Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Italy’s Town of the Diary

Some 250km north of Rome and 70km east of Florence, in Tuscany but not far from the borders with Umbria and Romagna, lies Pieve Santo Stefano, otherwise known as the Town of the Diary. For over two decades, it has been the centre of an astonishing project to archive and publicise the diaries of, what the archive calls, common people, and in so doing has developed what might be termed a diary culture.

Pieve Santo Stefano was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War, though an L-shaped town hall survived, and it is there that the Archivio Diaristico Nazionale - or ‘house of memory’ - began to evolve 25 years ago, at the initiative of the journalist and writer Saverio Tutino. A full history can be seen here in Italian, and here translated into English. Today, all the roads into the town bear not only a sign saying its name, but another sign saying ‘Citta del Diario’.

Over the years, many thousands of diaries (and letters) have been deposited in the Archive. A few of their authors are highlighted on the Archive’s website: an architect who was victim to a terrorist attempt in the seventies; a ‘naif writer’ who described his work in a mine and his amorous adventures; a Venetian farmer with a poetic but ungrammatic style; a girl who wrote with deep sorrow to her mother from a drug-addicted community before her suicide; a Sicilian farmer who emigrated to the US; a bricklayer from the south of Italy; and a robber from Rome.

But the Archive is more than just a depository for diaries. There are two panels of readers, one consisting of people ‘on the spot’, i.e. in the locality (‘teachers and attendants, clerks and students, a [vet], an engineer, a trader and some housewives’), and the other consisting of ‘experienced people’(!), such as writers, sociologists and historians. And, each year, these readers select a prize text. By the early 1990s, Italian publishers were already sourcing new titles from the Archives, and since 1999, Mursia has been publishing the prize-winners texts.

Every year now, in September, the town hosts a celebration - the Annual Festival of Autobiography - based around the prize giving. The night before there is a meeting between the two groups of readers, and the following morning the authors and the readers get together. Representatives of similar archives in other European countries also visit and together have formed the European Association for Autobiography. The town hall regularly hosts exhibitions of the rarest diaries and of the original manuscripts sent to the Archives during the year.

Here is part of the Archive’s English page which explains, albeit in a rather awkward translation, some of its philosophy:

‘We have spread the idea that also some personal documents, not connected with market interests, are a new genre of not learned literature (or maybe a ‘semi-learned’ literature). Without doubts, this is a lively cultural genre which is fit for the age we live in. In the meanwhile, students, journalists, writers, scenarists, have come to the Archives and have consulted the texts. When the diaries are collated, we often find parallelisms and convergences. Sometime, we assist to a kind of meeting among the past events which are told in the texts. The micro-history we find in our writings emphasizes every aspect of life, even if some texts were originally written for different aims. Besides, around the Archives, which are sources of memory, an attention to old relationships and new friendships revives. It seems that people, whose memoirs are written on the paper, have the possibility of talking over their past loneliness and of communicating with the world in a new real atmosphere.

Philippe Lejeune, the author of Le Pact Autobiographique, agrees with us in using the word ‘magic’ to explain the combination between the poetics of the past and the scientific study of all autobiographic stories. Lejeune says: ‘The autobiographic texts must not considered to be interesting and meaningful documents which are useful only to the study of past events’. For this reason, we thought right to place the texts at public’s disposal and to confront them, in order to make the personal documents revive. We had an intuition like Lejeune. We wondered how it was possible to localize ‘All the anonymous texts which were passed unnoticed by some local institutions and had survived the loss and the material destruction. The aim was to avoid that one day or another these texts were forgotten by the very authors and by the author’s descendants’. Since when we have founded the Archives, the authors give us their diaries to read them and to keep them after their death. One day, a eighty years old woman, who gave her diary to the Archives of Pieve Santo Stefano, said: ‘I would like that at least a person read my memoirs. Otherwise, I would pass over my life in silence and nobody would notice my presence, because I have not a husband nor children. I would have lived without leaving a little trace’.’

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