Giulia Niccolai (1934-)|
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A central, if often underappreciated figure in the history of contemporary Italian poetry, Giulia Niccolai is also a notable novelist, photographer, translator and essayist. Born in 1934 in the city of Milan, where she lives today, to an Italian father and an American mother, she grew up bilingual, living both in Italy and the United States. During World War II her family was forced to flee to Menaggio, a small village on Lake Como, where for three years she had to deal with the racism of her fascist teacher, who scorned her as an "Anglo-Saxon" because of her American mother. Her bilingual identity is an important element of much of Niccolai's work, and has also enabled her to translate the works of many American and English authors such as Gertrude Stein and Angela Carter into Italian. Nevertheless, despite her multilingualism and her connections to the United States, Niccolai has published most of her own work in Italy. She has also been closely associated with some of that country's most important literary figures and movements of the past half century.
Niccolai began her career in the early 1950s working as a photographic journalist, carrying out photographic assignments for a wide range of Italian, European and American magazines and newspapers. Very few women were involved in the profession at the time, particularly in Italy where it was often dominated by the antics of the paparazzi and a macho attitude towards the "hunt" for a great photograph. Niccolai's experiences as a photographer were to have a lasting impact on her aesthetics and poetics, and also shaped her first and only novel, Il grande angolo (Wide Angle), published by Feltrinelli in 1966. The novel is a fascinating account of a young photographic journalist, Ita, who views the world as though through the lens of a camera and tries to use this way of seeing to come to terms with the suicide of her photographer partner, Domínguez. Il grande angolo is now out of print, but is available in electronic form on this website.
Despite her ability as a photographer and her great love of the medium, Niccolai gave up photography in the late 1960s, dedicating herself instead to writing, in part because the potential for multiple interpretations and uses of the photograph led to the frustration of being misunderstood, willfully or not. In Niccolai's poetry, however, this frustration turned into a fascination with the multiple possible interpretations of verbal messages, at first in visual and concrete poetry that focused on the materiality of language, and then in ever more playful experimentations with the possibilities of language and languages.
Niccolai was one of only three women writers (the others were Amelia Rosselli and Carla Vasio) to have been associated with the group of neo-avant-guarde writers known as the "Gruppo '63," which believed that writers should experiment with form of their means of expression rather than its content, focusing on structure and language. She attended the second convention of the Gruppo '63 in Emilia Romagna in 1964 and became the editorial secretary for the journal associated with the group, Quindici. In 1970, she and the poet Adriano Spatola founded the journal Tam Tam (the name was later used by Spatola for Edizioni Geiger, the publishing house he also founded). The two poets lived together for a number of years in the countryside near Parma, at Mulino di Bazzano. During this period, Niccolai experimented with concrete, photographic, and visual poetry, collected in works such as Poema & Oggetto, which was published by Geiger in 1974. Her poetry of the early 1970s shows her association with the group of poets known as the Novissimi, which also included Nanni Balestrini, Antonio Porta and others who believed in the fundamental importance of the poem as language rather than transcendental content.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Niccolai continued to publish volumes of poetry, and participated in numerous international cultural events. In the 1980s she began to explore Eastern philosophy and spiritualism, spending time in Japan, and eventually becoming a Buddhist nun. Also in the early 1980s, Niccolai began to work on a new kind of poetry which she called "Frisbees": poems that throw out a cue, a suggestion, or a surprising image to the reader, with the idea that he or she might throw it back, Frisbee-like. They are written in verse form, but aim to give an impression of immediacy, like notes jotted down to record a moment of illumination or awareness. Many of these poems were published in 1984 in the volume Frisbees in facoltà . A more comprehensive edition was published by Campanotto in 1994 as Frisbees--Poesie da lanciare, which won the Feronia poetry prize in 1995. Like all of Niccolai's poetry, these works are based on her delight in linguistic invention and the pleasures of word-play, puns and "nonsense" and their ability to reveal the poetic elements of the everyday.
Since becoming a Buddhist nun in 1990, Niccolai has moved ever further away from the notion of representation as a means of self-expression towards a notion of writing as a means of escaping the preoccupations of the self: At the same time, connections to her earliest photographic work, such as an aesthetic of fragmentation and an interest in fleeting yet revelatory moments, are evident in all her writings, from Il grande angolo, to her visual poetry of the 1970s, to the word play of her later poetry, and the delight in tracing continuities in the apparent discontinuities and coincidences of life in the book of prose pieces she published in 2001, Esoterico biliardo. The importance of spirituality and the insights of meditation is apparent in her recent writing, for example, in the poems of La misura del respiro and her most recent collection, Orienti/Orients.
Submitted by Sarah Patricia Hill, Victoria University of Wellington, 2004.
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