A cultural idiom, as the author explains in the Introduction, is “a set of beliefs, stereotyped images, states of mind to which one confers a certain varying grade of awareness” (p. IX). Anti-Semitic rhetoric, which grew up next to anti-Semitic ideology and was fed by it, is one of these “vexatious” cultural idioms. At the beginning of the twentieth century, anti-Semitism in Italy was based on a traditional Catholic anti-Judaism and on a popular xenophobic sentiment, corroborated by a secularized racist perspective that gradually gained ground in Italian culture. In this context an abundant literature proliferated, made up of novels, short stories, newspaper articles, the amount of which conveys the deep roots of the racist prejudice.
Pischedda’s book deals with the figure of the literary critic Emilio Cecchi (Florence 1884 - Rome 1966), who “was engaged in an absolutely not minor match in the ethnic and religious conflicts raised in the first forty years of the century” (p. XII). The sources collected by the author are copious and various: private correspondences, reviews, travel reports, notebooks etc. His acute analysis of published texts, critically put in connection with archival documents, retraces the numerous relationships maintained by Cecchi during his career and frames the intellectual climate in which he operated.
Cecchi was an eclectic, prolific writer, who could count on the friendship of quite some personalities such as Giovanni Papini and Giuseppe Prezzolini, and on a close contact with monsignor Umberto Benigni. Among his collaborations it is worth to mention at least newspapers like “La Tribuna,” “Il Corriere della Sera,” “The Manchester Guardian,” and cultural journals like “La Voce” and “La Ronda”. The meticulous investigation on Cecchi’s rich production carried out by Pischedda highlights an untimely and persistent presence of anti-Semitic and anti-negro prejudice in the mentality of the Florentine critic. The clues of a hostile attitude towards the Jews emerge in Cecchi’s first review essays of Israel Zangwill’s Italian fantasies for “La Tribuna,” on 7 December 1910, and in his private notebooks at the end of 1912 while commenting Zangwill’s novel Chad Gadya. The abstract lemmas employed in the initial phase of his career – Jewish “race” and “temperament” (p. 42-43) – led soon to stauncher statements ascribable to Christian anti-Judaism. In 1918, the reading of the book Voci d’Oriente by Raffaele Ottolenghi evokes in Cecchi’s annotations the most common anti-Semitic stereotypes abundantly spread by nineteenth-century press (i.e. the collusion with the freemasonry and the Enlightenment).
In 1920 Cecchi let himself go to a public anti-Semitic outburst while defending his friend Riccardo Bacchelli in a querelle with Giuseppe Antonio Borgese concerning the latest book of the Jewish writer Guido da Verona, Sciogli la treccia, Maria Maddalena. Although this episode was already well-known, as was the role of Benigni as a “solid but very discreet guide” to Cecchi (p. 131), the discussion of his experience at “La Ronda” is enriched with many details by Pischedda’s research.1
Anti-Semitic discourse provided a certain amount of discriminatory assertions that Cecchi could use “depending on the needs” (p. 175). The image of the "Jew" that arises from his writings is one of an ambitious, avid, and immoral man, protagonist of international plots. What is typical of Cecchi is that as his anti-Semitism started to take a more definitive shape, its Christian roots quit to surface: “a traditional religious hostility slowly turns into an a priori racial rebuff” (p. 177). Beside the specificities of Cecchi’s anti-Semitism, his prejudice towards the Jews is something that he has in common with a “non-exiguous area of men of Letters at the beginning of the twentieth century [...] that, in the Thirties, converges in a subsidiary spirit towards the racist and colonial ideology by now sanctioned by the law “ (p. 192). Racism invaded common sense through high-end as well as commercial literature.2
In the summer of 1938, during Cecchi’s eight-month trip in the United States, the director of the “Corriere della Sera” commissioned him a series of articles on “America race issue,” as Aldo Borelli wrote in a telegram (p. 12). Cecchi’s articles were published in the Milanese newspaper between the summer and autumn of 1938, namely during the acme of Fascist racist propaganda leading to the promulgation of the racial laws. He concentrated his attention to the question of “negros,” in order to demonstrate that racism was present in American society notwithstanding its declarations of democracy and liberalism.3 The reportages from Libya – where he accompanied Mussolini in 1937 – from the United States and lastly from the Portuguese colonies in Africa, convey the figure of a service-minded “polygraph” for whom prejudice had turned into certainty.
Raffaella Perin, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
Bruno Pischedda, L’idioma molesto. Emilio Cecchi e la letteratura novecentesca a sfondo razziale (Turin: Aragno, 2015), pp. 313.