A Garden of Memory and Desire

A document recently discovered in Yad Vashem and interviews with people from the Italian village of Ferrara shed new light on the Magrini family, the model for Giorgio Bassani's 'The Garden of the Finzi-Continis'.

Nitsa Priluk
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Nitsa Priluk

On August 4, 1941, the mayor of Ferrara, Italy sent a letter to the police department in the Interior Ministry in Rome. He informed the police that a rich Jewish family in Ferrara had a tennis court that was being visited daily by Jews and non-Jews (Aryans). This had been noted by the Fascist Party, which had issued a disciplinary order relating to Aryans who preferred meetings of this kind to activity in the party's organizations. The mayor asked whether Jews who owned tennis courts could be prevented from allowing people who were not their relatives to use them. The typewritten letter was recently discovered in the archive of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem. The document (No. R9.80.8763) is on a microfiche that was sent to Israel under an agreement with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The family that was mentioned in the letter was the model for the one whose story is related by the Italian-Jewish writer Giorgio Bassani in his 1962 novel "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis." The subsequent film of the same name, directed by Vittorio De Sica, won the Golden Bear award for best film at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971 and the Academy Award for best foreign-language film the following year. The novel and the film engraved in the collective memory the fate of Italian Jewry following the promulgation of the race laws in 1938 and in the Holocaust.

Prior to World War II, the northern Italian town of Ferrara, not far from Bologna, in which the novel is set, was home to about 730 Jews, many of them educated and established. The lists of confiscated Jewish property from the war include silver toiletries and an original text by the Roman poet Virgil. For 12 years, until 1938, the mayor of Ferrara was Renzo Ravenna, a Jewish attorney.

The Magrinis, who lived at 76 Via Borgo Leoni (street of the lions), were one of the leading families in Ferrara's Jewish community. The affable Prof. Silvio Magrini spent hours in his library, whose door opened into the garden. The other members of the household were his wife, Albertina, her mother, Elisa, and their dark-haired daughter Giuliana and their son Uberto. In terms of the family structure, the Finzi-Continis are an exact replica of the Magrinis. Even their large, quiet dog, Yor, appears in the novel.

Planning the story was apparently a lengthy process (its core appears in Bassani's "The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles," published in 1958). Bassani moved the family home slightly to the north, to the aristocratic quarter bordering the Old City wall, made the house bigger (and added an elevator) and greatly increased the area of the garden. The family in the novel lives on Corso Ercole I D'Este in a mansion purchased at a bargain price in the 19th century from a family of marquises. In Bassani's work, which is meticulous in its depiction of the urban geographical space, such shifts are significant and formative. It is in this way that, at the personal-romantic level, the motif of the inaccessible princess locked in a tower is constructed; while at the social-national level the family is glorified. Indeed, many viewed this family as a symbol of the decline of the Italian Jewish aristocracy, with the final phase coming in the Holocaust.

The mayor's letter to the police does not exaggerate the facts. The Magrinis' tennis court was in fact used by Jewish children, and young people were expelled from the prestigious tennis club Marfisa d'Este. Among those children was Bassani himself (1916-2000), who was born in Bologna and lived in Ferrara until 1943. Prof. Magrini (born 1881) was president of the Jewish community. The family, which had always been aloof, changed after the enactment of the Fascist legislation. The gates of the garden were opened to many (this is the dramatic image that opens the film). The tennis court plays a major role in the novel's plot, and conversations about it are rife throughout: "that sort of potato patch (so one of them had expressed himself, curling his lips in a sneer of contempt)... hardly any out-of-bounds area, especially behind the base lines; white earth, and also badly drained, which therefore at the slightest rain, would turn into a marsh; no evergreen hedge against the metal fences" (William Weaver translation, here and below).

Intimate moments

The narrator spends delightfully intimate moments with the beautiful Micol (played in the film by Dominique Sanda) while waiting for the court to become available, and the two wander through the garden, far from all the others. Micol admires a plane tree or a group of palms, explains things and is deeply moved. The scenes of the young people in their tennis whites are among the most memorable in the film. Tennis also enters the narrator's sleep: "I dreamed, for example, that I was watching her as she played tennis with Alberto, just like the very first day I set foot in the garden. Now, too, as I was dreaming, I didn't take my eyes off her.... Now, however, I felt oppressed by an uneasiness, a bitterness, a sadness, almost unbearable. Of the girl of 10 years before - I asked myself desperately - what had remained in this Micol of 22."

