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Giovanni Papini (1881-1956)


Journalist, polemical critic, poet, and novelist, whose avant-garde polemics made him one of the most controversial Italian literary figures in the early and mid-20th century. Giovanni Papini advocated breaking with tradition and defering to the new generation, but after World War II he lost his influence as an opinion leader. His ideological development was full of paradoxes: he was first an anti-nationalist, then a staunch nationalist; first an agnostic, but then turned to Roman Catholicism. He wrote both a life of Christ and a history of the Devil. Papini published over eighty books on philosophy, theory and literary criticism, as well as novels and short stories.

"I did not accept reality. No words can express my disgust at the physical, human, rational world, which suppressed me and did not leave room and air enough for my restless wings." (in Un uomo finito, 1912)

Giovanni Papini was born in Florence of lower middle class parents. From an early age he devoted himself to literature. Of himself, Papini once said, "Everybody knows, his friends with even more certainly than his enemies, that he is the ugliest man in Italy (if indeed he deserves the name of man at all), so repulsive that Mirabeau would seem in comparison an academy model, a Discobolus, an Apollo Belvedere. And since the face is the mirror of the soul . . . no one will be surprised to learn that Papini is the scoundrel of literature, the blackguard of journalism, the Barabbas of art, the thug of philosophy, the bully of politics, the Apaché of culture..."

Papini read widely from his grandfather's library and at the age of 15 started to write an encyclopedia. He also frequented the same Beltrami bookstore on Via dei Martrelli than Ardengo Soffici, with whom he later edited Lacerba. After attending Norman School in Florence, Papini received his teacher's certificate around 1900. Although Papini adopted militaristic views, he was exempted from military service on grounds of health. He urged the establishing in Rome of a new world power, and the abandonment of the "politics of meditation" (Il Leonardo, August, 1906). In 1907, Papini married Giacinta Giovagnoli, a peasant girl. They he had two daughters, Viola and Gioconda.

At the age of 22 Papini's writing aspirations led him into contact with other young writers and artists. As a meeting place they used the Café Giubbe Rosse in Piazza della Repubblica. With Giuseppe Prezzolini he founded and managed the influential but short-lived Florentine magazine Il Leonardo (1903-07) and La Voce. It attempted to modernize Italian culture, introduced significant French, British, and American ideas, and attacked such traditionalist as D'Annunzio. Papini boldly argued, that one must write badly, meaning that the artistic form is secondary to the idea. Among his other targets was the positivist philosophy, which was gaining ground in Italy. For Papini, pragmatism offered a liberative tool from orthodoxies. Mussolini once said, that Leonardo and La Voce were lying at the core of his own political-cultural formation. However, when Papini celebrated the Libyan war in 1911, Mussolini was sentenced to imprisonment for his opposition to it.

In the 1910s, Papini joined the Futurist artistic movement, which admired the dynamic energy of modern machines. To further its aims, Papini launched in 1913 the journal Lacerba. "... a new beauty... a roaring motorcar, which runs like a machine-gun, is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace... We wish to glorify war," Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote  in an article in Le Figaro. The English painter and poet, Mina Loy (1882-1966), had brief affairs with both Marinetti and Papini. Her poem 'The Effectual Marriage' satirized gendered division of work through the characters of "Miovanni" and "Gina"; Miovanni's place in the library and Gina is in her kitchen: "To man his work / to woman her love".  Turning against Marinetti's growing influence in the movement, Papini made a distinction between Florentine Futurism and "Marinettism", which stood for ignorance, militarism, chauvinism, and contempt for women.

Papini had been a severe critic of Christianity in his youth, but was converted to Roman Catholicism in 1920. He then gained international fame with his religious novel Storia di Cristo (1921). Its English translation, The Life of Christ, was a huge bestseller in 1923, with such works as H.G. Wells's The Outline of History and Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt.

Among his other popular works is the autobiographical novel Un uomo finito (1912). It draws a portrait of a restless intellectual and his deep dissatisfaction with contemporary philosophical debate and intellectual mediocrity. Also in many of his short stories Papini himself is the main character. In one story the author meets himself as the young man he was a nd whom he only vaguely remembers; in another he continues to live after his suicide in order to pay a minor debt. The young Mussolini read the book, and found Papini's philosophy of action admirable.

