On the Hunt for Elusive Literary Game: the Premio Bagutta, Italy’s Oldest Literary Prize
by Natalia Sarkissian
Last Friday night my husband and I took a cab to downtown Milan. I’d invited him out to dinner at Il Bagutta, but it was a working dinner. Once again I had my Numéro Cinq press tags clinking around my neck and was hot on the trail of Italian literati. Because Il Bagutta is where the Premio Bagutta, the oldest Italian literary prize was established in 1926 (and first awarded in 1927) and ever since, Il Bagutta has been frequented by the crème de la crème de la crème.
“Please hurry,” I said to the driver, checking my watch. We were already late for our 9 pm reservation. What if the maitre gave our table away and we couldn’t get in and observe the literati wining and dining? What would I say to my editor at Numéro Cinq who was waiting with bated breath for this insider’s view?
“It’s on Via Bagutta, off San Babila,” I added when the cabbie began thumbing through his map of Milan. “Between Via della Spiga and Via Montenapoleone.”
“Relax,” said Mauro, grabbing my hand. “We’ll get there when we get there.”
I sighed and sank back into the plaid seating. Mauro can be so Italian about being on time at times.
As we sat in a traffic jam on flashy Corso Buenos Aires and then inched along stately Corso Venezia, I inhaled and told him about Paris and compared it to Milan.
Back in the twenties and thirties famous Parisian cafés like Le Dome, La Rotonde and La Coupole had seen literary giants—Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir—come and go. In his memoir, a Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes the atmosphere, when he was young and penniless, drinking in the company of Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford. Likewise, Milan’s Il Bagutta, established at approximately the same time as its Parisian counterparts, offered good food, good wine and attracted home-grown Italian talents of stature; one of its first artistic patrons was Riccardo Bacchelli (a prolific novelist, essayist, playwright and librettist) who, in 1926, rounded up a group of gifted friends one night for dinner. Together they started the Bagutta literary prize at the spur of the moment. Later, Dino Buzzati, Mario Soldati, Ingrid Bergman, Lucia Bosé (Miss Italia 1947), Arturo Toscanini, Sandro Pertini (President of the Italian Republic 1978-1985) and other legends flocked to the restaurant.
Today these establishments—both in Paris and in Milan—are open for business but in Paris they’re no longer a feverish meeting spot for the new talents of the day. Instead, tourists flock to La Coupole or Le Dome to sample the briny oysters and imbibe champagne in lacquered rooms, or at wicker tables along the street. There they sit and imagine what Paris was like when it was the mecca for the most innovative of artists and writers. Instead, Il Bagutta is no emptied shell, no gussied up relic; today’s journalists, poets, novelists, classicists still haunt it rooms.
“Like who?” Mauro asked.
“Contessa Isabella Bossi Fedrigotti, the novelist,” I said. “Pietro Cheli, the Genoan journalist. Giovanni Orelli, the humanist and poet. Elio Franzini, the philosopher. They’re on today’s Bagutta Prize jury.”
“Aren’t we like the tourists in Paris, then?” asked Mauro, “Going to ogle and imagine?”
Before I could answer, the cabbie interrupted.
“Excuse me,” he said. In spite of his map, he had ended up approaching the one-way Via Bagutta from the wrong end of the snarl of medieval streets. “You want me to drive around?” He offered to drop us at the restaurant’s doorstep. But already late, we declined, got out and clipped briskly down the cobblestoned street lined with expensive marble-fronted dwellings and genteel shops in the most exclusive shopping area of Milan.
Fortunately, the street isn’t long and we had worked up only a modest sweat before spotting the yellow signs of the restaurant.
Inside, the maitre led us through one art-filled room after another.
“Are these names supposed to mean something?” asked Mauro.
“Vellani Marchi does to opera buffs,” I said.
Vellani Marchi was a set designer for La Scala in the first half of the century. And as a member of the original Bagutta Prize jury, he turned his talents to immortalizing the literary meetings and fetes in which he participated. Almost two hundred of his paintings hang in the restaurant, a visual memoir—like Hemingway’s written one.
Our heads swiveled appreciatively as we progressed into the depths of the restaurant on the heels of the maitre.
“This place has expanded over the years,” I told him. “Keep your eyes peeled. Who knows who we’ll see.”
The maitre showed us to our seats and introduced us to Erminio, our waiter. While Mauro studied the menu—he’d been to the gym and had worked up an appetite—I looked around and spotted the maitre who approached at a stately gait. Following him traipsed a svelte blonde in black boots and tattered jeans with two long and thin young men in her wake. The three took possession of their table—catty-corner from us—and slouched with a jaded air while their waiter bustled about proffering menus.
“Mauro,” I whispered. “Behind us. Doesn’t she look like that Borromeo princess?” She wouldn’t qualify as a full-fledged literati-sighting because it was her ancestor, Cardinal Borromeo, who had figured in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, The Betrothed, but our vigil had just begun.
“What?” he said, keeping his eyes on the menu.
“You know, Pierre Casiraghi’s girlfriend?”
