Vertua Gentile, Anna (1850-1926)
Anna Vertua Gentile (1850-1926)[A] produced the bulk of her abundant oeuvre[B] in the final decades of the nineteenth century, years fraught with difficulties for the newly unified (as of 1861) nation of Italy.[C] Her works respond to the era's uncertainties in their tendency towards didacticism. Her choice of audience--women and children--reflects both altering attitudes towards gender roles and the emerging literary market in Northern Italy for and by women.
The Italy of Umberto I, who reigned from 1878 to 1900, experienced many cultural changes,  including greater male enfranchisement; the rise of Italian colonialism in North Africa; the foundation of the Partito Socialista (Socialist Party) in 1892; the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria -Hungary (1882); and finally, in 1900, Umberto I's assassination at the hands of an anarchist in Monza.
Vertua Gentile apparently began her writing career in 1868, publishing a brief work entitled "Letture educative per Fanciulle" or "Educative letters for Girls" under the name "Annetta Vertua." After her marriage to Iginio Gentile, a noted professor at the Università di Pavia, she continued to publish. It is likely that Gentile, whose family like Vertua's favored a secular Risorgimento culture, encouraged his wife to write as a means of making Italians for the new Italy, to echo statesman Massimo D'Azeglio's famous dictum. From 1874, when her son Marco Tullio was born, to 1893 she would publish a successful series of stories for children, mostly with the Milanese publishing house of Editore Paolo Carrara, in the series Libreria di educazione ed istruzione, or Library of education and instruction.] Vertua Gentile's production also includes romanzi or novels; collections of comediole or short theatrical pieces to be enacted at home, whether by children play-acting or puppets or marionettes; short stories; and conduct manuals, whether more general (e.g. Come debo comportarmi, or How should I behave)[D] or for young mothers in particular (e.g. Libro per le signorine [Book for young ladies], Voce Materna [Maternal voice], and Per la Mamma educatrice [For the Teaching Mother]). Vertua Gentile also collaborated with the magazine La Donna (Woman) and attended a 1907 congress in Milan of women's rights groups organized by Catholic and Socialist women.
1893, however, marked the first of two great personal losses for Vertua Gentile: the death of her husband. Vertua Gentile turned to writing and her son for support, but would be forced to rely on writing professionally, especially after her son's death in 1912.[E] She also collaborated with the Giornale delle Maestre (Journal of Women Teachers), a periodical devoted to a professional female audience. From 1905 to 1906 she directed Fanciullezza italiana (Italian Youth), a biweekly periodical offering its readers romanzi a puntate or serial novels, travel narratives, and advice on etiquette. In 1923, she retired to the Istituto di Santa Savina in Lodi, where she died on November 23, 1926; the local newspaper as well as the more widely circulating illustrated magazine Illustrazione Italiana (Italian Illustration--an illustrated magazine available by subscription, with domestic and foreign circulation) published the news of her death. In 1931 an elementary school was named after her in the town of Codogno, while today the Civica Biblioteca Popolare Luigi Ricca of Codogno in the Provincia di Lodi offers an annual literary prize for narrative in her honor.
Vertua Gentile's adoption of writing as a career was fortuitously timed. In l'Italia umbertina, or Umberto I's Italy, Italian print culture expanded greatly, especially in such northern cities as Milan, which became the heart of the publishing industry. Attracting such up-and-coming authors as Giovanni Verga, case editrici (publishing houses) targeted the growing Northern bourgeoisie, a market that embraced the domestic novel and conduct literature as well as Risorgimento-themed novels. Though many women entered the workforce during these years, the growth of this northern bourgeois market enabled a significant number of women, including Matilde Serao and Neera, to pursue professions as writers and journalists. Even Virginia Treves (1849-1916), sister of major publisher Emilio Treves, wrote children's books using the pseudonym "Cordelia."
Vertua Gentile entered a field marked by Edmondo DeAmicis' Cuore, one of the most famous and best-selling works of Italian nineteenth century literature intended for children. Cuore rather pedantically emphasizes the core post-Risorgimento values of famiglia, patria, and Italia, while shying away from organized religion. Even Cuore's more entertaining contemporary, Carlo Collodi's Le avventure di Pinocchio; storia di un burattino (The adventures of Pinocchio: story of a puppet) contains lessons for its readers as Pinocchio strives to be good.
