University of Oklahoma’s Books Abroad International Prize in 1969.

It hadn’t been all good, though. After the fall of Mussolini he had been divested of his post at the University of Rome because of his Fascist links. He was reinstated thanks to the support of friends and allies. He was nominated for, but did not receive, the 1959 Nobel Prize for literature – but in 1962 he was made President of the European Community of Writers. And as accolades go, you couldn’t do better than T.S Eliot, who wrote that Ungaretti was ‘one of the very few authentic poets of my generation and a worthy representative of Italian poetry for the rest of Europe and America.

The article in which we found that quote, Giuseppe Ungaretti – Silhouette, was written in May 1969, less than a year before Ungaretti’s death, and conveys a clear enough indication of the regard in which he was held to read like any of the obituaries that followed:

What Ungaretti drew from the War was the peculiar knowledge of a ‘disabused modern consciousness,’ not d’Annunzio’s heroic myth of the theatrical, but rather the awareness of anonymity and other sorrows. Influenced more by Giacomo Leopardi, the great Italian poet of the nineteenth century, and by Mallarmé, than by the aesthetic exigencies of his own age, Ungaretti shared with his close friends Apollinaire and the Fauvist Braque a profound despair over history’s irrationality. But Apollinaire never survived the War, and those who did were so shattered and forlorn that their only response was that of an iconoclastic Dadaism.

Ungaretti survived both the War and many of his friends, and took up, on his own, a more gentle intransigence, the work of creative revolution which he and Appollinaire, among others, had begun in the Paris Academies before the War. The rage which warped so many artists in the years between two wars, verging on insanity and spilling into the excesses of Futurism, was a condition he avoided; Ungaretti took stylistic refuge in the Neo-Symbolist movement of ‘Hermetic’ poetry, in an obscurantism that usually meant praise more than polemic.

The rigours of la poésie pure, the publication of his complete works under the title Vita d’un Uomo, and finally his unanimous election as President of the European Community of Writers in 1962 signalled a waking from the turbulence of his younger years to the task of what Glauco Cambon called ‘a generous asceticism.’ The narrative poem, ‘Choruses Descriptive of Dido’s States of Mind,’ written during the Fifties, brings to Ungaretti’s work the knowledge that, in Cambon’s words, ‘Experience is the progressive exorcism of illusion.’

Much of Ungaretti’s reputation rests on a demarcation of distance between his poetry and the poetry of his Fascist friends and fellow travellers, and a demarcation between his poetry and the rest of his public life. Certainly, between the time of his death in 1970 and the time of writing - 2009 and counting - you could be forgiven for not knowing how much of a Fascist Ungaretti was, if you knew he was a Fascist at all. And if you knew he was a Fascist, you could be forgiven for not knowing what form Fascism took in his life and work, especially given the nature of his poetry.

Ungaretti’s death marked the end of the sixties, which for Italy’s former Fascist ally Germany had been a remarkable, necessarily painful decade in which the generation born in 1945 began to try and come to terms with Germany’s past, a process succinctly described by Jessica Benjamin and Anson Rabinach in their Foreword to Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies II – Male Bodies: psychoanalysing the white terror (1989): ‘Until as late as 1960 Nazism was almost never publicly mentioned, and rarely discussed in private. The terms most frequently invoked to describe that era’s lack of historical consciousness were ‘repression’ and the failure of ‘working through.’ The explosion of anti fascist sentiment after 1960 was both a confrontation with the silence of the previous decade and, at the same time, an expression of the first guiltless generation. Indeed, what gave the 1968 West German authoritarian revolts its ‘furore and pathos’, the novelist Peter Schneider noted, was this ‘assumption of innocence’ combined with an obsession with German fascism and its lingering implications for post-war German culture.

For the generation of 1945 the confrontation with the Nazi past went hand in hand with the discovery of pre and avowedly anti-Nazi German culture in which Freudian and Marxian ideas mingled in a remarkable variety of combinations. Long buried works by Ernest Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse unearthed by younger intellectuals recalled the forgotten intellectual and political traditions of anti fascism. That heritage was crucial to forging a new social and political identity, and to establishing a new kind of historical memory – an anamnestic solidarity with the opponents and victims of Nazism, obscured by the almost incomprehensible amnesia of the years of reconstruction.

