Alda Merini

Poet Alda Merini
Poet Alda Merini

This month’s essay is about one of the most important Italian poets and writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. She was a tormented and complex talent, often regarded by critics as the highest point of the Italian mystical and visionary poetry of the 20th century. Her writing style has been described as intense, passionate, mystic, and very much influenced by Rainer Maria Rilke. Her work earned the attention and the admiration of other Italian writers, such as Giorgio Manganelli, Salvatore Quasimodo, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Her fame through her poetry and other works spread throughout the world, and she was an inspiration to many budding poets, especially women poets. Some of her most dramatic poems concern the time she spent in mental health institutions.

ASSOCIATIONS: Master of mystical and visionary poetry
ADDITIONAL KEY INFO: International Influence
Lived 1931-2009

Alda Giuseppina Angela Merini was born on March 21, 1931 (the “Spring Equinox” as she often liked to point out in interviews) in viale Papiniano 57, Milan to a family of modest means. She was raised along the system of canals called the Navigli. Nemo Merini, her father, was an employee of the insurance company Vecchia Mutua Grandine ed Eguaglianza il Duomo. Emilia Painelli, her mother, was a housewife. Alda had two siblings: an older sister, Anna (born in November, 1926), and a younger brother, Ezio (born in January 1943). (Her siblings are featured in several of her poems, although their identity is thinly disguised). As with most Italian girls of her class, little is known about her childhood; she was raised as most girls of the pre- World War II era were raised. (She did, however, later write an autobiographical note on the occasion of the publication of a second edition of an anthology of Italian poetry edited by Giacinto Spagnoletti: “[I was] a sensitive girl, with a rather melancholic character, quite excluded and little understood by my parents but very good in school … because studying has always been a vital part of my life.”)

Early on, Alda displayed an aptitude for the written word, which her father encouraged. When she was 5, he bought her a dictionary and he would teach her 10 new words every night. She started writing poems when she was 9 years old, and her father published a little booklet of her poems when she was 10. He also had a teacher come to the house to give her piano lessons, an instrument she especially loved throughout her entire life. Alda completed elementary school with excellent grades, but her literary flourishing was temporarily stifled during World War II. In 1943, as Milan was subjected to aerial bombing, the Merini’s home was destroyed, forcing the family to rebuild in the countryside.

By the end of the war, her father had lost his job and so had no source of income to further her studies. So, Alda was sent to the three-year, school-to-work transition program at the Istituto Laura Solera Mantegazza in via Ariberto in Milan to study stenography. She then applied for admission to the high school Liceo Manzoni, but was not accepted because she did not pass the Italian language test.

Her career as a poet thus started at a very early age. By the time she was fifteen, she had begun to solely focus her writing on poetry. In 1947, her school teacher at the Istituto, Silvana Rovelli, who was a cousin of the poet Ada Negri, was so impressed, that he brought some of her poems to the attention of the literary critic Giacinto Spagnoletti, who replied with an enthusiastic letter of critique. When Merini showed Spagnoleti’s letter to her father, he tore it up, declaring that “poetry will never feed you.” Feeling deeply crushed, she had a nervous breakdown and spent a month in Milan’s mental health clinic, Villa Turro. After leaving the clinic, and thanks to Spagnoletti, she began frequenting the most important literary circle in Milan, which was held at Spagnoletti’s home, and was attended by many eminent intellectuals, poets, authors, and critics of the post-War period. Included among these were Pier Paolo Pasolini, Maria Corti (a writer who would become a close friend and collaborator), and Giorgio Manganelli, a married journalist with whom Merini, still a teenager, began a tormented love affair. In 1949 the affair with Manganelli ended abruptly.

In 1950, Spagnoletti published Merini’s work for the first time in Antologia della Poesia Italiana Contemporanea 1909–1949 (Anthology of Contemporary Italian Poetry 1909–1949). The selected poems were the lyric poems Il Gobbo (The Hunchback, dated December 22, 1948), and Luce (Light, dated December 22, 1949 and dedicated to Spagnoletti). In 1950, she also became romantically involved in a three-year love affair with the poet Salvatore Quasimodo, which ultimately ended in 1953. This close friendship with Quasimodo helped her develop more skill as a poet and increased her professional relationships with other literary figures. In 1951, Giovanni Scheiwiller published two of Merini’s previously unpublished poems in Poetesse del Novecento (Women Poets of the 20th Century).

On August 9, 1953, Merini married Ettore Carniti, the owner of a bakery and pastry shop in Milan. In that year, she also published her first book of poetry, La Presenza di Orfeo (The Presence of Orpheus). In 1955, she published several more books of poetry: Paura di Dio (Fear of God), a collection that included all of her poems from 1947 to 1953; and Nozze Romane (Roman Wedding). She also published a prose work, La Pazza della Porta Accanto (The Mad Woman Next Door).
That same year (1955), Merini’s first daughter, Emanuela (Manuela), was born. The baby’s pediatrician, Pietro di Pasquale, eventually became Merini’s unrequited love interest. [To him, she dedicated her next book of poetry- Tu sei Pietro (You are Peter, 1961)].

