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Bassani, Giorgio

BASSANI, Giorgio

Pseudonym: Giacomo Marchi. Nationality: Italian. Born: Bologna, 4 March 1916. Education: University of Bologna, 1934-39. Famiy: Married Valeria Sinigallia in 1943; two children. Military Service: Active in the anti-Fascist resistence during World War II: imprisoned, May-July 1943, forced into hiding, Florence, 1943-45. Career: Moved to Rome, 1945. Literature teacher, Naples Naval Institute, and librarian after the war; teacher of theatre history, National Academy of Dramatic Arts, Rome, 1957-67; beginning 1958 editor, Feltrinelli publishing house; collaborated on various periodicals (Fiera Letteraria, Mondo, Nuovi Argomenti , and the Corriere della Sera ) during the 1950s; traveled in North America, 1972-74. Vice president, Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), Rome, 1964-65; visiting professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1976. Editor, Botteghe oscure, 1948-60, and Paragone, 1953-71. Awards: Charles Veillon prize in Italian literature, 1955, for Gli ultimi anni di Clelia Trotti; Strega prize, 1956, for Cinque storie ferraresi; Viareggio prize, 1962, for Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini; Campiello prize, 1969, for L'airone; Nelly Sachs prize, 1969; Premi Roma. Died: 13 April 2000.

Publications

Collections

Il romanzo di Ferrara [The Romance of Ferrara] 1974; revised, 1980.

In rima e senza: 1939-1981 [Rhymed and Unrhymed]. 1982.

Novels

Una lapide in Via Mazzini [A Plaque on Via Mazzini] (novella). 1952.

La passeggiata prima di cena [A Stroll before Supper] (novella). 1953.

Gli ultimi anni di Clelia Trotti [The Last Years of Clelia Trotti](novella) 1955.

Gli occhiali d'oro (novella). 1958; as The Golden Spectacles, 1960.

Una notte del '43 [A Night in '43] (novella). 1960.

Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini. 1962; as The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, 1965.

Dietro la porta (novella). 1964; as Behind the Door, 1972.

L'airone. 1968; as The Heron, 1970.

Short Stories

Una citta di pianura (as Giacomo Marchi). 1940.

Cinque storie ferraresi. 1956; as Dentro le mura, 1973; translated as Five Stories of Ferrara, 1971; revised to include additional stories and published as Le storie ferraresi, 1960; translated as A Prospect of Ferrara, 1962.

Due novelle. 1965.

L'odore del fieno. 1972; as The Smell of Hay, 1975.

Poetry

Storie dei poveri amanti e altri versi [Stories of Poor Lovers and Other Poems]. 1946.

Te lucis ante. 1947.

Un altra liberta [Another Freedom]. 1951.

L'alba ai vetri: Poesie 1942-1950 [Dawn at the Windows](collection of his first 3 vols. of poetry). 1963.

Epitaffio [Epitaph]. 1974.

In gran segreto [With Great Secrecy]. 1978.

Rolls Royce and Other Poems (selections from Epitaffio and In gran segreto in English and Italian). 1982.

Other

Le parole preparate, e altri seritti di letteratura [The PreparedWords]. 1966; revised and enlarged as Di lá dal cuore, 1984.

*

Film Adaptations:

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1971.

Critical Studies:

"The Storie Ferraresi of Giorgio Bassani" by Marianne Shapiro, in Italica, 49, 1972, pp. 30-48; Giorgio Bassani by Giorgio Varanini, 1975; Giorgio Bassani issue of Canadian Journal of Italian Studies , 1, Fall/Winter 1977-78; "The Closed World of Giorgio Bassani," in Italian Culture, 3, 1981, pp. 103-30, "Bassani: The Motivation of Language," in Italica, 62(2), Summer 1985, pp. 116-25, and The Exile into Eternity: A Study of the Writings of Giorgio Bassani, 1987, all by Douglas Radcliff-Humstead; "Visual Memory and the Nature of Epitaph: Bassani's Epitaffio " by Linda NemerowUlman, in Italian Quarterly, 27 (106), Fall 1986, pp. 33-44; Vengeance of the Victim: History and Symbol in Giorgio Bassani's Fiction by Marilyn Schneider, 1986; "The Trilogy of the Narrator-Protagonist: Anti-Semitism in the Novels of Bassani" by Judith Kelly, in Tuttitalia, 1, June 1990, pp. 33-38; "Judaism and Manhood in the Novels of Giorgio Bassani" by Lucienne Kroha, in The Italian Jewish Experience, edited by Thomas P. DiNapoli, 2000. * * *

The Italian novelist Italo Calvino said of Giorgio Bassani in 1958: "All Bassani's fiction has a political message stemming from his fundamental trauma: seeing antisemitic persecution in the middle classes of Ferrara." Anti-Semitism is treated in all of Bassani's fiction, but the Holocaust is not. He wrote six books that were incorporated in The Romance of Ferrara in 1980. Of these books the Holocaust figures fully in only two: Five Stories of Ferrara (1956) and The Garden of the Finzi-Contini (1962). The five short stories cover the history of Ferrara and its Jewish community from the midnineteenth century until about 1950, a crucial date being the general election of 1948, which marked a new beginning for Italy after World War II.

