Massimo Bontempelli, La scacchiera davanti allo specchio (1922)


This short novel was published as children's literature in 1922, the year the regime came to power. The author, writer and intellectual Massimo Bontempelli, was to play a key role in the construction of the regime's cultural policies, as editor of important literary and cultural journals, notably 900 and Quadrante, and as a member of the Accademia d'Italia.

This slim novel, almost a novella, is set in what looks like the contemporary period and tells the story of the narrator, a ten-year old young boy who for punishment is locked in a room with a chessboard and a mirror. The king, il Re bianco, calls him into the mirror and transports him to a plain where there is no day or night. At the end of the fantastic journey, the little boy returns to wake up in his own bed. Was it a dream? The most explicit reference is of course to Alice in Wonderland, with a nod to the fantastic genre. But this short novel is also a reflection on narrative form and the boundaries of reality and reason.

Main Principles

  1. The Spatial Construction of the New Man’s Urban Reality

  2. Narrative Rationalization: Staging a Collective Spectacle


La scacchiera davanti allo specchio is a fine example of what will subsequently be known as magical realism, a term associated with Bontempelli's writing and poetics in general. By magical realism we mean a narrative where magical and oneiric elements appear in a seemingly realistic situation. The 'realismo magico' couples the everyday with the extraordinary but it does so within the boundaries of a rational understanding of the events unfolding therein.

If the novel can be read both as children's literature and as a Fantastic tale, it can also be contextualised as an early attempt at producing a reflection on the relationship between fiction, reality and narrative rationalization.

The Scacchiara is divided into twenty-four short chapters of two or three pages each. The narrative follows a regular pattern, which frames and gives order to the 'unrealistic, oneiric' dimension of the story. For example, objects beyond the mirror are more important than humans, for in this metaphysical realm traditional hierarchies are reversed. The themes La Scacchiera covers are power, illusion, authority, imagination, and 'the double'. From chapter five, significantly entitled 'La famosa Volontà', the narrator problematizes the relationship between the need to frame reality (the chessboard with its geometric symmetry being a telling object, and image) and the overpowering drive of the imagination, here embodied by the 10-year old protagonist. In other words, this 1922 novel is a forerunner of some of the key issues in the debate on State art.

The novel as a genre, according to Bontempelli (elected on 23 Ocotber 1930 accademico d'Italia), needed to be reconstructed with what he defines as 'naturalezza'. To achieve such result, the novel had to adopt a more lucid form of expression, and a linear construction. ('Della architettura naturale', January 1934, in L'Avventura novecentista, 341). The Futurists and D'Annunzio were therefore to be disregarded because both fragmented the real either through explosions or accumulation of details. Verga the naturalist on the other hand, suggested Bontempelli, had comprehended the real meaning of literature because he has found 'la naturalezza' ('Architettura come naturalezza', pp. 342-43).

The book's overall structure points in the direction of rationalization by offering a reading pattern and rhythm of short, fast-paced chapters. In the 1930s, Bontempelli would also go on to develop reflections on the relationship between architecture and the novel focused on the idea of construction as rationalization of forms. La Scacchiera therefore seems to anticipate such a conceptual landmark by stressing the relationship between reality and imagination as well as that between narrative form and the need for rationalization of the everyday experience though a fantasy.


Bajoni, Maria Grazia. 1989. 'Apuleio e Bontempelli: Alcune note sul reale e sul magico'. Aevum: Rassegna di Scienze Storiche, Linguistiche, Filologiche 63 (3): 546-549.

Bontempelli, Massimo. [1938] 1974. L'avventura novecentista. Florence: Vallecchi.

Jewell, Keala. 2008. 'Magic Realism and Real Politics: Massimo Bontempelli's Literary Compromise.' Modernism/modernity 15 (4): 725-44.

Saccone, Antonio. 1979. Massimo Bontempelli: Il mito del '900. Naples: Liguori.

Turchetta, Gianni (ed.). 1997. La scacchiera davanti allo specchio. Guida alla lettura. Palermo: Sellerio.