Ortese, Anna Maria (1914-1998)

Portrait     Biographic Details     Editions of Works

Anna Maria Ortese was born in Rome on June 13, 1914, second youngest of six siblings in a family of "no social distinction," as she would later say. Her father, Oreste, a Sicilian of Catalan origins (the last name: Ortez was Italianized as Ortese) was an employee of the Italian Government, and the Ortese family moved quite frequently, as her father was posted in various parts of Italy. Continuous relocation and the acute awareness of her family's poverty left an indelible mark on Ortese's childhood and on the rest of her life. It made her feel, from the very beginning, almost a stranger to her own homeland and society, a sentiment that would later be reflected in her peculiar choices of themes and original writing style in her fiction.

From 1924 to 1928 the Ortese family lived in Africa (Tripoli); then they moved back to Naples (the hometown of her mother Beatrice Vaccà), which would become the most important city in Ortese's literary imagination. After returning from Tripoli (where Anna Maria had attended the third grade), she received only a few more years of formal education.

The death of her favorite brother, Emanuele, marked the beginning both of her literary career (debuting in 1933 in "La fiera letteraria" with a series of poems including Manuele, followed by a collection of short stories in 1937: Angelici dolori) and of the disintegration of her family. Another brother, also a sailor, would die in Albania. The remaining two emigrated to Australia and Canada. The death of her parents in 1950 and 1952 left Anna Maria and her sister the only vestige of the original family.

Anna Maria, following her profession as a reporter, started moving restlessly around Italy. She was also constantly haunted by financial problems and was forced to continue working as a journalist even as she wrote her short stories and novels. Between 1950 and 1970 she lived for long periods in Milan and Rome, and in 1975 she finally settled in Rapallo (Liguria). In 1986, thanks to, among other things, a life annuity granted her through the Bacchelli Law, she was able to buy a condominium in Rapallo. She died in 1998.

Although Anna Maria Ortese was the recipient of numerous literary prizes (Premio Viareggio in 1953 for Il mare non bagna Napoli, Premio Strega in 1967 for Poveri e semplici, Premio Procida-Elsa Morante in 1988 for In sonno e in veglia, Prix de meilleur livre étranger in 1998 for the French edition of Il Cardillo addolorato, to mention but a few of the most prestigious) her relationship with literary critics was always difficult. During the many years of her writing career, Anna Maria Ortese was loved, hated and many times forgotten. Her work finally achieving widespread recognition and acclaim only towards the end of her life and mostly after her death. This is partly attributable to the difficulty, encountered by critics, to define her position within the literary canon.

Her literary debut as a fiction writer came in 1937 with Angelici Dolori, a collection of short stories in which the treatment of reality and dreams, ghosts and symbols, religion and reason contribute to the creation of that particular Ortesian style that has always been so difficult to categorize. Through her, critics took aim at her mentor, Massimo Bontempelli who was, at the time, the most important exponent of the poetic of Magic Realism, by brutally attacking Angelici Dolori. Her next work: Il mare non bagna Napoli, originally designed as a reportage, was part of a joint project, designed by the Gruppo Sud (a group that embraced the poetics of Neorealism - a very popular literary and film movement in Italy in the '50s) to explain the economical and political problems of the south. In Il mare non bagna Napoli, a book that won her popular acclaim, we find some of the best examples of Ortese's short fiction. This is particularly true because, as in all her works, her observation of reality is flavored with her visionary writing style, and because it expresses her compassion for the more unfortunate creatures that inhabit the world around us. The last part of the book: "il silenzio della ragione" with her strong criticism of the young Neapolitan Intellectuals, was to cause further intellectual isolation for Ortese, who went, from that moment on, nearly unseen in the Italian Literary Panorama for years to come.

The Iguana, published in 1965, brought further disappointment. It is a "social" and "ecological" fairy tale, in which a young rich nobleman from Milan falls in love with an iguana on the fictional island of Ocaña (the same name used by Stevenson in Treasure Island). He ultimately dies without realizing his dream - the reintegration of "the beast" into a society that has forgotten how to love the creatures of the universe. Although a few critics reviewed it favorably, the majority found it difficult to understand, both in style and content, while the public, which had appreciated the relatively simple style of Il mare non bagna Napoli, found The Iguana very difficult to read. Considering her high expectations, the relative "failure" of the novel she loved best, marks for Ortese the beginning of an age of isolation and bitterness. She feels more and more distant from the world in which she lives, as she reflects on the mechanization of novel writing in a society where she believes that novels have to be agreed upon with the editor, according to commercial guidelines, before they are even written. It is now that she begins writing her autobiography, as she feels the need to reflect upon her literary career and the things that brought her to be a writer. For the rest of her life, Ortese continually re-wrote new editions of what would become her masterpiece: Il Porto di Toledo. Ricordi della vita irreale, (The harbor of Toledo - Memories of an unreal life). Reality and fiction join seamlessly to create a completely new style of autobiographical writing. Writing in her own "new language" - "quella lingua- per esprimere quanto mi era caro- nel mondo di ciò che siamo, non esiste." (The language to express what is dear to me in the world does not exist.), she subverts the laws of the literary canon once more. But Ortese is disappointed again. The novel, published by Rizzoli in 1975, sells only 200 copies and is soon forgotten by both critics and the public.