Ferrara is the setting for all of Bassani's fiction. He grew up there within the Jewish community. His brand of realism requires him to base his narrative in the grid of the streets between the all-enclosing town walls. The reader is treated as an insider, and a map of the city is a useful aid for our understanding of the tales' geography. Ferrara figures much as James Joyce's Dublin and William Faulkner's Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County figure in their fiction. Not only do the street names recur (such as Via Mazzini in heart of the old ghetto), the characters criss-cross from one story to another and later into the novels. Take the Catholic, left-wing Bottecchiari family for instance. The minority Jewish community—self-made, some wealthy—also has recurring names like the Corcos and the Finzi-Contini. Many are assimilated through marriage. Several were members of the Fascist Party from the first years. Few are aware of the threat.

The point of view of the narrative is that of a member of the Jewish community who grew up through school in Ferrara and university in Bologna, following a career reminiscent of Bassani's. Bassani, however, was not only a Jew but also an antifascist, a member of the moderate Action Party, and he was not only watching out for injustice to the Jews, he had an eye also on the antifascists in prison, among them Partisans who became Communist members of parliament after the 1948 elections. All of this took place in the aftermath of the 1943-45 civil war in the north, which left a brooding sense of injustice.

So if A Plaque in Via Mazzini features the one Ferrarese who returns from the Holocaust in the character of Geo Josz, A Night in '43 bears witness to the unavenged killing of eleven men—two of them Jewish merchants in hiding, three of them lawyers who were members of the Action Party—below the castle walls on the night of 15 December by assorted unknown Fascists after the assassination of the local Fascist Consul. The Walk before Supper becomes a Holocaust story because, though it looks back to before the unification of Italy in 1870, we are told in parentheses just near the end that the hero, the famous Dr. Elia Corcos, was "as an old man, ninety, like his father … in the crowd of a hundred and eighty-three Jews who were sent to Fo'ssoli and from there deported to Germany." Lida Mantovani is more about class and poverty but has a tenuous Jewish theme in that Lida has a child by a maverick Jewish lover, David. The Last Years of Clelia Trotti deals with a courageous woman, an old-fashioned socialist, watched by the secret police, who died in prison in 1943 under the German occupation. The point of view is that of Bruno Lattes, an antifascist Jew whose parents are deported to Germany while he escapes to the United States and in 1946 expects to settle there and teach Italian. Clelia Trotti before her capture had imparted to him her political views, some good practical know-how, and her staunch humanitarian conviction.

Bassani saw himself as a historian and had an eye and an ear for the nuances of change from 1938 to 1943 and 1945 to 1947. He was the reader who discovered and launched Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard in 1958. In his preface to it he particularly praised it for being a book about "Italy and its history," which had "something essential to say to all of us," something "unusual in the whole range of Italian literature."

His first novel, The Golden Spectacles (1958), and his last, The Heron (1968), have much in common. Neither is a novel of the Holocaust. Both protagonists are Jewish men suffering from the difficulties of assimilation and both commit suicide, having been disadvantaged by growing anti-Semitism under Fascism in the late thirties. In The Golden Spectacles Dr. Fadigati is further excluded because of his homosexuality. He drowns himself in the Po in 1938. In The Heron Edgardo Limentani is a rich jewish landowner, assimilated to the extent of having married his Catholic mistress and having a blue-eyed daughter. He had spent time in Switzerland and thus avoided the Holocaust. He shoots himself in 1947. Behind the Door (1964) tackles anti-Semitism as it touches the first-person narrator as a schoolboy. The time is 1929-30. The narrator is undergoing the rites of passage to the Liceo, discovering treachery, and the differences of class, intelligence, sexuality, race, and religion. Bassani is at his best describing the states of mind caused by bullying.

The Smell of Hay (1972) is a collection of short narrative pieces and memoirs. In More News of Bruno Lattes we find Bruno in denial of his Jewishness and identifying with his Catholic mother, whose maiden name is Marchi, like Bassani's own mother. The smell of hay comes from the newly mown Jewish cemetery where in 1938 Bruno's uncle's funeral is interrupted by someone outside its walls insisting on singing a love song to an accordion, abetted by a soldier nodding his head to the music.

Such small slights to a sensitive minority are essential to Bassani's observation. His contained rage results in a fiction characterized by melancholy and memory that leaves his reader discomforted but not roused.

—Judy Rawson

See the essays on The Garden of the Finzi-Contini and A Plaque on Via Mazzini.

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