Lake Como has inspired poetic sensibilities throughout the ages including those of two of Italy’s most renowned poets of the 20th century – Antonia Pozzi and Alda Merini. Both these writers’ works are available in English translation giving also us the opportunity to appreciate their creativity. See below for details. They shared an almost mystical appreciation of nature gained through a prism of existential social pressure and isolation. Alda suffered years of mental illness in which she was incapacitated from writing. Antonia tragically cut her own life short when only twenty six due in her own words to ‘mortal desperation’. All of her work was published posthumously.
Antonia and Alda were both from Milan but had close associations with Lake Como. Antonia spent at least three months of the year in the family’s country villa in Pasturo, a small town in the Valsassina on the Lecco leg of Lake Como. It was the wild nature of the valley that inspired her poetry which contains not a single reference to Milan. Alda took more inspiration from her urban environment but was deeply attached to Brunate, the small town above Como where her paternal grandparents lived.
Antonia was born in 1912 into an aristocratic family with literary antecedents. Her mother was the granddaughter of Tommaso Grossi, the writer and friend of Alessandro Manzoni. Her father was a lawyer well-established within the Fascist hierarchy. She attended the Liceo Manzoni in Milan and went on to study languages and philosophy at university. She was an excellent photographer as well as a poet. Her first poems were written at the age of seventeen. She went on writing, keeping both her poems and letters within a series of notebook diaries.
Here is a translation of ‘Pudore’ by Nicholas Benson:
If a word of mine
and you tell me
even just with your eyes
I open wide
in a joyful smile –
but I tremble
like a young mother
who even blushes when
a passerby tells her
her little boy is handsome.
1 February 1933
One of her tutors at University was Antonio Banfi, a philosopher who propounded a ‘rationalist’ aesthetic in literature deploying simple and accessible language. She describes her own style of writing as a ‘desire to reduce the weight of words to the minimum’. In this sense, she was fully aligned to the modernist and rationalist philosophies also evident in the architectural and design theories of Como’s Antonio Sant’Elia and Giuseppe Terragni and in the fine art produced by the ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’. The equivalent school of poetry was known as ‘Crepuscolarismo’ – a movement that originated at the start of the 20th century based on a rejection of the grandiose and heroic in favour of the spirit found in everyday life expressed in simple free verse. As with Terragni’s architectural rationalism, this movement had grown out of Italian Futurism.
One critic has commented: “Her Modernist verse is lyrical and experimental, pastoral and erotic, powerfully evoking the northern Italian landscape and her personal tragedies amid the repressive climate of Fascism”. Unfortunately for Antonia, her father’s strong commitment to fascism with its misogynistic anti-feminist creed created conflict at home. The family’s obsession with maintaining their social standing and reputation led her father to deny Antonia access to her lover and later on, to censoring the publication of any of her poems deemed inappropriate. Her escape was walks in the mountains around the family’s summer home in Pasturo.
In Antonia’s words “poetry has this sublime task: to take all the pain that foams and bounces in our soul and to appease it, to transfigure it into the supreme calm of art, just as rivers flow into the celestial sea.” However her ability to appease the pains in her everyday life was to prove beyond her. On top of the oppressive atmosphere at home and the dispiriting climate of the fascist regime, Antonia found the passing of the anti-semitic Race Laws in September 1938 a final blow. She declared at that moment “forse l’età delle parole è finita per sempre (maybe the time for words is over forever)”. Four months later she committed suicide out of ‘mortal desperation’ aged just 26. She took an overdose of barbiturates and lay down to die in a snow-covered field overlooking the beautiful Chiaravalle Abbey to the south of Milan. Her parents gave pneumonia as the cause of her death.
Up to that moment only a few close friends knew of her poetic output. Her father, Roberto Pozzi, undertook a strict censorship of her poems and paid for the private publication of this collection entitled ‘Parole, Liriche’.
The initial print run for the book was for 300 copies published in Milan by Mondadori in 1939. However Antonia’s full poetic output was only truly revealed in 1986 thanks to research undertaken by Sister Onorina Dino who is now the established curator of Antonia’s poems.
