Keep doing what you love, Times Literary Supplement, 24/07/2020

The scholar who kept working while hiding from the Nazis: a lesson for academics today. TLS

Perduto è tutto il tempo
Che in amar non si spende

“All time is lost that is not spent in love”, wrote the Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso. He meant love in a broad sense of the word, love of another person as well as passion for one’s work. But in today’s world, are there not more pressing matters for academics than simply pursuing what we love? Should we not be devoting our efforts, in whatever way we can, to the collective understanding of – and fight against – Covid-19? How can we justify studying (and spending public resources on) literature or art or philosophy in these changed, and perilous, circumstances? As I have been contemplating this dilemma over the past few months, my mind has gone back to a story that my grandfather told me when I was a boy, a story about the literary critic Attilio Momigliano. The Jewish-Italian scholar spent eight months in 1944 hiding from the Germans and Fascists under an assumed name, without access to a library. And during that time, he wrote a masterly commentary on the Gerusalemme Liberata, Torquato Tasso’s epic poem published in 1581. 

Momigliano was born in 1883 in Ceva, south of Turin. After graduating in 1905 from Turin with a degree in Italian literature, he pursued higher studies in Florence at the Istituto di Studi Superiori and then embarked on a teaching career that culminated in chairs first in Pisa (1925) and then in Florence (1934). Indefatigable, he is considered the most original scholar of Italian literature of his generation. He wrote extensively on Italian classics by authors including Dante, Ariosto and Tasso as well also Manzoni, and by his contemporaries, such as Pirandello and Verga. He championed the work of female writers, such as Ada Negri and most notably Grazia Deledda, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927. His lectures were memorable. He would start by stating that “criticism begins with reading”. He subscribed to the now – and indeed then – unfashionable view that the critic has the right to express a value judgement on the work of art. He opposed sociological and historical reductionism, although he was known for his erudition and vast knowledge. “Reading is feeling and is already a form of judgment”, he told students. An admirer of his was Jorge Luis Borges, who included his book on Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in his Personal Library series, writing a flattering preface for the Spanish edition. He also claimed: “I understood Dante thanks to Momigliano”.

It was immediately clear to the Piedmontese scholar that Fascism was the denial of culture as well as of freedom, and he signed the 1925 Manifesto of the anti-fascist intellectualspromoted by Benedetto Croce. His pupil Vittore Branca recalled that, during a lecture in 1938, “his voice stood firm and without hesitation … articulating a devastating critical analysis of the human and literary decadentismo” by the regime’s favourite author, Gabriele D’Annunzio. But in that same year, Mussolini’s racial laws came into force in Italy and the critic was forced out of his professorship. This threw him and his wife into serious economic difficulties. To publish, he had to take the pseudonym Giorgio Flores. Soon even this strategy was no longer sufficient, and his essays came out without an indication of the author’s name. This marked the second stage of what he called “my public death”.

Despite the Fascist regime’s attempts to silence him – but before it directly threatened his life –  Momigliano kept working. He wrote to a friend: “I remain blindly attached to my work habits and live day-by-day, because my instinct warns me that this is the remedy”. He devoted himself to writing the commentary on Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered.

Towards the end of 1943 the situation became dire for the Momiglianos in Nazi-occupied northern and central Italy. As Jews, both husband and wife risked deportation to Germany’s concentration camps. They started to move frantically around the centre of Italy. In late 1943, they decided to leave Florence (their flat had been ransacked) and after first going north to hide in Bologna and then south to Città di Castello in Umbria, they eventually found refuge in the small Tuscan town of Borgo San Sepolcro, near Arezzo. A gentile colleague and noted historian Gino Franceschini recommended the couple to a doctor, who allowed them to hide in a ward of the town’s hospital. The doctor placed an ominous sign on the door, “Typhus-infected patients”, in an effort to discourage Nazis and Fascist thugs from entering. For eight long months Momigliano continued to work:

In the afternoon, while my wife dozed off after the unremitting terrors of the day and the night, I forgot that at every minute a sudden kick could open my door wide, and I gradually sank into the distant world of poetry. I have to say that if I have always lived for poetry, only thanks to it have I survived.

