I finished reading Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl on the plane back to Milan last week. Considering how much the memoir is bound up with place, spiralling out from rural Clare to Dublin, London and further afield and coming back again (sort of) to Ireland, it seemed fitting to be reading it while on my own travels. Having read a couple of the original Country Girls novels a few years ago, I was really curious to read the book for the insights it might offer into living in 1950s Ireland. Edna O’Brien was also born in 1930, her life spanning the same years as my ‘post-war generation’ of Italians coming of age in the 1950s, although Ireland was quite a different place to Italy, with its experience of economic boom and rapid social change in the late 1950s and 1960s. read more
I’ve been thinking lately about why certain historical periods seem to get all the attention. For the topics I’m most interested in – emotions, fashion, the city and gendered spaces, consumption – much of the recent scholarly attention focuses on the early modern period. Some of the most exciting work – the studies that try to reconceptualise history and look for new ways of examining how people’s minds, lives, living spaces and communities worked – seems to be happening there. While I love reading great books and articles that are outside my period – the more different and apparently random the better sometimes – I do wonder, as a contemporary historian, why so much of the innovation seems to be happening in much earlier centuries. read more
The following advice was given to a reader of the popular Italian magazine Grand Hotel who wrote in 1955 with the pseudonym ‘Gone with the wind’, and it manages to capture in a few words, the complex meanings and expectations associated with love and marriage in 1950s Italy.
“It wouldn’t have been very nice of you to marry (the first man) just to have a comfortable life. As for the other one, if he really loved you and had serious intentions, he would be able to persuade his parents to break his obligation. Be careful then dear, (…) neither a marriage of convenience nor a clandestine relationship with a man who is engaged to another. You’ll be left with empty hands and a bitter smile.” read more
I’ve been spending the last few weeks reading through women’s magazines from the 1950s, in particular an illustrated weekly called Grand Hotel, one of the biggest-selling fotoromanzo or photo-story magazines that such had great success in 1950s Italy. New technologies were making it possible to mass-produce magazines that heavily featured colour photography and illustration, and the fotoromanzi, with their unique blend of serialized, illustrated stories – always melodramatic and always about love – met with huge popularity in these years. Their highly visual nature also appealed to the less educated. Readers could also write into the magazine with their (mostly romantic) problems so that we get glimpses not just of what Italians were reading but also of what how it related to their own lives. They have been traditionally dismissed as rags read by rural southern women, not literate enough to read anything else and too poor or isolated to go to the cinema for their fix of escapist entertainment. read more
Italy in the late 1940s was still struggling to absorb the experience of war and to move beyond the crippling legacies of fascism, occupation and civil war. Poverty and deprivation were acute, particularly in the rural south and north-east. Peasant women still dressed in grim floor length blank skirts and dresses, spending most of their lives in mourning clothes, and donkeys not cars were still the accepted mode of transport. The infrastructure of many cities – Rome, Naples, Milan, Turin, Genoa – was nearly destroyed by bombing while poverty and disease dominated life in Naples and the rural south.
For anyone living through these bleak times, it must have been difficult to comprehend just how much Italy would change in the course of a decade. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Italian society was transformed by an economic boom so strong it was dubbed a ‘miracle’. read more