To trace an Italian sf tradition is not easy, because of the well-established split in Italy between scientific language and "literary culture". It is of doubtful relevance to read Dante Alighieri's great poem La divina commedia (circa 1304-1320 in manuscript; trans as The Divine Comedy) as a sort of sf journey; Dante used his theological allegory to create a world that in terms of medieval consciousness was perfectly real. It may be more fruitful to consider as Proto SF the chronicle of Marco Polo's marvellous voyage to India, China and Japan, Milione ["One Million Stories"] (1298): the meeting of the Venetian merchant with the alien Eastern world does have the flavour of a First Contact. In his Le città invisibili (1972; trans as Invisible Cities 1974), Italo Calvino rewrites Marco Polo's work as a Borgesian catalogue of mysterious and fascinating towns, conceived by an endless imaginative process.
Fantastic Voyages and Utopian landscapes are the most effective contributions of Italian literature to the development of a genre that would eventually merge into sf, as in the Renaissance poem Orlando Furioso (1506) by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), based on the mythical history of Charlemagne and his Paladins. In this the palace of the wizard Atlante is a bewitched place of unrequited desires and bitter delusions, and the knight Astolfo, in his search for the brain of mad Orlando, rides on the wings of the Hippogriff to the Moon, where he visits a large valley, the land of forgotten dreams and wasted passions.
A century later the philosopher Tommaso Campanella evoked the City of the Sun, whose utopia is after the political ideas of Plato. The male inhabitants have abolished private property, own all in common (women included) and believe in natural Religion, not in historical Christianity. This tale, first written though not first published in Italian, was Città del sole (written 1602-1612; 1623 in Latin as Civitas Solis; trans in Ideal Commonwealths 1885 as "The City of the Sun").
In the eighteenth century – the Age of Reason, but also of a keen interest in exotic worlds – Italian culture enthusiastically hailed the satirical-fantastical mood of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735) and Voltaire's Candide (1759). Among the manifold imitators of Swift (and of his French disciple, the Abbé Desfontaines [1685-1745]) was the Venetian-Armenian Zaccaria Seriman, whose lively account of the fantastic voyage of a British hero is Viaggi di Enrico Wanton alle terre incognite australi ed ai regni delle scimmie e dei cinocefali ["Enrico Wanton's Travels to the Unknown Lands of the Southern Hemisphere and to the Kingdoms of the Monkeys and of the Dog-Headed People"] (1764). Although issued in French, Giacomo Casanova's huge novel Icosameron (1788) was partly drafted in Italian. Beyond its encyclopedic farrago of scientific and philosophical meditations, Icosameron establishes a well known imaginative pattern: two young protagonists (brother and sister) discover an Underground world where total harmony rules the lives of the Megamicri ("Big-Littles").
Italian Romanticism was not deeply involved in the industrial and scientific upheavals of the nineteenth century. There was no Italian equivalent of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818; rev 1831) or of the Faustian short stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. (The main literary problems of Italy were connected with the struggle for national independence, achieved in 1861, and the need for a common language.) All the same, the major Italian Romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), inspired by the example of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), did deal with the relationship between the scientific and the literary imagination, as shown in the fabulous scenery of some of his Operette morali (coll 1827; preferred trans Patrick Creagh as Moral Tales 1988). One of the most fascinating operette is the dialogue between the anatomist Federico Ruysch and his mummies, reborn at the beginning of a new cosmic cycle.
Although Italy had neither a Jules Verne nor an H G Wells, the end of the nineteenth century did offer a minor literature of extraordinary journeys into the future, such as the utopian world explored in L'Anno 3000: Sogno (1897; trans David Jacobson as The Year 3000: A Dream 2010) by Paolo Mantegazza. The enormously popular Emilio Salgari (1862-1911), creator of the Malayan pirate Sandokan, also published futuristic tales such as La meraviglie del duemila ["The Marvels of the Year 2000"] (1907).
