Conference on Mourning in Italian Poetry

Conference on Mourning in Italian Poetry, Christ Church, 28 April 2018.

Organised by Adele Bardazzi and Emanuela Tandello

Funded by Christ Church, the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages of the University of Oxford, the Society for Italian Studies, and in association with Oxford Medieval Studies, sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.


       Emanuella Tandello opened the proceedings with an expansive look at Leopardi’s Coro di morti, from his ‘Dialogo di Federico Ruysch e le sue mummie’, one of the Opperette Morali. Exploring the relationship between the poetry and the prose surrounding it, Tandello noted that this text has been considered one of the jewels in Leopardi’s poetic output. However, the intensity of the description in the poem of death as ‘ignota’ and ‘arcana’ is challenged in the prose, which uses the same subject (a chorus of voices from beyond the grave) to set up a satirical parody of the performativity of nineteenth century Science (as embodied by the operetta’s protagonist, the famous dutch anatomist Federico Ruysch). The humous tone of the prose clearly attempts to undermine the darkness of the poem, even referring to it as a ‘canzoncina’. But the images of the cosmic unknowablity of death, introduced from the very start of the poem (‘ignuda natura […] antico dolor. Profonda notte / nella confusa mente / il pensier grave oscura’), manage to unsettle the comedy of the prose with a sense of tragic foreboding, even as the collectivity of the choric voice of the dead comes close to non-subjective identification, breaking the bounds of the parodic and reaching to something darker and more chaotic.

        Maria Piperno’s paper ‘Vico, sepulchres and post-Revolutionary mourning’ shifted our concentration from the arcane nature of death to its constructive potential. Keeping the focus on Leopardi and in the nineteenth century, Piperno unfolded Vico’s anthropological theory which recognised burial as one of the first human social institutions, placing death at the heart of (civilised) life. Taking this notion further she explored the connections between monumentalisation in Foscolo and Leopardi’s works. In this context, burial (inhumation) is not only constitutive of human society, the tomb is also a site for the creation of social (and national) identity. In death, the individual transcends the specificity of their living character and becomes a figure able to sustain a wider social narrative; their tomb a monument capable of creating (historical/social/political) order out of the disorder and chaos of death. The tomb, and the dead figure, thus become a cluster of collective memory, as with the pantheon of Italian founding fathers at Santa Croce in Florence. But Leopardi’s indirect response to Vico’s theories of monumentalisation and the constrictive nature of collective morning turns that notion on its head as his usual pessimism creeps in and he fears for the capacity of modern society to preserve the memory of the dead in the same way as the ancients, seeing the modern obsession with transience as a threat to any truly epic pretensions to eternity. Transient or lasting, as Piperno’s paper proved, monuments are not for the dead but the living.

        Francesco Giusti opened the discussion after the coffee break with a rich analysis of the lyric form through the framework of Caproni’s ‘Ultima preghiera’, one of the ‘Versi Livornesi’ from his 1959 collection Il seme del piangere, dedicated to the poet’s dead mother: Anna Picchi. Focusing on the poem’s representation/enactment of mourning as a linguistic as well as a psychological occurrence, Giusti led us to read the poem’s personified congedi (from the exhortation of the opening line: ‘anima mia, fa’ in fretta’ to the explicit enunciation in the final line: ‘va pure in congedo’) as gestures, part of the poem’s frame of enunciation rather than as specific narrative fragments connected to the biography of the poet. Considering the performativity of the poetic utterance, Giusti noted that Caproni’s poem creates a ‘memory-bearing image that does not belong to the poet’s own experiential memory’ and so is at once personal and shareable, revealing ‘the open referentiality of lyric deixis’. In the lyric form the poet’s mourning is staged as a repeatable experience for each reader, a gesture whose very iterability ensures its openness, even as the poem’s exhortations call for a closure which their own vocative nature must always deny. The exhortive utterance of mourning (andcongedo) suspends its own ontology in the potentiality by which it is constituted, denying its own potential for closure in the same moment as it creates the desire for finite action. Like the congendo itself, the poem is not message but messenger.

        Mariza D’Amico continued the discussion on performativity with a detailed and rich portrait of the avant-guard poet and performer Patrizia Vicinelli (1943-1991). Close to members of the American avant-guard and the beat generation, Vicinelli’s works cover the gamut of non-traditional poetic production, often incorporating live performance and engaging with image and mixed-media text production. A double characteristic of visualità and sonorità can thus be distinguished in her varied output. In discussing the topic of mourning D’Amico revealed that these avant-guard techniques work to ‘distort the linearity of writing and time, reproducing the non-canonical experience of the world,’ an outsider status which resonates with Vicinelli’s thematic interest in vulnerable voices and narratives, making her verse a portavoce for ‘all those living in the margins’. Mourning in Vicinelli’s poetry is thus often for a kind of ‘death in life’ as marginalised people find themselves excluded from the usual life of society (in prisons and psychiatric wards). Vicinelli’s poetic subjects and her poetry itself thus sets up a mourning for life and the living, rather than the dead.

