Italian Diaries, Meant to Be Shared

By Povoledo, Elisabetta | International New York Times, August 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

Italian Diaries, Meant to Be Shared


Povoledo, Elisabetta, International New York Times


Pieve Santo Stefano has a collection of more than 7,000 firsthand accounts of the lives of common people and how they witnessed the grand events that shaped Italy.

The rich and famous, the important and powerful, can always have their say. But what of the bulk of humanity who suffer the whims of history, whose everyday labors give it life? How will their voices be remembered?

The answer, at least in Italy, can be found here in this small Tuscan town, which has become Italy's repository of lives recounted.

Some of those lives are hastily scribbled on scraps of paper. Others fill leather-bound journals with lazy longhand. Still others come tidily typewritten. They are among the thousands of diaries, letters, autobiographies and punctilious notes that line the shelves of the National Diary Archive Foundation, providing firsthand accounts of the lives of common people and how they witnessed the grand events that shaped the nation.

Remembering, and celebrating, the lives of ordinary people who set down their experiences on paper is at the heart of what inspired Saverio Tutino, a foreign correspondent and devoted chronicler, to start the archive in 1984, that seemingly distant age before millions everywhere posted their every deed and opinion on Twitter.

Since then, more than 7,000 memoirs have made their way to Pieve Santo Stefano, now known as the City of Diaries, about a two-hour drive east of Florence.

Some were brought here by their authors, who include frustrated homemakers and unrepentant bank robbers; others by heirs of the diarists. Yet others were found in attics or at flea markets, then turned in because their story struck a chord with readers. The earliest diaries date from the 18th century, but most are from the 20th century.

"Tutino believed that everyone is one of many, and together we become history," said Loretta Veri, a former director of the archive who now raises funds to support it. Mr. Tutino, who died three years ago, "used to say that we are privileged to hear the rustle of others, that paper voices always made a sound," she added.

The current director, Natalia Cangi, said Mr. Tutino's idea of democracy, inspired by left-leaning political beliefs, "was to give power to the ordinary people, to give their lives dignity."

Actually, from the start, it took a prize of 1,000 euros, or about $1,300, and more important the promise of publication to persuade so many diarists to entrust their musings to complete strangers.

It was a shrewd strategy.

"Say the word 'prize,' and Italians go crazy," Mario Perrotta, an actor and author, wrote in a book about the archive. Italians, he said, "treasure thousands of prizes, and they all work."

Anyone can compete for the prize, which is awarded each September to the most compelling read. The dozens of entries are vetted by reading groups that consist of townspeople here as well as residents of neighboring cities. The winner -- selected from a list of eight - - is published. The others become part of the archive.

Of course, not all diarists are interested in putting their life struggles into the public domain, and in some cases the stories come with caveats. One woman from Foligno insisted that her diary be accessible to all, save for two despised relatives; another diarist requested that the submission be sealed until 2072.

Often, archive officials say, transcribing diaries can be challenging: deciphering scribbles or making sense of writings in dialects, sometimes by people with little formal education.

Take Vincenzo Rabito's autobiography, which came by way of 1,027 densely typed pages, including 718,900 semicolons; a Sicilian road worker, he wrote from 1968 to 1975. …

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