(Boylove Documentary Sourcebook) - About the Personal Life and Relationships of Sandro Penna

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Sandro Penna in Rome, Italy (1940s). Photograph from Archivio GBB/Contrasto.

From Who's Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day, edited by Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon (London; New York: Routledge, 2002), first published in 2001 by Routledge.

Penna, Sandro (1906–77), Italian poet. Penna was probably the only modern Italian poet who unabashedly expressed homoerotic love in his poetry. Penna was also unusual for the extent of his estrangement from developments in poetry such as hermeticism, neo-realism and avant-gardism, all of which exerted a strong influence on most Italian poets during Penna’s lifetime. Because he has not been considered ‘representative’ by critics, for a long period he occupied only a marginal place in Italian literary criticism, despite winning several major prizes for his work. In recent years though, his poems have attracted renewed interest, and his entry into the canon of Italian poets was symbolised by a retrospective exhibition in Rome in 1997, held to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Penna was the eldest of three children in a middle-class family which ran a reasonably successful shop in Perugia, central Italy. He was a sickly, delicate child, and he suffered emotionally as a result of his parents’ unhappy marriage. In 1916, when Sandro was 10, his father returned from the war with syphilis, and his parents’ arguments worsened. In 1920 his mother left her husband and went to live in Rome, leaving the children with their father. Penna felt the absence of his mother very much, and dedicated some of his earliest verses to her. He had to miss a period of school in his mid-teens because he became ill with pleurisy, and he stayed with his mother in Rome. The discovery of Italy’s capital at the age of 16 enchanted Penna, and from then on he spent as much time there as possible. In 1925 he completed high school, and was qualified to work as a clerk.

Penna’s first job was in his father’s shop, but the unsettled mood of his childhood did not leave him as he entered adulthood. He suffered from long periods of depression, and felt that he had been psychologically disturbed as a result of being torn away from his mother as a child. He had become aware of his attraction to wild young boys through his 12-year-old cousin Quintilio, the first boy to be mentioned in Penna’s diary. And by the late 1920s it was clear that he was having regular encounters with ragazzi. For example, he became infatuated with Ernesto, a Jewish boy of 15 whom Penna had met on a tram in Rome. The many letters he wrote to Ernesto, but never sent, are testimony to the desperation of his attraction. Although Penna did not appear to have suffered guilt as a result of his feelings for boys, those feelings certainly contributed to his sometimes overwhelming sense of being an outsider, someone who was unable to resign himself to the norm. A constant characteristic of Penna’s poetry is a sense of the pressing urge to understand his place in the world, and to come to terms with a haunting and uncontrollable alternation between happiness and sadness.

Nevertheless, he did not simply resign himself to his emotional problems. After his father sacked him from his job in 1929, Penna moved to Rome permanently, where he lived with his mother and worked in a series of clerical jobs. He wrote to a medical doctor about his problem seeking advice, particularly on the question of homosexuality. At a time when it was still considered a disease, Penna wrote touchingly that what he felt was no different from what other men felt for women. In 1930 he underwent analysis by a Freudian doctor, but the most important result of the analysis was the fact that his doctor introduced Penna to the well-known poet Umberto Saba. This was Penna’s introduction to the world of Italian letters, and in 1932 he had two poems published on the front page of the important journal L’Italia letteraria. Penna’s talent was immediately recognised and much appreciated by writers like Carlo Emilio Gadda and Eugenio Montale, with whom he soon became friends.

Recognition, and increasingly, publication, did not help Penna’s chronic depression or indigence. Throughout the 1930s Penna scraped a living out of odd jobs and the charity of his new-found literary friends. He worked briefly as an editor for L’Italia letteraria, and in 1936 a clerical job enabled him to rent a private room where he could write, though he continued to live with his mother. But these jobs never lasted long because Penna could not bear working to a predetermined rhythm. He had more success when he started to deal in rare books, for which he discovered a particular flair, and later he moved on to dealing in paintings. He continued dealing in books and paintings, with varying degrees of success, for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, Penna was always financially insecure, and always depended on the care of his friends. Later in his life, when he became quite well known, he even installed a collection box in the café beneath his apartment labelled ‘Donations for Sandro Penna’.

