Rossana Rossanda, The Intense Passions of an Austere Woman

Rossana Rossanda, one of Il Manifesto's founding editors, passed away on Sunday at the age of 96. Here, comrade Luciana Castellina writes about her extraordinary life and her influential position on the Italian left.


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Luciana Castellina

I saw her the last time on the Thursday, before heading off again for another rally for the referendum and electoral campaign. She was glad that I kept her informed what was happening, what was being done in this or that location. For, while Rossana could no longer move around — she’d been stopped from doing so by the blasted stroke that had paralysed her years before — she continued to travel the world with her head. The table next to her bed was always weighed down with books that had just come out, but also others that allowed her to return to important matters from the past.

Now she was reading about Chinese history. And then there were the papers, the TV, and the visits from comrades. These visits now tired her out a lot, but she was keen not to give up on them — for they were a channel of communication with the world that the illness had deprived her of.

Rossana, [in 1943-45] a partisan courier under the name Miranda, always continued to be a combatant, to take part and take positions. When she came back to Rome — after the many years spent in Paris next to [her husband K.S.] Karol, who had gone blind and thus needed constant attention — the first thing she said to me upon arriving was: let’s ask il manifesto to publish a weekly 8-page-insert, as the new magazine we need. I looked at her amazed: you — I told her — are 93, I’m 88, I don’t think it’ll be possible. But she was like that, she didn’t want to surrender. She was troubled by the great difficulties the Italian left is caught up in — and returning to Italy after so many years she found these difficulties even graver than she had expected. But never for a moment did she think of closing herself away, as so many have, in melancholy detachment from political commitment.

During the last election campaign — the one for the European elections — she even came and participated in an initiative to support the Sinistra list, held at a Casa delle Donne [women’s centre]. They knew she was coming and it was packed out like never before. But so, too, when Sinistra italiana had its last congress in Rimini, she took care to send a message. It was read out by a young comrade, in emotional tones, and it was greeted by a moved, protracted ovation by all the delegates, who sang the Internationale. She wasn’t worried about the agreements or disagreements; for her, the important thing was to say that she was on the side of those who sought to stay in the fight.

For Rossana was a great intellectual, indeed an unprecedented one. She was cultured and refined but, at the same time, a militant to her very core, like any other grassroots comrade. In Milan, where she was long director of the House of Culture — an extraordinary window on the new European avant-gardes that Italians had been cut off from by fascism — Rossanda was also a member of the secretariat of a Federation mainly devoted to work with the new working class.

Her political journey was a curious one: the Milan House of Culture that she directed was the target of criticisms from the PCI [Italian Communist Party] leadership of the time, not least Palmiro Togliatti — we need only think of the split with [writer] Elio Vittorini. Yet Togliatti himself selected her, entrusting her with the party’s national cultural commission, which was very important at the time. That was how she came to Rome.

But it was in Milan, in her house on Via Bigli, that already in the late ‘50s we embarked upon the first reflection that would lead us, ten years later, to the creation of il manifesto, at first as a magazine. Lucio Magri was also in Milan, then, in the secretariat of the PCI’s Lombardy regional committee; there was Aniello Coppola, deputy editor of the Milan l’Unità [PCI daily]; there was Achille Occhetto [famous as the PCI’s final leader, abandoning its communist name in 1991] — yes, even he was with us back then. And Michelangelo Notarianni, secretary of the city’s FGCI [Communist youth], succeeded by Lia Cigarini, who was later the first to write about feminism in il manifesto, in its second issue, in its initial version as a monthly. And so, too Luca Cafiero, a very young lecturer in the philosophy faculty and a future leader of the Milan student movement and then the PDUP [Proletarian Unity Party].

I arrived from Rome, at that time being editor of the FGCI weekly, Nuova generazione; as did Beppe Chiarante, who was at Paese sera after being at Franco Rodano’s magazine Il Dibattito politico. Already back then we wanted to do a magazine, to be titled The Prince, a name taken from Gramsci’s writings (he, in turn, had taken it from Machiavelli). With this, we wanted to underline the need for a party capable of hegemony — and of taking a long view.

But at that point, we didn’t do anything. The idea for il manifesto matured much later on. When it finally did come, this was also at Rossana’s house, this time at a Roman address on Via San Valentino, right opposite my own. But by then our friendship network — and we were never a “current” — had been enriched by other comrades —Trentin, Garavini, Reichlin, and Rossana’s young collaborator at the Botteghe Oscure [PCI headquarters], Filippo Maone. And, most importantly, Pietro Ingrao.

You all know the rest of the story. I wanted to retell some lesser-known episodes from this early phase in order to underline once again how important Rossana was to the creation of il manifesto and, naturally, its subsequent history. We met at her house right from the start, because she connected everyone. Without her contribution as an intellectual and as a communist militant, we’d never have become what il manifesto did become.

I don’t want to cast a veil over the disagreements — even bitter ones — that marked the history of our group in certain phases. The most painful and harmful was the fracture, that came at a certain point, between the paper and the party, the PDUP. And then there were the more recent splits, which Rossana really suffered. But I want to remind you of a piece of our experience which explains how even the conflicts we had did not spoil our relations.

When Lucio Magri, besieged by a heavy depression which led him to conclude that the Left wouldn’t be able to pick itself up from the defeat of the 1990s for many decades — and that he himself would in any case be dead by then — decided to put an end to his existence, it was Rossana he asked for help. And Rossana flew from Paris to Milan, where the two met, before heading to Switzerland together. They spent two days, the last two days, talking, walking around lake Lugano. Right to the end, I had long phone calls with each of them, until Rossana called me to tell me that Lucio had passed away, holding her hand. It was very sad. But, in those conversations, we also agreed that our political adventure had been a thing of great beauty. Accompanying Lucio on that final, agonising journey was very tough for Rossana — a pain that she often spoke to me about, an open wound. It was an extraordinary test of friendship, which shows how much affection bound us together, despite the quarrels.

On behalf of all of you, readers, I would like to thank Doriana Ricci, who was Rossana’s secretary — and a friend — while she was still at the paper. To thank her not only for the extraordinary assistance she provided Rossana with back in those years, but in particular something quite wonderful she did for her recently. Only a few days back, in late August and early September, she built up the courage to take Rossana to the coast, to a hotel on the beach near Sperlonga, and, with the help of a special rubber stretcher, took her out into the sea! The sea — one of Rossana’s great passions. The other: Karol, her second husband. That was the story of a great, beautiful love. For Rossana, who seemed so austere, was a woman of great passions.

This article was originally published in Italian by il manifesto and in English by VERSO.

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