Italian Chimeras

Narrating Italy through the Writing of Sebastiano Vassalli

by Meriel Tulante (Author)
©2020 Monographs XII, 328 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 37


Sebastiano Vassalli (1941–2015) engaged in an ambitious project to narrate Italy, the nation, its people and its pathologies. His vast cast of characters includes a prototypical fascist father, a terrorist son, a Carmelite nun, Virgil and other literary giants, Francesco Crispi, and an orphan girl burnt as a witch. His historical panorama delves into memory, regional geographies, and national identity to interrogate the condition of the Italian nation since World War II. For Vassalli, chimeras are the myths or illusions that have repeatedly ensnared the nation, resulting in the national, social, and geopolitical dysfunctions that he denounces. Despite his literary successes and prizes (the Campiello Prize for his career, shortlisting for the Nobel Prize for Literature), he remains isolated on the Italian literary scene. This absence of critical attention largely stems from his combative relationship with the literary establishment, which developed after he broke with the neoavantgarde of the 1960s and was reinforced by his accusatory stance toward contemporary society. This book represents the first study of Vassalli’s works as a whole, investigating this difficult, contradictory, yet highly accomplished intellectual who was a major commentator on postwar society and a strongly original voice in Italian literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 A Laughing Matter: The Neoavantgarde, the commedia all’italiana, and a Political Trilogy
  • Chapter 2 Impegno Revisited: The Public Intellectual and the Futurists
  • Chapter 3 History as Meaning: The Past in Narrative
  • Chapter 4 The Monster, the Nation, the Self: Marginality and Belonging
  • Chapter 5 Place and Nation: Regional Identities and an Ethics of Place
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Sebastiano Vassalli’s death in July 2015 brought to an end the career and activities of a writer who had aimed to record as much as he could from the catalogue of Italian characters and tales that he had stored in his mind. In that year he had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature; we shall never know whether it would have been awarded to him.

When I began to read Sebastiano Vassalli’s novels, he was publishing at an astonishing rate, as he had done for decades. This productivity continued into the last months of his life, as he completed his last, posthumously published novel. In the months after his death, Italian and foreign newspapers and other publications made his life and work the subject of prominent obituaries and commentaries on his contributions to Italian letters and culture. It is now possible to consider his writing as a whole, including his many contributions to newspapers, and to observe how his reflection on what it is to be Italian throughout his writing offers a vital resource for understanding post-Second World War Italian life and culture and the nation’s transition into the twenty-first century.

I was able to interview Vassalli on two occasions at his home near the village of Biandrate, among the rice fields of the Lombard and Piedmontese plain. I found his patience, openness, and generosity to be at odds with the widespread image of him as an isolated and combative character. Pier Paolo Pasolini, with whom Vassalli was in dialogue in much of his writing, commented: “La morte compie un fulmineo montaggio della nostra vita […] Solo grazie alla morte, la nostra vita ci serve ad esprimerci” (Pasolini 2003 [1967], 1560). I am honoured to have the opportunity to offer this book as a “montage” whose subject is Vassalli’s life and works.

I am very grateful for all the support and encouragement I have had throughout the writing of this book. A summer research grant from Thomas Jefferson University (previously Philadelphia University) allowed me to travel to Italy for my first interview with Vassalli. I conducted the second interview when I was on a university-sponsored trip to visit the Study ←xi | xii→Abroad programme in Milan, and during that trip I was also able to conduct research in libraries. More recently, I was the recipient of the Carter and Fran Pierce Term Chair for the Liberal Arts. This award, which was established by my much esteemed late colleague and his spouse, has been instrumental in enabling me to bring this project to a close. I am extremely grateful for Carter and Fran’s generosity and for their commitment to funding research in the Liberal Arts. I owe many debts to Lino Pertile, Diego Zancani, and Zygmunt Barański for their encouragement, reading, and suggestions. Many others have helped me in different ways, including Roberto Cicala, who included me in his project to gather essays by scholars of Vassalli’s work, Stefania Benini for her invaluable insights, John Baines, Jennifer Baines, Jocelyn Baines, Sozi, Kiese, Sengele, and Zolana Tulante.

