Moussia 44: Antonini, in search of position and identity 1925-1934


At the end of 1925, after completion of his military service, Antonini went to Rome, where he was correspondent of the important Amsterdam newspaper ‘Het Algemeen Handelsblad’ for two years.  Greshoff introduced him to the Dutch writer Arthur van Schendel, who lived in Florence and spent his summers in the Swiss town of Ascona on Lago Maggiore. Ascona, at that time, was a favorite hangout of the European artistic crowd. Van Schendel introduced Antonini in those circles.

For a while, Antonini lived there in a kind of commune, living in a house known as ‘Casa Stella’. It was in Ascona that he met and married on May 3, 1926, Hetty Marx, twelve years his senior. They had one son, Marco Antonini. However, the marriage would not last long.

Antonini, a hard worker and a voracious reader, soon wrote two books: Il Teatro Contemporaneo in Italia (1927, ‘Contemporary theatre in Italy’, written in Rome), and Il Romanzo Contemporaneo in Italia (1928, ‘The contemporary novel in Italy’, written in Ascona). Both books, lovingly dedicated to Hetty Marx, put him on the literary map in Italy, where he was soon invited to write for  literary magazines such as ‘Solaria’. His focus, however, continued to be in the Netherlands.

Having left Hetty, he returned to Amsterdam and graduated from Amsterdam University in December, 1930. He then followed a new love, Asta von Friedrichs, to Berlin, where he started to write film scripts for Tobis Tonfilm and Fritz Lang, while continuing to write articles for two Dutch literary magazines, Den Gulden Winckel and Critisch Bulletin, on Italian, French and Russian literature, reviewing books and their authors. In 1929, he had published his third book, on the French theatre. Soon, he contributed to the French magazines Mercure de France and le Salon Littéraire.

In 1931, in Berlin, he met Maria “Moussia” Sila-Nowicki, married to the Russian concert pianist Alexander Borovsky (see the previous articles). Giacomo and Moussia started to live together in Berlin at 16, Salzburgerstrasse in January, 1932 and stayed together until the death of Moussia parted them on August 2, 1959. Theirs was a happy marriage which will be discussed further in articles to come.

When Hitler came to power, they left for Paris, virtually penniless. Both Giacomo’s divorce from Hetty and Moussia’s divorce were very complicated; both divorces were finally concluded, in 1937 and 1936 respectively, in Riga, Latvia, where they were married on 2 September, 1937.

In Paris, Antonini fell back once more on his former contacts in the Netherlands. In 1930, he had made the acquaintance of the Dutch writer Eddy du Perron, who had liked his article on André Gide in Den Gulden Winckel. Through du Perron he made, or renewed, the acquaintance of Dutch writers passing through Paris such as Jan Slauerhoff, Menno ter Braak, and Simon Vestdijk.

Eddy du Perron and André Malraux in Bretagne, 1932

The Antoninis had established themselves in Auteuil, at 6 rue Corot, a cheap ‘meublé’, a rented furnished appartment next to Notre Dame d’Auteuil, taking in paying guests from time to time. Eddy du Perron and his wife lodged with the Russian family Nossovich at the nearby rue d’Yvette, prior to moving to the rue Erlanger and from there to the Boulevard Murat where his friend André Malraux lived.

This particular quartier, now part of the 16th Arrondissement, was the favourite dwelling place  of Russian émigrés. Antonini and du Perron would meet each other almost every morning at the Café Le Murat, at that time a meeting place for many émigré Russian, German and Italian writers, like Yevgeny Zamyatin, Carlo Levi and Ernst Erich Noth.

At the Café Murat, in February 1935, so one month after he had first met Vincenzo Bellavia (also in the Café Murat?), du Perron introduced Antonini to Slauerhoff who also lodged with the family Nossovich and subsequently lodged with the Antoninis. In March, Antonini went to Tanger to liquidate Slauerhoff’s medical practice, making the acquaintance with Terborgh in Madrid, as mentioned in a previous article.

