Articles by: Steve Acunto

  • Art & Culture

    A Tribute: Recalling an Afternoon with Franco Zeffirelli

    Franco Zeffirelli was not afraid of color, of drama or of creating an old fashioned sense of romance on the screen and on the stages of the world’s major theaters and opera houses. In 2013, our Foundation awarded him our Annual Bravo! Award at Carnegie Hall, only to learn a week before the event that illness prevented his travel – he was nearing 90 at the time. So I called and asked if I might stop by when next in Rome to present it in person, together with my daughter who lives there and who, as a designer, was among his most fervent admirers. “Of course” was the answer together with an invitation to review plans for the newly planned Zeffirelli International Center for the Performing Arts in Florence; naturally, much of the space would be devoted to his work on the operas of Verdi and Puccini. Surely, his landmark Romeo and Julietwould be recalled.


    To Zeffirelli, his work was as immediate as the sound of the haunting final words of Violetta or the light flowing down upon the altar of Sant Andrea della Valle in Tosca’s first act. It was his practiced grasp of the “present” that he housed on sets and with his director’s eye that unfolded drama and stamped indelibly the expansive feel of the masterpieces that he textured and toned visually.


    Personally, amid the notoriety, the social pages and style fanfare, he remained unspoiled, an artist whose sensibility reflected a wounded youth, a career of contrasts – from his foray into politics to his box office record  setting films to the few flops along the way. He was not reluctant to express conservative views – as a child born out of wedlock he was virulently anti abortion, for example – or to interpret the life of Jesus and of Saint Francis with unforgettable, reverential aura.


    From the first, working with Luchino Visconti and with many of the greatest operatic performers and Hollywood stars in history, he was fated to bring a beauty that he found and understood to a world that would feed upon it, in all of its ornate statement-making - from Turandot’s scarily large headdress to the rethinking of Romeo and Juliet, known today as Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. His complexities were legendary , his living  harmony of contrasts, a palette that gave new life even to Shakespeare. The vitality of his Romeo and Juliet moved millions of young viewers to the classic tale of woe with a sense of pathos not discoverable commonly. It was uncommon in the best sense of that word – a view held by my daughter who would accompany me that afternoon to visit Zeffirelli.


    As the long driveway wound its way toward the front door, Claudia’s eyes brightened and her expression seemed anxious in one way, yet suddenly free from the unrelenting traffic and its ever present,  unforgiving pavement. We were arriving at a new world only ten  miles from the center of Rome, but a universe of imagination away from its daily drumbeat.


    Giuseppe, always caring and cordial,  answered the bell; we walked into the grand salon and waited for the Maestro, as Claudia took in every evidence that served her admiration as  monuments to his ideas and his taste, large and small. His living room, a set design in itself, with a lifetime of photographs on the centrally-placed piano, was a stage setting of columns, tall plants and soft colors.


    At 90, but still envisioning,  creating, drafting and imagining,  he welcomed us with the reserve of one whohad just emerged from deep concentration, awakened by a sound or by a sudden light and adjusted his outward focus quickly; he came into the moment with the usual embraces and then passed right into the drawings on the table. The plans were for the Zeffirelli  Museum in Florence, but it could well have been the rethinking of an opera staging – as if he could improve upon his legendary settings. Imagine Zeffirelli rethinking Zeffirelli.


    He guided us to an adjacent room, lined in deep red. Folios of plans were amassed on a large, dark wood table, though he referred to them as “drafts” evidencing an artist’s casual humility, as if he were almost reluctant to accept that there would be a final version of his work “when so much needed to be stated and revisited and rethought and made perfect!” 


