Giacomo Puccini and Italo Svevo – only Connect

I was desperate to find a link between Italo Svevo and Giacomo Puccini when preparing my lecture on Italo Svevo’s experiences in England for Bagni di Lucca’s branch of Unitre (University of the Third Age). After all, both geniuses were virtual contemporaries: Puccini was born in 1858 and died in 1924 aged 65:

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and Italo Svevo was born in 1861 and died in 1928 aged 66.

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Like bears to a honeypot the Lucchesi (I include myself here) will generally be attracted by anything to do with Giacomo Puccini. It would be nice to find some connection between the two.

Both great Italians were born before Italy was unified (as far as such a country as Italy can be ever be said to be completely unified). Puccini was born in Lucca when it formed part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany which only became joined to the new Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Svevo was born when Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had to wait until the end of the Great War in 1918 to become an Italian.

Both Puccini and Svevo were Wagnerian acolytes and would go to great lengths to hear his music. Svevo, although an amateur musician, was good enough a violinist to play in a string quartet and Puccini was no mean pianist. There are many mentions in Svevo’s letters of his attending and loving the theatre and opera. However, ploughing through his epistolary I have yet to come across the name of Giacomo Puccini. Might the connection be that they were both nicotine addicts and could never give up smoking, even stealing as teenagers (Svevo, his dad’s money, and Puccini his local church’s organ pipes) to feed the habit?

08a 150px-La_Trieste_de_Magris_al_CCCB_(31)_-_Violí_d'Italo_Svevo

(Italo Svevo’s long-suffered violin)

The connection, however, was looking at me all the time on my desk. The clue? If you’ve attended one of Andrea Colombini’s gorgeous ‘Puccini e la Sua Lucca Festival’ concerts you’ll have been given an elegant folder with the copy of this lovely pastel portrait of Puccini on its cover:


Have you ever asked who painted this portrait? It was, in fact, a Triestine painter, Arturo Rietti (1863-1943) and one of Svevo’s best friends.  Not only did the two share similar ideas about art and a Trieste re-united to Italy but they were also fluent in German and came from a Jewish background.

Svevo, affluently working for his father-in-law’s paint factory in Trieste and in Charlton, London, financially helped Rietti who was having money problems but who eventually won fame as one of Italy’s most fashionable and psychologically penetrating portrait artists. Rietti offered to pay him back but Svevo wasn’t at all insistent. So Rietti repaid Svevo in the best possible way an artist can, by painting a lovely portrait of Svevo’s wife, Livia Veneziani. Here is a preparatory sketch for the portrait:


And here is the finished work:


There is also a gracious portrait of Livia painted by Rietti in 1895, one year before Svevo married her:


Why didn’t Rietti paint a portrait of Svevo? He almost did but when the busy failed-writer-turned-successful- industrialist was told that he’d have to sit still for four hours he politely declined. However, Rietti was also an acute and quick caricaturist and this sketch is surely of Svevo himself.


‘My last cigarette’ is a recurring theme both in Svevo’s letters and, of course, in that famous chapter on smoking in his seriously-comic masterpiece “The Conscience of Zeno”.  Svevo/Zeno seems to be desperately enjoying yet another ‘last cigarette’ in this sketch! I wonder what brand it was?

Svevo and Rietti, incidentally, were friends of another artist, Umberto Veruda. When Veruda tragically died at the age of just 36 in 1904   both Svevo and Rietti attended his funeral.  Veruda is another member of that school of Triestine painters which has only been recently revalued. Here is his gorgeous portrait of Svevo with Svevo’s sister Ortensia painted just one year before Veruda died, probably of ‘la tisi’ (TB).

05 Svevo e Sorella Ortensia Veruda

Svevo truly appreciated the way Rietti had by now established himself as both a sought-after and a highly sensitive artist mainly using a mixed pastel and charcoal medium. Bestriding the style of Boldini and the modernist currents of the twentieth century, Rietti managed to develop a style, already considered old-fashioned into new heights of perceptiveness. As he said a portrait must reveal a secret and deep truth in the subject’s soul (una verità segreta, profonda, dell’anima del soggetto).

An equally deep friendship and great regard existed between Giacomo Puccini and Arturo Rietti, never better expressed in a note the great composer wrote to Rietti:

‘Dear Rietti, I had a commitment today at 9 am and I didn’t think about it the other evening when I said I’d visit you. Sorry – but I think it’ll be better in the morning like last time – and then let me know when it’s convenient. I really care so much to be targeted by your great talent (i.e. to be painted by you)… Affectionately yours, Giacomo Puccini’.

(Carissimo Rietti, avevo un impegno oggi alle 9! e non ci pensai l’altra sera quando ti dissi di venire da te. Scusami tanto – ma io credo che sarà meglio la mattina come l’altra volta – e allora dimmi quando ti è comodo. Io ci tengo troppo ad esser preso di mira dal tuo grande talento. Aff. Tuo Giacomo Puccini)

Rietti painted Puccini three times. The portrait that appears on Colombini’s Puccini e la Sua Lucca brochure hangs in Milan’s La Scala Theatre museum.

There’s also this one which Rietti’s son donated to Rome’s Opera House:


Much closer to home is this third portrait dating from 1910 which you can find if you visit Puccini’s villa at Torre Del Lago.

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Like Italo Svevo, Giacomo Puccini was not quite in tune with the current modernist trends in portrait-painting. Geniuses are always above their time. Puccini had gone beyond verismo into something magically new and never more ecstatically expressed than in his Turandot. Svevo had gone beyond the naturalism of Zola and Verga into unexplored psychological depths which wrote a new chapter in the history of the Italian novel.

Arturo Rietti was not only the connection between Italo Svevo and Giacomo Puccini because he’d painted portraits of them or their family. Rietti was also the only possible artist of the time who could truly enter into the wistful melancholia which surrounds the auras of two of Italy’s (and the world’s) most original creative men. If a picture is worth a thousand words then Rietti’s representations are worth an infinite number of his sitters’ biographies.


Arturo Rietti: self-portrait

PS Incidentally if you are in Bagni di Lucca tomorrow and are free from 4 to 5 pm then you might like to attend my talk on Italo Svevo’s Impressions of England. He lived just a few blocks away from where we lived and worked, and both of us moved and also worked in a paint factory. If your Italian is up to it you’re more than welcome to attend. The talk is in the library, Bagni’s former Anglican church.

PPS The great actor, Robert Rietti (AKA Rietty), the person known as the man with a thousand voices because of his great versatility and  who sadly died last year was, I learn, related to Arturo Rietti. Both from Jewish backgrounds, their religion has continued through Robert’s son, the influental Rabbi, Jonathan Rietti. My wife worked with Robert and also his father Victor. She has commented thus:

“Your article is all thanks to my connection with Robert Rietti himself since childhood and his Father Viktor with whom I worked. It  seemed like playing really in my pyjamas listening to the ‘Racconti del Nonno’. I had the star role as I was in charge of the puppet Pulcinella. This was all in aid of the English at the time who wanted to learn Italian. Imagine, I did not realise the enormity of this connection you found this due to poor Robert, no longer with us since April of last year. Well, he was talented indeed. I have fond memories of my work which I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Thanks, Sandra.



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