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For Sebastiano Vassalli (1941–2015), chimeras represent hidden, dispersed, sometimes deliberately concealed truths about Italy: the nation, its people, and the national character. A strikingly prolific author, in each text he takes the opportunity to investigate a different facet or manifestation of an Italian national identity – or the widely perceived lack thereof. He understands chimeras as the dangerous and deceptive illusions that are at work in society, or myths that we propagate – Communism, religion, history – that can also ensnare us. With the symbol of the chimera, he exploits a motif that has pervaded human imaginations for millennia and retains its resonance in the modern world. Since the Renaissance, chimeras have been understood as hybrid and elusive creatures, imaginary presences, or illusions (Warner 1998, 243). An invention of the Greeks, the chimera’s nature as both multiple and impossible to categorise is present in many different contexts and iterations of monstrous beings. In Vassalli’s work, the chimera emerges as a crucial representation of those who are marginalised or forgotten.

The chimera appears explicitly in his two most significant and widely read novels: La notte della cometa (1984), the story of the poet Dino Campana’s life, and La chimera (1990), Vassalli’s account of a seventeenth-century witch trial, a book that achieved bestseller status and for which he received the prestigious Strega prize. Drawing on the title of a Campana poem, Vassalli characterises the poet protagonist of La notte della cometa as a chimera: a strange, almost monstrous creature excluded by society, in whose poetry truths inaccessible to others are perceived and presented. The chimera returns in the title of the historical novel La chimera as a cypher for beguiling illusions, warning readers against believing grandiose ←1 | 2→social narratives and the consequences they can have for an individual and a community.

The idea of the chimera brings together Vassalli’s interest in the Italian national character and his purpose in writing – to expose illusions, to give a voice to the marginalised, and to create an enduring account through the power of narrative. He situates his exploration of society’s ills firmly in an Italian context and in a literary tradition:

quando si tolgono appunto le illusioni che con l’arte si progredisca, si ritorna ai temi del primo Ottocento, si ritorna alle famose illusioni del Foscolo che io chiamo chimere. Ho intitolato il mio ultimo romanzo La chimera, ma sarebbe potuto essere Le chimere, perchè sono queste illusioni che aiutano l’umanità a vivere: sono molte in più rispetto al primo Ottocento. Tra queste una è il progresso, un’altra è la storia. Ed è forse utile rappresentarle come animali, proprio perchè, se c’è una cosa che abbiamo imparato in questi centottanta, centonovant’anni, è che queste illusioni aiutano sì a vivere ma non gratis, sono animali carnivore, ci presentano il conto. (Vassalli 1992b, 75)

He conceives of his work as responding, both intertextually and in terms of the inspiration for his novels, to an Italian literary tradition, as well as to the canon of Western European literature from antiquity onwards. From his discussion of the realities behind illusions, or chimeras, it is clear that he has a strong sense of his role as a teller of truths and voice of conscience, warning society of its mistakes. Impegno, the idea that social engagement is required of the committed intellectual, came to the fore in the post-war period in Italy and beyond. Vassalli felt that the principal expression of his impegno should be to draw attention to the failings of both individuals and society in general.

Vassalli’s bleak view of the human condition and its propensity to fall for dangerous illusions has frequently led to critics’ evaluations of his work as being primarily characterised by its pessimism or even nihilism. His writing displays an internal conflict between his assessment of Italian society as fundamentally static, failing to progress because of its seeming inability to learn from the lessons contained in its own history, and his hope that by educating readers about their past and drawing clear parallels with the present in his writing, he might help to forestall the repetition of past mistakes. While he believes there are many reasons for a pessimistic ←2 | 3→view of humanity, literature offers grounds for hope: “Qualche volta di un uomo rimane anche la sua storia” (Vassalli 2004). He perceived the task of the writer as serious, with accompanying ethical obligations to convey important matters through the privileged channel of communication established between author and reader. This commitment, a hallmark of his writing, combined with a mordantly humorous narrative style, enabled him to retain a loyal reading public and identified him as an exceptional voice in post-war and early twenty-first-century Italian literature.