Fantasy, both in the Gothic form and in the sphere of the wonderful and the whimsical, appeals to the modern Italian reader much more than the cognitive rhetoric of Genre SF; this is certainly why Giacinto Spagnoletti, a well known scholar of Italian literature, has labelled native sf "neo-fantastico". The tradition is a long one. Outstanding examples of fantasy appear in the fin de siècle works of the so-called "Scapigliati" ["The Dishevelled Ones"], a Milanese cultural movement fighting against tradition and provincialism; in the "metaphysical" fiction of Massimo Bontempelli (1884-1960), whose Eva ultima ["The Ultimate Eve"] (1923) was inspired by De Chirico's painting; and, more recently, in the hallucinatory world of Dino Buzzati's short stories and his novel of military life in a forgotten fortress, Il deserto dei Tartari (1940; trans as The Tartar Steppe 1952).
Critics detect a "true" sf production in Italian only from the period after World War Two. Much of this specialized sf was arguably not culturally Italian, in that it was heavily influenced by the US-UK canon as enthusiastically presented by publishers, notably the Romanzi di Urania series published since 1953 by Arnoldo Mondadori under the editorship of Giorgio Monicelli (inventor of the neologism "fantascienza" for "science fiction"). Even today some of the younger Italian authors, especially those groomed by the main Italian sf-publishing house, Editrice Nord, employ traditional US-UK sf formulae, sometimes with the addition of fashionable brushstrokes taken from J R R Tolkien or Jorge Luis Borges: Luigi Menghini and Vittorio Catani are examples.
But a more Italian trend has been advocated since the 1960s by a group of writers who, while basically accepting the formulaic conventions of sf, emphasize the need for psychological insight, a "human" perception of the alien and a (somewhat sceptical) moral probing into the triumphs of technology. Among them Lino Aldani – an accomplished and witty storyteller, as in Quarta dimensione ["Fourth Dimension"] (coll 1963) – Sandro Sandrelli, Inisero Cremaschi and Gilda Musa are certainly worth mentioning. All four cooperated in the clever monthly review Il Futuro ["Future"] (1963-1964); this and other Italian sf magazines (notably Gamma in the mid-1960s and Robot in the mid-1970s) were short-lived and, except for Il Futuro, had to rely heavily on US and UK material. Other novelists from the 1960s and 1970s, employing mainly formulaic devices, are Roberta Rambelli, Ugo Malaguti, Gianni Montanari, Roberto Vacca – one of the very few with a scientific background, author of Il robot e il minotauro ["The Robot and the Minotaur"] (1959) – and Vittorio Curtoni, who is also the author of an informative history of modern Italian sf, Le frontiere dell'ignoto ["Frontiers of the Unknown"] (1977).
Unquestionably, the proper tool for Italian writers to use in combining the scientific imagination, on the one hand, with the subjective universe(s) of fantasy, on the other, is the short story, as is evidenced by such representative anthologies as I labirinti del terzo pianeta ["The Labyrinths of the Third Planet"] (anth 1964), edited by I Cremaschi and G Musa, and Universo e dintorni ["Universe and Surroundings"] (anth 1978), edited by I Cremaschi.
In the 1980s the emergence of a group of young women sf writers in Italy confirmed an international development. Daniela Piegai, perhaps the best of them, creates in Il mondo non è nostro ["The World is Not Ours"] (1989) a technological version of Franz Kafka's castle, whose inhabitants are entrapped in a sort of temporal vortex, unable to return to the external world.
