The Light of Turin: Natalia Ginzburg’s Cityscape

By Roberto Carretta

Translated by Stiliana Milkova

Via Morgari is located in Turin’s San Salvario neighborhood—a little Le Marais where the encounter and superimposition of new identities is the norm. San Salvario stretches from the nineteenth-century buildings, now apartment blocks flanking the Porta Nuova railway station, to the edge of the suburbs on the east. San Salvario is Turin in miniature. Situated along the river Po and the Valentino Park, it has seen the rise and fall of the symbols of the city—the first Fiat factory, the church built at the request of Queen Cristina near the royal residence in the park, the offices of the university science departments. Nobility, aristocracy, and intellectual elite, bourgeoisie, proletariat, and immigrants have all resided here. San Salvario’s main avenue provides a frame for the Valentino Castle, while every street that runs from north to south affords a view of the park and the hills on one side and of the Alps on the other.

Via Morgari is one of these streets. It faces a small square still dominated by the “ugly” church that Natalia Ginzburg’s mother, Lidia Tanzi, was disappointed to see still standing after the war. Her father, Professor Giuseppe Levi, a scientist and the mentor of three Nobel laureates, including Rita Levi Montalcini, was equally disappointed. Across the street are a small public garden, now named after Natalia Ginzburg, and the renovated Public Baths, now transformed into a community center, a space for culture, refuge, and interethnic exchange. Homeless people and figures with an uncertain step often linger on the benches in the garden because they have no place to go.

From top left to top right: the Public Baths; the Public Baths and the public garden; the sign for the public garden. From bottom left to bottom right: benches in the public garden; the church in Via Morgari; memorial plaque on Natalia Ginzburg’s building in Via Morgari. Photos by Roberto Carretta

The Second World War did not destroy the church—a pretentious, lesser version of Vienna’s Stephandom—but the end of the war brought about a toponymic revolution. Many streets and squares lost their old names, even when the names had nothing to do with the rhetoric of the Fascist regime. This was the case with Via Morgari. When the Levi family moved there in 1926, it was called Via Pallamaglio because it led to a small court in the park where people played pallamaglio, a game that consisted in striking a ball with a mallet. The person after whom Via Pallamaglio was renamed would not have displeased the Levi family. Oddino Morgari was a socialist Member of Parliament, the founder and first secretary of Turin’s Chamber of Labor, and the first director of the newspaper Avanti. He was known for his loyalty, incorruptibility, and complete lack of self-interest. Opposed to any form of fundamentalism, he maintained that you could be “a socialist in sentiment even if you’ve never read Marx’s Capital.” During his first term as Member of Parliament, he slept in a train since he couldn’t afford a hotel. He wouldn’t have displeased the Levi family at all, and neither would have the visitors of the Public Baths and the public garden named “Aiuola Natalia Levi Ginzburg.” Even the simple word aiuola—flowerbed—would have met with the writer’s explicit assent.

The house she described time and again in her writing overlooked this cityscape—and it still does.  

The light of Turin suffuses this cityscape—it is the light which saturated Natalia Ginzburg’s gaze and which her gaze in turn cast over everything. A light as subtle as precise, a mélange of restraint and a child’s amazement, of reticence and detail, or seriousness and humor. A light that flows through the city’s severe, rectilinear topography—an ostensible paradox that conflates Turin’s geometric and hence endless perspectives with its own metaphysical culmination; the city’s industrial bourgeoisie with the enigma of an imminent melancholy streaked with a vein of nobility; the “working-class aristocracy” of the past with the noble profiles of some immigrants’ faces. The city’s ostensible paradoxes and oxymorons appear only to the superficial gaze.

Visions captured by de Chirico, Canaletto, Bellotto, and others…. The words that de Chirico dedicated to Turin’s autumn in his essay “Some Perspectives On My Art”—“something huge, at once near and distant; a great peacefulness, great purity, rather closely related to the joy felt by the convalescent” (252)—are perfectly aligned with Natalia Ginzburg’s own description of Turin in “Portrait of a Friend”:

Our city is by its nature a melancholy place. […] the river flow[s] with a green glitter beneath its stone bridges, the city can seem, for a moment, pleasant and friendly; but that is a fleeting impression. The city’s essential nature is melancholy […] our city resembles the friend whom we have lost and who loved it; it is, as he was, industrious, stamped with a frown of stubborn, feverish activity; and it is simultaneously listless and inclined to spend its time idly dreaming. (The Little Virtues)

It’s a city, to revisit de Chirico’s definition, that in autumn belongs more than ever to “poets and artists disposed to philosophical thought” (“Quelques perspectives sur mon art”). Although in her 1983 foreword to The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg specifies, with respect to “Portrait of a Friend,” that “the city I have depicted is definitely unrecognizable,” it is impossible not to identify the city as Turin and the friend as Cesare Pavese.

It is likewise impossible not to ask how her gaze—precise, subtle, and ironic, and at the same time open and dreaming—might have regarded today’s reality. And what would she, who in “La Maison Volpé” voices her consternation at London’s eateries and at the contradictions hiding behind signboards and absurd names (such as the The Egg and I restaurant), think of her neighborhood now studded with bright cocktail lounges and wine bars that resemble Edward Hopper paintings? What would she think of all the glittering advertisements—empty shells laden with promises that arrive from other places (or from non-places)? In “The Son of Man” she maintains that “we cannot lie in our books and we cannot lie in any of the things we do” (The Little Virtues). And in “My Vocation” she claims that “there is the danger of cheating with words that do not really exist within us, that we have picked up by chance from outside of ourselves and which we skillfully slip in because we have become a bit dishonest” (The Little Virtues).