    Zeffirelli’s art, so compelling that we are hard pressed to think of Romeo and Juliet apart from his realization, of Violetta, apart from her boudoir, Scarpia seducing Tosca or Otello taunted by Iago in any other context. Nothing has ever come close to his work on the inflated lovers: the youthful declamations on settings that never competed with the actors,  but set their every move on a platform fit for an enduring  classic. In my daughter’s eyes, I imagined the wonderment of his youthful Juliet at the dance, the wide eyed lyricism of her Romeo as he asks himself – and us: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” and answers, as Olivia Hussey appears, “It is the East and Juliet is the sun.” Zeffirelli’s setting conveyed the softness and light of the scene with amazing restraint and subtlety, yet with all of the power and impact available in the medium of film.


    Wonderment, astonishment, freshness of approach, lightness -  in the sense that Calvino urges upon us – these are enduring marks of the master’s work. Beyond pedestrian concepts of “brand” or “style” Zeffirelli’s works were stamped with grace – perhaps even Divine grace, a presence on his religious works and on his realization of the messages of other masters. Lightness, the qualities of quickness and of exactitude, find form in his work again and again, unselfconsciously and unpretentiously. Easy to grasp, irresistible once met.


    Over coffee that day, Zeffirelli wondered at the young woman I brought with me and spoke to her with a curiosity about her life and her work in Rome that reflected the mind of a man long engaged in a hunt for subject matter, for perspective, for the coloration and architecture of beauty where and when it may be found. This was the Maestro’s discourse..


    He will endure as among the greatest of geniuses in the history of theatre; by recollections is published,most critics will have outdone themselves with praise, upon learning of his death, but I hope to hear it from the next generation of filmgoers, opera goers, internet feeders or any young person capable of being touched by mastery in conceptualization and execution.  


    We finished our coffees, and were drawn together to the dramatic center of his living room –  the piano. After seeing sketches for La Traviata, I took to the keyboard and labored over Violetta’s  Addio del passato, improvised a fragment of Tosca and then endured everyone’s laughter at my failed virtuosity. We laughed deeply as we recalled a production of Tosca in which Tosca jumped from the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo to end the opera, but  landed upon a trampoline rather than a mattresses or pads designed to break her fall; the trampoline sent the soprano  bouncing back up into full view, to the amazement – and delight - of the audience. 


    And then we passed over to this opera and that one, hoping for even the least of insights from the Maestro – and were treated to the kinds of  observations that strike at the core of a work and identify it for all time…as Zeffirelli alone could do.


    The afternoon waned and we took to the road; on our way back to our house, we shared a sense of impending loss, but real joy at the accomplishment of this great genius and creator, an inspiration for a lifetime for a young designer.


    Claudia was especially moved when the news of his death arrived and when his full, somewhat sad biography appeared; she said she was feeling as if the drafts on the table that day were now left to history, lifeless, yet monumental.  And now,  final, although the immortal genius of their maker will not cease to transport us through the power of vision, color, light, height, depth, and invention, to the discovery afresh of the masterpieces he made better.


    Thank you, Franco Zeffirelli.


    Requiescat in pace.


    Steve Acunto - President, CINN Group, Inc. | Chairman, Italian Academy Foundation, Inc. 




  • Op-Eds

    Hijacking History: The Columbus Day “Delete”

    Increasingly, some school districts and municipalities across the country have continued adopting the politically correct, sadly distortive revisionist history that places Cristoforo Colombo in the false light of oppressor and exploiter rather than in the fittingly bright light that his contemporaries and most of ours rightly lavish upon him. This most courageous, daring, brilliant navigator and discoverer, the prototype for deSoto, Caboto, da Gama, Hudson, Giovanni da Verazzano and the hundreds of others of brave men and women right up through Neil Armstrong, who dared to set forth where others feared to tread, must not fall victim to editors whose view of the past is imbalanced, partial and ultimately false. Columbus needs advocates whose rationale will draw from a broad context and from careful, objective reflection, recalling always that the father of history, Herodotus, coined the word “history” from the Greek word for “inquiry” that leads to understanding.

    History – inquiry, in this sense --demonstrates that context is critical in assessing the greatness and the follies of the past; in fact, most political and human rights advances have been accompanied by dire human loss, and  with extremely harmful consequences for whole peoples and large groups of individuals, from ancient times to the US Civil War and right up to the recent “Arab Spring”.

