ReadingItaly

An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog

Places of the Fantastic – Memory

Italian Cities and Fantastic Literature: Massimo Bontempelli’s and Dino Buzzati’s Milano fantastica

by Beatrice Sica (University College London)

Speaking of Italian fantastic literature, it is interesting to consider the setting, in particular the cities, where the events take place. What are the urban settings in the Italian fantastic literature? How do Italian fantastic cities look like and what is their function in the story? A preliminary description can refer to two main types: imaginary cities, which do not and cannot exist, because they can’t actually be built, and real cities, those that are matched by reality and that readers recognize well, because they have seen them in real life with their own eyes. The latter type can be used to create a nice contrast between what is known and the unknown, between the sense of familiarity granted by the existing city and the strange cases narrated in the story.

When considering the Italian peninsula in terms of “fantastic urbanism,” so to speak, one wonders which cities have been most used by writers for playing on such a contrast. Is it possible to create a map of the most “fantastic” cities of Italy? Is the Stivale uniformly “fantastic” or, rather, are certain regions of the peninsula more “fantastic” than others? And, if there are any differences, what are their reasons?

Once a map of Italian urban fantastic regions has been created, it would be interesting to analyse the areas that are most fantastic within each city: are they streets, villas, apartment houses, parks, or bridges that have been transfigured by the visionary look of writers? And again, among those urban places, which are the most frequently used in fantastic literature?

Lastly, a further element to consider is the kind of deformation that affects the urban texture and structures. What happens or must happen for an existing city to become “fantastic”? For example: does its plan as described by the writer reflect the city plan as it actually is, or does it present imaginary additions? What transformations did the streets, palaces, flats, parks, and bridges undergo?

The city of Milan offers some interesting examples of such transformations, which I will briefly illustrate here by looking at works by Dino Buzzati and Massino Bontempelli. When thinking of Milano fantastica, one cannot but remember via Saterna in Dino Buzzati’s Poema a fumetti (1969). Via Saterna is a mysterious street, right in the city center, that hides a terrible secret, and down which no one wants to walk at night:

Via Saterna

(from Dino Buzzati, Poema a fumetti, Milano, Mondadori, 2011, p. 35)

I don’t want to add anything here about via Saterna: just read Buzzati’s Poem Strip, if you haven’t already done so, and see what hides there…

Another imaginary street of Milan is via Belloveso, evoked by Massimo Bontempelli in La vita operosa (published in instalments in 1920; volume in 1921). In this novel, a mysterious man complains about the fact that the Gaul Bellovesus – who, according to the Roman historian Livy, founded Milan around 600 B.C. – is not remembered in the city and does not even have a street named after him (“Il gallo Belloveso, […] che era nipote di un re dei Biturigi, quasi seicent’anni avanti Cristo […] fondò Milano, capitale morale d’Italia. E a Milano nessuno, nessuno, nessuno lo sa. A Milano non c’è una via […] che sia dedicata al nome di Belloveso,” M.B., La vita operosa, Florence, Vallecchi, 1921, p. 79).

During the 1970s, the extraordinary success of films like Star Wars and E.T. brought a new generation of readers to science fiction, and specialized medium-sized publishers appeared (such as Nord in Milan, and Fanucci in Rome), but the genre was still largely ignored by non-specialized writers and critics in Italy.

Listening to the complaints made by the mysterious man and thinking of the forgotten Bellovesus, the protagonist of the novel – an alter ego of Bontempelli– starts seeing Milan with different eyes:

raggiunta in pochi passi quella che avevo sempre veduta essere la piazza del Duomo, io trovai ora che non vi scorgevo più il Duomo, né il frivolo calamaio di bronzo del monumento a Vittorio Emanuele, né intorno a esso il girotondo dei tramvai con i trolleys rigidi a scarrucolare verso il cielo; e nemmeno si stendevano più, ai lati di quella, lo scenario dei portici settentrionali né l’obliquo fondale di Palazzo Regio: ma tutto il luogo era occupato non da altro che da basse capanne, in mezzo a suono di ferrame, perché tra le capanne s’aggiravano vasti guerrieri baffuti con risa oscene. E bisognò qualche tempo e qualche sforzo alla mia fantasia avanti che mi riuscisse di ritrasformare a’ miei occhi il rude accampamento dei Galli di Belloveso nel cuore civile e facondo della capitale morale. [p. 80]

Reading about this vision of piazza del Duomo in Milan, metamorphosed into Belloveso’s camp, one thinks again of Buzzati, this time of the painting he made of “la piazza del Duomo di Milano trasformata in una specie di rovina dolomitica: il Duomo, i Portici, Palazzo Reale, sono diventati delle rupi e in mezzo una prateria dove stanno tagliando il fieno,” as he himself described it in a TV interview on 8 December 1962 (http://tinyurl.com/oco2dmw in particular 00:04:50 to 00:05:58):

Buzzati Duomo

In this painting the Duomo of Milan, Buzzati took inspiration from the landscapes of the Dolomites, which he knew so well. The Duomo and the other buildings around the piazza can only be recognized in the shapes of the mountains; but mountains, unlike the city of Milan, are not the product of man’s activity – men and their activities here are just a tiny affair in a natural, sublime landscape in which they can barely be seen.