Her encounter with the publishing house Adelphi, in the person of Roberto Calasso, marks an upswing in her work. In close cooperation with Calasso, she enters a most prolific period. In 1993, Adelphi would publish Il cardillo addolorato (The lament of the linnet) -a fantastic-historical novel set in Naples in the 1700's. This novel finally gives Ortese the recognition and national and international visibility she deserves. In 1996, Alonso e i visionari was published. It is a fantastic-detective story whose main character, Alonso, is a mountain lion from Arizona, that represents the "spirit of the world" and will therefore be humiliated and probably killed. Although the book does not enjoy the success of Il cardillo, it confirms the importance and originality of Anna Maria Ortese's work. Ortese has also published two volumes of her collected poems (Il mio paese è la notte; La luna che trascorre, several volumes that contain a collection of some of her travel essays (most notably the large collection, ed. Luca Clerici, La lente scura: Scritti di viaggio) and a wonderful small volume of essays that include her views on the world, nature and on contemporary society (Corpo celeste).

Today, Anna Maria Ortese is considered one of the most authentic and original voices in contemporary European literature. While her work remains impossible to categorize within the rigid boundaries of the literary canon, the new interest that critics from all over the world (and particularly Italy and North America) have shown in her work, and the numerous contributions that have appeared from critics in the past five years, show that many aspects of her fiction and poetry have yet to be discovered and analyzed fully. Her sensitivity to the suffering of less fortunate human creatures; her conception of man as a mere "guest" on earth and the necessity to respect and love the entire planet and its creatures; her creation of "a new language" to express the "impossible"; her incredible style of narration - all of these things make Anna Maria Ortese one of the most interesting and original writers of the 20th century.

Editions of Works

Anna Maria Ortese has written innumerable articles for the most important newspapers and magazines in Italy. For an accurate bibliography of specific articles, I suggest consulting Luca Clerici's extensive bibliography in his biography of Ortese. Giuseppe Iannaccone's bibliography, in A.M Ortese Romanzi Vol. 1, ed. Monica Farnetti (Milan: Adelphi, 2002 ) is also very useful. Most of Ortese's short stories were published individually and then collected in a volume, or in more than one volume, sometimes under different titles. The IWW bibliography, which I complied, refers to the first edition of Anna Maria Ortese's volumes of collected articles, short stories, poetry and the first edition of her novels [View List of Editions].


  • Baldi, A. "Infelicità senza desideri. Il mare non bagna Napoli di Anna Maria Ortese", Italica 77.1 (2000): 81-104.
  • ---. "Ortese's Naples:Urban Malaise through a visionary gaze" in Italian women and the city: essays. Ed. J.Levarie Smarr and D.Valentini, Madison (N.J.):Farleigh Dickinson University Press. 215-238.
  • Benfante M. "Il puma redentore" Linea d'ombra 118 (1996): 50-52.
  • Clerici, L. Apparizione e visione. Vita e opere di A.M. Ortese. Milan: Mondadori, 2002.
  • Della Coletta, C. "Scrittura come utopia. La lente scura di Anna Maria Ortese", Italica 76.3 (1999): 371-88.
  • Farnetti, M. Anna Maria Ortese. Milan: Mondadori, 1998.
  • ---, "Introduzione" and "Cronologia" in A.M. Ortese's Romanzi. Vol. 1. Milan:Adelphi, 2002.
  • Fontanella, L. "Sulla poesia giovanile di A.M.Ortese " Narrativa 24 (2003):123-138.
  • Ghezzo, F.M. "Chiaroscuro napoletano. Trasfigurazioni fantastiche di una città Anna Maria Ortese)", Narrativa 24 (2003): 85-104.
  • Iannaccone, G. La scrittrice reazionaria. Il giornalismo militante di A.M. Ortese. Naples: Liguori, 2003.
  • Lanslot, I., "Le creature zoppicanti di A.M. Ortese" Narrativa 24 (2003):105-122.
  • Mazzocchi, G. "Anna Maria Ortese e l'ispanità", MLN 112.1 (1997): 90-104.
  • Nozzoli, Anna. "Anna Maria Ortese e la sua opera", Introduzione a Il mare non bagna Napoli, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1979).
  • Papini, M. "Luoghi della soglia, tra epifania e miraggio. Il cardillo addolorato" in Paesaggio e memoria. Giornata di studi su Anna Maria Ortese. Ed. De Caprio-Donadio, Naples: Dante & Descartes, 2003. 39-60.
  • Pieracci Harwell, M. "Ambiguità delle tecniche: L'ironia di A.M. Ortese", in Paesaggio e memoria. Giornata di studi su Anna Maria Ortese. Ed. De Caprio- Donadio, Naples: Dante & Descartes, 2003. 39-60.
  • Scaramucci, I. "Anna Maria Ortese", Novecento. I Contemporanei. Ed. Gianni Grana, vol. VIII , Milan: Marzorati, 1980. 7658-7672.
  • SenoReed, C. "Anna Maria Ortese. Un paio di occhiali e Interno familiare. Due diversi tipi di estraniamento", Rassegna Europea di Letteratura Italiana 20 (2002): 131-142.
  • Smith, S.A. "Anna Maria Ortese" Dictionary of Italian Literature. Revised, expanded edition. Ed. P. Bondanella and J.Conway Bondanella. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.
  • Spagnoletti G. "Realismo del 'Meraviglioso' in A.M. Ortese" Novecento. I Contemporanei. Ed. Gianni Grana, vol. VIII , Milan: Marzorati, 1980. 7672-7674.
  • Wood, S. "Fantasy and Narrative in A.M. Ortese", Italica, 71,3 (1994): 354-368.
  • ---, "'Such stuff as dreams are made on': Anna Maria Ortese (born 1914) and the Art of the Real", in Italian Women's Writing 1860-1994. London: Athole Press, 1995. 171-174.
Submitted by Cosetta Seno Reed, The University of California at Berkeley, 2004.

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