21 April, 2009
Giorgio Bassani was an Italian novelist, poet, essayist, editor, and international intellectual.
Bassani was born in Bologna into a prosperous Jewish family of Ferrara, where he spent his childhood with his mother Dora, father Enrico (a doctor), brother Paolo, and sister Jenny. In 1934 he completed his studies at his secondary school, the liceo classico L. Ariosto in Ferrara. Music had been his first great passion and he considered a career as a pianist; however literature soon became the focus of his artistic interests.
In 1935 he enrolled in the Faculty of Letters of the University of Bologna. Commuting to lectures by train (third class) from Ferrara, he studied under the art historian Roberto Longhi. His ideal of the “free intellectual” was the Liberal historian and philosopher Benedetto Croce. Despite the anti-Semitic race laws which were introduced from 1938, he was able to graduate in 1939, writing a thesis on the nineteenth-century writer, journalist, radical and lexicographer Niccolò Tommaseo. As a Jew in 1939, however, work opportunities were now limited and he became a schoolteacher in the Jewish School of Ferrara in via Vignatagliata.
In 1940 his first book, Una città di pianura (“A City of the Plain”), was published under the pseudonym Giacomo Marchi in order to evade the race laws. During this period, along with friends he had made in Ferrara’s intellectual circle, he became a clandestine political activist. His activity in the anti-fascist resistance led to his arrest in May 1943; he was released on 26 July, the day after Benito Mussolini was ousted from power.
A little over a week later he married Valeria Sinigallia, whom he had met playing tennis. They moved to Florence for a brief period, living under assumed names, then at the end of the year, to Rome, where he would spend the rest of his life. His first volume of poems, Storie dei poveri amanti e altri versi, appeared in 1944; a second, Te lucis ante, followed in 1947. He edited the literary review Botteghe oscure for Princess Marguerite Caetani from its founding in 1948 until it halted publication in 1960.
In 1953 Passeggiata prima di cena appeared and in 1954 Gli ultimi anni di Clelia Trotti. In the same year he became editor of Paragone, a journal founded by Longhi and his wife Anna Band. Bassani’s writings reached a wider audience in 1956 with the publication of the Premio Strega-winning book of short stories, Cinque storie Ferraresi.
As an editorial director of Feltrinelli Bassani was responsible for the posthumous publication in 1958 of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo, a novel which had been rejected by Elio Vittorini at Mondadori, and also by Einaudi, but which became one of the great successes of post-war Italian literature. Bassani’s enthusiastic editing of the text, following instructions from Elena Croce (daughter of Benedetto) who had offered him the manuscript, later became controversial however; recent editions have been published which follow the manuscript more closely.
Also in 1958 Bassani’s novel Gli occhiali d’oro was published, an examination, in part, of the marginalisation of Jews and homosexuals. Together with stories from Cinque storie ferraresi (reworked and under the new title Dentro le mura (1973)) it was to be form part of a series of works known collectively as Il romanzo di Ferrara which explored the town, with its Christian and Jewish elements, its perspectives and its landscapes. The series also includes: Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1962, Premio Viareggio prizewiner); Dietro la porta (1964); L'airone (1968) and L'odore del fieno (1972). These works realistically document the Italian Jewish community under Fascism in a style that manifests the difficulties of searching for truth in the meanderings of memory and moral conscience. In 1960 one of his novels was adapted as the film Long Night in 1943.
Bassani died in 2000 and was buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Ferrara.