A Reader’s Circle in Venice

April 26, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)




I first visited Venice in the summer of 1981 (when I should have been working on my thesis).







One day I got lost in the city’s winding lanes and stumbed upon a ‘festa’ – in this instance it was an open-air party, in a quarter that was not much frequented by tourists. An accordion was playing and many couples, young and old, were dancing in the bright sunlight. On one side, chess games were under way, on tables that had been set up along a canal. There was food too, and wine, and passers-by was invited to join in.

It was a wonderful event, welcoming and joyful, and I was astonished when I learnt that it had been organized by L’Unità, the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party. It was impossible to think of such an event being hosted by Gonoshokti, the organ of the CPM, which was then ruling my home state of West Bengal.

That festa is still one of my most vivid memories of Venice. I was reminded of it last week when I went to visit a group of Venetian readers who have been reading In An Antique Land (I included some of their responses to the book in my post of April 9).



The group is called Circolo ARCI Franca Trentin Baratto: it takes its name from Franca Trentin Baratto a political activist who was a partisan during the Second World War. Later she taught French at a university in Venice. The reading circle is a part of a wider body called ARCI (pronounced ‘archie’) which is descended from the SOCIETÀ OPERAIE DI MUTUO SOCCORSO (Working Class Societies of Mutual Help) founded in the second half of the nineteenth century.






My Italian translator, Anna Nadotti explains that ‘Mutuality, justice, freedom were their main issues.  And from the beginning education campaigns were one of their main activities – they especially promoted literacy for the working class, male and women. In the early 1900s,  CIRCOLI  and  CASE DEL POPOLO (former SOCIETA’ OPERAIE) were places where to meet, discuss, learn writing and reading, organize antiwar battles, and later support to soldiers and their families.Politically they espoused a mix of Mazzini’s ideals, of anarchism and socialism. Fascism accused them of subversiveness and outlawed them. Never mind if the members had bought or built such places,  “liretta su liretta” as they used to say, meaning that they had saved money (lira) to have their own ‘circle’ and ‘house’.  Only after the war could they function freely, and in 1956 they were united in the ARCI ( ASSOCIAZIONE RICREATIVA CULTURALE ITALIANA ). Democracy and antifascism, antiracism and sustainable development being their banners. Culture, sport, music, theatre their  activities, but also part of the movement, from ’68 to Seattle and Genova. They are active in the slowfood movement and in bio-agriculture.’



DSC02855The group meets in a room that was given to them by one of their founder-members, Anita Mezzalira.  I was taken there by an old friend, Marina Scalori, who is a teacher, trade union activist and an enthusiastic reader.










Slivia Marri introduced me and served as the translator for the event.





Later she sent me this copy of her introduction.

Dear Amitav,

we are greatly honoured and deeply touched by your visit.

You collect stories and drive them through time and space until they become part of our story.

Thanks to you we have strengthened our feeling that it’s necessary to defend the human factor at any cost. The rest, as a famous rabbi said about the essence of Thora, is but a commentary.

Here, too, we collect and tell stories, real-life stories, sometimes passionate, sometimes dramatic, anyway stories which are our common chant. Sometimes they are close and contemporary, sometimes we must preserve them from being forgotten, sometimes they belong to us or sometimes we try to make them ours even if they come from afar.

Anita Mezzalira (a trade unionist who lived in the first half of the XX century) and Franca Trentin (a partisan, a teacher, a committed woman who lived in the second half of the XX century) lived and worked here in Venice. Their stories were and are part of the lives of a lot of people who tried and still try to achieve dignity, rights and democracy.

We do our best to follow their example, their love for people, their strong belief in everybody’s right to have a decent and just life.




Your visit touches us because it makes us feel that culture doesn’t belong to academic institutions only, far from common people, but it can reach the elderly who gather in this room to play cards, or the people who live in this lively neighbourhood. You make us feel important as you did with Bomma and maybe we’ll be able to prevent Nabeel from being devoured by the chaos of our world.

Thank you again and, if you accept it, we would like to appoint you member of the Circolo Arci Franca Trentin.   




I was then admitted as a member of the Circle, as proof of which I was issued this card!













It was a lovely event, in a hall that was hung with pictures of left icons




– including a rather unusual picture of Che Guevara (on the left).

[I was to discover later that Il Gazzetino di Venezia had photographed me taking this picture.]








I was delighted to meet Anita Baseggio, who is 93 years old and an avid reader.




Her husband was a famous actor, Cesco Bassegio.











The members had brought  food,















including this wonderful tiramisù.
















People often talk of all the crises and catastrophes that beset Italy today. Groups like this readers’ circle  serve to remind one of the reasons why, despite all its problems, Italy is so consistently and surprisingly resilient – and has been so for thousands of years!





2 Responses to “A Reader’s Circle in Venice”

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  1. Comment by Sunil DeepakApril 26, 2013 at 11:10 am   Reply

    Even today, l’Unità organises in all small and big cities their “Festa dell’Unità”, where people still dance, eat and play … some are really big and elaborate affairs

  2. Comment by francesca — May 5, 2013 at 3:28 pm   Reply

    You’ll always be welcome, as a friend.

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