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28 September 2016

Giorgio Bassani 1916-2000

Giorgio Bassani is best known for the great sequence of five novels and a collection of short stories, first published separately between 1950s and 1970s which, after a process of constant linguistic revisions, were finally published in 1980 as ll Romanzo di Ferrara. This definitive edition (British Library X.950/26023), comprised Dentro le mura (originally published as Cinque storie ferraresi), Gli Occhiali d’oro, Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, Dietro la porta, L’Airone, and L’Odore del fieno. Only Bassani’s first collection of short stories, Una cittĂ  di pianura, published in 1940 under the pseudonym Giacomo Marchi in order to evade the Racial Laws then in force, was omitted.

CM bassani  1 Photograph
Giorgio Bassani

Bassani’s most famous work is Il Giardino del Finzi-Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Contini), which chronicles the relationship between the narrator and the Finzi-Contini, an aristocratic Jewish family in Ferrara, in the 1930s (especially in 1938 when the first Racial Laws were first promulgated in Italy) and his love for MicĂČl, the beautiful, capricious, and mysterious daughter of the family. It was made into a film by Vittorio de Sica in 1970. The novel (or perhaps the film?) also inspired Valley of Shadows, a ballet by Kenneth MacMillan, first performed in March 1983.

Bassani Giardino
Giorgio Bassani, Il Giardiono dei Finzi-Contini (Turin, 1962)  11626.t.14.

De Sica’s film, though lavishly-produced, critically well- received, and ultimately very moving, proved controversial as it took several liberties with the novel, notably by making crassly explicit the relationship between MicĂČl and Malnate. The film also lacks the novel’s all-pervasive and multi-layered atmosphere of foreboding and its evocations of death (there are, for example, descriptions of three different cemeteries, the necropolis at Cerveteri, the Jewish cemetery in Ferrara, and the one in Venice). Bassani, who initially supervised various versions of the screenplay but was not consulted about certain last-minute changes, violently denounced the film in the article ‘Il Giardino tradito’ (‘The Garden betrayed’) that appeared in the magazine L’Espresso in the same week as the film’s official opening. He had his name removed as one of its script-writers and the opening credits just state that it was ‘freely derived from the novel by Giorgio Bassani’.

Like his fiction, Bassani’s poems and essays were collected in the 1980s, published respectively as In rima e senza (1982), and Di là dal cuore (1984). Bassani was also an occasional translator and scriptwriter, whose translations include James M. Cain’s The Postman always rings twice (published in 1946, three years after Luchino Visconti’s film Ossessione, itself an adaptation of the novel). Screenplays by Bassani include La Donna del fiume (1954) in collaboration with, among others, Ennio Flaiano, Alberto Moravia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mario Soldati.

As editorial director of Biblioteca di letteratura, the publisher Feltrinelli’s series of new writing, Bassani scored a real coup by publishing Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), a work that had previously been rejected by two other publishers. In his preface to the first edition of the novel, Bassani gives an account of the only time he saw Lampedusa, in 1954 at a literary conference in San Pellegrino Terme where the latter had travelled with his cousin, the poet Lucio Piccolo, who was the recipient of a prize at that gathering.

CM Bassani 3   CM Bassani 4
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo (Milan, 1958) 12472. r.3. and Racconti (Milan, 1961) 11589.m.12.

Lampedusa wrote Il Gattopardo, his only novel, in a brief outburst of creative activity shortly before his death in 1957. Shortly afterwards Bassani was sent a typescript of parts of the novel and, recognising its worth, travelled to Palermo where he met Lampedusa’s widow, retrieved the rest of the manuscript and also that of Lampedusa’s three short stories and an autobiographical memoir. Il Gattopardo was published in 1958 and, in the wake of the novel’s sensational success, Bassani also published Lampedusa’s Racconti in 1961.

There are numerous striking similarities, recently studied, between Il Gattopardo and Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, two of the greatest Italian novels of the 20th century. Notable among them are the depiction of social classes threatened with extinction, and the omnipresence of death.

To mark the centenary of Bassani’s birth, the British Library in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute is organising “Remembering Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000), a three-day conference. Details of the programme can be found here; to book for the sessions at the Italian Cultural Institute, please contact the Institute (020 7235 1461; icilondon@esteri.it). To book for the sessions at the British Library, please email chris.michaelides@bl.uk and type ‘Bassani Conference’ in the subject line.

