Maria Antonietta Torriani "Marchesa Colombi"

Women's writing. Women writers, poets and journalists in Milan, between the 19th and the 20th Century

Ritratto della Signora Maria Torriani Torelli (1884) by L. BazzaroBiblioteca Sormani

Who was Marchesa Colombi?

Marchesa Colombi, pseudonym of Maria Antonietta Torriani, was the first female signature of “Corriere della Sera”. As a journalist and writer, she has joined the fight for women's emancipation, using an ironic and apparently light style.

Il tesoro delle famiglie. Giornale bimensile istruttivo, pittoresco, di mode, lavori femminili. (1868-07) by Edoardo Sonzogno EditoreBiblioteca Sormani


She was born in Novara in 1840, into a family from a modest background. After her father's death, her mother is forced to remarry a much older man with whom she has another child. These were the years that Marchesa describes as "dead calm" in "Un matrimonio in provincia" (1886).

Da "Un matrimonio in provincia"

She attended the Civic Institute of Arts and Crafts in Novara, where she distinguished herself for her aptitude for writing, but achieved poor results in 'women's works'. From an early age, she stood against traditionally feminine roles imposed by society.

Il bimbo della Pia (1909) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

As a non-conformist spirit, she showed intolerance towards being just a submissive wife and mother. After turning 20, she is considered a spinster. To avoid a marriage of convenience, she graduates as a primary school teacher and moves to Milan in 1868.

Due teste d'angeli (1868-07) by Edoardo Sonzogno EditoreBiblioteca Sormani


In Milan, Marie Antoinette began a prolific writing activity by collaborating with various magazines, such as "Il Passatempo", "Giornale delle donne", "Illustrazione Universale" and "Il Tesoro delle famiglie". In "Il Tesoro delle famiglie", she writes one of his first short stories," Due teste di angeli".

Ricciarda (1868) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

while she published the poem Ricciarda in "Illustrazione universale", the magazine directed by Eugenio Torelli Viollier. Both stories tell about impossible love and divine punishment with a melodramatic style that Torriani will soon after abandon.

Lettera aperta alle signore (1887-03) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

The journalistic activity in Milan

In 1875 she marries the journalist Eugenio Torelli Viollier who wanted her as the first female journalist in "Corriere della Sera", the new newspaper he founded the following year. These were peaceful years, of ease and culture. 

Racconti popolari (1900) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

The couple shares a passion for literature and an attitude of confidentiality, which however does not prevent them from attending the most fashionable intellectual salons in Milan, from that of Vittoria Cima to that of Countess Clara Maffei: ideal scenarios where they can meet artists, like Giovanni Segantini, writers like Giuseppe Verga, Luigi Capuana and Arrigo Boito, and writers like Neera and Contessa Lara.

Lettera aperta alle signore (1887-03) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

Starting from the first issue of the “Corriere della Sera”, Torriani has a column entitled "Open letter to the ladies", where she talks about the new trends in women's clothing.

While writing for the Milanese newspaper, Torriani chooses to sign herself with the literary pseudonym of "La Marchesa Colombi", drawing inspiration from the comedy by Paolo Ferrari, "La Satira e Parini" (1858), in which "i marchesi Colombi" are characters "futile and immoral". An ironic choice, given that with this name Torriani signs her collaborations with newspapers and magazines as an "expert in fashion and good manners".

Un matrimonio in provincia (1973) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

Books: novels, stories, children books and melodrama

At the same time, Torriani develops her prolific literary career, signing numerous novels, short stories, children's books and melodramas.

Among her major successes there are: the long story "In risaia" (1878), a commentary on the exploitation of women in agriculture disguised as a Christmas story; the novel "Un matrimonio in provincia" (1885), considered her most autobiographical work; and the etiquette book "La gente per bene. Leggi di convenienza sociale", reprinted for many years.

In risaia. Racconto di Natale. (1889) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

Her style is characterized by irony, used to undermine the habits of her time, and by the concern for the female condition. She describes this condition through a lucid and disenchanted vision, already surprisingly modern. Benedetto Croce, struck by her style, said: «In risaia of Marchesa Colombi... describes the hard life and the exploitation exercised by speculators on the poor female rice weeders, combining another intent, which can be called "folkloristic", that is to put popular customs on stage and action».

