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20 April 2015

Educating Italians in 19th-century London

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The recently acquired journal Il Pellegrino: giornale istruttivo, morale e piacevole ad uso della Scuola Italiana Gratuita di Grenville Street, Hatton Garden, represents a remarkable and unique addition to the British Library’s Italian collections. Launched on 4 June 1842 with a clear pedagogical intent, the journal was an initiative of the Italian exile Giuseppe Mazzini. It became the official publication of the Free Italian School set up by Mazzini in the previous year in the heart of London’s Little Italy.

Il Pellegrino - numero 1                         The first issue of Il Pellegrino, London, 4 June 1842. British Library RB.23.b.7515.

Mazzini first arrived in London on 12 January 1837. To the Italian patriot, England offered the opportunity to leave behind a life spent in hiding and on the run, whilst still remaining actively involved in revolutionary and conspiratorial activities. Although he died in Pisa, Mazzini spent most of his adult life in London, moving from one cheap boarding house to another. In England he acquired several eminent admirers who appreciated his moral principles and unfaltering dedication to the cause of Italian unity. Dickens, George Meredith and Swinburne openly declared their esteem. Mazzini became a personal acquaintance of the Carlyles and was welcomed as a honoured guest by John Stuart Mill.

Mazzini Portrait               Giuseppe Mazzini, portrait from vol. XVI of Scritti editi ed inediti di Giuseppe Mazzini (Imola, 1913). 012226.d.1.

Mazzini first mentioned his idea of setting up a school for the many illiterate Italian immigrants in London in a letter to his mother, dated 3 September 1841. The school would be free and open to “workers, young organ-grinders, those selling plaster figurines, etc.” The daily classes would be held in the evening to encourage attendance. Subjects taught included Italian grammar, history, geography, arithmetic, geometry, mechanics and, at the students’ request, English, with general lectures on moral principles or Italian history every Sunday. Students would be provided with all necessary materials, including paper and ink.

Mazzini at first remained prudently in the shadows to avoid any possible association between the School and the revolutionary political organisation of which he was the leader. The teachers were unpaid volunteers. Among them were such prominent figures as Antonio Gallega, Carlo Pepoli, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Joseph and George Toynbee. The famous American writer and journalist Margaret Fuller addressed the students on more than one occasion. Mazzini himself did a share of teaching, primarily history and geography, which he considered vital in cementing and reinforcing the students’ feeling of being Italian.

Mazzini School
 Mazzini teaching at the Free Italian School, image from Jessie White Mario, Della vita di Giuseppe Mazzini. (Milan, 1886) 10630.i.5.

The popularity and success of the school surpassed all expectations. 51 students enrolled on the first evening, rising to 65 on the second. Mazzini was struck by this enthusiasm; he acknowledged that for “[these] poor souls [who] work or carry street-organs about all day  … it cost a lot to devote two hours to studying”, adding that “if they come of their own will, this shows their typically good Italian character”. The number of students increased to 230 in the following year, including a few female pupils. Following the example of the Free Italian School, similar institutes were established by Italian exiles in Boston, New York and Montevideo.

The School in London, however, had many opponents and detractors too. Antonio Panizzi expressed his disapproval and grave concern. Thomas Carlyle cautioned his wife not to get involved with what he called “a nest of young conspirators”. Many saw the School and the courses it provided as an excuse to teach children the ‘four Rs’: reading,’riting,’rithmetic, and revolution. Even stronger opposition came, as Mazzini had foreseen, from the students’ employers,  the Piedmontese authorities in London and the Catholic Church. In Mazzini’s mind, however, the School never had a political agenda. Its primary purpose was to educate and ameliorate the conditions of Italian immigrants in London.