Chris Michaelides,Curator, Romance Collections.


References/further reading

Sophie Nezri-Dufour, Il Giardino del Gattopardo: Giorgio Bassani e Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. (Milan, 2014).

Sophie Nezri-Dufour, Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini: una fiaba nascosta. (Ravenna, 2011). YF.2012.a.28385.

Giorgio Bassani,Opere [edited by] Roberto Cotroneo. (Milan, 1998).

26 September 2016

Il Decamerone – “Corrected” by Rome

Giovanni Boccaccio, poet, Humanist, orator, narrator and ambassador, father of the Italian novel, is one of the greatest storytellers known. He composed Il Decamerone (The Decameron)  in the mid-14th century and it  was first circulated in manuscript form in the 1370s. Despite being one of the most meddled-with texts to have endured, its ‘Frame story’ structure – ten tales told by each of ten people gathered together for a fortnight – has become canonised as a model for literary prose. Two texts in particular, one prepared by Ruscelli in 1552 and one by Salvati in 1587, are notorious for their meddling emendations. The Decameron is also widely known for its erotic components and it has quite unfairly led to its author and his work bIl eing associated with ‘obscenity’.

A common perception is that it is this supposed obscenity which has led to the book having been banned and suppressed here and there by the usual powerful groupings of offended sensibilities. The Roman Catholic Church did indeed ‘ban’ The Decameron but knew that they could not simply obliterate such a well-known and widely circulated work; the 15th and 16th centuries saw an estimated 192 printed editions alone. Faced with the Reformation, the Catholic Church needed to defend itself and reconsolidate its position of authority. To this purpose, one of the several measures taken by the Council of Trent was to create a commission to assemble and manage a list of forbidden books resulting in the fabled Index Librorum Prohibitorum which  identified books which were heretical, anti-clerical or explicitly sexual.

But how was the Church to manage The Decameron? Quite craftily was how. In the early 1570s, under the leadership of Vincenzo Borghini, a team of clerical scholars in Florence set about emending its text. They cloaked their expurgations by trying to convince people that they had kindly corrected existing editions, enhancing the language and in the process arriving at the ‘true’ text written by Boccaccio; original authorial intent had been revealed, “By Order of the Inquisition”.

So in 1573 the Florentine printers Giunti issued Il Decameron ... Ricorretto in Roma, et emendato secondo l'ordine del Sacro Conc. di Trento, et riscontrato in Firenze con testi antichi & alla sua vera lezione ridotto da' deputati


Decameron 1573 tp C.7.a.8. The title page of the 1573 Florence edition of Il Decameron (C.7.a.8).

Borghini’s approved edition implied that manuscripts of The Decameron had been mischievously distorted to include outrageous slights against the Church and its servants. The erotic elements, the ‘obscenity’, often key to a tale’s plot and meaning, remained but all the references to the clergy had been removed. The crux of the problem for them was the dignity of the Roman Catholic Church and they managed it by simply removing references to priests, monasteries and so on; generic terms served their purpose with nuns becoming ‘ladies’ or ‘dames’, abbesses becoming random figures of aristocracy.

The British Library has three copies of this ‘corrected’ edition.  One  exposes clearly the motivations of the Church expurgations and emendations. A century after its publication another scholar called Marco Dotto systematically went through it annotating the pages: re-inserting the censored details and re-correcting Borghini’s emendations. Dotto wrote a short explanatory essay voicing his outrage at the mutilation of Boccaccio’s great work by the ‘scalpel’ of the Inquisition. He viewed himself as a ‘physician’ repairing their butchery, healing it and restoring the text to its true, we could say, rude health.

