Italian Environmental Literature
An Anthology

Edited by Patrick Barron
and Anna Re

John Elder

Rebecca West

Gary Paul Naghan

America Oggi

H-Environment

ISLE


John Elder, co-editor of the Norton Book of Nature Writing

“Environmental thought and writing in America have long profited from their dialogue with Italy’s literature of the earth. From a certain perspective, the modern environmental movement might even be said to have begun in Italy. It was in this ancient land and culture, after all, while serving as Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador, that George Perkins Marsh wrote his 1864 masterpiece Man and Nature. His book, which Lewis Mumford has characterized as ‘the fountainhead of the conservation movement,’ was the first to argue in a scientifically informed way that human actions could inflict significant, long-lasting damage on natural systems….

“Indeed, one of the gifts Italy offers to American writers and thinkers has always been a deeper and more complex historical vision. In exploring the dialogue of nature and culture, Italian authors frequently look back, not only to past writers such as Lucretius and Virgil, but also to the mythic, pastoral, and agricultural history of the peninsula.… The reverberant, mythic aspect of the past in Italian literature is especially striking in the poetry included here (and in many instances translated so beautifully by Patrick Barron). Not just the animals, but also the trees, the rain, the seasons, the sky, death, rivers, and the poets’ own bodies, become conduits for ancient and mysterious powers of the earth. Natural phenomena for these poets can embody history and divinity as well as the laws of physics. In the prose selections here, too, there is often a similar sense of mighty forces immanent in the mundane details of our surroundings.

“All of the represented authors have lived and written within the past century and a half. One of the realities of Italian life in this period – extending right up through the decade after World War II – has been the dire poverty of many country people. Living at the edge of starvation may sometimes lend an hallucinatory vividness to sensory perception, as it did so many years earlier for the voluntarily famished St. Francis. In addition, though, the pervasive fact of such deprivation often leads to a heightened concern for social and economic justice in writers like Grazia Deledda and Carlo Levi.

“This model of integrating natural landscapes into a broader political discourse can be especially helpful to American environmentalists today, as we try to relate both our wilderness movement and our transcendentalist tradition in nature writing more directly to such historical realities as the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the persistence of racial polarization in our society. An awareness of social conditions that shape both landscapes and the fate of rural communities contributes to the highly sophisticated and strategic rhetoric of the environmentalists with whom this collection ends….

“Through such connections and many more, this remarkable anthology fosters and renews the dialogue between Italian and American literature that has long proven so fruitful, and that has never been more urgent than it is today.”

— From the Foreword by John Elder, Middlebury College


Rebecca West, University of Chicago

“Nature and culture are both astoundingly complex realms within the small “boot” called the Italian nation, as this most welcome anthology makes clear.”


Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Songbirds, Truffles and Wolves

“Patrick Barron and Anna Re have carefully assembled a variety of voices to sing praise and pain about the Italian landscape. Collectively, they give us a fresh look at ancient country and cultures, affirming that there is no single way to see Italian landscape any more than there is just one way to see Mount Fuji. Bless them for this effort.”


America Oggi, February 6, 2005

Paging through the ecological anthology, Italian Environmental Literature, the reader discovers an impassioned engagement in reality and an attention to problems that [this reviewer] certainly doesn’t need to underscore. This collection offers over forty authors … whose prose, poetry and stories treat up-close and personal the themes of nature and the environment and the special rapport that Italians have with them.

Nature and Nurture, we know, are inextricable, and there isn’t a poet or a narrator here who hasn’t dedicated infinite pages to the subject. But [this collection offers] a unique strategy not only for (re-) reading many Italian authors but also for a double voyage, inside and outside ourselves. Though it would take too long to list the authors and their translators here, we should note that the poets’ works offer facing Italian originals and English translations, while the same was not provided for the prose works here. But this is not an enormous problem.

This anthology is an explicit invitation to go to the originals to get a taste of their richness and their validity. It’s a little like listening to one’s favorite opera arias: one can listen to them on their own, but they take on all kinds of new colors and warmth when one hears them in the context of the larger works from which they’ve been excerpted.

— Franco Borelli

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“Gianni Muir and Raquela Carson.”
H-Environment (September, 2004)

When the rest of the world thinks of Italy, usually cobblestone streets, Venetian canals, Renaissance paintings, and Roman cathedrals come to mind. Maybe one also envisions Ravenna’s mosaics or Agrigento’s temples, or, to the more discerning, Fellini films, Ferragamo fashions, and fast Ferraris. But rarely do such Italian images include nature. College students flock to Italy each year to study art history and architecture, archeology and urban design (Florence alone houses more than thirty U.S. study-abroad programs), but “environment” rarely figures into the itineraries of their modern-day Grand Tours. Tuscan hillsides stitched with cypress, Vesuvius reflected in the waters of Capri, and alpine villages dwarfed by Dolomite cliffs all surprise first-time visitors searching for last suppers and leaning towers — as do the spewing factories of Milan or the toxic waters of the Tiber. Patrick Barron and Anna Re remind us in their valuable contribution that Italy’s culture is inseparable from its nature, and that only by contemplating both can we begin to understand the Italian spirit.

