Banti's Humanism in "Lavinia Fuggita": Art, Music and History

Article excerpt

Fu un miracolo che Iseppo Pomo, battellante chiozzoto imboccasse diritto il rio della Pieta: dalla laguna la nebbia colmava ogni fessura dell'abitato e passar sotto il ponte e trovarsi nel rio non cambio nulla, soltanto le voci che volavano per l'aria, fitte e allegre come fosse bel tempo, risuonavano in una maniera diversa, piu stipata (Banti, "Lavinia fuggita" 81).

[It was a miracle that Iseppo Pomo, oarsman from Chioggia, was able to slip his boat straight into the Pieta canal: the fog from the lagoon filled up every cranny between the buildings on the shore and passing under the bridge and ending up in the right canal changed nothing, only the voices that were flying through the air, many and happy, as if the weather were nice; they echoed in a different way, thicker.] (1)

This cinematographic opening of Anna Banti's "Lavinia fuggita" has all of the visual components of a spectacular film with the addition of a Vivaldi concerto soundtrack. Iseppo, not a native-Venetian son but an outsider from Chioggia, is maneuvering his rather large flat-bottomed boat into the docking place at the Pieta orphanage/ conservatory. The air under the bridge and in between the buildings is completely filled with November fog, interrupted only by the quick chatter of Venetian women gossiping about a baby boy born that same night. It is the pictorial view of eighteenth century Venice with a new element enriching the texture of the soundtrack: a chorus of simple women chattering in contrapuntal rhythms across the tiny canal on this foggy autumn Sunday morning. The sound of the water rippling against the embankment continues as the bass line for the entire story.

The story of Banti's Lavinia could be the center of a textbook on literary criticism. It lends itself perfectly to different forms of analysis. Ekphrasis defines the art historian's technique in verbally creating the rich visual of Venetian works of art from the precise period of history in which the story takes place. Another analytical model is Genette's narratological focalization. This short story shifts point of view back and forth through the eyes of the three girls and clearly shows the metastructural difference between recit (Zanetta and Orsola in her sitting room in Chioggia) versus histoire (Lavinia's story and their collective youth). A feminist historical analysis might concentrate on the oppression of women or even precisely on Anna Banti's depiction of creative women and the squelching of their creative expression. (2) Structural textual analysis might emphasize the run-on-sentence, quasi stream-of-consciousness writing style.

Among those listed above, the only analytical tool considered in this essay is Banti's use of the visual, and it will only be discussed briefly. The new dimension is a musical one. The text of the story is read here as a feminine oratorio, or, still within the musical metaphor/structure, as a solo concerto, with Lavinia and her story as solo in the center portion. Furthermore, through this analysis and consideration of more recent historic data, the final interpretation of Lavinia and her product are optimistic. Lavinia is not simply another female victim of history. Ultimately, her tenacity in her inescapable passion to compose and hear her own music performed is interpreted as at least partially fulfilled in a humanist dimension and in keeping with Banti's own interpretation of historic fiction. "[L]a storia e avvezza a inventare e talvolta inventando scopre la verita." [[H]istory is used to inventing and sometimes, in its invention, it uncovers the truth] (Wood 92). (3) Banti in her invention has created a truth which continues to resonate more than a half century later. Lavinia's story has gone beyond the fictional dimension into the realms of history and contemporary art. Recent research on the Venetian orphanages/conservatories has uncovered another truth discussed later in this essay, and contemporary Italian women artists have found inspiration in Lavinia's creativity. …