Let’s go back to Bontempelli. After piazza del Duomo, the protagonist of La vita operosa sees other parts of Milan metamorphosed:

L’ossessione mi tenne più giorni […]: vidi appunto sull’angolo del Corso sorgere ed elevarsi d’un tratto immani fantocci di vimini, alti come torrioni, e gli eubagi riempirli d’uomini vivi e appiccarvi il fuoco in onore di Hesus, dio sanguinolento armato di scure. Di là, dall’aspro odore di quella fiamma, un druido spiegava ai milanesi la trasmigrazione delle anime d’una in altra forma mortale. Vidi anche sotto i miei sguardi la colonna di San Babila tumefarsi e coprirsi di corteccia rugosa e ramificando trasformarsi in quercia, e guerrieri braccati chiamavan quella quercia Teutates ardendovi olocausti di cani.

Non mi riusciva sottrarmi alla suggestione morbosa. (pp. 80-81)

The protagonist recovers from his obsession only through a Luciferian creation. Indeed, with the power of his mind, he creates precisely the via Belloveso that the city lacks, but, contrary to Belloveso’s primitive camp, he envisions the new street as the most modern and futuristic part of the city – so modern, in fact, that it can only exist in his mind:

Ed ecco dalla mia ossessione germinò l’idea d’un affare vasto e mirifico. […] L’ultima parola della modernità. Il non visto ancora tra noi. Una via costruita tutta, sì, tutta di grattacieli, di grandi grattacieli, grattacieli di cemento armato: via Belloveso. […] Ogni palazzo, calcolai, avrà duecentoventi metri d’altezza e centocinquanta di base: la via sarà di trentasei grattacieli, diciotto per parte […]. Una via dunque […] lunga circa tre chilometri: rettilinea. (M.B., cit., p. 82 and 83).

The story, just as the whole book, is highly ironic. The protagonist is an old-style literate acting as an ingénu in a post-WWI Milan driven by money; he apparently wants to pursue a modern career in business, but in fact keeps conceiving bizarre, unsound, and unprofitable projects, like this rampant overdevelopment of via Belloveso, which is clearly out of scale. Indeed, Bontempelli here makes an act, not of futurist faith, but of futurist disbelief, and in so doing, he also takes some sort of revenge, if only for a moment, over the new religion of modernity, as he creates in a very short time a new street filled with skyscrapers and buildings that no property speculation could ever hope to achieve:

Sedetti sopra l’umile sponda d’un canale di poco lusinghevole aspetto ma di lunga e solida fama: quel Naviglio della Martesana, umanistica speculazione del condottiero Francesco Sforza. Qua e là qualche piccola costruzioncina bislacca si dava importanza di villino […]. La pianura si perdeva nel bigio infinito […] – . Qui – gridai nel mio pensiero – questo è il luogo!

E così forte e solenne fu il mio grido interiore, che le poche ville pretensiose, subito intimorite, si scostarono ognuna dal loro luogo […], s’allontanarono e scomparvero; […] poi dalla terra bigia cominciarono a scaturire fasci di biancori gelidi che rapidamente al mio sguardo impietrivano allineandosi in una duplice fuga parallela, accennavano per un istante l’ondulamento d’un ritmo di danza; poi si arrestarono; elasticamente immobili e altissimi, guardando tutti a me con le pupille nere e rettangolari d’un numero infinito di finestre simmetriche: diciotto e diciotto edifizi, in due file che andavano a incontrarsi e perdersi in direzione delle lontane e invisibili dolcezze delle regioni lacustri: diciotto e diciotto grattacieli di cemento armato: la mia creazione: via Belloveso.  (pp. 88-89)

Such a titanic power of the mind, however, does not last long. Little by little the fog covers up the entire area, the skyscrapers flake apart, their single floors detaching themselves from one another, flying and landing on the plain, until they disappear and the small villas that had gone away come back. Thus, like a dream, the story ends.

Bontempelli’s and Buzzati’s Milano fantastica reveals the power and fears of the mind. The existing streets and places of the contemporary city unveil geological formations and promote ancestral encounters, while new, imaginary streets become a door to an ultramodern world that is as disquieting as the natural sublime that effaces the presence of man.

Beatrice Sica is Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Italian Literature at University College London. She earned her Ph.D. in Italian Studies at New York University and was Fondazione Sapegno postdoctoral fellow at the Collège de France in Paris and Lauro de Bosis postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. She is the editor of Ruggero Jacobbi’s L’Italia simbolista (Trento: La Finestra, 2003) and Ruggero Jacobbi e la Francia. Poesie e traduzioni (with a foreword by Andrea Camilleri, Florence: Società Editrice Fiorentina, 2004), and the author of Poesia surrealista italiana (Genoa: San Marco Dei Giustiniani, 2007) and L’Italia magica di Gianfranco Contini: storia e interpretazione (Rome: Bulzoni, 2013). Her research on twentieth-century Italy addresses in particular Futurism; magical realism; literature, ideology and art during Fascism; and the cultural exchanges between Italy and other countries, especially France and the US.

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This entry was posted on January 25, 2016 by in Memory.
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