Rafanelli, Leda (1880-1971)

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On a warm evening in June of the year 1913, Benito Mussolini kisses Leda Rafanelli. A short while later, he writes, "I can still feel the deep emotional sensations of our last meeting". At that time, Mussolini was the thirty year old editor-in-chief of the daily socialist newspaper Avanti!. Leda was an anarchist, a writer, and a woman who fought for the rights of the underprivileged against the bourgeois conventions of society. Probably, if it had not been for this episode, Leda Rafanelli's destiny would have been the same as those "untiring women novelists" towards whom -- according to Benedetto Croce -- one should use the gallantry of not revealing their names (La letteratura della Nuova Italia, VI, p. 168).

Leda Rafanelli was born in Pistoia on the 4th of July in 1880. We know very little regarding her family or her childhood, perhaps because of a series of family misfortunes only vaguely hinted at by the author. At the age of twenty, Leda moved for a few months to Alexandria, Egypt, where she had the key experience of her life. She meets and sympathizes with the lively community of Italian anarchists and undergoes the fascination of exotic modes and the Islamic religion to which she immediately converts.

After her return to Italy, she works together first with her husband, Luigi ("Ugo") Polli, and then with successive companions of her life in an untiring activity of journalism and editorial endeavours. With her husband, she started the journalsLa blouse: rivista sociale (1906-1910) and La donna libertaria (1912-1913) and the publishing house Libreria Rafanelli-Polli; with Giuseppe Monanni, her long time companion and the father of her only child, Marsilio Monanni (1910-), La sciarpa nera: rivista anarchica (1909-1910) and Società Editoriale Milanese (1909), Libreria Editrice Sociale, Casa Editrice Sociale, and Casa Editrice Monanni ). She wrote propaganda pamphlets, short stories and novels, which made her quite famous by 1913. After her story with Mussolini and the break-up of their relationship caused both by the war and his "betrayal", her anarchism became more individualistic. In her writings the exotic and religious themes were accentuated, while her literary style became more conventional. During the fascist years she lived a secluded life, and in 1946 she published the letters from Mussolini in the book Una donna e Mussolini.

Consistent with her past as a freethinker, she lived the last years of her life in Genoa, with the same passion for noble causes, and surrounded by the reputation, which followed her, of being a sort of intrepid gypsy who loved to palm-read. She died on the 13th of September 1971 in Genoa.

Her major interest as a writer regards the world of underdogs, subversives, outcasts and mavericks. Her way of writing was both political and documentary, strongly influenced by Zola, Italian verism and by the Russian novel, in particular Tolstoj.

Her first novel Un sogno d'amore (1904) takes place in an atmosphere of free love and sensual pleasure, and narrates the story of two sisters, one of whom, Anna, is "in love with political ideals". In general the description of the lower classes in Leda Rafanelli's stories is as predictable as the description of the bourgeois classes against which she fought. Seme Nuovo, written in 1910, is the love story of Vera and Massimo situated among anarchist propaganda and police persecution and uses the Italian fin de siécle crisis and the working class strikes during the Giolitti years as a background. Also the short stories Bozzetti sociali (1910) -- her most famous book -- is a collection of stories, which are more political and social documents than literary works. They are snapshots regarding slums, derelicts and hopeless characters normally not seen -- according to the author -- by most writers. The stories take place in the Bolgie della società, the Tombe dei vivi, the factory, the insane asylum, the mine, the brothel, the jail, and the convent.

A similar environment exists in the Eroe della folla (1920), the story of Lorenzo, an outcast, and regards his social struggle in the midst of unhappy loves, desperate children and feverish political passions.

With Donne e femmine (1922) whose introduction is dated "First day of Ramadan 1339", Leda Rafanelli seems to share a more traditional idea of women and their social roles: they could be good mothers or responsible wives as long as they are able to avoid any storm of passions. In Come una meteora (1926) Amina is the noble and unpretentious protagonist whose girlhood is rapidly consumed in a series of matrimonial adventures in the city of Milan, described as conventional and false.

The stereotypes of the bourgeois world and her determination to denounce them constitute the principal aspects of Leda Rafanelli's literary prose. Sometimes the exotic touch makes her work more lively and, like her house in Milan, the atmosphere of her stories is often full of oriental scents and "Egyptian cigarettes".

References:

  • Benedetto Croce, La letteratura della Nuova Italia, Vol. VI, Bari: Laterza, 1974 (Prima edizione 1940)
  • Pier Carlo Masini, "Introduzione", in Leda Rafanelli, Una donna e Mussolini, Milano: Rizzoli, 1975
  • Enzo Santarelli, s.v. "Leda Rafanelli", in Franco Andreucci-Tommaso Detti, Il movimento operaio italiano. Dizionario Biografico 1853-1943, Vol. IV, Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1978
  • Christiane Guidoni, "Leda Rafanelli: donna e femmina," in Les femmes écrivaines en Italie (1870-1920): ordres et libertés: Actes du colloque des 25 et 26 mai 1994, Paris: Université de la Sorbonne, 1994.

Submitted by Franco Andreucci, L'Università di Pisa, 2004.


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