Grazia Deledda

An island’s heart and soul

Deirdre Pirro
March 25, 2010

In early December 1927, a very small, reserved, middle-aged and somewhat overwhelmed Grazia Deledda made the gruelling journey by train from Rome to Stockholm. She was the first female Italian writer and only the second woman author (after the Swedish writer, Selma Lagerlòf) to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. According to the Nobel committee, she was given the prize ‘for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general.' Because she was a distant cry from the stereotype of other Italian writers of her day, the prize caused a stir throughout the country and, above all, in her native Sardinia where, initially, she was harshly criticised for daring to so vividly depict some of the island's primitive, even primeval, cultures, customs and beliefs.


Deledda never stopped writing from the time of the publication of her first story as a 17 year-old girl until her death in Rome at 65, from breast cancer, on August 15, 1936, an illness she described in her most openly autobiographical novel, Cosima (1937), published posthumously. In all, she published 36 novels, often as serials in literary magazines; 250 stories; two plays; some verse; an opera libretto; the screen play for Cenere (‘Ashes'), the film, starring Eleonora Duse, based on her 1904 novel of the same name; and a collection of popular Sardinian traditions. Although their themes were universal and ageless, her major novels were all set in Sardinia. Some but not all have been translated into English.


The moral laws of the peasant farmers and pastoral world that Deledda's novels depict were, by tradition, even more implacable in her birthplace and form the backdrop to the struggles her heroes and heroines must face. Without ever condemning her characters, she takes her readers on a journey through their anguish as they try to live within those almost sacred rules yet inevitability must break them. Their deep sense of guilt and sin is haunted by their desire for expiation and redemption. These torments and tragedies are explored in her most important novels, including Elias Portolu (1903, , 1995), considered a masterpiece; Dopo il divorzio (1902, ‘After the Divorce,'1905); Cenere (1904, ‘Ashes', 1908);  L'edera (1906); Canne al vento (1913, ‘Reeds in the Wind,'1999); Marianna Sirca (1915);  L'incendio dell'uliveto (1917); La madre (1920, ‘The Mother', 1922); La chiesa della solitudine (1936, ‘The Church of Solitude', 2002).


The fourth of six children in a well-off family, Deledda was born in Nuoro, an inland city in eastern Sardinia on September 27, 1871. Not unlike many girls of her generation, her formal education ended after the fourth grade. But her love of literature led her to continue to read everything she could find, ranging from epic Russian and French novels to the cloying love stories by the then very fashionable Gabriele D'Annunzio. She soon also began to experiment by writing her own prose.


While staying in Cagliari with Maria Manca, the editor of the literary magazine Donna Sarda, between October and December 1899, Deledda met Palmiro Madesano, an official of the Ministry of Finance who was on assignment there. From a small town near Mantua, Madesani fell in love with her and they married on January 11, 1900. After their wedding, the couple moved to Rome, where she divided her time between her husband and two sons, Sardus and Francesco (known as Franz), and her writing. She wrote regularly every afternoon. In Rome, she finally broke free of the isolation imposed by her island home and met members of the contemporary literary community working in the capital. Opening her horizons even further, she spent her summer holidays until 1920 in Viareggio with her children and two of her beloved sisters, Pina and Nicolina, who had moved to live nearby her in Rome. There, she often attended stimulating soirées with other writers and artists hosted by the great composer Giacomo Puccini at his home in Torre del Lago.


In a recent posting on an Italian Facebook site dedicated to Deledda, her grandson, Alessando Madesani Deledda, lamented that today she has more fans abroad than at home and that Italian schools are failing to teach students about her life and work. Others, among them the well-known writer Dacia Maraini, share this view. In a press interview, Maraini said that despite the fact that Deledda had won the Nobel prize for literature, after her death she ‘vanished from literature. No studies were ever made of her work. She is not included in the all-important anthologies.' Many agree with her that this is profoundly regrettable and should be remedied.






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