Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Le Parole del Verbo: Twentieth-Century Italian Literature and Christianity

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Le Parole del Verbo: Twentieth-Century Italian Literature and Christianity

Article excerpt

The spiritual disorientation that characterizes the twentieth century has led much contemporary Christian literature to gesture to its roots in periods and authors more firmly anchored to Christianity--for example, through the thematic recurrence to the works of Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), as well as through reinterpretations of texts belonging to the Christian (biblical or hagiographic) tradition. Thus, for example, "Un ladro in casa Manzoni" (in Eroi di vetro. Racconti, 1989), by Italo Alighiero Chiusano, portrays the aging author who, because of his Christian faith, shows no fear of a burglar he mistakes for the devil; Ferruccio Ulivi's La straniera (1991) recounts Manzoni's relationship with his first wife, the Swiss Calvinist "stranger" of the title, whose conversion to Catholicism inspired his own. Christianity in twentieth-century Italian literature is in fact predominantly Catholic, and the Protestant experience--that of the Waldensian austere moralist Piero Jahier (1884-1966), for example, author of the lyrico-realist war diary Con me e con gli alpini (1919)--is cast as "other."

The most important twentieth-century text inspired by Manzoni's Christian experience is Il Natale del 1833 (1983) by Mario Pomilio (1921-1990). The title refers to the date of Manzoni's first wife's death, leading to the writer's confrontation with God and his investigation of the role of suffering in individual and collective history. Pomilio shares with Manzoni a religious and ethical vision that is concerned with freedom, justice, and the responsibility of the Christian conscience. Unlike Giuseppe Berto's (1914-1978) neorealist novel Le opere di Dio (1948), whose ironic title points to God as the capricious author of senseless pain, Pomilio's God participates in human suffering. As in all of Pomilio's work, however, Christianity is an open question inextricably engaged with the present times. It is an interrogation carried out through the narrative conflation of history and fiction. Il cane sull'Etna. Frammenti di una enciclopedia del dissesto (1978), for example, focuses on human decenteredness, loss of metaphysics and religious beliefs, and consequent collapse. On the other hand, Il quinto evangelio (1975) traces the existence of a fifth Gospel through a pastiche of genres that guide the reader through crucial moments in the history of Christianity. This is often considered Pomilio's religious masterpiece, as well as his most original work: the fifth Gospel is a metaphor for the realization of the transcendental within the world of history, for the presence of the Word in the world and across time. Unlike Pomilio's L'uccello nella cupola (1954), historically anchored to traditional Catholicism, Il quinto Evangelio is an essentially post-Conciliar text, displaying contradictory elements and evangelical tensions, and staging the encounter of history, metaphysics, and theology.

Il quinto evangelio ends with a play, Il quinto evangelista, a trial of the fifth Gospel and of Jesus's story. The theme of the trial of Jesus recurs in Giuseppe Berto's La gloria (1978)--a rehabilitation of Judas as a necessary instrument of Providence--and Diego Fabbri's (1911-1980) play Processo a Gesu (1955). An international success, Fabbri's Processo a Gesu is a theatralization of the Gospel through a reinterpretation directly tied to Manzoni's conception of the historical tragedy. Fabbri's God operates miraculously and providentially in the world and within the human soul. Religiosity is woven throughout his work with the reality of the human condition: salvation can be obtained in spite of sin as long as one does not succumb to the temptation of arriving to God without going through Christ, namely, without finding one's place in history. Enrico Pea (1881-1958) also wrote plays inspired by the Old and New Testaments. But the most important Catholic playwright of the twentieth century in Italy is Ugo Betti (1892-1953), whose work explores the problematic of belief through processes of psychological destruction and moral reconstruction: faith is never a dogmatic presupposition, and the evil permeating the world is inevitable because intrinsically human; good is realizable, but only in transcendence. …

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