Beating around the bush. Is the ‘divagazione’ really an Italian art?

Rome Fellow Federico Casari’s research focuses on Roman journalism in the early twentieth century. Here he shares with us some of his findings on the phenomenon of the divagazione, or ‘digression’, in Italian journalism, and challenges our assumptions about national stereotypes by showing the (perhaps unexpected) role that British writers played in this phenomenon.

Rome Fellow Federico Casari

Rome Fellow Federico Casari. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

‘The art of divagazione in a conversation is often seen as part of the shady, elusive and volatile character of the Italians. In our businesslike times, one must stick to the point. Being efficient, tidy and practical is the source of every courtesy today: no poetry, no literature and no digressions (please). The devil’s advocate would now ask who decides what digression is and what it is not in this crazy world, but this is a mystery that only a cunning philosopher with the gift of the gab could unravel. But this question is probably a digression.

Once upon a time, so the story goes, the Italians invented the art of conversation. In the Renaissance courts, in those rooms full of frescoes of the masters – Piero or Cosmè – the fierce men of arms crowned their supreme cultural taste learning how to dominate that slippery thing crudely called speech. Talking together meant refinement, grace and sprezzatura, but most of all, it meant knowing when to talk and when to stop talking. The habit spread to all Europe, and thrived in the French salons of the eighteenth century, where les grandes dames made of it probably one of the first transnational skills, as it would be called in the fashionable language of our businesslike times. What seems to be the most non-Italian rule was written in Italy. But rules, as we all know, are written to be broken. But this personal opinion is probably another digression.

It is probably too graphic to recall the doom of les grandes dames during the French Revolution. One may recall the princess of Lamballe…

The waving golden hair around her flows
Upon the road where her bare body lies:
A vile perruquier extends, espies
The soft limbs which his bloody hands disclose.

The new liberal society loved to chit-chat in its Biedermeier living rooms and, being liberal, was eager to have (or rather air) an opinion de omnibus rebus (et quibusdam aliis too), and so it wished to bring the conversation to the press. After all, they had wanted the press, but now the newspapers had to be filled with something – anything. Yes, but how, they asked. In Italy, the land of conversation, the press found a nemesis to the old Italian vice by going abroad. After all, as philosophers claim, for the origin to be stronger, one must search the origin out of the origin (this is not only sophistry, but a digression into a digression). And so they found the origin where the opposing stereotype to the conversational abilities of the Italians originated: in Great Britain. Who said that writing was, morally speaking, bound to be digressive? Well, it was Laurence Sterne!

That’s how the Italians learnt how to write and print a nice, interesting and – naturally – digressive conversation. The famous colloquial style of the Italian press in the nineteenth and early twentieth century is modelled on Sterne and the essays and sketches of Lamb, Dickens and Thackeray: ‘scattered leaves of paper, without any established topic, where the discourse is roaming, in a continuous zigzag, never on a straight line’, this is how the Italian anglophile, Enrico Nencioni, defined them. Nencioni was such an Anglophile that he even wrote a series of Roundabout Papers in which he happened to attribute to his own life episodes of the life of Thackeray. But one could forgive this of the most famous cultural journalist of the second half of the nineteenth century, a friend of Robert Browning and Vernon Lee, and one of the very first Italian animal rights activists. Along with the writer Ouida, Nencioni used to threaten the kennels in Florence not to give abandoned dogs to the laboratory of physiology of the University, and – when Nietzsche was still an unknown classical philologist – he went around Florence scolding coachmen who abused their poor horses (is this a digression or a note of local colour?).

It was through Nencioni and another Anglophile, the journalist and writer Emilio Cecchi, that the divagazione found an institutional place in the Italian press, and became almost a daily presence for millions of readers. The so-called elzeviro was printed every day in the two left-hand columns of the cultural section of every Italian political newspaper until the 1970s. This is how the elzeviro was written, and this also gives an idea of the type of thing readers happened to read (if they read, according to another habit of liberal societies):

I grab the first book that turns up, open it at random, stop at the first word or sentence that entices my eyes, and write that word or sentence on top of the page: that is the point of departure, the rallying cry. If I did not find anything to write under that, it would mean that it is time to find another job.

The voice is that of the Florentine aristocrat and famous historian Roberto Ridolfi, the newspaper is Corriere della Sera, the year is 1966. One should hate circular arguments (this is a digression, but the statement that there is no argument here would be yet another digression), but it certainly would not be out of place to remind the reader that Ridolfi was the greatest biographer of Niccolò Machiavelli.

[The poem is from a sonnet written by Giosuè Carducci in 1883: The “Rime Nuove” of Giosuè Carducci, translated by Laura Fullerton Gilbert, Boston: Badger, 1913, p. 160; the passage from Ridolfi is taken from the article ‘Scrivere (un elzeviro)’, Corriere della Sera, 17 December 1966, available on the website of the Archive of the Fondazione Corriere della Sera].’

Federico Casari (Rome Fellow)


Federico will be giving a lecture on

Comedians, colleges, chairs. Emilio Cecchi’s foreign correspondence from London, 1918–19

at the BSR on Tuesday 31 May at 18.00

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