Antonio Tabucchi and the Visual Arts

Images, Visions, and Insights

by Michela Meschini (Author)
©2018 Thesis 170 Pages


Visual images and imagery, optical metaphors and iconic quotations are common features in the literary work of Antonio Tabucchi, along with references to the world of painting, photography, and cinema. This book explores the «iconic temptation» of the Italian author, pointing out his visual strategies of representation and poetic thought. By focusing on the visual intertextuality of his fiction, it discusses questions of style and content whilst also emphasizing the role of images as a privileged means of narrative knowledge and philosophical insight. Drawing on the visual studies and on postmodernist theory and criticism, this study offers a comprehensive inquiry into the visual poetics of one of Europe’s most innovative writers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • 1 Visuality and Narration
  • 1.1 Writing through Images
  • 1.2 “Microprospettive” and “morceaux choisis”
  • 1.3 “Il filo dell’orizzonte”
  • 2 Painting
  • 2.1 Rewriting Las Meninas
  • 2.2 Quoting Pictures
  • 2.3 The Iconic / Ironic Muse
  • 2.4 Vision and Blindness
  • 2.5 The “Iconic Temptation” of Writing
  • 3 Photography
  • 3.1 Photography and the Pathos of Time Past
  • 3.2 Photographic Memories
  • 3.3 Photography, Time, and Identity
  • 3.4 Photography, Mourning, and Nostalgia
  • 4 Cinema
  • 4.1 A Passion for Films
  • 4.2 Recollecting Images
  • 4.3 The Unreal Reality of the Cinema
  • 4.4 The Dream Screen
  • 4.5 “Cinema”
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Narrative Works by Antonio Tabucchi
  • Essays and Critical Works by Antonio Tabucchi
  • Translations by Antonio Tabucchi
  • Critical Works on Antonio Tabucchi
  • General Bibliography
  • Series index

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List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Madrid, Museo del Prado

Figure 2. Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ, c. 1470–74, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Figure 3. Andrea Mantegna, The Death of the Virgin, c. 1462, Madrid, Museo del Prado

Figure 4. Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano, c. 1438–40, London, National Gallery

Figure 5. Vincent Van Gogh, The Langlois Bridge, 1888, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum

Figure 6. Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, c. 1500, Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

Figure 7. Hieronymus Bosch, detail from The Temptation of Saint Anthony

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A number of people made it possible for me to carry out this work, and I would like to express my gratitude to them. I am very much indebted to my dear colleague and friend Carla Carotenuto, for her unwavering support and constant encouragement, and to Anna Laura Lepschy, for her invaluable advice and scrupulous assistance throughout the various stages of my research at University College London, where this project was originally conceived. My gratitude is also for Norman Bryson, whose thought-provoking course on Theoretical Art Studies at the Slade School of Fine Art challenged my notion of images and inspired many interpretive threads of this study.

I would like to extend my gratitude to Diego Poli and Dagmar Reichardt, who believed in this book and generously supported it, and to all the colleagues who have shared their knowledge and experience with me, contributing either directly or indirectly to the various stages of this editorial project.

My deepest thanks go also to my family and friends, who have all witnessed the development of this work and have patiently coped with the ups and downs of my writing mood.

Last but not least, I wish to express my special thanks to Philip, who has been the first reader and stringent critic of earlier versions of this book. His insightful remarks have helped me revise my thoughts and focus my vision both on matters of life and fiction.

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List of abbreviations

GR Il gioco del rovescio
DPP Donna di Porto Pim e altre storie
NI Notturno indiano
PE Piccoli equivoci senza importanza
FO Il filo dell ’ orizzonte
VBA I volatili del Beato Angelico
AN L’ angelo nero
Requiem Requiem. Un’allucinazione
SP Sostiene Pereira
UGFP Gli ultimi tre giorni di Fernando Pessoa
DM La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro
ST Si sta facendo sempre più tardi
TM Tristano muore
TIF Il tempo invecchia in fretta

For full bibliographical information, see BIBLIOGRAPHY

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The reasons for publishing this book almost fifteen years after its first inception are to be found in my abiding interest in the visual arts and in an enduring fascination with the thought-provoking narrative of Antonio Tabucchi. Both motives date back to my university years and account for the flaws and strong points of this study. I first encountered the fiction of Tabucchi while working at my BA dissertation and was immediately struck by its thematic density as well as by its frequent allusions to the world of painting. At the time I could not easily grasp the elaborate visual intertextuality of Tabucchi’s works but sensed it provided a unique perspective from which to interpret his fiction. The occasion to probe this further was offered to me by a doctoral project at University College London, during which my original focus on painting widened to include other forms of visual art that are equally relevant in the fictional world of the writer, such as cinema and photography. In addition, the study of interart theories such as those developed by Mieke Bal, W. J. T. Mitchell, Norman Bryson, along with the seminal works on photography by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, and the cinematic enquiries of Edgar Morin and Christian Metz, crucially contributed to turn my amateurish passion for the visual arts into a theoretically grounded outlook on the growing field of the parallel studies of word and image.