Background and Career

Sebastiano Vassalli was born in Genoa on 25 October 1941, to a Tuscan mother and a Lombard father. In his early childhood, his family moved to Novara, and Vassalli lived there or nearby for the rest of his life. He attended the faculty of Lettere at the University of Milan, and graduated with a thesis on contemporary art and psychology, focusing mainly on Jung. Commenting on this part of his life in the Autodizionario degli scrittori italiani, he reflected: “tra le cose inutili e tediose della sua vita c’è una laurea in lettere” (Vassalli 1989b, 354). Vassalli’s first employment was as a teacher in a secondary school, or liceo classico, in Novara, while his initial creative output was in visual art. Of his work, which was similar to pop art, only one example remains: Nel labirinto: collage freddo = cool assemblage (Vassalli 1968c). Other endeavours, forming a brief parenthesis in his neoavantgarde period, included theatrical collaborations: L’uccello di Dio with Romano Rocchi in 1969; and Il Mazzo with Ugo Locatelli in 1970. As is the case with his artwork, these texts have disappeared from circulation.

Participation and collaboration in a community of writers and artists was a hallmark of the neoavantgarde movement, with which Vassalli was involved to varying degrees from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. In this period he published small plaquettes of poetry and experimental prose works including Lui (egli) (1965); Disfaso (1968a); Narcisso (1968b); ←3 | 4→Tempo di màssacro. Romanzo di centramento & sterminio (1970); La poesia oggi (1971); Il millennio che muore (1972); and A. A. Il libro dell’utopia ceramica (1974). In addition to his own writing, in 1968 he founded the literary journal Ant. Ed. along with Giorgio Bàrberi Squarotti, Carlo Greppi, Giorgio Locatelli, William Xerra and Luciano Caruso, and from this the journal Pianura was conceived. Vassalli served for a short while as the director of the publishing house “El bagatt” (“Il bagatto”), which published experimental texts and would later publish Vassalli’s own work.1 During this period, he undertook various projects to support himself financially. As well as a certain amount of journalistic work, these included editorial jobs, in which he often provided the introduction and notes for new or re-released publications. His editorial tasks ranged very widely, from a collection of Carducci’s works, through Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, to Malcolm X’s autobiography.

Vassalli’s experience with the neoavantgarde, and the Gruppo 63 in particular, reinforced his interest in language and genre. Always attentive to the mechanics of literature, he was especially fascinated by these two elements, a fact that is evident throughout his writings. As he moved away from the neoavantgarde, his exuberant and experimental language transformed into a moderated, highly literary idiom reflecting a marked interest in different linguistic registers. Just as he was profoundly aware of the potential of language to challenge or disrupt social and artistic conventions, he was equally convinced of its capacity to reflect reality and thus to constitute a means of communication and illumination. Similarly, his sensitivity to the form and structure of literature led him to experiment with disparate genres while he was still involved with the activities of the Gruppo 63.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Vassalli became disillusioned with the experimentalists, finding their works empty, inward-looking, and lacking true meaning. He broadcast his break with the neoavantgarde in the scathing pamphlet Arkadia: Carriere, caratteri, confraternite degli impoeti d’Italia (1983), in which he both signalled his withdrawal from the movement and harshly criticised its theories and methods. This adversarial stance endured ←4 | 5→throughout his professional life, becoming particularly evident in his reluctance to associate with groups, especially literary ones, and in his generally isolationist attitude. He refused to participate in the trappings of literary institutions, such as literary prizes, with the somewhat disingenous justification: “Non è il mio mestiere far teorie. Il mio mestiere è raccontare” (Vassalli 1992b, 73).

Vassalli’s privileging of the “racconto” and narrative in a traditional sense is a central feature of his writing. He was one of the first writers in Italy to embrace the return of history to the cultural marketplace when, in the mid-1980s, he began to write novels with historical subject matter. The historical novel – a traditional form – thus provided an antidote to the experimental excesses of the neoavantgarde from which he was trying to dissociate himself. Vassalli was able to both adopt this genre and innovate within it, producing a narrative that suited the postmodern era as well as his own literary ambitions. His work does not easily fit the mould of a traditional historical novel, in part due to his tendency to inject elements of other genres into each text, resulting in a style and treatment that are ironic and characterised by humour and sarcasm even as he remains serious in subject and message. His success as a writer stems from his ability to channel his creativity, alongside the lessons learnt from the Gruppo 63, into a different literary arena, in contrast to the many neoavantgarde writers who were unable to make the transition to different literary forms after the 1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s he produced novels set in periods ranging from the eighteenth-century Veneto (Marco e Mattio 1992), to late nineteenth-century Sicily (Il cigno 1993) and Virgil’s journey to Etruria in ancient Roman times (Un infinito numero 1999), to a fantastical historical novel set in the future (3012: L’anno del profeta 1995). In his investigations of the past, he consistently sought answers to problems occurring in the present, as expressly suggested by the title of his novel exploring Italy in the decades after 1968, Archeologia del presente (2001).

