Interview with Luigi Reitani: About Hlderlin, Poetry and Failure

Interview with Luigi Reitani
:“A comment must open window”

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  • Arno Widmann

Luigi Reitani in the lecture hall of the Italian Cultural Institute - this time on a visitor's seat

Luigi Reitani in the lecture hall of the Italian Cultural Institute – this time on a visitor’s seat.


Markus guardian / guardian

The contract of Luigi Reitani expires in September. The literary scholar, translator and Germanist born on July 18, 1959 in Foggia, southern Italy, will no longer be the director of the Italian Cultural Institute Berlin. In 2001, the first volume of his two-volume Hlderlin edition appeared: Hlderlin’s poetry in a bilingual edition. The translations into Italian are all by Luigi Reitani. A few weeks ago, Volume II of the work edition appeared with prose, theater and letters. It is the largest non-German Hlderlin edition. I spoke with Reitani shortly before his 60th birthday in his office on Hildebrandstrasse. We had to close the windows because transporters of the Bundeswehr brought troops to the memorial.

In the Italian reviews of this second volume of your Hlderlin edition, it is the best commented on.

It is certainly the edition with the most extensive commentary. It also reflects the current state of research. Jochen Schmidt’s edition with her very good commentary appeared in the Deutsche Klassiker Verlag between 1992 and 1994. Since then, a lot has been added. My comment lives on the fact that I name different ways of conceiving. A comment is not an interpretation for me. A comment must open windows. Hlderlin not as “Greek among the Germans,” but as a German contemporary, who dealt intensively with the literature, the philosophy of his time.

They have re-dated works and letters. For example the small text “judgment / being”.

Friedrich Strack had already shown that Hlderlin had probably written him on the flyleaf of Schelling’s article on “Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism.” It came into being after Schelling had already formulated his conception in “From the Ego as the Principle of Philosophy”. Anyone who reads Hlderlin’s text attentively will understand it as a critique of Schelling’s concept of “intellectual intuition”. So Hlderlin’s position in the very complicated early history of German Idealism must be seen differently now. Hlderlin’s “judgment / being” does not stand at the beginning, but between Schelling and Hegel.

So quite without interpretation, the comment does not seem to get along.

That’s chronology. A question of philological meticulousness. Nobody had cared about the chronology in the last letters to the mother. I’ve done that now, trying to get them sorted by paper type, watermark, and subject matter. This is just a start. There is still a lot to do.

That sounds like you would not even be able to approach Hlderlin without your copy.

This may apply to the unfinished drama “The Death of Empedocles.” It was written between 1797 and 1800 and depicts the last days of the pre-Socratic philosopher from Agrigento, who according to legend fell into etna with the cry “In free death, according to divine law”. In his novel “Hyperion”, the hero of the title explains: “Then the great Sicilian, who was tired of counting hours, familiar with the soul of the world, in his bold lust for life, fell into the splendid flames.”

In your edition you bring the Empedocles in German and Italian.
The tragedy consists of different designs that can be assigned to different concepts. However, Hlderlin always stood in front of them together. There is not one right text. Hlderlin later picked up some of the first things he had thrown away, he kept various options open. That must show the issue. She must not want to create what does not exist: the drama Empedocles. My edition brings more of Hlderlin’s text than any other issue. It also rearranges the German text.

When does Hlderlin’s Empedocles appear in the Reitani version in Germany?

I dont know. But I really hope so. The Empedocles is Hlderlin’s last attempt to make a great work. Hlderlin fails again this time.

For a long time it looked as if you would fail in this Hlderlin edition. The first volume was released in 2001! How did it come to that?

Renata Colorni, who at that time published the classic series “I Meridiani” in the Mondadori publishing house – she still does – asked me to translate Hlderlin’s poems for the series. I have to say something to Renata Colorni. She embodies a piece of the best Italy. Born in Milan in 1939. Her father was Eugenio Colorni, a philosopher of Jewish descent, a resistance fighter and one of the authors of that famous “Manifesto for a Free and United Europe”, written in exile in 1941. A few days before the liberation of Rome, the resistance fighter was shot down by fascist militias. The mother Renata Colornis, Ursula Hirschmann, he had met in 1935 while studying in Berlin. The famous economist Albert O. Hirschmann was her brother. After the death of her husband, Ursula Hirschmann married Altiero Spinelli, who became one of the founding fathers of united Europe. Renata Colorni grew up in one of the most free-spirited houses in Rome. Her sister Eva married the later Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen.

Oh please, back to poor Hlderlin …

I could not resist the offer Renata Colornis. Although I hardly knew Hlderlin then. In the translation of Elfriede Jelinek’s text “Wolken.Heim”, in which there are many Hlderlin passages, I realized that I was able to do that, and then said in youthful exuberance. After four years I was done with the book. The second volume, however, withdrew. From 2008 to 2013 I was the head of culture of the city of Udine. At that time I did not touch a finger for Hlderlin. Four years ago, the publisher put the gun on my chest: Either you can do it or we’ll bury the second volume. That would have been a crime given that, for example, translations had been in existence since 2004. So I managed the 1 904 pages of the second volume yet. On the weekends and on vacation, besides working here in the Cultural Institute. I wrote the introduction “Fragments from the future” Christmas here in Berlin.

This is the Berlin Hlderlin edition!

Already in 2002 I was here with a scholarship. Of course, Marbach and Stuttgart were the most important for the manuscripts. But in the State Library they know me well. At the end the issue was made in Berlin. Berlin was very productive for me. Dealing with scientists, philosophers and writers has promoted the edition. That was very stimulating and has used the philological work very much.

You have dedicated 4000 pages to Hlderlin. Do you regret not focusing this tremendous effort on your own work?

What’s better than lending your own little voice to a really great author? A comment is something nice: you show respect to another. I have written a series of little books and essays. Why should I torture a reader with a thick book? But maybe I’ll write a Hlderlin biography again.

Do not you want to go away from Hlderlin?

You can not do that once you start engaging with such an author.

When Hlderlin lures a high tone, or he scares you off.

I have worked more against the sublime tone in the translation. In Italy, it is too fast to do with D’Annunzio. I paid attention to the elegance of the language, but the words should be as little as possible. Hlderlin always uses everyday language twists. They stand in marked contrast to his often battered high tone. That’s what I love about Hlderlin’s language: the change of notes.

Hlderlin saw himself as a seer, even as a prophet.

I’m interested in his failure. Again and again these huge designs that have an absolute character. Hlderlin wants to grasp the whole world context philosophically and poetically. In a work. But almost everything remains a fragment. That’s the fascinating thing about Hlderlin. He wants to create new worlds. Always in vain. That’s the modernity of Hlderlin.

But do not we see today the world context much more exactly than at that time? “We are stardust”, that was poetry back then. Today we know: we really are.

The dream of Hlderlin and his generation is better to realize today, you mean? We live in an epoch, do you think, who thinks the whole thing more vividly as a living connection, as “intellectual intuition”?


Scientific research has developed instruments that allow us to see the limits of the world and deeply inward. We understand how everything permeates. But does that make any sense? But it was all about Hlderlin. He knew: in one moment, everything has meaning, is beautiful, true and good. But in the next, it does not exist anymore. The world is broken. Man is desperate. Hlderlin failed due to the impossibility of holding on to meaning. Not just as an author. I do not see that our new findings could save us from Hlderlin’s failure.