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Serao, Matilde (1856–1927)

Serao, Matilde (1856–1927)

Italian journalist and fiction writer who commented extensively on the role of women in the newly unified Italian state. Name variations: (pseudonyms) Chiquita, Paolo Spada, and Gibus. Pronunciation: Ma-TILL-day Ser-OW. Born on February 26, 1856, in Patras, Greece; died of a heart attack on July 25, 1927, in Naples, Italy; daughter of Francesco Saverio Serao (an exiled Neapolitan journalist) and Paolina Bonelly Serao (a Greek noblewoman); attended Scuola normale (Normal School) in Naples, 1870–73; married Edoardo Scarfoglio, in February 1885 (separated 1902); children: (first marriage) four sons; (with Giuseppe Natale, a Neapolitan lawyer) daughter Eleonora (b. 1904).

Returned to Italy from Greece with her mother (1860); worked at state telegraph agency (1874–77); began work as journalist (1876); published first short stories (1878); began friendship with Eleonora Duse (1879); published first novel and moved to Rome to work as a journalist (1881); became editor of Roman newspaper (1882); founded Corriere di Roma with Scarfoglio (1885); returned to Naples (1887); founded literary weekly review, La Settimana (1902); founded her own newspaper, Il Giorno (1904); protested granting of women's suffrage in local Italian elections (1925); lost Nobel Prize in literature to Grazia Deledda (1926); visited by Benito Mussolini (1927).

Major works:

(fiction) Cuore infermo (The Sick Heart, 1881), Fantasia (Fantasy, 1882), La conquista di Roma (The Conquest of Rome, 1885), Vita e avventure di Riccardo Joanna (The Life and Adventures of Riccardo Joanna, 1887), Il paese di Cuccagna (The Land of Cockaigne, 1891), Suor Giovanna della Croce (Sister Joan of the Holy Cross, 1901), Il delitto di via Chiatamone (The Crime of Via Chiatamone, 1908), La mano tagliata (The Severed Hand, 1912), Ella non rispose (Souls Divided, 1914), Mors tua (The Harvest, 1926); (nonfiction) Il ventre di Napoli (The Belly of Naples, 1884).

Matilde Serao, a journalist, novelist, and short-story writer, began her career in the newly founded Italian state of the late 19th century and continued her work into the mid-1920s. Prolific both as a journalist and a fiction writer, she spent almost 50 years in newspaper work, founding four newspapers. She also published almost 40 volumes of fiction, including 30 novels and 100 short stories.

With the exception of a stay in Rome in the 1880s, Serao spent most of her life in the southern Italian metropolis of Naples. She achieved sufficient eminence to become, as Lucienne Kroha notes, one of Italy's "best-known public figures," despite the limits placed on women in southern Italy. She was, writes Alba Amoia , "Italy's first woman journalist and the prototype of the versatile contemporary woman journalist."

Serao's work, both fiction and nonfiction, features vivid portrayals of Italian society at all levels, but her writing was particularly impassioned when it focused on urban problems, such as those demonstrated in her home city of Naples. Her work also displayed a deep, complex interest in the role of Italian women. She crusaded against the poverty in which they found themselves, especially those in the South. Notes Laura Salsini , "Serao uncovers a subterranean, woman-centered world seldom examined by earlier or even contemporary authors."

Serao's fiction is notable for the variety of styles she employed, ranging from realism to romance to Gothic melodrama. Students of her work agree that the fundamental stylistic development in her fiction took place around the turn of the century. Having hitherto written penetrating novels about Italian society in a mainly realistic style, she now shifted to what some consider Gothic, melodramatic potboilers such as Il delitto di via Chiatamone (The Crime of Via Chiatamone, 1908) and La mano tagliatta (The Severed Hand, 1912). Anthony Gisolfi has vehemently maintained that Serao's style declined as she came to focus her literary energies on the topic of women in love. Nancy Harrowitz , on the other hand, has defended the continuing subtlety that Serao brought to her later writings.

