Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861

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.

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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 he wrote the first poems later collected in L’allegria (the joy). In 1915, he was inducted into the Italian army and was sent to the Austro-Italian Front. The poems of Il porto sepolto (the buried port) were written while Ungaretti was on active duty; these poems also became a part of L’allegria. Ungaretti did not want to print the poems written at the front, because he felt that such an act would break the solidarity he had with his countrymen, but a friend of his, Ettore Serra, took them and insisted on publishing them in 1916. In 1918, Ungaretti was in Paris again. (Guillaume Apollinaire, a friend of Ungaretti, died soon after he arrived.) He stayed in Paris until 1921, supporting himself by working for an Italian newspaper. While there, he met and married Jeanne Duprix. During this time, Ungaretti’s reputation was growing, and he began lecturing in France and Belgium.

In 1921, Ungaretti returned to Rome, where he was to live until 1936. Here the Baroque art of the city had a great impact on him, and eventually this influence led to the writing of Sentimento del tempo (the feeling of time). He continued his lecturing and worked in the press division of the Foreign Ministry. In 1925, a daughter, Anna Maria, was born, and in 1930 a son, Antonietto. In 1931, L’allegria was given its definitive title and published; this collection included the poems from 1914 to 1919. In 1932, Ungaretti received the Venice Premio Gondoliere, and in 1933 Sentimento del tempo was published.

In 1936, Ungaretti accepted a teaching position in Italian literature at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. His stay in Brazil was a dark time, for in 1937 his older brother, Constantino, died, and in 1939 his son, Antonietto, died after a mistreated attack of appendicitis. The trials Italy faced during World War II compounded Ungaretti’s sense of loss, and his writing from this period represents a hiatus in the unfolding of his poetic vision. Il dolore (the grief), which emerged from this time, was published in 1947.

When Ungaretti returned to Italy in 1942, he accepted a position at the University of Rome. After the war, his right to retain his teaching post was disputed, for many criticized his apparent acceptance of fascism. In spite of this controversy, he retained his position and was very productive during the period following the war. Most of his translations were published during this time, as were several commemorative editions of his works. In his seventieth year, his wife, Jeanne, died.

During his last years, Ungaretti traveled around the world. In 1964, he gave a series of lectures at Columbia University in New York City. On a visit to São Paulo in 1966, Ungaretti met a young Brazilian poetess named Bruna Bianco, with whom he pursued a platonic love affair. Dialogo is a poetic dialogue between them. In 1967, Morte delle stagioni (death of the seasons), which collected the poems of Ungaretti’s old age, was published. Ungaretti was to have one more passionate relationship, with a young Croatian girl, Djuna. In 1970 he traveled again to the United States to receive the Books Abroad Award at the University of Oklahoma. While on this trip, he developed bronchitis. He died in Milan on the night of June 1, 1970.

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