We were wondering whether something similar happened in Italy and if Ungaretti’s death marked its beginning. We can report that a concerted and, up until the early 1970s, very successful effort by the former guardians of Italian colonialism and old fascists to suppress access to documentation of the horrific nature of Italy’s colonial era, along with a creeping amnesia regarding who did what during Fascism, was giving way, very slowly, to a process of recollection, which historian Angelo del Boca describes in his text ‘The Myths, Suppressions, Denials, and Defaults of Italian Colonial History’, as having been initiated with the publication in 1958 of La prima Guerra d’Africa by Roberto Battaglia, then in 1970 with the publication of La Guerra libica (1911-1912) by Francesco Malgeri, and then with the definitive ‘turning point’ – the 1973 publication of Giorgio Rochat’s, Il Colonialismo italiano.

Maybe the anthology in which del Boca’s text appears, ‘A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Culture From Post Unification to the Present’ published in 2003 and edited by Patrizia Palumbo could be read as a product of an attempt at engaging with Italy’s past. The thing is, Palumbo’s anthology was published in the twenty first century, over thirty years after Ungaretti’s death, and we get the impression that it is something of an isolated example. Did the process of remembering that happened in Germany in the sixties fail to occur in Italy – or is happening at an incredibly slow rate? Maybe the documents we’ve gathered here are evidence of a delayed response…


Four: ‘For Ungaretti, Italy was the promised land.’

Returning to the theme of the Promised Land, here is an extract from a text on the question of displacement in the poet’s self perception. The text is by Lucia Re, it is titled Alexandria Revisited: Colonialism and the Egyptian works of Enrico Pea and Giuseppe Ungaretti, and is included in Palumbo’s anthology: ‘For Ungaretti, Italy was the Promised Land. Italy always appears as a kind of promised land in his poetry (‘La terra promessa’), as a place that could never really be his, remaining forever the ‘Patria’ or, literally, the land of his parents, but never his own. (‘I am a foreigner in Italy as well as France, as well as everywhere else’), he wrote in 1920  when he was living in Paris.

In 1915 Ungaretti joined the Italian infantry and saw combat in the trenches. Here he is, cited by Vivienne Suvini Hand, offering us an insight into his thinking during the war:

The Germans are formidable warriors; worse still, they are assassins. They have killed Dostoyevsky’s country; they are attempting to destroy France, and destroy us. Do not trust them […] their underhand, scheming powers of contamination are to be feared more than their canons […] Italy desires to be greater, […] she does not want to be relegated to the fate of a tribe of black people.

Hand uses the poems collected in Ungaretti’s L’Allegria to make sense of what at first appears to be an ambivalent relationship to the experience of war: ‘the visions of war presented in ‘Distacco’, ‘Peso’, and ‘In dormiveglia’ seem to be exclusively negative: behind the poet’s dutifulness lie detachment and feelings of isolation; war strips him of his identity; fear, and a hidden awareness of the futility of destruction, lurk beneath the soldiers’ aggressive heroics. Elsewhere in the collection, however, many of these sentiments are completely overturned. The detached anonymous voice of ‘Distacco’ becomes in ‘Italia’ (composed exactly one week later than ‘Distacco’) a ‘unanimous shout’; with Ungaretti proudly presenting himself as a spokesman for all Italians, and as someone within whom are concentrated Italy’s patriotic ‘dreams’:

(I am a poet, a unanimous shout; I am a clot of dreams).