Serao was born in Patras, Greece, on February 26, 1856, the daughter of Pauline Bonelly Serao and Francesco Serao, a Neapolitan journalist and Italian patriot. Following the failed Italian revolutions of 1848, Francesco had gone into exile due to his opposition to the ruling Bourbon dynasty in Naples, and he was unable to return during the politically repressive years before the creation of a united Italy. Her mother was a Greek noblewoman. Mother and daughter returned to Italy in 1860 and settled in Naples. They were joined only later by Serao's father. Due to Francesco's indolent ways, the young girl grew up in an atmosphere marked by poverty. Her mother took on the task of supporting the family by giving English and French language lessons in the Serao home.

Matilde showed early signs that she would not fit into the pattern of a future retiring Italian housewife. She refused to learn household tasks like sewing and knitting, and, in her words, grew up "more like a boy." Although at first she resisted learning to read, nonetheless, she soon absorbed a deep literary culture from her mother. Pauline was frequently ill, and while Matilde tended her mother, the older woman taught the girl to speak French and English. She also taught Matilde to read, using an illustrated edition of Shakespeare, and saw to it that she obtained a secondary education.

Mathilde began attending Scuola normale (Normal School) in Naples in 1870, graduating in 1873 with a teaching degree. Instead of entering that profession, she immediately went to work in the local telegraph office. Teaching and work in a community's telegraph office were typical of the limited and underpaid occupations available for educated young women in post-Unification Italy. In the years from 1874 through 1877, Serao turned her energies in a more unconventional direction: she cultivated skills as a freelance journalist. Her first article appeared in the Giornale di Napoli in 1876, and, within a year, she left the telegraph office for good. Subsequently, the death of her mother from tuberculosis in 1879 and the continuing indolence of her father made Matilde the sole provider for her family. These years also saw the beginning of her lifelong friendship with the Italian actress Eleonora Duse .

In 1881, like so many other talented Italians from the provinces, she made her way to Rome where she found full-time employment as an editor for a prominent Roman newspaper, Capitan Fracassa. Ironically, it had been her success as a novelist—her book Cuore infermo had been published that year—that brought her this opportunity. She spoke with mixed feelings about the need to leave her home city where one found "too much beauty, too much poetry, too much sea, too much Vesuvius, too much love." Her father accompanied her as she took up residence in the recently united country's capital, and she continued to provide for his needs, including his prolonged vacations.

Serao thrived in the competitive, masculine environment of Roman journalism. One of her fellow contributors to Capitan Fracassa was her husband-to-be, Edoardo Scarfoglio, another a Neapolitan journalist who had been drawn to the capital. Her contract required a massive productivity: 2,000 lines of print per month. She provided this with a wide-ranging set of topics, from literary criticism and interior decorating to European international affairs. To disguise her large role in the newspaper's pages, she wrote under a variety of pseudonyms including Chiquita and Paolo Spada. In testimony to her rising stature, she published her first editorial for Capitan Fracassa on the newspaper's front page within a few months of her arrival.

Much of her writing focused on life in her native city of Naples, and Serao wrote with the avowed purpose of pushing the national government to address urban problems of unemployment, poor schools, and municipal corruption. The historic but dilapidated and disease-ridden city was struck by a cholera epidemic in 1884, leading Serao to write a series of nine impassioned articles which Amoia has called "descriptions as powerful as Goya engravings." That same year, she and Scarfoglio were married. The union produced four children, all of them boys.

Serao and her husband founded their own newspaper, the Corriere di Roma, in 1885. Serao's talents were overshadowed by her husband's insistence on using the publication to settle scores with his literary rivals. Not surprisingly, Corriere di Roma closed after only two years of operation. The two changed the scene of their activities in 1887 when Serao, along with her husband, returned to Naples.

In Serao's native city, the couple became the coeditors of two newspapers, Corriere di Napoli, which soon failed, and then, in 1892, the more successful Il Mattino. Il Mattino gained a large following and published the work of such noted authors as Gabriele D'Annunzio. While working at Corriere di Napoli, Serao had obtained a colorful pen name, "Gibus." It referred to the top hat worn by Parisian dandies and declared her intention to write—at least at times—about high society. She also founded a literary review, La Settimana, but despite a distinguished list of contributors, including D'Annunzio and Benedetto Croce, it lasted only from 1902 to 1904. According to Amoia, Serao was bored by a weekly publication that offered none of the excitement of daily journalism.

