On the morning of October 4, 1931 newspaper headlines across Europe reported a most mysterious event that had occurred the previous evening. “Un avion mystérieux lance sur Rome des Tracts politiques,” declared Paris’ Ere Nouvelle. A small plane, flying quite low and with its lights off, had dropped some 400,000 anti-fascist leaflets in precise locations around the Italian capital—Piazza Venezia, Palazzo Chigi, Piazza di Spagna, the Vatican, among others—and then simply vanished. “La légende d’Icare renouvelée” stated La Volonté. The pilot’s identity remained unknown for at least several days; according to most newspapers, such as London’s Daily Herald, a British nobleman by the name of “Sir Morris” had been the aviator involved in the ill-fated mission.
To date, no remnants of the plane have ever been located. The pilot, however, was identified approximately one week after the incident as Lauro de Bosis, whose name graces the lectureship in Italian civilization at Harvard University.
What is the connection then between an anti-Fascist pilot and Harvard University? And who exactly was this individual who disappeared into thin air?
Lauro was born in Rome on December 9, 1901 to Adolfo de Bosis, successful businessman, man of letters (noted in particular for his translations into Italian of Whitman and Shelley), and editor of the literary review Il Convito, and to an American-born mother, Lillian Vernon. His family was close friends with many prominent literary and cultural figures of the time: Gabriele d’Annunzio, Eleonora Duse, Giovanni Pascoli, who all interacted with the de Bosis children. He received his education at the University of Rome, from which he graduated in 1922 with a degree in chemistry. Though he often described himself as “imbued with a modern scientific spirit,” it does not appear that Lauro ever did much with his scientific training. Soon after completing his studies, he began making his mark in the literary world as a translator. His translation of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (Re Edipo) was published in 1924. He translated two other classical tragedies: Sophocles’s Antigone (1927), and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound (Il Prometeo incatenato, 1930) and also several British and American works, most notably Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough (Il Ramo d’Oro, 1925) and Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey (Il ponte di San Luis Rey, 1929). He also edited The Golden Book of Italian Poetry, published posthumously by Oxford University Press in 1932. His own most important poetic composition is the lyrical drama fittingly titled Icaro (1927), which received second prize for dramatic poetry at the 1928 international competition held in Amsterdam in conjunction with the Olympic Games.
Shortly after his father’s death in 1924, Lauro made the first of what were to be numerous trips the United States. During his initial visit from November, 1924 to May, 1925, he delivered a series of one hundred lectures under the auspices of the Italy-America Society, speaking across the country on a variety of topics: Lorenzo de’ Medici, Croce, Shelley in Italy, the Risorgimento, and—surprising for an individual remembered as a committed anti-Fascist activist—”Benito Mussolini and his spiritual ancestry.”
Any pro-regime sympathies Lauro may have originally nurtured soon altogether disappeared, particularly in the light of the increasingly repressive and violent political situation in Italy after the murder of the socialist parliamentary leader Giacomo Matteotti by the fascists in 1924. During successive trips to the States, Lauro began frequenting the company of several leading anti-fascists, who undoubtedly influenced his views. One such individual was Giorgio La Piana, professor of church history at Harvard, who arranged, in fact, for Lauro to teach at Harvard Summer School in July, 1926 as a replacement for the instructor listed in the course catalog. Lauro gave two courses at Harvard: one on 15th and 16th century Italian literature, and—just as many current members and recent graduates of the Italian section of RLL—Elementary Italian.
In addition to La Piana, another highly influential individual in Lauro’s life was Ruth Draper, a renowned American stage actress and diseuse some seventeen years his senior, whom he met at a luncheon in Rome on March 14, 1928. They swiftly became involved in an intensely passionate relationship. As Ruth wrote to a friend of hers: “Never have I dreamed that such beauty and such love would ever come to me.”
Ruth and Lauro continued seeing each other on both sides of the Atlantic. Ruth’s stage career frequently took her back and forth between the States and Europe, and in the fall of 1928, Lauro accepted, after considerable initial reluctance, a position as secretary of the Italy-America Society in New York.