The fragmentation of personality suggested in ‘Distacco’ and ‘Pellegrinaggio’ is here replaced by a confident assertion of identity […]. Indeed Ungaretti proclaims that the diverse facets of his personality, resulting from his different cultural experiences have been ‘grafted’ together by his wartime experiences:

(I am the fruit if innumerable contrasts, of graftings)

With its emphasis upon ‘Italians’ and ‘Italy’ (‘popolo’ and ‘Italia’) the poem gradually climaxes into an anthem-like exaltation of nationalism:

(But your people are carried by the same land that carries me, Italy)

and closes with Ungaretti hailing the war as the instrument which has allowed him to situate himself with a genealogical framework:

(And in this soldiers uniform I rest as if it were my father’s cradle).’

To illustrate the proximity between Ungaretti and the language of Fascism, Hand contrasts the work of another Hermetic poet, the anti-fascist Eugenio Montale:

Perhaps the best literary example that could be used to support the view that ‘Italia’ smacks of that confident and aggressive approach to the world that was to be advocated by the Fascist regime, is a quotation from Montale’s ‘Do not ask us for the word’, (Cuttlefish Bones, 1925). Whereas Ungaretti can authoritatively assert who he is (‘Sono un’), Montale, in his most anti-Fascist poem of the post-war era suggests that Fascism was conducive to a stifling of individuality and personality, so much so that he and fellow poets could only announce to the hypothetical reader ‘what we are not, what we do not want.’

Hand also reminds us that for all the stylistic differences between Ungaretti and the Futurists, Ungaretti was as vocal an advocate of Fascism as his Futurist colleagues. Ungaretti joined the National Fascist Party – something he would later deny having done, if posthumous reports are anything to go by – and was, in 1925, one of 250 signatories of the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals.

Ungaretti dedicated his 1935 version of ‘Italia’ to Mussolini – you can find the poem in The Anthology Of Fascist Poets (1935).

Ungaretti’s and Mussolini met in 1915 and Ungaretti’s friendship with Mussolini played a crucial role in his dedication to Fascism. More on that later. First, a word on Italian colonialism.


Five: Ungaretti on colonialism

Reading Lucia Re, we get the impression that on the question of Italian imperialism Ungaretti favoured a sort of a benign colonialism:

He emphasises what in his view is, historically, the positive value of the reciprocal influence and cross-contamination of Europe and Africa, East and West, Christians and Arabs, yet he decries imperialist oppression. Italians, he claims, historically have not partaken in the predatory struggles over Egypt; he sees the relationship of Italians with Egypt since the nineteenth century as one of mutual enrichment rather than aggression.’

It’s a view of Italian colonialism deeply divergent from the reality of Italy’s colonial adventures, whose catalogue of atrocities, del Boca informs us, includes the ‘massive employment of chemical weapons in Ethiopia between 1935 and 1940, ….the lethal concentration camps in Libya, Somalia, and Eritrea…the decimation of the Coptic Church after the attempt on Rodolfo Graziani’s life on February 19, 1937 – an operation led with such zeal and professionalism that it caused the death of 1,200 deans and priests’ – all of which took place under the watch of Ungaretti’s pal Mussolini.

We wonder whether Ungaretti was aware of these atrocities and how they chimed with his ideas about Italian colonialism. Could he not have known about these acts? He was, after all, the correspondent for Mussolini’s newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia and worked for the Foreign Ministry in Rome during the 1920s, and as of 1931 was also the foreign correspondent at large for La Gazzetta del Popolo.


Six: On ‘the exorcism of illusion’

Thinking about Cambon’s line, ‘Experience is the progressive exorcism of illusion’ we thought it safe to assume that, given the high regard in which he was held in the years between the end of the war and his death in 1970, and his being remembered posthumously as the greatest of 20th century Italian poets, Ungaretti must at some point, somewhere between the denunciations of war and the proclamations of universal brotherhood that characterised his public post war pronouncements, have also disavowed his Fascist past.