Once described as the daughter "d'un ideale matrimonio tra De Amicis e Louisa Alcott," "daughter of an ideal marriage between De Amicis and Louisa Alcott," Vertua Gentile offers the same values found in Cuore and perhaps accordingly enjoyed commercial success. Yet her copious output, though frequently reprinted and sought after by various publishing houses, occasionally lacks in quality. Like the works of educator Pietro Thouar (1809-1861) a generation prior who advocated using children's books free of foreign influences for "la formazione spirituale del nuovo popolo d'Italia," "the spiritual formation of the new people of Italy," her work sometimes foregrounds a story's moral, to the detriment of its content. That her comediole were intended to be performed by children in their own homes for audiences presumably composed of family and household members adds a special dimension to their pedagogical impact.
Such conflict between pleasure and pedagogy derives from the "doppia preoccupazione," or "double preoccupation" of 19th century Italian children's books: pleasing both adult book purchasers and young readers. One editor's introduction to an anthology of Vertua Gentile's works expresses this tension by emphasizing the collection's pedagogical as well as artistic value.
Nessuna difficoltà di esecuzione in queste scene: una grande semplicità, un gran buon senso, una festosità simpatica, per cui le pagine di questo libro che, dal titolo, dovrebbero sembrare modeste assai, sono preziose di alte finalità educative.
No difficulty of execution in these scenes: a great simplicity, a great common sense, an agreeable gaiety, because of which the pages of this book that, from the title, would seem rather modest, are precious, of high educatory purposes.
This double preoccupation, though it may have commercial roots, nonetheless has artistic consequences: the precepts and experiments of adult literature in such contemporary movements as verismo do not enter Vertua Gentile's works. Her protagonists tend to fit a late nineteenth-century type; though there are exceptions in her less pedagogical works. Like Pinocchio, they are good-hearted, but of unformed character and prone to small vices, for which they typically must eventually atone (to what can seem an excessive degree to today's reader). Temptation, fall, discovery of the wayward child's sin, and his or her atonement compose the moral dimension of a usual plot, though secret acts of goodness and bravery, often for the sake of others, are also present.
Sustained by indulgent familial and especially maternal affection, these protagonists learn what is right through examination of their conscience, for human nature is fundamentally good. On these ragazzi, usually from middle-class or pronouncedly "honest" and "industrious" working-class backgrounds, Italy can rely.
Charity and divine benevolence mitigate poverty and misfortune, as in the short Christmas-themed story "Nel collare di Dog." Aristocratic idleness is criticized--a bored upper-class girl discovers in one story that a working-class girl is never "annoiata" or "bored," since her work and charitable and familial obligations keep her occupied. Despotism is denounced as well; in the play "Tiranno" ("Tyrant"), a princess ringingly condemns the fallen tyrant in the final scene.
Sì, sì, nasconde-tevi, vile tiranno, che avete avuto il coraggio di firmare il decreto della morte mia e dei miei amici! nascondete la vo-stra vergogna di ribelle al progresso, alla civiltà, alla pietà!...
Yes, yes, hide yourself, vile tyrant, who had the courage to sign the decree for my death and for those of my friends! Hide your shame as a rebel against progress, civilization, piety!...
In writing specifically for women, Vertua Gentile, while not an extremely progressive voice, occasionally shows traces of themes that would be later developed by feminism, as in this passage regarding women physicians which expands upon the nineteenth-century "angelo del focolare" ("angel of the hearth") image of women.
Le donne dovrebbero avere per medici le donne... La donna, che al letto del malato, è un vero angelo consolatore, che è infermiera insuperabile, sarebbe per certo un medico per eccellenza. La malata non avrebbe segreti per il medico donna; e la confidenza avrebbe il potere di prevenire o di vincere in sul nascere, tanti mali, che il pudore nasconde al medico uomo...
Women ought to have women as doctors... Woman, who at the side of the sick, is a true comforting angel, who is an unsurpassed nurse, would certainly be a doctor par excellence. Sick women would have no secrets from a female doctor; and their confidence would have the power to prevent or conquer in the bud so many ills that modesty hides from the male doctor...
Today Vertua Gentile's fame has waned and her name, like those of other now-obscure scrittrici (female authors) or romanzieri rose ("pink" romanzo writers or novelists) who wrote for children, adolescents, and women, no longer elicits the reaction described by one early twentieth century author:
Nomi che oggi fanno nascere sul labbro un educato sorriso d'indulgente ironia e nostalgia insieme e che pur ci è caro menzionare, nel congedarci, per additare quanto di vivo e di benemerito c'è stato nella loro arte talvolta, nel loro impegno sempre.
