Opera aperta

Italian Electronic Literature from the 1960s to the Present

by Emanuela Patti (Author)
©2022 Monographs XX, 308 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 39


Runner-up in the 2023 N. Katherine Hayles Award for Criticism of Electronic Literature from the Electronic Literature Organization
«At last, here is a book written by an Italian about the homeopathic but essential role that Italian artists, and among them, important writers, have played to introduce the digital transformation to Italians. Long before government or business, and least of all educators, took notice, artists, as was their wont for centuries, were the first to reveal the potential of the new technologies. Emanuela Patti not only pays them a long overdue tribute, but along the way revisits with care and engaging style the key features of that transformation. A wonderful read!» (Professor Derrick de Kerckhove, University of Toronto)
«We were missing a systematic survey of e-literary arts in Italy. Emanuela Patti has filled that void. Indeed, her study is much more than a survey: it brilliantly connects semiotic theories of open textuality to the profound techno-cultural transformations of socio-political life from the 1960s to the present, from experimental writing to popular culture.» (Professor Massimo Riva, Brown University)
In 1962, Umberto Eco published Opera aperta, setting the ground for a new wave of creative experimentation across the arts and media. The concept of «open work» – informed by systems theory, cybernetics, relativism, pragmatism and other influential disciplines of the time – was used by Eco to reconsider the work of art as a site for interactivity, collaboration and intermediality. Starting from this perspective, this book reconstructs the history of Italian electronic literature, looking at creative practices across literature, electronic and digital media from the early days of computers to the social media age. It examines how Italian writers, poets, literary critics and intellectuals have responded to each phase of the digital revolution, by enacting «poetics of openness» and «politics of intermediality». Case studies include Nanni Balestrini, Gianni Toti, Italo Calvino, Caterina Davinio, Wu Ming, Michela Murgia, Francesco Pecoraro, Roberto Saviano, Tommaso Pincio, Fabio Viola, Fabrizio Venerandi and Enrico Colombini. In some cases, literary experimentation with new technologies has taken a clear polemical stance towards mass media, globalisation, information society and late capitalism, in order to challenge and/or reconfigure artistic or social ontologies. In others, digital technologies have been used to enhance and extend the parameters and «languages» of literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I Open textuality from the Neoavanguardia to digital convergence
  • Chapter 1 Opera aperta and the Italian Neoavanguardia
  • Chapter 2 Italian electronic literature: The modernist poetics of ‘open works’
  • Chapter 3 Ideological debates and the critical function of electronic literature
  • Chapter 4 Digital storytelling from experimental writing to popular culture
  • Part II The Italian ‘digital avant-garde’: From mainframes to the Internet
  • Chapter 5 The digital revolution in Italy
  • Chapter 6 Generative literature: Nanni Balestrini’s Tape Mark 1 (1961), Tristano (1966 and 2007), and Epreuves d’écriture (1985)
  • Chapter 7 Video poetry: Gianni Toti’s poetronica (1980–1994)
  • Chapter 8 Hypertext and interactive fiction: Italo Calvino and Enrico Colombini’s Avventura nel castello (1982)
  • Chapter 9 Net poetry: Caterina Davinio from Karenina.it (1998) to GATES (2005)
  • Part III The social media age
  • Chapter 10 Digital convergence in Italy and the transformation of the Italian literary industry
  • Chapter 11 Network criticism: Lit-blogs (2006–2019)
  • Chapter 12 Reality blooks: Michela Murgia’s Il mondo deve sapere (2006) and Francesco Pecoraro’s Questa e altre preistorie (2008)
  • Chapter 13 Collective distributed narratives: The Wu Ming Foundation (2006–2013)
  • Chapter 14 Wiki novels: SIC’s In territorio nemico (2013)
  • Chapter 15 The social network novel: Tommaso Pincio’s Panorama (2015) and Fabio Viola’s I dirimpettai (2015)
  • Chapter 16 Twitterature and Facebookature
  • Part IV Post-digital experimentation: Creative coding and digital poetry
  • Chapter 17 Interactive e-books: Enrico Colombini and Fabrizio Venerandi’s Polistorie
  • Chapter 18 Contemporary digital poetry
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


Figure 1.Facebook post by Tommaso Pincio.

