The Path to the Spiders’Nests

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The Path to the Spiders’Nests

by Italo Calvino


A novel set in Liguria, in northwest Italy in 1944; published m Italian (as II sentiero deinidi di ragno) in 1947, in English in 1957,


A young orphan who joins the Italian Resistance against the occupying forces from Germany during World War II discovers some spielers’ nests in which he hides a gun that he steals from a German soldier.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Italo Calvino was born into a family’s of Italian scientists in Santiago de las Vegas, near Havana, Cuba, on October 15, 1923. In 1925 the Calvino family’s returned to San Remo, Italy, located in the Liguria region, near Italy’s border with France. A lively, cosmopolitan city, San Remo sits on the Mediterranean Sea and remained Calvino’s home for most of his youth. World War II broke out when he was living there; Calvino was only 15 at the time. A few years later, in 1943, Calvino joined the Resistance movement against the remains of Mussolini’s Fascist government, which, with German backing, had founded the Republic of Salo in northern Italy. Calvino became a member of the “Brigata Garibaldi” (Garibaldi Brigade) operating in the Maritime Alps of Liguria, where his first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, and some of the fiercest partisan-Fascist battles would take place. A year later Calvino joined the Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party) and began work for several local newspapers. His first fictional work, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests won the literary award “Premio Riccione,” after which Calvino concentrated on critical writings. Calvino maintained his Communist affiliation for another decade, then left the party in 1957, disagreeing with its stance on the role of intellectuals in Italian society: “In the heated debate sparked by ideologues who desired the programmatic literature and art of socialist realism Calvino took his stand with those who believed that any form of constraint on the artist would ultimately result in propaganda” (Ricci, “Italo Calvino,” p. 53). By 1965 Calvino had moved to Paris and joined the experimental group Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature, or OuLiPo). Included among his works of the period are I nostri antenati (1960; Our Ancestors, 1980) and a new edition of The Path to the Spiders’ Nests with an added preface, which many take to be a deep speculation on his own writing. Some memorable novels followed (Se una notte d’ inverno un viaggiatore [1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, 1981] and Palomar [1983; Mr. Palomar, 1985], whose title stems back to the name of an American observatory in the state of California). Calvino died in 1985, while writing some lectures to deliver at America’s Harvard University (Lezioni americane: Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio [1988; Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1988]). In his first novel, he sets out to rescue the subject of the Italian Resistance from formulaic rhetoric, treating it with an originality of thought and style that recurs in future works, lacing his storytelling with imagination, humor, and a gritty sense of reality.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

World War II and Italy—an overview

The events narrated in Calvino’s novel take place during World War II, in the months following the Armistice of September 8, 1943. The truce was signed by Italy and the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, and the United States) after the overthrow of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and the king’s appointment of Pietro Badoglio to head the government. Suddenly Italy found itself fighting the Germans for freedom. Its former ally had become a determined enemy.

Just four years earlier, Italy had signed the “Pact of Steel” (May 22, 1939), joining forces with Germany and entering World War II. On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war against France and Great Britain and sent troops to fight alongside the Germans. A series of defeats involving a great loss of life characterized Italy’s participation in the war. In 1940 the attempt to invade Greece failed. In 1941 Italy was forced to forfeit the African colonies of Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Italy also contributed 229,000 troops to Germany’s disastrous attempt to invade the former Soviet Union. Nearly 75,000 perished. A third of the troops, insufficiently equipped and inadequately trained, failed to return home in the spring of 1943.

Popular support for Mussolini and the Fascist Party dwindled. Between 1942 and 1943, the most important industrial cities of the North (Turin, Milan, and Genoa) saw strikes and anti-Fascist demonstrations, and the divide widened between the Fascist regime and a great part of the Italian population. “While since 1941,” explains one historian, “there had been growing disquiet among Italians in view of the sacrifices forced upon them by the war, from 1942 there was more open opposition to the regime, which the authorities attempted to conceal” (Dunnage, p. 118).

When the Allied forces invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943, the condition of the Italian military had undeniably deteriorated and Mussolini’s support even among members of his own government had significantly diminished. A few weeks later, on September 8, Field Marshal Badoglio, head of the military government, announced to the country that an armistice with the Allies had been signed. Fearing the retaliation of the German troops, Badoglio ordered the Italian army not to join the Allied forces in battle. But they were ordered to respond to any attack elsewhere in Italy.

