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Articles by: Benedetta Grasso

  • Life & People

    Italian Jewish Authors and their “Lessico Familiare”

    There are authors that come in groups. They might know each other really well and collaborate during their lifetime, they might breathe the same culture and historical ideas or they might share a similar style, motifs and themes. Sometimes they might even be unaware of what brings them together while they are alive but later they are associated to a cultural movement.

    In the U.S. when you talk about Jewish American Literature and its most prominent authors
    (Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Chaim Potok, and Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss) or better when you simply mention Jewish artists in general (directors like Woody Allen or Spielberg) you may find that they are very different among each other yet they all fall under the same umbrella. People know that they are universally acclaimed artists, that they are Americans but they also know that they are Jewish and that this, in a small or in a big way, plays a role in their career. 
     

    Right now, there probably are tons of dissertations, essays, books, documentaries, studies devoted to these gartists. They are recognized as being part of a cultural movement. The same goes for Israel where you can’t mention David Grossman, without talking about Amos Oz and Abraham Yehoshua.

    In Italy, though, where the small and yet influential Jewish community (especially in the artistic and literary fields) has existed since before Christianity, and where someone like Primo Levi changed the world forever with If This is A Man - a book published in hundreds of countries, taught in schools and read by millions - there isn’t really a sense of a compact cultural movement regarding a national Jewish literature, although it was in the 20th century that a small and very inter-connected group of Italian Jewish authors, from Svevo to Moravia, shaped the culture of an entire country.

    Alain Elkann, a cultural icon and a novelist, born from a French Jewish father (Jean-Paul Elkann) and an Italian Jewish mother from Turin (Carla Ovazza) has a mission: understanding and spreading the knowledge of these authors, especially abroad. With the help of Joan Rosenbaum, the Director of the Jewish Museum in New York and of Jonathan Galassi, a highly respected translator of Italian writers, an expert on Giacomo Leopardi and Eugenio Montale and the President and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Elkann held a lecture at the Jewish Museum on June 23rd, 2011. The event was organized by the Italian Cultural Institute.

    As Jonathan Galassi emphasized, the key is to understand “the importance of Italian Jewish culture, quintessentially Italian and quintessentially Jewish,” a culture that Elkann has deeply studied also by publishing a book with Italy's chief Rabbi, Elio Toaff, How to be a Jew and other works, comparing Judaism with other religions. “If you took Jewish presence out of Italian literature it would fall flat,” Mr. Galassi stated.

    The Director of the Italian Cultural Institute, Riccardo Viale, gave a general picture of common traits among Italian authors that probably applies to most Jewish authors worldwide as well. He emphasized the importance of the abstract and critical thinking that is essential in Jewish studies, as it goes into interpreting the Torah and the Talmud, of a particular family structure in which the Mother is the predominant character, constantly dissatisfied in a funny and sometimes tragic way and of overall perception of a persecuted subculture, the figure of the “wandering Jew”. 

    Elkann took the audience on a journey back in time at the discovery of Italy's main Jewish authors, who were a lot closer to each other (even in a personal way) that one would expect.

    They all had to face two wars, political opposition, anti-Semitism, racial laws and ultimately (at least some of them) the Shoah. And this is just the beginning of what brought them closer.

    A young man named Ettore Schmitz lived in a region of Italy that was barely Italian, in a city name Trieste. Trieste was influenced by Mittel-European culture, the Austro-Hungarian empire. Ettore had changed his name to Italo Svevo because he wanted to sound and be more Italian. It’s important to remember that before the racial laws, Jews felt like they were Italian before anything else. For an amazing twist of faith, his English professor was author James Joyce who influenced him with his “stream of consciousness” style, read his first novels (Senilità and La coscienza di Zeno) and was busy spreading the word about him in Paris. Alain Elkann noted how Zeno, and some others of Svevo’s characters might as well be in a Woody Allen’s movie as they share incredible similarities with the neurotic, self-absorbed, highly intellectual, ironic, comically insecure Jew the director often portrays.

