Paying tribute to the memory of the Jewish Italian community lost during Italy’s fascist regime in World War II, the Calandra Italian American Institute hosted a discussion of Giorgio Bassani’s celebrated novel The Garden of the Finzi-Contini on Tuesday February 1st at 5pm. The discussion invited guest speakers familiar with the novel to debate the book’s historical accuracy, hidden meanings and transformation into the film and opera media. Introduced by the Calandra Italian American Institute’s Dean Anthony Tamburri, and moderated by Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò’s Director, Stefano Albertini, the event brought together Alessandro Cassin from the Centro Primo Levi, Bianca Finzi-Contini Calabresi from Columbia University, Anthony Tamburri from the Calandra Institute and CUNY and librettist Michael Korie currently presenting the novel’s latest opera adaptation at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962) is a semi-fictional, historical novel describing the lives and relationships of a Jewish Italian family living in Ferrara, Italy during the Mussolini-led era and into the beginning of World War II. Exploring each member of the family from the narrator’s point of view, Bassani brings his characters to life by rendering complex, multifaceted portraits. The plot focuses primarily on unrequited love, tennis, aristocracy and literature, placing particular focus on the aristocracy’s self-isolation and fragility. Awarded the Premio Strega for his Cinque storie ferraresi in 1956, Bassani is widely regarded in Italy as an uber talented author ahead of his time.
Following a short presentation by Anthony Tamburri, a clip was shown of an interview with Judge Guido Calabresi, grandson of the Finzi-Contini family members the novel is based on. The interviewer asked Judge Calabresi to elaborate on the correlation between the fictional story and his family’s history, to which he immediately responded that the novel’s plot is not about his family at all. “It’s a fictional story. Some things happened to my family, some things happened to others,” Judge Calabresi said; adding, “on the other hand, the author picked our name deliberately.” Though Bassani’s choice of the name remains a matter of debate, Judge Calabresi speculates that his motivation was two-fold: paying homage to the Finzi-Contini for allowing him to write his novel in their estate, and intentionally selecting a name attributed to aristocracy and decadence.
As her name suggests, Bianca Finzi-Contini is also related to the eponymous family and was the first to open the event’s discussion. She began with an explanation of her connection to the family history and said she was very young when she first came across the fictional story. Bianca Finzi-Contini discovered Vittorio De Sica’s film version (1971) before the novel, nevertheless she has since read numerous translations of the novel. Her grandmother always encouraged her to dig deeper into literary archives by frequently going with Bianca to the library and traveling together with her to Ferrara on a number of occasions so as to get better acquainted with their ancestry. According to Bianca, Bassani had “some sense of alternatives to a very binary world.” Notably, women’s education as seen by the novel’s passage referencing American author Emily Dickinson and queer freedom of expression as implied by Alberto and Malnate’s homosexual tension.
On the same subject of queer relations within the novel, Michael Korie and Ricky Ian Gordon’s adaptation as an opera did not shy away from representing Alberto and Malnate’s romance but, rather, decided to emphasize it. As a gay man himself, librettist Korie explains that gay love “enriched the opera’s tapestry” and allowed for further romantic developments once Micol’s character left the stage. Korie feared that the contemporary American audience, unlike Italian readers at the time of the book’s publication, would not understand Italy’s historical context of political change.
Following extensive research on the Manifesto della Razza (1938) and the political events of that period, Korie found a similarity between the novel’s garden which he described as a “safe, delusional place” and the United States’ oblivious social bubble. Despite conceding that “there is no such thing as a faithful adaptation,” Korie tried his best to create an authentic version by incorporating the use of Italian and Jewish into his opera’s music.
Notwithstanding Korie’s disclaimer, Alessandro Cassin who remains loyal to the original plot in Bassani’s novel, wished to underline two discrepancies within the latest opera adaptation. First, that the “self-hating Jew” concept present in the opera is irrelevant, clarifying that it is a contemporary American concept. Second, that despite the opera’s portrayal of the Finzi-Continis’ family servant as anti-semitic and untrustworthy, the novel portrays him instead as very loyal to the family. Nevertheless, Cassin reiterated his admiration of Bassani’s novel particularly due to the author’s writing skill, “a masterpiece.” Bassani’s clever cyclical structuring of the story paired with hidden meanings in his characters’ dialogues allowed for an extremely complex and elaborate literary work.
While all the guest speakers seemed to be in accord that The Garden of the Finzi-Contini novel remains unparalleled, Anthony Tamburri’s friendship with Bassani enabled him to dissect why the film adaptation did not live up to the novel and why Bassani himself disapproved of it. Privileged to have had the opportunity to attend Bassani’s classes while at Berkley– and play tennis matches with him–Tamburri frequently asked Bassani to explain his evident rejection of Vittorio De Sica’s film adaptation which he referred to as a “terrible film.” Though Bassani rarely provided a direct answer, Tamburri believed that his frustration arose from the characters’ reduction to lifeless marionettes compared to the book’s in-depth, layered depiction and, fundamentally, on the misrepresentation of the primary female protagonist Micol. Tamburri’s gut feeling is that Micol was most likely heavily inspired by a real-life woman Bassani once fell in love with, therefore any version of Micol which failed to do her justice would never be accepted in Bassani’s eyes. In full agreement, Cassin added that the film’s ending may have been problematic as well because, rather than adhering to the book’s ending, the film’s final scene was a slow-motion tennis game suspiciously similar to Michelangelo Antonioni’s finale of “Blow Up” (1966).
Returning to the novel, the speakers sang infinite praise of Bassani’s unique ability to engage his readers by allowing them to maintain their prejudices towards a universally resented group that is aristocracy. By never describing things explicitly, Bassani enabled readers to form their own judgements based on details hidden in between the lines. Because Bassani’s father was a fascist, the story aids both the readers and the author himself to better understand Ferrara’s Italian Jews simultaneously, without the limitation of right or wrong. The Finzi-Contini were not aristocrats per se, but rather a symbol of a privileged lifestyle that was destined to fade away as Mussolini’s fascist regime took over.
While the link between the Finzi-Contini, Calabresi and Ascoli families remains a mystery today— or a “big mess” as Bianca describes it— the ambiguity can be interpreted as a beautiful chaos buried deep in past love, loss and family drama. Moreover, Tamburri observed that their open discussion on the layered intricacies and symbolism of the novel is exactly what Bassani would have wanted. Concluding the event, Cassin emphasized the beauty embedded in Bassani’s written word, “you don’t have to write poems to be a poet.”