Inklings and Effacements in Silvio Pellico's Le mie prigioni

by Charles Klopp
Inklings and Effacements in Silvio Pellico's Le mie prigioni
Charles Klopp
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License

Inklings and Effacements in Silvio Pellico's Le mie prigioni


n "Autobiography as De-Facement" Paul de Man writes that "the interest of autobiography ... is not that it reveals reliable selfknowledge-it does not-but that it demonstrates in a striking way the impossibility of closure and of totalization (that is the impossibility of coming into being) of all textual systems made up of tropological substitutions.,,1 Silvio Pellico's Le mie prigioni is often considered a guileless account of, if not his religious conversion, at least the deepening of the book's narrator's faith while in Milanese, Venetian, and Moravian prisons during the Austrian occupation of Italy in the 1820s and 1830s. However, a re-reading of Le mie prigioni in the light of current literary theory suggests that Pellico's account of his imprisonment conceals significant aspects of his narrator's prison experience at the same time that it gestures self-consciously and insistently at this hidden material.

Le mie prigioni is part of a long and melancholy tradition of prison discourse in Italy. As such, it has intertextual connections backward to Cellini and Casanova-two authors whose prison writings Pellico could have read before the composition of his own memoir-and forward to such Risorgimento figures as Luigi Settembrini and Silvio Spaventa (who was given his first name in honor of Pellico), the Italian anti-Fascists of the 1920s and 1930s, and even such protagonists of today's "anni di piombo" as Aldo Moro, Toni Negri, and Renato Curcio." Like those of many other Italian intellectuals imprisoned for their political beliefs, Pellico's incarceration was significantly mediated by his literary imagination. Everywhere the narrator of Le mie prigioni goes in his prison peregrinations, he sees words, symbols, stories, and story fragments, and it is through these texts that he experiences prison.

In the very first of "his prisons," for example, Pellico finds that the walls of the ex-convent of Santa Margherita where he is being held in Milan are covered with drawings and writing. While the former are "goffe pitturacce" executed in a medium he can only say


is unmentionable, the texts that have been scratched onto the walls include brief "compendi d'autobiografia" and "sentenze morali" as well as lists ofprisoners' names, nationalities, dates ofimprisonment, and protests against their plights." Among the "sentenze morali" scratched on the wall Pellico finds a quotation from Pascal's Pensees describing the Christian divinity as a "Deus absconditus" hidden from the view of inquiring mortals." While this fragment from Pascal's writings is itself perfectly legible, many of the other texts that the narrator encounters are instead hidden, mutilated, or otherwise effaced. One result of this persistent obliteration is that the messages that these texts contain are just as hidden as Pascal's "Deus absconditus." Just as God, in the description of Him by the French philosopher, is present but concealed in this world of appearances, so many of the most important issues that Pellico raises in Le mieprigioni are also occluded from the reader's sight.

One of the most important hidden or unreadable texts in Le mie prigioni is the text of politics. Like other prisoners before and after him, Pellico found jail a place for pause and reflection." His meditations while in prison and his questioning of the meaning of his own life and of life in general are the principal subject of his account of his prison experience. But under the Austrians, jail was a place for questioning in another, more sinister sense as well. Though Pellico says little about this matter in a book that required the approval of the Piedmontese censor before it could be published in 1832 Turin, his prison interrogations regarding his own efforts and those of others to free northern Italy from Austrian rule were of crucial importance both to him and to his fellow conspirators." In an odd metaphor explaining his silence on these matters, the narrator of Le mie prigioni describes himself in regard to politics as "simile ad un amante maltrattato dalla sua bella" and consequently "dignitosamente risoluto di tenerle broncio" (Ch. 1). One consequence of such "pouting," a critic has observed, is that the reader of Le mie prigioni "subito ... sapra d'aver nelle mani un libro nel quale la politica che 10 ha motivato, e che ne ha suggerito il titolo, dovra essere cercata tra le righe ed anche, 0 soprattutto, nel silenzio."" In Pellico's own rhetorical figure, politics in Le mie prigioni is a beautiful but invisible woman the thwarted narrator refuses to look at, a textual object of readerly desire that has been deliberately effaced by a prudent author.

Even the literary genre to which Le mieprigioni belongs is defined by an absent presence. In the introduction to his work Pellico insists that Le mie prigioni is different in kind from other autobiographies: "Ho io scritto queste Memorie per vanita di parlar di me?" he asks in the preface, "bramo che cia non sia." Since it was not inspired by personal vanity, Le mie prigioni should be read differently from other current autobiographies such as, possibly, Vittorio Alfieri's Vita of 1804.8 Just as the Bible, as Pellico explains in Chapter 25, should be read as an alternative to inauthentic profane discourse, so Le mie prigioni should be considered against other, less authentically inspired autobiographies which, even though absent from the reader's view, nonetheless define the nature of Pellico's text and thus determine how it should be understood.

There are many other effaced or occluded texts in Pellico's memoir. For example, while in Milan Pellico sent a note written in his own blood to his friend Maroncelli. In writing this note he seemed to have been aware that the authorities were likely to intercept his message, and he expressed his political views accordingly. Although the external, material nature of Pellico's blood message is described at some length in Le mie prigioni, the precise content of the note is never revealed, except in commentary by subsequent editors." Although we know about the outside of this missive, its inside is invisible. In this way, this note resembles many other texts that in this book are presented from the outside only: the message from the free-thinking and libertine Giuliano whom Pellico meets in Venice and whose letter to him in Chapter36 he tears up in disgust and indignation, for example, or Pellico's note in response that Giuliano rolls up and tosses in the air like a ball in Chapter 38. Though the outside and the physical fate of this correspondence are described in some detail, the semantic inside of this prison exchange is never revealed.

In addition to the texts that the narrator has himself concealed in Le mie prigioni, there are many other communications in the book that he must struggle to interpret. But even when he has succeeded in decoding such messages, their precise contents are rarely revealed to Pellico's reader. One example of a text of this sort is the message that Pellico reads on the guard Tirolo's face when he is considering asking him to take a message to Maroncelli but then realizes that "v'era alcun che negli occhi suoi, che sembrava avvertirmi di non fidarmi di alcuno, e men d'altri che di lui" (Ch. 4).Another is contained in the series of expressions and gestures produced by the "caro fanciullo" Pellico meets in prison (Chs. 7-8) and with whom he communicates "dolcemente" though "alIa muta" or through signs since the boy is unable to speak. The silent, non-verbal text this boy represents is interesting in another way, too. Because the child is "poveretto, sordo, stracciato," and "figlio d'un ladrone" as well as mute, Pellico concludes he can never be his "disciple" the way his employer Count Porro's children were before he went to prison. The prison child, instead, is a "brutta parodia" of the Porro boys: not only a silent text, but one that belongs to a literary genre, that of parody, and whose meaning must be understood in terms of this genre.

Another non-verbal text that the narrator claims he can partially decipher is the demeanor of Melchiorre Gioia. When Pellico unexpectedly glimpses this well-known intellectual in a distant part of the Santa Margherita prison, he insists he can read from Gioia's appearance whether his fellow captive is "tranquillo" or "inquieto" (Ch. 10). But when Gioia and Pellico are able to signal to each other with handkerchiefs, they do so with only partial success, that is "senza capirci, e colla stessa premura, come se ci capissimo: 0 piuttosto ci capivamo realmente, que' gesti voleano dire tutto cia che le nostre anime sentivano, e l'una non ignorava cia che l'altra sentisse." More handkerchief signalling (and with similarly limited success in terms of a precise message) takes place later in the book when, on the way from Venice to the Spielberg, Pellico and Maroncelli meet Teresa and Carlotta Marchionni in Udine. In this instance they must deduce not only the messages and senders' states of mind from their gesticulations, but their identities as well: "Chi sara stato? Lo supponemmo!" (Ch. 56). In all these examples, the narrator insists that he has deciphered a non-verbal text, but the exact nature of the message communicated is not made clear to the reader and has perhaps not been fully comprehended by the narrator either.

One of the most interesting silent communications in Le mie ptigioni occurs in a scene in the Venetian prison of the Piombi when Zanze, admonished to stop throwing her arms around Pellico's neck, is said to read a message inscribed in the poet's soul: "M'affisso gli occhi in volto, li abbasso, arrossi, -ecerto fu la prima volta che lesse nell'anima mia la possibilita di qualche debolezza a suo riguardo" (Ch. 30). The silent message Zanze reads (or Pellico thinks she reads) within him is one that this time the narrator seems to know very well but will not or cannot reveal and evasively describes as "qualche debolezza a suo riguardo." While some of the non-verbal communications that the prisoner has encountered in Le mie ptigioni can be shared with the reader in at least general terms, this is a message, apparently, that must not be made explicit.

Other communications described in this book never get beyond the potential stage because they remain unarticulated desire in the narrator's imagination. In Chapter II, for example, Pellico wants to initiate a conversation with women prisoners in an adjoining Santa Margherita cell block, but finds he is unable to do so. He cannot talk to these women, he explains in some confusion, either "per timidita" or "per alterezza" or "per prudente riguardo di non affezionarmi a donne degradate" (Ch. 11). Whatever his motives in refusing to talk to the "degraded women" of Santa Margherita, Pellico does describe his relationship with one of them in what are again literary terms when he says at the end of this episode, "cosi fini il mio romanzo con quella poveretta" (Ch. 12). If the dumb child Pellico meets in prison is a "parody," the Maddalena of this episode ("Si, quella disgraziata chiamavasi Maddalena") is a character out of romance, a Mary Magdalen to Pellico's Christ, perhaps, in a fiction that the prisoner would like to imagine and narrate but is unable to formulate even to himself.

Another imagined message in Le tnie ptigiotii is the fantasy that Pellico has of speaking frankly with his father about the possibilities of his release from prison. In despair about regaining his liberty, Pellico dreams of confiding to his father that his chances for an early release are in fact poor, only to reject this notion as an "orribile idea" that might have literally shocked the old man to death (Ch. 15). Here a communication that is shared with the reader but never pronounced in the narrative seems connected with repressed hostility by Pellico toward his father as well as with self-pity. Like the imagined romance with Maddalena, this fantasized talk with his father seems to arise from feelings Pellico is not willing to avow.

In the long episode with Zanze-whose account of an earlier love affair with an "amante" from outside prison is alluded to in yet anotherliterary term as an "idillio comico-serio che mi commosse" (Ch. 28)-texts are not only suppressed but falsified. In the prisoner's encounters with Zanze, the jailer's ardent daughter, Pellico is at odds with some slippery passages from the Bible. During her visits to his cell, Zanze has made it a habit to open her friend's Latin Bible at random, kiss the text where the book falls open, and then insist that Pellico translate the words she has just kissed. But when the Bible falls open to the Song of Songs, Pellico refuses to do this, preferring instead to misrepresent the Latin-and the Sacred Scripture. "Profittava," he says, "della sua ignoranza del latino, e mi prevaleva di frasi in cui, salva la santita di quel volume, salvassi pur l'innocenza di lei" (Ch. 31). Though both the Bible and Zanze's innocence fill him with "altissima venerazione," Pellico, the author of a very successful play on Francesca da Rimini and thus aware of the perils of close reading in certain situations, does not hesitate to falsify the text before him, though he does so while signaling elaborately at what he has chosen to conceal.

What Pellico calls his "pseudo-versione" of the Song of Songs is a kind of mutilation of the original. Writings that cannot be read because they have been mutilated appear in several places in Le mie prigioni. They include messages inscribed by inmates and then scraped off the walls by a jailer after a prisoner has repented of his former crimes (Ch. 9); a letter whose message has been so deleted by the censor that all that is left is a "Carissimo Silvio" at the beginning and "T'abbracciamo tutti di cuore" at the end (Ch. 32); and notes from Giuliano whose contents the narrator finds so incendiary ("per 10 piu d'oscenita ... febbre d'erotiche buffonerie") he tears them to shreds (Ch. 33-40). These mutilated texts are part of the general theme of mutilation that runs through this book. One of the most famous scenes in Le mie prigiani is that of the amputation of Maroncelli's leg in Chapters 87-88, an episode that underscores the symbolic mutilation of all of the Spielberg prisoners who have been prevented by their imprisonment from experiencing a complete life. It might even be said that for the Christian Pellico, life itself is an incomplete and thus mutilated event that attains its true significance or completeness in a larger eschatology evident only after death has brought it to closure. The theme of loss and mutilation thus reinforces this general message in Pellico's tract.

Perhaps the most suggestive of all the cryptic and mutilated texts that appear in Pellico's book is described in Chapter 27 of Le mie prigiani. At this point in his captivity the narrator has been permitted to write as much as he wants, and he is doing so furiously. Not only is he composing plays and other "cose letterarie" on the carefully numbered pages the authorities have provided him, he is also writing a surreptitious text that he is transcribing not onto paper but directly onto his writing table. The circumstances in which Pellico produces this text are bizarre. Despite the heat beneath the Piombi's lead roof, he writes with gloves on his hands and swaddled in his clothes in order to fend off the mosquitoes that infest his cell: "zanzare" from the Venetian lagoons every bit as pesky as the similarly named and similarly importunate "Zanze." Though Pellico claims what he is writing on the table in these circumstances are "meditazioni intorno ai doveri degli uomini e di me in particolare," he takes enormous pains to keep the text he produces on this subject hidden from both his jailers and his readers. And although Pellico later published a book titled I doveri degli uomini, there is nothing in that work that would seem to require such elaborate concealment. For Pellico's writing on the Piombi table is not only concealed from physical view, it is also composed in code: "10 scriveva in gergo," he explains, "cioe con trasposizioni di lettere ed abbreviazioni, aIle quali io era avvezzatissimo." Whenever Pellico is not writing, or hears a noise at the door, this encripted text is physically hidden under a table cloth, an inkpot, and his "legale quinternetto di carta." And when there is so much text the table can hold no more, Pellico erases all that he has written by scraping its surface with a sharp piece of glass he keeps for this purpose.

If the text Pellico is writing on his table in this episode is autobiographical in content, its style is unlike that of Le mie prigioni with its measured progression in the ninety-nine "capitoletti" that make up that work. By contrast, Pellico describes the text he is composing in the Piombi as "sempre rallentata da digressioni d'ogni specie, da analisi or di questo or di quel punto di metafisica, di morale, di politica, di religione." Pellico's hidden text, then, seems based on free association of the sort we today connect with the analyst's couch. On the desk, apparently, Pellico could say all and whatever he wanted. But the text that results is one that no one must see.

In 1924, just about a century after Pellico was writing secretly and "in gergo" on his table in the Piombi, Sigmund Freud published an essay that he called "A Note on the 'Mystic Writing-Pad' ".10 In this essay Freud uses the kind of writing pad with a cover sheet that, when lifted, "erases" the message below as an analogy for the operations of human memory. In Freud's description, the celluloid and waxed papercoverof the "MysticWriting-Pad" represents the conscious system of recording perceptions, the wax slab, the unconscious memory of the perceptions recorded. Although impressions may be erased from the conscious mind when the cover of the pad is lifted through the operations of time or distraction, the impressions made earlier remain inscribed in the pad of the unconscious below, though in an increasing jumble as the wax fills up. It is evident that Freud's descriptive figure for the operation of perception and memory in this essay is uncannily similar to Pellico's account of his own secret writing while in the Piombi. Whatever it was that Pellico wrote on his table in the Venetian prison, it must have been material like that described by Freud as easily erasable from conscious memory but not from the unconscious of thewax slab of the "Mystic Writing-Pad." In this reading, the code that Pellico used to further disguise his illicit material is analogous to the sometimes grotesque transformations that Freud identified as disguises for material found unacceptable or frightening by the conscious mind. The prison authorities, and perhaps the reader too-neitherof whom is permitted to see the text in question-would thus be similar to the censor in Freudian theory. The sharp piece of glass is especially interesting in this context. Since the piece of glass Pellico unaccountably has in his cell could be used not only to scrape away the text inscribed on the table but also to slash the prisoner's wrists (and suicide was an alternative to continued incarceration that was frequently invoked by the prisoners in Pellico's group), 11 it constitutes the ultimate eraser, one capable of eliminating not only the unconscious but existence itself.

Of all the occluded texts described in Le mie prigioni, the writing that Pellico inscribes on his table in the Piombi is the one that can best serve as a master-text exemplifying his writing practice in general: in this work, not only Pellico's politics, but also his position on what kind of work he is composing and thus how it should be read; the true nature of the anti-libertine and political discourses he engages in with other prisoners; and his feelings toward his grieving father and toward Zanze and the other women he encounters in jail are all present only as absences. Like Pascal's "Deus absconditus" or Pellico's own image of politics as a beautiful but invisible woman, these topics would seem to be the objects of such intense feeling that their inner content cannot be revealed even to the most sympathetic of readers. When they are evoked in Pellico's text, they are alluded to only externally and carefully kept invisible. If Pellico, the poet and former political conspirator, sometimes manages to uncover complete, or decode the many hidden, cryptic, or partial messages that he encounters-and produces-in his prison journey, he does not share the messages he finds with his reader. Although Pellico is not unwilling to put certain things, as we say, out on the table, he can bring himself to do this only behind closed doors and for himself alone.

In 1963 Mario Scotti published an edition of Pellico's correspondence dating from the years before this author's arrest and imprisonment.!" In working with Pellico's autographs from the period 181521, Scotti discovered that many of the texts of these early letters had been altered by their author after his release from the Spielberg in 1835. Pellico's later "cancellazioni" and other interventions into the texts of his earlier writings, according to Scotti, in some cases so effaced, mutilated, or altered these letters' original meanings that "poco manca a farle eguali a quelle che la censura austriaca eseguiva sulle lettere di prigionieri, distruggendo irreparabilmente il teste."!" In releasing to posterity this other, slightly different kind of record (orfiction?) of his life and beliefs during the years before the Spielberg, Pellico seems to have been unusually concerned about impressions that might have been left on the mystic writing pad of his early correspondence.In hiszealto occlude theseinklingsofhisearlyidentity, he was willing to mutilate important writing from the first part of his Iife.!" Pellico's censoring of these early letters is another instance similar to those in Le mie prigioni of the effacement of texts that, if not clearly incriminating, were nonetheless important clues to their author's identity.



lpaul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia UP, 1984) 71.

