Travel Muse

Travelling Italy in the Footsteps of its Writers

Emily Warner takes readers through some of Italy's most famous literary locations.

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Image Credit: Echiner1

Italy: a literary paradise of sun-bleached houses and coloured roofs. A winding labyrinth of canals, coffee shops, pastel skies and gelato, all poised beneath the tilted head of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. For countless English writers this country has been a birthplace, a home, a resting place and an endless source of literary inspiration. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a lavish diary during his travels around Italy, which later became the book Italian Journey. The Romantic poets, Lord Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley and John Keats, were entranced by Italy and they were drawn to it like a magnet. Even James Joyce, who provided the benchmark for modernist literature, couldn’t deny the allure of Trieste, where he lived for ten years.
Although Italy is a literary pilgrimage for authors from across the world, that does not mean the country has not been the mother of its own great writers. I hope to shed a different kind of light on Italy, illuminating the rich history of literature which exists in every popular holiday destination throughout Italy.

Dante Alighieri:
Born in 1265, Dante is the centrepiece of this literary exploration and author of the Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy). In Florence where he was born, buildings are adorned with plaques quoting the Divina Commedia, sculptures are dotted around the city and his name is given to many streets, hotels and restaurants. It is impossible not to bump into the ghost of Dante when visiting this beautiful, terracotta-tiled place. Of the many sites to visit, one worth mentioning is the Museo Casa di Dante, Dante’s birthplace and now a museum dedicated to the poet. Another important location for Dante fans is the Chiesa di Santa Margherita, the church where Dante first saw his muse, Beatrice Portinari and likely where he married Gemma Donati (mother of his children). Despite being the oldest church in Florence, the church is still open to visitors. Thirdly, Dante’s rock where the poet allegedly sat writing love poems, is marked by a plaque. If you wish to feel the presence of Dante, or perhaps imagine yourself in his position, then this rock is the spot.
Despite Dante being the favourite son of Florence today, his relationship with the city in the 13th century was less than harmonious. Due to his political ideologies, Dante was exiled from his birthplace in 1302, and it was only after leaving the city that he composed the Divina Commedia. After several years of wandering Italy, Dante died of malaria at the age of 56. Regardless of the conditions in which he wrote it, Dante’s poem elevated the status of Italian vernacular, made literature accessible to a wider readership and cemented the destiny of Italian literature; it is because of him that this list of literary landmarks in Italy is possible.

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch):
On the website Discover Arezzo, the Petrarch House Museum, Arezzo, Tuscany, is described as a building where, ‘room after room is filled with the air that brought to life the genius of Francesco Petrarca’. Indeed, this museum is the site of his birth in 1302, and its 14th century rooms are like an enlarged time capsule for visitors today. It is only necessary to wander through the rooms and see the marble statue of Petrarch, to feel as if a connection has been established with the past.
Petrarch is best known for his poetry, written in a style vastly different to the Mediaeval troubadour poets and Dante; lyrical, elegant, sentimental and often filled with the yearning of an unrequited love. Many of Petrarch’s poems centre around a woman called Laura, (possibly Laura de Noves, who was married) and his poetry speaks of her grace and beauty which he could only ever possess in literature. For many, Petrarch was the beginning of Renaissance Humanism, which focused on a classical revival and what it means to be human, earning his name a place on this list.

Italo Calvino:
I now wish to catapult us forward in time, to October 1923, the moment when Italo Calvino took his first breath. Although he was actually born in Cuba, Calvino’s parents were both Italian and he returned to Sanremo, Italy two years later; it was here that he spent most of his peaceful childhood prior to World War II.
His wartime experiences provided inspiration for Calvino, as much as his relationship with Italy, as embodied in the 1947 novel The Path to the Nest of Spiders but he later turned to fantasy, allegory and experimentalism. It is these whimsical novels which he is most renowned for. Over his lifetime, Calvino meandered across many Italian cities from Rome to Siena, and the pervasive presence of these locations in his novels is clear. It is almost as if Calvino, bedecked with a high-vis jacket and neon sign, takes his reader on a fictional tour guide of the country.
It is difficult to determine a single location where Calvino is most potently remembered. As a man characterised by his wanderings, both real and fictional, his influence is so widespread that it can be felt in a plethora of Italian cities. However, his novel Invisible Cities described fifty cities which all reveal themselves to be the same one; Venice. Visiting this labyrinth of canals and narrow streets offers a vibrant new way to experience Calvino’s novel. In addition, visitors may visit the grave of Italo Calvino which is located at the Cemetery of Castiglione Della Pescaia in Grosseto. Here, the end of Calvino’s journey is marked by a smooth, blank gravestone despite the fact that his words continue to take readers through time and space.

Elena Ferrante:
Elena Ferrante is a name that will be familiar to most and beloved by many. Here, I seek to rectify this male-dominated list of Italian writers with a contemporary, female voice. Elena Ferrante’s identity is a mystery, one which has puzzled journalists, fascinated readers and added an intoxicating allure to her books. However, her visceral portrayal of women, Italy and their truths does not require an author; the novels have been wildly successful regardless.
Despite the ‘Ferrante fever’, in Italy stories by and about women are often side-lined and dismissed by critics. Ferrante herself said that, ‘“We women have been pushed to the margins, towards subservience, even when it comes to our literary work” as evidenced by this list of writers, who all have one thing in common; their sex. Now, the ‘female story’, told with increasing skill, increasingly widespread and unapologetic, is what must now assume power” so as not to exclude half of Italy’s population from the telling of its history.
If you were to pin Ferrante to one location, it would have to be Naples where the writer was born and sets her most acclaimed novel My Brilliant Friend. Being one of the poorest cities in Europe means that Naples doesn’t possess the same grandeur as cities like Florence and Rome. However, Ferrante manages to unveil the beauty and charm that exists even in one of Italy’s more unpolished locations, encapsulated by the unnamed ‘neighbourhood’ of her protagonists. Don’t worry, despite the book having an undefined location, there are still plenty of opportunities to visit the filming locations for the HBO film version of My Brilliant Friend, and garner a sense of the novel’s geographical inspiration. Il Rione is believed by many to be the model for Ferrante’s ‘neighbourhood’ and where most of the film is set, whilst other scenes were shot in various locations, such as; Lungomare, Piazza Plebiscito,  Galleria Principe and more. Naples, and Il Rione however, remain at the heart of this novel which spans sixty years and shows how a city can transform people as much as people can transform it.

This tour of Italy and its writers is by no means exhaustive, and there are many more waiting to be discovered down the cobbled alleyways of the past. It can be agreed however that pasta and sunshine are not the only appeal of the country. Italy pulses with creative inspiration, so if you listen closely you’ll hear stories in the clatter of market stalls and poetry carried by the winds high in the mountains.

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