Diego Napolitani (1927-2013)
Group-analyst, psychiatrist, former member of JEP

   Photo by Giuseppe Prina

Federico Leoni

In Memory of Diego Napolitani

First of all his voice. The first thing that comes to my mind. Warm, so very deep. At times uncertain, shaken by coughs, almost metallic, a steel whisper. That watery cough he struggled with for years and that lately announced the illness that overcame him. A voice at once young and old, happy and hollow, full of desire and tinged with destruction.

Napolitani was like his voice, with which for decades he practiced analysis, gave lessons and conferences, conversed with friends, related affectionately with his large ‘tribe’. A voice with many voices, splendid and conflicting, even marked by violent clashes. A voice that urged us to run ahead, to look beyond. At times the voice of a prophet devoured by a wild desire to overcome the usual refrains, to push forward with no safety net. A voice intolerant of any bulwark, of any precedent.

Diego Napolitani’s first analyst apparently said to him, after a tarot reading, something not unusual with that strange figure: ‘Diego, you’re a real son of a bitch.’ It was Ernst Bernhard who pronounced this unusual diagnosis, the man who first introduced Jung to Italy, and the advocate of an opaque and heterogeneous Jungianism, brilliant and farraginous. An almost mythical figure, who emigrated from Germany during Nazism and landed in Italy, where the fascist regime immediately confined him to a remote island. At the end of the war he was back in Rome, where he practiced analysis until his death in the mid-sixties. Federico Fellini and Giorgio Manganelli had both been longtime patients of his. Just the tip of an iceberg with endless ramifications. A mysterious and highly influential figure. An era miles away from the ‘critical Jungianism’ that was to assert itself thanks to the initiative of Mario Trevi, who would remain Napolitani’s fraternal friend for a lifetime. It’s a world we find vividly in the pages of Bernhard, in that almost initiatory text called Mitobiografia (the ‘Mythobiography’) published by Adelphi. After all, it was Manganelli himself who said that psychoanalysis is a branch of literature, on equal terms with theology. And I’m not so sure that a similar idea had no upshots in the mind of the young Napolitani, right up to some of his scoldings, as an elderly analyst, against psychoanalysis as a whole, also or above all of the Freudian kind.

Napolitani was from Naples, the scion of a family of lawyers. A well-off family, according to him, beset by a difficult father and burdened by a handsome, mean, plaintive mother. Diego’s brother Fabrizio went to Rome to study Psychiatry after a degree in Medicine. Diego did the same shortly afterwards. He arrived in Rome and began an analysis with Bernhard. Bernhard’s Italian was good and Napolitani spoke an excellent German. I think that during analysis they switched between the two languages. A third brother, Corrado, became himself a lawyer. To have a German nanny was a status symbol in upper-class Naples at the time. And for at least two of the lawyer’s three sons it revealed itself to be a key to open many a door.

After his specialization in Psychiatry, Fabrizio left Italy for Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, where he worked with Ludwig Binswanger. Fabrizio developed a passion for psychoanalysis, he became acquainted with phenomenology and then embraced group work of the Anglo-Saxon kind. He studied and worked in Britain, became one of the earliest protagonists of the birth of group analysis in Italy and eventually embraced the Foulkesian version of the wide-ranging and frayed group analysis model.

The other protagonist was to be his brother Diego, who also graduated in Medicine and then specialized in Endocrinology and only eventually in the ‘Clinical Practice of Mental and Nervous Illnesses’, as Psychiatry was then called in Italy. One would say that what attracted him in man was the machine. Ever subtler, ever more impalpable, discipline after discipline, specialization after specialization. But a machine all the same. From Rome he moved to Milan in the mid-fifties. He worked as a psychiatrist. He began a second analysis. Or a first analysis, if we look at it from the point of view of the institution he was about to enter. At the Italian Psychoanalytic Association (SPI) he was assigned Franco Fornari as analyst. Quite a singular procedure, that of assigning an analyst. Napolitani maintained a high and extremely polemical opinion of Fornari. Apparently, and likely so, he observed that with this second analysis too he couldn’t be sure he’d really done an analysis. And that perhaps a real analysis, an experience not merely medicative, a path not simply orthopedic, in those years and in those environments was practically impossible. Of Cesare Musatti who was his SPI supervisor, I don’t know for how long, he spoke well, though very little, or perhaps rather unwillingly.

