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Giovanni Raboni – Critic’s corner

1968 Foto di Fernanda Nicolao

Raboni and Anglo-Saxon Modernism

by Luca Daino (University of Milan)

The definition of Giovanni Raboni as a Lombard poet related to the Enlightenment tradition, one that includes authors such as Parini, Manzoni, Tessa, Gadda, Rebora and Sereni, and their inheritors of the second half of the twentieth century, is not as representative as it seems. These roots are of course present and play a primary role in his works. However, it seems inevitable to me that we should consider him first of all to be a poet who belongs to the great period of European modernism: a snappy and sophisticated critic, a writer who produced, as many modernists did, fine pieces of work, but who at the same time always remained in tune with his age. It is no coincidence that Raboni, from the beginning of his poetic production in the 1950s, was one of the brightest authors to introduce modernism into Italian literature, the same modernism that had already taken root in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. In particular, Raboni established a profound and precocious relationship with Anglo-Saxon modernism, as he himself pointed out on several occasions. Nevertheless, his critics have not been yet able to make use of his suggestion.

This brings me to address other two questions. The first relates to the role that Raboni played within the Italian literary context as a poet, a critic, a translator, and as a cultural mediator, a role that has not yet been fully highlighted (and this is perhaps the major task of current criticism about him). The second, which does not only involve Raboni, deals with the appropriateness of labelling a certain area of Italian literature as ‘modernist’. The famous names of European modernism are those linked to great masterpieces of the first half of the twentieth century: Joyce, Woolf, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Proust, Kafka, Musil, Pessoa and Unamuno, to name just a few. The goal of scholars (starting from Romano Luperini) who from the last decade have been working to import the ‘modernist’ label into Italy, is to replace the obsolete and all-embracing term decadentismo – which is used only in Italy and therefore distances Italian literary criticism from the rest of Europe – with one that puts together dissimilar authors, such as, for example, Carducci and Pirandello. In this analysis, Italy had its own kind of modernism as well, embodied in a few names, especially those of narrative writers: Svevo, Pirandello and Gadda, first of all. With regard to poetry, the term modernismo may refer to at least the first three collections by Montale, and the pre-hermetic Ungaretti (Allegria). This was a kind of modernismo which was coeval to European modernism, and which started at the beginning of the twentieth century and ended after the Second World War.

Raboni’s production challenges this framework, because it immediately imposes a restriction, at least for the poetry domain: in Italy, modernism goes beyond the period of the Second World War. On the contrary, the case of such an innovative poet as Raboni illustrates that in Italy this label can also be successfully applied in the second half of the twentieth century, with even greater benefit (if we exclude the few exceptions mentioned above). More precisely, it is applicable to the three decades after WWII, when Italian poetry started to free itself from rhetorical and linguistic restraints that were not yet quite modern and that were still exposed to the idea of a sacred or so-called Orphic literature. As we know, Raboni was one of the extreme points of this ‘movement towards liberation’.

It has been noted that ‘European poetry becomes modernist when it starts to move away from the symbolist temptation’[1]. This temptation was still alive in Italy in the 1930s, when Montale and his predilection for Anglo-Saxon authors was still an isolated case, although he had already been granted unanimous recognition. On the other hand, we know that in the 1950s, Italian poetry was still negotiating with ermetismo as well. Critical interventions by Raboni at the end of that decade are amongst the most accurate testimonies of such a slow and difficult struggle. In these texts, however, we can see the spur that enabled him and some other poets to distance themselves from the abstract and self-referential Italian neo-symbolism and to move towards a chiefly European direction. This was the Anglo-American model of modernism, one that brought together the informal and the humble with a great style but kept an elevated idea of poetry nonetheless. Raboni said unequivocally: ‘at the moment when I tried to understand what I wanted to say, what was worth saying in poetry and how it was possible to say that, Eliot and Pound were absolutely vital’[2].