    And so it was with the discovery of the New World: there were bad by products, possibly unavoidable, that befell the native islanders of the Caribbean and others as Europeans claimed their conquest in the manner of so many throughout history.

    That a courageous, heroic Italian, supported in his discovery of Hispaniola and more of the New World by the Spanish monarchy, would be revisited as an oppressor and have one of history’s bravest, most important voyages obscured or imbalanced by an emphasis on the unfortunate casualties of his discovery, is to mischaracterize the life, character and achievement of Columbus and to lay to waste the Renaissance’s spirit of discovery for which Columbus was nearly sainted in his own time and for which he is remembered on this holiday. Columbus is an inspiration; his Day must be sustained as it is as a model to generations.

    No one, no people, no country deserves to have his history stolen or diminished with a neutralizing mis-emphasis or dumbing down of great achievement with the distortive underlining of some of its largely unintended consequences. Columbus merits his own day and his proper recognition.

    Moreover, in addition to the homage merited by the discoverer per se, Italian Americans have held fast to this date as a symbol of their presence and of their contributions to the growth of the very country mapped by Amerigo Vespucci, explored and defined by Giovanni Caboto and by Giovanni da Verrazzano and so many other Italians whose footprints historians are still discovering. Suggesting that the name of that most Italian American of holidays be neutralized or shared is plainly offensive to Italian Americans, as it would be to African Americans if Martin Luther King Day were renamed Civil Rights Leaders’ Day or if it were shared with the opponents of civil rights who died innocently in the wake of the violence that attended the civil rights demonstrations and battles in US cities. In each case, the main point of the Day is lost and a little history is being “stolen” by an imbalanced emphasis that blurs the very lessons and examples these Days were set to express.

    May I respectfully suggest that we meet any proposal to change or neutralize Columbus Day with a staunch, unremitting advocacy, allowing for reference to the native Americans whose lives were lost from the 1600’s through the Mexican conflicts in the 1820’s and through the Western land settlements later in the 19th century, distinct from Columbus or Columbus Day. History’s unfortunate victims deserve recognition, but the great advances of civilization and of humankind deserve to have their heroes and their symbols stand tall and untarnished by mindless retouching. The facts – great, good and not good – must all stand if we are to have a history worthy of the name the father of history gave it.

    No individual’s history – no people’s history -- or proportionate place in it should be hijacked by revisionist cleansing, passing social fads or politically correct rewrites.

    This was the method of Lenin, Hitler, Mao and the other book burning revisionists of the 20th and the preceding centuries.

    Let’s set this right as democratic citizens who do not need others to edit our free and full understanding or to limit the facts to limit our judgement or proscribe our understanding.

    Perhaps that will become an added value for Columbus Day.


    * Steve Acunto is founder and president of CINN Group, a private group of companies in media and insurance.

  • Art & Culture

    Welcome Back to the Future

    What was the future like in 1909? The world had changed as never before, or so it seemed.

    There were no precedents. Imagine if you can the way the future looked to the best minds in turn-of-the-century Europe. Imagine if you can the sudden impact of the Industrial Revolution of the 1880s.

    Imagine the heart-stopping, world-changing mechanical inventions at the time, just like our world-changing inventions today.

    What did the future look like to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909 Paris? What did it look like for the Italian artists, poets, architects, cooks and expats in Paris, Milan and Turin? Yes, the world had changed as never before, or so it seemed. There were no precedents, no paradigms to study. The past was slow and teary-eyed; the present, an electric jolt.

    They were troubling and confusing times. You could look backward and embrace the sweet and melancholy 1800s, the 1879 of Vienna, or the Romantic world of the early and mid 19th century. You could be swayed by the rhyme of sentimental poetry, swept up in the insistently rich orchestrations of Brahms or return to relive Beethoven’s peasants dancing in a ring far from the city as a storm approaches.