In the months that followed, almost 600,000 Italian soldiers were deported by the Germans to labor camps or were employed by the key military-supply industries. The majority of these soldiers were by this time antiNazi, but 186,000 decided to join Germany’s armed forces, and many of this group went on to join the SS, the Nazi special police, a black-uniformed elite corps of the Nazi Party that was operative in Italy as well as Germany. On the other hand, roughly 250,000 participated at one point or another in the Resistance movement, which was dedicated to extinguishing what it saw as the Nazi-Fascist menace in Italy. The partisans, the active members of the Resistance, mounted an effective campaign, but the cost was high: overall 35,000 partisans and 10,000 civilians were killed by the Nazi-Fascist forces (Dunnage, p. 131).

On April 25, 1945, the city of Genoa in Liguria became the first to be freed by the Resistance forces. Slowly the German troops retreated towards the North, beyond the Alps. As the Allies, led by General Mark W. Clark, advanced north-ward, the forces of the Italian Resistance fought to liberate northern Italy. On May 9, Germany admitted defeat in Rheims. World War II was over.

The Resistance movement

After the Armistice on September 8, 1943, King Vittorio Emanuele III fled from Rome with his newly appointed head of government, Pietro Badoglio, to seek refuge in the south of Italy, already under Allied control. On September 10, Rome, in chaos and without appropriate military defense, was invaded by German troops. A month later, on October 13, Italy officially split with Mussolini and declared war on Germany.

Italy was now divided into two. The Allied forces were waging war just south of Rome. Slowly they advanced toward the northern provinces where Resistance bands were locked in violent battle with Germany’s Nazi forces (joined by Fascist troops that had remained loyal to Mussolini).

Resistance actions were conducted by partisan brigades, which formed immediately after the announcement of the Armistice. In Rome, anti-Fascist parties congregated to establish the CLN, or Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (Committee of National Liberation), devoting themselves to the creation of a new democratic and progressive country. The task was no simple proposition: both in its formation and its operations, the Resistance movement was complex.

Over time the Comitato would function as a partisan high command that oversaw a coordinated effort, calling on everyday Italians to fight the oppressive Nazi-Fascist rule. In reply, immediately after September 8, partisan groups of different sizes formed in Liguria, Piedmont, Lornbardia, Veneto, and the Apennine mountains of Emilia Romagna. The northern hills came alive with Resistance activity as one partisan band after another sprang into being. Regional CLNs were established, followed by even smaller CLNs at the provincial and village levels.

Resistance leaders soon realized that the strategy to follow should diverge from an orthodox military one. But there were different views on how best to conduct operations. Would it be wisest to attack the Nazi-Fascist forces by surprise or, as those closer to the Catholic Church said, to take a less aggressive stance and restrict the Resistance to counter-intelligence, sabotage, and the seizure of supplies and materiel. In the end, both approaches were employed.

The partisans themselves had mixed motives for joining the Resistance. Italian soldiers, adrift after the flight of the king and the cabinet, and civilians took up arms against the Nazi-Fascist forces in the North. But not all the partisans were virulent anti-Fascists. As Calvino explains in the preface he added in 1964, the motivation for siding with one foe or another sometimes had little to do with ideals:

For many of my contemporaries it had been solely a question of luck which determined what side they should fight on; for many of them the sides suddenly changed over, so that soldiers of Mussolini’s Fascist Republic became partisans and vice versa.

(Calvino, Preface, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, p. 22)

Spies, traitors, ordinary villains, and opportunists joined the partisan bands, along with patriots. Calvino’s cast of characters in The Path to the Spiders’ Nests portrays this diversity, as well as the difficulties encountered by the partisan recruits. Especially at first, not all of the brigades were either well organized or sufficiently equipped, as this excerpt from the novel suggests:

They [the partisans] might even be soldiers, a company of soldiers who had disappeared during a war many years ago and been wandering in the forests ever since without finding their way back, their uniforms in rags, their boots falling to pieces, their hair and their beards all matted, carrying weapons which now they only use to kill wild animals.

(The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, p. 95)

Thus, the partisans often stole equipment from the Nazi-Fascists—cannons, armored cars, machine guns, Tommy guns, rifles, pistols, mortars, hand grenades, ammunition.

