Through Partisan Eyes
Frank Rosengarten, Queens College, United States
When I sat down to write these memoirs several years ago, I asked myself this question: what aspects of my personal experience as an Italianist
might be of interest to people whose working lives do not revolve around
Italy and Italian studies? Concisely put, I concluded that what mattered
in my own story as a specialist in Italian studies were the people I met
over many decades in Italy and the ideas that these people generated in
response to some of the problems of modern civilization; problems such
as the appeals of totalitarianism, the struggle between Fascism and antiFascism, the relationship between socialism and democracy. These are the
issues that have engaged me from the beginning of my work in the 1950s
and remain with me today; they are what I have mainly written about
and what I hope and believe will engage readers for whom these kinds of
For centuries Italy has exerted her charms on travelers looking for aesthetic gratification and intellectual stimulation. I place high value on this
aspect of Italian civilization, and in fact began my Italian graduate studies
at Columbia University in 1953 strongly influenced by what scholars such
as the Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson and the noted scholar
of Renaissance humanism, Paul Oskar Kristeller had said about Italy’s artistic and humanistic culture. Their interpretations of Italian humanism
underlie my understanding of this key intellectual current in the history
of early modern Europe.
But because of my particular bent and proclivities, the writings of
another Renaissance scholar was more germane to the direction that
my work took in the 1950s, and was indirectly responsible for giving my
memoir the shape that it has taken. I’m speaking of Eugenio Garin, who
introduced me to an historically and sociologically based approach to the
Renaissance that turned out to be relevant to almost everything I’ve been
able to accomplish over the past almost six decades. His first essays on the
Italian Renaissance (1941) and several of the books he published in the
1950s, especially his work on Italian humanism (1952), were fundamental to my own development. Partly because of his writings, subjects that
might have otherwise seemed remote to me took on an immediacy and
vividness that have stayed with me to this day. There were other writers
and thinkers who encouraged me to move in the direction I did.
These ranged from the Italian Marxist Carlo Salinari to the American literary
critic and historian Maxwell Geismar. But it was Garin who gave me the
initial impetus to undertake the kind of studies that I have done over the
past five decades.
The 1950s, it should be remembered, was the heyday of the New Criticism as theorized by such figures as I.A. Richards and Cleanth Brooks. I
instinctively rejected their arguments concerning the primacy of aesthetic
and stylistic questions in the study of literary texts. Yet without the example of Garin, who made a strong case for relating Italian humanism to
real social conditions and political issues in Renaissance Italy, I might have
lacked the confidence to do the kind of work I have in fact done; work, that
is, inspired by a belief that literature and history are intimately connected
to each other by bonds of “necessary reciprocity”, as Gramsci phrases it,
innumerable threads of continuity and interdependence.
Thus, early on in my Italian studies I found myself moving away from
the aesthetic side of things toward an encounter with a country and a people whose destiny had been marked indelibly by political questions of vast
import, one of which was the struggle between Fascism and anti-Fascism.
Fascism, after all, and its offshoot, anti-Fascist resistance, were both born
in Italy. They were part of a dialectical unity that I felt was a subject worthy of a lifetime of study. I came gradually to understand why Italians who
resisted the appeals of Fascism produced such a rich harvest of ideas in
the realms of literary criticism and in that of political theory and practice.
My study of the literary, political and historical writings of Italian anti-Fascists strengthened my own inclination to think of socialism and democracy as inseparably interrelated and interdependent. This conviction
is reflected in most of the work I have produced since the 1960s, beginning with my studies of the Florentine novelist Vasco Pratolini and of the
Italian anti-Fascist press, which appeared respectively in 1965 and 1968,
up to my most recent books on the poet Giacomo Leopardi and on Antonio Gramsci, published in 2012 and 2014. It can be seen as well in all four
parts of these memoirs, which I have organized as follows.
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