by Roderick Conway Morris

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Società Letteraria di Verona
Two covers from Lucciola (Firefly)

'Firefly': A Homemade Arts Magazine

By Roderick Conway Morris
VERONA 1 June 1996


An out-of-the-blue gift to this city's Literary Society has led to the rediscovery of a remarkable monthly periodical, Lucciola (Firefly), which was produced between 1908 and 1926. The work of a group of young Italian women, Lucciola was entirely handwritten and illustrated with drawings, paintings and photographs, and existed as a single copy that was posted from subscriber to subscriber, taking many months to make its way around the peninsula before ending up in the editor's office once again.

'Lucciola was launched by Lina Caico, whose father was a Sicilian landowner but whose mother was English,' said Paola Azzolini, a writer and member of Verona's nearly 200-year old Literary Society, who has been reconstructing the story of the magazine. 'There was an English community in Sicily during the 19th century, many of whom were involved in growing vines and exporting Marsala wines, and marriages between English residents and Sicilians were quite common.

Lina was sent to England to be educated and was very likely inspired by school magazines there to try to start one of her own when she came back to the island. Life on here father's estate at Montedoro was certainly very isolated, and so this project must have seemed a good way of making contact with other bright, educated and artistic women of her kind, if only at a distance.

'It was the rule that the subscribers, who were scattered all over Italy, should also be contributors, and putting together the dozens of handwritten articles and illustrations and binding them into each monthly edition must have been a considerable task,' said Azzolini, as we looked through more of the 100 copies that have survived at the Society's library in a 16th-century palazzo beside Verona's Roman Arena.

Many of these often substantial tomes have embroidered or hand-painted covers and contain some accomplished artwork, much of it strongly influenced by trends in Art Nouveau. The contributors also followed the fashion of the times in adopting pseudonyms, some cute like' 'Bimba' (Baby), or self-consciously poetic, 'Oneira' (Dream), or mysterious, 'Qualcuno' (Somebody), or somewhat lofty, such as 'Soul' and 'v.f.s.,' (which turns out to stand for 'veritate, fortiter, suaviter' (truthfully, bravely, sweetly). The last, whose descendants made the donation to the Society, emerges as a character of considerable forcefulness, who successfully took over the running of her husband's factory when he was called away to serve in World War I and in 1919 became the editor of Lucciola when 'Lina' (as Caico called herself) stepped down.

At the back of each volume the list of the names and addresses of the subscribers, and a note on the date when each volume arrived and was sent on to the next reader - usually within 48 hours (there being fines and even threats of expulsion for overrunning the allowed period). Through these registers can be traced the progess of each edition as it zigzagged its way from the north to the south of Italy or vice versa. Among the missing volumes are ones that, during World War I, were seized by the military censors on their way to Pia, a dedicated Italian patriot living in Trieste (then still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

The staples of the contents were short stories, poems, personal experiences and translations of articles and fiction from more conventional English and French periodicals. But there was also a section, 'Observations', where ideas and opinions were exchanged and current events, often vigorously, debated. Italy's invasion of Libya in 1911, divided the Lucciole, or Fireflies, as the women dubbed themselves, as did World War I, and they were again split by the rise of Fascism.

Caico provided an account of the symbolic burial of the remains of the Unknown Soldier in Rome in 1921. While agreeing that the war dead should be properly honored, she deplored the way the Fascists had hijacked the event and condemned their language as being filled with aggression and a distortion of reality. And while, like many Italians, several Fireflies became supporters of Mussolini, Caico remained an anti-Fascist to the last. Interestingly enough, however, women of diametrically opposed political persuasions remained friends and corresponded long after the last issue of Lucciola in 1926.

It was agreed by the Fireflies that the editor 'cannot be other than a woman', but more than a dozen male friends and relatives (four of whom lost their lives in World War I) contributed to the magazine, sometimes providing commentaries on the more risque contemporary writers, such as Gabriele d' Annunzio, whose works were regarded as unsuitable for respectable female readers. One of the male Fireflies, 'Dandy', produced some of the most entertaining artwork.

With tens of thousands of hand-written pages still to be studied in detail, a full picture of the Fireflies has yet to drawn. The women seem to have have had no direct contacts with explicitly feminist thinkers and campaigners of their times, but they evidently did not regard the position of women as equitable. ln an essay in 1912, 'Lakmy' compared the lot of Turkish and Italian women - concluding that much of the latter's apparently greater freedom was an illusion; while even one of the most conservative Fireflies declared: 'I have never felt inferior to men, but always their equal'. Ever lively, Caico wondered at one point, given the shockingly low caliber of electoral candidates, quite how useful the franchise would be to her, but added: 'But frankly, I can't see why my illiterate, drunken doorman should have the vote and not me.'

Azzolini and her helpers have already produced a short, but informative resume of their initial researches, 'Leggere Ie voci: Storia di Lucciola' (Reading the Voices: The Story of Firefly), and hope to edit a selection, illustrated in color, of some of the most interesting, material. Meanwhile, there are plans to organize a traveling exhibition.

Also, said Azzolini, it appears from intriguing references in Lucciola that some of the women contributed to a similar German periodical, 'Parva Favilla', and one in France, 'Mouche Volante' but how long these lasted, whether they were printed or handwritten and if any copies have survived, have yet to be investigated.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023