"I am not a real man. I am not a man like others, a man of flesh and blood, a man born of woman. I did not come into this world like your fellow men. No one rocked me in my cradle, or watched over my growing years. I have not known the restlessness of adolescence, or the comfort of family ties. I am – and I will say this out loud though perhaps you may not want to believe me – I am but a figure in a dream. In me, Shakespeare's image has become literally and tragically exact: I am such stuff as dreams are made on! I exist because someone is dreaming of me, someone who is now asleep and dreaming and sees me act and live and move, and in this very moment is dreaming that I am saying these words." (in 'The Sick Gentleman's Last Visit')

Papini's loyalty to Mussolini was recognized officially in 1939 when he was honored with the title "Accademico d'Italia." A few years earlier Papini had published Storia della letteratura italiana  (1937), which was dedicated "To the Duce, friend of poetry and poets." The ambitious literary history dealt with the 13th and 14th centuries and never proceeded further. Papini's interest not only in contemporary affairs was already seen in L'uomo Carducci (1918), a sympathetic portrait of the poet-critic Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907).

While Italy's popular literature churned out predictable portrayals of "money grabbing" Jewish businessmen, Papini developed his own vision of the world Jewish conspiracy, set out to destroy Catholicism and to undermine the prevailing order of the world system. This idea permeated even his Dizionario dell'omo salvatico (1923), jointly authored with the Jesuit thinker Domenico Giuliotti. In the dictionary, Jewish figures are treated as enemies of Catholicism. Moreover, the Jews themselves are responsible for anti-Semitism: "This race at once divine and filthy, whose punishment consists in the obligation to punish Christians, has vanquished all peoples among which it dwells to such an extent that this race had become one of the dominat nations of the earth even though it has no land of its own." At a meeting of the Royal Academy in 1939 Papini criticized an unnamed French Jewish literaryn critic for having questioned the "Italianness" of Leopardi. According to Papini, Leopardi represented poetry and youth, and it was "precisely for this that Fascist Italy has honored and honors the ever young Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi."

Papini's notorious satirical novel Gog (1931) became a bestseller and was played on radio. "There are no fewer than seventy short chapters of very unequal merit, which hardly qualify the author to be ranked amongst the greatest satirists of the day", said one reviewer in the Evening Post. The central character is an eccentric Hawaiian-American millionaire, Goggins, who moves from one private lunatic asylum to another around the world in search of knowledge. One the Jews in the book, named Benrubi, explains: "As capitalists we dominate the world financial markets in a time in which the economy is everything or almost everything; as thinkers we dominate intellectual markets, causing old sacred and profane faiths to crumble and both revealed religions and secular religions to be reduced to dust." In 1935 Papini was appointed Professor of Italian language at the University of Bologna; it was the same chair that the poet and Nobel laureate Giosuè Carducci had occupied. However, because of an eye illnes, he was forced to relinquish the chair. From 1938 he published the magazine La Rinascita.

After WW II Papini founded with Silvano Gianelli and Adolfo Oxilia the avant-garde Catholic review L'Ultima. Papini's reputation as an iconoclast faded during his last years. In 1952 Papini was stricken by illness that progressively paralyzed his hands and voice, but he continued to write. Il Diavolo (1953) showed his strong Catholic commitment. Il libro nero (1951) was presented in the form of Gog's diary, which contained fake interviews with such figures as Hitler, Dali, and Picasso; Picasso's interview was circulated in some other publications as authentic, including the confession: "I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries." Papini died rather suddenly on July 8, 1956.

For further reading: Discorso su Giovanni Papini by G. Prezzolini (1915); Conversazioni critiche, Vol. 4 by B. Croce (1932); La critica letteraria contemporanea, Vol. 2 by L. Russo (1943); Storia della letteratura, Vol. 5 by F. Flora (1947); Giovanni Papini, 1881-1956 by Gennaro Lovreglio (1973-75); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed.  Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Giovanni Papini. L’anima intera by Carmine di Biase (1999); 'Reflex Action and Pragmatism of Giovanni Papini' by E.P. Colella, in The Journal of speculative philosophy, Vol. 19; Numb. 3 (2005); 'Mina Loy, Giovanni Papini, and the Aesthetic of Irritation' by M. Hofer, in Paideuma, Vol. 38 (2011) - Futurism: An artistic movement, which began in Italy about 1909 and was founded by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944). Futurism rejected tradition and admired the energy, urbanism, militarism, and the speed of modern machines. Russian Futurism added to its Italian model social and political ideas. In rebel against tradition, poets discarded grammar and syntax and used strings of words stripped from their original meaning. The influence of the movement ended by the time of Mayakovsky's death in 1930.  Note: Papini is mentioned in Henry Miller's book Tropic of Cancer and Carolyn Burke's biography of the radical English poet-painter Mina Loy, with whom Papini had also an illicit affair. Suomeksi Papinilta on romaanien lisäksi ilmestynyt käännöksiä Italian kirjallisuuden kultaisessa kirjassa, toim. Tyyni Tuulio, 1945.  See other Futurist writers: French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