    Once he became a writer, another Italian Jew, whose last name was Pinkel, used a pseudonym (which was a common thing at the time not because of religious shame but more because a writer wasn’t perceived as a good career by the families of these authors). He wrote a book called Gli Indifferenti as Alberto Moravia, and the rest is history. In this book he also touched on existentialist themes and on psychology and featured an important mother-figure.

    Alberto fell in love with a Catholic girl, Elsa Morante, who had only been raised Catholic but was actually Jewish, because her mother Irma Poggibonsi was Jewish. The couple was connected with all the important Jewish and Italian writers of the time (Natalia Ginzburg, Giorgio Bassani) and wrote, among a lot of other important novels, La Storia set in Rome during World War II.

    In this “group” of authors we also find Carlo Levi, who founded the anti-fascist movement Giustizia e Libertà and who a friend of Stravinsky, Moravia, De Chirico and others. Another important figure was Bobi Bazlen, a friend of celebrated writers and poets such as Italo Calvino, Umberto Saba and Eugenio Montale. Bazlen brought to Italy for the first time the works of Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Elias Canetti and the Mittel-European culture and he also helped Luciano Foà to found the publishing House Adelphi with Roberto Olivetti.

    There was a writer who came up with an expression “lessico familiare” (the title of her most famous novel, Family Sayings) that described, and, in a way, perfectly embodied this universe and the cultural references in which these authors were raised. Her name was Natalia (Levi) Ginzburg. In her book all the players of this historical and cultural movement are mentioned as she recounts, in a memoir-style, the daily life at her house during childhood. Natalia married Leone Ginzburg (a great friend of the writer Cesare Pavese) and her sister Paola married the engineer Olivetti who then got remarried to the daughter of Umberto Saba.

    Alain Elkann then finished his lecture focusing on the group's two most famous writers: Giorgio Bassani and Primo Levi. Giorgio Bassani wrote a book titled Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (which was turned into a famous movie directed by De Sica that won an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film in 1971) that told the story of a Jewish family in Ferrara in the years preceding the racial laws and in the aftermath. Elkann said that Bassani is “exquisite in his writing and in recreating the world of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews.” What was missing in other Italian Jewish authors was all there, this this particular book: daily life, the big and small changes the family had to face as the racial laws progress, the stories of a burgeois, rich, family and the description of Ferrara, home to a small Jewish community.

    As for Primo Levi, it’s enough to say that he was one of the first Holocaust survivors to reluctantly and courageously speak out; he witnessed horrors and he was able to describe them and to remind future generations to never to forget them. Primo Levi is an institution more than an author: a classic.

    Through the years, Alain Elkann personally met some of these authors and the goal of his lecture was to better define this group as a compact, somewhat unified “school of thought.”

    Italian Judaism is something that not everyone might be familiar with but it’s an essential part of Italy. As Elkann reminded the audience with a joke, pretty much the entire Roman cuisine (and in a way a lot of Italy's national cuisine) is Jewish and comes from from the Jewish ghetto. Think of the delicious “carciofi alla giudia” (Jewish-style artichokes).

    The beautiful synagogues of Rome, Casale Monferrato, Mantova, personal stories and rituals, are all contributions to the nation's culture and, surprisingly, they have influenced it a lot more than the average tourist might think.

    All these Italian authors (who in Italy are studied as the masters of the 20th century) all share this “lessico familiare” (familiar topics, words, cultural and pop references, ideas, life-experiences, mutual friends and acquaintances, same icons and literary idols) that has a cosmopolitan, Italian and definitely Jewish flavor.

  • Life & People

    Italian Jewish Authors and their “Lessico Familiare”


    There are authors that come in groups. They might know each other really well and collaborate during their lifetime, they might breathe the same culture and historical ideas or they might share a similar style, motifs and themes. Sometimes they might even be unaware of what brings them together while they are alive but later they are associated to a cultural movement.
     
