Italy’s town of diaries: where forgotten memoirs are salvaged and celebrated

At the national diary archive in Pieve Santo Stefano, Tuscany, no journal is ever turned away – whether typed, scrawled or written on a bedsheet

When I was in my early 20s, I tried to keep a diary of my experiences as a student and teacher in Bologna. There was much to write about: I was teaching in one of the city’s largest secondary schools, attending lectures delivered by professors who seemed as ancient as the faculty’s medieval buildings and I was learning, painfully, that a certain British shabbiness is not considered a mark of sophistication in Italy, but its very opposite. Yet the diary contained none of this. It was, as the Italians say, uno sfogo, a vent, and, instead of bringing to life this fabulous city with its myriad characters, I detailed minor fluctuations in my mood and the messy breakdown of a short relationship. That, at least, is what I remember, for, on returning to the UK, I was so ashamed of the text that I burned it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that diary ever since visiting Italy’s Archivio Diaristico Nazionale or national diary archive. Nestled in the small town of Pieve Santo Stefano in Tuscany, it holds about 9,000 diaries, letters and memoirs. Its founder, the late Italian journalist Saverio Tutino, was a professional writer who wanted to find a home for his own voluminous diaries. But the spirit of the archive is decidedly egalitarian; it accepts every Italian text that it receives, regardless of literary merit. Within its collection you will find the writings of Italian contadini (peasants), immigrants, aristocrats, criminals, factory workers, victims of violence, business executives, drug addicts, partisans, fascists, communists, the semi-illiterate, the over-educated and, yes, students nursing literary ambitions. “Do you have a diary in a drawer?” Tutino asked readers of La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper, in 1984. “Don’t let it become mouse food in the year 2000.”

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