Lettering, sister found. The Messina writer Montoro rescued from oblivion


By John

It was a room of one's own in which Letteria Montoro, born in 1825 in Messina, where she died in 1893, explored her own personal history and that of entire generations of women using writing, to move the world a little further, like many others for whom the exercise of literature was a tool of liberation , or at least resistance. An oblique and transversal view of the female one which everywhere leaves open the question of being a woman in a society in which the female role and image are subservient to marriage, motherhood, family, religious education, social conventions. Marginalized in many cases, and not only for family reasons, in the shadow of fathers, husbands and masters, perhaps frozen in a work of art or literature, where they could be exhibited, but more often removed from memory, also because they were experienced in peripheral places, far from the most important cultural centers: as in the case of Montoro (fellow citizen, in the city of the Strait, of Nina da Messina, believed to be the first Italian woman to write verses in the vernacular), whose memory crumbled together with her tombstone in the oblivious night of the 1908 earthquake.

But there are things that we know or recognize only because literature shows them to us: this is what happened with Montoro, who thanks to a very special “literary family” of “strettesi” and not only has resurfaced from oblivion. Perhaps there always comes a moment when things decide to be remembered, with a combination of circumstances that says a lot about female literary history. A virtuous tour with a common goal, that of the writer Nadia Terranova, the teacher Daniela Bombara and three women editors who met Montoro on their way, perhaps “chosen” by her to return to “living”.

Together, introduced by the long-experienced bookseller Salvo Trimarchi, and with the beautiful readings of Valentina Gangemi, Terranova, Bombara and two of the publishers have «Maria Landini», the best-known novel by Letteria Montoro, was presented at the Feltrinelli in Messinaprinted in 1850 by the Clamis and Roberti typography of Palermo, and reprinted, with a preface by Nadia Terranova and an afterword by Daniela Bombara, by the publishing house “L'altraCittà” of three courageous booksellers from an independent bookshop in Rome, historians by training: Lucilla Lucchese, Silvia Dionisi and Arianna Ballabene.

«With “Maria Landini” – said Dionisi and Lucchese – for whose cover Valentina Marino graphically designed a modern background in pastel tones against which an all-white profile of a woman stands out, we inaugurated the “Sabbie” series, to bring out from the sands of time a forgotten text, however treated with great respect towards the language and style of the era in which it was written”.

The publishing houses had been put on Montoro's trail by Terranova and Bombara. The first, from Messina (already in the top five for the 2019 Strega Prize with “Addio Fantasmi”, Einaudi, winner of the 2022 Strega Ragazze eRagazzi with «Il segrete», Mondadori, in addition to numerous prizes and recognitions for her narrative and non-fiction works), he met Montoro «during the “hatching” time of “Trema la notte”. I discovered it – said Terranova – in the column “Via da Messina”, of the information newspaper “Lettera Emme”, dedicated to those illustrious people after whom the city had forgotten to name a street. And since in those days I was concentrating on the character of Barbara, the twenty-year-old protagonist of my novel who entrusts to books the words she is unable to say to her father, and has the dream, broken by the earthquake of 1908, of becoming a writer, I thought of “make her read” that book (which I had acquired in the meantime) which told of a girl who escaped an arranged marriage, just like Barbara, who on the evening before December 28th wanted to oppose an unwanted union.”

On the other hand, the search for recognition and not only for knowledge pushed a teacher and scholar from Messina, Daniela Bombara, to delve deeper into the history of Letteria Montoro: «During my research in the library I was attracted by a book without a cover that did not had been catalogued. I began to read, it was “Maria Landini”, and to search. Starting from the broken tombstone that was in the underground cell of the monumental gallery of the Gran Camposanto of Messina (the one that Barbara in “Trema la notte” goes to see in the aftermath of the earthquake) and from her epitaph which among other praises indicated her as “woman of liberal spirits”, a precious syntagm like the other one that spoke of the exile chosen to follow her brothers, something unusual for a woman, even if revolutionary like Letteria».

Enough to search among the testimonies and biographical profiles, minimal in some cases but important such as that, among others, of Gaetano Oliva (1873-1938) who included Letteria Montoro, the only woman, among the “illustrious Messinians” and praised the beauty and the spirit of sacrifice of this “born poet, refined and gentle writer who, if domestic care allowed it, entrusted her feelings to paper”. But – Bombara continued – Gaetano La Corte Cailler (1874-1933) indicated her in «The woman in charity in Messina» not only as a «poet and erudite writer», but also as an «exile for the redemption of the homeland». An additional fact that revealed her rebellious nature, and in fact she had participated in the Messina Risorgimento uprisings of 1848 by writing for «L'Aquila siciliana» and helping the fighters, even if in the words of the historian Francesco Guardione (1848-1940) she was a sister lived in the shadow of her brother Francesco, priest, director of the Peloritano College and spiritual director of the “Maurolico” high school.

Literature, in fact, Bombara continued, «had an intense and varied literary production, which ranged from prose, short stories and novels, to lyrical, dramatic, civil, patriotic poetry, to journalistic collaboration with newspapers beyond the borders of Messina, and with initiatives national after the Unification, from the “Feminine Gift of the Philanthropic Association of Italian Ladies” to the poetic anthology “Ghirlanda della beneficence” to the volume “Candia” published in seven languages ​​by the Italian-Hellenic Committee of Messina to finance the Cretan revolution. And then she, the only poet from Messina to commemorate Dante's centenary in 1865 with a poetic composition. Scattered writings never brought together in a volume. And perhaps, noted both by Guardione and by the publisher Treves, you would have published another novel, an unknown one.”

Having given voice to Letteria Montoro, having reflected on the suggestions of her novel, with plots and subplots, from the reversal of the topos of the girl forced into an arranged marriage to the Gothic and exotic aspects of the narrative, having found surprising points of contact between the Gothic of «Trema the night” and that of “Maria Landini”, to confirm the virtuous complicity of female attention, having restored vividness to other Sicilian writers suffocated by patriarchal oppression, such as Rosina Muzio Salvo, Concettina Ramondetta Fileti, Mariannina Coffa Caruso, just to name some, having expanded the word by transforming it from narrative fiction to the existential condition of women writers, in a network of female intelligences, has certainly opened up new perspectives for other illuminating “women's studies” on Sicilian women of letters between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.