        Adele Bardazzi and Vilma de Gasperin’s papers moved the discussion from performativity to paratext, both presenting nuanced and rich engagements with mourning in the work of two contemporary Italian poets: Antonella Anedda and Vivian Lamarque. Bardazzi’s focus on the work of Antonella Anedda asked key questions about the place of the female voice in the genre of elegy, traditionally dominated by male poets but anthropologically a role which belonged to women. Focusing on Jonathan Culler’s definition of the lyric as ritual, Bardazzi picked apart the motif of sewing (cucire) which frequently occurs in Anedda’s work. Rather than piercing or tearing, in Antonella’s verse the needle brings things together, salvages them, saves them. In her multimedia piece Antologia 2010-2012, often called simply ‘lenzuolo’, Anedda collected extra literary material (leaves, photographs) including printed text, and sewed them onto a bed sheet in front of viewers in a gallery space. The ‘lenzuolo’ is both a stable site, representative of the anthology, but also innately unstable, vulnerable to the passing breeze as well as the gaze. Sewing for Anedda is thus a ritual gesture of recuperation, working against the fear (and actuality) of loss. The combination of extra-literary and literary material is also significant, as it was after an experience of mourning that Anedda (whose family is from Sardinia) felt a crisis in language, as if Italian hadn’t enough words for expression, at which point she began writing in Sardinian. In the words of one of her poems that she printed onto a lace-embroidered pillow: ‘da sempre mi / mancono le / parole, e io ne ho / nostalgia. / Per questo cucio, / cucio, cucio'.

        Vilma de Gasperin took up the note on visual engagement and illustrated her discussion of mourning in the poetry of Vivian Lamarque with a series of eloquent photographs taken in the poet’s house. Focusing on ‘Ritratto con neve’, a series of poems written in memory of Lamarque’s mother, De Gasperin offered us an insight into the act of gazing described in these poems as ‘a dialogue that the lyric self addresses to the mute painted image’ of her dead mother and an photograph of her dead father as a young man. Although Lamarque describes the outside world reflected in the glass of painting, her gaze seeks a returning look in the image and the photo. Unable to recognise their objectness, the lack of response from the still images creates a second loss, as ‘the crossing, without meeting, of their gazes’ leaves the poet on the threshold of impossible communication: ‘guardate davanti / a voi lontano molto molto oltre / questa me che vi guarda dal divano’. With a beautiful lightness of touch de Gasperina drew our attention to the poem’s epigraphs and its title. Reading these paratextual elements together and in light of the poem’s title, de Gasperin revealed that, for all the opening quote from Rainer Maria Rilke suggests that the poet has moved on (‘avevo morti e li ho lasciati andare’) the poem’s very title ‘Ritratto con neve’ (with each of the twelve sub-sections also entitled ‘ritratto’) resists this closure: etymologically ‘ritratto’ comes from the latin retrahere, to ‘draw back’ or even to ‘call back’, highlighting the fact that the ‘ritratti’ in Lamarque’s poems are more of a retention than a letting go.

        Peter Hainsworth wrapped up the day’s proceedings, leading a round table discussion which drew out the main thematic points including: a recurring dichotomy between life and death and the subsequent absence of a philosophical notion of a potential ‘life after death’ of the soul, something not present in any of the poems discussed by the speakers although not necessarily denied by them either; the persistent presence of another divide reflecting that life/death dichotomy, the life/art barrier which trapped Lamarque’s mother in the paining and gave Vicinelli’s vulnerable subjects voice only within the voice of her poems; and the presence across the works discussed of a fundamental resistance to the finality of death, something perhaps innate to the lyric form itself, ever iterable and so never ending. In light of which, as Hainsworth suggested, perhaps we should view the elegy as an enactment of tendencies innate to the lyric form itself, a microcosm rather than a genre.

        The day ended with a poetry reading by Antonella Anedda and Jamie McKendrick who read a selection of poems in Sardinian, Italian, and English - alternating between those written by Anedda and translated by McKendrick and those written by McKendrick and translated by Anedda. The gentle, creative atmosphere between the two poets, translators, and friends infused their reading with a pathos and charm that brought this day on mourning to a close with a note of positive intimacy, illustrating the beauty of living connection - even over the modern medium of Skype.

Mourning in Italian Poetry  

Saturday 28 April 2018 

Kidd Room, Christ Church, University of Oxford

10.00 – 10.30

Registration and Welcome

10.30 – 11.00

Emanuela Tandello (Oxford), ‘“A way of happening, a mouth”: Leopardi’s “Coro di morti”’

11.00 – 11.30

Martina Piperno (University College Cork), ‘Vico, sepulchers and post-Revolutionary mourning: between Foscolo and Leopardi’

11.30 – 12.00

Tea and Coffee Break

12.00 – 12.30

Fabio Camilletti (Warwick), ‘Carlotta’s Ghost’

12.30 – 13.00

Francesco Giusti (ICI Berlin), ‘Mourning over Her Image: The Re-enactment of Lyric Gestures in Cavalcanti and Caproni’

13.00 – 14.00


14.00 – 14.30

Marzia D’Amico (Oxford), ‘Patrizia Vicinelli: “la mia vita e la mia / morte sono la stessa avventura”’

14.30 – 15.00

Adele Bardazzi (Oxford), ‘“Perdere? è una porta sul vuoto”: The Art of Losing in the poetry of Antonella Anedda’

15.00 – 15.30

Vilma de Gasperin (Oxford), ‘“Ritratto con neve” by Vivian Lamarque’

15.30 – 16.00

Tea and Coffee Break

16.00 – 17.00

Roundtable led by Peter Hainsworth (Oxford)

17.00 – 18.00

Poetry Reading by Antonella Anedda with Jamie McKendrick in the McKenna Room

18.00 – 19.00

Drinks Reception in the McKenna Room


Dinner at Carluccio’s (Little Clarendon Street)

Organised by Adele Bardazzi and Emanuela Tandello

With the support of Christ Church, the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages of the University of Oxford, the Society for Italian Studies, and in association with Oxford Medieval Studies, sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

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