Edited and published by Luigi Bucalossi at 5 Grenville Street, Hatton Garden, Il Pellegrino (‘The Pilgrim’) was printed by H. Court of 14 Brooke Street, in Holborn, and appeared every Saturday. The price was set at ‘three half pennies’, but the journal was distributed free of charge to pupils attending the school. Each issue consisted of four pages, printed in double columns; the pagination was continuous from issue to issue. The journal survived for just over a year, with the last issue, no. 52, published on 17 June 1843.

Il Pellegrino - numero 24                                                   Issue 24 of Il Pellegrino (10 November 18432)
The content of Il Pellegrino – the title refers both to the journey of learning and to the exiled condition of many Italian émigrés – is inspired by pedagogical motives. Various subjects are covered, including scientific ones, but the emphasis is on Italian history and literature. The paucity of details relating to the journal’s administration makes it difficult to establish how many copies were printed of each issue and how widely they were distributed. It is, however, probable that just enough copies were printed to cover the number of students in the school. This would explain the extreme rarity of the British Library’s copy, so far the only one known to have survived.

Il Pellegrino and the other journals that Mazzini published in London, the Italian School, and the Union of Italian Working Men (which he set up in 1840), were all part of a single moral, educational and philanthropic project. Though not a systematic thinker, Mazzini, was a brilliant and acute interpreter of his times and of the political passions which eventually led to a unified Italy, although as a monarchy rather than the republic he had fought for. He saw education for the lower classes as an inalienable right and a way – perhaps the only way – to achieve emancipation and acquire full consciousness of belonging to a spiritual community, transcending geographical borders – a Nation.

The discovery of this apparently unique run of Il Pellegrino casts additional light on Mazzini’s ideas about schooling and education for the ‘prezioso elemento’ (‘precious element’), as he described the Italian working classes, who were to be the cornerstone of a future nation. Now available for consultation at the British Library, it should prove of singular importance to scholars and historians and to anyone interested in Victorian newspapers and foreign-language or foreign-edited journalism in London.

Andrea Del Cornò, The London Library

Further reading

Andrea Del Cornò, ‘Un ritrovato giornale mazziniano: “Il Pellegrino”’, in Le fusa del gatto: libri, librai e molto altro (Torrita di Siena, 2013)

Franco Della Peruta, Il giornalismo italiano del Risorgimento (Milan, 2011) YF.2011.a.12906

Michele Finelli, Il prezioso elemento: Giuseppe Mazzini e gli emigrati italiani nell’esperienza della Scuola italiana di Londra (Verrucchio, 1999) YA.2000.a.10829

Denis Mack Smith , Mazzini (New Haven, 1994) YC.1994.b.4150

Lucio Sponza, Italian Immigrants in Nineteenth-century Britain: Realities and Images (Leicester, 1988) YC.1988.b.8035

Margaret Campbell Walker Wicks, The Italian Exiles in London, 1816-1848 (Manchester, 1937) Ac.2671/35.

Mazzini plaque
The blue plaque commemorating Mazzini at 183 Gower Street, London

17 April 2015

Sonia Delaunay and Tristan Tzara

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The Sonia Delaunay exhibition which opened this week at Tate Modern shows her prodigious output over some seven decades. Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) worked in a variety of media – paintings, drawings, prints, fashion and fabric designs, posters, mosaics, bookbindings, and book illustrations. She is best known as the creator, with Blaise Cendrars, of one of the greatest livres d’artiste, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, for which she provided pochoir illustrations to Cendrars’ poem.

This famous book, published in 1913, has tended, however, to overshadow similar collaborations with other poets, especially the two books she produced with Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism.

Tzara moved to Paris from Zurich in 1919 and it was apparently one of his manifestos that made Sonia and Robert Delaunay, who had lived in Spain and then Portugal since 1914, aware of the renewed artistic vitality of Paris after the end of the war and determined their return to France. Tzara first met the Delaunays soon after their return to Paris in 1921. Their apartment at 19 Boulevard Malesherbes quickly became a fashionable gathering point for the literary and artistic avant garde, its walls covered with multi-coloured poems and other works of art by Philippe Soupault, Vladimir Mayakovsky, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Jean  Cocteau, and René Crevel. As well as embroidering waistcoats for her friends, Sonia also decorated the interior of Au Sans Pareil, the Dadaist and Surrealist bookshop.