Figure 2.Post taken from Cesare Pavese’s Twitter account (@PaveseCesare).

Figure 3.Post taken from Cesare Pavese’s Twitter account (@PaveseCesare).

Figure 4.Enrico Colombini, Locusta temporis, project 1.

Figure 5.Enrico Colombini, Locusta temporis, project 2.

Figure 6.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie occluse’, ‘#uno’, ‘#due’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 7.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie occluse’, ‘#uno’, ‘#due’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 8.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie cangianti’, ‘#uno’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 9.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie occluse’, ‘#uno’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 10.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie cangianti’, ‘#dieci’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 11.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie cangianti’, ‘#dieci’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 12.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie cangianti’, ‘#dieci’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 13.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie cangianti’, ‘#dieci’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 14.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie toccanti’, ‘#due’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).←xiii | xiv→

Figure 15.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie toccanti’, ‘#due’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 16.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie toccanti’, ‘#due’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 17.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Poesie toccanti’, ‘#due’, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 18.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Appendice: glosse’, 1, Poesie elettroniche (2016).

Figure 19.Fabrizio Venerandi, ‘Appendice: glosse’, 3, Poesie elettroniche (2016).


This volume is one of the outcomes of the AHRC-funded project Interdisciplinary Italy 1900–2020: interart/intermedia (2015–2018), which involved Prof. Giuliana Pieri (Principal Investigator, Royal Holloway), Prof. Clodagh Brook (former PI, Trinity College Dublin) and Prof. Florian Mussgnug (UCL) and myself as Senior Research Fellow. The project explores a variety of hybrid forms in the arts, such as cinema, digital visual poetry, sound art, electronic literature and other practices, which have crossed arts and media with an extraordinary fluidity since the start of the twentieth century. Until very recently, however, this interartistic fluidity has been the prerogative of artists; researchers have worked against the grain of this cultural shift, analysing cultural products within our own disciplines (literature, art, music, etc.). In so doing, we have risked overlooking a paradigm shift, losing hybrid art forms in the gaps between disciplines – in which they receive only marginal attention – and underestimating the value of one art in favour of another. As interdisciplinary methodologies develop, however, researchers find themselves at a new historical vantage point. With this in mind, Interdisciplinary Italy has established a groundbreaking interartistic perspective on the arts, mapping the paradigm shift in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Italy. As part of this project, this book concentrates on the Italian artistic experimentation developed across literary forms and electronic media – what we recognise today as ‘electronic literature’ – during the Third Industrial Revolution. Given the multimedia nature of the case studies considered, the volume will be supplemented by a dedicated website page titled OPERA APERTA The Book (<https://www.emanuelapatti.com>), which contains a corpus of embedded videos, images and links to social media. Please read the book in conjunction with these resources.

Portions of this book have previously been published as book chapters or journal articles. Chapter 4, Digital storytelling from experimental writing to popular culture, includes portions of a chapter titled ‘Popular culture in the digital age’, published in the volume The Last Forty Years ←xv | xvi→of Italian Popular Culture: Andare al popolo! (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020), edited by Paolo Desogus and Enrico Minardi. Also, a previous version of Chapter 13, Collective distributed narratives: The Wu Ming Foundation (2006–), was published as a peer-reviewed article titled ‘From text to screen/From screen to text. Collaborative narratives in twenty-first century Italian fiction: the Wu Ming case’ in the Journal of Romance Studies, 16: 1, 2016, 39–61. Finally, sections of Part I and of chapter 5 have constituted a recent article titled ‘Umberto Eco’s Opera aperta and the birth of Italian electronic literature’ published in the Digital Modern Languages Section Launch Issue of MLO in December 2021. I take the opportunity to thank Cambridge Scholars Publishing and Liverpool University Press for granting me the permission to reuse my chapter and articles in this monograph.


