The Italian Catholic poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, born in 1888, died 50 years ago this month. His poetry achieved fame – but his life is a cautionary tale.
Ungaretti’s concentrated force of language reached an early influential peak with a two-line poem known to most literate Italians: “Immensity/ Illuminates me” (“M’illumino/ d’immenso”). It was written during combat service in the Great War.
Ungaretti’s religious meditations became more explicitly pious after a return to the faith in 1928. He became obsessed with the image of the Pietà, commenting upon the subject in Christian art in which the Virgin cradles the dead body of Jesus.
Michelangelo’s Pietà sculpture in Rome inspired Ungaretti to write to an artist friend in May 1929: “I have come to conceive of Catholicism as the most admirable of doctrines; the most secret strings of my soul are touched by its mysticism, but it is impossible for me, and I feel extreme anguish, to accept the idea of [immortality].”
Ungaretti may have felt unable to believe Catholic doctrine, but he idolized Benito Mussolini as a potential saviour of Italian culture. In November 1922, Ungaretti even wrote personally to ask Il Duce to contribute a forward to one of his poetry collections: “Would H.E. [His Excellency], who is consecrating renewed Italianity, raise my faith? I address H.E. as a Renaissance man; when Italy was great in the world, the powerful would not disdain to crown her with beauty (which is the only immortality). A few lines of preface from H.E., whenever the grave State affairs will allow you a moment of repose, would for me, in the eyes of all, be a great honour.”
Meanwhile, in correspondence between the wars, Ungaretti made repeated gratuitous anti-Semitic and racist references, disdaining Africans, Arabs, and other colonized peoples. In September 1919, he wrote to the Catholic author Giovanni Papini, dismissing the painter Amadeo Modigliani as a “Jewish dauber.” In 1918, Ungaretti had slated the Italian Catholic pacifist Giovanni Giolitti as a man “without courage, with Jewish weapons; he is not Italian.” The implication was that any Italian who opposed the war on principle must really be Jewish.
When the French essayist Benjamin Crémieux began to write about Italian literature in the Nouvelle Revue Française literary journal, Ungaretti identified Crémieux as a “Jew-man,” and two years later wrote to a friend that the more he met people like Crémieux, the “more I feel we ought to adhere to Fascism: this mob of democrats, pansies, Pharisees, ought to be loathed!”
Ungaretti was somewhat more nuanced in his vast correspondence with the French publisher Jean Paulhan (Gallimard). Declaring “I am very deeply pagan and at the same time I have a Christian soul,” Ungaretti was highly judgmental of other Catholic writers, calling Jean Cocteau a “pig” who converted to Catholicism out of “snobbery” while also excoriating Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Valéry.
Instead, Ungaretti treasured the work of 19th century author Giosuè Carducci, Italy’s first Nobel Prize-winner in literature. Ungaretti hoped to follow Carducci’s example, especially because he was impoverished. Starting in 1947, he began to actively dissimulate in public and private about how much he had previously supported Mussolini and Fascism. But while his poetry continues to attract readers – Carcanet, Pan MacMillan and Cornell University Press have published translations into English – the record shows how far he went astray.