From the time he met Ruth until his death, Lauro’s sentiments against the regime deepened. In June, 1928, he founded the organization Alleanza Nazionale, intended as more right-wing alternative to the primarily antimonarchical, anticlerical movements that largely comprised the anti-fascist struggle in Italy. In the fall of 1930, while Lauro was on a trip to the States to resign from the Italy-America Society, several active members of the Alleanza—including Lauro’s own mother—were arrested for distributing anti-Fascist leaflets. His closest associates in the Alleanza were each sentenced to fifteen years in prison. For all intensive purposes, his only avenue of political activity was now closed.
Unable to go back to Italy, and without a job or any prospects in America, Lauro settled in Paris in early 1931. Very few of the other Italian exiles in the French capital shared his particular version of anti-fascism. He led a rather solitary—and penniless—existence in France, receiving some financial support from Ruth, and eventually finding a job as a doorman at a small hotel (called, much to his amusement, the “Victor-Emmanuel III,” after the king of Italy). It is also precisely during this period that Lauro, in letters to and conversations with acquaintances such as the noted anti-Fascist intellectual Gaetano Salvemini, increasingly expressed a desire for a more spectacular, and thus a more effective, means of influencing public opinion against fascism.
Such dramatic measures had already been taken by Giovanni Bassanesi, a young anti-fascist who, on July 11, 1930, had flown over Milan, scattering anti-fascist propaganda. Inspired by this event and its impression on the public, Lauro declared his intention to do the same thing over Rome. He signed up for flying lessons and, with money gathered from fellow anti-fascists, bought his first plane. On July 11, 1931—exactly one year after Bassanesi’s expedition—Lauro made his first attempt to fly to Rome, but failed: the plane being delivered to him in Corsica was badly damaged upon landing and, with its incriminating cargo of leaflets, had to be abandoned.
Undeterred, Lauro purchased another aircraft in Germany under an assumed name, and arranged to have it delivered to Marseille. On October 2, he and Ruth said their goodbyes at the train station in Marseille. Though she had been shocked when she first learned of his intentions, she remained steadfast in her support. That night, in a room at the Hotel Terminus, Lauro composed two letters to a friend in Belgium, the editor of Le Soir of Brussels. One of the letters was to be forwarded to Ruth in case he did not return; in it, he wrote to her “Be happy (sta allegra) and work… If you do that, I will feel that my love continues after death to protect you.” And the other was his final text, arguably the finest piece he ever wrote: the Histoire de ma mort, intentionally written in French for the readers of Le Soir. It begins: “Demain à trois heures sur un pré de la Côte d’Azur j’ai un rendez-vous avec Pégase. Pégase—c’est le nom de mon avion—a la croupe rousse et les ailes blanches.”
At approximately 3pm the following afternoon, Pegasus took off; its young pilot only had seven and a half hours of solo flying time under his belt. The two German aviators who had delivered the plane were under the impression that a certain “William Morris” would be flying to Barcelona carrying advertising material. The plane reached Rome right on schedule, at around 8pm, and dropped the leaflets. By the time that the air force of the “New Imperial Rome” had received word of the occurrence and had mobilized, the plane had already disappeared. Various hypotheses have been formed as to Pegasus’ fate; general consensus is that the plane, as it was only carrying enough gas to reach Barcelona from Marseille so as not to arouse suspicion, probably ran out of gas somewhere over the Tyrrhenian Sea. One cannot help but think of the parallel to the fate of Shelley, whom Lauro’s father so admired.
Upon Lauro’s death, Ruth devoted her energy to preserving his memory. She remained in Europe for nearly a year, and translated Icaro and the Histoire de ma mort into English, which were both published in 1933. Many of the letters and clippings that she assembled are now in Houghton Library; as Mollie Della Terza observes, they “are a monument to their subject as well as to the lasting devotion of their compiler.”
And in 1933, right after the publication of her translations of Lauro’s works, Ruth approached Harvard University with the intention of establishing a fellowship in his name. Once again, the link to Harvard was Giorgio La Piana. Ruth and La Piana finally decided upon a lectureship, and proposed that it be occupied by Gaetano Salvemini. Ruth continued to fund the lectureship on an annual basis until 1939, when she formally endowed the chair in Lauro’s memory.
