In over half a century since his last book appeared, only vestiges of the Florence that novelist, playwright and poet Vasco Pratolini described in his books remain, but that in no way diminishes their importance; indeed, quite the contrary. During his lifetime, Pratolini wrote 19 novels, two plays, a book of poetry, and many radio and film scripts. Florence and its historic quartieri, or neighbourhoods, especially San Frediano and Santa Croce, were true protagonists and not mere backdrops, for Pratolini’s works, which he frequently tinged with autobiographic elements. In addition, his unembellished narrative of the lives and sentiments of ordinary people made him a major figure in Italian neorealism, on a par with such authors as Alberto Moravia, Carlo Levi and Cesare Pavese, and film directors of the calibre of Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti.
Although it originated in the 1920s, neorealism did not fully emerge in Italy until after the end of World War II because, in conflict with party ideology, the fascist regime had suppressed it for nearly two decades. Strengthened by its efforts to survive, by the heroism of the partisan struggle, by the spread of socialist ideas throughout the country and by a thirst for social justice, neorealism reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s. Its recurring themes, often fuelled with the Marxist ideal of a classless society, centred on the value of the common man, his fight to maintain his dignity and his belief in solidarity in a predominantly brutal and unjust world.
Born into a working-class family in Florence on October 19, 1913, Pratolini lost his mother when he was five years old. Raised by his maternal grandparents, he lived among the rough and tumble of the inner city, firstly, in via de’ Magazzini and then in via del Corno, behind piazza della Signoria, both of which would feature prominently in his work. With little formal education, he apprenticed as a typographer at the age of 12. Between 1925 and 1935, he frequently changed jobs, from factory worker to street vendor, hotel porter to travelling salesman, until he decided to study and educate himself. Stricken with tuberculosis in 1935, he spent two years in a sanatorium. On returning to Florence in 1937, he flirted briefly with the illusion of ‘left-wing fascism’ while working on the periodical Il Bargello. Through his painter friend, Ottone Rosai, he met Elio Vittorini, who introduced him to the city’s literati. In 1938, he founded, with Alfonso Gatto, the journal Campo di Marte, which lasted less than a year before the fascists shut it down.
After moving to Rome in 1939, Pratolini worked at the department of education and began contributing to several newspapers. During the war, he continued to work as a film and art critic and, in 1941, published a book of short stories, entitled Tappeto verde. He was also active in the resistance against German occupation in the capital. With the war over, in 1944, he joined the Italian Communist Party and that same year published his first novel to gain wide recognition, Il quartiere [The Naked Streets], set in the Santa Croce area. From 1945 until 1951, he lived in Naples, his wife’s hometown, where he taught at the Institute of Art. During this prolific period, he published Cronaca familiare [Family Chronicle] and Cronache di poveri amanti [Tales of Poor Lovers], in 1947, both of which were well received and, in 1949, Un eroe del nostro tempo [A Hero of our Time] and Le ragazze di San Frediano [The Girls of San Frediano].
Metello, the first and best of Una storia italiana [An Italian Story], Pratolini’s ambitious historic trilogy, came out in 1955. The novel recounts the adversities of Metello, a socialist mason involved in the harsh labour disputes between 1875 and 1902 that land him in Florence’s Le Murate jail. The next volume, Lo scialo [The Waste], published in 1960, depicts the proletariat’s apathy from 1902 until the mid-1920s, paving the way for the fascist coup. Finally, Allegoria e derisione [Allegory and Derision], published in 1966, focuses on the end of fascism and the dilemmas faced by Florentine intellectuals at a time of social change.
Not only did director Carlo Lizzani make Cronache di poveri amanti into a film in 1953, which was followed by Le ragazze di San Frediano (1954) and Cronaca familiare (1962), both directed by Valerio Zurlini, and by Mauro Bolognini’s Metello (1970), but Pratolini also worked in the film industry as a writer on Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (1946), Luchino Visconti’s acclaimed Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960), and Nanni Loy’s Le quattro giornate di Napoli (1962).
Popular with the public but not with all critics, many of Pratolini’s works were disparaged for being ‘too Florentine’ or ‘too little Italian,’ perhaps a reason why he never wrote very much after 1966. He died of a heart attack in Rome on January 12, 1991, and is buried in Florence at the Porte Sante Cemetery.