NYU, Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò, the Calandra Institute at CUNY, and Italian Academy at Columbia University present:
A conversation: Stefano Albertini (Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò, NYU), Anthony Tamburri (Calandra Institute, CUNY), Bianca Finzi Contini Calabresi ( Columbia University). Alessandro Cassin (Centro Primo Levi), Michael Korie (Librettist, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis opera).
“I am Micol.” Giorgio Bassani, The New York Times, 1972
Giorgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Contini was first published in English in 1965 enticing a small number of high profile literary critics. However his lasting success began with the 1972 film version by Vittorio De Sica which was awarded the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
Only in the following decades with two more translations by William Weaver and Jamie McKendrick, the novel became one of the main literary references for American critics, scholars and the public at large, making increasingly clear the distance that separate the two works. This year, the National Yiddish Theater and New York City Opera (Michael Capasso, General Director) present the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s new operatic version of Bassani’s masterpiece with a libretto by Michael Korie.
A tale of love, friendship and liberty, the book explores the lives of Jewish youths from Ferrara, between the promulgation of the anti-Jewish laws in 1938 and the deportations of 1943-44. While the narrator embraces the ideals of nationhood and modernity, the Finzi-Continis’ aristocratic aloofness suggests a more complex reflection on what this means for a religious minority. Their self-isolation goes hand-in-hand with their resistance to sentimentalism and their keeping of knowledge and traditions: a refusal of consent that is masterly represented by the figure of Micol. They open their home to other Jews only when, in 1938, the racist laws separate all of them from the Italian society and the garden becomes a forced and elective refuge from the looming storm.
Beautifully produced with a certain degree of literality, De Sica’s film sacrificed both Bassani’s investigation of individual agency and his political edge, in favor e of a more universal morale of love in times of upheaval. Bassani, who had initially collaborated on the screenplay, took distance from the film with an article in the weekly L’Espresso title “Il mio Giardino tradito” (My Garden, betrayed). Symbolically placed among his complaints was that his recommendation to have a returning, leitmotif-like sequence of the roundup of Ferrara’s Jews, shot in black and white, as seen by the protagonist, had been ignored.
As it emerges from his less-known writings and his last novel, The Heron, Bassani was skeptical about Italy’s post-war re-elaboration of Fascism as well as about promises of equality that did not leave room to exist outside of precise molds, of politics, gender, emotions, nationality or religion.
With its extraordinary commercial success, De Sica’s film was America’s first exposure to Italian Jews, to their allure and culture, as well as to their persecution by Fascism and its Nazi allies. There are many reasons why it captivated the American imagination in ways that Bassani’s novel did not.
To these days, his critical gaze eludes readers and scholars alike and De Sica’s benevolent view is still somewhat prevalent.
The debut of a new chapter in the elaboration of the Finzi-Continis saga, through a much richer knowledge than what the American public had in 1972, will tell us more about how things may or may not have changed in 50 years.