It was from Paris, from 1933 onwards, that Antonini first began to build up his career as a literary critic outside the Netherlands, by establishing a personal network in Italian and French literary circles, among writers and publishing houses alike. This can be seen in his correspondence, kept in the Fondo Giacomo Antonini  in the Archivio Contemporaneo “Alessandro Bonsanti”, Gabinetto G.P. Vieusseux, in Florence. An astonishing treasure of  some three thousand letters exchanged with with prominent Italian and French authors and publishing houses. The complete inventory can be downloaded from the Internet:

However, his main, if meagre, source of income continued to be from his work for the Dutch literary scene.  His contribution to the Special Issue of the Critisch Bulletin of February 1934 deserves an extensive quote.  In this issue,  nine Dutch writers expressed their great concern about the rise of Fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe, discussing the relationship between literature and politics in Germany, the Soviet Union, France, and Spain. In this context, Antonini wrote about ‘Literature and politics in Italy’. Three separate articles were devoted to  “The German-Jewish Tragedy”.


Antonini placed his views against the background of Italian politics and literature of the 19th and early 20th century. He lamented that after the grandiose literary past of Italy, the nineteenth century did not have much to offer, with some notable exceptions:  the novelists and poets  Leopardi, Foscolo, Manzoni, Verga, Carducci, Fogazzaro, Pascoli and d’Annunzio. He then gave the following revealing, at times ironic, comments about the situation after the First World War:

“The arrival of Fascism in Italy, which did not only change the form of government, but the entire Italian state as well, brought about yet another change. Political infighting in daily and weekly newspapers was abandoned for good. Just like all other Italians, writers simply had to accept the accomplished fact of the fascist revolution. All that was expected from them was that they would give their loyal support to national reconstruction. As long as they did not meddle in politics in a spirit hostile to the new government, they remained free to write and print what they wanted and deemed to be good.

Of course one could find between the literary people, then and now, both the more and the less convinced admirers of the new form of government. However, so far, one cannot speak of a “fascist literature’ in the area of pure belletrie. The “new literature”, which I highlighted a few times in the past, here and elsewhere, has remained totally apolitical until today. This goes for both prose and poetry, although of course it has been attempted to represent the new reality in novels and short stories. These attempts have so far not led to the creation of a novel which one could classify as an important work of art.

Fanatical adherents of the new form of government have of course tried to interfere violently in this state of affairs. Disregarding the poor results of such efforts, they have pointed at Russia, where at the start of the “Five-year plan” also the writers were mobilised, with the imposed task to glorify the objectives and results of this plan. Mussolini’s wisdom has managed to divert this danger from Italian literature. Those who wish for a direct interference of the government in literary life, according to the recipes of Germany and Russia, met with his strong disapproval.

Mussolini’s speech at the fiftieth anniversary of the “Union of writers and publishers’ has been crystal clear in this respect. Having expressed his wish that poets, novelists and stage writers may find their inspiration in the magnificent events of the recent years, he has stressed the need of writers to focus their efforts towards creating a work which reflects their mood and which is as pure an art form as possible. Thus, Mussolini gave the Italian writers a guiding principle: on the one hand a participation in the social and political life of this time, but on the other hand an individual representation of this life, with the creation of a work of art being their only objective.”

I believe that these moderate and quasi-apolitical views reflect accurately Antonini’s convictions around the time that he was recruited by  capozona Bellavia, in January, 1935. While still an admirer of Mussolini and wishing to see a good side to what he must have thought was a benevolent censorship, his literary yardstick was quality, not political correctness – as we have also seen in article 43, in which I quoted his positive review of Moravia’s Gli Indifferenti.

So, why did Giacomo Antonini agree to become an informer? And : why did Bellavia recruit him ?

Antonini came from a background of education and privilege. He was already in his 20s when Mussolini’s came to power. He will have seen through the populist rhetoric and to have had ambivalent feelings about Fascism: welcoming on the one hand its preservation of order while probably deploring the populism.

Bellavia must have distrusted him from the start. He knew that Antonini was a long-time expatriate Italian, surrounded by anti-Fascist friends, a cosmopolitan who had left Berlin with his wife in 1933,  because of their fear and dislike of Hitler and anti-Semitism. In his reports, made directly to Arturo Bocchini, the head of both  the State Police and the OVRA in  Rome, he always referred to Antonini  as L’emarginato’, the banned outsider, a term he strictly reserved in his reports for those he viewed as despicable, anti-Fascist expatriates like the Rossellis.

So why ?

(to be continued)


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