In August 1944, the German defence line faltered and the Nazis started to retreat. It was time for the Momiglianos to try to escape. For a short while, the river Tiber was the dividing line between the Axis and Allied armies. Many tried to find safety on the side of the river controlled by the Anglo-American forces. The hospital chaplain, don Duilio Mengozzi, had his parish church strategically placed near a crossing path and he smuggled people, especially Jewish families and political refugees (in 2013 his name was added to list of The Righteous Among the Nations by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Museum). The night of August 18, 1944, the chaplain led a group, including Momigliano and his wife, across the river. He recalled in a memoir several years later: “One evening, at dusk, I was entrusted with the Momiglianos and other refugees to help them cross to the other side. The group was walking in a line in complete silence, in order to avoid alerting the Germans, who were stationed at the top of the hill. As I made them walk along and I went back to pick up another group, I heard several shots. I rushed back and I did not see them. Thank God they had found refuge in a barn, and survived … When we all reached our destination, I saw the staid joy of the professor. Mrs Momigliano was ecstatic. Happy, she danced around the dinner table”.

As Momigliano crossed the Tiber that night, he carried that completed commentary to Tasso’s poem in his briefcase. It was by no means a given that either he or his splendid commentary on an epic poem about the love between Muslims and Christians would survive. But the Momiglianos managed, against all odds, to escape, and his commentary was published in 1946. His analysis is a hymn to all forms of freedom, political and sexual, and struck a chord with readers in post-war Italy. It remains to this day a landmark exegesis of the poem. Momigliano was reinstated to his chair in Florence, although the professor with whom the Fascists had replaced him was never removed. He died in 1952, two years after Haydée, but not before completing his commentary on Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, dedicated to her memory.

That mild man, of small stature, deeply in love with his wife, with a passion for mountaineering, expelled from his professorship for being Jewish, continued to pursue his scholarship in the face of life-threatening circumstances. As a teenager I listened to my grandfather, who had been his student and university assistant, remembering his mentor’s dedication with unfailing admiration. For Momigliano, his seemingly futile pursuit of scholarship may have aided his survival – it afforded him some mental space and intellectual freedom that transcended his constant awareness of danger. His Tasso commentary was taught in schools, and by 1970 it had reached its eighteenth edition. Generations of post-war Italians read a sixteenth-century classic with a modern commentary that stressed the preciousness of their newly regained freedoms, of love against hatred, racial and political. “Gather the rose of love; while you may, Love, be loved; embrace, be embraced”, urges Tasso.

This outcome, the result of good fortune and good will from anti-Fascists in the face of evil, reminds us that the value of research cannot be measured by what is most immediately relevant. Intellectual accomplishments come to fruition in complex and unexpected ways. The survival of the Momiglianos was, of course, the greater good, but the survival and publication of the commentary are testimony to Attilio Momigliano’s love of scholarship.

Federico Varese

I am grateful to Manu Radhakrishnan for his comments on an earlier version of this article. A version of this piece appeared in La Repubblica, 16/06/2020.

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Key texts:

Attilio Momigliano, Lettere scelte, edited by Mario Scotti, with a preface by Umberto Bosco. Florence, Le Monnier 1969.

Torquato Tasso, La Gerusalemme liberata, edited with a commentary by Attilio Momigliano, Florence, La Nuova Italia, 1946. 

I have also consulted:

Attilio Momigliano, Ensayo sobre el «Orlando Furioso», prólogo de Jorge Luis Borges, Buenos Aires, Editorial Hyspamérica, 1986 (Colección Biblioteca Personal de Borges). 

Amedeo Benedetti, “Contributo alla biografia di Attilio Momigliano”, Studi Novecenteschi, Vol. 40, No. 85, pp. 31-71. 

G.W. Bowersock, “The Later Momigliano”, Grand Street, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 197-209 at 207. 

Duilio Mengozzi, Dalla prima all’ultima guerra mondiale, 1918-1945. Fatti, misfatti e cronaca, Città di Castello, Tibergraph, 1992.

Franco Polcri, “Poesia e guerra: ricordo di Attilio Momigliano a Sansepolcro nel 1944”, Pagine altotiberine, 4, 1998, pp. 113-118. 

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