Basically, he had no mentors. Or perhaps he had some, but extremely diverse and imperfect ones, going by his own accounts. Napolitani’s stories hinted at many paternities or none at all for his analytical practice and perhaps for his way of being in the world . Bernhard, however his ways bizarre may have been, was by no means naïve. Napolitani completed his analysis with Fornari and became a member of SPI. That is to say an orthodox Freudian, he once told me with some irony. He’d gone a step further, he was the technician of even more sophisticated machineries. But still machineries they were. At least that’s how Napolitani intended the Kleinism of Fornari and of the Freudians of the time. His polemic against psychoanalysis arose from this belief, from this intolerance for a medicalism and a mechanicism that he thought Freud had never abandoned. In fact, for the record, not even Napolitani ever abandoned la Gradiva, the fine white chalk relief sculpture he still kept at home, in a not too out-of-the-way position, actually in quite an intimate one. An initiatory symbol that every young Freudian analyst received from SPI after being accepted in its ranks.

In the meantime Napolitani was founding in Milan, not long after Fabrizio had done the same in Rome, the earliest Therapeutic Communities in Italy, with Maxwell Jones in mind, considering Wilfred Bion, who during the war had developed the earliest group analytic models working with British soldiers traumatized by their military experiences, and looking with great interest at the experience of Thomas Maine at London’s Cassel Hospital.The Milan branch of the SPI cautioned him. The initiative of psychoanalysis in groups and the institution of a psychoanalytically founded psychiatry—though not ruled out—were not at the time in the guidelines of official Freudianism. Napolitani let the thing slide and fell into line. Then he persisted with his projects and was again called to order. Relations between him and SPI became cold, but the rift came later, a split with a twofold effect—a burning bitterness and a burning negation of that burning sensation—which was still to be felt decades later .

In the seventies he founded the Italian Group Analysis Association, which over the years opened branches in Rome, guided by his brother Fabrizio, in Turin, and most recently in Palermo, guided by his daughter Claudia, and that decade after decade split into a galaxy of fringe groups with various orientations ever more removed from the origins. Very good, Napolitani should have said. But I’m afraid he did not quite think that.

It was an era when others were actually working in similar directions. Social group analysis, for example, was born. Luigi Pagliarani, who Napolitani had met between sessions in Fornari’s practice, always remained a good friend, turned more towards the corporate world and the applications of psychoanalysis, but remained a partner in many adventures. A friend and perhaps a double. The story of Napolitani is full of these doubles, fellow travelers who become sources of inspiration, or followers of his ever more creative reflections on clinical practice and theory, or adversaries worthy of insults that for he who flung them were equivalent to authentic executions. It didn’t take much for theoretical regressions to be punished violently: ‘Freudians’, ‘vetero-Kleinians’, ‘plumbers of human passions’. Last but not least, the funniest and most autobiographic of his insults: ‘endocrinologists’. In short, for him the point was to rewrite Freud without the Freudian machine. Rewrite psychoanalysis without the medicalistic ramifications, and, the other side of the medal, but ultimately it was the same side, without orthopedic enticements, as I was saying, i.e. moralizing, edifying or edificatory ones. Which, after all, is what all analysts with some theoretical sensibility and who somehow feel their historical and political position have tried to do, perhaps in very different ways, after Freud and in particular after the post-Freudians, after Ego-psychology and after the Americanization of what was supposed to be a plague and instead ended up being an aspirin for well-to-do families and high performing executives of Adornian total administration.

The seventies. After reading and getting through Jung, Freud, then Klein and Winnicott, then Bion and Foulkes, Napolitani read Nietzsche and Heidegger. To understand the last twenty or thirty years of his work, his most mature and personal period, perhaps this is where we should start: from these philosophers and from his frequentations with Italian philosophers who worked in that direction. Gianni Vattimo, much loved by him. Carlo Sini, a more short-lived association and perhaps a more superficial one too. Umberto Galimberti, at once close and distant, very close for a number of years and who then drifted away quite suddenly). Napolitani was a Freudian who encountered the works of Heidegger and Nietzsche. If he were to be encapsulated, which would be practically an insult, in a definition, this is what we could say about him. He was a Freudian who reconsidered psychoanalysis, neurosis, the division of the human subject, the ‘emancipating’ path of psychoanalysis, in the double light of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Not many at the time had sensed the need for such an operation. And if Heidegger had had an eminent interpreter in psychoanalysis, Lacan—detested by Napolitani, but extremely close to him in several formulations and clinical maneuvers large or small—Nietzsche had been left without a following among analysts. With a couple of partial exceptions, which as chance would have it  were the only two Italian analysts Napolitani quoted with admiration: Elvio Fachinelli and Francesco Corrao.