The brigades conducted their menacing Resistance activities from September 1943 to May 1945. One source counts 85 active units altogether, responsible for 200 pitched battles and more than 5,000 surprise actions (Lewis, pp. 24-25). Beyond pilfering equipment, the partisan bands sabotaged railways, blew up bridges, destroyed power lines, and shot the enemy; in return, they were captured, tortured, and shot to death. In July 1944, for instance, the year Calvino’s novel takes place, the Nazis captured a group of partisans (led by Eugenio Calo), forced them to dig a deep pit, then buried them in it up to their necks. Sticks of dynamites were placed by their heads to induce them to talk, but they wouldn’t, so the Nazis lit the dynandte. By war’s end, the partisans had killed 16,000 Nazi-Fascists, against the above-cited 45,000 partisan and civilian losses by enemy hands—or sticks of dynandte.

The roles of women and youth in the Resistance

Like the men, women became active in the Resistance for various reasons. Some had no choice but to join a brigade, especially those women who were at risk because people suspected them of having contacts with partisans. Such is the predicament of Giglia, wife to the partisan named Mancino in Calvino’s novel. A woman in this type of fix might serve as a cook or seamstress for the brigade. But generally “women and men were concentrated in different sectors [of the Resistance movement] and often were organized separately” (Slaughter, p. 53).

The Garibaldi Brigade

Of all partisan units, the largest (close to 40 percent of all partisan membership) was the one to which Calvino belonged—Brigata Garibaldi (the Garibaldi Brigade). Other partisan units, the Gruppi di Azione Patriottica (GAP, or Groups of Patriotic Action) conducted actions in urban areas, while the Squadre di Azione Patriottica (SAP, or Patriotic Action Squads) focused on the countryside. Beyond the GAP and SAP, female rebels founded the Gruppi Difesa della Donna (GDD, or Women’s Defense Groups), which was mostly devoted to supporting Resistance operations in practical ways (delivering messages and weapons, assisting medical personnel, distributing anti-Fascist literature). The Communist Party played a major role in resisting the Nazi-Fascist occupation. In the early days of the Resistance the Garibaldi Brigade and many others were formed by Communists.

The common denominator for these groups was secrecy, and their activities gave rise to heroes like the fictional Red Wolf in Calvino’s novel. One real-life hero, Mario Fiorentini, conducted activities on behalf of the GAP, then associated him-self with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, Called Fringuello (finch/goldfinch), he parachuted into the northern mountains around the time Calvino’s novel takes place. Fringuello carried out repeated liaison missions between the partisan brigades and military headquarters in Milan and Rome, at great risk to his own life and limb. The Fascists kept arresting him, but each time he escaped. In the summer of 1944, he managed to set up an intelligence network between army officials in Rome and the partisans in the provinces of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna as well as the novel’s Liguria.

At first underestimated, women partisans became a mainstay of Resistance operations. Aside from collecting clothing and food for the rebels, women activists acquired medicine, joined medical staffs, distributed anti-Fascist literature, Gdelivered messages and weapons, and helped the families of deportees and partisans. Studies indicate that 66 percent of the women involved with the Resistance were under 30 years old and mostly filled positions as factory workers, teachers, students, and clerks (Slaughter, p. 54). One of the most important roles played by the female partisan was that of staffetta, or courier. Couriers had the dangerous job of delivering important messages without being caught by the Nazi-Fascist police. Because of the delicate work, they were strictly selected on the basis of such criteria as ability to travel and connections to the anti-Fascist environment. A few women in the mountain brigades served as military commanders. Mostly, though, females took up traditional roles, albeit in a more public setting than the home. Over the course of the war, some 5,000 female partisans were ultimately arrested and/or tortured; more than half of these perished (Addis Saba, p. 48).

The male partisans showed some ambivalence about and prejudice against the women in their midst. Especially in the mountain brigades, women were regarded with suspicion. This mis-trust is well depicted in Calvino’s novel by Cousin, a partisan who gives the boy-protagonist a piece of advice: “Of course, behind all the stories with a bad ending there’s always a woman, make no mistake about that. You’re young, just listen what I tell you. War is all the fault of women” (The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, p. 85).

