Italians Pay Tribute to Novelist and Activist Who Spoke Out Till the End

by Pelican Press
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Since bursting onto the scene nearly two decades ago with her first novel about her experience working in a call center, a novel that later inspired a popular film, Michela Murgia had become a public persona — and a lightning rod for political debate in Italy.

A novelist, intellectual and civil rights campaigner, she was an outspoken critic of the country’s rightward shift at a time when its left-wing parties appeared to have lost their voice, and a feminist and civil rights champion urging acceptance of nontraditional family configurations in a nation in which the governing parties have promoted a more conservative vision.

Before she died, on Thursday at age 51, she told her friends that she wanted her funeral to be open to everyone.

Many hundreds heeded her invitation.

They came from all walks of life — a retired banker, a hotel employee, a translator, students — to honor “a symbol of freedom and feminism whose words should be transformed into action,” said Maria Luisa Celani, who works in the arts and was one of many gathered outside the Basilica of Santa Maria in Montesanto, known as “the church of the artists,” in Rome’s central Piazza del Popolo, for the funeral.

Ms. Murgia had inspired them through her novels and public debates, and had moved them in chronicling her dying days on social media: After announcing that she had stage-four kidney cancer in an interview in May in Corriere della Sera, the Milan newspaper, Ms. Murgia spoke openly of her illness and the importance of living life to the full, fearlessly.

Some in attendance carried rainbow flags or rainbow umbrellas, a nod to Ms. Murgia’s campaigning for L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Others carried dog-eared copies of her books. Many in the crowd, which clogged the streets leading to the square and prompted the police to divert traffic, watched the funeral on their cellphones as Italy’s main newspapers broadcast it live online. Condolences and accolades also swamped social media.

“She was a special person and merited a special send-off,” said Patrizia Mosca, a newly retired civil servant who said that she didn’t typically attend public funerals — “not even for the popes.” But Ms. Murgia was different. “For this beautiful person, I wanted to be here,” she said.

Even some who opposed the writer’s views offered tributes, including Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose party traces its roots to the wreckage of fascism. Writing on the social platform X, formerly Twitter, she hailed Ms. Murgia as “a woman who fought to defend her ideas, albeit notoriously different from mine, for which I have great respect.”

Ms. Murgia had often called out several of the current government’s policies, which she denounced as indicators of a “fascist regime.”

In July, she announced that she had married Lorenzo Terenzi, an actor and director, “in articulo mortis,” Latin for “at the point of death,” out of legal considerations. Under Italian law, her blood relatives would have inherited her property and been responsible for decisions about her unpublished work and her legacy. Although she was not in conflict with her family, marrying Mr. Terenzi ensured that her will would be observed, friends said.

“We did it against our will,” Ms. Murgia wrote on Instagram of the civil marriage. “Had there been another way to guarantee each other’s rights, we would never have resorted to such a patriarchal and limited instrument.”

Days later, Vogue Italia posted photos of the wedding party, which was celebrated among Ms. Murgia’s closest friends. She also posted photos of the celebration on Instagram. “People, first of all. The rest is just chatter,” she wrote.

In a long video interview with Italian Vanity Fair in May, she described the “traditional family” based on blood ties as a patriarchal residue. Her idea of family was “hybrid,” a social pact of people who chose to live together. She called it a “queer family,” which in her case included four young men she considered sons, and a handful of friends.

In this sense, said Alessandro Giammei, a member of that family who teaches in the Italian Studies department at Yale, “Queering is overcoming what heterosexuality as a paradigm, as the only option, does to the entirety of society and to the entirety of the stories that we tell.” It was a model that Ms. Murgia explored in her short stories and novels.

For the wedding, the bust of the bride’s dress — designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri, the artistic director of Dior women’s wear, as part of a “special project” — was emblazoned with the slogan “God Save the Queer.” That is also the title of a 2022 book by Ms. Murgia that broached the question of whether it was possible to be a feminist within the patriarchal Roman Catholic Church.

Ms. Murgia never lost her faith in that notion: “As a Christian, I trust that faith also needs a feminist and queer perspective,” she wrote.

Her 2011 book “Ave Mary,” also centered on women’s role in the church. And on Saturday, Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, paid homage to Ms. Murgia, calling her a “talented writer and restless believer.”

Yet she was arguably best known for her political activism.

A native of Sardinia, Ms. Murgia ran an unsuccessful campaign in 2014 to become governor of the region, but her political commitment continued. Four years later, she wrote “How to Be a Fascist: A Manual,” a satire on contemporary right-wing politics.

At her funeral on Saturday, Luciano Capponi, a bank employee, said that Ms. Murgia’s campaigning “in favor of those who are different” was necessary “in a country like ours.”

Alessandro Paris, a recent graduate in management engineering, said: “She was the one person who said we are living with a government of fascists. She had a big audience and had the courage to say that.”

She was also someone who connected with people, he said — an idea that Mr. Giammei, her family member, echoed. “She was at the same time this monument of Sardinian and Italian literature, and she was everybody’s sister, aunt, mother,” Mr. Giammei, said, adding that he had received thousands of messages of condolence from people “telling me that they feel as though a relative had died.”

In her final book, “Tre Ciotole” (Three Bowls), a compilation of short stories woven into a novel, Ms. Murgia wrote about illness.

“She was sick and she was dying — she decided to make her death not just a literary gesture but a political gesture,” Aldo Cazzullo, the Corriere della Sera journalist who interviewed Ms. Murgia in May, said in a telephone interview.

“Probably the majority of Italians didn’t agree with everything she said,” Mr. Cazzullo said, “but somehow this cry of hers to claim freedom to love did not fall on deaf ears. It is a flag that will be taken up by the new generation.”

When Ms. Murgia’s coffin emerged from the church, bells rang out and a roar went up amid a long, warm round of applause. As the hearse drove away, the crowd intoned “Bella Ciao,” a song identified with the resistance movement during World War II. Several people were crying.

At the presentation of her last book, at the Turin book fair in May, Ms. Murgia said that she was living a moment “of great freedom,” able to say and do anything. “I don’t have limitations anymore — I couldn’t care less,” she said. “What are they going to do, fire me?”

And she had a word of advice: “Don’t wait to have cancer to do the same thing.”

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