On that day in March, the group welcomed a newcomer: the actor and industrialist Guido Alberti. Maria Bellonci must have confided in him either that Sunday or soon after that she had been thinking for some time of starting a prize for the best new Italian-language fiction. It would be awarded by a “vast and democratic jury,” made up of both writers and readers, that mirrored the democratic fervor sweeping the country. Just a few months later, in June 1946, Italians would vote to abolish the monarchy and elect a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. Around the same time, Alberti told Bellonci that his family company, a distillery in the town of Benevento near Naples, would donate 200,000 lire for the prize money. The Strega Prize was born.
One of the first literary references to Benevento, today a city of about 60,000 people in the heart of an agrarian region 30 miles northeast of Naples, appears in a sonnet by Dante Alighieri, believed to have been written in the late 13th century.
In Sonnet 203, a narrator grapples with the competing desires for pleasure and modesty. As temptation gains the upper hand, he wishes he were in a cursed place like Benevento. That’s because, by the late 1200s, Benevento was already synonymous with the Devil and dark magic, writes Antonio Oliva in Le streghe di Benevento (“The Witches of Benevento”). Founded by an ancient tribe called the Samnites, who were later conquered by the Romans, the town was so renowned that, in the 1400s, the Catholic Church seemed to consider the city itself an adversary, Oliva writes. Witches from all over medieval and Renaissance Europe were believed to gather by an oak tree in the fertile valley on the banks of the Sabato River.
The local witches’ perceived powers were rooted in the hardship and uncertainty of agrarian life: bad weather and poor crop yields, disease and accidents, childbirth and death. Called the “janare,” they were women healers who were originally associated with the cult of the Roman moon goddess Diana. (The word “janara” is pronounced YAH-nah-rah and likely derived from “Dianara,” or follower of Diana. The plural form is janare.) The villagers believed the janare could both protect them and curse them.
“In Benevento the janare were feared, but they were also respected,” says Maria Scarinzi, an anthropologist who collects oral histories related to magic and witchcraft. “The people knew they needed them.” Peasants who couldn’t afford to see a doctor sought help from the janare, who didn’t conform to the traditional roles of wife and mother. The women were open about their skills and abilities, Scarinzi says.
When Guido Alberti’s family began producing an herbal digestif in Benevento in the 1860s, they were inspired by the unguento potion that was rumored to induce the witches’ magical state. They decided to name the spirit and the company “Strega,” the Italian word for witch.
In 1580, the infamous poet and courtesan Veronica Franco was called before the Venetian Inquisition to respond to charges of practicing witchcraft. Some valuable items had gone missing in her home, and her son’s tutor — whom she suspected of taking the items — anonymously accused her of performing magical incantations to discover the thieves, according to the Veronica Franco Project at the University of Southern California. During her trial, Franco admitted to reciting incantations but said they were common superstitions that had nothing to do with the Devil.
In a perverse way, Franco’s entire literary career had been building toward that moment. For years, she had written impassioned defenses — many in verse — that foreshadowed her own against charges of witchcraft.
In Renaissance Europe, women were expected to be chaste above all else. Chastity wasn’t just about sex; it was also about power, according to the book Veronica Franco: Poems and Selected Letters by Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal. Being vocal and expressing opinions was considered unchaste for women; many who stood trial for witchcraft were accused of speaking improperly — or simply too much. Only men were believed to be capable of learning, which meant that women’s speech was inevitably seductive and abusive, not virtuous.
Franco’s very existence challenged these convictions. Privately educated by her brothers’ tutors, she was learned at a time when 90 percent of Venetian women — and about 70 percent of Venetian men — were illiterate, according to Jones and Rosenthal. She chose her rhetorical forms carefully and infused her work with references to classical sources such as Cicero and Socrates, honing her literary skills in salons organized by the poet and politician Domenico Venier. Her poems and letters defended women against concrete threats like gender-based violence, as well as pervasive prejudices about their nature and abilities. In Chapter 16 of her book Poems in Terza Rima, she responds in rhyme to another poet who has defamed her:
As if jolted awake from sweet sleep all at once,
I drew courage from the risk I’d avoided,
though a woman, born to milder tasks;
and, blade in hand, I learned warrior’s skills,
so that, by handling weapons, I learned
that women by nature are no less agile than men.
After several more stanzas, the poet shifts from “me” to “we”:
When we women, too, have weapons and training,
we will be able to prove to all men
that we have hands and feet and hearts like yours;
and though we may be tender and delicate,
some men who are delicate are also strong,
and some, though coarse and rough, are cowards.
By offering to fight with “whatever weapon,” Franco is saying she’s ready to engage in a battle of wits using her adversary’s linguistic weapon of choice, be it formal Italian, Venetian dialect, Latin, or comic verse. Like the witches of Benevento — a group of women who claimed their power at a time when they had no civic role in society — Franco refuses to downplay her abilities, and frankly states that other women would be equally skilled if they were given the opportunity to realize their potential.
Taken together, the pieces in Poems in Terza Rima reject chastity in all its forms; other verses celebrate Franco’s skill in bringing pleasure to the men who love her. That Franco was ultimately called before the Inquisition because of a domestic dispute and not because of her provocative writing is perhaps testament to the patronage and protection provided by friends such as Venier. Ultimately, Franco’s compelling defense and connections to the Venetian elite led to her acquittal. But the trial damaged her reputation and led to a downward spiral. By the time she died in 1591 at age 45, Franco had both acquired and lost fantastic wealth at a time when most women were financially dependent on men.