In this selection of late-nineteenth and twentieth-century poems, essays, and activist writings — which compose about a third each of the book — one finds dozens of excellent translations of what might be termed “environmental literature”: excerpts of Giovanni Pascoli describing autumn afternoons in the Apennines, of Italo Calvino relating the joys of quixotic urban dwellers who discover mushrooms sprouting near the bus-stop, of Giuseppe Dess showing how Sardinia’s post-war economic miracle obliterated forests as well as ways of life. Also included are sketches by poet, political revolutionary, and daredevil pilot Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose “La Pioggia nel Pineto” (“The Rain in the Pinewood”) might be characterized as Robert Frost on steroids. Other surprises include a contribution by Pier Paolo Pasolini, better known as a film director (e.g., Il Vangelo secondo Matteo), but who also painted vivid word pictures of everyday life in Rome’s dingy suburbs. Or we read the entry of one Giuseppe Moretti, an organic farmer in the Po plain who is revitalizing and restoring his land in a practice of the wild inspired by Gary Snyder. Moretti’s essay is included in the last section of environmentalist and proto-environmentalist writings that, among other themes, detail the horrors of the 1976 Seveso dioxin spill (by Laura Conti), the dangers of nuclear energy (by Gianni Mattioli and Massimo Scalia), and the necessity of thinking ecologically (by Giorgio Nebbia). All told, these diverse and creative voices, spanning a century and a half, provide fascinating glimpses into Italy’s experiences with its mountains and plains, city and country, landscapes and memories. For the uninitiated enthusiast of Italian nature, this anthology is surely the first best stop. It also offers excellent comparative material for anyone generally curious about how people view nature beyond the English-speaking world, some of whom have never tried on the spectacles offered by Gilbert White or Henry Thoreau.

But the armchair Italophile should also realize that this volume could equally be considered an anthology of “Italian Country Life” or, perhaps, an anthology of “Italy in Transition.” These essays make it clear that modern Italians — in their enormously varied regions and landscapes — have repeatedly been confronting displacement, warfare, distant governments, rapid industrial change, and rural out migration. While environment and nature are certainly conspicuous subjects of this collection, it seems unlikely that most Italians would consider Barron and Re's selections to be primarily “nature writing,” a genre which has been defined as “personal, reflective essays grounded in appreciation of the natural world and of science.”[1] I fear that the very act of identifying and isolating this anthology's particular choices may have left out too much Italian nature, or else, have not sampled it fairly. Absent are contributions from national or regional authors like Guido Piovene, Emilio Sereni or Gian Romolo Bignami, for example, who have each written memorably about the human place in the natural world. Likewise, this anthology includes essays that might be better placed in other collections. Carlo Levi’s masterful description of daily affairs in an isolated village in Lucania is just that, a masterful description of southern Italian peasant life in the 1930s, and it is only someone else’s decision to suggest Christ Stopped at Eboli is primarily environmental. But to the editors’ credit, they include writings of Antonio Cederna, a leading member of the powerful ItaliaNostra, which began in the 1950s as a city preservation group before enlarging its focus to include the countryside. That much of Italy’s environmental movement grew out of concerns to save old buildings and piazzas may be surprising, at least to Americans, who still make clean distinctions between historic preservation and nature protection.

This anthology’s immediate contribution, then, may be to remind those of us searching for Italian John Muirs and John Burroughs, Italian Rachel Carsons and Annie Dillards that these figures cannot really exist. The literary descendants of Dante, Boccaccio, Foscolo, Leopardi and Carducci speak revealingly of nature, but this nature is not often wild, endangered or disfigured, and so those used to such themes must be prepared for subjects engaging the pastoral, communal, sexual and ephemeral. The editors point out that it is not easy to describe a foreign nature: “in Italy there is plenty of beautiful ‘wilderness,’ but in the Italian language there is no equivalent of the word” (p. xxv). As a window into Italian culture, this book should also be supplemented with a bit of history and a lot of travel — all the while keeping in mind Giuseppe Prezzolini’s 1933 warnings (in How Americans Discovered Italy) that “travelers ignorant of a country’s language and customs only foster greater international misunderstanding.”[2]

