Antonietta Portulano

Piradello's Wife

If your father wants you to marry his business partner’s child, you do it. That’s how it works in Sicily in 1894. Luckily, Maria Antonietta Portulano and Luigi Pirandello like each other. Antonietta's father, Calogero Portulano, was, apparently, extremely jealous.  When his wife was in a difficult childbirth, he refused to let the doctor see his wife’s naked body.  She died. Antonietta was brought up in a convent.

Alright, there is an intellectual ocean between the Sicilian novelist and playwright and his shy, quiet, convent-educated wife, but they are definitely on common ground in bed.

After the wedding, they leave Sicily and move to Rome, where they live happily for a few years and have three children. All well so far.

But in 1903 disaster strikes. Luigi is at school, blissfully teaching a bunch of – possibly –well-behaved girls. Back home, a letter lands into Antonietta’s hands.

She opens it, reads it and remains paralysed. Physically paralysed. The letter says that one of the family’s sulphur mines is flooded. Antonietta’s dowry was invested in that mine, every month producing a healthy income to supplement Luigi’s meagre salary.

When Luigi gets home, he finds Antonietta in a semi-catatonic state. It’s the first of many similar incidents, and she’s diagnosed with paranoia. Before the wedding, Luigi’s uncle warned him that paranoid delirious jealousy ran in Antonietta’s family. Antonietta’s loss of her dowry combined with her own difficult and painful childbirths aided in her breakdown.

Now Antonietta attacks every woman who dares to speak to her husband – even her own daughter, who will later attempt suicide. Antonietta shouts at the maids, breaks crockery, accuses her husband of cheating on her, forces him to sleep out of the house, drives away his friends. Antonietta pleaded with Luigi to let her return to Sicily and leave Rome where she felt out of place.

As the excellent writer he is, Pirandello breaks the clichés of the selfish, philandering Italian man, and he proves to be a faithful, dutiful and devoted husband. His first literary success, The Late Mattia Pascal, is written in those long nights spent looking after his wife, who’s temporarily paralysed from the waist down. For years he resists the doctors who urge him to intern Antonietta in a psychiatric hospital. He capitulates in 1919 and resigns himself to a life of sadness and solitude.

Enter Marta.

Luigi is 58 years old and the director of a theatrical company. Marta is 25 and a rising actress. Luigi is immediately attracted to her with a passion that tightropes between platonic love and obsession. Finally he’s found a kindred spirit, a true companion, a woman capable of embodying his characters and therefore understanding him. Marta is Luigi’s muse and they’re united by their common passion for the theatre. From now, all his scripts are written with her in mind and she performs them perfectly, turning herself into the characters created for her. He yearns for her, possibly physically too, and sshe is devoted to him but still calls him ‘Maestro’ and addresses him with the formal ‘Lei’ in her letters. When she’s on tour in the US, Luigi hounds her with letters in which he pours out his longing for her presence. The poor girl is too busy to reply as often as he’d like.

At the Nobel prize giving ceremony, Luigi only searches for Marta’s eyes, but she’s not there (and he complains in a letter). Marta’s punishing work schedule means that, even when the news of Luigi’s death reaches her in her dressing room, on 10th December 1936, she has to wipe her tears and go on stage: the show must go on.

One year after Luigi’s death, Marta finally finds love. She marries a rich American businessman and moves to Ohio, sacrificing her career to the altar of marriage. But, instead of happiness and children, fourteen years later, she gets a divorce. Returned to Italy, she attempts to restart her career, but unsuccessfully. She suffers ill health and finally dies in a clinic in 1988. Poor Marta.

And poor Antonietta, who died at 88, after forty years incarceration in a mental asylum.

Luigi once wrote,

‘One can either live life, or write it. I’ve never lived it either than through writing it.’

Antonietta died on 20th December 1959 and is buried in Rome, Città Metropolitana di Roma Capitale, Lazio.

Pirandello's Wife


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