    Or you could return to the inevitably tragic view of love embodied by Goethe’s Werther or the
    plight of Byron’s prisoner of Chillon. Or, you could accept the noise, the sound, the friction and the dynamism of a new century, of a post-industrial revolution world where screeching noises, the palpable friction of steel running on rails, the persistent smoke puffing from a chimney 75 feet tall, or the thrill of commanding a horseless carriage at 25 miles per hour with a foot pedal. You could accept it and embrace it, let it permeate your new 20th century sensibility as you rode off with a bang, not a whimper. You could open your soul and make it one with the new mechanistic order of things. You could see a future for expression that matched the future of life in the new interdependent, fast, steely, two-lanes-ahead world.

    A revaluation of all values
    Into this milieu came a movement that declared itself a revaluation of values. In the 1880s no less a figure than Nietzsche, living between Italy, Switzerland and Germany, called for exactly that: a revaluation of all values. Other philosophers, poets and artists followed suit, as the antique drum faded and a new sound emerged. And the Italians were, as usual, among the first to champion a new order in art, a “now” movement that wholly embraced the shimmering body of the industrial revolution.

    Marinetti and his followers cried, Make war. Exult in bombs. Turn the impersonality of this world into a structure for art, architecture, music, food and every part of life. They looked ahead to the inevitable remaking of society and its worldview.

    Futurism was born as a modus vivendi, a way of living and seeing and hearing. The art
    hanging on the walls of the museums seemed “lifeless” to them, vague and sentimental
    relics. Futurists found master works selfindulgent, decadent, unresponsive to the evolving new order—the same way, I suppose, a young person today might see newspapers or printed books or sea voyaging in the age of the Concorde.

    Industry and conflict, war and speed
    Think of it. In 1909 an art of speed, beautiful machinery, the combustion and friction of life in cities, endless smoke and unprecedented noise was engulfing artists looking at their easels or blank pages trying to divine a form or message. Italian Futurists managed to swim in the unexplored current, not drowning, but paddling toward the new shore of the real.

    They reviled critics, labeling them embalmers whose “corpses” glorified the old world of manners and refinements, of sentimental love and idleness. They wanted the world to be infected with the germs of industry and conflict, war and speed, violence and danger, and they worked to spread a new sense of dis-ease borne by machine energy and power.

    Their paintings would defy the confines of the canvas with blaring onomatopoeia. They wanted the scope and dimension of their paintings and sculptures to issue sound and energy. They glorified social disturbance, light rays emitted from a street lamp, the swish of a dog on its leash, the forward surge of a train.

    In the music of Pratella, which would have been pure cacophony to Liszt or Mozart, they played for audiences the sounds of the days and nights of the new age, with instruments made from cans or pipes, or played in unusual ways to simulate the squeaking of wheels on a railroad track or the painful whirr of a factory machine.

    Unlike sentimental artists or academics, the Futurists would have relished it, if, in the middle of an interview, one’s cell phone went off loudly or if a play were interrupted by shouts of protest or praise. They didn’t see such things as interruptions, but as complements to an experience.

    The present of Futurism
    The movement hasn’t quite ended. Today, even graffiti takes its iconoclastic place in a Futurist world. It is highly self-expressive. It is full of bold colors. It is not the stuff of museums. It is fresh to some and irritating to others. We find hints of futurism in architecture, music, industrial design, art, film and even cooking.

    Futurists loved demonstrations. They would find this article boring because it contains no noise, no surprise blasts, no color, no violence. Please don’t tear up this page! But do think about it! Ah, there are cars passing outside, but I can only refer to them. Planes pass overhead and a bus stops and resumes on its way. Maybe I should end this trifling essay with a whoosh, erk, erk, thump, and whaaaaaa!!!!!

    To Futurists, the present does not simply reject the past. It embraces the inevitable future, the technology that they believed would transform the world. And has. Zoom.