Very helpful are the thumbnail sketches of each of the forty contributors, and their place in Italy’s literary pantheon or environmental movement. There are also ample suggestions for further reading whenever a piece catches the imagination. The editors’ fine introduction provides further context by placing this anthology within the growing academic field of literature and the environment. I especially appreciated the high quality of the translations, with the added feature that all poems are mirrored by the original language at each turn of the page. Readers of any Italian proficiency will therefore benefit by glancing back and forth between the original and its English equivalent to come closer to the poet’s intended meaning. There will certainly be purists who will quibble over the choice of translated words or over the proposed word ordering — or who will scoff that dense literary forms simply cannot be translated. And I agree that translating poems can be like painting Caravaggios by numbers. It is telling that poet Daria Menicanti chose an excerpt of Keats — untranslated — as an epigram to her own poem (p. 86). It is also telling that when Italians seek inspiration from American environmental literature, they can pick up their own copy of Aldo Leopold’s Almanacco di un mondo semplice (“Almanac of a Simple World”).[3]

Still, conscientious translating can open up brave new worlds, and Barron and Re’s anthology goes a long way in demonstrating that translation is itself a high art form. The numerous splendid results produced by the teamwork of the editors, as well as by their decision to reprint the best efforts of other translators (such as William Weaver and Francis Frenaye) mean that English readers have in one handy volume access to an amazing variety and depth of Italy’s best and brightest literary voices. Whether or not such voices be deemed environmental is for readers to decide.

Notes

[1]. John Elder, ed. American Nature Writers, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996), p. xiii.
[2]. Giuseppe Prezzolini, Come gli americani scoprirono l'Italia (1933; Bologna: Boni, 1971), p. 288.
[3]. Aldo Leopold, Almanacco di un mondo semplice (A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There [1949]), trans. Giovanni Arca and Mario Maglietti (Como: Red Edizioni, 1997).

— Marcus Hall,
Swiss Federal Research Institute-WSL

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ISLE 13.1 (Winter 2006): 271-73

IN THE INTRODUCTION to Italian Environmental Literature, Patrick Barron makes various far-reaching claims and expresses significant hope for the impact of this collection of poetry, prose, and “environmental writing” (viii). Anna Re identifies the distinction between the second and third categories on the basis of the authors of the second category belonging to “the world of the arts,” while the authors of the third consist of “scientists, social scientists, political activists, or journalists” (257). As for his claims, Barron argues that “cross-cultural study is an important and necessary development for the continued vigor and growth of all environmental literary studies” (xxii.; my emphasis). Further, “comparative exchange at work in the study of international environmental literature counters the unfortunate tendency of American cultural criticism to operate in a mind of nationalist isolation” (xxiii). Barron hopes this anthology will make a “key contribution” not only by introducing American readers to the ecological diversity of modern Italian literature, but also by stimulating “comparative ecocritical study between Italian and the many English-language literary traditions, from American to British” (xxiii). This anthology will also stimulate comparative ecocritical study in general, and, further, may inspire similar anthologies of other national literatures less familiar to many American readers.

Italian Environmental Literature does have such potential. Barron and Re have made an excellent selection of texts and excerpts, giving readers samples from the works of forty authors who are quite distinct in their styles and strategies. These authors include such famous names as Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo, Ignazio Silone, and Italo Calvino. But more important for Barron’s hopes, we are introduced to many new names, including various regionalists, farmers, scientists, and activists.

In a country relatively heavily urbanized for two and a half millennia, Italy’s writers, as represented here, demonstrate a fierce desire to extol rural locales and regional and local particularities. In all three sections of this anthology the localism is marked by the political history of modern Italy, including the politics of uneven development and impoverishment and the destructiveness of Fascism. Particularly interesting to me, in meditating on the contradictions and complementarities of bioregionalism and multiculturalism, are the demonstrations of anti-assimilationist local cultural practices by writers from Sardinia and Sicily. I also find distinctive and worthy of attention, as Rebecca West, observes in her preface, the pervasive concern and recognition of the ubiquitous human presence throughout the nature depicted. While wild attracts attention in the work of contemporary Italian writers, such as Giuseppe Moretti, wilderness in the American western sense remains largely absent.

Finding myself wanting to read more by particular authors, I would like to have had a larger collection in hand. But the editors cannot be faulted here, for the length no doubt results from marketing decisions beyond their control. Also, because Italica Press published this work with its emphasis on “Italian” rather than on “environmental,” we cannot expect other national anthologies from Italica. And no other U.S. publisher with which I am familiar has committed to the general publication of this kind of national environmental literature anthology. Perhaps this anthology, then, might inspire a broadening of horizons, not only among readers, but also among publishers. As for teachers, Italian Environmental Literature would make a great text for a study abroad course.

— Patrick D. Murphy, University of Central Florida

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