This book is the result of an extraordinary collaborative endeavour. I would like to thank all of the people and institutions that supported and inspired me during the preparation of this manuscript. First of all, I am very grateful to the AHRC for having funded my research as part of Interdisciplinary Italy 1900–2020: interart/intermedia and to my team, Professors Giuliana Pieri, Clodagh Brook and Florian Mussgnug, for having offered me the unique opportunity to be part of this exciting collaborative project as a senior research fellow. I would like to thank the University of Birmingham and Royal Holloway for having hosted me and the project, providing relevant support and training. Interdisciplinary Italy would not have been possible without the collaboration of numerous prestigious archives, artists and museums, such as the British School at Rome, the Estorick Collection for Modern Italian Art in London and Studio Azzurro. I would particularly like to thank Professor Stephen Milner, former director of the British School at Rome, and the artist Leonardo Sangiorgi (Studio Azzurro) for his generous contribution to the project. During my archival research in Italy, I received special support in the Casa Totiana in Rome, the Istituto Nazionale di Grafica, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome, the Archivio Generale of the Vittoriale degli italiani at Gardone Riviera and the Archivio Luciano Caruso in Florence. I would like to express my sincerest gratitude, in particular, to Pia Abelli Toti and Silvia Moretti from the Casa Totiana and to Sonia Puccetti Caruso from the Archivio Caruso for her untiring work and affectionate friendship.

The research presented in this book is also the result of numerous intellectual collaborations and/or conversations with some of the most brilliant theorists of mass media, digital culture, electronic literature and Italian culture, before and after Interdisciplinary Italy. I owe my gratitude to Professor Derrick de Kerckhove for having set me on the path of interdisciplinary research across literature and electronic media back in 2010. ←xvii | xviii→Thanks to him, I learnt how to bring together my long-standing interests in literature and electronic media without being ‘too attached to the Letter’. I am grateful for the wonderful network of people I met through him, including Professors Eric McLuhan, Elena Lamberti, Bob Logan, Lance Strate, Alberto Abruzzese, Chiara Giaccardi, Paul Levinson, Paolo Granata, Pierluigi Capucci, Francesco Monico and other great scholars associated with the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology in Toronto, the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute at UOC Barcelona and the new media studies community in Italy. I am also immensely grateful to Professor Massimo Riva for his work on electronic literature and digital humanities, which has been a great source of inspiration for my project. I would like to thank him for having offered me the opportunity to present the preliminary results of my research at Brown University in March 2019. This was one of the most pleasant and rewarding visiting experiences I have had in my career, thanks to the warm welcome I received from his students and himself. Collaborations and/or conversations with other distinguished scholars and experts in the field have contributed significantly to this book: Marie-Laure Ryan, Andrea Cortellessa, Claire Taylor, Pierpaolo Antonello, Bronwen Thomas, Sean Cubitt, Erika Fülöp, Maria Mencía Paul Spence, Matilde Nardelli, Guyda Armstrong, Renata Brandão and Naomi Wells. During the preparation of the manuscript, various artists and scholars presented in this book provided me with precious insights into their work and stimulating conversations; in particular, I would like to thank Caterina Davinio, Tommaso Pincio, Wu Ming and Iuri Moscardi. Last but not least, when I started this project, I had hoped that I would be able to discuss some of this work with the two key figures of this book: the intellectual ‘lighthouse’ of this project, Umberto Eco, and the pioneer of Italian electronic literature, Nanni Balestrini, the ‘artista totale della parola’. Unfortunately, the former passed away on 19 February 2016 and the latter left us on 20 May 2019 (I said goodbye to him at the Teatro Argentina on 19 June 2019 during the commemorative event organised in his name).

