Thursday 08th of June 2023


“Evoking the Atmosphere of a Vanished Society”: la Firenze fantasmatica di Sir Harold Acton in The Soul’s Gymnasium (1982)


Luca Baratta, Università degli Studi di Napoli “Parthenope”pdf_icon_30x30



Abstract: Florence plays a central role both in the existential path and in the vast, multifaceted literary production of Sir Harold Acton (1904-1994), the last of a generation of Anglo-Americans who inhabited the “City of the Lily” more as an idea than a geographical place. Those who read Acton’s pages continuously encounter a coherent thematic thread, in which Florence beauty is both a victim and an antidote to the horror of the twentieth century. With the aim of giving perspective depth to this fascinating relation between an author and his city, the essay offers for the first time an analytical summary of Acton’s macrotext, isolating in it the city of Florence as a narrative chronotope: beyond the different approaches to narration – be it that of the Renaissance, late Baroque or eighteenth-century past, that of Acton's life, or that of fiction – the corpus brings out constant, authorial features in the representation of the city. At the same time, this article also proposes, as a case study, the close reading of The Soul’s Gymnasium, a collection of short stories published by Acton in 1982. This late work encapsulates a final and stratified vision of Florence, whose layers may be peeled back to investigate the physiology of Acton’s gaze on the city. The stories gathered in The Soul’s Gymnasium allow (more than historiography or popularization, eminently linked to data) the free emergence of an “idea” of the city: a fading dream darkened by death, a precious world hovering over the precipice. These stories are the last gift of old age, in which the nostalgic dimension – the awareness that an era is ending forever – is captured with vivid strength and power.


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