    In the U.S. when you talk about Jewish American Literature and its most prominent authors (Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Chaim Potok, and Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss) or better when you simply mention Jewish artists in general (directors like Woody Allen or Spielberg) you may find that they are very different among each other yet they all fall under the same umbrella. People know that they are universally acclaimed artists, that they are Americans but they also know that they are Jewish and that this, in a small or in a big way, plays a role in their career. 

     
    Right now, there probably are tons of dissertations, essays, books, documentaries, studies devoted to these gartists. They are recognized as being part of a cultural movement.

    The same goes for Israel where you can’t mention David Grossman, without talking about Amos Oz and Abraham Yehoshua.
     
    In Italy, though, where the small and yet influential Jewish community (especially in the artistic and literary fields) has existed since before Christianity, and where someone like Primo Levi changed the world forever with If This is A Man - a book published in hundreds of countries, taught in schools and read by millions - there isn’t really a sense of a compact cultural movement regarding a national Jewish literature, although it was in the 20th century that a small and very inter-connected group of Italian Jewish authors, from Svevo to Moravia, shaped the culture of an entire country.
     
    Alain Elkann, a cultural icon and a novelist, born from a French Jewish father (Jean-Paul Elkann) and an Italian Jewish mother from Turin (Carla Ovazza) has a mission: understanding and spreading the knowledge of these authors, especially abroad. With the help of Joan Rosenbaum, the Director of the Jewish Museum in New York and of Jonathan Galassi, a highly respected translator of Italian writers, an expert on Giacomo Leopardi and Eugenio Montale and the President and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Elkann held a lecture at the Jewish Museum on June 23rd, 2011.
     
    As Jonathan Galassi emphasized, the key is to understand “the importance of Italian Jewish culture, quintessentially Italian and quintessentially Jewish,” a culture that Elkann has deeply studied also by publishing a book with Italy's chief Rabbi, Elio Toaff, How to be a Jew and other works, comparing Judaism with other religions. “If you took Jewish presence out of Italian literature it would fall flat,” Mr. Galassi stated.
     
    The Director of the Italian Cultural Institute, Riccardo Viale, gave a general picture of common traits among Italian authors that probably applies to most Jewish authors worldwide as well. He emphasized the importance of the abstract and critical thinking that is essential in Jewish studies, as it goes into interpreting the Torah and the Talmud, of a particular family structure in which the Mother is the predominant character, constantly dissatisfied in a funny and sometimes tragic way and of overall perception of a persecuted subculture, the figure of the “wandering Jew”. 
     
    Elkann took the audience on a journey back in time at the discovery of Italy's main Jewish authors, who were a lot closer to each other (even in a personal way) that one would expect.
    They all had to face two wars, political opposition, anti-Semitism, racial laws and ultimately (at least some of them) the Shoah. And this is just the beginning of what brought them closer.
     
    A young man named Ettore Schmitz lived in a region of Italy that was barely Italian, in a city name Trieste. Trieste was influenced by Mittel-European culture, the Austro-Hungarian empire. Ettore had changed his name to Italo Svevo because he wanted to sound and be more Italian. It’s important to remember that before the racial laws, Jews felt like they were Italian before anything else. For an amazing twist of faith, his English professor was author James Joyce who influenced him with his “stream of consciousness” style, read his first novels (Senilità and La coscienza di Zeno) and was busy spreading the word about him in Paris. Alain Elkann noted how Zeno, and some others of Svevo’s characters might as well be in a Woody Allen’s movie as they share incredible similarities with the neurotic, self-absorbed, highly intellectual, ironic, comically insecure Jew the director often portrays.
     
    Once he became a writer, another Italian Jew, whose last name was Pinkel, used a pseudonym (which was a common thing at the time not because of religious shame but more because a writer wasn’t perceived as a good career by the families of these authors). He wrote a book called Gli Indifferenti as Alberto Moravia, and the rest is history. In this book he also touched on existentialist themes and on psychology and featured an important mother-figure.
    Alberto fell in love with a Catholic girl, Elsa Morante, who had only been raised Catholic but was actually Jewish, because her mother Irma Poggibonsi was Jewish. The couple was connected with all the important Jewish and Italian writers of the time (Natalia Ginzburg, Giorgio Bassani) and wrote, among a lot of other important novels, La Storia set in Rome during World War II.
     