Milano e l'esposizione italiana del 1881 (1881) by Fratelli Treves EditoriBiblioteca Sormani

Italian exhibition in Milan 

In 1881 Milan is experiencing an economic boom and hosts the first Italian Exposition, the first real “Made in Italy” fair. Marchesa Colombi writes "alternative" chronicles that tell the curiosity and background of one of the most important events of those years.

La gente per bene. Leggi di convenienza sociale. (1877) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

Marchesa’s etiquette book

Without wishing to elevate her work to a moral treatise, with "La gente per bene" the Marchesa suggests to her readers how to always be in order of appearance and kind in ways in all phases of their life: childhood, adolescence, youth, maturity and old age. Instead, dedicate only one chapter to men.

Da "La gente per bene. Leggi di convenienza sociale"

For each situation, the Marchesa suggests how to behave without neglecting any aspect, from the dressing table to the table setting. Nor does she omit advice and suggestions directed to young women on how to arouse the interest of a possible future husband: a real training manual for the gentlemen and ladies of the newborn Italian nation.

Serate d'inverno. Racconti. (1879) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

Short stories

Since the end of the Seventies, having reached a certain fame by now, the Marchesa Colombi collects some stories in volume, such as: "Scene nuziali" (1877), "Dopo il caffè" (1878), "Racconti di Natale" (1878), "Piccole cause" (1879), "Serate d’inverno" (1879).

Dopo il caffè (1879) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

Each of these collections has a specific topic: some stories show women who have chosen to dedicate their lives to career as well as marriage, while others simply describe everyday life. To add them all together, the light tone and the aim of entertaining the ladies without "presuming to teach anyone anything, or to dissolve social norms" and to help them "to endure the boring hour after coffee more easily".

La Creola. Melodramma in tre atti (1878) by Eugenio e Maria Torelli ViollierBiblioteca Sormani


In 1882, almost a beautiful
career, the Marchesa Colombi wrote two librettos for the theater: "La
Creola" and "Il violino di Cremona. "The style used is fully
compliant with the contemporary librettist canon, albeit contaminated by
disheveled and vaguely decadent forms.


She writes "La Creola" with her husband Eugenio Torelli Viollier. The melodrama is rich in literary suggestions and "sociological and anthropological contents linked to slavery and colonialism". The chorus within the work gives voice to a social criticism, while the female characters become allegories of the "condition of women in civil society" of the time.

Il violino di Cremona. Melodramma in due atti (1882) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

"Il violino di Cremona", set to music by Giulio Litta, once again aims to raise public awareness on the issue of equal opportunities for women, such as the right to study, work and be economically independent, even outside of marriage.

La padrona (1905) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

The activism
and the relationship with other female writers

The friendship with Anna Maria Mozzoni - a leading activist in the women's movement of the Italian Risorgimento and the founder of a high school for girls in 1870, where also Torriani taught - and the atmosphere of the Milanese cultural background strongly influence Torriani to the point that her writing starts to combine political commitment and literary inventiveness.

La donna povera (1876-04-16) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

In 1871, Torriani and Mozzoni alone embarked on a lecture tour to support the ideals of female emancipation. The tour confused and shocked most of the conformists. During these days, Torriani meets several writers, including Giosuè Carducci. He is so impressed by her personality to dedicate her a poem, Romantic Autumn (1872-1873).

Furthermore, the newspaper columns become the new set for the exchange of opinion between male and female writers. Among the pages of "Illustrazione Italiana", Marchesa Colombi argues with Neera about the importance of working as a way for single and poor women to redeem. While on “La Stampa", she argues with Matilde Serao on the "servant-mistress" relationship.

I più cari bambini del mondo (1920) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

In retirement

Following the failure of her marriage, the Marchesa Colombi leaves Milan and moves to Turin, where she is welcomed by the family of her stepbrother Tommaso and in particular by the children, who give her the nickname "Aunt Relli". The relationship with children plays an important role in this phase of her life and she is inspired by them to write new stories about childhood and dedicated to childhood, sometimes illustrated by the liberty painter Augusto Carutti.

