Elsa Morante was born in Rome on August 18, 1912, to Irma Poggibonsi from Emilia (near Modena), and a Sicilian father, Francesco Lo Monaco. Her surname was that of her mother’s second husband, Augusto Morante, Elsa’s stepfather. In addition to a brother, Mario, who died young, she had three more siblings, Aldo, Marcello and Maria. Elsa’s mother, who came from a Jewish family in Modena, was a schoolteacher, while Morante was a teacher in a reformatory. During Elsa’s early childhood the family lived in the popular Testaccio quarter in Rome. Since Elsa was anemic and unhealthy, she did not attend school. At the age of six, she moved to live for a while with the noblewoman Maria Guerrieri di Gonzaga, her godmother, in a villa situated in the Roman quarter of Nomentano. When the Morante family moved to Monte Verde Nuovo in 1922, Elsa joined them, attending the Virgilio gymnasium. On completing her schooling at the age of eighteen she left her family’s home and went to live by herself. She began university studies in literature at the University of Rome, but left for financial reasons and earned her living by editing doctoral theses and giving private lessons in Latin.
In 1930 she began writing for the children’s journals Il Corriere dei Piccoli and I diritti della scuola, publishing her novel Qualcuno bussa alla porta in installments in the latter in 1935. In 1936, when she was living with an older man, she met Alberto Moravia (1907–1990), whom she married on April 14, 1941. The marriage brought her into contact with leading Italian writers and intellectuals of the day such as Pasolini, Umberto Saba and Sandro Penna. In 1943, when Alberto Moravia was accused of anti-fascist activities, the couple moved to Fondi, in the south of Italy, where they remained in hiding from the Fascist authorities until the liberation in 1944, when they returned to Rome. The south, which she loved very much, constitutes the background of most of her narrative work, which often deals with persecution and injustice and which is modeled to a large extent on French and Russian novelists of the nineteenth century.
In 1947, at the advice of Natalia Ginzburg, she sent the manuscript of her novel Menzogna e Sortilegio (formerly entitled Vita di mia nonna) to Einaudi. Published the following year, it won her the 1948 Viareggio literary prize. In 1948 she traveled to France and England for the first time.
Although the couple’s financial situation had improved and they were able to purchase a larger apartment in the center of Rome, near Piazza del Popolo, her relationship with Moravia was deteriorating. She needed both autonomy and profound affection. Similarly, she contemplated having a child, but decided against it, later regretting the lost opportunity. In the summer of 1951 Elsa Morante began to write Lo Scialle Andaluso, which was published in 1953. In 1957 Einaudi published L’isola di Arturo, a novel which combined fantasy with Freudian themes, which won the Strega Prize. In the same year she participated in a cultural delegation to the Soviet Union and China. During this period Elsa Morante became friends with Umberto Saba (1883–1957), Sandro Penna (1906–1977) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–1975). In September 1959, while traveling in the United States, she met Bill Morrow, a young painter from New York, and they developed a deep friendship. Later, Morrow moved to Rome. Elsa Morante did not leave her marital residence but took an apartment of her own.
In 1961, after years of difficulty, she finally separated from Alberto Moravia. For her, this was the beginning of a period of travel and journalistic reporting. In the 1960s she experienced an inner conflict resulting from her need to be involved, to commit herself, to participate in the movement for a democratic renewal of Italian society on the one hand, and her own reticent nature, on the other. In 1968 she published Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini, a collection of poems in various styles, popular songs and a one-act play.
In 1974 Einaudi published her novel La Storia, in which she recounts Italy’s wartime history through the eyes of a poor Roman family. In it, she tried to write in a simple language accessible to all. However, in her last novel, Aracoeli (1982), which she had begun in 1976, she reverted to her earlier style. This portrait of an unusual personality searching to reconstruct her lost mother figure won her the Prix Medicis.
Morante’s later years were increasingly characterized by existential worries and by frustration resulting from the continued iniquitous oppression of the poor and the innocent. In 1980 she fell and broke a leg. In December 1981 she recovered in a Swiss clinic but was obliged to remain in bed. Her condition began to deteriorate and in April 1983 she tried to gas herself. She died of a heart attack in a clinic in Rome in November 1985. Her ashes were scattered in the sea near the Procida Island, the place where she was with Alberto Moravia in the period of hiding during World War II, one of the happiest periods of her life.
Il Gioco Segreto (The Secret Game), 1941; Le Bellissime avventure di Caterì dalla trecciolina, 1941; Menzogna e Sortliegio (House of Liars), 1948; L’Isola di Arturo (Arturo’s Island), 1957; Alibi, 1958; Le straordinarie avventure di Caterina, 1959; Lo scialle andaluso (The Andalusian Shawl), 1963; Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini (The World Saved by Little Children), 1968; La Storia (History), 1974; made into a film by Luigi Comencini in 1985; Aracoeli, 1982; Pro e contro la bomba atomica, 1987.
Bernabò Secchi, Graziella. Come leggere “La Storia” di Elsa Morante (Reading the “History” of Elsa Morante) 1991; Kalay, Grace Z. The Theme of Childhood in Elsa Morante, 1996.
How to cite this page
Acobas, Patrizia. "Elsa Morante." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 21, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/morante-elsa>.