Suora Onorina compared the poems in Antonia’s notebooks – her original manuscripts – with the versions printed in the 1939 edition. She discovered that Antonia’s father had modified some of the poems by altering both the metre and vocabulary in parts. He had also penned over some of the poems and cut out pages to censor those he did not like. The nun’s diligent research led to finding a secondary source of these missing works passed on from a close friend of Antonia who had been entrusted with handwritten copies.
It was only in 1989, on the publication of the unadulterated and complete works of Antonia Pozzi, that critics could make a true assessment of their literary value. Maria Corti, a much respected commentator on contemporary Italian literature who died in 2002 wrote:
“Her spirit made us think of those mountain plants that can only expand at the edge of crevasses, on the edge of the abyss. She was hypersensitive, with a sweet creative anguish, but at the same time a woman with a strong character and a beautiful philosophical intelligence; she was perhaps the innocent prey of a paranoid paternal censorship of life and poetry. No doubt she was in crisis with the closed religious family environment. The beloved Lombard land, the nature of plants and rivers certainly consoled her more than her peers.”
Antonia has been compared with Emily Dickinson and some may well see similarities with Sylvia Plath but ultimately she is an Italian rationalist poet born into the Modernist period with a spiritual dimension unrelated to any belief in God but more to an interest in the idea of God. She is also very much a product of her geographical background with an almost mystical appreciation of nature perhaps arising from the sharp contrast between her urban upbringing in Milan and those idyllic months spent in the foothills of Le Grigne above the shores of Lake Como.
Her source of inspiration was the countryside around the family villa in Pasturo where she is buried in the town’s cemetery. To honour their famous daughter, the local council have defined a poetic walk (Percorso Poetico) so visitors to Pasturo can themselves appreciate some of her works within the setting that inspired their creation.
Alda Merini was born in Milan in 1931, just seven years before the untimely death of Antonia Pozzi. She died in 2009. Her paternal grandfather was from an aristocratic background but had been disinherited on marrying Alda’s grandmother who was from a peasant family. Her father was supportive of Alda’s education but tried to discourage her from becoming a writer on receiving early encouragement from her tutors. Her mother felt all ambition for her daughter to be inappropriate and urged her into just accepting a future based on marriage and motherhood. She applied to study at the same secondary school as Antonia Pozzi, Milan’s Liceo Alessandro Manzoni, but was rejected ironically due to her ‘poor Italian’. Her early promise as a poet was interrupted in late adolescence by the onset of a severe bipolar condition which plagued her until better managed in later life. In spite of this she enjoyed rich periods of creativity resulting in being put forward twice for a Nobel Prize – in 1996 by the Academie Francaise and in 2001 by the Pen Club Italiano.
Alda Merini’s paternal grandparents lived in Brunate and Alda took much inspiration from the mountains around Como. The footpath from Como to Brunate has now been named the ‘Sentiero Alda Merini’ in her honour. Small excerpts from her poems have been posted along its route forming part of the initiative by Sentiero dei Sogni of creating a Poets Way from Maslianico on the Swiss border to San Maurizio above Brunate .
We have not given as much space to Alda in this article not because she does not warrant it but because we have already featured her and her poetry in our article entitled Poets’ Way: Como to Brunate.
Both these local poets display exceptional talent. While Antonia Pozzi came from a literary background, Alda Merini was more proletarian yet they shared many aspects in common. Both were brought up in Milan but were strongly drawn to the countryside around Lake Como. Both displayed acute poetic sensibility at an early age with accompanying mental fragility. Both adopted a deceptively simple and highly accessible writing style. Both had to deal with paternalistic societal pressures seeking to limit their creative expression. Both have achieved posthumous recognition of their talents in spite of life’s obstacles. Both are admirable women.
For a bilingual collection of Antonia Pozzi’s poems and letters, look for Breath: Poems and Letters by Antonia Pozzi translated by Lawrence Venuti and published by Wesleyan University Press. This book is available on Amazon.
For our articles on Modernism, Rationalism and the Como School of Abstract Art, refer to the following: