Corti, Maria (1915-2002)

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Maria Corti was born in Milan on 7 September 1915. Her mother died young and Corti lived her youth in boarding schools in and around Milan while her father, an engineer, worked in Puglia. She studied for degrees in literature and philosophy at the University of Milan, under the tutelage of the important scholars, Benvenuto Terracini, a professor of the history of language, and Antonio Banfi, a professor of philosophy. She was first employed as a high school teacher in and around Como and Milan. During and after World War II, she worked with antifascists and was appointed as a professor at the University of Pavia in 1972, where her work on the history of the Italian language and on semiotics helped to found the so-called "school of Pavia" and where she established the Fondo Manoscritti degli Autori Moderni e Contemporanei. She remained at Pavia until her death. Corti was the co-founder or founder of the journals Autografo, Alfabeta, and Strumenti critici, and frequent contributor to the cultural page of the newspaper La Repubblica. She was an elected a member of many academies including the Accademia della Crusca and was awarded many prizes for her scholarly and creative writing, including the prestigious Campiello Prize for her entire production. Maria Corti died in Milan on 22 February 2002.

Known primarily for her scholarly production, Corti wrote fiction from a very young age and continued to do so until her death. She was a firm believer in the synergy of creative and scholarly writing, a tradition with deep roots in the Italian humanistic tradition. Since Dante, Italian writers have rarely not had an academic as well as a creative bent, and Maria Corti fit perfectly into this line. Her fictional works are imbued with learning, yet they are also often autobiographical and deeply personal accounts of experiences and insights that express aspects of Corti's thoughts and feelings that she could not fully explore through her rich and always impeccable scholarship.

As a student and young teacher, Maria Corti often traveled on trains, sharing third-class compartments with commuting workmen. She wrote her first novel, originally entitled in its unpublished form Il trenino della pazienza (The Train of Patience) at an early age, and in it she described these daily trips. The novel was not published until 1981, with the title Cantare nel buio (Singing in the Dark), after Corti had extensively revised it. However, she had begun to publish fiction as early as 1962 when L'ora di tutti (translated as Otranto by Jessie Bright) appeared; for this debut prose fiction work she won the Crotone Literary Prize in 1963. It recounts the true story in fictional form of a southern Italian community in the fifteenth century that is put to the test when it is invaded by the Turks. In 1966 Corti published Il ballo dei sapienti (The Dance of the Wise), a novel set in the contemporary academic world of the sixties. In it, she paints a vivid picture of academia's conventions and hypocrisies.

The decades of the 1970s and 1980s were years of prolific scholarly production for Corti, as she became involved in the then-burgeoning field of semiotics; she also continued her work as a historian of the Italian language and as a textual editor. Her dual loves of medieval and modern literature resulted in important books on Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Beppe Fenoglio, Neorealism and Neoexperimentalism, and essays on Calvino and other contemporary writers who were also her personal friends, such as Eugenio Montale and Luigi Malerba. She did not relinquish her creative work, however, and in 1986 Voci dal Nord Est: Taccuino Americano (Voices from the Northeast: American Notebook) appeared. This work is a fictionalized travel diary in which Corti recounts her experiences and observations during a trip to the United States when she taught at Brown University, gave lectures at other Eastern universities, and visited Chicago. She provides a running commentary not only on her personal adventures, including the terrible mugging that left her injured and deeply shaken, but also on American colleagues and students, styles of life in the United States, and the differences that distinguish the cultures of Italy and America. The book ends up being something midway between fiction and social critique, all of it presented not in a dry documentaristic style but in subjective, meditative prose that captures well the strong personal opinions and ideological convictions of its author.

Other stories and fictional pieces of diverse kind continued to appear in the later years of Corti's career, just as her scholarly work continued in an uninterrupted flow. An openly autobiographical vein opened out onto Corti's eventful life as a cultural mentor and intellectual leader in works such as the book-length interview with Cristina Nesi, Dialogo in pubblico (1995; Dialogue in Public) and Ombre dal fondo (1997; Shadows from the Depths), the title of which alludes to the important Fondo or Foundation for modern and contemporary writers' manuscripts that Corti established at the University of Pavia, her home institution for many years. Beginning with autograph materials given to her by her long-standing friend, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale, Corti built an amazing repository and resource of materials for scholars of twentieth-century Italian literature, and the book recounts the complex process by which she achieved this admirable goal. Perhaps her best fictional work, Il canto delle sirene (The Sirens' Song) was published in 1989. Again autobiographical in essence, it combines scholarly erudition with very personal narrative, telling the story of a young woman who is torn between the life of the mind and creative writing, as well as between two very different men and the sort of shared life each would represent for her. Corti uses the myth of the sirens, who are most commonly seen as seductresses seeking to lure men from their dutiful paths, as representative instead of the endless human thirst for knowledge and wisdom. As in so many of her scholarly and creative works, here too the metaphor of the journey of life conditions the shape and tone of the book. This novel is philosophical in essence, and it dovetails nicely with Corti's work on Ulysses, specifically as this emblematic voyager and seeker functions in Dante's imaginative and scholarly explorations of knowledge and transcendence, which Corti also studied in great depth.

Corti's creative writing may be seen as an essential adjunct to her production as one of contemporary Italy's most important scholars. In an interview published on April 26, 1986 in the newspaper La stampa, Corti declared her sustained belief in the interrelationship of scholarly and creative writing: "The best critics are also writers. I am thinking of Valéry, of Baudelaire… Creative writing gives a certain humility to the critic, who must understand but not judge." Corti's long career reflected her constant search for understanding--of texts, cultures, language, and herself--as well as her unique ability to personalize erudition and to share it with academic and general readers alike. Her legacy includes well-crafted fictional works that, like her learned studies, are invaluable contributions to modern Italian letters.

Submitted by Rebecca West, The University of Chicago, 2005.


  • "Autointervista." Annali d'Italianistica. 7(1989): 423-29.
  • Dizionario della letteratura italiana contemporanea. Florence: Vallecchi, 1973.
  • Guerra, Giorgia. Maria Corti: Voci, canti, catasti. Novara: Interlinea, 2000.
  • Kirschenbaum, Blossom, "Maria Corti's Discovery of America," in Italian Americans in a Multicultural Society. Stony Brook, NY: Forum Italicum, 1994.
  • Scorrano, Luigi. Carte inquiete: Maria Corti, Biagia Marniti, Antonia Pozzi. Ravenna: Longo, 2002.
  • West, Rebecca. "Maria Corti," in Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers, edited by Katharina M. Wilson. New York: Garland, 1991.
  • See also extensive bibliography of writings about Maria Corti in Dialogo in pubblico, edited by Cristina Nesi. Milano: Rizzoli, 1995.

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