Merini’s pregnancy was followed by a bout of depression, and she spent a period of time in isolation trying to recover. In 1958 her second daughter, Flavia, was born. After the publication of Tu sei Pietro in 1961, Merini stopped writing for two decades, due to her deteriorating mental health. In 1965, her husband committed her to the Paolo Pini asylum in Milan, where she remained until 1972, although she did spend some brief periods of time with her family. During this period, she gave birth to two more daughters, Barbara (1968) and Simona (1972), who ended up for a time being raised in foster families due to her fragile mental health.

In 1979, having recovered from her illness for several years, Merini started putting together a particularly intense body of poetic work, permeating her poems with her dramatic and painful experiences in mental institutions. Domestic life also did not suit Merini. The need to write poetry was all-consuming, distracting her from basic familial responsibilities. As her oldest daughter, Emanuela Carniti, wrote in her biography of her mother, Alda Merini, Mia Madre (2019): “When she wrote she entered her own bubble, and we knew that she would get annoyed if we disturbed her.”

But after so many years away from Milan’s literary circle, she could not find a publisher for her works. Finally, in 1982, Paolo Mauri offered to publish 30 of her poems, chosen from a typewritten document of about 100, in his literary journal Il Cavallo di Troia (The Trojan Horse).

On July 7, 1983 her husband died suddenly. The couple’s marriage had often been contentious. Merini’s extravagant spending was a major source of disagreement with Carniti. In addition, she resented Carniti squandering his time at the local osteria. The two would get into violent fights which often included furniture, cups, and plates flying at one another. He would often strike Alda in a drunken rage, especially after returning from the osteria.

After his death, Merini began a correspondence with the doctor and poet, Michele Pierri, thirty years her senior, who had been very supportive of her poetic work. She married him in October, 1983 and moved to his home in Taranto, a coastal city in southern Italy. Following her wedding, she wrote 20 poems/portraits called La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie), which were much later published together with some poems by Pierri in the volume Vuoto d’Amore (Void of Love, 1991). During her time in Taranto, she also finished an autobiographical piece, L’Altra Verità. Diario di una Diversa (The Other Truth. Diary of a Misfit).

In 1984, she published, with the support of Maria Corti and also the publishing house Scheiwiller Libri, La Terra Santa (The Holy Land), a poetry collection of 40 poems that she had begun composing in 1979. It dealt with the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their struggles in the desert to reach the Promised Land. This work, with its raw and spiritual reflections on life in a mental institution, is widely considered her masterwork. (Maria Corti called the book “a masterpiece”). Merini went on to win the Librex Montale Prize that year.

While she was in Taranto, she had another bout of serious mental illness and for a short time entered a local mental institution. In July 1986, she was released from the psychiatric hospital in Taranto. Her second husband’s health then began to decline in the late 1980s, and she struggled once again with her mental state. Again, in 1988, she was re-admitted for a short time to the psychiatric wing of Taranto’s hospital. She was now isolated and in anguish, and she turned to her close friend, Marina Bignotti, who helped her relocate to Milan after her release and shortly before Pierri’s death.

After moving back to Milan, she initiated a therapy cycle with Dr. Marcella Rizzo, to whom she dedicated several poems. She struggled financially and was forced to depend on a group of her friends to help her. Scheiwiller’s publishing house paid her rent; Bignotti also assisted her financially. Maria Corti and the poet Giovanni Raboni shepherded her writing into new poetry collections, which led ultimately to her rediscovery and financial independence.

She also started writing again and got in touch with Vanni Scheiwiller’s publishing house in order to publish her L’Altra Verità: Diario di una Diversa (The Other Truth: Diary of a Different One, 1986), that she had written while she was in Taranto. It was the first book she had written in prose that, as Giorgio Manganelli stated in the preface, “… is neither a document nor a testimony on the ten years spent by the writer in a mental institution. It is a ‘reconnaissance’ through epiphanies, deliria, tunes, songs, revelations and apparitions, of a space – not a place – where, failing every habit and everyday perspicacity, the natural hell and the numinous nature of human being bursts out.”

At this time, Merini finally achieved some serenity in Milan, and she was able to live outside of mental institutions in her own apartment on the Navigli and to support herself. The next twenty years were creatively productive for her and she published at least a book of poems or prose annually. In addition to the publication of her autobiography L’Altra Verità: Diario di una Diversa, she also published Fogli Bianchi (White Papers, 1987). Also In 1987, she was a finalist for the prestigious literary prize Premio Bergamo.

This recognition was followed by more books of poetry: Testamento (The Will, 1988), Delirio Amoroso (Delirium of Love, 1989), and Il Tormento delle Figure (The Torment of the Figures, 1990). In 1991 she wrote two new books, Le Parole di Alda Merini (The Words of Alda Merini) and Vuoto d’Amore (Emptiness of Love), edited by Maria Corti.

