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Italian creative literature on Ethiopia may be said to begin, in grand style, with the composer Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida, which was commissioned by the Egyptian Khedive Ismail in 1869. It was performed in Cairo in 1871, and at the Scala, Milan, in the following year. The text was written by Antonio Ghislanzoni, who based himself on a French version by Camille du Loncle.
The opera tells the tragic story of the Ethiopian princess Aida. She is the daughter of King Amonasro of Ethiopia, who had invaded the country of the Pharaohs. The story turns on the love between Aida and the handsome Egyptian officer Radames, who had rejected the love of the Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris, and was in consequence sentenced to death. Both lovers, Aida and Radames, die tragically in a dungeon as the curtain falls.
A French version of this work, by du Loncle and Charles Nuitter, the pseudonym of Charles Truinet, was subsequently published in Paris, in 1877.
When will an Amharic version be staged in Ethiopia?
Italy’s advent in Africa, the seizure of the port of Massawa in 1885 and Ras Alula’s historic victory at Dogali in 1887, opened a new phase in Italian creative literature on Africa. This began with the appearance of three anonymous publications: A novelette, Una legenda abissina, i.e. “An Abyssinian Legend” (Milan, 1887); a pamphlet, La partenza delle donne per l’Africa al fianco de’volontari loro amanti, i.e. ‘The departure of the women for Africa beside the volunteers, their lovers” (Florence, 1887); and a song by “Blanco”, entitled A Circe: Cantico barbaro, i.e. “To Circe: Barbaric song” (Foligno, 1887).
The year 1887 also witnessed the composition of a moving ode to one of the Italian soldiers killed in the colonial enterprise: Manfredo Vanni’s Dopo Saati e Dogali: al Tenante Alfredo Busatti prima vittima della espedizione africana, i.e. “After [the battles of] Saati and Dogali: to Lieutenant Alfredo Busatti, first victim of the African expedition” (Florence, 1887). This was one of many such memorials, no less than seventy-five of which are mentioned in Giuseppe Fumagalli’s Bibliographia etiopica (Milan, 1893).
The principal Italian colonial poet of this period was, however, perhaps the now largely forgotten Remigio Zena, author of Il canto della sabbia rossa, i.e. “Song of the red sand”, which was written after the battle of Dogali, Il campo abissina, i.e. “The Abyssinian Camp”, and other verse reproduced in an article by M. Chini, entitled “Remigio Zena” in Gli Annali dell’ Africa Italiana, 1939, II. No. 1.
Opposition to Italian colonialism was voiced by the Italian Anti-Imperialist poet Ulisse Barbieri in his Inno abissino, i.e. “Abyssinian hymn”, which was set to the stirring tune of the Inno di Garibaldi, i.e. “Hymn of Garibaldi”. Barbieri’s verse contains the refrain, supposedly addressed by the Ethiopians to the Italians: Va fuori dell’Africa, i.e, “Go out of Africa!”. This poem first appeared in an Italian local newspaper La Provincia di Mantova in 1887, and was also published in Barbieri’s Ribellione (Lugo, 1887). It is also cited in Angelo Del Boca’s Gli Italiani in Africa orientale. Dall’unità alla marcia su Roma (1976).
Late 19th century Italian interest in Ethiopia was also reflected in a popular romance by Luigi Gualtieri, entitled La figlia di Ras Alula o le notti abissine, i.e. “The daughter of Ras Alula, or Abyssinian Nights” (Milan, 1888). This was almost immediately turned into a play by A. Castelleto, which was translated into English by Louis Haber, published in Ethiopia Observer (1972), XV. A much shorter version, Gli amori della figlia di Ras Alula in Africa, i.e. “The loves of the daughter or Ras Alula in Africa” was later published in Florence in 1888. Other publications of this time included I mangiatori di carne umana in Africa, i.e. “The eaters of human flesh in Africa” (Florence, 1888), and a popular song Il combattimento di Saganeiti e la morte di cinque officiali italiani, i.e. “The battle of Saganeiti and the death of five Italian officers” (Milan, 1888).
Other such works followed. One of the best known was a novel by Cletto Arrighi who used the nom de plume of Carlo Righetti, and perhaps also of Mohomed bin Alid, It was entitled Il fascino di Dogali, i.e. “The Fascination of Dogali” (Milan, 1889). Mention should also be made at this time of Guglielmo Merloni’s Il seminarista in Africa, i.e. “The seminarist in Africa” (Fanno, 1889), and, as indicated by its title, a very different work, Napoleone Corazzini’s Pantera nera, scene abissine i.e. “Black Panther, Abyssinian scenes” (Naples, 1890).
Italian interest in Ethiopia subsequently declined, as evident from a paucity of literary works related to the country published in the next few decades. Several exceptions, however, stand out. The Italian traveller Arnaldo Cipolla, better known for his Nell’impero di Menelik, or “In the Empire of Menelik’” (Milan, 1911) and Pagine africane di un esploratore, i.e. “African pages of an explorer” (Milan, 1927), wrote a today largely forgotten historical novel on Emperor Menelik’s consort Empress Taytu, entitled Un’imperatrice d’Etiopia”, i.e. “An empress of Ethiopia” (Florence, 1921).
And in Eritrea, Padre Aquilino da Bergamo wrote and produced a six act play on the life of the Ethiopian Catholic convert Abba Gabre-Mikael: Abba Ghebrè Micael ossia il martire dellAbissina (Asmara, 1922).
Subsequently, the Italian author Guglielmo Ferrero published Gli ultimi barbari: sudore e sangue. Romanzo. i.e. “The last barbarians: sweat and blood. Novel” (Milan and Verona, 1930) – a work, which because of the later outbreak of hostilities, was soon translated into French and several other European languages.