In “Collective Life,” she warns us not to fall into the trap of the dominant but easy and superficial distinction between what is considered “useful” and therefore is valued, and what is considered “useless,” and therefore despised. Because it is precisely among those “useless things” that we find all “that makes up the life of the individual. Among them is solitary thought, imagination and memory, regret for time past, melancholy. All that forms the life of poetry. […] and the two things which today are strongly hated and rejected are loneliness and fatigue” (Never Must You Ask Me, 101). In literature, or more generally, in “creative works” this distinction is manifested in “a wish for non-fiction, non-labour,” in confused novels and dry verses, in pseudo-artworks produced with “a brisk flick round with the brush, like that of a man painting a room” (Never Must You Ask Me, 102). Ginzburg’s words are corollary to her profound inner affinity with and admiration for Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, a “non-domesticated” artwork which does not stifle the expression of anguish, does not deplete from it the strength to howl or to speak. Just like the following words stem from her admiration for García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude: “our present human society is oddly subject to contagion; true and false ideas spread and are confused above us like clouds, mingled with collective spectres and nightmares, which means we can no longer distinguish the false from the true” (Never Must You Ask Me, 55).

Ginzburg’s words recall Montale’s prediction in his Nobel Prize lecture that the proliferation of unfounded words and of uncontrollable, self-referential communication would “envelop the planet in a carapace of vacuity” which would make it “impossible to distinguish the true word from the false.” Our punishment would be the emptying-out of words, their consumption, the commonly mistaken belief that everything can be “transformed in poetry and words,” a belief which would result in “a disgust towards poetry and words” and so, in the end, we would all fall silent, “petrified by nausea and ennui.” The beauty of poetry is neither a commonplace nor an image, a commercial product from a glossy ad; rather, it is the “union of cruelty, arrogance, irony, carnal affection, clarity, and obscurity.”     

If our authentic relationship with reality is mediated through our least inauthentic relationship with ourselves, first we must avoid becoming escapist dreamers “steeped in self-pity” (Never Must You Ask Me, 43). Being adults does not mean to practice pity (pietas) in a self-referential or self-promotional manner but rather, mercy. Natalia Ginzburg wrote during the Second World War, living through and reflecting on the vicissitudes of war, the Holocaust, collective and family bereavements. In “The Son of Man” she reminds us that for refugees and survivors nothing can ever be the same, that they “will never be cured no matter how many years go by. True: we have a lamp on the table again, and a little vase of flowers, and pictures of our loved ones, but we can no longer trust any of these things because once, suddenly, we had to leave them behind, or because we have searched through the rubble for them in vain” (The Little Virtues). 

The answer is not silence, but the true word sharpened through silence outside the prison of set phrases, commonplaces, and sparkling seductions. In The Little Virtues, her invaluable repository of wisdom and reflections on ethics (and not on morality, as in the lofty-sounding and often ideological “Great Virtues”), and more specifically, in her essay “Silence” we read: “Today, as never before, the fates of men are so intimately linked to one another that a disaster for one is a disaster for everybody,” but “what we lack is the opportunity of free, normal relationships between men.”

Sometimes a writer feels she isn’t a thief but a cook, or rather a chemist, “each piece seems to drag the whole along with it,” she doesn’t want to be “a shepherd of tigers,” and “in the best moments,” writing is “like living on this earth” (Never Must You Ask Me, 167-168).

Figures with an uncertain step, wearing bright colors, are sitting on a bench in the public garden named after Natalia Levi Ginzburg, waiting for the community center to open and exchanging small containers with food.  

Mercy is the trait of a humanity that’s not just “mineral.”[1]  

Roberto Carretta is an Italian writer, translator, and philosopher of art from Turin. 

This essay is part of our special issue “Reading Natalia Ginzburg.”

[1] “Mineral” references a specific game that the Levi children played and that Natalia Ginzburg describes in Family Lexicon: “During that period, we played a game at home. The game had been invented by Paola and it was mostly played by her and Mario, but my mother sometimes participated too. The game consisted of dividing up the people they knew into animals, minerals, and vegetables. Adriano was a mineral-vegetable. Paola was an animal-vegetable. Gino was a mineral-vegetable. Rasetti, whom by the way we hadn’t seen in many years, was pure mineral and so was Frances” (86).

Works Cited

De Chirico, Giorgio. “Some Perspectives on My Art,” in John Ashbery, ed., Hebdomeros. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Cambridge MA: Exact Change Press, 1992.

—. “Quelques perspectives sur mon art.” Scritti vol. 1, Bompiani, 2008, 841-847.

Ginzburg, Natalia. Family Lexicon. Translated by Jenny McPhee. New York Review Books, 2017.

—. Lessico famigliare. Turin: Einaudi, 2014. E-book.

—. Le piccole virtù. Turin: Einaudi, 2015 [1983]. E-book.

—. The Little Virtues. Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Arcade, 1985. E-book.

—. Mai devi domandarmi. Turin: Einaudi, 2014. E-book.

—. Never Must You Ask Me. Translated by Isabel Quigly. London: Michael Joseph, 1973.

Montale, Eugenio. “È ancora possibile la poesia?” Prolusione al conferimento del Premio Nobel per la Letteratura. 1975. 

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