Tzara soon became a close friend of the couple and in 1923 Robert painted his portrait in which he is wearing a scarf designed by Sonia A monocled Tzara also features in one of Robert Delaunay’s best-known paintings, Le Manège aux cochons, painted in 1922. 

CM DELTZA Retrato_de_Tristan_Tzara_(Robert_Delaunay)Robert Delaunay, Portrait of Tristan Tzara (1923). Madrid, Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofia (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The collaboration between Sonia Delaunay and Tzara took various forms. It included robes poèmes, dresses with texts from Tzara’s poems woven into their fabric, all made in 1922, and Sonia’s bookbinding for Tzara’s De nos oiseaux in 1923. Sonia had by then become well known for her textile designs, the main focus of her work over the next 15 years, and it was in that year that Tzara asked her to design the costumes for his play Le Cœur à gaz, a three-act absurdist provocation described by its author as “la plus grande escroquerie en trois actes” (“the biggest swindle in three acts”).

The play had already had a single, disastrous performance during a soirée dada in 1921 with a cast that included Louis Aragon, Benjamin Péret, Philippe Soupault, and Tzara himself. It gained lasting notoriety, however, by the circumstances of this 1923 revival, when it was included in Le Cœur à barbe (“The Bearded Heart”), another soirée dada organised by Tzara and Iliadz. The evening marked the culmination of the ongoing conflict between Tzara and Breton and finally split the Dadaists and led to the foundation of Surrealism by Breton and his followers. It also included first performances of new compositions by Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as films by Charles Sheeler and Hans Richter. The two groups came to blows during the performance of the play. Several people were injured and the actors, encased in Sonia’s heavy cardboard costumes, found themselves unable to move. A photograph showing René Crevel (Oeil) and Jacqueline Chaumont (Bouche) has survived, and their costumes can be compared to Sonia’s original designs.

CM DELTZA Coeur Costume 2  CM DELTZA Coeur Costume 3
Sonia Delaunay, Costume designs for Le Cœur à barbe, 1923: Left, Bouche; right, Oeil (British Library  C.108 aaa.14.). A copy of the photograph can be seen here.

The text of the play had been first published in Der Sturm on 5 March 1922 but did not appear together with Sonia’s costume designs until 1977, when they were published in association with the exhibition La Rencontre: Sonia Delaunay, Tristan Tzara at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris  by the art critic and publisher Jacques Damase, a close friend of Sonia who promoted her work in the last 16 years of her life. The volume includes ten lithographs, seven of which are full-page, colour reproductions of the gouaches of the 1923 costume designs; the others comprise an additional title-page and two decorations in the text. 125 copies were printed, all signed by the artist. An additional set of the full-page lithographs, individually signed by the artist, was issued with each of the first 25 copies.

CM DELTZA Coeur t.p.
Additional title page of  Tristan Tzara Le Cœur à barbe (Paris, 1977)

The friendship between Sonia Delaunay and Tzara lasted until Tzara’s death in 1963, although they grew apart in the 1930s, when Tzara joined the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and Sonia was for several years busy with the mural paintings commission for the 1937 International Exhibition. They were next brought together, with other ‘undesirables’, in Toulouse in 1944, three years after the death of Robert Delaunay. After the war Tzara once again became an habitué of Sonia’s studio, now at Rue Saint-Simon on the Left Bank.

Like Sonia, Tzara had a strong interest in illustrated books and worked with numerous artists – including Matisse, Kandinsky, Léger, Mirò, Arp, Giacometti, Villon, Klee and Ernst – on illustrated editions of his poems. There were two collaborations with Sonia: for Le Fruit permis (1956), her first book since La Prose du Transsibérien, Sonia contributed four pochoir compositions, and for Juste présent (1961), a collection of 11 poems written between 1947 and 1950, she made eight full-page colour etchings  and an additional colour etching for the slipcase, printed in the right sense on the front and upside down on the back cover.