Penna’s not-of-this-world air also necessitated the tutelage of his friends when it came to publishing his poems. From the very beginning of their friendship, Montale advised Penna about which of his poems might run into censorship problems. And when, in 1939, Meridiana published a small volume of Penna’s poems entitled Poesie, Montale had made sure that it contained no risky ones. The publication of Poesie ensured the recognition of Pennas’s unique poetic voice, and prompted letters of admiration from people like De Pisis and Comisso, who also became his friends. During the war Penna wrote less poetry, and he was reduced to selling soap and second-hand clothes to earn a living. Once the war was over Penna returned to writing, and in 1950 he published 37 poems in a volume entitled Appunti. Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote a glowing but acute review for Il Popolo, discerning the sadness hidden beneath the apparently boyish happiness of the poems. Penna and Pasolini became firm friends from that point, spending much time wandering Rome in search of boys.

In 1956 Penna published another collection of poems, Una strana gioia di vivere. Only 500 copies were printed, and the volume attracted little attention in the mainstream press. But it catered to Penna’s growing audience of dedicated readers, and won him the Le Grazie prize. The judges included Piero Santi and Carlo Gadda. The following year, Penna published a second volume with the title Poesie (the first volume of this name had appeared in 1939), containing many of the poems written between 1927 and 1957, including those which had been left out of the original volume. The new collection caused a stir in Italian literary circles, and even before any reviews had been published, it was announced that Penna would share the Viareggio prize with Pasolini and Mondadori. In the prevailing cold war climate, the choice of Penna and Pasolini caused a scandal, and was denounced on the Right as the decadent triumph of leftist pornography.

In 1956 Penna met the 14-year-old Raffaele, a street boy who had run away from home at the age of six. They became lovers and the boy moved in with Penna and his begrudging mother. It was a stormy, intense relationship which suffered several ruptures before Raffaele’s final departure, but it also gave much pleasure and solace to Penna. He and Raffaele bought a German Shepherd puppy which they named Black, and once Raffaele was old enough to drive, Penna bought a car. This enabled them to spend many idyllic afternoons walking the dog in the countryside outside Rome. When, after fourteen years of intermittent cohabitation, Raffaele left to get married, all he took with him was Black. During subsequent years he granted Penna access to Black on a limited basis, as if she were their child. Penna whimsically thought that Black offered much of what he sought but did not find in boys: innocence, absolute faith and a complete absence of jealousy or malice.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Penna became increasingly eccentric in his personal habits, but also increasingly well known as a poet. In 1970 Garzanti reissued all Penna’s previously published poems. These were read by a wide audience and the publication garnered him the Fiuggi prize that year. It is difficult to discern the extent to which the homoerotic themes that are undoubtedly central to Penna’s poetry attracted or disturbed the Italian reading public. What does seem clear is that the poems transcended the banality of sex and entered another realm. Certainly, young boys occupy pride of place in Penna’s poems, but they do so as symbols of innocence and naturalness, in a way which makes it clear that they are not subject to the laws of civilisation. The sense of freedom from these laws which pervades Penna’s poetry, as well as their beautiful, limpid wording and structure, goes a long way towards explaining their appeal – and perhaps ironically, towards explaining why the poet himself largely escaped proscription.

Penna died in Rome, just a few days after winning the prestigious Bagutta prize for Stranezze, a collection of 119 previously unpublished poems written between 1957 and 1976.

Gualtiero De Santi, Sandro Penna (Florence, 1982); Elio Pecora, Sandro Penna. Una biografia (Milan, 1990).

Mark Seymour

Youths on the steps of the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro (1951). Photograph by Herbert List. Rome, Lazio, Italy.