Carla Cerati was a writer and photographer, born in Bergamo in 1926. At the end of the Second World War, she was admitted to the Brera Academy of Arts in Milan, but interrupted her studies to marry. She worked as a seamstress during the 1950s and started her artistic career as a photographer in Milan in the 1960s, when other Italian women (for instance Lisetta Carmi, Giulia Niccolai and Chiara Samugheo) entered the profession.
Cerati is best remembered for her photographic contribution (together with photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin) to the book Morire di classe: La condizione manicomiale (1969), a shocking enquiry into the conditions of Italian mental institutions edited by psychiatrist and neurologist, Franco Basaglia, and his wife, Franca Ongaro. A substantial part of her rich photographic production, however, documents the changes that marked Italian society, and Milan in particular, during the second half of the 20th century. Following the overwhelming experience of Morire di classe, Cerati began to question her obsessive relationship with the camera and the power of photography itself. Although she continued chronicling aspects of human existence, she started to understand the limits of photography to record the repetitiveness and pain of life. Therefore, at the beginning of the 1970s, she conceived her photographic series on Milan as a book consisting of parts and chapters, which would represent the metamorphosis of the city from the 1950s by means of 200 images. Whilst the book was never published, Cerati’s project of creating a visual narrative capable of ordering and unifying fragmentary images within one story, demonstrates her growing interest in prose writing.
Her passion for writing led to her first novel Un amore fraterno (1973), a finalist for the Italian Strega Prize. This was followed by Un matrimonio perfetto (1975), La condizione sentimentale (1977), and Uno e l’altro (1983, republished as Il sogno della bambina in 1997), which were collected in the 2015 trilogy entitled Una donna del nostro tempo. Her literary output continued into the 1990s with La cattiva figlia (1990), La perdita di Diego (1992), Legami molto stretti (1994), and L’amica della modellista (1996).
Cerati’s works focus on relationships and on the coming to consciousness of bourgeois female characters who exhibit clear autobiographical traits. Her protagonists grapple with generational gaps and suffocating parental control, marriage crises, loss of family members, anger, and guilt. In fighting for their independence, they learn to accept the adversities as well as the benefits that come with their rejection of traditional roles and societal constraints. Eleonora Neri, the 33-year-old protagonist of Uno e l’altro, mother of two children and unhappy wife of Gregorio, a university professor, sociologist and philosopher, is a fitting example. The story is set in Milan in the 1960s and early 1970s. Nora tries to reconstruct her own freedom after years in a marriage marked by obligations and frustrations. She leaves her family and starts a relationship with Jacopo, a younger man with whom she travels to southern Italy to complete a photo-reportage. This is a period of re-birth for Nora. Writing and photography, in particular, provide a space for self-discovery and the opportunity for creative possibilities. However, at the end, consumed by guilt, Nora – whose name and story recall Ibsen’s protagonist in A Doll’s House – returns, differently from Ibsen’s protagonist, to her husband and children and the suffocating boundaries of their house in Milan.
La cattiva figlia (1990) has become part of a recent body of scholarly work on the mother-daughter relationship, placed alongside such contemporary female authors writing on this theme as Elena Ferrante, Mariateresa Di Lascia, Laura De Luca, and Fabrizia Ramondino. The novel narrates the difficult relationship between the protagonist Giulia and her old mother, whom Giulia sees as the passive perpetuator of a patriarchal heritage. Like other books by Cerati, this one is structured around the themes of return, memory, and the desire to come to terms with the past.
Largely neglected by scholars, La perdita di Diego (1992) is a short fictional work told in the first person, like many other works by Cerati, and set in the 1970s, a period of dramatic social and political change in Italy. The fictional narrator is Silvia, a successful photojournalist from Milan, who is separated from her husband and is a mother of two adult children. Upon her return from a work trip in Spain, she is informed that Diego, her young assistant, has committed suicide in her apartment. The loss of Diego, the motivation behind his suicide and his mysterious nature, haunt Silvia and eventually drive her to undertake a physical and emotional journey to retrace and rewrite Diego’s life and the history of his family. Silvia’s search for Diego is also a search for the significance of an era as well as the catalyst for understanding her own private life.
Cerati’s most recent novels include L’intruso (2004), dealing with the father-daughter relationship and the theme of old age, and L’emiliana (2008), the story of a woman’s search for freedom through a passion for dancing. In 2009 she published Storia vera di Carmela Iuculiano, the real story of a young woman who rebelled against the Mafia in 2004. In 2012 she published the memoir L’eredità. Idee e canzoni di un sessantottino: Federico Ceratti (2013). Written after the death of her son, who was killed in a car accident, L’eredità gathers songs written by Federico together with family photographs and accounts.
Critics have argued that Cerati’s prose, generally perceived as dry and ostensibly simple, is the result of a lengthy limatura (filing down) providing visually effective scenes. Photography, in fact, provides Cerati with linguistic and aesthetic expressions associated with memory and the passing of time.
Carla Cerati died in February 2016.