Instead we discovered that Ungaretti’s commitment to Fascism was at best, sometimes contrary. An article published in La Repubblica dated 26 October 1984 and titled Lo Stregone Ungaretti, by Giulio Cattaneo presents a volatile character whose behaviour, had it taken place in Nazi Germany, would quite likely have had him marked, fatally, as a friend of both homosexuals and Jews:

Ungaretti spoke a lot and was passionate about every subject: literature, art, politics, travels, the beauty of women. He ignored caution and he had to speak out on anything he thought, so much so that during fascism he ended up in prison, even though he was a protégé of Mussolini, for shouting like a madman in defence of [the Jewish bisexual poet] Umberto Saba, victim of the racial laws, and against the anti French campaign. He tended to expand and amplify the subjects of his stories, augmenting the real elements with a fervid imagination.’

The Saba incident stemmed from Ungaretti hiding Saba while he was on the run from the Fascists in 1939 – and suggests that Ungaretti valued his friendships over politics.

Ungaretti on the Seine’, an article published in La Republica in 1988 confirms that Ungaretti’s loyalty to Mussolini extended well beyond the war and that rather than disavowing his Fascist past, the poet in his maturity became an apologist for the Duce. Reporting on an event at the Maison de Poesie organised by the Italian Culture Department and the Italian Cultural Institute to commemorate the centenary of Ungaretti’s birth and to pay homage to the poet’s love of Paris, (his ‘ideal fatherland’ as the piece put it) journalist Elena Giucciardi describes a correspondence between Ungaretti and his friend Jean Paulhan comprising 490 letters spanning the years between 1921 and 1968. Ungaretti, Giucciardi writes, ‘doesn’t hide his ideological convictions: for him it is a great honour to be a fascist: fascism marks the resurrection of Italy; Mussolini is his idol. He will make a ‘mea culpa’ only in 1947, admitting that stupidity has sank the Duce’s genius, turning him into a puppet in the hands of Hitler.’

Reading that quote we wondered whether we were missing something. Here’s how it appeared to us, taking the question of friendship and loyalty into account: Mussolini’s friend Hitler invaded France during the Second World War. Ungaretti and Mussolini were close enough to have left an archive of letters that covers a twenty year period from 1922 to the Duce’s timely demise in 1943 and Ungaretti remained committed to Fascism. And yet, in spite of all this, Giuseppe Ungaretti was still being celebrated by the French and used by the Italian government as an exemplary symbol of Italian culture as recently as 1988.

How come?

We wondered whether he was actually a member of the National Fascist Party or, for all the difference it would have made, a fellow traveller. We wondered what it was that drew Ungaretti to Fascism, what he hoped to gain from it, and what role he saw for himself in Mussolini’s world.

On the question of what attracted Ungaretti to fascism, Frank Rosengarten in his text for the International Gramsci Society, ‘Robert Dombroski’s Critical Engagement with Marxism’ [2003] cites a chapter of Dombroski’s L’Esistenza ubbidiente, one of whose subjects is Ungaretti’s relationship with Fascism. Rosengarten’s text is some thirty or so pages long but there are a few passages which pretty much nail the question of what it was about Fascism that appealed to Ungaretti, and for that reason alone we thought it worth including. Here goes:

In the chapter of L’Esistenza ubbidiente devoted to Ungaretti, titled ‘Ungaretti between innocence and fascism,’ Dombroski uses several different critical techniques and approaches. His choice of gambit, at once theoretical and historical in nature, connects to the work of Giovanni Raboni in order to pose a two-sided problem: first, the almost total lack of general theoretical supports for the sociopolitical interpretation of lyric poetry, which he attributes in the main to the overwhelming intellectual influence in Italy of Benedetto Croce’s philosophy of aesthetics, virtually unchallenged at the time Ungaretti was at his creative zenith; and second, the fact that Ungaretti was a poet whose ardently pro-fascist political sentiments and whose poetic œuvre, lyrical and elliptical in his crucial early period, seemed to be completely divergent. The burden of Dombroski’s argument, therefore, is to show that such a divergence was a mere appearance, that on a deeper thematic and psychological level Ungaretti’s politics and his art were amply reconcilable with each other. What was needed was a critical reading of Ungaretti that would reveal the ‘mental structures’ that fascism and the poetry of Ungaretti had in common.

