In the summer of 1996, I interviewed a famous Italian poet, Mirella Bentivoglio, then 74 years old. I had long admired Bentivoglio’s ability to match her creative career with tremendous amounts of critical work (mainly aimed at supporting women artists), all while a mother of three. I was curious about her strategies and about the source of her exceptional balance and strength. Most importantly, I wanted to explore the nature of her mothering choice, and I hoped that she would share her memories with me.
She had no doubts, Bentivoglio said, about her intentions to start a family while continuing her artistic path, because she felt moved in both directions by an overwhelming enthusiasm. She compared her desire to have children with the instinct of creating physical roots, an option she regarded as better for herself than being a “rootless” artist. She expressed these thoughts with remarkable boldness, but her tone revealed the awareness of the risks implied by her choice. That was Italy in the early ’40s: Gender roles and domestic expectations weren’t truly progressive. Bentivoglio had already published a book of poetry, Giardino. Elegant and profound, it was well received by the public and critics. Certainly, she did not contemplate the idea of giving up writing due to marriage. Therefore, she realized how essential it was to seek the right partner, someone open minded enough to share and support her purpose. So she waited until her late twenties, which was unusual for the times.
If finding a suitable companion was a careful process, having children didn’t cause Bentivoglio the slightest hesitation. She enormously enjoyed the experience: “Both my pregnancies and my deliveries,” she said, “were so simple that I could have made a trade of it, a vocation.” What would happen, though, to the artist within her? “Many women artists,” she observed, “fear fractures and discontinuity at the idea of procreation and motherhood. They are afraid to get lost: the forced interruption, the attention required by the children, unavoidably will subtract career opportunities and time for productive work, skills acquisition and polishing, maturation, focus. The more complex the work, the more hours of concentration required, the more it will be incompatible with motherhood.”
So, Bentivoglio knew what could happen, but she was self-confident and willing to try. Maybe another scenario was possible. She imagined that her writing could slip itself into a mother-and-wife’s existence without too many shocks. For a painter, a dancer, or a concert musician, things might be more difficult.
But, indeed, an unexpected revolution occurred. Through the hours she spent with her daughters, through the attention she gave them, Bentivoglio discovered a different language, both deprived of syntax and rich with images, a language that she found fascinating. She observed her daughters make poetry with two words: ball and bird became “birball” for moon, bird and flower became “flowbird” for butterfly. This capacity profoundly impressed her. While she watched the girls doodling and drawing, she realized the magic of text and figure combined. Over all, she reexamined the linguistic process from the beginning, with the most intense joy. She experienced the words’ physicality, as she must have when she was a child herself.
Thus, her language had to be recreated from zero, since it shifted and it no longer worked: “I entirely lost my good relationship with a codified language. I felt the need to dilate something, narrowing down something else…give less space to the word and more to the meaning. But I didn’t know how…it was like moon walking…I had no models to follow. Luckily, my girls guided me: they helped me find my way.”
At first, the process was mainly unconscious: Bentivoglio simply started playing around with typography and collage. Unobtrusively, another aspect of herself, the visual artist, was coming to life. The new expressive gestation lasted for a decade, completing itself at the birth of her third daughter. Her artistic individuation and her mothering went side by side, nurturing each other.
But now she was faced with a phase of uncertainty: recreating her tools while simultaneously raising three children. She accepted the endeavor, believing in patience and time. Paradoxically, she was energized by the attention she devoted to others, to the paths paralleling her own. Since she continually promoted other artists, mainly women, she didn’t feel confined in a lonely, private struggle.
When her daughters grew older, Bentivoglio took regular walks in their company, to instruct them about the architectural beauty of Rome. This, perhaps, contributed to a further change in her work, which took suddenly an even more original twist. From “concrete” or “visual” poetry, an “intermedia” zone already explored by avant-gardes, she evolved into “object poetry.” She created increasingly larger pieces involving sculpture, voice and performance, utilizing walls, trees, people, and stones. She became enamored with vowels, especially “e” and “o” that, in her language, respectively mean “and” and “or.” Playing over and over with their form, she examined human relationships, in a way both whimsical and extremely deep. Giant letters invaded parks and public spaces, while fighting each other, falling over each other or stuck within each other. They designed or deconstructed simple, meaningful words, opening them to new interpretations.
To preserve a daily time for her work, Bentivoglio lent to the girls her most intimate space, her former studio, where sometimes they even slept. Those were years of student riots and protest, accompanied by parental fear. Bentivoglio, nevertheless, dared to trust her daughters with relative liberty. She obtained, in exchange, the freedom she needed for her art, while she avoided the resentment unavoidably caused by excessive self-sacrifice. She became even more available to her daughters’ specific demands, because she felt respected.
In the meantime, her art converged around the symbols that would always remain with her: the tree (taking roots), the egg (motherhood, individual destiny), and the book (intellectual voice). These three icons summarize her unique life experience. Book and egg, in particular, align writer and mother, part of the community (meant as “communication”) and unique woman being. She definitely didn’t want to renounce any of the two.
Over time, Bentivoglio’s materials became increasingly organic. Imagine a book made of dirt, lines dug in the colossal pages…and a tree whose leaves, carried by the wind, fall just like words on the lines. Mother earth seems to write her own poetry in Bentivoglio’s most recent work.
Although her art was tightly interwoven with motherhood, Bentivoglio seldom shared her art with her daughters. On the contrary, she kept it discrete, not wanting to impose herself as a model. She preferred to give them a variety of stimuli, as she carefully cultivated their talents, leading them towards very different goals. She was happily amazed by their life choices. She believed they would discover her work later, at their own rhythm. “Maybe after my death,” she calmly uttered, looking forward, unblinking, serene.