Decameron Day 3 story 1 annotated Day Three, Story One (Masetto, gardener at a convent) annotated by Marco Dotto. ‘Garden of Ladies’, or Convent? (C.7.a.8)

The story of Masetto of Lamporecchio told by Filostrato on Day Three is a favourite tale from The Decameron and illustrates  how the book has been meddled with. Masetto, a handsome young man, schemes to get a job as a gardener at a convent by pretending to be deaf and dumb. Two nuns talk of what they have heard rumoured to be the best pleasure a woman can get and scheme to meet Masetto in the garden’s woodshed. Other nuns witness this and insist on their share also. One day, the Abbess passes Masetto, spent and asleep on a bank in the garden. The wind happens to blow his shirt up and reveals all his glory to the head of the convent; consumed with desire she takes him to her quarters believing she can sleep with the young gardener with impunity as, deaf and dumb, he can tell no tale. All this is draining for Masetto so he decides to reveal he is cured. It is claimed as a miracle, nurtured by his tending the convent gardens. We can see how Dotto’s annotations restore the expurgated ‘munistero di donne’ used by Boccaccio which the clerics had rendered as ‘giardino di damigelle’. Borghini frequently anonymised particular named locations to protect reputations and often removed them entirely to places in France.

The last uncensored Decameron of the 16th century was printed in 1558 and with so many early editions it is interesting to make comparisons between them. Here we can see a folio with the start of Masetto’s story in an edition printed in Venice by Manfredo Bonelli in 1498. The text and the woodcuts faithfully assert the setting as a convent and its characters as nuns.


Decameron Day 3 story 1
 Masetto of Lamporecchio in the ‘Garden of Ladies’, Day Three Story 1. (C.4.i.7)

But censorship comes from many sources, individual sensibilities may be offended as much as organised, institutional interests; a fact that can be seen in this mid-15th century manuscript of The Decameron where the concluding sentiment on Masetto’s tale, has been heavily censored and obscured by another hand.

Decameron Add MS 10297
Censored mid-15th century manuscript (Add MS 10297 f.46r)

Such are the fascinations with obscenity and censorship, the simple fact that Boccaccio is one of the greatest storytellers ever to be printed can be in danger of being overlooked. We can celebrate this year’s Banned Books Week  by appreciating a good read of unexpurgated editions of this great collection of stories; though it can be fun to read the censored efforts too. But do remember that original authorial intent should never be taken for granted – sometimes it is wrested away by the operations of power and can be lost forever because of some individual’s  or organisation’s disapproval and assault.

Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections.

Decameron storytellers C.4.i.7
 The storytellers; the woodcut illustrated title page of Manfredo Bonelli’s Decamerone o ver Cento Nouelle, Venice, 1498 (C.4.i.7)

References/further  reading:

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron. Translated with an introduction by G.H. McWilliam (London, 1972). X.908/23609

Pisanus Fraxi, Bibliography of prohibited books. Index librorum prohibitoru (3 Vols) (New York, 1962). RAR 808.803

David Wallace, Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron. (Cambridge, 1991)YC.1991.a.4224

Giuseppe Chiecchi, Luciano Troisio, Il Decameron sequestrato: le tre edizioni censurate nel Cinquecento. (Milan, 1984) ZA.9.a.636 (4)

Giuseppe Chiecchi, “Dolcemente dissumulando”: cartelle laurenziane e “Decameron” censurato (1573)(Padua, 1992)./WP.16966/53     

Giuseppe Chiecchi (ed.),  Le annotazioni e i discorsi sul Decameron del 1573 dei deputatii fiorentini. (Rome, 2001) YA.2003.a.9884

This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the Author.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

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22 September 2016

‘The greatest German storyteller’? Johann Peter Hebel

In the English-speaking world, the Swiss-born author Johann Peter Hebel is less well known that he deserves to be – possibly through confusion with his near-namesake, the poet and dramatist Friedrich Hebbel. Their fields of activity, however, were very different, for besides his poems and stories Hebel was also a pioneering supporter of a Swiss-German dialect which defeated even Goethe.

Untitled
Portrait of Hebel by Hans Bendel from Zwölf Allemannische Gedichte (Winterthur, 1849). British Library 11527.g.12.

Tragedy struck the Hebel family in the first year of his life, when his father and baby sister Susanne succumbed to typhus. His parents had been working in Basel at the time of his birth, and with his mother Ursula he spent part of the year there and the rest in her native village of Hausen im Wiesental,  where he began his education, continuing his studies in Basel and at the grammar school in Schopfheim. When he was thirteen, his mother fell seriously ill, and with the local magistrate he hurried to Basel to bring her back by ox-wagon to Hausen, only to see her die on the journey.