Usually women were kept away from the partisan bands. The leaders of the brigades often preferred women to serve as a connection between the mountains and the urban areas. These women often carried their children with them during a mission, to provide a motherly image, which would diffuse any suspicion. Such women hid dynamite in their babies’ carriages, or orders in their children’s clothing, well aware of the danger. If the woman was arrested, their children often carried on the role of messenger. The Resistance thus often used children to deliver letters. Some young Italians also served as guides across the mountains, while others helped by performing daily chores for family’s members engaged in the Resistance. Additionally, children helped steal food, weapons, and clothing for the partisans.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The Path to the Spiders’ Nests takes place during the spring of 1944 in the Riviera di Ponente, between a small sea town and the mountains just north of it, in western Liguria, near the French border.

Pin is a young boy in his early teens who lives with his only sister, Rina, also known as the Dark Girl of Long Alley, a prostitute whose clients include a German soldier. Pin’s father, a sailor, abandoned his children after their mother died. An isolated youth, Pin has no friends. Other children and their mothers dislike him, which makes little difference to Pin. He far prefers the adult company at the local tavern where everyone seems to listen to his stories and the songs he sings. The regulars there call him “little monkey”; he wants very much to be accepted by them.

One day a man by the name of Michel asks Pin to steal the gun of the German soldier who visits his sister. Perform this deed, says Michel, and Pin will earn the right to become an official member of the group at the tavern. The boy takes the challenge very seriously. In order to steal the gun, he must wait for the German soldier to lie down with his sister. Pin is not new to sexuality, at least as an observer; after all, he shares a single room with his sister, the room in which she receives clients.

Pin steals the gun and runs to the tavern but finds no one there willing to listen to him. The men are discussing the possibility of organizing a group for patriotic action. With tears in his eyes, Pin runs away and hides the gun where spiders make their nests. On his way back, some German soldiers bring him in for questioning. His sister’s German client has accused him. Pin meets Michel, who warns him not to reveal anything about the goings-on at the tavern. During the interrogation, Pin starts to scream; he is finally sent to jail. On his way out of the office, he learns that Michel has betrayed the brigade formed at the tavern. The Fascists offered Michel a salary, a black Fascist uniform, a weapon, and the right to search houses and hunt partisans, and he accepted the offer. The betrayal upsets Pin, not in itself but because it seems to him that he is “getting it wrong every time and never being able to foresee what grown-ups will do next” (The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, p. 60).

In prison, Pin meets Red Wolf, a 16-year-old partisan with a reputation. Pin is thrilled. He has heard a lot about Red Wolf and wanted very much to meet him. Together they escape jail. Red Wolf praises the importance of the Communist propaganda. Pin is impressed by Red Wolfs self-confidence. They hide for a while until Red Wolf leaves and fails to return. At this point, left alone, the young protagonist meets a huge man by the name of Cousin. Abandoned by his wife, Cousin believes that women only create problems. Together they reach an encampment of partisans who are anything but idealistic heroes driven by a thirst for democracy and freedom. Poverty, ignorance, and opportunism have prompted these men to join the group. Yet Pin is happy here; he sings for the partisans and helps their cook, Mancino. Mancino’s wife Giglia has fled town because the towns-people grew suspicious of her. Now at the camp, with the task of also helping her husband cook, she flirts with the partisan leader, Dritto.

Partisan Songs

Calvino says that hope warmed many of the partisans; “We … did not feel crushed…. On the contrary, we were … driven by the propulsive charge of the just-ended battle. What we felt we possessed was a sense of life as something that can begin again from scratch” (Calvino in Wilhelm, p. 4), But he adds that theirs was not an easy optimism, and this comes through in popular partisan songs like one that, along with hap-pier tunes, Pin sings just before a big fire destroys their camp:

Who is knocking at my front door, at my front door?
Who is knocking at my front door?
‘Tis a Moorish captain with all his slaves, with all his slaves.
‘Tis a Moorish captain with all his slaves,
Tell me, woman, where is your son, where is your son?
Tell me, woman, where is your son?
My son has gone to war and can’t return, and can’t return,
My son has gone to war and can’t return
May he choke on the bread he eats, on the bread he eats,
May he choke on the bread he eats.
The flower of a mother killed by her own son, killed by her own son,
The flower of a mother killed by her own son.
          (The Path to the Spider’s Nests, pp. 114-17)

Two episodes drastically change the situation. A young arrogant partisan, Pelle, who boasts of all his experience with weapons and women, betrays the partisan band. Also, a fire starts because of an oversight by Dritto, the commander, while flirting with Giglia. Two Resistance commanders, Ferriera and Kim, join the brigade to assess who is responsible for the fire and also to plan the partisan action that the group will undertake the following day.

