old chestnuts”, new occasions
“Sapienza” Università di Roma,
24-26 May 2021

Confirmed Keynote Speakers: Enoch Brater (University of Michigan), Annamaria Cascetta (Università Cattolica di Milano), Carla Locatelli (Università di Trento & University of Pennsylvania), John McCourt (Università di Macerata), Manfred Pfister (Freie Universität Berlin), Dirk Van Hulle (University of Oxford)

The conference includes An Evening with Beckett: Two Short Films by S.E. Gontarski. Links to the films will be provided to registered participants in due time.



Can’t conceive by what stretch of ingenuity my work could be placed under the sign of italianità… There are a number of Italian elements [in my work]…
(SB to AJ Leventhal, 21 April 1958)

Beckett and Italy. As a student at Trinity College Dublin, Beckett studied Italian and Italian Literature, and cultivated them privately with Bianca Esposito, the signorina Adriana Ottolenghi of ‘Dante and the Lobster’. They discussed the writers on his syllabus: Machiavelli, Petrarca, Manzoni, Boccaccio and Tasso, to name a few. His most striking encounter was Dante – he read the Commedia many times throughout his life – and he also discovered a particular affinity with Leopardi. As a student, he wrote essays on Carducci and D’Annunzio. He attempted translations of Dante into English in letters and notebooks, and wrote a curious dialogue in German based on Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. In 1930, he published translations into English of Montale’s poem ‘Delta’ and texts by Franchi and Comisso. For a good part of his formative years, Beckett really was, as Walter Draffin in Dream of Fair to Middling Women, an “Italianate Irishman”. His interest extended well beyond literature. For example, he read the philosophical investigations of Bruno, Campanella, Thomas Aquinas and Vico. Moreover, he was interested in Italian music and opera, was fascinated by Italian art, and followed with curiosity the experiments of Neorealist cinema. Yet, Beckett’s relationship with Italian culture is far from unambiguous. For example, despite his knowledge of the language, Beckett’s involvement with the Italian translation of his work was negligible. Comments like the one quoted above, where, while denying the “italianità” of his work, he draws attention to “a number of Italian elements” in it, are a testament to both the ambiguity and the vitality of this relationship. This conference aims to re-assess the influence that Italian culture, literature, poetry, theatre, arts and cinema had on Beckett’s works, even beyond what he was willing to recognise.

Italy and Beckett. Beckett was at first greeted in Italy as a playwright who belonged to the Theatre of the Absurd, while his prose was mostly ignored or considered as minor. Eventually, Beckett found his place in literature, art, and popular culture; it is significant, in this light, that Calvino turned to his work in the last years of his life, and planned to centre on him the final lecture of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Writers and artists felt – as they do today – the need to respond to the Beckett phenomenon, even if only to condemn his ‘literature without style’. Theatre directors welcomed his experiments and continue to propose innovative mise en scène of his work. Critics have analysed him comparatively with writers like Pirandello, Levi and Gadda. More recently, much attention has been paid to the ties between Beckett’s writing and the philosophy of Agamben. In more general terms, there is room to investigate the way Beckett can help the exploration of the new avenues opened by the so-called ‘Italian Theory’, and, conversely, how the conceptual tools offered by this trend of thought can shed a different light on Beckett’s work. The recent publication of the Italian translation of Beckett’s letters, seems to align with this continued Italian interest in Beckett. On the other hand, the fact that it is still difficult to find his work in bookshops, confirms the ambiguity of Beckett’s position in Italian culture. This conference aims to reconsider the impact of Beckett’s work on Italian culture.

The Beckett and Italy Team