With the help of sponsors Hebel was admitted to the Gymnasium illustre in Karlsruhe, graduating in 1778. Like Hegel, Hölderlin and Schelling, he studied theology but turned to teaching when he was unable to obtain a parish. Among the subjects which he taught were botany and natural history; he amassed a considerable collection of plants, and was also an honorary member of the Jena mineralogical society. His modest ambition to live out his days as a country pastor was never fulfilled; instead he became director of the Karlsruhe Gymnasium, and spent the rest of his life there. However, in 1819 he was appointed prelate of the Lutheran churches in Baden, and thus a member of the upper chamber of the local assembly. This allowed him to support social and educational enterprises such as the establishment of institutions for the deaf, dumb and blind and better training for Roman Catholic priests. He remained actively involved in this work until his death from cancer on 22 September 1826.

Alongside these duties, however, Hebel maintained a rich creative life. Devoted to the language as well as the nature of the country where he had grown up, he composed, on returning from a visit there in 1799, a collection of 32 poems in the local dialect, the Allemannische Gedichte (‘for friends of rural nature and customs’). No Basel publisher, however, would risk publishing a book in such an obscure tongue as Alemannic, and it was not until 1803 that it came out anonymously in Karlsruhe. The British Library possesses a copy of this first edition.

Hebel Alemannische Gedichts 11525.e.18 Title-page of the first edition of Hebel’s  Allemannische Gedichte (Karlsruhe, 1803) 11525.e.18 

One of the most famous poems in this volume is ‘Die VergĂ€nglichkeit’ (Transience), a dialogue between a father and his young son as they travel through the evening landscape by cart, passing the exact spot at which Hebel’s own mother had died before his eyes. The sensitive evocation of human emotions and picturesque landscapes brought the poems such success that a second edition followed in 1804, this time under Hebel’s own name.

His interest in education led to two more of his most famous productions, the ‘calendar stories’ which he wrote as editor of the RheinlĂ€ndischer Hausfreund, at the rate of 30 per year, and a collection of Bible stories for use for pupils aged 10-14 in Protestant schools, the Biblische Geschichten (Stuttgart/TĂŒbingen, 1824; 1011.d.8), whose lively narrative style made them so popular that a version for Catholic schools was published the following year (3126.aa.8). The British Library also holds a first edition of the Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes (TĂŒbingen, 1811; 12315.d.19), a treasury of stories from the RheinlĂ€ndischer Hausfreund which remain enduring favourites among German readers, including one of his most famous stories, Unverhofftes Wiedersehen (Unexpected Reunion), an eerie tale set in the Swedish mining district of Falun which also inspired E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Bergwerke zu Falun.

The wit, humour and keen observation which characterize Hebel’s writings attracted many illustrators. Especially charming are the lithographs based on pen and ink drawings by Hans Bendel for a revised version of the Allemannische Gedichte (Winterthur, 1849; 11527.g.12) containing settings of five of the poems with piano accompaniment. Equally appealing are the Dreißig Umrisse zu J. P. Hebel’s allemannischen Gedichten, 30 sketches by Julius Nisle. Both evoke a vanished world in which the dignitaries of Schopfheim, the rustic lovers Hans and Verene,  beggars, ghosts and tipsy peasants are portrayed in loving detail, every feature of the  landscape and local costume faithfully depicted, yet without sentimentality.

Hebel 506.aa.7. GeisterbesuchIllustrations by Julius Nisle from Dreißig Umrisse zu J. P. Hebel’s allemanischen Gedichten (Stuttgart, 1845) 506.aa.7

Hebel 506.aa.7. Karfunkel

These qualities also won Hebel many admirers, including Tolstoy, the Brothers Grimm, Goethe (who found him a ‘splendid man’ and tried, not very successfully, to write a poem in Alemannic), and Hermann Hesse, who considered him the greatest German storyteller, on a par with Gottfried Keller  and with a surer touch and more powerful effect than Goethe himself.

Paradoxically, while his fellow-poet Eduard Mörike chafed at the restrictions of life as a country parson, this represented an ideal which Hebel was never to attain. Yet, as he himself acknowledged, an invisible hand seemed to lead him far beyond his humble aspirations, and his importance to literature as well as to education and the humanities is marked by the decision of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland to commemorate him in its calendar on 22 September, the day of his death 130 years ago.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement