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Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions


Bill Kent [editor]; Ros Pesman [editor]; Cynthia Troup [editor]

  1. Download this book
  2. First page
  3. Cover; Copyright and Contributor Information; Table of Contents
  4. Preface
  5. Presentazione
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction
  9. Ch 1. Australians in Italy: The long view
  10. Ch 2. Twentieth-century diplomatic and trade relations
  11. Ch 3. Some facts and figures
  12. Ch 4. Gaining a foothold: Australian cultural institutions in Italy
  13. Ch 5. Arthur Dale Trendall: A memoir
  15. Ch 6. More than a love affair: Australian writers and Italy
  16. Ch 7. A great tradition revisited
  17. Ch 8. Funghi, family and fables
  18. Ch 9. ‘Everything else in Italy’: A journalist in Rome
  20. Ch 10. Australian artists in Italy: Residencies and residents
  21. Ch 11. Donald Friend: An Australian artist’s affair with Italy
  22. Ch 12. Drawing on Italian art
  23. Ch 13. Rinascimento through a contemporary lens
  25. Ch 14. Australian clergy in Italy after Vatican II
  26. Ch 15. Rome: My two cities
  27. Ch 16. Rediscovering Rome
  28. Ch 17. ‘Unevenly buried’: A personal topography of Rome
  30. Ch 18. Elusive landscapes: Australians and the Italian garden
  31. Ch 19. Educational tourism – cultural landscapes
  32. Ch 20. Carrara: Landscape of stone
  33. Ch 21. Imagining and experiencing Italy in the 1980s and 1990s
  35. Ch 22. Reflections and refractions: An Italian perspective on Australian Studies
  36. Ch 23. Australian cinema in Italy: Sguardi australiani
  37. Ch 24. Remembering Bernard Hickey
  39. Ch 25. Italian Australians in Italy
  40. Ch 26. Washing faces, cleansing hearts: Who am I?
  41. Ch 27. The returned migrants: The Associazione Nazionale Emigrati ed ex Emigrati in Australia
  42. INDEX

Chapter 6

More than a love affair:
Australian writers and Italy

Bruce Bennett

Bruce Bennett is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of New South Wales based at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. He was born in Western Australia; he studied at Oxford and London and has taught Australian and Commonwealth literature at universities in Europe, North America and Asia. His books include Homing In: Essays on Australian Literature and Selfhood (2006), Australian Short Fiction: A History (2002), The Oxford Literary History of Australia (1998) and Spirit in Exile (1991) – a study of the poet Peter Porter. Bennett fell in love with Italy and Italians during the 1980s and has never fallen out of love. His academic travels range from Palermo to Prato and have included Bologna, Venice, Lecce, Rome, Verona, Pisa and Florence.

One enters this topic through a fog of childhood memories. In 1950s Perth, Western Australia, my maternal grandmother used to rail against the creeping incursion of Catholics, and especially the new menace, Italian Catholics, into suburban West Leederville. If her Anglo-Celtic fearfulness felt disconcerting even then, I think it was because of my growing identification with an Australian football team called West Perth which had its headquarters at nearby Leederville Oval; this team boasted a number of star players of Italian descent popularly known as ‘garlic munchers’. When garlanded in their red and blue football finery, however, these players were called ‘the Cardinals’. I wore red and blue when playing in the Under 16s and was proud to be a Cardinal on Saturdays. A broad church prevailed in sport. Nevertheless domestic conflicts among neighbours in the suburb where I lived were a continual reminder of the Catholic versus Protestant wars in post-Second World War Australian suburbia, when Italians were replacing the Irish as front-line challengers to a still-dominant Anglo-Australia. We were (and in a different sense still are) a society in transition. Beyond the dictates of public history, Italy tugs at the corners of the Australian imagination through film, art and literature, including books by Australians that feature their authors’ images of Italy and Italian people.

Pathos and comedy: West, O’Grady, Langley, Prichard

The books about Italy and Italians that stand out for me from the mid twentieth century are two popular novels, Morris West’s best-selling Children of the Sun (West 1957), subtitled The Slum Dwellers of Naples, and John O’Grady’s They’re a Weird Mob (O’Grady 1957), narrated in the first person by his character Nino Culotta. Both books were widely read and highly influential in ‘softening’ such Australian attitudes towards Italy and Italians as held by some of my grandmother’s generation. They achieve this through pathos and comedy. West’s skill lies in his graphic reportage and moral seriousness in building a sense of conscience, compassion and shared responsibility for tragic poverty in the world, exemplified in this novel by the slums of Naples. O’Grady’s novel, complemented by the film of They’re a Weird Mob (1966), showed its big-hearted Italian immigrant protagonist cheerfully entering Australian society thanks to his preparedness to work hard, make mistakes, be adaptable, and look for the best in others. While West’s poor children who remain in Italy are victims of forces beyond their control, O’Grady’s iconic Italian immigrant in Australia can work his way to a place in the sun in his adoptive country. O’Grady’s images of the willing and adaptable immigrant journalist who turned his hand to working as a builder’s labourer in Australia were humorous and congenial to readers in an assimilationist phase in postwar Australian history, but the book was either neglected or criticised as politically incorrect in the climate of more judgmental multiculturalist views of the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, They’re a Weird Mob re-entered the public domain in 2005 as an audio CD read by actor Henri Szeps, indicating perhaps a renewed receptiveness to integrationist views in Australia in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Home-grown Australian images of Italian immigrants in the first half of the twentieth century had contributed to later stereotypes. For example, the novel The Pea-Pickers by Eve Langley (1943; 1976) set a tone for somewhat naive but likeable Italian workers in the 1930s which O’Grady’s character Nino Culotta later complemented. Among Langley’s itinerant fruit-pickers, a number of whom are Italian, Domenic Tomcatto plays the stereotypical comic role of the ‘singing Italian’:

Mincing from chair to chair around the room, with his mouth wide open, his eyes glaring and his posterior bouncing as though wagging a tail, Tomcatto mewed through a dozen of Donizetti, a couple of Bellini and a Mascagni. ‘O Lola, che ti datti la camicia’, he wailed thrusting the flowers under Mrs ‘Ardy’s nose; and coming up to me with wide staring eyeballs he shouted while he lunged the flowers at my heart: ‘Eri tu che miacchiavi quella bella vita mia!’ (94).

Hardly commedia dell’arte, such scenes nevertheless capture a relatively benign view of the Italian in Australia as a natural musical comedian. In the novel Intimate Strangers by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1937; 1981), the writer’s alter ego is infatuated with the idea of a free-spirited, working-class hero, which finds a partial embodiment in Guido Maretti, a ‘philosophical anarchist’ who is still ‘tall and vigorous in his seventies, with the features of a Medici’ (61). Such idealising of Italians recurs in Prichard’s work.

Italy as ‘source of civilisation’? Boyd, Hope, White

The main focus in this essay is on the literary record of Australian writers who have lived in Italy, or visited that country for a time in the second half of the twentieth century. The persistent idea of Italy, and of Rome in particular, as both a source of civilisation and a place of visions recurs throughout the history of literature in English. It can be examined through the prism of early to mid twentieth-century Australian literature in the figures of novelist Martin Boyd and poet A. D. Hope. Boyd’s interest in what he called ‘poetic religion’ led him into several unsuccessful attempts at a religious vocation after the First World War, including joining a Franciscan community in the Church of England. But writing novels took over when he was in England: Boyd returned to Australia in 1948 before leaving for England and Europe again in 1951, and finally settling in Rome in 1957. Much of Boyd’s most successful fiction, including large portions of the Langton tetralogy – The Cardboard Crown (1952), A Difficult Young Man (1955), Outbreak of Love (1957), When Blackbirds Sing (1962) – was written while he was in Rome. Much Else in Italy was published in 1958, between the third and fourth volumes of the tetralogy. As Brenda Niall (1974) observes, Boyd’s ‘love of order and traditional forms of worship was at odds with his mistrust of authority and institutions’ and ‘this conflict is reflected in the unresolved dialogue between “Catholic” and “Protestant” personae in Much Else in Italy’ (7).

The poet-professor A. D. Hope, some fourteen years younger than Boyd, sought to define his own identity and outlook in relation to Boyd and Italy. In his essay ‘Martin Boyd, myself and the whore of Babylon’, Hope (1974, 26–38) ruminates on Boyd’s depiction of the aristocratic society in which he grew up and its destruction by commercialism – the ‘Whore of Babylon’. Hope’s own family connections were with the ‘world of country towns, small businesses and skilled trades’ and he liked to think of himself as a poet who continued a tradition of ‘craftmanship’ (30). Shielded to an extent by academic life, as it was constituted in the 1950s and ’60s, Hope was able to view the operations of the ‘Great Whore’ with sardonic amusement rather than active hatred (37).

Yet Hope, like Boyd, had been seduced by an image of Italy, through its capital Rome, as the centre of civilisation and a place of visionary moments. Hope’s verse ‘Letter from Rome’ (1958), addressed to Dr Leonie Kramer, expresses a remarkable recognition by a non-Catholic Australian of his allegiance to Italy and Rome. The source of his being is here, he says:


The source is Italy, and hers is Rome,

The fons et origo of Western Man;

Athens perhaps begot, Rome was the womb;

Here the great venture of the heart began.

Here simply with a sense of coming home

I have returned with no explicit plan

Beyond a child’s uncertain quest to find

Something once dear, long lost and left behind (Hope 1992, 100).


The keynote of Hope’s impulse is not mystical but it is clearly poetic, deriving in part from a reading of Byron’s return to Rome. And like Byron, Hope’s feeling for the native country he has left behind (in his case Australia) is rather less compelling than his feeling for romantic Rome – but a romantic Rome whose days are threatened by materialism and the noise of traffic:


Italia, O Italia, still in fetters,

Though risen at last, restored, united, free,

I too shall bring you from the world of letters

One more lament, though it is not for me

Perhaps to try to emulate my betters.

The tragic theme, the bough of prophecy

I leave to Dante, Ariosto, Byron,

Whose ages range from gold to brass to iron;


But mine’s the age of plastics and alloys

Which bring combustion engines in their train

To fill with hideous and inhuman noise

All your once pleasant cities of the plain (Hope 1992, 104–105).


In 1958, three well-known Australian writers were staying in Italy for various periods of time: Martin Boyd, A. D. Hope and Patrick White. Only one of the three, White, took a satirist’s scalpel in his toolkit. From Florence, White wrote to his second cousin Patricia:

Rome was a pleasant place to be in, but most disappointing in many ways. I expected to be swept off my feet, and was only knocked over backwards by the vulgarity of its churches, and the ugliness of its ancient remains, which all look as if they are made out of stale gingerbread. If ever one sees a statue of any grace and aesthetic appeal, one goes up to it and discovers it is of Greek origin, and if ever there is any detail that pleases in a Roman church, it is only because that detail is Byzantine (White 1994, 140).

To his friends the Kriegers, White wrote from Venice:

I refuse to go in a gondola, as they are now almost the exclusive property of elderly American ladies, they look so funereal (much more than Liszt suggested), and in the smaller canals they keep one so close to the water and move so slowly one would be asphyxiated by the smells. Everything must go into those canals – kittens, corpses, abortions. To say nothing of the more obvious forms of refuse. When we arrived here and found our room looked onto a narrow street (the Calle Goldoni, incidentally) we were very disappointed, but after the first twenty-four hours we realised how kind the management had been to spare us a canal (White 1994, 142).

In deference perhaps to his Greek partner, Manoly Lascaris, with whom he was travelling, White continually compared Greeks and Italians, to the detriment of the latter. ‘If the Greek shows he likes one’, proclaims White, ‘he means it. He is fundamentally sincere and honest’ (White 1994, 142). By contrast, the politeness of the Italians is extreme but ‘one can’t quite believe in it; one feels that underneath they don’t care a button for the foreigner, and that the latter is only there to be bled as dry as possible’ (White 1994, 142).

On a later visit, in 1976, White found in Genoa the right mix of grandeur and grotesque physical detail in which he could revel in a letter to Geoffrey Dutton:

[...] Genoa was worth seeing, in spite of being filthier even than Constantinople: magnificent palaces in the most squalid streets, and I’ve never seen such a display of whores as in the waterfront bars, sitting topless in their red-lit interiors; you could feel the clap and the crabs jumping through the doorways at you (White 1994, 480).

Since most of White’s letters are performances for selected individuals, one wonders how Dutton responded to this image of Italy. Was it designed by White to titillate or affront his reader? White abruptly ended his friendship with Dutton four years later, disgusted by his loss of ‘principles’ and no longer wishing to engage him with images of Italy, or of anywhere else (Marr 1991, 614).

Women in Italy: Greer, Grenville, Hazzard

From the 1960s and ’70s a number of Australian-born writers began to invest more heavily in the Italian estate, both real and symbolic. Shirley Hazzard and her husband Francis Steegmuller, a North American writer and critic, divided their time between their apartments in New York and Capri; David Malouf bought a house in the village of Campagnatico in Tuscany in 1978, lived there for some years and divided his time between Italy and Australia; and Germaine Greer acquired a property in a valley in Tuscany. Each of these three writers saw their Italian residences as places of work, rest and imaginative stimulation. Kate Grenville stayed in Italy for a shorter period.

In Greer’s case, her mother was of part-Italian extraction and Germaine had spent three months in a Calabrian village in 1967 shortly before submission of her doctoral thesis at Cambridge University; the ethics of love and marriage in Shakespeare’s early comedies was her thesis topic. As Ian Britain (1997, 157) notes, in his interesting and informative book Once an Australian, Greer’s Italian lover had arranged her trip to the ‘remote Calabrian village where she completed her doctoral thesis’. This experience – of the lover, who ‘wanted to end the affair as soon as she arrived in Italy’, and of her immersion in Calabrian village life – informs Greer of ‘the complexities of Italian sexual culture’ and the ways in which a small, enclosed society could ‘knit this wild strand [of sexuality] into their social fabric’ (158). Later, in Sex and Destiny, Greer again invoked her Calabrian experience, along with observations of peasant societies in India, to show alternatives to the dominant form of the ‘nuclear family’ in Western society (161). At her Tuscan farmhouse from the 1970s, Greer extended the lessons she had learnt from her earlier experience in southern Italy by attempting to ‘communalise her own domestic arrangements’, often having many diverse visitors to stay (163). Other adventurous Australian women have also been burnt, or had their imaginative horizons extended, by Italian life beyond the cities. A decade later than Greer, the Tuscan farmhouse in the novel Dreamhouse by Kate Grenville (1986) represents the antithesis of an ideal, when a young, recently married woman experiences her dreamhouse as a gothic nightmare while her marriage disintegrates.

From the outside, an Italian pied-à-terre could seem an escapist luxury. In gadfly mood, Patrick White wrote to Shirley Hazzard in 1980 that ‘you do lead an unusually charmed life writing away in the N.Y. apartment and Capri villa, while collecting your celebrities and charmers and pairing them off round the world’ (White 1994, 527). Wittingly or unwittingly, White had exaggerated: the so-called ‘villa’ was in fact ‘two rented rooms in an ex-pensione, with discarded ex-pensione fittings’, as Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller somewhat defensively informed White (1994, 527). But White’s point was that Hazzard was sheltered from ‘exposure to everyday vulgarity and squalor’ in which he claimed to have immersed himself in Australia (525). This was an artists’ spat brought on by White. But Hazzard took none of this lying down. She replied that White’s was the sheltered life because he had no experience of the ‘arid squalor’ of office work to which millions of people in the West were condemned (527). Hazzard’s advocates (of whom I am one) would claim that her middle-class Italian characters, like those of other nationalities, suffer both love and betrayal and are not treated as a race apart.

If Shirley Hazzard’s Italian romances have little in common with Patrick White’s story ‘Down at the Dump’, they nevertheless avoid some of the tempting clichés of the popular romance genre. Laurie Hergenhan (1991, 112) observes that Hazzard’s first novel The Evening of the Holiday (1966) ‘frustrates the glib conventions of a visitor’s love affair in “romantic”, “passionate” Italy’. Hergenhan rightly praises the ‘delicacy of feelings’ conveyed by Hazzard through her characters’ responses to [Italian] landscape both in its aesthetic manifestations and in the ‘“domestic”, localized and earthy side of Tuscany’ (113). A romantic outlook survives, not in the outcome of the novel’s particular love affair which ends but in the author’s apparent faith in ‘the intricate, lasting nature of any form of love’ (114). Hazzard’s second novel, The Bay of Noon, is set in Naples (Hazzard 1970). As Ros Pesman (1994, 99) has observed, ‘the city is the real protagonist in the novel’; and like The Evening of the Holiday ‘love does not conclude in permanence but... life goes on without undue misery’.

Exile and alienation in ‘violent’ Italy: Malouf and O’Grady

David Malouf’s recurrent references to Italy in poems, essays and novels are perhaps best summed up in the opening lines of his poem ‘At Ravenna’ (Malouf 1974, 48): ‘We are all of us exiles in one place / or another – even those / who never leave home.’ The idea of exile is most fully imagined by Malouf in his novel An Imaginary Life, in which the Roman poet Ovid is characterised as an exile on the edge of the Russian steppes (Malouf 1979). Ovid’s story of a feral child rescued from the steppes and brought into the local community reveals something of the pain, perils and possibilities of his relegation from the status of a civilised, cosmopolitan Roman to a more primitive way of living. Malouf’s Ovid learns finally to make this transposition when he can say: ‘I belong to this place now. I have made it mine. I am entering the dimensions of my self’ (94–95). Despite his (enforced) separation from civilisation as he knows it, young Ovid adapts to a new mental and physical environment, in what may be Malouf’s fable of Europeans’ adaptation to Australia when they move there.

If An Imaginary Life dramatises an imagined instance of enforced isolation from one’s Italian heritage, Malouf’s novella Child’s Play exposes the psychology of alienation from one’s own society and a violent way of gaining revenge on its authority figures (Malouf 1982). The first person narrator in Child’s Play is a terrorist from Calabria who is planning an assassination in a northern city. In a remarkable feat of sympathetic imagination, Malouf shows a young man’s hopes, fears and apprehensions as he plans, then carries out, his attack. The young man’s concealed existence in a one-roomed apartment in a palazzo, his collaboration with a cell of four other young terrorists and his research into the life of his intended victim, are revealed from the young man’s point of view. When he thinks about his self-imposed isolation, he recognises the similarity of this life to that of a religious order but observes that it ‘has no ideology behind it’ (17); in some respects it is more like a sport for which training is required. The narrator’s obsessive observation of other people in the piazza, his fascinated imaginings of the old man he is targeting and the grotesquely botched assassination, are graphically conveyed. This is not an ‘historical’ account of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, as found in Cosa Nostra by John Dickie (2004); nor is it like Peter Robb’s deeply imagined sociology in Midnight in Sicily (Robb 1996); rather, it is a graphically realised interior landscape of a terrorist’s mind as he grapples with the demands of his chosen vocation of assassin in the foreign territory of northern Italy.

A different approach to ‘violent’ Italy was taken in Desmond O’Grady’s journalism which reported the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro – different from Malouf’s novella because it fulfilled O’Grady’s wish to be an ‘independent witness’ and reporter of these events (O’Grady 1997, 98). A Melbourne-born journalist and short fiction writer, O’Grady was literary editor of The Bulletin before moving to Rome in 1962. As correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and other newspapers, O’Grady was keen to establish his role as an independent witness of events in Italy. He arrived in Rome two days before the beginning of the Vatican Council which proved to be ‘the longest-running story since the Thirty Years War’ (98). But the longest-running continuous story handled by O’Grady provided a very different narrative: the Red Brigades’ kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro, the Christian Democrat Party president and former prime minister (100). O’Grady covered the kidnapping on an almost daily basis for 55 days and has described his involvement:

During the kidnapping I was well informed about the Red Brigades’ tactics... [O]ne had an uneasy feeling of collaboration with the Red Brigades. If attention to the kidnapping sagged, one knew that they would do something to attract attention to their exploit, usually in time for the evening television news, and one dutifully covered the latest development. However, despite their skilful manipulation of the media, they did not force the government to negotiate with them (100).

O’Grady describes the source of his journalism as ‘travellers’ tales’ (100). His second collection of stories, Valid for all Countries, reinforces this notion (O’Grady 1979). In ‘Circe in Capri’ (181–207), for example, O’Grady presents a comic and satiric tale of filmmakers and their hangers-on in Capri. His Australians, Derek and Sandy, are adventurers and opportunists, there for the ride – and the fall. If O’Grady’s young Australians in Italy are adventurous, they can also be callous, self-obsessed and lacking the capacity for deep involvement in another culture.

‘A peculiar truce’: Porter

The poetry of Peter Porter, a contributor to this volume, provides a fruitful point of connection between early and later responses of Australian writers to Italy, and of so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture attitudes. Based in London since the early 1950s, Porter visited Italy with his first wife Jannice in the 1960s. His elegiac literary responses to Jannice’s suicide in 1974 include a number of poems set in Italy which recall gardens, churches, streets and cafes which husband and wife had explored together as tourists and holidaymakers. Porter’s frequent visits to Italy from his base in London since the 1970s culminate in poems written in the first decade of the twenty-first century which refer to his daughter Katherine and grandchildren Amelia, Martha and Orlando when they were living in Rome in the 1990s. While Porter presents himself as a tourist in Italy, he is far more closely acquainted with people, places, music and art, and more emotionally involved throughout his adult life with Italy, than the words ‘tourist’ or ‘traveller’ usually suggest. Though he claims no authority for his role as a poet of Italy, Porter’s knowledgeable love of the country, its art and people is everywhere apparent in his verse.

Porter’s encyclopedic knowledge of Italian opera, art and architecture has been criticised by fellow Australian poet John Tranter, for example, whose own predilections for contemporary American popular culture may seem to provide more ‘natural’ reference points for many Australians. To another poet, Les Murray, Porter has represented the Attican, city-based rather than Boeotian or agrarian cultural ideal (Bennett 1991, 143–146). A certain Roman stoicism has also been noticed in Porter’s attitudes. But Porter’s fascination with Italy goes beyond these accounts: it is both intellectual and heartfelt, and is based on accretions of experience from wide reading and frequent visits over the years. As an Australian, Porter has felt that northern Italy holds special appeal and meaning, especially Tuscany, as he remarked in a paper delivered in Florence in 1989:

Here man himself is the measure of beauty, and here, despite despotism and, of recent years, reaching for easy commercial success, people and landscape remain in agreement. In Australia, we have hope, Protestant mercantile optimism, and the despair which comes from fighting nature and losing. In Tuscany a peculiar truce still remains (Porter 1993).

This ‘peculiar truce’ between people and place sets a tone for poems such as ‘Frogs at Lago di Bolsena’, ‘The Cats of Campagnatico’ or ‘The Rose Garden on the Aventine’ (Porter 1999), which reveal a deep pleasure of association between this poet and the Italian places with which he chooses to associate himself.

‘The Rose Garden on the Aventine’ (Porter 1999, II, 318–319), for example, opens with the rhetorical question:


Where may I take my now imploded body

To encompass vanities outside itself


His answer, of course, is Rome:

Only some site where grief has entertained

A lifetime’s certainty could host such grace


The poet continues to search for grace, hope, or at least solace, in the rose garden in old Rome:


Now, in my sixties, I have quarrelled with

My friends, including that old friend, my brain,

And sated with the remedy of myth

have no resort but using my tired eyes

To reinvent the day – a thousand flowers

Undisciplined but municipal

Vie with St Dominic and the flying hours.


Somehow these roses form a counterpoint to ‘exhausted Rome’, proving:


Through roar of motorinos time’s defeat

Even in this its consecrated heart.


The poem reveals a strangely neglected lyrical dimension in Porter’s work (evident here in an ironic but approving echo of Wordsworth’s daffodils), which flares into prominence quite frequently in his Italian poems. Often lying behind such moments (though not here) are hints of Puccini or Verdi. Often, too, the big moments are punctured by an ironic aside or humorous observation. But the built-in grief or pessimism which characterises many of Porter’s poems is reconstituted as qualified hope in a number of his Italian poems where he seems impelled to rediscover in his own terms the ‘peculiar [Italian] truce’ between humans and nature. In these ways, Porter’s Italian poems show a noticeable development from A. D. Hope’s ‘A Letter from Rome’ in their deeper immersion in the music, art and history of Italy and their openness to a wide variety of ancient and modern voices, both despairing and hopeful. Porter’s work reveals a capacity to accept the brash, vulgar and commercial aspects of contemporary Italy alongside the hidden secrets of churches, paintings, rose gardens and music.

Eros in Italy

A number of Australian writers in the 1990s took advantage of the Australia Council for the Arts flat in Rome to continue their work in an Italian setting. The Italian milieu had an especially strong influence on poet Philip Salom (1998) in his collection Rome Air Naked. Salom is one of a number of younger Australian poets who acknowledge Peter Porter’s encouragement of their work. Salom’s scene is set by the brutal bombing assassination in 1992 of Giovanni Falcone, chief investigator of the mafia in Italy. Salom reflects in his poem ‘After the Highway Assassination of Falcone’: ‘Falcone dead, the magistrates and justice dying, / the old ruts fill with blood’ (218). Beggars in Rome are also part of Salom’s scene, recalling in some respects Morris West’s depiction 40 years earlier of poverty in Naples. But poverty to Salom and his generation is a diversion rather than a condition of living. He observes a madman dancer at Piazza Barberini. Such poems are principally frames for the poet’s rediscovery of Eros, the Greek god of love who relocates to Italy. Salom sees breasts everywhere in Rome, he writes erotic ghazals and describes the musical sex of his lover and himself: ‘Your body-loving is never less than cellos’ (220).

The most reviewed and talked about Australian work set in Italy in the late twentieth century was Night Letters by Robert Dessaix (1996), which evokes another manifestation of Eros (Marr 1996, 9). The 20 letters that comprise Dessaix’s part-novel part-memoir purport to be written from a hotel room in Venice. They are written in the shadow of the writer’s recent discovery that he is dying of an incurable disease. ‘I haven’t ever named the disease in this book’, Dessaix told David Marr. ‘This is not because I lack any kind of bare-facedness... it’s because I think what really interests people is the question of mortality, not this disease or that disease’ (Marr 1996, 9). Nevertheless, widespread public fear and curiosity about HIV Aids and its effects at this time accounted to some extent for interest in Dessaix’s book. Its strictly literary brilliance tantalises in a different way, by allusion to works of literature ranging from the memoirs of Casanova to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Dessaix’s mysterious figure Professor Eschenbaum, whom he follows with fascination, is a kind of doppelgänger who travels south to Italy each spring to do what his literary predecessor Aschenbach could only dream of doing – to experience the gamut of sexual desire before retreating to the theories and paradoxes of his intellectual life. He acts out the classic double life.

The most tantalising aspect of the Night Letters is the work’s search for a positive vision in the shadow of death. The proliferating narratives and dreams contribute to a kind of fight back against obliteration. The profligate literary allusions represent Dessaix’s version of the contribution of Europe, especially Italy, to the Australian imagination. By the novel-memoir’s end, the narrator admits to a kind of fatigue at ‘not Europe, exactly, but the accumulation of stories, battles, treaties, families, duchies, paintings, churches, palaces – all the things the antipodean finds so exciting on arrival’ (Dessaix 1996, 269–270). The winged lion in St Mark’s Square, from which the narrator had shrunk in fear in previous dreams, enters another dream: ‘I neither faced the lion nor kept on running – I leapt onto its back, stuck a hat on my head and made off on it’ (272). This flamboyant gesture masks a quieter acceptance of the author’s need to return to Australia and live in the moment: ‘I have learnt’, Dessaix remarked, ‘to hope for something else: for this circle of time I’m living in at the moment to be wonderful...’ (Marr 1996, 9).

* * *

This small sample of Australian writers’ literary responses to Italy and Italian people and culture demonstrates a range of perceptions and attitudes explored during the twentieth century. Home-grown representations of Italians in Australia include Eve Langley’s operatic fruit-pickers, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s virile but unpredictable fishermen and John O’Grady’s iconic immigrant worker of the mid twentieth century. Prejudicial attitudes towards Italians were enmeshed in the fierce sectarian rivalries of Protestants versus Catholics in Australia from the 1930s to the 1960s. But certain major literary authors expanded perceptions of Italy in the imagination of Australians. A. D. Hope’s ‘Letter from Rome’ and his response to the career of Martin Boyd reveal the poet’s emergent sense of Rome’s centrality to Western civilisation, alongside his sense of living in a fallen age. Patrick White’s satiric irreverence towards Italy (and his instinctive protectiveness towards Greece) contrasts sharply with Shirley Hazzard’s sense of Italy as a place of beauty where romance and love are still possible. For Germaine Greer, southern Italy provides alternative models to the nuclear family together with some puzzles about sexual mores. On the other hand, David Malouf’s representations of Italy and Italians show contrasting exile figures working out their fates: Ovid, who is far from Roman civilisation on the Russian steppes, and an anonymous terrorist, a Sicilian exile in northern Italy. Desmond O’Grady’s ‘true stories’ of the Red Brigades’ kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro reinforce images of a continuing violence in parts of Italy. In contrast, Peter Porter’s long-term engagement with Italian art, music and literature gives depth to his fascination with Italy, ancient and modern, and to his sense of a ‘peculiar truce’ that has developed there between people and place. Works by poet Philip Salom and prose writer Robert Dessaix in the last decade of the twentieth century differently present an Italy where eros is active and dreaming is possible. An approach to living for the moment is sought by each in an environment where the past continually impinges.

It would be difficult to claim that Australian writers’ encounters with Italy present a unique perspective on people and place. Yet they do reveal a perennial attraction to Italy and Italians. The literary evidence suggests that the idea and actuality of Italy have long haunted Australian writers, and will continue to do so.


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Publication information

This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to

Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions

   by Bill Kent [editor]; Ros Pesman [editor]; Cynthia Troup [editor]