Doctor in exile

Constance Markey
Chicago, Illinois, United States

 

Photo of Dr. Carlo Levi
Portrait of Carlo Levi. By Carl Van Vechten, photographer (created/published: 1947 June 4) (Wikipedia.org)

In August of 1935, a handcuffed Dr. Carlo Levi, (1902-1975), author of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, (Christ Stopped at Eboli) arrived in the miserable southern Italian village of Gagliano (actually, Aliano).1 He knew why he was there. Indeed, under the fascist regime, he had already been arrested and confined for his anti-fascist activity in Northern Italy. Luckily, however, Levi would be among the early and more fortunate fascist victims.

At that time in Italy, it was Mussolini’s custom simply to exile antifascists to the forgotten and impoverished south. Executions played a smaller role in the self-assured fascist methodology of the years before World War II. Besides, men were soon to be needed for Mussolini’s October 1935 invasion of Abyssinia (today Ethiopia), and southern Italy was full of these miserable confines, including Carlo Levi.

Furthermore, Levi also came from an eminent Jewish medical family in the sophisticated northern Italian city of Turin and was himself a medical school graduate who had practical hospital experience. Probably for these reasons he had spent less time than some of his comrades at the grand Regina Coeli prison in Rome and was often treated with at least a modicum of respect.

Yet the truth was that Carlo Levi was no longer practicing medicine, his interests after medical school having turned to painting and his all-consuming work as a prominent antifascist resistance leader. Levi may have been told that in confinement he would never function as a doctor in Gagliano since fascist policy did forbid it. He may also have learned that the village already had physicians.

On his first afternoon in the village, therefore, Levi was in for a surprise. News that a “real” physician had arrived in Gagliano traveled quickly among the local “contadini” (farmer/peasants) and with that news Levi’s first patient had already arrived. The man’s loyal family was wailing and insistent, and finally Dr. Levi had no choice but to see the sick villager. The man had in fact just been carried back home from the nearby town of Stigliano where his loved ones had hoped without success to see a doctor there rather than see Gagliano’s local “medicaciucci” (quacks).2

Arriving at the patient’s dismal hovel Levi was again shocked. The situation was alien to the clean, orderly hospital corridors he had worked in at home. Despite the feverish family members and neighbors gathered tightly around him, the new doctor focused on the desperately ill patient lying before him. Levi realized at once that the man was suffering an acute attack of malaria. He was barely breathing with a fever well-above the imaginable and was near death. There was nothing to do but wait with the family until it was over and that is what he did. Although Levi’s helpless efforts had failed to save his first patient, there would soon be others.

The cabin he had just visited, he would soon learn, was not unlike the others he would encounter in the long year ahead. It was dark and hung with black pennants in honor of those who had already passed away. The one room interior was divided into three levels. Under the beds lived the animals. Above them slept the entire family, and from the ceiling hung the tiny hammocks that held the infants. In the future he would see this same interior repeated in many huts he visited. He would also see the walls often adorned with an identical trio of wall hangings: the Madonna, President Roosevelt, and finally an American dollar. Many Italian peasants in the 1920s had already left for America and occasionally sent souvenirs home. Some returned to Gagliano but others were never seen or heard from again.3

Later that first day in Gagliano, Levi met the local doctors and saw at once that the villagers were absolutely justified in mistrusting and despising them. The doctors were selfish, avaricious old men, threatened by Levi’s arrival. It was clear from their conversation that their medical training was either inadequate or forgotten many years ago. During Levi’s confinement, he would never respect them because it was obvious that they were lazy, ignorant, and even superstitious.