Serao's marriage floundered in the face of Scarfoglio's continuing acts of adultery. In one incident, a former lover of his killed herself on the family's doorstep. There were also political issues that divided the two: she clung to a conservative mixture of monarchism and pacifism, while he was a flamboyant speaker for colonialism and warmongering. The two were legally separated in 1902. Now independent as a journalist, Serao founded her own newspaper, Il Giorno, in 1904, becoming the first Italian woman with such an achievement to her credit. She would direct it until her death 23 years later. Meanwhile, her personal life took a new turn when she established a household with Giuseppe Natale, a Neapolitan lawyer with whom she had a daughter. She named the child Eleonora after her longtime friend Eleonora Duse, who became the infant's godmother.

Il Giorno served as a challenge to Il Mattino, which remained under the control of Scarfoglio. With her usual energy, Serao took on numerous journalistic duties including writing horoscopes and giving advice to the lovelorn. Il Giorno offered a variety of political messages, reflecting the complexity of Serao's own views on the issues confronting Italy. While taking a stand in favor of monarchism, she also espoused the causes of workers on strike, and Il Giorno was an early and consistent opponent of the Fascist movement that developed under Benito Mussolini after World War I.

A notable feature of Serao's career as a journalist, dating from the mid-1870s, was her firm opposition to women's suffrage and divorce as well as her call for an educational system that excluded women at its highest levels. She claimed that Italian women first needed to seek a more elevated and dignified position in their society before calling for the vote. Only then could they exercise the franchise free of male pressure. As for divorce, Serao contended that it would degrade women who took such an option, placing them in a vulnerable position within a male-dominated society. Amoia has suggested that Serao was crucially influenced in these views by her lifelong acquaintance with the precarious position of women in Neapolitan society.

Serao drew directly on her own experiences when she began to write fiction, and critics have emphasized the relatively high quality of her work written in the 1880s. She began with Fantasia, in which she followed the lives and tangled love affairs of two Italian women from their years in boarding school through adulthood. Fantasia was a popular and commercial success, and it signaled the start of a career in fiction in which Serao was to have steady recognition from the reading public.

In two short stories produced in the middle of the decade—"Telegrafi dello stati" and "Scuola normale femminile"—she used the state telegraph office and the women's teachers' college, where she had worked and studied, as settings, and considered how women of middle-class background could earn a living in contemporary Italy. She stressed the poverty and uncertainty in the lives of such women, as well as their vulnerability to abuse from men in positions of authority.

She then went on to center her fiction for a time in the world of the transplanted provincial, a prominent 19th-century literary theme. Her years in Rome gave rise to two of her most important novels, both reflecting her own experience as a Neapolitan newcomer in the urban capital. In La conquista di Roma (1885), her hero Francesco Sangiorgio is a deputy to the Italian Parliament from a small, impoverished community in southern Italy. With telling psychological insight Serao traces her hero's confrontation with the bustling social and political scene in Rome. In the end, she sends him home as a man who has abandoned his political career in disillusionment. Two years later, she continued to explore this theme in Vita e avventura di Riccardo Joanna. Here her protagonist was, like Serao herself, an ambitious provincial journalist drawn to the Italian capital. Riccardo Joanna builds up a successful newspaper of his own, but, like Sangiorgio, he is defeated by the demands of Roman life.

Serao's most lasting achievement as a novelist, the one she considered her masterpiece, is Il paese di Cuccagna (1891). Here she set her story in her home city of Naples, and she examined how a variety of characters, from all levels of Neapolitan life, become enmeshed in the city's weekly lottery. Combining vivid scenes such as the city's many religious spectacles with the pathological behavior of her protagonists, Serao presented a picture of numerous pathetic losers and a handful of winners in this frantic effort to obtain instant wealth. A decade later, Serao addressed a special social dilemma in her novel Suor Giovanna della Croce. Here she castigated the national government for its insensitivity in forcing the closure of monasteries and nunneries containing only tiny religious communities. Her central figure is a poverty-stricken former nun, Sister Giovanna, thrown into a cruel, modern world after a cloistered existence that has left her with none of the tools of survival.