On a more personal note, I would like to thank my former landlords, and now friends, Christopher Nash and Graham Matthews, for having assisted me during the difficult period when I was writing the book; my ←xviii | xix→cousins Michele, Mirella and Antonio for having provided me with a ‘safe shelter’ in Rome when I had to travel there for this research; my sister Francesca, for having been an exemplar of resilience, devotion and strength through her profession as a ‘front-line’ medical doctor during the Covid-19 pandemic; and my family and friends for always being there.

←xix | xx→


This book explores the experimentation across literary forms and electronic media during the digital revolution, or the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’, by providing a reconstruction of the main experimental genres and key Italian authors of this revolution, as well as a critical reflection on the condition of ‘digitality’ as cultural logic. This Italian corpus of hybrid works, which tends to be recognised today as ‘electronic literature’, has its origins in Nanni Balestrini’s Tape Mark 1 (1961) and Umberto Eco’s co-eval seminal essay Opera aperta (1962). At the time, computer technologies were questioning the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ as the main system of preserving, maintaining and progressing culture, while also challenging the ‘closed’ and ‘linear’ concept of the book inherited from print culture and the verbal word in poetry. This digital revolution has been associated with a sense of ‘newness’ which, in line with the historical avant-gardes, embraced, at least initially, the modernist utopia of progress and democratisation: new media seemed to offer more opportunities for productivity and education, new creative and communicative horizons. However, the narrative of ‘newness’, subscribed to not only by the entrepreneurs and corporations that produce the media hardware and software in question, but also by whole sections of media commentators and journalists, artists, intellectuals, technologists and administrators, educationalists and cultural activists, is far from being ideologically neutral. Rather, it fully reflects the ‘globalising neo-liberal forms of production and distribution’ of the last decades (Lister et al. 2009: 11).

Although the genres of electronic literature cannot compete with the print canon, they tell us something important about the relationship between humans, mass media and computer technologies. Like print literature, electronic literature has had various functions: it has been conceived as a form of entertainment or playful experimentation to enhance and ←1 | 2→extend the affordances and languages of literature, but it has also served political, ideological and educational purposes, offering a critical perspective on technologies and their impact on society. Every time we use certain technologies, such as PCs or social media, we accept a certain cultural logic embedded in it, as well as its symbolic forms, through which we communicate and make sense of the world. The creative and critical use of these technologies, as in the case of electronic literature, can, however, play an important role in highlighting fallacies, inconsistencies and social issues. All of the works considered in this book thus shed light on how the different technological processes of digitality – that is, programming, screen visualisation, digitisation, hypertextuality and hypermediation, interactivity and participation, database, open source, virtuality and simulation, convergence, and remediation – have been creatively and critically reflected upon by Italian writers, poets and critics. In some cases, literary experimentation with new technologies has taken a clear polemical stance on mass media, globalisation, information society and digital capitalism, in an attempt to challenge and/or reconfigure artistic or social ontologies. In this respect, Eco’s key essay ‘Del modo di formare come impegno sulla realtà’ [On the Manner of Informing as a Commitment to Reality] has proven to be an effective methodological tool to analyse how artists have enacted both a poetics and politics of intermediality as creative practices and forms of critique to reflect on the relationship between digital media and human consciousness.


XX, 308
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (April)
Italian electronic literature Digital culture & creativity Neo-avantgarde Opera aperta Emanuela Patti
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XX, 308 pp., 11 fig. col., 8 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Emanuela Patti (Author)

Emanuela Patti is Lecturer in Italian at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests range across a variety of areas, including Italian literature and culture, media and cultural studies, digital cultures and digital humanities. She was part of the AHRC-funded collaborative project Interdisciplinary Italy 1900–2020: interart/intermedia, which supported the publication of this book. She is the author of Pasolini After Dante: the «Divine Mimesis» and the Politics of Representation (2016) and editor of a special issue of the Journal of Comparative Critical Studies titled Experimental Narratives: From the Novel to Digital Storytelling (2016), among other publications.


Title: Opera aperta