Names that today make appear on our lips an educated smile of both indulgent irony and nostalgia and that also it is dear to us to mention, in saying goodbye, in order to point out how much of liveliness and merit there was occasionally in their art, always in their undertaking.
Nevertheless, scholarly works on female writing of the Ottocento or nineteenth century occasionally address the role played by Vertua Gentile and her peers. Their contribution may not be literary, but through their works greater understanding of the Italy of the late nineteenth century can be gained.
Note: I have found that authors writing for children and to some extent, women, tend to be "ghettoized" and fall outside the canon. This as well as the extensive reprinting of Vertua Gentile's large production has complicated my research; for example, I was only able to acquire and read a limited number of her works and a definitive list of her many editions has not yet been compiled, to the best of my knowledge. The Civica Biblioteca Popolare Luigi Ricca of Codogno in the Provincia of Lodi possesses many copies of her works; Angelo Cerizza notes that her works are available in many Italian public libraries. I was able to locate four copies of Vertua Gentile's books printed in the 1920s and 1930s at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library of the New York Public Library's research division; and I was able to borrow copies of other works via interlibrary loans from other U.S. institutions.
Special thanks are due to the great assistance of the Codogno library, especially Simona Boninsegna, to whom I owe much information about Anna Vertua Gentile; Federica Cutrona for her thesis and other work featuring Anna Vertua Gentile; Angelo Cerizza; the Humanities and Social Sciences Library of the New York Public Library for their materials and for providing me with workspace; and the Interlibrary Loan Office of Columbia University's Butler Library.
4. Federica Cutrona, "Il palcoscenico dei buoni sentimenti: Anna Vertua Gentile scrittrice di teatro per l'infanzia," Storie di donne: Contessa Lara, Anna Vertua Gentile, Ida Baccini, Jolanda: Scrittura per l'infanzia e letteratura popolare fra Otto e Novecento, ed. Pino Boero (Genova: Brigati, 2002) 36.
9. Nelson Moe, The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question, Studies on the History of Society and Culture; 46 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2002) 195-6.
10. Ann Hallamore Caesar, "About Town: The City and the Female Reader, 1860-1900," Modern Italy 7.2 (2002). Verina R. Jones and Anna Laura Lepschy, With a Pen in Her Hand: Women and Writing in Italy in the Nineteenth Century and Beyond, Occasional Papers (Society for Italian Studies); 5. (Exeter: Society for Italian Studies, 2000), Gordon Campbell, "Castiglione, Baldassare," The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), Gordon Campbell, "Della Casa, Giovanni," The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). Just as in earlier periods, social upheavals produced a taste for prescriptive literature. The Renaissance is a particularly noteworthy example, with acclaimed manualists Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), author of Il libro del cortegiano or The Book of the Courtier, and Giovanni della Casa (1503-1556), author of Il galateo. Della Casa's book in fact enjoyed such success that its title entered into common usage as a synonym in Italian for etiquette guides.
11. Clare Buck, Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1992) 85. Lucia Re, "Passion and Sexual Difference: The Risorgimento and the Gendering of Writing in Nineteenth-Century Italian Culture," Making and Remaking Italy: The Cultivation of National Identity around the Risorgimento, ed. Albert Russell Ascoli and Krystyna von Henneberg (New York: Berg, 2001). Sharon Wood, "Unification: Making and Unmaking the Nation," Italian Women's Writing 1860-1994, Women's Writing 1850-1990s (London and Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Athlone, 1995).
13. Edmondo De Amicis and Gaetano Ettore Raffaele Mantellini, The Heart of a Boy (Cuore) a Schoolboy's Journal, Edition de luxe containing 32 full-page half-tone engravings and 26 text illustrations. (Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1899). Cuore has been translated into English more recently with the title "The Heart of a Boy."
14. Mariacarla Andrianopoli Cardullo, Letture e modelli comportamentali: motivi moralistici ed esemplaristici nei libri italiani di lettura per l'infanzia, la fanciullezza e le famiglie (1830-1914) (Genova: Tilgher, 1977) 63.
19. Andrianopoli Cardullo, Letture e modelli comportamentali: motivi moralistici ed esemplaristici nei libri italiani di lettura per l'infanzia, la fanciullezza e le famiglie (1830-1914) 9-10. For more on the conflict between pleasure and pedagogy, see Andrianopoli Cardullo.
26. Santucci, Letteratura infantile 156.
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