Compiled by Georgia Alú (Sydney)
Un amore fraterno (Turin: Einaudi, 1973)
Un matrimonio perfetto (Venice: Marsilio, 1975)
La condizione sentimentale (Venice: Marsilio, 1977)
Uno e l’altro (Milan: Rizzoli, 1983)
La cattiva figlia (Milan: Frassinelli, 1990)
La perdita di Diego (Milan: Frassinelli, 1992)
Legami molto stretti (Milan: Frassinelli, 1994)
L’amica della modellista (Milan: Frassinelli, 1996)
Il sogno della bambina (Milan: Frassinelli, 1997)
Grand Hotel Riviera (Milan: Frassinelli, 1998)
La seconda occasione (Milan: Frassinelli, 2001)
L’intruso (Venice: Marsilio, 2004)
Una donna del nostro tempo (Venice: Marsilio 2005), trilogy: Un matrimonio perfetto; Il sogno della bambina (Uno e l'altro); La condizione sentimentale
L’emiliana (Venice: Marsilio, 2008)
I quaderni di Viciago (Milan: Edizioni Marble-Memo, 1988)
L’eredità. Idee e canzoni di un sessantottino: Federico Ceratti (Venice: Marsilio, 2012; digital edition, 2013)
Other Prose Works
Un uovo... una frittatona. Dal quaderno di cucina del tempo di guerra 121 ricette antispreco e un racconto (Turin: Blu Edizioni, 2008)
Storia vera di Carmela Iuculano. La giovane donna che si è ribellata a un clan mafioso (Venice: Marsilio, 2009)
Mondo cocktail, 61 fotografie a Milano [with a note by Maria Livia Serini, 61 black-and-white illustrations (Milan: Pizzi, 1974)
Forma di donna [34 black-and-white photographs] (Milan: Mazzotta, 1978)
Scena e fuori scena ed. by Franco Gallo [80 black-and-white illustrations] (Milan: Electa, 1991)
Milano (1960-1970) (Taranto: Barbieri, 1997)
Nudi, by Carla Cerati and Paolo Morello [48 illustrations] (Palermo: Istituto Superiore per la Storia della Fotografia, 2007)
Illustrated Books for Children
La barca gialla, by Giuseppe Bufalari [photographs by Carla Cerati] (Turin: Einaudi, 1966)
Scellamozza, by Giuseppe Bufalari [photographs by Carla Cerati] (Turin: Einaudi, 1975)
Cara assuntina, by Luciana Martini [with photographs by Carla Cerati] (Turin: Einaudi, 1976)
Translations into Foreign Languages
La mala filla [Translation of La cattiva figlia by Jordi Jané] (Barcelona: El Aleph, 1993)
Lligams molt estrets [Translation of Legami molto stretti by Francesc Miravitlles] (Barcelona: El Aleph, 1995)
De slechte dochter: roman [Translation of La cattiva figlia by Anna Maria Domburg] (Rijswijk: Goossens cop., 1993)
La Mauvaise fille: Roman [Translation of La cattiva figlia by Claude Bonnafont] (Paris: Editions La Découverte, 1991)
La condición sentimental [Translation of La condizione sentimentale by Juan Moreno] (Esplugas de Llobregat, Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 1982)
Un matrimonio perfecto [Translation of Un matrimonio perfetto by Juan Moreno] (Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 1977)
La mala hija [Translation of La cattiva figlia by José Ramón Monreal] (Barcelona: Muchnik, 1993)
Vínculos demasiado estrechos [Translation of Legami molto stretti by José Ramón Monreal] (Barcelona: Muchnik, 1995)
La amiga de la modista [Translation of L’amica della modellista by Celia Filipetto] (Barcelona: Muchnik Editores, 1997)
Bellesia, Giovanna: ‘La cattiva figlia di Carla Cerati e la riscoperta del passato’ (Italian Culture, 12.1, 1994, pp. 215-23)
Foot, John: ‘Photography and Radical Psychiatry in Italy in the 1960s. The Case of the Photobook Morire di Classe (1969)’ (History of Psychiatry, 26.1, 2015, pp. 19-35)
Gavioli, Davida: ‘In Search of the Mother’s Lost Voice’ in Gendered Contexts: New Perspectives in Italian Cultural Studies ed. by Laura Benedetti, Julia Hairston, and Silvia Ross (New York: Peter Lang, 1996, pp. 201-11)
Giorgio, Adalgisa: ‘The novel, 1965-2000’ in A History of Women’s Writing in Italy, ed. by Letizia Panizza and Sharon Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 218-37)
Maenza-Vanderboegh, Maria Teresa: ‘Madri, figlie, e maternità’ in Una donna di Sibilla Aleramo, Lettera a un bambino mai nato di Oriana Fallaci, e La cattiva figlia di Carla Cerati’ (PhD Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002)
Marchais, Nathalie: ‘La figure maternelle dans la littérature féminine italienne des quarante dernières années’ (PhD Dissertation, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, 2010)