Above: Two of Sonia Delaunay’s etchings for  Juste présent ([Paris], 1961).; Below: etching for slipcase cover of Juste présent

CM DELTZA Juste Slip 

140 copies of Juste présent  were printed, all signed by the poet and the artist. The British Library’s copy is no. 124. In both publications Sonia’s colours are strong and pure, with a predominance of vermilion, indigo and black. The compositions, with their interplay between flat colour and black, hatched areas, are typical of her post-1945 output (for example, her various Rythme-couleur paintings).

Jacques Damase, who did so much to promote Sonia Delaunay’s art, did not live to see her final consecration: he was tragically killed in an accident in July 2014, just three months before the opening in Paris of this major exhibition of her work, now at Tate Modern. Perhaps the exhibition should be dedicated to his memory? 

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance collections


Tristan Tzara, Juste présent  [Poèmes]. Eaux-fortes de Sonia Delaunay. ([Paris], 1961).

Tristan Tzara, Le cœur à gaz; costumes de Sonia Delaunay. ([Paris], 1977). C.108 aaa.14

La Rencontre: Sonia Delaunay, Tristan Tzara. Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, avril-juin 1977 / [commissaire: Danielle Molinari].  (Paris, [1977]).  YV.1987.a.344

Annabelle Melzer, Dada and Surrealist Performance. (Baltimore & London, 1994) YC.1994.a.3134 & 98/01171

Sonia & Robert Delaunay [the catalogue of the Delaunay donation to the Bibliothèque nationalede France]. (Paris, 1977). j/X.415/2418. 

Sonia Delaunay, Nous irons jusqu’au soleil.  (Paris, 1977).  X.429/7809

Sherry A. Buckberrough, Susan Krane, Sonia Delaunay: a retrospective. (Buffalo, NY, 1980) f80/8227.

Sonia Delaunay [the catalogue of the exhibition at Tate Modern].  London, 2015.

Chris Michaelides, ‘Robert and Sonia Delaunay’, review of the exhibition at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, The Burlington Magazine,  February 2015.  P.P.1931.pcs.    


15 April 2015

Günter Grass (1927-2015)

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Günter Grass, who died this week aged 87, is best known for his first novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), published in 1959, never out of print since, and memorably filmed by Volker Schlöndorff in 1979. When Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, the Nobel Foundation described the novel’s narrator and chief protagonist Oskar Matzerath as “an intellectual whose critical approach is childishness, a one-man carnival, dadaism in action.”

Günter Grass in 2006 90px-CC_some_rights_reserved_svg
Günter Grass in 2006. (Picture from Blaues Sofa on Wikimedia Commons) 

Much of the action of Die Blechtrommel takes place in Grass’s native Danzig, then part of Germany, now Gdansk in Poland. The city remained central to his imagination: two further novels Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse) and Hundejahre (Dog Years) make up what is known as the ‘Danzig Trilogy’, while his 1992 novel Unkenrufe (The Call of the Toad) revisits the city after the fall of Communism. Visitors to Gdansk today can follow guided tours around sites from his life and work.

Although he was best known as a novelist, Grass was a man of many parts: poet, playwright, artist, political activist and occasional jazz musician. He initially studied sculpture and graphic arts, and his work in these genres continued throughout his life, alongside his writing. A catalogue rasionné of his etchings and lithographs, published in 2007, runs to two hefty volumes and lists nearly 40 exhibitions of his work. His pictures often reflect themes and symbols from his literary works, and certain subjects and images recur over the years (most enduringly fish, especially the flounder that gives its name to his novel Der Butt).