A German attack follows these events, and the brigade is dissolved by the central command. Pin is alone now. He goes back for his gun, the one he stole from the German soldier, but cannot find it. He discovers that Pelle found the gun and left it to Rina, his sister. Pin retrieves the gun and runs away with it. He meets Cousin again, who asks where Rina lives. Pin supplies the information, thinking Cousin is interested in his sister as just another client. The boy has no idea that Cousin intends to kill Rina, convinced that she is a Fascist spy. Cousin leaves and returns, after which “the big man and the child” walk off “into the night, amid the fireflies, holding each other by the hand” (The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, p. 185).

A note about style

Despite the novel’s edge of sharp realism, there is a tendency to experiment with literary genres and styles. Though an omniscient narrator tells the story, the narrator gives no background information; the reader discovers events together with Pin. Dialogue or interior monologue allows for shifting perspectives, even though there is a third-person narrator. After the escape from prison with Red Wolf, when Pin is alone, the novel dips into some interior monologue:

The cherries are ripe at this season. Here’s a tree, far from the house. Has it grown by magic? … When he has taken the edge off his hunger he … walks on again spitting out cherry-stones. Then he thinks the Fascists might follow the track. … But no one in all the world would be clever enough to think of a thing like that, no one except Red Wolf. Yes, if Pin leaves a trail of cherry-stones, Red Wolf will manage to find him.

(The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, p. 81)

As shown by the lines above, far from documentary style, the novel even blends a fairy-tale element into its depiction of reality: Pin, a lone child protagonist, gets lost in the woods and steals a gun, from his point of view, a sort of magical object. He also has to go through many trials—the stealing of the gun, the police-station episode, the prison, the escape from it, the crossing of the German lines, and the search for a friend. Similarly, detective-story elements are used to help describe the execution of the traitor Pelle—there is a man in a raincoat with his hand in his pockets and the narration quickens, building to a crescendo at the moment of Pelle’s execution.

The Resistance—a selfless or selfish cause?

In chapter 9, Dritto and his men are visited by Ferriera and Kim, the commander and the commissar of the brigade. Ferriera is a working-class man whose sole purpose is the struggle to spread class consciousness. Kim, on the other hand, is young medical student who “has an enormous interest in humanity; that is why he is a medical student, for he knows that the explanation of everything is to be found in the grinding, moving cells of the human body,” not in philosophical suppositions (The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, p. 132). Like Calvino himself, Kim is a middle-class intellectual. He seeks knowledge fostered by logic but also takes an interest in psychiatry, which allows him to ponder the irrational and unknown dimensions of human life.

Ferriera and Kim represent two different types: the partisan who believes in communist ideology aimed at creating class consciousness among workers, and the middle-class intellectual who acknowledges that the Resistance might not be attached to a lofty purpose for everyone involved. Through Kim and his philosophical digression on the various reasons Italians decided to join or fight the Resistance, Calvino provides a picture of Italian society at a moment in time. Workers, peasants, intellectuals, students, and foreign prisoners who escaped concentration camps joined partisan detachments. Some of these partisans fought against the Nazi-Fascist enemy who was burning down their houses. Others joined the Fascists or became spies for them. In any case, they mostly did not join to fight idealistically for the liberation of their country but rather because of their own interests. At this juncture in the war, with the Allies controlling the South and the Nazi-Fascist forces in central and northern Italy, people lost the ability to identify with their land. “Country” became limited to one’s private sphere and to the struggle for the survival of that sphere.