One of the doctors, for example, took pleasure in warning Levi that, since he was a handsome young man, the peasant women would pursue him and thus he would have to stay away from them. The women of Gagliano were dangerous because of the “filtri” (love potions) they would offer him. These risky potions he was told were made of “ca-ta-meniale” (menstrual blood) that was disguised in coffee and herbs. It would therefore be very dangerous for Levi to accept anything to drink from the village women. Thinking this advice nonsensical, Levi ignored it with nary an ill effect during his entire tenure in Gagliano.4

The village petite bourgeoisie did not look more kindly on the peasants than the village doctors. They were quick to deny the rampant malaria in the village, but even quicker to shut their own windows tightly at night against the pervasive threat. Three poorly educated sisters incompetently and ungenerously oversaw the local pharmacy. These selfish young women cared little about their work and often haughtily refused to dispense drugs to the impoverished peasants since they could not pay.

The mayor assured Levi that the populace suffered no more than “un po di malaria, cosa da nulla” (only an irrelevant bit of harmless malaria). Yet when Levi gazed around the small piazza at the peasants admiring him with curiosity that first day it was easy for him to see that the people were certainly chronically ill with malaria. The adults were small and brown, their eyes empty, their abdomens swollen. Nor were the children better off. Many of them too had swollen abdomens with thin legs suggestive of rickets and pale with anemia. Levi, then no more than a sympathetic onlooker, realized that being involved in the care of the villagers was a growing possibility.5

Lacking in extensive medical experience, the new doctor at once recognized that he would need help and so he wrote to his sister, a pediatrician in Turin. It was she who perhaps could supply him the tools he might need were he to practice medicine. With some difficulty he was able to arrange for her permission to visit him briefly in Gagliano. But such permission required her to stop at the nearby town of Matera to check in at the local fascist headquarters there.

In 1935, however, Matera bore only a superficial resemblance to the fascinating tourist spot it is today. Like now, it was a town of some size perched on a precipice and dotted with intriguing caves, but there its attraction ended. The fascist officials at hand there clearly cared nothing for the town, its curious caves, or its suffering populace on any day, much less the day Carlo’s sister arrived for her permit. The caves thus served as nothing more than smelly open-air dungeons inhabited by a sickly, starving populace.

There too in Matera, the fascist officers insisted that la malaria? Non esiste. (Malaria does not exist). The pediatrician, nonetheless, saw things differently. The children were an especially pathetic sight. If they were strong enough, they ran after her begging for “quino” (quinine). Otherwise, they sat with eyelids closed and covered with flies. No doubt, she thought to herself, they were infected with trachoma. Other children did much less and simply lay wanly on the dirt floors shivering with fever.6

Undoubtedly Matera was an appalling sight in those days, the likes of which a competent doctor like Levi’s sister had never in her lifetime seen. In fact, it would not be until after WWII that Matera’s caves would be cleaned out, chained, and locked, and its people transferred to decent housing. But, in this instance, the young pediatrician was only relieved to leave that ugly place and rush to her brother in Gagliano.

Once there she did her best in a brief stay to bring him up to date on current medicine, giving him texts and instruments and even some drugs that she had managed to bring with her. Unfortunately, she was gone too soon to prepare the young doctor fully for the long and busy months ahead that would be spent caring for sick and dying villagers. Ironically, the fascist bureaucracy would prove altogether happy to ignore Levi’s new medical practice—at least for a time.

After his sister’s departure, a worried Carlo Levi began to see many patients, although initially these were timid individuals, resigned as they were to a meager existence. Always a keen observer, the new doctor was soon aware of the unchanging lifestyle of the impoverished contadini now in his care. He had seen that they rose before dawn and went to the fields to work, usually returning only after dark. He knew that their everyday diet consisted of bread covered with tomatoes, garlic, oil, and pepper and he had overheard the limited food-centered talk among them. “Che cosa hai mangiato oggi?” (What have you eaten today?) was normally the brief but pointed exchange of the day, just in case someone had been lucky enough to eat something better.7

After spending more time with their new doctor, the villagers gradually began to express their personal feelings and confide in him. Over the centuries, they had always been treated badly, they told him. For this reason, they had no interest in Mussolini and never listened to his radio broadcasts. His war belonged to him and to Rome. Oh yes, the farmers believed in God, but sadly even Christ had forsaken them for he had never visited Gagliano. Instead, they told Levi, that in his legendary descent into Italy, Christ had instead stopped north of their village at Eboli. “Cristo si è fermato a Eboli,” they told Levi more than once and these were words he would never forget.8

