ESSAYS

Italian Rhapsodies

Many readers have enjoyed humorous descriptions of 18th century Moscow and St. Petersburg by one Italian adventurer who charmed the Russian nobility with his smooth manners. The acclaimed memoir, “The History of My Life”, is rich with witticisms and psychological observation. It had been translated into Russian in 1861 with a foreword by the editor who was none other than Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881). The author is Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), who had travelled to Russia in 1764 in search of love and opportunities. Having proposed a reform of the Julian calendar to the Gregorian to Catherine the Great in 1765, Casanova lost patience with the White Nights in St. Petersburg, which rendered him sleepless more than his amorous exploits. Casanova’s departure to Poland postponed the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by Russia until 1918.

An admirer of Casanova’s memoir was Maria Bashkirtseva (1858-1884) – a prodigious painter, destined to die at the age of 25 from consumption and to leave 2,000 pages of a diary which became an instant European bestseller. Several chapters were written in Rome, with vivid descriptions of Italian life and her romance with the Count Pietro Antonelli, nephew of the cardinal Giacomo Antonelli.

Another Russian painter, Karl Bryullov (1799-1852), was enchanted by the Neapolitan people and the sunbathed landscapes. His works: the “Italian Morning,”; “Italian Midday,” and the panoramic, “Last Day of Pompeii,” had established Bryullov as the first Russian painter with an international reputation in 1833. One of the models for Bryullov’s masterpiece was Countess Yulia Samoylova (1803-1875) who was of Russian and Italian descent from the Counts Litta and the Visconti of Milan. Samoylova was a sponsor of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. She had adopted two daughters of the Sicilian composer Giovanni Pacini – Amacilia and Giovanina. The girls are immortalized on Bryullov’s painting, “The Rider.”

Another friend of Samoylova was Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), whose novel “Dead Souls” – a dark satire – is one of Russia’s classics. Prone to depression and frequent colds, Gogol was advised to stay two weeks in Rome. Instead, he remained for almost 4 years, restoring his health in Italy’s amiable climate and dedicating poems to his second home.

The plaque of a house on via Guicciardini commemorates 1868-69 as the years of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s life in Florence. Dostoyevsky was fleeing Russian creditors, and the escape proved productive: Dostoyevsky completed his novel the “The Idiot” which replenished his finances. In his personal letters, Dostoyevsky pondered moving to Italy. He had fallen in love with Florence, where his daughter was born. Her name Lubov translates as “love.”

Dostoyevsky crossed paths with Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) – a great popularizer of Russian literature in the West- with whom he failed to get along, claiming that Turgenev disliked everything that Dostoyevsky adored. However, both agreed on the beauty of Italy, as Turgenev stayed for over a year at hotel d’Inghilterra in Rome, penning several novellas and the “Home of the Gentry” which most consider his masterpiece.

Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) – the first Russian Laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature – and Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) both chose Capri as their Italian home. Hailed as the voice of intellectual socialism by many Italian journalists, Maxim Gorky spent 7 years on Capri prior returning to the USSR.

An Italian writer whose works gained acclaim in the Soviet Union is Gianni Rodari (1920-1980) – a member of the Italian Communist party. His children’s book “Il romanzo di Cipollino” was turned into one of the top ranking animated features. Watching “Cipollino” on YouTube with subtitles, Italian viewers react with delight.

A special YouTube channel called “Italians by Kunzo Productions” has been created in Russia with the purpose of sharing impressions between Italians and Russians. 53 of UNESCO’s heritage sites located in Italy can now inspire Russian artists and authors online. With over 60 % of the world’s cultural treasury on Italian soil, the inspiration is unlimited.

Another video, which “Kunzo Productions” invites the Italians to watch, is “To Live” (Zhyt’) – celebrating friendship without borders and the supreme value of peace.

The video is seven minutes long, but the message is timeless.

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