The first time the author Renata Viganò met the woman who would inspire her novel L’Agnese va a morire (literally “Agnese Goes to Die”), Viganò was watching her young son play by a river and wondering whether the boy would grow up without a father. During World War II, Viganò and her husband, the author Antonio Meluschi, were members of the Nazi resistance near Bologna, Italy. Antonio had been captured and tortured by the SS, and Viganò didn’t know whether he had survived. As she contemplated whether she would have to raise their son alone, a fat middle-aged woman approached, gnarled feet protruding from her slip-on shoes, and asked Viganò if she was “the Contessa,” the author’s partisan name.
The woman was plainspoken and direct, with a handkerchief knotted under her enormous chin, giving her the appearance of a witch from a fairy tale. Her rough bearing is precisely what made Agnese in the book — and presumably the real Agnese, who had a different name — such an effective resistance fighter.
“Before stepping out onto the bridge, she adjusted her hair and carefully knotted her handkerchief under her chin. Her appearance was so ordinary, an old peasant woman going about her business, that she passed easily through the blockade,” Viganò writes.
The novel takes place between 1943 and 1944 in the Po River Valley in Northern Italy, which, like Rome, was invaded by the German Army after Benito Mussolini was deposed and the Italians signed an armistice with the Allies. The occupation was marked by murder, torture, and sexual violence, giving rise to the widespread resistance movement that Agnese’s beloved husband, Palita, has joined.
At the beginning of the book, Palita is arrested and taken to a work camp. Agnese takes his place, working as a courier shuttling information, orders, and supplies between partisan operatives. After about six months, she discovers that her husband died while being deported to a concentration camp abroad. Soon after, a German soldier kills their cat for fun, and in a moment of cold rage, Agnese strikes the soldier in the head, killing him and forcing her to flee to a partisan camp in the woods.
Despite being an uneducated washerwoman, Agnese becomes an integral part of the operation, training couriers and eventually running the camp. Though rough around the edges — at times, she makes the other women in the camp cry with her insensitive, offhand remarks — Agnese emerges as a deeply compelling protagonist. She’s loyal and calm under pressure, sacrificing her comfort and security without much introspection, because it’s clearly the right thing to do. A recurring theme in the book is that heroes don’t look or talk like heroes, making it nearly impossible for the Germans to stamp out the resistance.
Viganò was herself a nurse, courier, and clandestine press operator, and she describes with lyrical precision the bleak landscape where the partisans lived and fought:
All around only sand was visible, and a strange terrain that was white and bright, as if laden with salt: there had been salt water there, when the area was still valley, and now nothing grew, neither grass nor bushes, just the occasional crooked brushwood. Beyond the embankment, the fields, vines and fruit plantings. A clean cut between burned land and nourished land, a boundary, a border.
As the novel’s name suggests, both the literary and real-life Agnese died for the cause. (Viganò’s husband, meanwhile, survived.) Viganò and the other partisans never recovered her body. They held an “empty funeral in name only,” Viganò writes in the afterword. Her novel is a memorial to the real Agnese and to the thousands of other women of the resistance who, like the Sunday Friends, reclaimed their power in the face of a brutal occupation.
In October, Italy seated its most reactionary government since the end of World War II. Led by the country’s first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, the governing far-right Brothers of Italy party espouses traditional gender roles and opposes abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. Meloni’s government has just six female ministers out of 24, the worst gender balance in more than a decade. Meloni has also insisted on being referred to as “il presidente” instead of “la,” even though both are grammatically correct. The use of the masculine article “reinforces the notion that the role [of premier] is inherently male,” journalist Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli wrote in the Financial Times. “We’ve seen more conservative and rightwing women reach top positions in Europe because they do not call into question traditional structures of power and society,” Azzurra Rinaldi, a gender economist at La Sapienza University, told Borrelli.
As Italian politicians are trying to reestablish power as a male sphere, Italian women writers are enjoying considerable success. Literary superstar Elena Ferrante is certainly not the first Italian author to present intimate, searing portraits of female protagonists, but the global success of her four-part Neapolitan Novels has drawn welcome attention to her and some of her contemporaries.
One example is Donatella Di Pietrantonio. In her slim 2017 novel L’Arminuta (released in English as A Girl Returned), translated into English by Ferrante’s long-time translator Ann Goldstein, a 13-year-old girl is sent to live, without explanation, with the impoverished, chaotic family she never knew she had. It turns out that the woman she thought was her mother is in fact an aunt, upending the girl’s understanding of family — and herself. The protagonist, who is never named, forms a surprising and tender bond with her younger sister, Adriana, and develops an unnerving attraction to one of her older brothers. The result is a jarring, moving exploration of the meaning of origin, identity, and responsibility.
Like Agnese, Adriana is an unexpected source of strength. She has greasy braids and still wets the bed at 10 years old, but she’s also loving, and astute. After one of their brothers dies in a brutal accident, a man approaches the girls on their way home from school, demanding that they search the house for money their brother owed him. Without hesitating, Adriana convinces the man that their brother never kept anything at home because their mother would have taken it. Instead, she sends him on a fruitless search for a made-up shack by the river where the brother hid his possessions. “She’s always been a genius, that Adriana,” the narrator remarks later. It’s no surprise, then, that Borgo Sud, the 2020 sequel to A Girl Returned, focuses on Adriana’s story.
Like Ferrante’s Storia della bambina perduta (released in English as The Story of the Lost Child), Borgo Sud was a finalist for the Strega Prize. But neither woman has claimed the prize. The annual award for the best work of prose fiction in the Italian language has honored some of the biggest names in contemporary Italian literature: Cesare Pavese, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, Dacia Maraini, and Domenico Starnone. In its 76-year history, only 11 women have ever won the prize.
Janna Brancolini is an American journalist based in Milan, Italy, where she is a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg Law.
Featured image: Otto Lange. Vision, probably after 1919. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies. www.lacma.org. Accessed November 18, 2022.