The Marchesa Colombi

Gisella Lombardi

And between one advice and the other, she mocked all traditions and all the hypocritical and perdurable rules of the time.

Maria Antonietta Torriani, better known by her nom de plume as Marchesa Colombi, was the first female writer to grace the pages of the newspaper Corriere Della Sera. But this is not the only thing that makes her noteworthy. She was born in the countryside, tried her luck in the big city and became a writer. A story heard over and over again, but if one considers the times in which it took place, around the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, even these brief biographical annotations reveal an uncommon stubbornness and relentless rejection of social norms.

Maria Antonietta Torriani was born in Novara on the first of January 1840, into a family of humble origins. After her father’s death, her mother was forced to remarry quickly due to their financial conditions. A similar destiny awaited her older sister, Giuseppina. Maria Antonietta refuses to follow her mother and sister’s idea of marriage for convenience, instead she goes to school, excels in all the subjects except for the so called “domestic science”, which she barely passes. For a brief period of time, she even lived in a convent, until she inherited a small sum of money that allowed her to seek her fortune in the big city: Milan. Today, we would think of her as a young woman with high hopes, but at the time they labeled her a spinster. Not deterred by her subpar education or her humble origins, she arrived in the city determined to become a journalist.

It is in Milan that she meets Anna Maria Mozzoni: pioneer of women rights, a suffragette, who will soon be dealt with in this section of La Livella. Anna Maria and Maria Antonietta instantly become friends. They share similar beliefs regarding the role of women in society, they both do not believe that a woman’s only role is a doting wife and mother, but that she can be much more. The two are keenly aware of the social constructs that ensnare women and keep them in that same position, and they aim to break those chains. It is through Mozzoni’s activism that Torriani gets access to Milan’s élite. Her fame as a feminist and her political views preceed her. She mainly writes articles in which she exposes the exploitation of female workers, and others pieces about womens’ rights. She and Anna Maria will tour Italy holding conferences talking about these topics. Their first political strategy was to have women’s legal status recognised, then to obtain the right to vote. But in ordter to obtain and maintain all this, women needed to be educated. Girls had to be taught the right subjects that put them in the condition to be aware of the importance of their identity and their rights.

Maria Antonietta becomes the journalist she aimed to be, and was known for being a feminist and a friend to dangerous revolutionaries. The gossips raged but she didn’t care. She was quite independent and to safeguard her independence, she avoided any monogamous relationships with men. Even Carducci had to accept it when she left him, in fact,  he wrote Romantic Autumn just for her. Only once did she walk down the isle, and that was with Eugenio Toreli Vollier, an intellectual and a fellow journalist. They got hitched in 1875 and, in 1876, the first copy of Corriere della Sera was printed: a new newspaper, that barely had any funding or money from the state or the industry. Together, the couple, had worked very hard on it.

But their marriage ended in tragedy. Once married, Maria Antonietta found out she had to share the apartment with his older step-sister, Luisa. The two women loathed each other and were in an eternal fight on who was supposed to be the ‘woman of the house’. The environment in the Torelli Vollier household grew extremely tense when Eva, Maria Antonietta’s teenage niece, came to visit. We do not know why Maria Antonietta behaved the way she did, looking back she seemed out of character. Nevertheless, she probably felt threatened by the affection her husband showed toward her niece and berated her harshly for seducing him. The poor girl, overwhelmed by this accusation jumped from the window and committed suicide. Devastated by this tragedy the couple immediately split up.

Maria Antonietta took solace in her work and became the Marchesa Colombi, not only a journalist, but an author of novels and essays. She wrote about varies topics including lifestyle content, what distinguished her work was her irony and capability of observing people. In 1977, she publishes a book about etiquette The “respectable” people. It is her first bestseller. There was already a book on this topic, Etiquette by Giovanni della Casa, that was considered the go to. So, why was Torriani’s book such a success? First and foremost, it was written by a woman for other women, but that was not the only fact, it was written by a woman that had broken all the rules. Hence, the book did not impose sterile rules, but spoke to the girls sincerely, advising them on the best course of action. The basic rule was: to be oneself and to live heartfeltly. And between one advice and the other, she mocked all traditions and all the hypocritical and perdurable rules of the time.

Her novels also were written for women, and about women. The names, the plots were all made up, but the reality she disclosed, the daily humiliations, the multiple sacrifices, the constant violence,  those were all quite real. Her novels declare the exploitation of women, the violence suffered when working in the field and in the factories. She never beame preachy nor gave into rhetoric. She told the stories of women in the rice fields, without embellishments, she wrote about the constant fevers, their loss of hair, and did not romanticise their death. If her characters fall in love, they are always victims of their own fellings. She wrote about a country girl’s illusions, well stuck in the prejudices and social norms of her time, that she confuses some longing look for love, and does not see that love has not even considered her. A clear and sincere cross section of the times, made bearable by her ironic signature.

[1] Ferro, Daniela “Le grandi donne di Milano”, Newton Compton Editori (2007)

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