Piazza di San Marco, 4, 50121 Firenze FI, Italy
Giovanni attended the University of Florence from 1900 to 1902.
Giovanni attended the University of Florence from 1900 to 1902.
Giovanni's father, an atheist in a devoutly religious community, strongly urged him to enter the family furniture-making business, a plan that Papini - who began writing at the age of fourteen - rejected. This break caused years of strife within the family, and Papini would eventually discard his family’s artisan/bourgeois lifestyle to the extent of marrying a peasant woman in 1907 and settling in the countryside for a few years. In his early twenties, alter studying at the University of Florence, Papini became co-founder of a literary magazine called Leonardo with his friend Giuseppe Prezzolini. Leonardo featured handmade paper and original artwork to present essays that attacked more than one of the canons in Italian intellectual thought; many of the essays were written by Papini under the pen name Gian Falco. Although Leonardo became successful its founders decided to shut it down by 1908. Many of Papini's early Writings were then collected in the 1906 volume The Twilight of Philosophy.
In 1911 he became co-editor of L'Anima, and then took a similar post the following year at La Voce, a political and literary journal founded by Prezzolini.
Around 1912 Papini was writing extensively on nihilism, and the collection of essays in L'altra meta, which appeared in 1912, reflected this new shift. In his next volume, subtitled Essay of a Mephistophelic Philosophy, Papini discusses some problems which, in 1912, were not yet popular with Western philosophers: nothingness, ignorance, madness as a philosophical problem, the paradoxical nature of evil. etc. L’altra meta exemplifies the extreme limits of nihilism and despair. Emblematic of the paradoxes that would mark his career, Papini would eventually come to terms with the faith of his devout mother and became a practicing Roman Catholic by 1920.
His autobiographical novel, The Failure, was published in 1912. More of a spiritual biography, the work chronicles Papini's early desire to achieve greatness, to alter the course of Italian culture, like so many notable Florentines before him.
In 1913 Papini founded, with Ardengo Soffici, a magazine called Lacerba, which published rising young writers in Italy. He served as its editor until 1915, and during this time also published another collection of essays, Four and Twenty Minds. In it he discusses the ideas and works of Leonardo DaVinci, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others.
During World War l, Papini became a staunch patriot and despaired when he was rejected for military service. After the war, he served as editor of La Vera Italia and grew even more nationalistic and pious, though he had only a decade earlier excoriated such attitudes. His 1921 book, Life of Christ, reflects his embrace of Roman Catholicism. The work presents incidents from the Gospels, assuming they are wholly factual, and weaves many fictional details into a biography. For instance, Papini writes of the men who took Christ down from the cross, and what their lives were like. Life of Christ was a tremendous commercial success for Papini. It was translated into several languages and remained a popular book for the next two decades.
Papini’s next major work was the 1929 biography of Saint Augustine. Interestingly, Papini had written the book in less than a month. An unusual novel from Papini, Gog, appeared in 1931. It presents the story of a rich American industrialist through some seventy adventures that chronicle Gog’s contacts with famous personalities of his day, such as Henry Ford, Lenin, and Einstein. It was followed by a biography of Dante, published in 1933. Two years later, he was named a professor of literature at the University of Bologna.
Scholars do note that two of Papini’s later works redeem him somewhat from his political beliefs. These are the 1939 essay Italia mia and the postwar tract Lettere agli uomini, di papa Celestino VI, per la prima volta tradotte e pubblicate, a novel published in Italy in 1946 and in translation as The Letters of Pope Celestine VI to All Mankind two years later. In it Papini presents a fictitious pope ruminating about the state of humankind after having witnessed a period of terrible bloodshed and human misery. The work’s themes reflect Papini's dismay about the role that the Catholic Church played in the Holocaust as a silent witness.
Papini wrote another biography of yet another famous Tuscan, Michelangelo, that received mixed reviews upon publication in 1949. His 1953 treatise, II diavolo; appunti per una figura diabologia, also incited debate and was even placed on the Vatican's list of books that it forbid Catholics to read. Published in English as The Devil in 1954, it presents Papini’s premise that a true Christian church should undertake an investigation into the philosophical question of why Lucifer, once an angel, revolted; furthermore, he theorizes if it is possible that the Devil can be redeemed in what would be the ultimate act of Christian forgiveness. Oddly, Papini suffered from a mysterious paralysis of his right hand during the final writing phase of the book. Papini died in Florence, where he had spent nearly all of his life, in July of 1956.
Papini became a supporter of Italian Fascism after the rise of Benito Mussolini. An Antisemite, he believed in an international plot of Jews, applauding the racial discrimination laws enforced by Mussolini in 1938.
Papini's essays were particularly vituperative toward a system of philosophy called positivism, which held that the goal of knowledge was simply to describe the phenomenon experienced. Papini argued that there was much in the world that was unseen or unable to be interpreted by given standards of reality. With other like-minded young Italian intellectuals, these ideas coalesced around a movement called the rinnovarsi, or renewal. Leonardo was one element in rinnovarsi, part of a growing number of new periodicals published by a rebellious and educated new generation. Although nationalistic in their political beliefs, these youthful intellectuals perceived Italian culture as too narrow and overly reliant upon the past and sought to introduce the cultural achievements of other nations into Italy.
Papini also became an adherent of the philosophical system established by William James known as pragmatism. This was a school that asserted that ideas could be assessed as true or not simply on the basis of their utilitarian value, and Papini wrote extensively on this subject as well in Leonardo. Soon afterward, Papini became a supporter of futurism, a new artistic and intellectual movement that reflected the gains and dynamism of the industrial age.
Giovanni married Giacinta Giovagnoli in 1907. They had two daughters.