During his tenure at Gagliano, Levi saw many and varied illnesses, some fatal, some chronic, and some responsive to good care. Among these last, head lice, worms, and impetigo were common but still treatable with medicines that the doctor had either gotten from his sister or was able to acquire. But other illnesses were more serious. Diphtheria, erysipelas, amoebiasis, chronic malnutrition, and jaundice from the omnipresent malaria defied treatment, especially without medications. Frequently he also saw “pustola, malignata” (anthrax?) on peasant extremities and thought these lesions were perhaps the result of the people’s constant contact with animal carriers. In many instances, having run out of his own supply of medicines, he personally helped his patients pay for whatever was available at the exorbitantly priced village pharmacy.

Perhaps the ugliest moment of Levi’s brief medical career in Gagliano was helplessly tending a man with a perforated bowel and peritonitis. Since he could not perform surgery, the doctor could do nothing but give the man morphine to dull the pain and listen through the long hours of the night as the dying man continually cried “aiutami dottore” (help me doctor). Dawn finally came but Levi was by then so shaken that he finally rose and went outside, afraid that if he stayed inside he might cry in front of the man’s family.

Levi also frequently asked the mayor to clean the filthy village fountain of standing water and begged him to distribute the quinine that by fascist law the villagers were entitled to receive. The mayor had always listened kindly to Levi’s pleas but had inevitably done nothing. Instead, one day a letter arrived from Matera informing Levi that if he did not cease his medical practice at once he would be sent to prison. From that moment on Dr. Levi still practiced medicine, but secretly and carefully.

Spring 1936 arrived and to everyone’s surprise, the mayor received a telegram announcing that in order to celebrate Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia all the exiles in Gagliano were to be freed. Surprisingly, Carlo Levi’s name was on that list. But leaving would be very difficult both for his patients and for their doctor. By this time Levi felt estranged from family and friends at home who would never fully comprehend his experiences in confinement. Furthermore, he was emotionally tied to his people in Gagliano.

The village peasants were very distraught. Adamantly they insisted that he stay with them. They even went so far as to seek him out a local bride. Deeply moved, Levi decided to stay on two extra days but inevitably he had to leave or face reprisal. He sadly packed his belongings, taking with him the precious paintings he had done of his “contadini.” Then sadly he said his goodbyes, but not without emphatically promising his people to return. This promise he would later keep, though in an unexpected way.

After his return to northern Italy, Levi was constantly hounded by the fascist authorities and often arrested. As a result, he finally moved to France for a while and there joined the French resistance. By the forties, however, he had returned to Italy to face the Nazi occupation of Italy and participate in the violent resistance in Florence. It was there, while in hiding in Florence (1943-44), that he wrote his famous memoir and, remembering the words of his people in Gagliano, he titled the work Cristo si è fermato a Eboli.9

Levi’s book was published in 1945 to tumultuous praise and recognized as the masterpiece of post-war Italian literature that it was and still is today. Since then, the book has been published in many languages, including English. Contemporary scholars such as Stanislao G. Pugliese, Sergio Pacific, and author Italo Calvino have sensitively studied Levi’s work both as history and literature. His extraordinary life experience and both his writing and artwork were also astutely assessed by the New York Times.

Historian Stanislao G. Pugliese admires Levi’s memoir because in practical terms, “his experience of confinement proved to be politically decisive . . . to antifascism.”10 Literary critic Sergio Pacific sees Cristo si è fermato a Eboli as a masterpiece that goes “beyond the personal and becomes, thanks to Levi’s sensitive and compassionate attitude, a noble attempt to understand the essence of life. . . .”11 What is unusual, according to Pacific, is Levi’s “deep affection for the poor, the empathy for their lot,” wherein “every page is made to talk the truth.” Novelist Italo Calvino describes the book as a work of “high intellectual level,” and its author as “. . . a true ambassador of the peasant world.”12

But perhaps the New York Times obituary of Carlo Levi best sums up the author, citing him as a “Renaissance-type figure—a trained doctor, painter, a writer . . . journalist and a politician.”13 These words firmly provide a fitting tribute to a brilliant writer and spokesperson for his times.