Cartolina ("29 dicembre" [1915-1918]) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

Letters and manuscripts

Around the 10s of the twentieth century a cordial correspondence began between Torriani and Antonio Curti, the Milanese playwright, dialect poet and writer. In those years, Curti was carrying out an "Inquiry" on the figure of Napoleon I Bonaparte, interviewing various key figures of the contemporary cultural scene, including artists such as Boccioni or other writers such as Cordelia.

It emerges the great admiration and respect that Curti has for the Marchesa Colombi, as a writer and above all as a woman of culture.

Lettera (1919-10-28) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

From a letter to Curti

.«Caro amico, è possibile che “quando ogni altro amore ci toglieranno i Fati” per trovar modo di innamorarsi ancora, ci si innamori di Napoleone? Non le rispondo sulla scheda perché il mio giudizio, oltre che non ha valore, sarebbe uno strale al suo cuore napoleonico. Non ho mai ammirato quell’Italia che si è fatta Francese, quel usurpatore, quell’invasore, quel seminatore di stragi, di massacri, di dolori. È una triste gloria quella che si acquista a tale prezzo. Io amo l’umanità e tutte le guerre mi fanno orrore, quelle di conquista in ispecie» 

Necrologio di Maria Antonietta Torriani (1920-03-26) by Corriere della SeraBiblioteca Sormani

Death and late success

Marchesa Colombi died on March 24, 1920. Although she was the first female signature of the Milanese newspaper and had a decisive role in the first years of publication of this newspaper, the "Corriere della Sera" announces her death only with a brief obituary.

Un matrimonio in provincia (1973) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

Marchesa Colombi works’are rediscovered in the early 1970’s, when the publisher Einaudi decides to reprint "Un matrimonio in provincia", and Natalia Ginzburg writes the introduction to the volume. The enthusiastic words of Ginzburg, who relives moments of her childhood in the descriptions of the Marchesa Colombi, inspires Italo Calvino to write a review for the back cover of the same volume.

Thanks to the positive comments, the publication is acclaimed in newspapers and by critics, leading to an actual rediscovery of Torriani over the last years as a writer and as a woman of her time.

Un matrimonio in provincia (1973) by Marchesa ColombiBiblioteca Sormani

Da "Introduzione" di Natalia Ginzburg a "Un matrimonio in provincia"

"Ciò che trovavo strano qui, era un modo di presentare i fatti e le persone senza colorarli di rosa né di sollevarli in una sfera nobile, un modo ruvido, allegro e sbadato a cui non ero abituata nei libri..." (Natalia Ginzburg)

Ritratto della Signora Maria Torriani Torelli (1884) by L. BazzaroBiblioteca Sormani

Italo Calvino said about her: «La fama letteraria della Marchesa Colombi non è stata di largo raggio né di lunga durata: se il suo nome viene ricordato è più per essere stata moglie del fondatore del "Corriere della Sera" o come autrice di libri per l’infanzia, che per i suoi romanzi. E non mi sarebbe venuta l’idea di leggere Un matrimonio in provincia se non me ne avesse parlato con singolare entusiasmo Natalia Ginzburg... qui dalle prime pagine si riconosce una voce di scrittrice che sa farsi ascoltare qualsiasi cosa racconti, perché è il suo modo di raccontare che prende, il suo piglio dimesso ma sempre concreto e corposo, con un fondo di sottile ironia: di quell’ironia su se stessi che è l’essenza dello humor».

Credits: Story

Thanks to Fondazione Corriere della Sera for granting the use of their archive documents and the Fondazione Torino Musei for the portraits by Leonardo Bazzaro.

More women writers in Milan, in 19th and 20th Century to be discovered:
Virginia Tedeschi “Cordelia”
Ada Negri
Anna Maria Zuccari “Neera”
Evelina Cattermole “Contessa Lara”
Sofia Bisi Albini

Would you like to read in full the books by the protagonists of the exhibits? Click here.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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