Umberto Barbaro, Luce fredda (1931)


Luce fredda, Barbaro’s debut novel, was published in 1931 by the publisher Carabba. The book portrays some young members of the Roman bourgeoisie who are alienated by the hypocrisy and lack of value they perceive in their world. Unlike the older, pre-Fascist generation, who is generally at ease with the status quo, they are uncomfortable with bourgeois codes of conduct, and feel suffocated by the apathy and immobilism that dominate their world. However, they are generally too immersed in, and influenced by this culture, to be able to embrace a new morality and change their lives.

Main Principles

  1. The ‘arte di Stato’: Modernity and Modernization

  2. The Boundaries of Realism: Constructing Collective Subjectivities


Umberto Barbaro was an eclectic and extremely dynamic figure in the 20th century Italian cultural and artistic landscape. He was a tireless innovator in different artistic fields (mainly literature, theatre, and cinema) during the Fascist and post-war periods, and he frequently engaged in theoretical reflection on the arts. His artistic ideal, set out in a large number of writings, was opposed to the idealist tradition and upheld a close relationship between art and life, seen as crucial in allowing art first to exceed the individual dimension, and then act upon and transform reality. Although Barbaro was a Communist, his anti-individualist, anti-Romantic, and socially-oriented conception of art, as well as his revolutionary and ‘populist’ language, were perfectly compatible with the type of engaged aesthetics promoted by the regime and endorsed by Fascist intellectuals which, focusing on the construction of a new morality, was eagerly embraced by Barbaro. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, revolutionary right-wing and left-wing writers worked together towards the construction of a new art, and specifically a new literature.

His aesthetic ideas fed into a distinct movement called Immaginismo, made up of a group of artists and writers (including Vinicio Paladini, Dino Terra, Ivo Pannaggi, and others) which grew out of the Rome avant-garde scene of the late 1920s. The group published a journal, called La ruota dentata, which was interrupted after the first issue due to a luck of funds. The movement, and Barbaro in particular, upheld a transformative ideal of art which represented a ‘constructive’ evolution of the avant-garde culture that had developed in the early decades of the twentieth century, dismissing the latter’s obsession with technique, but preserving the ethical value of art. He proposed an alternative model to Croce’s aesthetic theory of intuition-expression, based on the detachment of the subject from the self and its subsequent re-composition. Barbaro saw this two-phase process as constituting the heuristic essence and universal value of art, ensuring its relationship with life, as opposed to the sterile knowledge and expression of the self offered by the Crocean aesthetic system.

Luce fredda represents a key artistic actualization of Barbaro’s theoretical reflections. The novel has significant points in common with Moravia’s Gli indifferenti, beginning with a shared cultural milieu in terms both of its subject matter – the Roman bourgeoisie – and its origins in Roman avant-garde circles. Furthermore, the two novels share a fierce anti-bourgeois sentiment, ethical tension, the rejection of lyricism and fragmentism (prosa d’arte) in favour of a well-built narrative, and realist aesthetics – they were both crucial contributions to the endeavours of ‘reconstruction’ of the novel that characterized the fascist period. However, the two books differ in other respects. Barbaro’s realist intentions and social concerns coexist with a thoroughgoing narrative, stylistic, and linguistic experimentalism that differs from Moravia’s more traditional narrative choices.

The book indeed represents a complex specimen of a modern novel that thematically, but also narratively, rejects and defies individualism. It could be defined as a ‘polyphonic’ or a ‘choral’ novel: although the character of Sergio is slightly more prominent than the others, it is difficult to identify a protagonist figure in the traditional sense of the term. The novel is rather about a group of people, representing the Roman petit-bourgeois intellectual or pseudo-intellectual class. The text is thus marked by an extensive, almost structural, use of free indirect speech and inner monologues. The narrative is not linear, but comes across rather as an assembly of narrative sections and fragments of ‘reality’ (like letters and excerpts of journal), reminiscent of the cinematographic technique of montage.

Through his narrative choices, Barbaro distanced himself not only from the shallowness of prosa d’arte, but also from a naturalistic type of realism. Luce fredda was thus an experimental model for Barbaro’s new concept of Neorealism, departing from naturalism and rooted in the experiences of the avant-gardes, but progressing beyond the latter by embracing the need for the constructive engagement of literature and the arts in modern society.


Andreazza, Fabio. 2008. ‘Prima della specializzazione. La traiettoria di Umberto Barbaro dalla letteratura al cinema.’ In Figure della modernità nel cinema italiano (1900-1940), edited by Raffaele De Berti and Massimo Locatelli, 315-331. Pisa: ETS.

Barbaro, Umberto. 1976. Neorealismo e realismo, vol. 2, edited by Gian Piero Brunetta. Rome: Editori Riuniti.

Briganti, Alessandra. 1984. ‘Umberto Barbaro dall’avanguardia al neorealismo.’ Letteratura italiana contemporanea 5 (11): 187-209.

Buchignani, Paolo. 1987. ‘Avanguardie durante il fascismo: Umberto Barbaro, il realismo, l’immaginismo.’ il Mulino 36 (313) (September-October): 724-749.

Durante, Lea. 2000. ‘Avanguardia e realismo in Luce fredda di Umberto Barbaro.’ Critica letteraria 28 (1): 111-27.

Salaris, Claudia. 1990. ‘Immaginismo e neorealismo.’ In Umberto Barbaro, Luce fredda, 229-239. Montepulciano: Editori del Grifo.

Laura Pennacchietti