In the early years of the twenty-first century, Vassalli returned to the present as the subject of collections of short stories such as Stella avvelenata (2003) and La morte di Marx (2006). Beyond novels and short stories, he also published exchanges of letters (Belle lettere 1979, 1991), a humorous dictionary of neologisms (Il neoitaliano 1989), collections of newspaper ←5 | 6→columns (Gli italiani sono gli altri 1998), tourist and photographic books about Piedmont (L’antica Pieve di Casalvolone in provincia di Novara (sec. XI–XII) 1984; Il mio Piemonte 2002; Terra d’acque 2005), and a book-length interview (Un nulla pieno di storie: Ricordi e considerazioni di un viaggiatore nel tempo 2010). This varied output is testimony to Vassalli’s constant efforts to innovate in style and genre, as well as his enthusiasm for new subjects or forgotten stories. In addition to his texts, Vassalli offered significant commentary on his writing through interviews, primarily in newspapers and journals. I interviewed him twice, in 2005 and in 2008 (the 2005 interview appeared in The Italianist). His interviews demonstrate an openly reflective stance towards his own work, functioning both as commentaries on his texts and as paratexts. His comments in interviews appear frequently in this study, since they serve a valuable purpose in revealing the background or motivation for his texts, as well as offering further information that contributes to a fuller understanding of his writing.

A Cultural Commentator

Vassalli presented himself at once as isolated from Italian cultural affairs and as a fierce critic of all aspects of Italian society. A fundamental tension revealed in his writing, as well as through his troubled relationship with the literary establishment, concerns his negotiation of the need to create and maintain a public persona with a concurrent desire for creative seclusion. He chose to live in geographical solitude in a sparsely populated landscape in the midst of rice fields outside Novara. The physical distance afforded by this outpost allowed him to cultivate a critical perspective on contemporary Italian life and, in particular, its dysfunctions. His career is characterised by a meditation on his and others’ potential and duty to intervene in society and, despite his posturing as the critical outsider, his work is closely connected to prevailing trends in his literary and cultural milieu. His engagement with contemporary issues appeared most regularly in his contributions to newspapers. He was a regular columnist for ←6 | 7→the Corriere della Sera from 1998 until his death, and he also wrote occasionally for La Repubblica and La Stampa. These columns manifested his compulsion to advance opinions on current events, as well as presenting more general meditations on broader themes that are central to his work, such as poetry, history, and the national character. Some of these articles were gathered in the collection Gli italiani sono gli altri (1998) and in a posthumous selection of his columns for the Corriere della Sera in Sebastiano Vassalli: Improvvisi 1998–2015 (2016). Through his public ruminations on politics, culture, and society, Vassalli revealed a dedicated and sustained engagement with the national discourse in which his participatory spirit was sometimes masked by his adversarial stances.

From the 1970s onward, Vassalli was a remarkably consistent presence on the Italian literary and cultural scene. In his numerous books and newspaper columns, he documented the most important events in Italy since the Second World War, providing a valuable resource for any study of contemporary Italy and its recent past. As one of few writers who engaged so fully and directly with their environment – culturally, politically, and ecologically – he offered a distinctive perspective on contemporary issues. His writing participates in the negotiation of political, cultural, national, and social identities in Italian society in this period. Vassalli characterised his reason for his journeys into the past in his historical novels as an attempt to find and define the “malapianta”, or poisonous root, which he believed informs contemporary Italian society and the national character (Vassalli 2003b, 88). This purpose applies to his writing more broadly and constitutes a perpetual investigative impulse underlying his texts. His suggestion that society’s ills might stem from an identifiable root cause contains the implication that this might conceivably be eradicated. He saw his motivation in writing, therefore, as potentially restorative, an attitude that provides a counterbalance to his frequent and vociferous criticisms of the nation.


XII, 328
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
Sebastiano Vassalli Italy historical novel
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XII, 328 pp., 3 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Meriel Tulante (Author)

Meriel Tulante is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at Thomas Jefferson University.


Title: Italian Chimeras
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342 pages