Giuseppe Ungaretti was born on February 8, 1888, to Italian parents, Antonio and Maria Ungaretti, in Alexandria, Egypt. Ungaretti’s parents had emigrated from an area near Lucca, Italy, to Egypt, where his father, who was employed for a short time at the Suez Canal site, contracted an illness that was to lead to his death in 1890. The Ungarettis had opened a bakery in the Arab quarter of the city, however, and Maria Ungaretti, after her husband’s death, continued this business quite successfully.
Ungaretti’s education was French, but he was familiar with the Italian intellectual scene in Alexandria. He knew the Italian writer Enrico Pea and frequented Pea’s house, called the baracca rossa, a gathering place for anarchists. At this time, the period between 1906 and 1912, Ungaretti’s interests included politics, for he wrote and published some political essays. More important, however, Ungaretti came to know several writers both from Alexandria and abroad. He corresponded with Giuseppe Prezzolini, editor of the important literary magazine La voce. It was through Prezzolini, in part, that Ungaretti met many of the most notable writers and artists of his day when he finally left Alexandria in 1912, at the age of twenty-four, to travel to Italy and then to Paris.
Paris was the place of Ungaretti’s first self-awakening. There, he met with men such as artists Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Leger, Giorgio Di Chirico, writer Max Jacob, sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, the Italian Futurists, and others. In 1913, Ungaretti followed Henri Bergson’s courses at the Collège de France; in the same year, Mohammed Sheab, Ungaretti’s friend since childhood, unable to adjust to European life, committed suicide. Ungaretti remembered him in the poem “In Memoria” (“In Memoriam”): “And only I perhaps/ still know/ he lived,” he wrote, foreshadowing, as Frederic C. Jones points out in Giuseppe Ungaretti: Poet and Critic, Ungaretti’s conviction that immortality is gained only in the memory of others.
By 1914, Ungaretti was in Italy, where...
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