The line that Ungaretti took in the years culminating in the volume Sentimento del tempo, published in 1933, was that Italian writers, above all its poets, needed to recover a sense of formal discipline and restraint, modelled on the classics of Italian poetry, from Petrarch to Leopardi. This was a position, Dombroski maintains, which arrived almost providentially inasmuch as it was analogous to the fascist regime’s concerted effort to restore order and cultural autarchy, after the years from 1919 to about 1923, when fascism had advocated a sort of upstart political and cultural radicalism designed to appeal to sectors of the working class and to a disaffected petit-bourgeois intelligentsia. Thus, Ungaretti’s call for a restoration of order and authority in the realm of poetry moved along a parallel track with the new authoritarian cultural and educational policies of Mussolini’s regime. This was one of the ‘correspondences’ that Dombroski was after.

But such an analogy was not the most important of the arguments in Dombroski’s arsenal. Through artful citation of Ungaretti’s prose writings after World War I, he points out the numerous ways in which the poet revealed his need to unite himself with a power greater than himself, whether that power assumed the form of a ‘man of destiny’ such as Mussolini, whose mere physical presence could ‘transform’ a victim of alienation into a person faith and self-confidence, or whether it was a movement of ideas and feelings – the fascist movement in this case – through which one could change a corrosive sense of separateness into one of cohesive solidarity. In this context, Dombroski argues that it was precisely the ‘totalitarian’ aspect of fascism that most appealed to Ungaretti. Fascism provided him with a way to overcome the estrangement that he shared with many of his compatriots in the postwar years. In one important essay, Dombroski notes, Ungaretti turned to two writers, René Johannet and the Dutch Marxist Bernard Groethuysen, to substantiate his conviction that liberal Italy and liberal Europe had run out of ideas in the face of the post war crisis of bourgeois civilisation. Only Fascism, Ungaretti believed, could slake ‘the thirst for the absolute’ of contemporary Europeans afflicted by a terrible spiritual void, a sense of aimlessness that could only end in despair.

Ungaretti placed the search for harmony and order in the world at the summit of human aspirations, an attitude which Dombroski does not fail to link with the sociopolitical dimension of his thought, and with the ‘mystical’ kernel of his religious orientation to life, his constant hankering after a sense of oneness with the world and with the cosmos. This complex of feelings expresses itself in some measure in his aesthetics, whose fundamental concept, Dombroski claims, is the myth of renewal, of being reborn into a higher state of consciousness and serenity.


The idea of a plenitude either lost or, at the least, still to be discovered, of a mysterious absence of things, is with difficulty separable from the concept of a national soul or of a Mediterranean race, which remains intact through the vicissitudes of history, just as it is with difficulty separable from the myth of a total society in which isolated individuals become living men in communion with the Absolute. The passage, therefore, from poetry to the apology of the totalitarian program of fascism, in the young Ungaretti, assumes a total coherence.

On the question of what Ungaretti hoped to gain from Fascism, well, apparently, he wanted a job. Not just any job, but a place in academia that would place him at the forefront of the dissemination of Fascist culture. Here’s something from the archives of Corriere della Sera. It’s by Giorgio De Rienzo, and is called ‘Ungaretti: ‘Serve un Duce alla guida della cultura’ and was published on December 12, 1996, and it is a letter in which we find Ungaretti touting himself for work in the newly established Fascist Academy. The translations are our own:

Dearest Duce… I am your most devoted soldier’ – Signed: Ungaretti

So wrote the great poet to Benito Mussolini, in an unpublished letter found by Francesca Petrocchi in the archive of the Accademia Nationale dei lincei. The document, contained in a folder ‘Aspirants to the academic post’, is dated 3rd January 1926, and is addressed personally to Mussolini at his private home address at Villa Torlonia. Ungaretti self-candidated himself for the post of member of the Fascist Academy of Italy.

In the letter the author of ‘L’allegria’ also recommended as candidate the painter Ardengo Soffici, while recommending to exclude the writer Ugo Ojetti: but he was ignored. Ojetti was one of the first literary people to be appointed to the academy, while Ungaretti, who was regarded with suspicion at the high levels of the regime, only became an academic a few months before the fall of Fascism.’

