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Italy: A Dream You Remember All Your Life

Nikolay Gumilyov, Anna Akhmatova and their son Lev Gumilev, 1913
Nikolay Gumilyov, Anna Akhmatova and their son Lev Gumilev, 1913


“Italy is a dream you remember all your life”

It is a common belief that Italy's charm lies in its apparent, inherent beauty, persisting all over the peninsula. Yet not everything is reserved to the surface alone. The true delight lies in the discovery of unexpected, hidden wonders. Like a beautiful cave full of precious stones, Italy intrigues a sophisticated visitor, becoming the answer that a traveler is looking for. It casts an enduring spell on an open heart and turns into a life-time dream. The dream that shaped two Russian poets, Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev.

Akhmatova and Gumilev were a wonderfully strange couple. She was long, graceful and untamed like a gazelle; and he loved Africa. She represented a mystery he was looking for; his inspiration. Family couldn’t comprehend their union; friends predicted an inevitable divorce.

Soon after having married, a romantic Gumilev, tired of Anna’s distant coldness, falls in love with his cousin. Anna has a chance encounter with artist AmedeoModigliani during her honeymoon with Gumilev. At the time she is a celebrated young poet who had just published her first book “Evening”, which brought her immense success. Modigliani is a penniless Italian Jew who had just moved to Paris and barely makes his ends meet - “as an artist he doesn’t have a shadow of recognition”. Nothing could have predicted such a rushed development, but after a winter-long correspondence with Amedeo, Anna travels to Paris in 2011 to be with him.

Paris is in dark mist

And probably again Modigliani

Imperceptibly follows me.

He has a sad virtue

To bring disorder even to my dreams

And be the reason of my many misfortunes.


However, by the beginning of 1912 thoughts of Modigliani abandon her. Their love affair becomes impossible as soon as she learns about his amorous connection with Beatrice Hastings. Anna will never dare reveal her true feelings. It is only through her poetry that we will learn about the sufferings of her heart.

By 1912 Gumilev’s cousin and his new muse suddenly passes away. His hopes for a happier life with Anna seem possible now. Sometimes it takes love burdens to ensure a stronger marriage.

Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya, 1914In spring of 1912 Gumilev and Akhmatova (at left) are happy as never before. They travel to the land of the beloved and Anna is expecting a child, Lev. Nikolai is full ofsecret hopes that Italy might restore their marriage. And Anna hopes to catch a fleeting shadow of Modigliani, visiting his home land.

To Gumilev, a life time traveler and a dreamer who explored Africa, every journey is and must be an adventure, the overcoming of self and the circumstances, even when there’s nothing to be overcome. Their civilized trip to Italy leaves Gumilev almost detached from the reality. The poet glides on the surface of the smooth, flowing shapes of Italy, desperately looking for a mystery to be solved behind the perfectly trimmed cypresses and elegant fountains. In his own mind he develops mythical scenes which simply don’t fit with the surroundings. To him, an adventurous free spirit, there’s little left to be explored here, in the land so picturesque.

Akhmatova’s Italy is tremendously different. Here she is visiting Dante and Leopardi. Every city they visit, whether it is Genova, Pisa, Florence, Bologna,Padova or Venice, is accompanied by the rhythmic sounds of Italian poetry. Travelling through northern Italy, she is easily taken by the particular charms of these cities. The north is dominated with 17th century castles and parks filled with sculptures which seem to remain intact and carry their sophisticated beauty through the centuries. “The impression from Italian art and architecture was immense: it was like a dream that you remember all your life”, she will later recall in her memoirs.

It is here, surrounded by the classic Italian beauty, that Anna Akhmatova finds her own hidden garden, a place that her heart will call home. Destiny will have her waiting for more than fifty years to come back to it.

Before that, she is to withstand an inevitable divorce with Nikolai Gumilev, and hisexecution. She is also to withstand a difficult separation from her son Lev, who is to spend almost twenty years in Soviet labor camps. And it is only in 1964 that she will finally travel back to the land of the beloved to receive a prestigious literary prize, “Etna-Taormina”. And this time both Gumilev and Modigliani will accompany her in this adventure. But only in her memory.

“Where do you think I am going? In Italy? Or in the year of 1912, when I was only twenty-three?” (Lidia Chukovskaya “Notes about Anna Akhmatova”)

Of course, in her perception Italy is a time machine that brings her back to the times where everything she ever loved is still alive. Florence, Venice, Gumilev who is still her husband and a strange aftertaste of Modigliani’s love. First on the route is Paris where “so much has changed since the times of Modigliani”, then northern Italy (reliving her happiest times with Gumilev), Rome, Naples (“When I woke up in the train I came up to the window and said to myself, “What an enormous, window big postcard with the Vesuvius! Later, it turned out to be the Vesuvius itself”). And finally, mythical Sicily.

Portrait of Gumilev at African background by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya, 1909German writer Hans Werner Richter describes her visit to Sicily as the coming of Russia to Sicily. “Every poet of Europe – from the West and from the East – waited in line in front of their tsaritsa, bent their knees and kissed the ground. Kissing her hand, they kissed Russian soil and literary tradition”. Her speech at Taormina is elegant, worthy of a tsaritsa. She quotes Dante and Leopardi and speaks of her long-lasting love for Italy and its literature.

It is here that she finally opens her heart, revealing that to her being in Italy means connecting to the happiest moments of her life. On her way to Russia she remembers what to everyone appeared to be a fleeting love affair – she writes about Amedeo Modigliani, the Italian Jew whose name always lived inside her.“Everything divine in Modigliani only sparkled through a kind of darkness. He was different from any other person in the world. His voice somehow always remained in my memory”.

If she dies here, she will reconnect with him, she thinks. The departure is painful.Coming back to the Soviet Union, which took away so much of her, yet shaped her as a poet, is similar to falling into a coma, where dreams of her past happiness will persist as never before. “Italy is a dream”, she writes in 1964, “a dream that you remember all your life”.