“Princess Caroline’s son,” I said, pulling out my glasses. When I could see her more clearly I decided I’d made a mistake. “She sure looks like her, though,” I said, shutting them back in their case. Although I can see better with my glasses on, I think I look younger with them off.
“I’m having the risotto with crab and then the filet mignon,” said Mauro, slapping his menu shut. “What about you?”
“I haven’t even looked at the menu yet,” I said. I pulled my glasses back out.
Just then the maitre sailed by with a middle-aged man who looked vaguely familiar.
“Mauro,” I whispered. “Isn’t he that journalist—whatsisname—you know, the one on Mediaset?”
“Where?” asked Mauro. He’d been studying the wine list.
I was about to point, but Erminio—Herman, the waiter—came up wanting to take our order.
I told him I hadn’t had enough time yet. “But that man over there,” I said. “Isn’t he that journalist with Mediaset?”
“You mean Costanzo?” said Erminio. “No. He isn’t. But I can see why you’d think so.”
“Oh,” I sighed. Wasn’t the restaurant supposed to be crawling with luminaries and artistic types round the clock? So, where were they?
When Erminio had gone, I looked over the menu.
“You’re having the risotto and crab and the filet mignon? Did you total it all up?” I asked.
“Do you see anything less expensive?” asked Mauro. He frowned. “We’ll skip dessert and order one of the cheaper wines.”
I agreed and we ordered two of everything. While we waited, I told Mauro more about the history of the prize. At the behest of Bacchelli, eleven friends decided to go out to dinner on the night of San Martino—November 11—back in 1926. They headed to Il Bagutta.
“Do you know the significance of San Martino?” asked Mauro, interrupting.
“New wine?” I knew that traditionally November 11, San Martino, is associated with the maturation of the year’s new wine.
“Exactly,” he said. “They were probably out carousing.”
I nodded. Bacchelli was a bon vivant. When one of the eleven—Orio Vergani—was late and delayed the start of that night’s Bacchanalia, Bacchelli insisted Vergani pay a fine. Vergani complied but on the condition that the money be put aside for a prize to be awarded to a literary work all eleven friends would choose.
I pointed to the sign hanging in the archway near the kitchen.
“The 75th prize was just awarded. Through the years the jurors have changed but they still meet every month to deliberate in Il Bagutta over food and wine. Today the prize amounts to 12,500 Euros. And it’s no longer based on fines for showing up late to dinners but is sponsored by donors.”
“You should apply,” he said.
I explained that no one can apply. The jury makes all recommendations free from outside pressure which is why no prize was deliberated or awarded during the Fascist period and World War II. And in order to be considered, first one needs to have published a book. In the year prior. In Italian.
As I was talking, the maitre passed by. He led a swaggering bald man and a slinky redhead a decade younger into the room called the Sala degli Artisti.
“Did you see?” I asked. “Isn’t that …?”
“That up-and-coming writer? You know, the one who wrote that exposé about organized crime?”
“No,” said Mauro. “Put your glasses on.”
When Erminio brought us our risotto I asked him when the next meeting of the jury was to be held.
“I’m writing an article for an American literary journal,” I said, “the readers would like to know.”
“I am not sure,” Erminio said, a smirk curling his lips.
I got it. For a tip he could probably get me the information and I could show up and perhaps listen in and discover which books were being considered for prize number 76. A journalistic scoop. On Numéro Cinq.
“See what you can find out,” I said, smirking back. I didn’t wink—that would have been too obvious, but he got me too.
Not long after the maitre brought us our filet.
“Where’s Erminio?” I asked.
“Indisposed,” said the maitre, frowning, not elaborating further and deflating my hopes of obtaining insider information.
After we were through eating, Mauro waited for the bill and I meandered through the restaurant with my small point-and-shoot. I snapped the mural of a nude Bacchelli as he lay in a pastoral setting—a literary Bacchus enjoying his wine. Another photograph I shot shows Vellani Marchi’s rendition of a 1946 Bagutta soirée. Dino Buzzati is depicted as are sculptor Ettore Colla and producer/publisher Edilio Rusconi among many others.
A third photo is of the original Bagutta Prize charter (signed by the eleven carousing friends on that far-off night of San Martino). I photographed the glass cases of prize-winning books. Some of the authors have long been forgotten while others are very well known. And then I photographed the photographs of Ingrid Bergman and Lucia Bosé. As a result, I had captured the illustrious past on my disk with no signs of the exciting present anywhere.
“So it’s hype,” I said, flopping back down at our table with Mauro to wait for our receipt for the exorbitant meal. “This place—like so many others—lives on its memories. Although it does it with class.” I waved at the art.
Just then Erminio showed up.
‘Where have you been,’ I wanted to ask, but decided otherwise. What if he had really been indisposed? How could he answer? In the bathroom?
“I have found out,” Erminio said with a bow. “Next Tuesday. The jury will meet at one pm for lunch.”
“Benissimo, Erminio,” I said. I reached for my wallet, extracted a bill, and slipped it into his pocket.
“Save me a place on Tuesday, close to the jurors’ table, will you? Where I can listen and see which books are up for consideration?”
“Depend on me,” Erminio said, winking.
I hope he’s as good as his word.