Saba, Umberto (1883-1957) | Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections
Umberto Saba (March 9, 1883 - August 26, 1957) was the pseudonym of Italian poet and novelist, Umberto Poli. His creative work was hampered by a life-long struggle with mental illness.
Saba was born in Trieste, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had Italian citizenship through his father. His mother was Jewish. His father abandoned the family before Umberto was born, and his mother employed a Slovenian nanny, Peppa Sabaz, to raise him. He became very attached to her, and revered her memory in his poetry.
From 1903-1904, he attended the University of Pisa, where he studied archaeology, German, and Latin. In was in this period that he began to complain of a nervous disorder, which was to become more severe with time. Quitting school, he worked for a time as an apprentice and was a cabin-boy on a mechant ship. From 1907-1908 he served in the military in Salerno. He married Carolina Wölfler in 1909, and they had a daughter, Lina, the following year. It was in 1910 that Poli adopted the nom de plume Saba.
In 1911, he went to Florence, where he published his first volume of poetry and used his new name as author. The following year found him in Bologna, where he continued to write poetry, publishing in newspapers and magazines. His first efforts were coldly received by critics. Saba served in the army from 1915-1918, but was never sent to the front.
In 1919 he returned to Trieste and purchased an antiquarian bookstore, the "Ancient and Modern Bookstore." The business produced enough income to support him and his family. He self-published the first edition of his Songbook in 1921 (successive, enlarged editions followed, and eventually it grew to contain over four hundred poems, spanning fifty years).
By 1928, Saba was suffering from depression, and frequently contemplated suicide. A friend advised psychoanalysis, which he began the following year.
During the Fascist period, he was forced to sell his bookstore to a friend and "disappear". He frequently moved from house to house to avoid deportation. He fled clandestinely to Paris in 1938, soon thereafter, to Florence, where he hid in an attic, and then, in 1939, to Rome, where he hid in the home of fellow-poet Giuseppe Ungaretti.
The first great critical acclaim of Saba's work was the 1946 award of the Viareggio Prize. His stature continued to grow and, in 1953 he received an award from the Lincean Academy, and two honorary degrees from the University of Rome.
Saba's mental state declined from 1950 on. He spent long periods in clinics, and began to use morphine. He died at the age of 74 in Gorizia, nine months after a heart attack, and a year after the death of his wife.
British author Gregory Woods finds evidence of erotic feelings for adolescent boys in Saba's work: "The bisexual poet who published under the name Umberto Saba wrote poems that expressed his love both of his wife and daughter and of adolescent boys."