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Massimo Bontempelli papers, 1865-1991

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Finding aid for the Massimo Bontempelli papers, 1865-1991

Biographical/Historical Note

Massimo Bontempelli was born in 1878, the son of a railroad engineer whose work obliged the family to move frequently. He attended secondary school in Milan and university in Turin, where he graduated in both philosophy and letters. After teaching elementary school for a number of years and failing to win a position teaching Italian in secondary school, he turned to magazine editing in 1910. During WWI he was a war correspondent, reporting from the front, and then an artillery official (1917-1918).

While teaching elementary school, Bontempelli wrote poetry, stories and plays, producing a new volume every year or two, as he would continue to do for most of his career. After the war he returned to Milan, where he came into contact with the avant-garde and consequently reinvented himself, refuting his previous work and the late 19th century style that had characterized it. At forty years of age, he began editing futurist magazines and writing plays and stories that portrayed bizarre psychological conditions and uncanny situations. Along with the futurists, Pirandello, with whom Bontempelli was close friends, influenced work such as La vita intensa, La scacchiera davanti allo specchio, and Eva ultima.

In 1926, Bontempelli and Malaparte started the journal '900, Cahiers d'Italie et d'Europe, which was edited by an international group and which served as a venue for such writers as James Joyce, Virigina Woolf, and Blaise Cendrars. In '900 Bontempelli found a forum for his cultural theory, Novecentismo, which posited three stages in human civilization: the first, the classical period, ended with the coming of Christ; the second, the romantic, began with the Sermon on the Mount and ended with WWI; the third, both anti-classical and anti-romantic, was just beginning and would demand the complete political and cultural renewal that Fascism proposed. Bontempelli believed that the role of the writer within the new order should be that of mythographer, the producer of myths and fables for mass society. But while writers should employ "magic realism" to inspire readers to acceptance of the new order, they should not submit to control or censorship of their imaginations.

Bontempelli was the national secretary of the fascist writers' union from 1927-1928; in 1930 he became a member of the Academy of Italy. Until the late 1930s he served, along with his companion Paola Masino, as a cultural liason and propagandist for the fascist regime abroad, lecturing frequently on Italian cultural figures. During this period he also produced his "mature" novels and plays ( Il figlio di due madri; Vita e morte di Adria e i suoi figli; La fame; Nembo) written according to his theories, and became one of the best-selling authors in Italy. In 1938 he came into conflict with the regime over his refusal of a university chair vacated due to application of racial laws. He was expelled from the party and suspended from literary activity for one year. Reinstated, he began writing a popular column for Tempo, entitled "Colloqui," which ran until 1943.

After WWII, Bontempelli aligned himself with the political left and ran for senator. He won, but the Senate nullified his election because of his fascist past. During the 1950s his health declined along with his literary reputation, despite the publication of a collection of essays on music and one of previously published stories, L'amante fedele, which won the 1953 Strega prize. He died in 1960.

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