Grass Butt Göttingen
Sculpture by Grass in Göttingen, showing a hand holding a flounder (photo: Susan Reed)

Grass always drew the cover illustrations for his novels, and also produced illustrated collections of  poetry. His poetry is less well-known (and more uneven) than his novels, but his first published work was a collection of poems and pictures, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (‘The advantages of the weathercocks’) and he continued to write poetry throughout his life, in particular causing controversy in 2012 with the long poem ‘Was gesagt werden muß’ (‘What must be said’) which was highly critical of the Israeli government.

The title of the poem also reflects an earlier controversy over politics in Grass’s work. In 1995 the magazine Der Spiegel published a highly critical review by the influential critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki of Grass’s novel Ein weites Feld (Too Far Afield), entitled ‘... und es muß gesagt werden’ (‘... and it must be said’). The novel voiced Grass’s criticism of German reunification, which he thought had been entirely driven by the agenda of a West Germany keen to grab what he called ‘ein Schnäppchen namens DDR’  (‘a bargain called the GDR’). The magazine’s cover fuelled the controversy by showing Reich-Ranicki apparently tearing apart a copy of the book.

Some of Grass’s works, includng his cover illustrations, from the British Library's collection

Controversy was in fact another constant in Grass’s life, most notoriously in 2006 when he admitted in his memoir Beim häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) that he had been a teenage volunteer in the Waffen-SS rather than a conscript as he had previously implied. This belated confession from an author considered by many as the conscience of the nation, renowned for confronting the past and encouraging others to do so, struck many as hypocritical, and there were even calls for him to be stripped of his Nobel Prize and his honorary citizenship of Gdansk.

But, as many obituarists have pointed out, it is in the end for his novels rather than his political stance or personal failings (or indeed for his poetry or art) that Grass will be remembered. His often exuberant style and his fertile and original imagination were a rich addition to German letters and have impressed readers and influenced authors all over the world. In Die Blechtrommel he created what the Nobel Committee rightly predicted would be “one of the enduring literary works of the 20th century.”

To finish, an odd, and perhaps rather trivial, example of Grass’s cultural reach: I believe that he is the only German novelist (or Nobel laureate) ever to be affectionately plagiarised in the long running BBC Radio serial The Archers. In a 2002 episode, a visiting Eastern European agriculture student told the story of how his grandparents met – in fact a version of the first encounter between Oskar’s grandparents in Die Blechtrommel where Agnes  hides Joseph from the police under her voluminous skirts.  Archers fans who knew their German literature were no doubt relieved when, in a later episode, the student gave Grass his due and admitted that he had borrowed the story to amuse one of the Archer children.

Perhaps not quite what the Nobel Foundation had in mind, but nonetheless it may have won Grass a few more English readers.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic collections

Works by Grass referred to in the text:

Die Blechtrommel (Darmstadt, 1959) British Library 011421.p.86. (English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Tin Drum (London, 1962) X.909/2060.)

Katz und Maus (Neuwied am Rhein, 1961) 12520.pp.14.  (English translation by Ralph Mannheim, Cat and Mouse (London, 1963) 11769.w.5.)

Hundejahre (Neuwied am Rhein, 1963) 12521.m.12. (English translation by Ralph Mannheim, Dog Years (London, 1965) X.909/5610.)

Unkenrufe (Göttingen, 1992) YA.1994.a.4374. (English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Call of the Toad (London, 1992) Nov.1992/1350.)

Günter Grass : catalogue raisonné / herausgegeben von Hilke Ohsoling (Göttingen, 2007). LF.31.b.6661.

Der Butt (Darmstadt, 1977) X.989/71159. (English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Flounder (London, 1978) X.989/76027.)

Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (Berlin, 1956) X.909/1713.

Ein weites Feld (Göttingen, 1995) YA.2000.a.1568 (English translation by Krishna Winston, Too Far Afield (London, 2000) Nov.2001/1203.)

Beim häuten der Zwiebel (Göttingen, 2006) YF.2007.a.1517. (English translation by Michael Henry Heim, Peeling the Onion (London, 2007) YC.2007.a.14122.)