Salvemini continued to occupy the position as a professor of Italian History until 1947; since then, thanks to Ruth’s generosity, many scholars in different aspects of Italian civilization have come to Harvard. This long illustrious list includes names such as Giorgio Spini, Roberto Lopez, Arnaldo Momigliano, Salvatore Quasimodo, Carlo Dionisotti, Federigo Zeri, Vittore Branca, Romano Prodi, Alberto Moravia, Remo Ceserani, Gianfranco Pasquino, Dacia Maraini, Giorgio Agamben, and Adriana Cavarero.
Since 2003, the Lauro De Bosis Lectureship in the History of Italian Civilization has funded a post-doctoral fellowship; past recipients include Giorgio Alberti, Stefania Benini, Francesco Borghesi, Renato Camurri, Giorgio Caravale, Teresa Fiore, Paola Gambarota, Cory Gavito, Stephanie Malia Hom, Jenny Jordan, Erin Maglaque, Ara Merjian, Christine Ott, Emiliano Ricciardi, Gabrielle Sims.
The Lectureship also funds numerous events promoting Italian culture at Harvard. Since 2008 it has sponsored the Colloquium in Italian Studies, which have brought to Boylston Hall almost a hundred scholars from Italy, Europe, and the United States to present their most recent books. Since the same year it has also sponsored Chiasmi, a joined conference organized by the graduate students of Italian Studies from Brown and Harvard Universities.
Other activities funded by the Lectureship have included international conferences such as “Vasari/500” (October 2011) and “Music, Poetry and Patronage in Late Renaissance Italy: Luca Marenzio and the Madrigal” (April 2006).
Each year, the task of selecting a post-doctoral fellow falls on the Committee on the Lauro De Bosis Lectureship. The Committee is comprised of Faculty members from several different Harvard departments, representing a wide variety of academic interests: RLL’s Francesco Erspamer (Chair), Giuliana Bruno (VES), Gennaro Chierchia (Linguistics), James Hankins (History), Charles Maier (History), Alina Payne (History of Art and Architecture), Robert Putnam (Government), Jeffrey Schnapp (RLL).
- Calamandrei, Piero. Lauro De Bosis e la resistenza. Ancona: Nacci & C., 1951.
- Cortese de Bosis, Alessandro. “Il volo su Roma.” In Lauro de Bosis, Storia della mia morte. Il volo antifascista su Roma. A cura di Alessandro Cortese de Bosis. Roma: Mancosu, 1995.
- Della Terza, Mollie. “Lauro de Bosis (1901-1931).” Harvard Library Bulletin, Vol. XXX, No. 3 (July 1982), 253-81.
- de Bosis, Lauro. Storia della mia morte. Prefazione di Gaetano Salvemini. Con una testimonianza di Sibilla Aleramo. Passigli, 2009.
- Draper, Ruth. The Letters, 1920-1956: A Self-Portrait of a Great Actress. New York: Scribner, 1979.
- Farrell, Joseph. “Icarus as Anti-Fascist Myth: The Case of Lauro de Bosis.” Italica, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), 198-209.
- Mudge, Jean. The Poet and the Dictator: Lauro de Bosis Resists Fascism in Italy and America. Westport: Praeger, 2002.
- Origo, Iris. A Need to Testify: Portraits of Lauro de Bosis, Ruth Draper, Gaetano Salvemini, Ignazio Silone and and Essay on Biography. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.
- Rogari, Sandro. “Lauro De Bosis e l’Alleanza nazionale.” Nuova Antologia, n.3 (1982), 284-304.
- Rogers, Neville. “A Man and His Mission.” The Listener, Thursday, October 19, 1961, Issue 1699.
- Rolland, Romain. “Introduction à l’Icare de Lauro de Bosis.” Europe, May 15, 1933, Vol.32 (125), 5.
- Ruta, Angelo. Il poeta volante. Catania: Villaggio Maori, 2014.
- Trentin, Silvio. “Lauro de Bosis. Chantre et héros de la liberté.” Toulouse: Jean Flory, 1939.
- Vigilante, Magda. “De Bosis, Adolfo Lauro.” In Dizionario biografico degli italiani, Vol. 33. Istituto dell’Enciclopedia italiana, 1987.
- Lauro de Bosis. Storia del volo antifascista su Roma. Rai Storia, 2014.