2The Vita di Benvenuto Cellini otefice e scultore fiorentino da lui medesimo scritta, with its account of Cellini's imprisonment in the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, was first published in 1728; Giacomo Casanova's Histoire de ma iuite des prisons de la Republique de Venise, qu'on appelleles Plombs in 1788. See also Luigi Settembrini,

Lettere dall'eigastolo (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1962); Silvio Spaventa, Lettere a Felicetta (Naples: ESI, 1977). In addition to Antonio Gramsci's Lettere dal carcere (Turin: Einaudi, 1975), other collections of prison letters by well-known anti-Fascists include those by Mario Alicata (Lettere e taccuini di Regina Coeli [Turin: Einaudi, 1977]); Francesco Lo Sardo (Epistolario dal carcere [1926-1931} [Verona: Ed. del Panieri, 1984]); Augusto Monti (Lettere a Luisotta [Turin: Einaudi, 1977]); Rodolfo Morandi (Lettere al iratello, 1937-1943 [Turin: Einaudi, 1959]); Camilla Ravera (Lettere al Partito e alla [amiglia [Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1979]);Nello Rosselli (Epistolario [atniliare: Carlo, Nello Rosselli e la madre [1914-1937} [Milan: Sugar, 1979]); and Ernesto Rossi (Miserie e splendori del confine di polizia: lettere da Ventotene 1939-1943 [Milan: Feltrinelli, 1981]).Aldo Moro's letters from his detention by the Red Brigades have been printed by Leonardo Sciascia in L'affaireMoro (Palermo: Sellerio, 1978); writings from prison by Toni Negri include his Pipe-line: lettere da Rebibbia, among those by Renato Curcio are his recent L'aljabeto di Este (Terni: Tipolito Visconti, 1988).

3Silvio Pellico, Le mie prigioni ed altri scritti scelti, ed. Egidio Bellorini (Milan: Vallardi, 1907), 17-18. All references to Le mie prigioni in this essay are to this edition and for the reader's convenience will be identified in the text by chapter rather than page number.

4Blaise Pascal, Pensees sur la religion, ed. Louis Lafuma, Paris: Editions du Luxembourg, 1951, 245-49.

sFor the importance of prison as part of the European and especially French imagination in the nineteenth century and earlier, see Victor Brombert, The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978).

6Forathoroughdiscussionof thepoliticalbackgroundto Pellico'scase, see Alessandro Luzio, I1 processo Pellico-Matoncelli secondo gli atti segreti (Milan: Cogliati, 1903).

7Mino Milani, "Una lettura de Le mie prigioni, oggi" in Aldo Mola, ed., Saluzzo e Silvio Pellico nel1500 de Le mie prigioni: Atti del Convegno di Studio, Saluzzo, 30 ottobte, 1983 (Turin: Centro studi piemontesi, 1984), 35.

8Alfieri's "life" was notoriously and admittedly inspired by "amore di me medesimo." See his Vita rime e satire, ed. Luigi Fasso (Turin: UTET, 1965),43. In his reference to other autobiographies that might be seen as competing with his own, Pellico does not indicate what works he might in fact have in mind.

9The text of this letter is given in Luzio, 383-85.

laThe Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,

vol. 19, London: Hogarth Press, 1961, 227-32.

11In a memoir printed as an Appendix to Atto Vannucci's Itnartiti della liberia italiana (Milan: 1887, II, 471-77), Felice Foresti, for example, describes in detailed and gory terms his unusually determined attempt at suicide while held by the Austrians in Venice.

I2Silvio Pellico, Lettere milanesi (1815-'21). ed. Mario Scotti, Turin: Giornale storico della letteratura italiatia, Supplemento #28, 1963.

13 Lettere milanesi, 501.

14Forthe problem of who owns letters, especially letters by a famous person (the sender? the recipient? posterity?), see Jacques Derrida, La Carte Postale, de Socrate a Freud et au-dela, Paris: Flammarion, 1980, 194; for French law on the matter, Philip Kolb, "Proust's Letters," Men and Woman of Letters, Yale French Studies 71 (1986): 199-210,202. For critical problems involving letters and the epistolary novel, see Janet Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form, Columbus, Ohio State UP, 1982; Linda Kauffman, Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre, and Epistolary Fictions, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986; Gianfranco Folena, ed., La lettera [atniliate, Quaderni di retorica e poetica 1 (1985), Padua: Liviana, 1985.

  • Recommend Us