It’s not easy to say what it meant for Napolitani to reconsider psychoanalysis after Heidegger and Nietzsche. To Napolitani, Heidegger meant The Question Concerning Technology and What Is Called Thinking, even though more recently Heidegger had once again become above all the author of Being and Time. But The Question Concerning Technology and What Is Called Thinking were the texts he would quote most often and that he knew by heart. And his Heideggerianism was, to put it briefly, all one with the polemic against the technicalization of knowledge and the oblivion of thought. Which, in relation to psychoanalysis, probably meant a medicalization of man and the inclusion of psychoanalysis in the list of technocratic sciences and tools with which to systematically domesticate even the ultimate industrial resource, as Heidegger prophesized, the ‘human resource,’ the ‘human capital’. His friend Pagliarani, I’m afraid, most likely belongs to this circle of hell.

I think Napolitani’s later interest in the complexity theories can also be read with this background in mind. The idea of a psychoanalysis that claims not to be a science, but a dialogic art. He ever postponed and coveted the idea of an encyclopedia of the many formative practices of the human, the traces of which he in his later years recognized and appreciated in the neurophenomenological research he had become an avid reader of: Francisco Varela, Vittorio Gallese, and earlier Antonio Damasio or Mauro Ceruti and Telmo Pievani. Man, according to the Nietzschean Arnold Gehlen—a thesis Lacan too would have embraced, though leading it in a different direction—is a structurally premature being, an obstinately unstructured and embryonic one. Man is always and unceasingly in formation, one minute conforming and becoming alienated, the next deforming himself and breaking away from his alienations and compliances. All this in the comings and goings of a movement Napolitani called dialogical and hermeneutic, but that in his understanding did not lack an element that the various hermeneutics and the advocates of dialogue often ignored, with catastrophic consequences. An element of struggle and strife. Once again a fundamentally Nietzschean element.

Another question is the presence of Nietzsche in Napolitani’s work: in his thinking and, I would say, in his psychoanalytical practice. I would say that Napolitani has been the only Nietzschean psychoanalyst of the century (apart from Alfred Adler, purged by Freud precisely for being too openly Nietzschean).This is where his specificity lies, far more than in his many theoretical passions, embraced and rejected, loved and then hated, or in the recent and very recent references to Binswangerian and, via Binswanger, Husserlian phenomenology. Too many historical, theoretical, political and social motives had to mark a distance between psychoanalysis and Nietzscheism, between Freud and the author of Zarathustra. Particularly in the postwar years, particularly in countries devastated by totalitarianism. Historians of philosophy have now scoured every underground passage, from the most secret to the most evident, connecting the two environments, if not the two authors. On his behalf, Napolitani at one point understood and strongly argued, through his practice and his teachings, that you cannot contemplate or practice psychoanalysis without coming to terms with Nietzsche, and in particular with the Nietzsche of The Genealogy of Morality.

Again, if the urgency of the moment were to suggest a motto, one might hazard to say that psychoanalysis has always to do with the treatment a of debt. With the light of a past that burdens us as unsettled and puts us in the position of insolvent debtors. Or, similarly, it has to do with recalling an ancestor we feel we owe something to and we feel we should take leave of. In an attempt to break the tablets on which the debt seemed to have been engraved forever, as was the custom with the Sumerians, whose kings significantly came to the throne and broke the tablets, opening a new era, wiping out debts, erasing the faith that credit and that credence assumed, setting aside, as far as possible, the beliefs that credit implied.

