Second World War Literary Tourism: The Case of Northern Italy

Serena Domenici (Independent trainer and manager of educational projects, Italy)

During the Second World War, Italy was the scene of many dramatic events in which young intellectuals and writers took part or in which they were direct and significant witnesses. After the war, most of them, scarred by that experience, reconstructed what they had lived in their works.

Some of Beppe Fenoglio’s most famous novels and short stories occur in the Langhe, the hills surrounding Turin and Alba. Fenoglio (1922-1963), who was keen on English literature, was a partisan from Alba and took part in what he called ‘an anti-heroic civil war’ fought between 1943 and 1945 following the fall of Fascism in the area all around his birthplace. In Alba, four itineraries start at the historic centre, where the Centro Studi in Piazza Rossetti is dedicated to him. The green area of San Cassiano, just outside the city, was the site of the battle of November 2 1944, in which Fenoglio became involved and described in The Twenty-three Days of the City of Alba (1952). San Rocco Seno d’Elvio and the first hills of Alba, with their vineyards and farms, are the background to the desperate love of Milton, the protagonist of A Private Matter (1963), in search of his beloved Fulvia, who lived in a villa nearby. Mango, the village of The Partisan Johnny (1968), is the most quoted place in the writer’s books and was his refuge during his years in the Resistance – as were the Pavaglione farmhouse and San Benedetto Belbo, both referred to in the novel La Malora (1954). Finally, the path along the banks of the river Tanaro, a constant and comforting presence in Fenoglio’s writing, leads to the discovery of the spectacular panorama of Rocche di Barbaresco.

Still in the Langhe, but in the area where the Montferrato hills begin, between Cuneo and Asti, we find Santo Stefano Belbo, the birthplace of Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), associated with his mythical and fairytale memories of a rural childhood and lost innocence – and where the autobiographical protagonist of The House on The Hill (1948), Corrado, decides to return to escape the war. Here the Fondazione Cesare Pavese and the Museo hold precious documents by the author, some of which are unpublished. The Moon and the Bonfires (1949), Pavese’s last novel, is set in this hamlet; and it is possible to visit his family home and his grave, as well as the workshop of his friend, the carpenter Pino Scaglione, who inspired the character of Nuto. As described in the novel, Scaglione’s house is located at the foot of the Salto hill, along the road to the town of Canelli, while in the village of Sant’Antonio the Palazzina del Nido, an ancient aristocratic residence at the centre of social life in the forties, is still preserved intact. Opposite the Belbo stream rises the majestic Gaminella hill, where a recently renovated path leads to the house of Anguilla, the novel's protagonist. One of the six ‘literary benches’ dedicated to Pavese is on the lawn in front of the house. Then there is an exhilarating climb through the vineyards and up the Moncucco hill as far as the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Neve, which offers one of the most extraordinary views in the region. Here, on August 4, the signal is given to light bonfires on all the surrounding hills, a ritual that inspired Pavese and provides the novel's title.

Moving to Veneto, in north-eastern Italy, many other places evoke the two World Wars and testify how the landscape has been marked by war events. In the case of the two writers who set their books in this region, Luigi Meneghello and Mario Rigoni Stern, both born in the province of Vicenza, there is both a pre-war period in which the carefree years of childhood are spent in small rural communities, and a problematic post-war experience, composed of rapid and intrusive social transformations which modify the writer’s sense of space and time. Writing, therefore, becomes an act of both personal and civic memory, a way of making sense of the currents of life and death that have flowed through these mountains.

In the case of Rigoni Stern (1921-2008), the context of these autobiographical and collective tales is the Asiago Plateau, starting from the four houses in which the author lived over the years, described in Love Border (1986), and the famous Asiago War Memorial on the hill of Leiten. The construction of this monument, which contains the bones of almost 55,000 Italian and Austrian soldiers who died in the Great War, began in 1932; as the writer recalls in Giacomo’s Seasons (1995): he judged it ugly because “many peaceful cemeteries set in meadows and woods were destroyed in order to build that great arch in imperial style”. Rigoni’s last house in Val Giardini, which he had built himself and where he died, is the perfect starting point for a journey that draws together literary texts and the drama of life: for example, the slope of Puntareche leads up to the monument to the partisans who died there, and from there continues through the plateau of Altebene or the road of Sant’Antonio, all places where Rigoni Stern regularly went for a walk. In History of Tonle (1978); The Year of Victory (1985); and Giacomo’s Seasons (1995), these landscapes are depicted with the attention to detail and love of nature that characterise his work. A little further away, after a walk of about an hour and a half, we reach Monte Zebio, the ‘mountain home’ as the writer called it, well aware of the vital role it played during the First World War when between 1916 and 1917 the Italian army tried to break through enemy lines – without success. In The Urogallus Forest, he talks about it as a favourite destination for his hunting trips. Another highly symbolic place of memory is the Old Term tavern, mentioned in many stories, including A Christmas from 1945 (2006): its name refers to the border between Trentino and Veneto, a strategic point during the war (Fritz Lang, Robert Musil, and Fritz Weber fought in the surrounding area), as well as for those who emigrated to the Habsburg empire in search of fortune.

The Asiago plateau is also the scene of Luigi Meneghello’s The Little Masters (1964), about which Primo Levi said, “In my opinion, this is not just a book, but the genuine book on the Resistance”. Chapters 5,6 and 7 of the novel are set in the northern part of the plateau, which includes Malga Fossetta, Colombara, Ortigara, and the plain of Marcèsina, all of them higher than 1,500 metres; while Enego and Frizzon, and Gallio are located at the southern edge of the plateau, where it meets the high plain. In chapter 4, a series of episodes have the Valle del Mis, in the province of Belluno, as their background – an area now forming part of the Belluno Dolomites National Park. Meneghello (1922-2007) was born in Malo. In 1947, having fought during the war as a partisan, left Italy for England, where he became a university professor. In 1961 he founded the Italian Studies Department at Reading and remained there until 1980. Since 2008 the Associazione Culturale Luigi Meneghello has offered the possibility of carrying out a literary tour in his home town, following the pages of the novels. For example, there are places referred to in Libera nos a Malo (1963) (ch.27), such as Meneghello’s birthplace at San Bernadino Street; the Listòn San Gaetano (main street of the village); the squares; the Prà Comùn (municipal lawn); the hill of Santa Libera (with the sanctuary of the Madonna), and the cemetery. In the hills around Isola Vicentina and Torreselle, about 5-10 km from Malo, there are the paths described in The Little Masters (1964), with views of the plain and the mountains to the north. Some episodes of this novel are set at the historic centres of Vicenza and Padua – the latter being the epicentre of World War Two in the months preceding the Liberation.

How to cite this dictionary entry: Domenici, S. (2023). Second World War Literary Tourism: The case of Northern Italy. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

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