Selected works:

  • Il crepuscolo dei filosofi, 1906
  • Il tragico quotidiano, 1906
    - Life and Myself (translation of Il tragico quotidiano and Il pilota cieco; translated by Dorothy Emmrich, 1930)
  • Il pilota cieco, 1907
    - Life and Myself (translation of Il tragico quotidiano and Il pilota cieco; translated by Dorothy Emmrich, 1930)
  • Le memorie d'Iddio, 1911
  • La leggenda di Dante. Motti, facezie e tradizioni dei secoli. XIV-XIX, 1911 (introduction by Giovanni Papini)
  • L'altra metà, 1912
  • Un uomo finito, 1912
    - The Failure (translated by Virginia Pope, 1924) / A Man–Finished (translated by M.P. Agnetti, 1924)
    - Sanovat miehen sammuneen (suom. J. Hollo, 1925)
  • Ventiquattro cervelli: saggi non critici, 1913
    - Four and Twenty Minds: Essays (selected and translated by Ernest Hatch Wilkins, 1922)
  • Buffonate, 1914
  • Cento pagine di poesia, 1915
  • Stroncature, 1916
    - Slashings (in Four and Twenty Minds: Essays, selected and translated by Ernest Hatch Wilkins, 1922)
  • Opera prima, 1917
  • Testimonianze, 1918
    - Testimonies (in Four and Twenty Minds: Essays, selected and translated by Ernest Hatch Wilkins, 1922)
  • L'esperienza futurista, 1919
  • Poeti d'oggi, (1900-1920), 1920 (ed., with P. Pancrazi)
  • Storia di Cristo, 1921
    - Life of Christ (translated by Dorothy Canfield Fishe, 1923) / The Story of Christ (translated by M.P. Agnetti, 1927)
    - Kristuksen historia (suom. Valfrid Hedman, 1924)
  • Dizionario dell'Omo Salvatico, 1923 (with Domenico Giuliotti)
  • Pane e vino 1926
  • Gli operai della vigna, 1929
    - Labourers in the Vineyard (translated by Alice Curtayne, 1930)
  • Sant'Agostino, 1929
    - Saint Augustine (translated by Mary Prichard Agnetti, 1930)
  • Gog, 1931
    - Gog (translated by Mary Prichard Agnetti, 1931)
    - Gog (suom. A. Carling, 1934)
  • Dante vivo, 1932
    - Dante Vivo (translated by Eleanor Hammond Broadus and Anna Benedetti, 1934)
  • Storia della letteratura Italiana, 1937
  • I testimoni della Passione, 1938
  • Italia mia, 1939
  • Mostra personale, 1941
  • L'imitazione del Padre, 1942
  • Saggi sul Rinascimento, 1942
  • Cielo e Terra, 1943
  • Santi e Poeti, 1947
  • Lettere agli uomini di Celestino VI, 1947
    - The Letters of Pope Celestine VI to All Mankind (translated by Loretta Murnane, 1948)
  • Passato remoto, 1948
  • Vita di Michelangiolo, 1949
    - Michelangelo, His Life and His Era (translated by Loretta Murnane, 1952)
  • Il Diavolo tentato, 1950
  • Florence: Flower of the World (with others, translated by A.P. Vacchelli and H.M.R. Cox)
  • Il libro nero, 1951
  • Il Diavolo, 1953
    - The Devil (translated by Adrienne Foulke, 1954)
  • La spia del mondo, 1955
  • La loggia dei busti, 1955
  • L'aurora della letteratura italiana: con 9 xilografie di Pietro Parigi, 1956
  • Le felicità dell'infelice, 1956
  • Il muro dei gelsomini (Ricordi di fanciullezza), 1957
  • La seconda nascita, 1958
  • Tutte le opere: Poesia e Fantasia, 1958 (ed. Piero Bargellini)
  • Prose morali, 1959
  • Diario, 1962
  • Scritti postumi, 1966 (2 vols.: Giudizio universale; Pagine di diario e di appunti)
  • Lettere a Giovanni Papini, 1915-1948, 1988 (edited by Giuseppe Ungaretti)
  • Un uomo finito: con un'appendice di inediti, documenti e annotazioni, 1994 (edited by Anna Casini Paszkowski)
  • Il sacco dell'orco, 2000 (edited by Gavino Manca)
  • Il carteggio Carrà-Papini: da "Lacerba" al tempo di "Valori plastici", 2001 (edited by Massimo Carrà)

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