-->  Biography  

Eugenio Montale was born in Genoa in 1896, the lastborn of a family of traders: his father sold essence of turpentine for the preparation of paints. Amongst his customers he also counted the firm of Veneziani of Trieste, the one which Italo Svevo entered towards the end of the century when he married the owner's daughter. The Montale family owned a nice seaside house, at Monterosso, in the Cinque Terre, a rather empty place at that time. It was here that the future poet spent the summers of his infancy and adolescence, drawing suggestions from them that later flowed into his Ossi di Seppia (cuttle-bones).

Montale was directed by his father towards technical studies and in 1915, he gained a diploma in accountancy, although he was always very careful to hide this circumstance. He had begun writing verse as a lad, but as he himself said: "They were humorous verses, with truncated and bizarre rhymes. Later, having become aware of futurism, I also composed some poetry of a fantasiste, or if one prefers grotesque-twilight type. But I didn't publish and I was not really convinced myself". In any case it was in 1916 that "Meriggiare pallido e assorto" (Resting at noon pale and engrossed) was written, which then, with some adaptation, was included in the "Ossi di Seppia".

The recent publication of the "Quaderno genovese" (Genoese notebook) allows us to check the state of Montale's cultural formation and poetical fancies in 1917. It is not a very stimulating picture, his reading appears rather poor and without orientation and his verses decidedly bad: his attraction to music is evident, and this is also confirmed by his attendance at the singing school of the baritone Ernesto Sivori. This was abandoned not because of the Maestro's death, as the poet says, but due to his impossibility to conquer his shyness and face the public on stage (Montale had a splendid voice which he used to jokingly show off in private to his friends). In the same year of 1917, notwithstanding his poor conditions of health, (he had always been very delicate and frail and suffered from nervous disorders), Montale was called up for military service and, after his education at Parma where amongst others he met Sergio Solmi, he left for the front. Upon his return from the war, not having any intention or possibility of beginning any precise job, and also due to his health, he took to endless reading, and began to assiduously attend the city's libraries, gaining a first class literary and philosophical culture in just a few years. He was aided in this by his formidable memory and an almost rhabdomantic capability to grasp the most productive proposals of contemporary culture.

In Genoa he associated with the circle of men of letters and artists who gathered in the Galleria Mazzini, and made friends in particular with Sbarbaro and the young sculptor Messina; meanwhile he also sought connections outside that ambit which he felt was too narrow and closed for him: in fact through Solmi he collaborated with the Turinese magazine of Giacomo Debenedetti "Primo Tempo" (First Time) and was able to thus come into contact with that environment full of ideas, so much so that it was in the Gobetti series by "Baretti", in 1925, that the "Ossi di Seppia" was published, a collection which contained his poetical output as from 1920 up to that year and was witness to the extraordinary maturing of Montale in a very short space of time. There were not many people who realised the importance of the book and only Sergio Solmi, being the modern, highly sensitive critic that he was, was able to grasp the great novelty of the "Ossi": in any case the booklet was sold out and the editor "Ribet" of Turin brought out an enlarged second edition in 1928 (the third was brought out in 1931 by the editor "Carabba"). But Montale, without work, without any decent cultural prospects, and perhaps bearing a sentimental disappointment, was no longer happy in Genoa and decided to move to Florence in 1927.

Here he accepted a very lowly job in the "Bemporad" publishing house but, in the following year, he was taken on as manager of the "Gabinetto Viesseux", a point of reference to local intellectuality. Meantime he had already met Drusilla Tanzi, the wife of the art critic Matteo Marangoni, and the contrasted relationship which was to last for the rest of his life thus began: she was much older than he, definitely not beautiful, but she had a strong intellectual fascination and a very decided personality. His first meeting with the woman who was to play a decisive role, if not in his life, in the poet's work, the American Irma Brandeis, the "Clizia" of "Tanta parte delle occasioni" and the "Bufera", probably took place in 1933.