And here’s an article, sourced from the archives of La Repubblica dated March 1996, in which we found confirmation of Ungaretti’s membership of the Fascist Party, his proposal for making Fascist culture a pan European phenomenon – and a declaration of commonality with Gabriele D’Annunzio that is evidence enough that Ungaretti considered himself politically and aesthetically closer to the avowedly Fascist D’Annunzio than he may have led his post war pals to believe:

Perfect Fascist In the name of poetry

The letter sent to Mussolini in January 1926 seems to prove the exact date of Ungaretti’s subscription to the Partito Nazionale Fascista: the 30th of August 1924, as the writer himself stated in his curriculum vitae.

Instead, the author of ‘L’Allegria’ always publicly denied his subscription to the PNF.

Ungaretti confessed to the Duce that he looked at the Academy as a stage in his life which could guarantee him the possibility of peacefully doing his job as a poet. As he self-candidated to the post of academic, he praised himself, and wrote a list in which he put in first place Gabriele D’Annunzio ‘whose name is sacred to all’, and in second place ‘I, the undersigned’: ‘Not only in France, but in the whole of Europe, I am the only Italian poet, after D’Annunzio, in which one might have hope. I have already done things that will live. If I were nominated, I would defend the art of tomorrow. And you would help the man who has been your most faithful servant for many years, to do his duty as a poet.’

And finally, here’s an extract, reported by De Rienzo Giorgio for the December 12 1996 edition of Corriere della Sera, from a cache of letters made public in 1997 by Carlo Ossola, author of Giuseppe Ungaretti (1975) and editor of Giuseppe Ungaretti – Filosofia Fantastica; Prose of meditation and intervention (1926-1929) (1997), in which Ungaretti expands on his idea for a fascist cultural academy:

The first duty of the Academy will be to re-establish a certain concord between the men who deal with literature, between the writers, the teachers, the proselytisers. The people are thirsty for poetry. If they weren’t, the miracle of the blackshirts would not have happened here. The day when there will be a certain unity of method, from the explanations of the school teacher to the exegesis of the professor, to the review of the journalist, a crowd of souls will echo the song of the poet’.


Seven: On the defender of ‘The art of tomorrow’, today

You’ll recall that we mentioned a while back that in 1959 Ungaretti was passed over for the Nobel Prize for Literature in favour of the anti fascist poet Salvatore Quasimodo. Well, recently the reasoning behind this decision was made public. We’ve translated the following extracts from the March 2nd 2009 edition of L’Unita:

Nobel denied to Ungaretti ‘poet of the Fascist era’

Exactly half a century has passed since the disappointment of the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti for having missed the Nobel price, given on that occasion to Salvatore Quasimodo.

Today, after years of lively debates and polemics, the motives which led the Academy to that choice are revealed.

The occasion is actually the 50th anniversary of the Nobel prize for Literature to Salvatore Quasimodo. To commemorate the event, the Italian Cultural Institute in Vienna has organised an international meeting dedicated to the ‘European Quasimodo’, accompanied by a touring exhibition of photos and documents.

Exclusive news has been presented at the meeting: Quasimodo won the Nobel prize instead of Ungaretti, who was also a candidate, because he was considered much more worthy to represent the Italy of the 20th century. Up until now it was believed both poets could have equally won and that Quasimodo won in the last ‘round’.


The merit of the discovery of how the Nobel prize was given to Quasimodo goes to Enrico Tiozzo, professor in Goteborg, author of a book on the history of Italian Nobel prizes. A discovery which is not even included in his book, because the documents on the case had been kept undisclosed for 50 years, up until a few weeks ago. Now they have been made available, and Tiozzo could consult them with the permission of the Academy of Sweden.

It turns out that, in order to overcome the Quasimodo-Ungaretti clash, the Academy relied on experts, who unanimously reached a univocal verdict: Quasimodo was ‘the greatest Italian poet of the 1900s’, whose moral stature ‘also rehabilitated an Italy which was coming out of the war’ and out of Fascism, Tiozzo explains, summarising the opinion of the Swedish Academy’s experts.

