Elio Vittorini, Conversazione in Sicilia (1941)


Conversazione in Sicilia was first published between 1938 and 1939 in instalments in the Florentine literary journal Letteratura, directed by writer Alessandro Bonsanti. The novel was then published in 1941 by Valentino Bompiani, a recently established (1929) Milanese publisher active in promoting new Italian writing alongside translations of foreign literature with a potentially experimental edge. The plot is simple: having lived in Milan for 15 years, typographer Silvestro Ferrauto decides to travel back to Sicily from Milan after his father leaves the family for another woman. During the journey he meets and engages in long conversations with several characters (il Gran Lombardo, Con i Baffi, Senza baffi, Ezechiele, Calogero and others). Together, these conversations form a wider reflection on the protagonist's relationship with his origins, his father, mother, family, history and his own understanding of life. Conversazione in Sicilia is an introspective narrative, which was closely liked to recent historical events while trying to solve an existential mystery.

Main Principles

  1. The Legitimization of the Artist/Intellectual's Participation in the Public Sphere

  2. The Role of Cosmopolitanism in the Modernization of the Italian Artistic Field

  3. Citizen’s Media Manipulation: Entertainment, Escapism and Consensus


Elio Vittorini's position within the Italian literary system of his day was quite paradigmatic of that of many other young artists, writers and intellectuals who were often supporters of Fascism in its early days before rejecting its ideals in response to the Spanish Civil War and then the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-36. Conversazione in Sicilia therefore represents Vittorini's contemplation of the role of the artist under the regime and of that of literature in resisting what he comes to acknowledge as 'barbarie'. The novel is also an exploration of how the regime's propaganda machine could convince Italian citizens to follow a-critically a brutal dictatorship. Conversazione in Sicilia is a novel without action, it is a coming of age story: a personal and historical awakening. Put differently, it is the Bilduungroman of a generation  one which has grown up under the dictatorship, but has nonetheless started to understand the true nature of the regime and consequently question its own social and personal choices. Vittorini turns the journey itself into one of the main protagonists of the narrative. The characters are often defined by their actions or physical attributes and not by proper name, and ultimately the journey itself becomes one of the main elements of the story.

The journey is a teleological movement towards a reflection on the notion of Man, even though it is undertaken within the boundaries of a humanistic framework which sees the subjects, the individuals, as the makers of their destiny, inscribed in their names. In this respect, Vittorini is proposing an effectively dehistoricised view of mankind, one distant from the reflection on realism and literature as a force for social transformation expressed by the cultural fringes and the youth culture of the regime, especially in the first half of the 1930s. Vittorini however does not propose an idea of literature as absence, a totally autonomous act. Rather he puts forward an understanding of literature as humanistic engagement (with Man at its core), which can not be indifferent to the unfolding of history and to its contextual reality (e.g. Sicily).

With Conversazione in Sicilia, Vittorini is trying to define the New Man who will emerge from Fascist culture and eventually become independent from it by engaging with society. More broadly, Conversazione depicts the crisis of humanistic values upon countering the bourgeois Man (see for instance Moravia and Buzzati), with the New Man emerging from an existentialist journey and placing history as dialectical progress at the centre of his thinking.


Baetens, Jan and Bart Van den Bossche. 2015. 'Back Home, Back to the Image? The Editorial History of Conversazione in Sicilia as a Case of Tense Relations between Literature and Photography.' Italian Studies 70 (1): 117-130.

Schneider, Marilyn. 1975. 'Circularity as Mode and Meaning in Conversazione in Sicilia.' MLN 90 (1): 93-108.

Sergio, Pautasso. 1982. 'Elio Vittorini. La fase sperimentale e la sua "ragione letteraria": ideologia umanitaria e linguaggio simbolico nella allegoria dele "mondo offeso", dalla memoria lirica al mito', in Novecento. Gli scrittori e la cultura letteraria nella società italiana, edited by Giovanni Grana. 1983. vol. VI, 5377-5413. Milan: Marzorati editore.

Usher, Jonathan. 1989. 'Time and (E)motion in Vittorini's Conversazione in Sicilia.' Italian Studies 44 (1): 77-85.