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Autographs from the twentieth century and beyond: a brief introduction to the Centro Manoscritti of Pavia

by Anna Antonello (Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich / University of Pavia)

‘The Fondo is a universe in miniature, encompassing in a single whole that which exists and that which fluctuates between the plausible and the improbable. Therefore, it stops being just an archive, a deposit, whilst all that is out is life. On the contrary, it becomes the world’s mirror, where almost nothing of what has a beginning, has also a complete end’[1]. These words by Maria Corti, founder of the ‘Centro di Ricerca sulla tradizione manoscritta di autori moderni e contemporanei’ in Pavia, recall two key moments of the archival work: on the one hand, that feeling of familiarity (sometimes even intimacy) which the researcher gradually acquires with authors who up to that point had not looked any more real than their works; on the other hand, the realisation of the ‘materiality’ of the creative effort, which is made of a few results and  many attempts that have often been arbitrarily concealed.

The Centro Manoscritti was founded in 1968 – but it was only officially recognised in 1973 – when Maria Corti, who at the time was Professor of History of the Italian Language at the University of Pavia, decided to establish an archive aimed at ‘recovering, preserving and making accessible to researchers autograph materials, enabling thus access to “the writers’ labs” in order to spot the invention’s development’[2]. Expanding significantly the original nucleus constituted by the autographs of Montale and Bilenchi (donated by the authors themselves), in the following years the Centro gathered, through donations, deposits and purchases, the papers of ‘more than one hundred authors, composed of thousands of both handwritten and typed autographs related to important literary works, diaries, letters […] archives of journals and publishing houses, scripts, drawings, musical scores, photographs and other documents’[3]. Worthy of mention amongst the poets are the papers of Umberto Saba – representing almost his entire oeuvre – Salvatore Quasimodo – poet and translator of Greek lyric poetry, Shakespeare and Cummings – Alfonso Gatto, Mario Luzi, Alda Merini and Andrea Zanzotto, who with many others constitute a unique anthology of Italian twentieth-century poetry. There is also a wide choice of prose writers: the papers of Corrado Alvaro, Alberto Arbasino, Italo Calvino, Fausta Cialente, Luigi Meneghello – the most important link between the Centro and the University of Reading – and Alberto Moravia, to name just a few, lie near some of the main protagonists of the Italian nineteenth century, such as Ugo Foscolo, Luigi Capuana and Giovanni Verga.

Moreover, in order to picture the remarkable variety of the materials kept in the Centro Manoscritti, the presence of many foreign authors’ papers, especially letters, in the archive should be highlighted. For example, the short correspondence between the Italian translator Angela Minissi Giannitrapani and Samuel Beckett, dating back to the early seventies, warrants further investigation. Otherwise, those who are interested in journals would find the collection of the Milanese journal Il Convegno (1920-40) rather stimulating: it gathers together more than three hundred letters from more than two hundred senders, including Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Paul Valéry and Ezra Pound.

When entering the Centro, even the most expert scholar will feel for a moment as though he is in a temple of philology, overseen by the portrait of its founder. Nowadays, many PhD theses are being written on the most relevant materials of the archive, which is also visited by foreign scholars. And despite shortages in both economic resources and space, the acquisitions continue. Recently the poet and anglicist Franco Buffoni has taken care of transferring his literary papers, his letters and part of his collection of books to the archive. Thanks to many exhibitions and conventions, but also through the restart of the journal Autografo (issues 45-47, published by Interlinea) in 2011, which was founded by Maria Corti in 1985, the current director Maria Antonietta Grignani has managed to draw attention to the importance of the archival work in general, and in particular to the papers of Alfredo Giuliani, acquired in 2009; through his correspondences with the poets Edoardo Sanguineti, Antonio Porta, Nanni Balestrini and Elio Pagliarani, it is possible to reconstruct the genesis of the anthology I Novissimi, so far rather unknown. Also of interest are the diaries, manuscripts and letters of Ottiero Ottieri, one of the most attentive observers of the Italian industrial world in the fifties and seventies[4]. In the near future, the Fondo’s challenge is that of facilitating and improving the digital availability of core parts of the archive, for which they have established the project ‘PAD’ (Pavia Digital Archives).

Today, the uniqueness of the Fondo lies in its capacity to stand the test of time and to keep alive an utmost respect for literary papers, which is essential in discovering precious fragments of cultural memory that should be preserved.


[1] M. Corti, Ombre dal fondo (Turin: Einaudi), 1997.

[2] N. Trotta, Gli archivi letterari del Novecento. L’esperienza del Fondo manoscritti di autori moderni e contemporanei dell’Università di Pavia, in Storia d’Italia nel secolo ventesimo. Strumenti e fonti. III Le fonti documentarie (C. Pavone, Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali, 2006), p. 723.

[3] Ibid., p. 723.

[4] On the problems and nature of nineteenth-century literary archives see M. A. Grignani, I manoscritti d’autore: un bene monetizzabile?, paper given at the conference Il valore del libro. Tra prodotto culturale, oggetto di mercato e bene da tutelare, organised by the Soprintendenza ai Beni Culturali, 22 September 2011, library ‘Sormani’ in Milan (http://www.cultura.regione.lombardia.it); Ead., Un’altra storia. Lampi dal Fondo Manoscritti di Pavia, paper given at the XII International Conference of the MOD: Memoria della modernità. Archivi ideali e archivi reali, Naples, 7-10 June 2011 (in Autografo 48); and Ead., Notizie da un mondo di carta, paper given at the Conference in Ferrara, 30 March 2012, Salone internazionale dell’arte del restauro: Lettere, diari e memorie, currently in print.

Anna Antonello received her doctorate in Modern Philology from the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich, in cotutelle with the University of Pavia. Her PhD thesis, published in December 2012 (La rivista come agente letterario tra Italia e Germania 1921-1944, Pacini editore), focuses on literary journals that acted as literary agents between the Italian and the German cultural scene during World War I and World War II. At the Centro Manoscritti she held responsibilities for cataloguing literary papers. She is involved in the Leverhulme ‘Diasporic Literary Archives’ network.

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This entry was posted on April 22, 2013 by in Voices.
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