“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
Bravo, Muriel: Spoken like a writer! And surely, this view is shared by the people who run the National Diary Archive Foundation in Pieve Santo Stefano, Italy — a small Tuscan town enjoying newfound fame as the City of Diaries. Some of the stories on its shelves were scrawled on scraps of paper, some were typewritten, and some penned in longhand in leather-bound journals. In all, more than 7,000 memoirs crowd the archive’s shelves, the earliest among them dating back to the 18th century.
Unbound by paper or convention, at least one diary was scribbled on a bright white wedding bed sheet by Cielia Marchi, a barely educated woman from Mantua, who began recording her life story when she was 72 and delivered her bed sheet to the archive in 1968. A superstar in the archive’s firmament, Cielia’s labor of love has inspired both artists and playwrights.
So have the 39 scraps of paper that were scribbled in a Rome jail by Orlando Orlandi Posti, an 18-year old arrested in February of 1944 for warning his friends about a planned roundup by German soldiers. Written over six weeks, he smuggled them out of prison rolled up in the collars of shirts sent to the laundry. His poignant, makeshift memoir is all that remains of his story. He was executed on March 24, 1944 — one of 335 Italians who lost their lives in reprisal for the killing of German policemen by Italian partisans. Orlando’s story has become a book, a play, and an exhibit, along with Cielia Marchi’s bed sheet, in a Diary Archive Museum that opened in the Pieve Santo Stefano City Hall.
The archive has become a hub of historical research. For his 2013 book called Fascist Voices: An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy, for instance, Christopher Duggan read about 200 of the 2500 diaries from that period. Journalist Luciana Capretti also used the archive’s store of everyday lore to research her novel, Tevere, which explores the life of a woman troubled by events that took place in World War II. The centenary of the Great War has also attracted attention to the archive’s 350 firsthand accounts by Italian soldiers of their experiences in World War I.
The City of Diaries: It sounds like the title of a novel, doesn’t it? What a remarkable idea! In this day of tweets isn’t it oddly comforting to contemplate a diary scrawled on a bed sheet? Yes, Muriel, the world is made up of stories. And we have plenty of them to tell! Write on.