Contemporary non-genre Italian sf exists: some of the best of those postwar novelists usually thought of as Mainstream Writers have shown a highly original imagination in handling sf themes and symbols. A mad astronaut is imprisoned in a living starship in Tommaso Landolfi's Cancroregina (1950; in Cancerqueen and Other Stories coll trans 1971); the achievements of scientific progress are ironically explored by Primo Levi in Storie naturali ["Tales of the Natural World"] (coll 1966), whose contents make up part of The Sixth Day (coll trans 1990); wandering on an untouched Earth from which mankind has suddenly disappeared, a solitary survivor lives his grotesque and suicidal loneliness in Guido Morselli's posthumously published Dissipatio H.G. ["Disappearance of the Human Race"] (1977); the impact of the scientific imagination, and the history of science, help shape the fantastic narrative of Il pendolo di Foucault (1988; trans William Weaver as Foucault's Pendulum 1989) by Umberto Eco. One outstanding sf writer – although he did not like to be referred to as such – was Italo Calvino, as when he shaped his complicated web of scientific fables and myths in Le Cosmicomiche (coll of linked stories 1965; trans William Weaver as Cosmicomics 1968). Contemporary non-genre sf seems obsessed by theological and religious themes. In 1994: La nudità e la spada ["Year 1994: The Nakedness and the Sword"] (1990), Ferruccio Parazzoli builds up an anti-Catholic coup-d'état in a grim, Near-Future Italy, while in Ascolta, Israele ["Hearken, Israel!"] (1991) Ugo Bonanate creates an Alternate History where Judaism is the only Western religion, early Christian communities have been wiped out, and the Gospels are buried in a hidden place until their sensational discovery by a team of astonished international scholars . . .
Italian cinema inclines more towards Horror than sf but, hovering between the two, a few quite good Italian films play on the theme of cosmic catastrophe, as in La morte viene dallo spazio (1958; vt Death from Outer Space; vt The Day the Sky Exploded), directed by Paolo Heusch, and Il Pianeta degli Uomini Spenti ["Planet of the Soulless People"] (1961; vt Battle of the Worlds; vt Planet of the Lifeless Men), directed by Antonio Margheriti credited as Anthony Dawson. Another sf/horror blend, Terrore Nello Spazio (1965; vt Planet of the Vampires), directed by Mario Bava, was in some ways a predecessor of Alien (1979). More commonly, Italian sf films exploit already successful foreign films: Contamination: Alien Arriva Sulla Terra (1981; vt Contamination) mimics Alien; 1990: I Guerrieri del Bronx (1982; vt 1990: Bronx Warriors) owes a lot to Escape from New York (1981); and L'Isola degli Uomini Pesce (1978; vt Island of Mutations; vt Screamers) seems inspired by The Island of Dr Moreau (1977). Possibly the one real contribution of Italian cinema to sf lies in the field of Satire and Parody, exemplified by Tinto Brass's Il disco volante (1964; vt The Flying Saucer), Elio Petri's La Decima Vittima (1965; vt The Tenth Victim), based on a story by Robert Sheckley, and Mario Bava's Diabolik (1967; vt Danger: Diabolik).
Italian sf criticism is stronger on the utopian tradition and modern Dystopia than it is on Genre SF, owing perhaps to the activities of Vito Fortunati, founder of the Centre for Utopian Studies in Bologna, and to the publications of A Monti and Carlo Pagetti on H G Wells and of D Guardamagna and S Manferlotti on Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Anthony Burgess. A handful of critics deal with contemporary sf: C Pagetti with Il senso del futuro ["The Sense of the Future"] (1970; rev edition projected), F Ferrini with Che cosa è la fantascienza ["What is SF?"] (1970), S Solmi with Saggi sul fantastico ["Essays on Fantastic Literature"] (coll 1978), which includes his seminal essay on sf published in 1953, R Giovannoli with La scienza della fantascienza ["Science and Science Fiction"] (1982), S Salvestroni with Semiotica dell'imaginazione ["Semiotics of the Imaginary"] (1984), on Russian sf, A Caronia with Il Cyborg ["Cyborgs"] (1985), on the artificial human in sf, O Palusci with Terra di Lei ["Herland"] (1990), on the female imagination in sf, and F La Polla on sf cinema and television. [CP]
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