During the Viessuex years, in that terribly fervid environment of Florence in the thirties, which was witness to the presence of almost all the important poets, writers and critics of the new generation, from Vittorini to Gadda, from Quasimodo to Gatto, from Macr to Traverso, from Landolfi to Noventa, from Bo to Contini, as well as the "locals" Betocchi, Bonsanti, Bilenchi, Manzini, Pratolini, Luzi, the "wild" Montale went on writing the poems which were to be included in his second collection, almost all of them of an amorous "nature". In 1938, Montale, who had never signed up for the fascist party membership card, was removed from his position at the Viesseux and he found himself without work: this was also the year in which "Clizia", following anti-Semitic sanctions (she was Jewish, from a family which hailed from Austria), definitively left Italy and Montale was by then determined to follow her to America, to settle for good in what was for him more and more a country of freedom. This plan was never brought about and the poet remained in Florence, by then linked definitively to Drusilla, "Mosca", and helped by her to survive, not being able to count on anything but the thin proceeds of some translations. He spent the terrible war years there, entering the lines of the Resistance, although not directly, and joined the "Partito d'Azione" (Action Party) after the Liberation.

Only in 1948, at over fifty years old, was Montale able to count on the first safe job of his life, when he became a member of the editorial staff of the "Corriere della Sera" (translator's note: a daily newspaper), which he had been collaborating with for two years: for this reason he moved to Milan with "Mosca", who he later married, after the death of her husband. He published articles of "sundry humanity" in the Milanese newspaper, and as from 1954 he became a music critic for the "Corriere d'informazione" (translator's note: a newspaper), with the columns which have recently been collected in "Prime alla Scala" (1983): he also worked as a special correspondent and it was in this capacity that he followed the pilgrimage of Pope Paul VI in Palestine in 1964 (his prose writings of a memorial-narrative type have been collected in "Farfalla di Dinard", 1956 and 1960, his travel articles in "Fuori di casa" in 1969, his literary pieces and articles about customs and usages, with essays of greater breadth including from a much earlier period than the one at the "Corriere", in "Auto da f" in 1966).
In 1956 Montale's third collection, "Bufera e altro" appeared, which definitively confirmed the poetical stature of the writer and favoured his consecration amongst a vaster public.

The death of his wife at the beginning of the sixties dictated the "Xenia" verses, which appeared in 1966 in a small private edition and then made up the first part of "Satura", the book which marked a big thematical-stylistic change, published in 1971, the first in his rich senile production, which in only a few years became more abundant than all his previous output, with "Diario del '71 e del '72" (1973), "Quaderno di Quattro anni" (1977), "Altri versi" (1981).

The muses took to haunting more frequently the old, ironic, extremely lucid inhabitant of via Bigli, who had more time to listen to them as he was by then on pension: the decorous and quiet apartment in the centre of the city, where the poet, by then affected by the ills of Parkinson's disease, enjoyed the solicitous, daughterly, but also authoritative assistance of his governess Gina Tiossi, became a place of highly enjoyable meetings with friends and intellectuals, fascinated by the spirit and caustic intelligence of that man who was in a certain sense quite out of this world, but highly informed about what was happening all around him. Public acclaim and recognition continued to grow: prestigious awards, honoris causa degrees, the nomination as senator for life in 1967 for the "highest literary merits" and, finally, the Nobel prize in 1975. The poet passed away in a Milanese clinic on the 12 September 1981: the religious funeral, an explicit desire of the poet himself, was celebrated in the Duomo (cathedral) of Milan with the participation of an enormous crowd of people, especially young people. Before his death Montale was able to see the critical edition of all his poetry, including his unpublished and lost works, in "L'Opera in versi" (1980), an authentic homage from his old friend and very intense critic Gianfranco Contini: in 1976 a collection of critical writings by Montale about poetical works and poets had been brought out in "Sulla poesia".

By Elio Gioanola