Negri, Ada (1870–1945)

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Negri, Ada (1870–1945)

Italian poet whose literary reputation suffered due to Mussolini's enthusiasm for her works. Born in Lodi on February 3, 1870; died in Milan on January 11, 1945; daughter of Giuseppe Negri and Vittoria Cornalba Negri; had a brother, Annibale; married Giovanni Garlanda, in 1896; children: daughters Bianca and Vittoria.

With the publication of her book of verse Fatalita in 1892, Ada Negri became famous overnight as a voice of working-class protest. Born into conditions of poverty in the small town of Lodi near Milan, she was the first Italian woman writer to spring from the proletariat. The favor which was bestowed on her by the Fascist regime marred her literary reputation, but Negri's work is now in the process of being reevaluated by scholars.

She was born in 1870, into a life of privation. Her easygoing father Giuseppe spent the few lire he earned as a cabby with his friends in local taverns. He died when Ada was one year old, and her mother Vittoria , left penniless, was forced to work in the local textile factory. The family was split up: Ada and her mother moved in with Vittoria's mother Giuseppina Cornalba , who was a concierge at the Cingia family palace, while Ada's brother Annibale moved in with his uncle, a teacher who along with his wife ran a boardinghouse for his pupils. Ada grew up with her grandmother, helping her with chores, and often played with the aristocratic girls of the Cingia family. Feeling humiliated by her family's humble status, Ada was sensitive to issues of social distinctions and inequalities from her earliest years. Living in what she would later describe as "a damp hovel," she was determined to find a means of escaping.

With the encouragement of relatives, she excelled in her school work and enrolled in a local normal school to prepare for a teaching career. Negri completed her studies in July 1887 and began teaching in early 1888. After some temporary work, she was assigned to a poor, remote village, Motta-Visconti, where at age 18 she found herself facing a large class of unruly peasant children. Negri gained mastery over her class by emphasizing rewards rather than punishments; for example, positive student responses were rewarded with freshly baked sweet rolls from the bakery of her landlord's daughter.

In her free time, Negri wrote poetry, the best of which she began sending to several newspapers in the province of Lombardy. Some of her verse soon appeared in the Milanese periodical Illustrazione Popolare. Before long, the established writer Sofia Bisi Albini visited Negri in Motta-Visconti, then published an article about the poet-schoolteacher in the prestigious Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera. In 1892, Negri's poetry volume Fatalita (Fate) was published by Emilio Treves. This work was an immediate sensation in Italy, and Negri became nationally known. Fatalita, despite some stylistic imperfections and a simplicity of view, moved readers with Negri's sense of social justice. While condemning the upper classes—for their sloth and obsessive love of food, jewelry and ostentatious clothing—Negri's poems praised the working class for their honest, decent nature and willingness to labor long hours for virtually no material rewards. Fatalita made Ada Negri a hero to the growing Italian Socialist movement. The volume created a sensation in Italian literary and intellectual circles, and few were surprised when she was awarded the Milli Prize for poetry in 1894.

Fatalita appeared during a time of great social turmoil in Italy, when strikes and workers' demonstrations were being violently suppressed by the police and army. In contrast to some of the bombastic literary productions of the day, Negri's poems sounded authentic, for the simple reason that they had been penned by a writer who had personally witnessed and experienced social injustice. Negri was branded "the Red Maiden" by conservatives and devout Roman Catholics for allegedly stirring up class hatred, and Fatalita was entered by the Roman church on its infamous Index of Prohibited Books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, in 1893. In an Italy where most intellectuals were fiercely anti-clerical, such measures only served to make her even more popular as "a daughter of the people" and as an "anti-literary" social female poet whose raw talent ignored the rules of the café literati set.

In her next book of poems, Tempeste (Tempests, 1896), Negri continued to explore the themes that had aroused so much public interest. While also popular with readers, this book met with considerable negative criticism from some of the leading literary figures of the day, including Benedetto Croce and Luigi Pirandello, who remarked on a defective metric form in some of the verse, a general weakness of imagination, and feeble generalizations.

Several of the most powerful poems in Tempeste were inspired by Negri's feelings for her lover, a Socialist activist named Ettore Patrizi. After Patrizi emigrated to California, where he founded an Italian-language newspaper in San Francisco and fell in love with another woman, Negri responded to her disappointment by marrying a wealthy industrialist, Giovanni Garlanda, in 1896. The couple had two daughters, Bianca and Vittoria, the latter dying only a month after birth. The marriage was in trouble from the start, with Negri's husband wanting to transform her into a model middle-class wife, and Negri increasingly involved in the literary and political ferment taking place in Milan. Although the marriage would drag on until 1913, when Negri formally separated from him to live in Zurich, Switzerland, by the first years of the new century it had become clear to her that the union was a failure.

