In the middle of the ash-colored labyrinth of Catania, Sicily sits the Casa Museo Giovanni Verga. The Museo Verga is the former home of Italian writer Giovanni Verga (1840-1922). Verga was born and lived in the building for many years, including those leading up to his death at the age of 82. Still relatively unread in the United States, Verga was nonetheless an important voice in a new Italian realism emerging from the long shadow of nineteenth century literature. His former home is replete with all that we can imagine a nineteenth century building to be. It’s a bit run down, shabby-looking, yet it contains a charm one would expect to find in a city like Catania.
What makes this museum interesting is that the rooms are laid out in the exact same way as when Verga lived on the premises, thus giving the visitor an almost uncanny feeling when entering the place. In fact, it’s hard to think of this as a museum, as it has a different feel from the homes of other writers that have been turned into museums, like Hemingway’s home in Key West or Melville’s Arrowhead farm. Verga’s home feels vacant, yet lived in. It’s certainly more ghostly than the others, and one gets the sense that Verga might have simply vanished, leaving his lodgings in an atmospheric sense of the past.
On the day that I arrived I was early; it was just after nine in the morning and the museum opens at eight thirty. Last year I had planned to visit only to discover that the museum is open only from 8:30-1:00pm Monday through Saturday. In 2022 I arrived at 1:30, locked out and out of luck. Thankfully, I was in Sicily again this summer and I planned my trip more carefully. The museum is located on the second floor and from the outside, one may have a hard time imagining that one of Italy’s great writers lived here.
This year I had the museum all to myself. One enters from the street to a courtyard with a stairway to the left. The entrance to the museum is up the steps, on the second floor. I found a lovely older man and woman at the front desk. Neither spoke English, but in my passable Italian I was able to purchase a ticket. I love museums, but sometimes the crowds can spoil one’s concentration. For me, being able to explore Verga’s home all alone was particularly special. In a way, I was alone with Verga’s spirit, looking at his things, but from the distance of time, not space. I had read Verga’s stories and novels several times, and I admit that being alone in his home made me a bit anxious. Perhaps it was because I was alone, perhaps it was because I was an admirer of his work, but I found myself feeling shy, hesitant to wander around. But, steeling myself, I managed to move forward, losing myself in the writer’s personal space.
Despite the electric light now installed throughout the rooms, the place still feels very much like a late 19th century dwelling. Most of Verga’s personal belongings have been taken away, but one still gets the sense of the inhabitant. There are some pieces of Verga’s personal furniture from when he lived in Milan that have been transferred to Catania. The museum consists of five rooms, each with an array of objects either tied to Verga or his work. All the rooms have French doors, enabling one to open them to let in the noise from the street.
Entering the museum, one steps through a door into a large room that contains a bust of the writer. On either side of the room are cases which contain copies of Verga’s books, most of which are copies of editions in Italian and English. The original texts reside in the University of Catania’s library. Hanging on the walls are pictures, but on the day that I visited the pictures were covered up, and I failed to see what they depicted. I admit, I was too shy to lift the covers and glance at the paintings. Given the theme of the room, I assumed they were of Verga or Sicilian landscapes. Toward the far end of the room, Verga’s death mask is placed on a low table. Juxtaposing the death mask with the bust and portrait of Verga gives one the sense of the life and death of the inhabitant. Although Verga did not live here his entire life (he lived in Milan for over 20 years), the place does present the visitor with the bookends of Verga’s existence.
The next room was the most powerful for me because this was Verga’s library, containing many of his books. Along each of the walls were bookcases, each filled but protected behind a wire grating, much like the ones protecting the books in the Morgan in New York City. I spent most of my time in this room, glancing over the titles of Verga’s books. In the middle of the library was a large wooden table, with four chairs. The electric light above the table made it hard to really take in the details of the room, but its dark red walls and tiled floor added a studiousness to the overall atmosphere, much like a place where monks might gather.
The wooden bookcases are all intricately designed and add a respectability to the room that seems to have been lost as libraries transform into “learning centers.” This room is very much a space for serious study and conversations. One can tell a lot about a writer by examining the books that writer has read. Verga’s library is, at least for me, the heart of the museum. Even given its location at the very heart of the apartment, enclosed by walls without windows, tomb-like, yet very much alive, Verga’s library is the most interesting and “active” room in the museum. And yet, it’s hard to imagine Verga reading and writing in this library. As I said, there are no windows and in the days before electricity, even on the brightest of days, light would have been scarce. Still, Verga’s library is a magnificent space, and with some careful wandering one gets a strong sense of just how cerebral Verga was.
The other rooms in the museum are very much living quarters. In these last three rooms Verga the man comes through. Off the library is the main bedroom. This is a long, narrow room with pale yellow wallpaper and plenty of light. A bed, a chest of drawers, a desk, and a mirror stand idly by. Like most rooms in the museum, this also contains a fireplace, an obvious source of heat in winter. Two black overcoats are placed on poles, like sentinels on either side of the door.
From here the visitor wanders into another bedroom, smaller and with blue wallpaper. On the walls hang pictures, creating a formal feel. A small bed is placed in one corner, opposite a long couch. The feel of this room is not so much a bedroom as a sitting area where one might rest. A desk is placed adjacent to the French doors. Like the rest of the rooms, this one is also spacious, if smaller. There is a comforting aura to this room, perhaps on account of the blue wallpaper. It’s not hard to imagine that this room might be cooler in the summer given the color of the wallpaper and its placement toward the back.
The final room in the museum looks to be a kind of kitchen. The walls are beige and a small wooden table with four chairs is placed in the middle of the room. An empty hutch rests against the wall. A door opens to a small landing overlooking the interior courtyard. This is by far the most domestic room in the museum, and the one that feels most “home-like.” Standing here I am reminded of my own paternal grandparents’ home where I spent much of my childhood. Together they raised nine children in a three-bedroom apartment with one bathroom. There is no stove or cooking plate as such, but it’s clear by the layout that this was an eating area. This is clearly the least formal room in the museum, and it doesn’t take much to imagine Verga sitting here eating breakfast, staring out onto the courtyard.
I left the museum and made my way downstairs and to the café directly across the street. Over my espresso I wrote some thoughts down about what I had experienced. It became clear to me that the museum was haunted, but not by Verga or those who lived in the building after him. Instead, visitors to the museum are the ghosts, haunting the corridors and rooms of this great, but neglected Sicilian writer. This is not to say that there is a sense of the supernatural in the Casa Museo Giovanni Verga. There is, however, a sense, subtle but present, that visitors to the museum may somehow be trespassing through time and space.
The Casa Museo Giovanni Verga is a must-see stop for anyone who travels to Catania. Verga may not be the favorite son that Vincenzo Bellini is in Catania, but Verga deserves recognition for his Italian realism and his celebration of the commoners and the field hands who worked and labored more than a century ago.
Via Sant’Anna, 8 95124 Catania CT, Italy
Hours of Operation: Monday through Saturday—8:30am-1:00pm
Phone: +39 095 311004
Cost: 4 Euros
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Andrew Martino is Dean of the Clarke Honors College and Professor of English at Salisbury University. He has published widely on modern and contemporary literature and is currently finishing a monograph on the work of Paul Bowles. He is a regular reviewer for World Literature Today and Reading in Translation.