Among the many autobiographical details that Bassani embedded in his writing is his love of tennis. He played tennis well (at the Ferrara club he often played against Michelangelo Antonioni) and was a constant devotee of the game. He was the one who told his pupils in the local Jewish school that they could play tennis in the Magrinis' garden, even without paying, and once or twice a week the children, aged 11-13, would ride over to the friendly court. The two-story house, its windows always shuttered, looked ordinary enough. The route was from the gate to the court and back, one of those boys related many years later, and apart from the big dog he never encountered anyone from the family. In the novel, we find that the "festivity" in the Finzi-Continis' garden has ended. They are no longer allowed to invite friends to the tennis court. The order of the Fascist regime is handed personally to the professor in his home, directing him to end immediately the "provocatory [sic] receptions which had for some time been taking place in his house." The letter that the mayor of Ferrara sent to the police in 1941 was thus apparently not an empty threat.

"To Micol," the novel's moving dedication to a girl who is only a literary figment, seems to indicate her centrality in the author's life, while as a literary stratagem it blurs the distinction between fiction and fact. This was apparently what Bassani was after. Indeed, in the creation of Micol and the events that befall her, Bassani forsook the Magrini family and drew entirely on his imagination. A virtual photograph of the family would have a dark, empty square where Micol's face should be. When Bassani wrote the novel, the five members of the family he used for his model were dead. For the rest of the family, other than Giuliana, Bassani made do with changing the names but retaining their real-life story: The father becomes Prof. Ermanno, his wife is Signora Olga, her mother is the elderly Regina and the real-life Uberto, the son, becomes Alberto. Uberto Magrini died at home of a fatal illness in the winter of 1942 (as Alberto does in the novel); his grandmother, Elisa, was given refuge in a village near Ferrara and died there; and the parents were transported to a concentration camp in Germany, where they perished (as also befalls the parents in the novel). Giuliana, the Magrinis' daughter, experienced a different fate. In 1934 she married Marcello Pessero, an engineer at the marble quarries of Carrara, and they had two children. She managed to get to Switzerland. Her literary simulacrum, Micol, level-headed and also delicate, is a very different character.

The narrator first sees Micol leaning over the high garden wall, looking down at him. It is 1929 and they are both 13. The boy has just failed his end-of-year mathematics examination (an event that is also mentioned in Bassani's "Behind the Door"). In his desperation he flees into the fields and arrives at the "wall of the angels" in the north of the city. This is the first time he hears her voice. Micol addresses him jovially, egging him on and also consoling him. This scene is a key to the character of their future relations. In the last significant scene Micol is ill and he is invited to visit her. He goes up to her room: 133 stairs - or the elevator - lead to her apartment in the tower of the Finzi-Continis' home. This is the first time he has been in her room. It is 1939, and they are both near the end of their doctoral studies. Micol rebuffs his kisses and tells him unequivocally that they will never be lovers. The young man can only equate his pain and loss with being "driven from paradise."

Unity of place

In the tempestuous meeting in her room, Micol confesses to having had a weakness for him as a girl, but explains that she cannot give herself to him because he is like a brother for her, and also because she is afraid it would spoil their beautiful, shared childhood memories. Their common sin, she says, is going forward while looking back. For both of them, memories are more important than objects; his desire for the present to become immediately past, so he can love it and view it with longing, is her desire as well. This private and invasive analysis, which is spoken by Micol, leads to the insight that there is not much distance between the novel's youthful narrator and Giorgio Bassani, and in certain places they are actually identical. (In the film, the protagonist's name is in fact Giorgio.) Alongside his fiction, which deals mainly with the Ferrara of times past, Bassani's poetry (in a book that appeared in 1974) also bears a backward-looking title, "Epitaph." The presence of the past in Bassani's work overlays it with a pensive, dreamlike gauze that critics have described as poetic, delicate, impressionistic and touching.

The novel maintains unity of place in regard to the relationship with Micol: Everything takes place on Corso Ercole I D'Este. The street lies in the extensive territory that was added to the city in the 15th century by the Duke of Ferrara. It stretches from the large palace of the Este family directly northward, and the street is still lined with the palaces of Renaissance nobility. "Ferrara on the roads that Ercole I sent forth / To meet the wandering muses that arrive," wrote Giosue Carducci, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906, in a poem dedicated to the city's vistas.

Two great-nieces of Prof. Magrini, whose table they dined at on Friday nights, recall to this day the sight of Giuliana, her son Andrea and her daughter Renata, obedient and charming, who was called a "treasure of a girl." After the war, Giuliana had another daughter, Silvia, named for the baby's grandfather, Silvio, who perished in the Holocaust. Giuliana died of a fatal illness about 10 years later. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery of Ferrara. "The desolate beauty of Ferrara ... a divine, musical melancholy ... I will praise your level roads, your streets as rivers." It is to these lines, written in 1902 by the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, that the novel alludes when it notes that the street of the Finzi-Continis' home is "known to lovers of art and poetry throughout the world." Bassani often said that he did not invent the themes or characters in the novel; they came to him and asked to be heard and seen.

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