What does Nietzsche represent in this sense if not a very precise option for the possible treatment of debt and guilt, if not an extremely deep and difficult way to re-elaborate, to learn step by step to deal with debt and guilt, with this identical and double Schuldigsein? Incidentally, it’s quite strange that the man who saw so deeply the possible connection between Nietzsche and psychoanalysis, between the Nietzschean way of considering debt and the psychoanalytical way of treating guilt and having-to-be, was also the man that Bernhard, with a hand of tarots, had fixed as someone with no fathers, or destined not to have any, to not being able to have any or to not wanting any.

In this sense The Genealogy of Morality is also a genealogy of psychoanalysis and of psychoanalytical man: that man Sloterdijk described as a miserable being, humiliated by the analyst, who infantilizes and censures him, a hyper-Christian man who discovers his debt with the other and makes his becoming other from that other his capital sin, the negation of the prestige of the prewritten law, the insult to the past as tablet of having-to-be. Will a Nietzschean psychoanalysis be possible one day? A psychoanalysis that will not be a cheerless science like economics, or that will not be itself a joyless economics, but rather a gay science, or even a gay economic science? Will such a psychoanalysis be possible without rejecting Heidegger, not necessarily a good viaticum to Nietzsche and his ‘beyond’ morals? Is the phenomenological option that Napolitani embraced in recent years inclined more towards Heidegger and his perennial Kierkegaardism, or towards a Genealogy of Morality, which as a genealogic exercise carried out on our mos is an emancipation from a mos which can ultimately be seen as not ours, as other from us, as something we do not possess but that possesses us?

The last email Napolitani wrote to me, after the end of an analysis which along the way began to coincide with the end of the analyst—and with my reasoning overwhelmed by the commentary of that rampant watery cough—was a quote from the much loved Dictionary by Niccolò Tommaseo. It can be found there under the entry for ‘Nostro’ (Our/Ours). It reads: ‘When we consider ours what is alien to us, and neglect what is ours as alien to us, our life becomes a perpetual confusion.’ A last email that raises one last question. Can we consider what is ‘ours’ as a void, or as a pure becoming (as Deleuze would say), or as basically improper (as Derrida would say)? Can it be considered thus precisely because it is basically, hopefully, finally dis-alienated?

Here, in any case, I think that many of Napolitani’s paths tangle up. Paths that only apparently converge, but that are actually multi-faceted, contrasting, discordant. Here, perhaps, we find the knot we should untangle if we wish to do something with this inheritance, rich and generous, slippery and awkward, just like he who drew its outlines and for a lifetime constantly abandoned and resumed them.




Paolo Tucci Sorrentino

September 2013

Diego Napolitani died on 9 July 2013. More than two months have gone by, but it is still not easy for me to offer a public tribute. It is not easy for me to distinguish between what interests only me, my private sphere, from what might interest readers. The death of the other always finds us unprepared, even if we limit ourselves to remembering our affection for those who are no longer with us.

As a starting point I shall talk about a question that inspired us several nights ago at an after-dinner gathering among friends and colleagues, all members of SGAI, the association founded by Diego and of which he has always been the recognized leader. It is one of those questions that would never come up in official circumstances, because it is rather wild; at times, however, it is precisely from an apparent impertinence that an interesting issue may take shape. A colleague, referring to one of the many quotes from either Nietzsche or Heidegger that Diego repeated throughout his lifetime, asked: ‘Vattimo argues that Heidegger’s works are the continuation of Nietzsche’s—and that they are in agreement with the latter’s. I have a different opinion. To me they seem two figures separated by a different idea of history and of life. Well, between the two, who would you most liken to Diego Napolitani?’

I shall try to offer a personal memory starting from a point that unites and separates the three figures in question; but on this occasion I shall not concentrate so much on the scientific implications, but rather on the personal aspects. I shall therefore refer to the exergue Heidegger poses at the outset of his Nietzsche, a work consisting of lessons, research and conferences subsequent to the publication of Sein und Zeit. This quote is from The Gay Science: ‘Life … more mysterious—from that day forward when the great liberator came over me: the idea that life might be an experiment of knowers.’

This quote could also lead to another question. Who or what was Heidegger referring to when tracing out this exergue? To one of his own projects, or to what Nietzsche hoped for in his lifetime? And, in any case, how to interpret the term ‘life’? Limiting to adventures of the philosophical kind, or extending it to frequentations, loves, to existence as a whole? And can we, audaciously, ask ourselves the same question in remembering Diego?

Well, without denying that Heidegger always tried to lead the life of a philosopher, we should also remember his not always clear relations with the Catholic world, the cautiousness that distinguished his marriage, the secrecy of his romantic relationship with Hannah Arendt, his support of National Socialism, and so on. In comparison, it would seem, on the other hand, that Nietzsche intended ‘life’ in its entirety, talked about it with less reserve and lived it more open-mindedly and with a freer passion. And what exactly is aphorism 324 of The Gay Science the exergue of? A philosophical reflection? A confession, as if death were approaching? Something to confide to a friend?

 I can say that one aspect that always marked the life and career of Diego Napolitani was the absence of a sharp separation between the two fields, concrete life and philosophical life. By this I don’t mean that there are no differences between Nietzsche’s manner and Diego’s, but in the same way as Nietzsche wrote that we should serve history, we could add that Diego always wanted to serve life. In other words, he wanted to do everything he could to live it fully and authentically, not by following what people consider the right way or the conventions that generally guide us, but by digging deep into what his choices accomplished; a humanismdeconstructed with firm obstinacy. ‘I cannot talk about freedom to my patients if I don’t set out to find it myself,’ he once said to me. And so, quoting first Neruda and then Claudio Magris, he stressed that, if it’s true, as the poet sang, that it is in order to be born—to be born again—that we are born, it is also true, as the Triestineessayist writes, that ‘to be born is more terrible, violent and absurd than dying,’ and, well aware of how difficult it is to be born again, he knew how to stand ever so close to those who did show a will to be reborn into a new life.

‘Life as a means to knowledge, with this principle in one’s heart one can not only be brave, but can even live joyfully and laugh joyfully! And who could know how to laugh well and live well, who did not first understand the full significance of war and victory?’ This is the close of Nietzsche’s aphorism which, helping me to overcome my difficulties to write to you about Diego, helps me remember how he lived his entire life as a commitment to ‘live joyfully’ or as a war to ‘laugh joyfully’ about. His blue eyes always seemed to me, ever since our first meeting in a bright September day of 36 years ago, full of past and tirelessly turned towards the future. Now and again a certain impatience transpired, almost as if he wished to shorten the wait, as a tender request, to himself and those he was talking to, to be confident.

‘Life has not deceived me,’ thus the aphorism begins, giving it the feeling of a leave-taking, and this was the mood that characterized the final months of Diego’s life. At the end of a life lived somewhat impatiently—how beautiful it was to see the certitude that sustained his unease!—he appeared, as the end approached, gradually more and more untroubled, as someone who felt not deceived by what life had granted him. His lessons and his meetings with the colleagues who wanted to speak to him began to acquire a more and more particular intimacy, as if it had become possible to capture, between the recesses of friendship, the unknown. His last days were full of pain and suffering, his and of those who looked after him, particularly his wife Carlotta and his elder children, Claudia, Fabio and Martino. During those moments I found it hard to think, but my impression now is that in the very moment of his leave-taking he wished to leave us with a feeling of peace. Peace, I think, cannot be conquered, but can only be received as a gift, and I can only be thankful to him.



DIEGO NAPOLITANI’s publications in JEP and EJP

Psychoanalysis has had Its Day




Psychoanalysis and Clinical Practice



Group-Analysis Today

An interview with Diego Napolitani by Maria Luisa Tapparo



Essays on and by Francisco Varela: An Occasion



The Bipolarity of the Relational Mind
The “masculine” and “feminine” in cognitive processes


Round Table Discussion: “Psychoanalysis and the law”
Held in Milan, at the SGAI (the Italian Group-Analysis Society), March 14, 2004
Bice Benvenuto, Sergio Benvenuto, Sergio Contardi, Giacomo Contri, Marco Focchi, Giorgio Landoni, Valeria La Via, Paolo Migone, Diego Napolitani, Paola Ronchetti, Paolo Tucci



The Imaginary in Psychoanalytic Metapsychology


this paper is on sale, available at



 Diego 45anni






Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059
Scientific Journal in the List 11 by the ANVUR (Italian Agency for Evaluation of the University System and Research)