By the start of the 20th century, Serao's novels were being translated into French and English, and she achieved a considerable reputation in the Parisian literary community. She also had readers all over the Continent. But her fiction was increasingly dominated by Gothic and melodramatic elements. Many critics believe the quality of her writing diminished with this new turn toward what Kroha calls "novels of passion." At the same time, however, many themes from her earlier works remained in evidence. One of these was a negative view of heterosexual relations and marriage. She had throughout her imaginative writing also explored the close emotional tie that can develop between two women. A common device she employed was to present two very different female characters, and, even in the presence of a male protagonist, to center her attention on the relationship between the women. While intensely interested in the personal lives of Italian women, Serao also gave much of her energy to a critical examination of the conditions of working women and the injustice of their position in a conservative, male-dominated society.

Her visual and creative acuity … has been compared to a walking microscope that focuses on the tiniest aspects of people and objects.

—Alba Amoia

Serao strongly opposed Italy's entry into World War I, and she spent the last years of her career as a journalist confronting Benito Mussolini's Fascist movement. Despite her longstanding political conservatism, she became a vocal anti-Fascist and maintained her stance even after Mussolini came to power in 1922. Her newspaper was the target for raids by Mussolini's thugs in December 1922, and it suffered harassment as well due to the system of censorship instituted by his Fascist government. True to her established principles, she objected when Italian women were permitted to vote in local elections in 1925.

A candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1926, Serao may have lost out to Grazia Deledda because of her outspoken political opinions. The Italian government evidently refused to support Serao, especially since her most recent novel, Mors tua (The Harvest), was critical of World War I. Nonetheless, her personal and professional role in Italian life remained impressive enough for Mussolini to visit Serao at the close of her life in a vain effort to obtain her support for fascism.

Matilde Serao died of a heart attack on July 25, 1927, while working at her writing desk at her newspaper. A final tribute to her eminence came in the form of a spectacular funeral in her home city of Naples. Years earlier, when she was only 22, she had written to a friend: "I write everywhere, and about everything, with singular audacity: I fight my corner, pushing and shoving; I am possessed with a burning desire to succeed." Serao, notes Laura Salsini, was part of a "pioneering group of women authors giving voice to female experiences" at the turn of the century. Her mingling of literary styles allowed her to "express her vision of the rich panorama of female experiences, experiences that bind together her heroines in sorrow and joy, oppression and fulfillment."

sources:

Amoia, Alba. 20th Century Italian Women Writers: The Feminine Experience. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Arkin, Marian, and Barbara Schollar, eds. Longman Anthology of World Literature by Women. NY: Longman, 1989.

Baranski, Zygmunt G., and Shirley W. Vinall, eds. Women and Italy: Essays on Gender, Culture and History. NY: St. Martin's, 1991.

Bondanella, Peter, and Julia Conway Bondanella, eds. Dictionary of Italian Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Gisolfi, Anthony M. The Essential Matilde Serao. NY: Las Americas, 1968.

Harrowitz, Nancy A. Antisemitism, Misogyny, & the Logic of Cultural Difference: Cesare Lombroso & Matilde Serao. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Kroha, Lucienne. The Woman Writer in Late-Nineteenth Century Italy: Gender and the Formation of Literary Identity. Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellen Press, 1992.

Russell, Rinaldina, ed. Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Salsini, Laura A. Gendered Genres: Female Experiences and Narrative Patterns in the Works of Matilde Serao. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

Wood, Sharon. Italian Women's Writing, 1860–1994. London: Athlone, 1995.

suggested reading:

Russell, Rinaldina, ed. The Feminist Encyclopedia of Italian Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Weaver, William. Duse: A Biography. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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