Between 1992 and 1996, Merini published several more books: Ipotenusa d’Amore (Hypotenuse of Love, 1992), La Palude di Manganelli o il Monarca del Re (The Manganelli Swamp or the King’s Monarch, 1993, dedicated to Giorgio Manganelli, the poet she had once loved when she was a teenager and who had died in 1992), Aforismi (Aphorisms, with photographs by Giuliano Grittini, 1993) , La Presenza di Orfeo (The Presence of Orpheus, 1993), Titano Amori Intorno (Titan Loves Around, 1993), Reato di Vita (Crime of Life, 1994), Ballate non Pagate (Unpaid Dances, 1995). (After publication, the Apulian musician Vincenzo Mastropirro put some of her verses from Ballate to music). This was followed by publication of her La Pazza della Porta Accanto (The Crazy Girl Next Door, 1995).

In 1993, Merini won the Premio Librex-Guggenheim Eugenio Montale award for poetry. This prestigious prize acclaimed her as a revered poet, and significantly elevated her status within the Italian literary community. She was now rated alongside other prominent Italian writers. In 1996, she won another prestigious prize, the Premio Viareggio for poetry for her La Vita Facile (The Easy Life, 1996). That year Merini met the artist Giovanni Bonaldi with whom she formed a genuine and strong friendship. They began to collaborate, and in 1997 Bonaldi drew five illustrations for a collection of poems and epigrams by Merini entitled Salmi della Gelosia (Psalms of Jealousy, 1997). In November of 1997, she published Curva di Fuga (The Vanishing Curve), which she presented at Castello Sforzesco in Soncino (a commune located 37 miles east Milan) where she was presented with an honorary citizenship.

From the mid-1990s, Merini had a mixture of artistic collaborations and enjoyed wide popularity. Many more of her poems were set to music; some of her books were complemented with drawings by important artists; and engraved covers enhanced some of her work. Many of her poems were recited by famous actors who made live appearances with her on stage. Several film directors made documentaries about her interesting life.

During the last decade of her life, she regularly appeared on TV, unkempt and regal at the same time. She was cheerful, witty, and always ready to tell a joke. (She was known to fish money from her bra to give to someone in need). Giovanni Nuti, a jazz composer who set some of her verses to music, said in an interview that she wanted to be regarded as “the poet of joy.” He added: “She wanted to reach the farmer at the market, the milkman, the butcher. She wanted to reach everybody, because her language was one of love, speaking to everyone’s heart.”

On October 17, 2007 Merini received an honorary degree in Theory of Communication and Language at the School of Educational Sciences of the University of Messina, giving a lectio magistralis (master presentation) on the meandering twists and turns of events that constituted her life.

She continued writing poems until her death. Some of her last poems were: Folle, Folle, Folle d’Amore per Te (Crazy, Crazy, Crazy with Love for You, 2003), Magnificat. Un Incontro con Maria (Magnificat. A Meeting with Mary, 2003), Poema della Croce (Poem of the Cross, 2004), Uomini miei (My Men, 2005), Sono Nata il Ventuno a Primavera: Diario e Nuove Poesie (I was Born on the Twenty-first in Spring: Diary and new Poems, 2005), La Vera Novella (The Real News, 2006), and Lettere a Dottor G (Letters to Dr. G, 2008).

She was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature–by the French Academy in 1996 and by Italian PEN Society in 2001. This shows her international fame and importance as a leading poet.

Alda Giuseppina Angela Merini died in Milan on November 1, 2009 in the oncology department of the San Paolo hospital, suffering from bone cancer. She was 78 years old. Even to the end, she continued to smoke her cigarettes, ignoring the advice of her doctors, her daughters, and others to stop smoking. She is interred in Cimitero Monumentale di Milano (Monumental Cemetery of Milan).

In 2009, the documentary Alda Merini: Una Donna sul Palcoscenico (Alda Merini: A Woman on Stage) directed by Cosimo Damiano Damato, was presented on Author’s Day at the 66th Venice Film Festival (September 2-9, 2009), two months before her death. The film included portions of Merini’s poems read by Mariangela Melato. Merini and Damato became great friends during the filming and she gave him unpublished poems to include in the film. She also wrote a poem, Una Donna sul Palcoscenico (A Woman on Stage), specifically for the purpose of including it in the film.

In memory of her and her work, her daughters Emanuela, Barbara, Flavia and Simonetta created a website (www.Merini, to serve as an anthology in memory of her as a writer and mother. They hope it serves to praise the “furious bee”, as she was known in life.

Here is an interview with her that also provides English subtitles. You can find others in Italian online. This short film from Tommaso Pedone was filmed at the home of the Alda Merini, in Navigli Canals, Milan in 2009.


Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
Carneti, Emanuela. Alda Merini, Mia Madre. Italy: Manni Publishers, 2019;
Parogni, Ilaria. “Overlooked No More: Alda Merini, Poet Who Wrote of Life’s Joys and Struggles.” New York Times website, August 9, 2022;
Pusceddu-Gangarosa, Cinzia. “Italian Women Writers: Alda Merini.” U of Chicago Library website, 2014;
Radaelli, Mariella. “Vivid Memories of the Astonishing Alda Merini.” Luminosity Italia website, November 12, 2019;
Verde, Giovanni. “Great Italians of the Past: Alda Merini.” We the Italians website, May 29, 2015;
Wikipedia website.
Image: Alda Merini. (2023, July 6). In Wikipedia.

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