When I first started working on this topic the critical literature available on Tabucchi was limited to journal articles and conference proceedings, and only a couple of literary critics had sparingly underlined what the author himself called “la tentazione iconica”1 of his writing. One of them was Palmieri, who was the first scholar to detect the pictorial sources hidden behind Tabucchi’s subtle visual references and nocturnal plots; the other was Ceserani, who first highlighted the conceptual value of the photographic moment in Tabucchi’s Il filo dell ’ orizzonte. As for the seduction exerted by the big screen on Tabucchi’s imagery, Prudente had made an early inventory of the references to films and directors disseminated in the works the author had published up to the early 1990s.2 Today, the number ← 15 | 16 → of critical studies on Tabucchi has increased remarkably both in volumes and journals, and several monographs in Italy and abroad have skilfully attempted to give a comprehensive account of his body of work.3 Albeit illuminating in their exploration of themes and style, the monographic volumes as well as most of the journal contributions pay little attention to the visual quality of Tabucchi’s fiction. Only Thea Rimini in Album Tabucchi4 has probed the world of images as a vantage point from which to understand the poetics of the writer. All the various components of his fictional world, such as the issues of time and subjectivity, saudade and remorse, loss and death, history and memory, as well as the interplay of life and fiction can be fruitfully interpreted in the light of the visual studies. The visual domain functions as a theoretical and rethorical ground drawing together the existential and historical implications of Tabucchi’s oeuvre. And yet, despite its relevance, it has not yet been thoroughly addressed by the existing body of critical literature. Even if images have soon emerged as significant poetical moments in his prose, their interaction with other aspects of the visual field such as gazes, visual metaphors, and optical perceptions has been surprisingly overlooked and has not yet found an adequate critical response. In the same way as Tabucchi’s role in the cross-disciplinary field of interart studies has been so far neglected by art and literary scholars alike. For these reasons, in the following pages I will try to outline a comprehensive visual approach to the fiction of Tabucchi, aimed at demonstrating the primacy of visuality as an effective hermeneutic key to unlock his poetics. This book is therefore envisaged as a case study contribution to the growing domain of the intersecting world of literature and the visual arts as well as a “perspectival” critical approach to a writer whose narrative is profoundly entrenched in the visual. ← 16 | 17 →

Tabucchi is too well known to need a presentation, all I would like to stress in this brief introduction is the role played by Pessoa in his writing and the thematic and ontological bridges that can be drawn between his notion of literature and postmodern thinking. Recognized as one of the most prominent contemporary European writers, Tabucchi was born in Vecchiano (Pisa) in 1943 and died in Lisbon in 2012. He was a novelist, short story writer, essayist, literary critic and translator from the Portuguese, and professor of Portuguese literature, first at the University of Genoa then at the University of Siena. For its content and style, his fiction has attracted over the years the attention of literary critics and scholars, in Italy and abroad. In 1994 his novel, Sostiene Pereira, became a bestseller, granting him mass popularity. This fame has been a controversial matter of discussion in the Italian literary circle, where the persisting separation between élite culture and mass culture, has led many critics to see in the market success of a book the proof of its lacking literary value or at least of a shrewd authorial compromise between artistic goals and the logic of the market.

Nevertheless, before achieving widespread fame, Tabucchi was already an established writer and intellectual. During the 1980s his fiction had gained the attention of major critics and scholars, whilst his translations from the Portuguese of the works of Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) had initiated the Italian readers to the poetry of one of the most complex and extraordinary literary figure of the twentieth century. With a few exceptions, Tabucchi’s activity as editor and translator is indeed entirely centred on Pessoa and comprises, among others, seminal volumes such as: Una sola moltitudine, Il libro del l’ inquietudine di Bernardo Soares – both published in collaboration with his wife, Maria José de Lancastre − Lettere alla fidanzata, Il marinaio, Il poeta è un fingitore.5 These successful editions of Pessoa’s works were followed by a collection of critical essays of Tabucchi, whose title, ← 17 | 18 → Un baule pieno di gente, eloquently suggests the multiplicity of fictional identities concocted by the Portuguese poets in his writing, making it difficult for his critics to distinguish between the so-called orthonyms and heteronyms.6 Formerly published in journals and in the volumes of translation, the essays assembled in Un baule pieno di gente show not only Tabucchi’s attempt to come to terms with the complex and elusive identiy of the most mysterious poet of the twentieth century,7 but also his need to measure and define his own artistic identity in relation to the Lusitanian poet, to whom he is deeply indebted for his conception of life as fiction, as well as for his pluralistic and heteronymic vision of the self.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
Interdisciplinarity Postmodernism Cinema Photography Painting Intertextuality
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2018. 170 p., 7 col. ill.

Biographical notes

Michela Meschini (Author)

Michela Meschini teaches Critical Theory and Comparative Literature at the University of Macerata (Italy). She specializes in visual studies, postmodernist theory, and contemporary Italian literature. Her research areas also include transnational fiction and women’s writing.


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172 pages