The secret passion of Italo Calvino

The wife of one of Italy's greatest writers seeks a court ruling to suppress his love letters to his lover.

By John Hooper
Published August 18, 2004 4:07PM (EDT)

The sex life of Italy's most respected 20th-century novelist was heading for the courts yesterday after his widow instructed lawyers in Rome to seek an injunction banning the publication of further extracts from his passionate correspondence with a married lover. The row centres on a series of letters written by Italo Calvino in the 1950s to the actress Elsa de' Giorgi. Extracts serialised this month in the newspaper Corriere della Sera testify to a torrid love affair between the writer and the star of, among other films, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Calvino's widow, "Chichita", called their publication a crime. She told a newspaper interviewer: "If I think of what Italo was like, so reserved and modest  I just hope they don't get daily papers in the afterlife."

The literary sensation of the year in Italy has turned the spotlight on a relationship paid scant attention by Calvino's biographers, and revealed a new side of an author otherwise renowned for his measured literary style.

In one letter, written before their affair was consummated, the retiring Calvino told De' Giorgi: "I desire you so much that the first time I take you in my arms I think I'll tear you to pieces, rip off your clothes, roll on top of you, do anything to give vent to this infinite desire to kiss you, hold you, possess you."

The publication of their correspondence has raised issues of copyright as well as propriety, and sparked a new mystery over the disappearance and death of the man whom Calvino cuckolded.

Before he met his future wife the author of If On a Winter's Night a Traveller wrote 300 letters to De' Giorgi during a three-year affair which ended in 1958. At the time she was married to a Florentine aristocrat.

De' Giorgi later encountered financial difficulties and sold her correspondence with Calvino to a manuscript archive, the Fondo Manoscritti di Pavia. Corriere della Sera said the archive had promised to keep secret a "large part" of the letters for 25 years after their donation.

The paper has not made clear how it came into possession of the material it has published. It has already serialised three extracts and has told its readers that six more are to come.

Late on Monday the publication of the remaining letters was thrown into doubt when a lawyer said he had been engaged by "Chichita", whose real name is Esther Judith Singer, and her daughter Giovanna to seek an injunction.

Ms Singer owns Calvino's literary estate and, according to media reports, her lawyer is to argue that Corriere della Sera did not have the right to publish his work without her permission.

The paper has argued that the letters shed light on the peculiar life and death of De' Giorgi's husband, Sandrino Contini Bonacossi. The heir to one of Italy's most valuable art collections, Contini Bonacossi went missing on July 31 1955 which, as the serialisation has revealed, was five months after his wife began receiving letters from Calvino.

It had always previously been believed that he fled Italy to escape a financial scandal. But Corriere della Sera said that in a letter sent from the US several months after his disappearance he told his wife: "I left because I couldn't put up with our life anymore."

He reappeared the following year and filed for a legal separation, citing unspecified difficulties in his marriage. He was found hanged in a Washington hotel in October 1975. His wife died in 1997.

The row about the publication of the Calvino-De' Giorgi letters has acquired political overtones. Calvino, who died in 1985, was a treasured leftwing hero.

In a front-page editorial Eugenio Scalfari, La Repubblica's publisher and a school friend of the author, described the serialisation as a "serious violation of the rights of Calvino's heirs".

John Hooper

MORE FROM John Hooper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------