By fall 1943, when the Resistance began, Italians were demoralized by the difficulties brought on by the war, the defeats they had suffered, the thousands of soldiers who lay dead or sat captive as prisoners of war, the bombing of their major cities, and the general economic distress. The introduction in 1941 of a controlled system of food distribution by means of ration cards distributed to the families—200 grams of bread per head per day—gave rise to a black market and the corruption of government inspectors. Basic services, such as electricity and water, were scarce, if they existed at all. Hospitals lacked proper medical supplies. Schools closed down. While men were fighting, women had to enter the work force and at the same time tend their families. Some women “found themselves ignoring moral principles in the desperate search for food,” in other words, prostituting themselves for a meal (Dunnage, p. 120). Ironically, since Italian Fascism taught that the preeminent duty for a woman was motherhood, in 1923 Fascist law obliged all prostitutes to carry certification of vaginal examination. Also the Fascist government operated the case chiuse (“closed brothels”), the only legal venue for this kind of service, the intent being as much as possible to protect public morals and the notion of woman as a symbol of motherhood.

Sources and literary context

The Path to the Spiders’ Nests was Calvino’s contribution to post-World War II neorealist literature—literature that dealt with present-day subject matter, took place in clearly defined locations, and focused on segments of society that did not exercise sweeping power but that felt its effects. Everyday language became standard in this literature. Novelists integrated Italian dialects, including their vocabulary and rhythm, more consciously into the written language than ever before. The aim was to express the collective experience of the war as well as the Resistance (later referred to also as a civil war that Italy suffered while it was still enmeshed in the final phases of World War II).

Calvino clearly drew on his own experience in the Resistance to write the novel, sharing the need to do so with other writers of the era.

The fact of having emerged from an experience—a war, a civil war—which had spared no one, established an immediacy of communication between the writer and his public: we were face to face, on equal terms, bursting with stories to tell; everyone had experienced their own drama, had lived a chaotic, exciting, adventurous existence; we took the words from each other’s mouths. … During the partisan war, the adventures we had only just lived through were transformed and reshaped into stories told around the fire at night; they had already assumed a style, a language, a tone of bravado, which relished harrowing detail or horrific effects. The subject matter and language of some of my short stories, as well as some parts of this novel stem from this newly born oral tradition.

(The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, p. 8)

Calvino soon realized that reality could not be retold in a direct, didactic manner. It became a challenge for him to convey its complexity and its contradictions, a challenge that he met by making his protagonist a young boy rather than a man like himself and by making most of the other characters traitors, deserters, and liars.

Giovanni Verga’s I Malavoglia (1881; The House by the Medlar Tree, 1890), Elio Vittorini’s Conversazioni in Sicilia (1941; Conversation in Sicily, 1961) and Cesare Pavese’s Paesi tuoi (1941; The Harvesters, 1961) are the texts that Calvino cites in his preface to the 1964 edition of The Path to the Spiders’ Nests. These authors mark the starting point from where neorealist writers moved in order to investigate and represent reality (see The House by the Medlar Tree, also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Calvino diverged from traditional neorealist narrative strategies invoked by other writers at the time. Chronicles, diaries, and memoirs flourished in the postwar years. Unlike these works, Calvino’s novel invokes fairytale-style discourse and adapts partisan stories from oral tradition. There is an effort to avoid an impersonal documentary style, promote critical inquiry, and conjure a realistic picture of the Resistance, not one burdened with postwar leftist rhetoric. In short, Calvino sought a personal yet legitimate way to represent the complexity of reality while avoiding the rote heroic celebration of the Resistance being generated around him. The result was The Path to the Spiders’ Nests.

Calvino On Neorialism

“Neo-realism was not a school. (Let me try to be precise I if about these matters,) It was many voices combined, mostly voices from provinces, a many-sided revelation of the different Italys that existed.., The local settings were intended to give a flavour of authenticity to a fictional representation with which everyone the world over would be able to identify”,

(Preface, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, p. 10)

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

In search of a democratic renewal

In the postwar years, all the anti-Fascist political parties that championed freedom and democracy faced the practical challenge of Italy’s political and economic reconstruction. On June 2, 1946, the nation held a referendum on whether the government should be a monarchy or a republic. At the same time, Italians voted for the delegates to the Constituent Assembly that would write a new constitution to take effect January 1, 1948. The country chose to be a republic, and the new Assembly was formed. The majority of its delegates belonged to the Christian Democrat Party (which arose from the alliance of a number of Catholic organizations), followed by smaller numbers of Socialist delegates and then Communist delegates. The Republic’s first election, held in 1948, saw victory go to the Christian Democrats, who won 48.5 percent of the votes, the largest share in the nation.