In their judgement the adjective ‘monumental’ is used three times, and Quasimodo is compared to Garcia Lorca. The judgment on Ungaretti, on the other hand, is lethal. He is defined ‘the greatest poet of the Fascist era’, for whom Mussolini even wrote the preface of his book of poems ‘Porto Sepolto’, and also criticised for his adhesion to Hermetism.

The experts also asked themselves how could Ungaretti keep his post as professor of Contemporary Italian Literature at the Universita’ della Sapienza in Rome. The success of Quasimodo over Ungaretti was completely transparent, and fully in line with the policy of the Academy, to reward commitment and political positions, more than the merely aesthetic-literary values.’



Cori descrittivi di stato d’anima di Didone’e Finale, in La terra promessa, frammenti Giuseppe Ungaretti, Edizioni A. Mondadori, Italy

Cori di Didone, Luigi Nono, Fondazione Archivio Luigi Nono Onlus

The Promised Land, by Giuseppe Ungaretti, New Directions10, 1948 Edited by James Laughlin, Blue Ridge Mountain Press, USA Via Internet Archive
www.archive.org/stream/newdirections10009370mbp/newdirections10009370mbp_djvu.txt – 1019k

What is Fascism, By Benito Mussolini, 1932, from The Modern History Sourcebook http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/mussolini-fascism.html

27 Final Choruses for the Promised Land, by Giuseppe Ungaretti, from Vita di un Uomo (Life of a Man) (Mondadori, Italy 2001)

The Aeneid of Virgil: a verse translation, Introduction, by Virgil, Allen Mandelbaum, Barry Moser, University of California Press, 1982

Lo Stregone Ungaretti, by Giulio Cattaneo Repubblica, 26 October 1984

Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale, by Joseph Cary, Published by University of Chicago Press, 1993

The Alexandrian aesthetic, by Howard Caygill, from The new aestheticism, by John J. Joughin, Simon Malpas, Manchester University Press, 2003

Encyclopaedia of World Biography http://www.bookrags.com/biography/giuseppe-ungaretti/

Mirage and Camouflage: Hiding Behind Hermeticism in Ungaretti’s l’Allegria by Viviane Suvini Hand, Troubador Publishing 2000
Fondazione Archivio Luigi Nono Onlus http://www.luiginono.it

Giuseppe Ungaretti – Silhouette. No writer attributed/James Atlas Wednesday, May 07, 1969 published in the Harvard Crimson, 2009

Foreword, by Jessica Benjamin and Anson Rabinach, from Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies II – Male Bodies: psychoanalysing the white terror (Polity Press 1989)

The Myths, Suppressions, Denials, and Defaults of Italian Colonial History, by Angelo del Boca, from: A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Culture From Post Unification to the Present, University of California Press 2003, edited by Patrizia Palumbo

Alexandria Revisited: Colonialism and the Egyptian works of Enrico Pea and Giuseppe Ungaretti, by Lucia Re, from: A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Culture From Post Unification to the Present, University of California Press 2003, edited by Patrizia Palumbo

Umberto Saba Biography Biography Base

Ungaretti Nella Senna by Elena Guiccaiardi La Repubblica 18 December 1988

Robert Dombroski’s Critical Engagement with Marxism, by Frank Rosengarten, the International Gramsci Society, 2003

Perfetto Fascista in nome della poesia, La Repubblica — 28 March 1996

‘Carissimo Duce – sono il vostro devotissimo milite’ Firmato: Ungaretti

Ungaretti: ‘Serve un Duce alla guida della cultura’ by Giorgio De Rienzo, Corriere della Sera, 12 December 1996
http://archiviostorico.corriere.it/ 1996/dicembre/12/Ungaretti_Serve_Duce_alla_guida_co_0_96121214519.shtml

Nobel denied to Ungaretti ‘poet of the Fascist era, L’Unita, 2 March 2009



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