In order to support this quote we could juxtapose Raboni’s poem Portale, written in the mid-1950s (in Le case della Vetra, 1966) and Triumphal March from the first section of Eliot’s Coriolan[3]. Here is the incipit of the latter:

Stone, bronze, stone, steel, stone, oakleaves, horses’ heels

Over the paving.

And the flags. And the trumpets. And so many eagles.

How many? Count them. And such a press of people.

We hardly knew ourselves that day, or knew the city.

That is the way to the temple, and we so many crowding the way.

So many waiting, how many waiting? (vv. 1-7).

And this is the beginning of Portale:

Difficile dire

quante spade, quante lance, quanti elmi di cuoio

su profili romani, quanti fabbri e pescatori col cappellaccio a cono

e le orecchie puntute,

quante facce di porco o di drago, quanti piedi con cinque dita

e ruote e focacce sbilenche e proiezioni

tavole imbandite

nella ressa, nel fuoco, nella gioia

della neve che approssima, del vino

bevuto in gioventù,

della folla irta e viva, di un’intera nazione

che pesca caccia ecc. e prepara

l’acre festa sul legno.

One of the aspects of Raboni’s work that remains the most neglected is his ‘transnationality’, his precocious, intense, decisive relationship with the European literature of the first half of the twentieth century. To get an idea of how relevant this connection was, it is useful to consider his activity as a translator, which is unique in both quantity and quality amongst Italian writers. It is perhaps not the case that this activity was centred mostly on a modernist author such as Proust. Further evidence can be found in Raboni’s critical essays written between the 1950s and the 1960s, which are mostly unknown to scholars since they were never published as a book. I especially refer to the texts published in the journal aut aut, directed at that time by Enzo Paci, who in those years was the main heir to and innovator of the Italian phenomenological school. Together with modernism, twentieth-century phenomenology constituted in fact the most solid basis of Raboni’s formation.

In aut aut the young Raboni (he was about 25), published numerous works, amongst which were many essays dedicated to modernist authors such as Yeats, Proust, Woolf, Klee. Here Raboni frequently referred to other modernists, for example to Mann, Musil, Eliot, Beckett, Pound and Joyce. We have therefore the evidence of Raboni’s high competence in the reception of international modernism. His views are to a large extent still current now. This is even more remarkable, given Raboni’s young age, the historical period and the place (a peripheral Italy) in which he worked. In conclusion, alongside a set of literary preferences based on Italian and Lombard models, Raboni built over time a second one, which was coherently anti-Symbolist modernist. This was also why, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Raboni, still very young, was able to dialogue on equal terms with the masters of the Italian poetic renovation of the second half of the twentieth century, namely Luzi and Sereni in primis (who were twenty years older) and get to similar outputs.



[1] R. Donnarumma, ‘Tracciato del modernismo italiano’, in Sul modernismo italiano, eds. Romano Luperini and Massimiliano Tortora (Naples: Liguori, 2012), p. 32.

[2] G. Raboni, ‘Credere ancora nella poesia. Incontro con Giovanni Raboni’, interview by Massimo Gezzi, Atelier 8, no. 29 (March 2003): p. 31.

[3] This juxtaposition was provided by Guido Mazzoni, ‘La poesia di Raboni’, Studi novecenteschi 19, no. 43-44 (June-December 1992): p. 272, note 27.


Luca Daino graduated from the University of Milan in Modern Italian Literature, with a thesis on Franco Fortini; his first monograph originated from this research. He got his PhD from the same university in Italian Literature with a thesis on Giovanni Raboni’s poetry. Since 2012 he has been working as a post-doc researcher at the University of Milan with a project on the representations of Milan in twentieth-century Italian literature. His research has developed along four main directions: Fortini and Raboni’s youth training and the connection between the stylistic peculiarity of their works and their ideology; the ability of some writers (Faletti, Giordano, Piccolo, Quasimodo, Baldini) to achieve great success and reach a wide audience with their novels, poems and dramas; the circulation of Italian poetry in foreign countries; and the connection between literature and the city, and between literary criticism and Urban Studies.


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This entry was posted on December 9, 2014 by in Critic's corner.
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