Giovanni Papini (January 9, 1881 – July 8, 1956) was an Italian journalist, essayist, literary critic, poet, and novelist.
Born in Florence as the son of a modest furniture retailer (and former member of Giuseppe Garibaldi's Redshirts) from Borgo degli Albizi, Papini was baptized secretly to avoid the aggressive atheism of his father and lived a rustic, lonesome childhood. At that time he had felt a strong aversion to all beliefs, to all churches, as well as to any form of servitude (which he saw as connected to religion); he also became enchanted with the impossible idea of writing an encyclopedia wherein all cultures would be summarized.
Trained at the Instituto di Studi Superiori (1900–2), he taught for a year in the Anglo-Italian school and then was librarian at the Museum of Anthropology from 1902 to 1904. The literary life attracted Papini, who in 1903 founded the magazine Il Leonardo, to which he contributed articles under the pseudonym of "Gian Falco." His collaborators included Giuseppe Prezzolini, Borgese, Vailati, Costetti and Calderoni. Through Leonardo's Papini and his contributors introduced in Italy important thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Peirce, Nietzsche, Santayana and Poincaré. He would later join the staff of Il Regno, a nationalist publication directed by Enrico Corradini, who formed the Associazione Nazionalistica Italiana, to support his country colonial expansionism.
"Caricature of Papini", by Carlo Carrà & Ardengo Soffici, from Broom, 1922.
Papini (left) with Ritratto di Soffici
Papini met William James and Henri Bergson, who greatly influenced his early works. He started publishing short-stories and essays: in 1906, Il Tragico Quotidiano ("The Tragic Everyday"), in 1907 Il Pilota Cieco ("The Blind Pilot") and Il Crepuscolo dei Filosofi ("The Twilight of the Philosophers"). The latter constituted a polemic with established and diverse intellectual figures, such as Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Papini proclaimed the death of philosophers and the demolition of thinking itself. He briefly flirted with Futurism and other violent and liberating forms of Modernism (Papini is the character in several poems of the period written by Mina Loy).
In 1907 Papini married Giacinta Giovagnoli; the couple had two daughters, Viola and Gioconda.
Before and during World War I
After leaving Il Leonardo in 1907, Giovanni Papini founded several other magazines. First he published La Voce in 1908, then L'Anima together with Giovanni Amendola and Prezzolini. In 1913 (right before Italy's entry into World War I) he started Lacerba (1913–15). From three years Papini was correspondent for the Mercure de France and later literary critic for La Nazione. About 1918 he created yet another review, La Vraie Italie, with Ardengo Soffici.
Other books came from his pen. His Parole e Sangue ("Words and Blood") showed his fundamental atheism. Furthermore, Papini sought to create scandal by speculating that Jesus and John the Apostle had a homosexual relationship. In 1912 he published his best-known work, the autobiography Un Uomo Finito ("The Failure").
In his 1915 collection of poetic prose Cento Pagine di Poesia (followed by Buffonate, Maschilità, and Stroncature), Papini placed himself face-to-face with Giovanni Boccaccio, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but also contemporaries such as Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile, and less prominent disciples of Gabriele D'Annunzio. A critic wrote of him:
Giovanni Papini is one of the finest minds in the Italy of today. He is an excellent representative of modernity's restless search for truth, and his work exhibits a refreshing independence founded, not like so much so-called independence, upon ignorance of the past, but upon a study and understanding of it.
He published verse in 1917, grouped under the title Opera Prima. In 1921, Papini announced his newly found Roman Catholicism, publishing his Storia di Cristo ("The Story of Christ"), a book which has been translated into twenty-three languages and has had a world-wide success.
Fascism and later years
After further verse works, he published the satire Gog (1931) and the essay Dante Vivo ("If Dante Were Alive"; 1933).
He moved towards Fascism, and his beliefs earned him a teaching position at the University of Bologna in 1935 (although his studies only qualified him for primary school teaching); the Fascist authorities confirmed Papini's "impeccable reputation" through the appointment. In 1937, Papini published the only volume of his History of Italian Literature, which he dedicated to Benito Mussolini: "to Il Duce, friend of poetry and of the poets", being awarded top positions in academia, especially in the study of Italian Renaissance. An Antisemite, he believed in an international plot of Jews, applauding the racial discrimination laws enforced by Mussolini in 1938. Papini was the vice president of the Europäische Schriftstellervereinigung (i.e. European Writers' League), which was founded by Joseph Goebbels in 1941/42. When the Fascist regime crumbled (1943), Papini entered the Franciscan convent in La Verna, with the name Fra' Bonaventura.
Drawing of Papini, by Julius Zirinsky.
Largely discredited at the end of World War II, he was defended by the Catholic political right. His work concentrated on different subjects, including a biography of Michelangelo, while he continued to publish dark and tragic essays. He collaborated with Corriere della Sera, contributing articles that were published as a volume after his death. Papini had been suffering from progressive paralysis and was blind during the last years of his life.
According to art historian Richard Dorment, Francisco Franco's regime and NATO used Papini's series of imaginary interviews (Il Libro Nero, 1951) as propaganda against Pablo Picasso, to dramatically undercut his pro-Communist image. In 1962, the artist asked his biographer Pierre Daix, to expose the pretend interview, which he did in Les Lettres Françaises.
He was admired by Bruno de Finetti, founder of a subjective theory of probability and Jorge Luis Borges, who remarked that Papini had been "unjustly forgotten" and included some of his stories in the Library of Babel.