Confronted by the rise of the Christian Democrats, activists in the Communist Party debated the role of intellectuals in post-war Italian society. In the end, these debates became an attempt to force intellectuals to contribute to its political objectives. The school of socialist realism, in the Soviet Union, taught that every form of art has to highlight and celebrate the working class and its struggle to survive. Andrei Zhadanov (1896-1948), a founder of this doctrine, was the theoretician whose dogmatic and rigorous ideas the Partito Comunista Italiano, or Italian Communist Party, decided to promote. Calvino never felt comfortable with the policy. Siding with those intellectuals who refused to serve the ideology of a political party by turning themselves into an instrument of political propaganda, he acted accordingly. The Communist Party’s approach, which amounted to a censorial attitude, is precisely what Calvino was rejecting when he started writing The Path to the Spider’s Nests in 1947.

The debate about the role of literature raged in many different political and literary journals of the day, one of them being Vittorini’s II Politecnico (The Polytechnic), which was dedicated to cultural regeneration—the title of Vittorini’s first editorial was “For a New Culture.” The journal, which insisted on its cultural independence from party politics, remained active from 1945 to 1947, and Calvino became one of its major contributors. In the interest of cultural renewal, Vittorini attributed great importance to keeping the Italian intelligentsia informed about European and American philosophical and literary trends. Vittorini and Pavese, either as editors or translators, were instrumental to the translation of many foreign literary texts, including works by T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, Andre Malraux, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, and Ernest Hemingway, to name only a few.

This led to a famous polemic exchange between Vittorini and Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Communist Party at the time, who saw Vittorini’s support for innovative and experimental writing as a shift from the cultural policies of the party.


The Path to the Spiders’ Nests received both positive and negative reviews. Critics fixed on its fusion of reality and imagination. Some applauded Calvino’s original use of language, imagery, and style. Others faulted the story for placing undue emphasis on the individual situation, for using spoken language (in view of the great difference between spoken Italian and written literary Italian), and for failing to include a collective voice.

Positive reviews came from those who thought Calvino’s first novel showcased his drive toward the investigation of the relationship between one-self and the reality into which one is plunged. The first positive review came from Pavese, who supported publication of the novel and would soon write a World War II novel of his own (see The Moon and the Bonfires, also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). The review, published in the then Communist newspaper L’Unita on October 26, 1947, highlights the importance of the fairy-tale dimension in the book: “The astuteness of Calvino … was in the observation of the partisan life as if it were a fairy-tale of the woods, spectacular, many-colored, ‘different’” (Pavese, p. 274; trans. M. L. Mosco).

Calvino’s importance as a writer was clearly recognized in North America as well, even at this early stage in his literary career. In 1958, the year after the novel’s release in English, Raymond Rosenthal referred in the New York Times to the fact that Italian critics were comparing The Path to the Spiders’ Nests to the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson because of its magical evocation of adolescence (Rosenthal, p. 36).

—Maria Laura Mosco

For More Information

Addis Saba, Marina. Le partigiane. Tutte le donne della Resistenza. Milan: Mursia, 1998.

Bolongaro, Eugenio. Italo Calvino and the Compass of Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Calvino, Italo. The Path to the Spiders’ Nests. Trans. Archibald Colquhoun. London: Jonathan Cape, 1998.

Dunnage, Jonathan. Twentieth Century Italy: A Social History. London: Longman, 2002.

Lewis, Laurence. Echoes of Resistance. Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Costello, 1985.

Pavese, Cesare. “II Sentiro dei nidi di ragno.” In La Letteratura Americana e altri saggi. Turin: Einaudi, 1952.

Re, Lucia. Calvino and the Age of Neorealism: Fables of Estrangement. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Ricci, Franco. “Italo Calvino.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 196. Ed. Augustus Pallotta. Detroit: Gale, 1999.

———, Painting with Words, Writing with Pictures. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2001.

Rosenthal, Raymond. “A Report on Literary Trends in Italy.” New York Times, February 9, 1958, p. BR36.

Slaughter, Jane. Women and the Italian Resistance. 1943-1945. Denver, Colo.: Arden Press, 1997.

Wilhelm, Maria de Blasio. The Other Italy: Italian Resistance in World War 11. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.