In her 1904 collection of poems entitled Maternita (Maternity), Negri's emphasis was on neither social injustices nor the individual's search for love, but rather motherhood. Stylistically, too, the book represents a distinct evolution, reflecting new, more subtle influences in her verse, including the work of Gabriele D'Annunzio and Giovanni Pascoli, two of the dominant authors of the day. In poems that reflect the grief of mothers upon the deaths of their children, Negri rarely mentions fathers.

Negri's next books—including Esilio (Exile, 1914), a book of poems prompted by the final collapse of her marriage in 1913, and Le solitarie (Solitary Women, 1917), a collection of short stories relating the lives of unhappy women—were artistically powerful statements that were obviously autobiographical in nature. During her stay in Switzerland during World War I, Negri met and fell in love with a builder; their relationship lasted less than a year due to his death in 1918 during the Spanish influenza pandemic. The feelings unleashed by this, the great love of her life, are found in the poetry collection Il libro di Mara (Mara's Book, 1919), a work many critics hold to be the most personal ever written by Negri.

At the start of the 1920s, Negri's poetry began to be appreciated for its subtle elements, and a number of composers, including the renowned Ottorino Respighi, set some of her verse works, including "Notte" (Night), to music. With the most passionate years of her life now receding, in 1921 Negri published an autobiographical novel, Stella mattutina (Evening Star), in which she describes with detached sensitivity her childhood and school years in Lodi. Stella mattutina became a durable success with the Italian reading public, selling over 60,000 copies between 1921 and 1943. Restraint also characterizes Finestre alte (High Windows), her 1923 collection of short stories which contrasts considerably with her 1925 poetry collection I canti dell'isola (Songs of the Island). The latter work is an exuberant celebration of the sundrenched island of Capri, which for a Northern Italian like Negri was an almost hallucinatory and sensuous experience. Works that followed during these years were the prose collection Le strade (Roads, 1926), Sorelle (Sisters, 1929), the book of verse Vespertina (Evening Star, 1930), and Di giorno in giorno (From Day to Day, 1932), the last of which contained travel sketches and portraits of people she had met.

A major poetic achievement was Il dono (The Gift, 1936), which earned Negri the coveted Firenze Prize. She ended the decade with a work of somewhat lesser scope, the prose miscellany Erba sul sagrato (Grass on the Church Square, 1939). Throughout these years between the two World Wars, Italians looked forward to reading not only Negri's books but also her finely crafted journalism. Her work appeared on the terza pagina (third pages) of Italy's leading newspapers, which featured articles by renowned intellectuals offering their opinions on a broad range of issues.

Negri lived the last two decades of her life in Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy. Mussolini, a journalist

who had been an enthusiastic Socialist before World War I, thought highly of Negri's early works and had met her early in his political career through their mutual friend Margherita Sarfatti . Striking a Socialist pose, Mussolini wrote a very favorable review of Negri's Stella mattutina for the July 9, 1921, issue of the Fascist newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia. Although the Fascist ideology and regime were hostile to women's rights, Mussolini attempted to win over a handful of talented women like Negri. In 1926, he proposed her for the Nobel Prize in literature, an award which instead went that year to another Italian woman, Grazia Deledda . Perhaps to soften this blow, in 1930 the dictator "suggested" to the Royal Academy of Italy, an organization invented by Sarfatti, that it bestow its Mussolini Prize on Negri. This award opened the door to others. In 1938, she received the Gold Medal of the Ministry of Education for her poetry, an honor that was followed in 1940 by her being chosen, at Mussolini's insistence, as a full member of the previously all-male Royal Academy of Italy. When Negri became the first, and only, woman member of this Fascistblessed body, she had the right to be addressed as "Your Excellency," received a monthly stipend, and could travel first class on the national railroad network on a pass, carry a sword, and wear a plumed hat.

By the time World War II began in 1939, Negri apparently had written most of what she wanted to say to the world. Her final thoughts would appear in her last two books, both published posthumously: the volume of poetry Fons amoris (Fountain of Love, 1946) and the collection of short stories Oltre (Beyond, 1947). Both volumes received little in the way of positive critical attention or an enthusiastic readership. Few readers in postwar Italy were drawn to Negri's late-career interest in religion and mysticism, which in Oltre is manifested in the hagiographically drawn lives of Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux .

In the decades after 1945, most readers ignored Negri, while critics considered her to be either an artistically passé writer or an intellectual tainted by association with the hated Mussolini. Although these judgments were in many ways exaggerated, or even unfair, they persisted for many decades. Only now, more than 50 years after her death, has it become possible to begin viewing Negri's achievements in a more dispassionate fashion. Written during World War II, Negri's last poem in her posthumously published Fons amoris reveals her desire for peace:

A day will come, from the lamentation of
when love will triumph over hate, love alone
in the houses of men. That dawn
cannot but shine: in each drop of blood
that soaked and dirtied the earth,
lies the virtue that is preparing it
in the aching shadow of the afflictions of

Negri did not live to see the dawn of what she hoped would be a better world. She died in Milan on January 11, 1945.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia