The Italian Riveter: The Genre that Cannot Be Ignored. The Italian Historical Novel by Katherine Gregor

Although many Anglophone readers will associate twenty-first-century Italian literature with crime novels and gritty social commentary, there is a highly successful genre that mustn’t be overlooked and which, sadly, hasn’t made it into English translation quite as much as it deserves: the historical novel. These Italian historical novels often fictionalise the lives of real-life individuals – or else create original characters – against the backdrop of very thorough historical research and extraordinarily vivid details. Below I round up a selection of recent examples that illustrate the importance of the historical novel in contemporary Italian literature, several still awaiting a translator.

Probably the most successful novel of this genre, in recent years, is Stefania Auci’s two-part saga about the world-famous Sicilian dynasty of the Florios: I leoni di Sicilia, which I had the pleasure to translate for HarperVia as The Florios of Sicily in 2020, and L’inverno dei leoni (English title to be confirmed). I leoni di Sicilia was at the top of the Italian bestseller list for months, and is the rags-to-riches story of a dynasty most Italians are familiar with.

In 2019, to mark Leonardo Da Vinci’s quincentenary, Tuscan humourist Marco Malvaldi wrote La misura dell’uomo (The Measure of a Man, Europa Editions): a less than reverent and enormously funny account of Da Vinci’s struggles in carrying out the commission of an equestrian statue by the Duke of Milan.

I am very grateful to novelist Roberto Tiraboschi for introducing me to a twelfth-century Venetia that’s a far cry from the sophisticated Serenissima we always picture when we think of Venice. His trilogy La pietra degli occhi, La bottega dello speziale and L’angelo del mare fangoso (the first two were published in English by Europa Editions as The Eye Stone and The Apothecary’s Shop) follow the adventures of Edgardo D’Arduino, a cleric and a professional copyist, and his encounters with formidable characters that range from master glass blowers (his descriptions of early Venetian glassmaking are a revelation), to apothecaries and physicians who practise early forms of modern medicine.

Igiaba Scego’s La linea del colore deals with race relations in late nineteenth-century Italy, and one of her principal characters, mixed-race American Lafanu, is a combination of two real-life women: the sculptress Edmonia Lewis and the activist and abolitionist campaigner Sarah Parker Remond.

Another award-winning novel is Melania Mazzucco’s L’architettrice, set in the seventeenth-century Rome of Caravaggio and the splendour of Baroque art. The architect of the title is based on the life of Plautilla Bricci, the only female architect of her day.

Few people would know about le portartici carniche, the women who, in 1915, carried food, post and ammunitions up to the soldiers stranded on the mountain peaks on the Austrian border, without Ilaria Tuti’s magnificent novel Fiore di roccia.

Ritanna Armeni’s Mara explores the fascist period from a girl’s, then a woman’s, perspective, and explores a little-known side to that dark time in Italian history.

Another recent success is Giorgio Fontana’s Prima di noi (an extract from which appears in this magazine), a gripping novel of 800+ pages about the Sartori family, which goes from 1917 to 2012, and is written with striking sensitivity, depth and humanity.

By Katherine Gregor

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