After the war Levi was much involved in the new Italian government, even for a time serving as a senator. He also continued his painting, but in conversation he constantly regretted that he had not kept his promise to return to his people in Gagliano. However, Levi finally found a way to return there—if only after his death in 1975. To this day visitors can view Carlo Levi’s hillside Aliano (Gagliano) grave with its touching dedication to the compassionate physician and sensitive humanist that he was.14

 

End notes

  1. See the original Italian work: Carlo Levi, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. Con saggi introduttivi di Italo Calvino e Jean Paul Sartre (Turin: Einaudi, 1990), 5 (hereafter cited as Levi). Translations from Italian are by the author. Likely Levi named the village Aliano fictitiously as Gagliano partly to spare postwar embarrassment to the locals there. However, Levi’s emotional ties to the very real Aliano essentially colored his entire life.
  2. A humane man, Levi (9-10) makes it clear throughout his book that the emphasis of “contadino” is on farmer not peasant. The word “medicaciucci,” however, is an angry aside revealing the author’s attitude toward local medical care during his confinement.
  3. Levi, 121. The description of the interior of the typical living quarters of the “Gaglianesi” is a famous highpoint in the novel.
  4. Levi, 13.
  5. Levi, 12.
  6. Levi, 77, 74.
  7. Levi, 85.
  8. Levi, 3, 116-179, 201.
  9. Levi, 198. We know from his own words that Levi wrote his important book while in hiding in Florence. It has been often suggested that he really hid in the all-important Vasari Corridor connecting the Palazzo Vecchio with the Pitti Palace: a place where Italians had hidden many great works of art from the Nazis.
  10. Stanislao G. Pugliese, ed., Fascism, Anti-fascism and the Resistance in Italy (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2004), 10.
  11. Sergio Pacifici, The Modern Italian Novel (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), 91.
  12. Italo Calvino in Levi, xi.
  13. “Carlo Levi Dies in Rome at 72; Wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli,Special to the New York Times, January 5, 1995: https://www.nytimes.com/1975/01/05/archives/carlo-levi-dies-in-rome-at-72-wrote-christ-stopped-at-eboli-book.html There appears to be a discrepancy in the Times citation of the author’s age at death as 72 since Italian critics cite his life as 1902-1975.
  14. Although the author is buried in Aliano, many of his paintings can be seen elsewhere. Some of his finest artwork is housed in Palazzo Lanfranchi, Matera.

 

References

  • Calvino, Italo, “Con saggi introduttivi di Italo Calvino e Jean Paul Sartre.” In Carlo Levi, ix-xii, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. Turin: Giulio Torino, Giulio Einaudi Editore, 1990.
  • “Carlo Levi Dies in Rome at 72; Wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli,” Special to the New York Times, Archival article. Author unknown, originally published January 5, 1975. https://www.nytimes.com/1975/01/05/archives/carlo-levi-dies-in-rome-at-72-wrote-christ-stopped-at-eboli-book.html
  • Levi, Carlo, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli. Con saggi introduttivi di Italo Calvino e Jean Paul Sartre. Turin: Einaudi, 1990.
  • Pacifici, Sergio, The Modern Italian Novel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979.
  • Pugliese, Stanislao G., ed., Fascism, Anti-fascism and the Resistance in Italy. Lanham, Maryland, Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2004.

 


 

CONSTANCE MARKEY, PHD, has enjoyed two careers. While working as a registered nurse (1957-79) she also studied Italian, and in 1970 earned an MA in Italian at the University of Chicago, and a PhD in Italian literature at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana in 1980. In 1984 she accepted a position at DePaul University in Chicago where she was named head of the Italian Section. She continued to teach at DePaul until her retirement in 2004.

 

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