Claudel and Italy

Back from a tour of literary, Catholic and patriotic conferences – as  he calls  his journey in Switzerland and Italy, carried out during the first months of 1915, in a letter to Frizeau– Claudel, speaking to Jacques Rivière, condenses in these terms the impressions raised by the Bel Paese :  “How beautiful Italy appeared  to me ! I absolutely will have to spend next winter in Rome. I need it for the next work I shall write.” Here we are placed before  a concrete example of the kind of magnet that Italy fulfils inexorably and forever  on any foreign tourist. If, besides, this tourist is an artist, the reminder will still be stronger, so  immense is the artistic and cultural heritage offered by this country. And if, moreover, this artist possesses  Claudel’s aesthetic sensibility and   visual perception, the return to Italy will then become a real necessity for him, intimately linked to the development of his literary works.

His wishes will be granted: on September 19 of the same year, Claudel leaves Paris for Rome, on   a diplomatic mission the main aim of which is to probe the ground for a customs and economic union between France and Italy,  exploiting the breach of the connections between Italy  and Germany owing to the war. Thus, to relate the connection between Claudel and Italy first means to examine  this second stay in the Eternal City , where he stayed  more or less continuously  from September 1915 to November 1916. Actually, it is this period of permanence that seals the link between the Vosgian poet and this “beautiful country bursting with light,  color and  joy”, as he describes it in the  above- mentioned letter to Frizeau.

Rome does not welcome him as a stranger: as a matter of fact, he  stayed there during a dozen  days during his literary tour in 1915, after having visited Milano, Torino, Bologna and Firenze. At the time of these two residences , he finds in the Italian capital this fruitful convergence of History, Art, Nature and Culture, able to multiply in an exponential manner the opportunities of inspiration for an artist  like Claudel, at such a level that it risks  producing the opposite  result: “Rome is an admirable country, that has a single drawback, that of not encouraging you to  work. There is so much beauty around one that it is not really necessary to try to create a little oneself”, writing to Henri Hoppenot, old companion of the Press Service. In fact, his second stay in Rome will not be unproductive: on the contrary, it is precisely  between a visit to the numerous churches of Rome and a meal in the picturesque osterie of Trastevere that he finds the inspiration to finish  Le Père humilié. Moreover, his diplomatic activity is also in full fervour:  the duties and the obligations multiply and will be accomplished  by Claudel with the zeal and the strength which characterize him, while he is trying to combat  the mistrust of the Quai d’Orsay. He does not lack time for social  occupations  : it is, actually, during this second Roman stay that he seals his friendship with  Count Giuseppe Primoli and the famous actress Eleonora Duse, a relationship of cordial friendship  that  will last a long time. In contrast,  his Roman stay will also be marked by a harsh argument that broke  out following an article published in the Corriere della Sera.

A new diplomatic duty of first importance  takes Claudel away from Italy in mid November 1916: Philippe Berthelot announces his nomination as minister in  Rio de Janeiro, which puts an end to his second stay in the Roman capital. He will come back only for two special occasions: the first one is the coronation ceremony of pope Pius XII in 1939, as he is invited to take place in the French delegation invited to this celebration; the second one is “a Claudelian poetry matinee offered to the same pontiff in May 1950”, as  Gerald Antoine points out in his interesting Claudel biography.

Finally, one can assert with certainty that Italy has left its imprint on Claudel: no doubt that the thought of the Bel Paese  accompanied him on  his travel to Brazil. But has Claudel also left his mark in Italy? If one puts aside the interest raised, at the time, by the visit of this renowned foreign personality, one would be tempted to answer negatively.

In fact, a very recent publication comes  to disclose to us, with a certain bitterness, the almost total lack of interest of the Italian public towards this “Catholic gorilla” – the expression is from Benedetto Croce – with the exception of specialists. Likewise, from the point of view of the publications the panorama is today equally  distressing, seeing that the rare  books available in the libraries are now out of print    and rather dated : it is mainly a matter of the translation of some Claudel’s  plays – as, for –example, The Tidings Brought to Mary  (translated under the title of L’annuncio fatto a Maria), The satin Slipper (La scarpina di raso), The Exchange (Il baratto), Tête d’Or (Testa d’oro), The City  (La città) – poetic works like  the Five  Great Odes (Cinque grandi Odi), PoeticArt  (Arte poetica) or  Knowing the East  (Conoscenza dell’est) – or more writings like Présence et Prophétie (Presenza e Profezia). One could argue that, everything well considered, the translated works are not so few, which is basically true : in fact, one does not want to minimize here the contribution that these publications have made  during  his time to Claudel’s diffusion in Italy, but however one must admit that it is a matter  of mere translations carried out with no scientific intention and published by minor editors (except for L’Annuncio fatto a Maria, printed by Rizzoli in 2001), which has made these books difficult to find and, at the same time, has hidden them from  the eyes of  non- specialist readers. Of course, it  remains no less that they prove a certain interest in  the dramatist and poet Claudel from the Italian public.

Concerning the critics, the situation is not brighter: Claudel has only marginally been taken into consideration by Italian critics; in fact, we  are still waiting for a revealing and exhaustive study of his works, though this poet has been the subject of some reflections by some great names amongst the Italian critics, such as Gianfranco Contini, who has written a short essay on the Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher or Carlo Bo, author of a “meditation” on Claudel, the working-out of which has been laborious. More recently, the Vosgian poet has been the subject of Filippo Fimiani’s study which, from the analysis of Claudel’s reflections on seventeenth century Dutch paintings, succeeds in  reconstituting  Claudel’s aesthetic. However, it is only lately, on occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s death, that critical interest seems to have been truly revived, which is indicated by  the above mentioned estimable publication. Then, let us wish that it mark the beginning of a rich flowering of critical studies around the personality and the works of this polyhedral writer.

 Nevertheless it might be useful to think a moment about the motivations  for this lack of concern, and that not out of ataste for  controversy, but because it is not enough to simply note the phenomenon in order to  accurately render its  scope. Perhaps one is not too far from the truth if one asserts that, in this forgetfulness process which affects Claudel’s figure and works, the diffusion of atheism and secularization play a dominating role (one is conscious that this could astonish the foreign reader considering on the contrary, with a benign naivety, Italy as the most Catholic country): the relativist substratum of these ideologies is contrary  to the universal message of which religion makes itself the intermediary. Consequently, utilizing a musical metaphor, one should not be astonished that an artist like Claudel is  perceived as too consonant a note in this ambiguous and dissonant chord that is modernity. Concretely, the silence around him is also explained by the distrust with which religion is received in  university environments (and, basically, the refusal to welcome Benedict XVI at the  Rome University “La Sapienza” well indicates  this intolerance towards Catholicism, beyond any polemic towards Joseph Ratzinger’s person) : as a matter of fact, people  often look with an unfavorable eye on every artist linked to the Catholic religion, and then some  turn towards other personalities more in agreement with the ideologies of this epoch or  certain political orientations. Finally, , we  should remember that Claudel remains in any case, for Italians, a foreign artist (and French, while one knows the predilection, henceforth worldwide, for a certain anglophilia in  literary studies): it follows that people  prefer to concentrate on these writers perceived as the most famous and significant of French literature, but among them the Vosgian poet has trouble  finding his place, though already the subtle critic who was Marcel Raymond recognized in Claudel “the most powerful poet that France has had since Hugo”. And we want to believe that Italy has in some way contributed to the explosion of this literary “power”.

Luca Barbieri, Trento University (Italy)