    In this “group” of authors we also find Carlo Levi, who founded the anti-fascist movement Giustizia e Libertà and who a friend of Stravinsky, Moravia, De Chirico and others. Another important figure was Bobi Bazlen, a friend of celebrated writers and poets such as Italo Calvino, Umberto Saba and Eugenio Montale. Bazlen brought to Italy for the first time the works of Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Elias Canetti and the Mittel-European culture and he also helped Luciano Foà to found the publishing House Adelphi with Roberto Olivetti.
     
    There was a writer who came up with an expression “lessico familiare” (the title of her most famous novel, Family Sayings) that described, and, in a way, perfectly embodied this universe and the cultural references in which these authors were raised. Her name was Natalia (Levi) Ginzburg. In her book all the players of this historical and cultural movement are mentioned as she recounts, in a memoir-style, the daily life at her house during childhood. Natalia married Leone Ginzburg (a great friend of the writer Cesare Pavese) and her sister Paola married the engineer Olivetti who then got remarried to the daughter of Umberto Saba.
     
    Alain Elkann then finished his lecture focusing on the group's two most famous writers: Giorgio Bassani and Primo Levi. Giorgio Bassani wrote a book titled Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (which was turned into a famous movie directed by De Sica that won an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film in 1971) that told the story of a Jewish family in Ferrara in the years preceding the racial laws and in the aftermath. Elkann said that Bassani is “exquisite in his writing and in recreating the world of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews.” What was missing in other Italian Jewish authors was all there, this this particular book: daily life, the big and small changes the family had to face as the racial laws progress, the stories of a burgeois, rich, family and the description of Ferrara, home to a small Jewish community.
     
    As for Primo Levi, it’s enough to say that he was one of the first Holocaust survivors to reluctantly and courageously speak out; he witnessed horrors and he was able to describe them and to remind future generations to never to forget them. Primo Levi is an institution more than an author: a classic.
     
    Through the years, Alain Elkann personally met some of these authors and the goal of his lecture was to better define this group as a compact, somewhat unified “school of thought.”
    Italian Judaism is something that not everyone might be familiar with but it’s an essential part of Italy. As Elkann reminded the audience with a joke, pretty much the entire Roman cuisine (and in a way a lot of Italy's national cuisine) is Jewish and comes from from the Jewish ghetto. Think of the delicious “carciofi alla giudia” (Jewish-style artichokes).
     
    The beautiful synagogues of Rome, Casale Monferrato, Mantova, personal stories and rituals, are all contributions to the nation's culture and, surprisingly, they have influenced it a lot more than the average tourist might think.
     
    All these Italian authors (who in Italy are studied as the masters of the 20th century) all share this “lessico familiare” (familiar topics, words, cultural and pop references, ideas, life-experiences, mutual friends and acquaintances, same icons and literary idols) that has a cosmopolitan, Italian and definitely Jewish flavor.
     
     

     [natasha l1]Background please.
     [natasha l2]In this book he touched these themes or in his career in general?


  • Art & Culture

    An Interview with Margaret Mazzantini on the Eve of Her Arrival in New York

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    Writers of the world, unite! ThePEN World Voices Festival is just around the corner (April 25-May 11). It is a cultural event, founded by the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization in which New York brings together voices from Israel to Nicaragua, from Russia to Korea.
     

    The only Italian flag in this diverse group of more than a hundred writers, is carried by Margaret Mazzantini, an immensely popular writer in her home-country who has sold millions of copies and won the most important literary awards (Premio Strega, Premio Grinzane Cavour). Her latest works have become International bestsellers: Don’t Move was turned into a feature film starring Penelope Cruz by her husband Sergio Castellitto, a prominent Italian actor and director.
     

    Artistic genes are in her blood: her father was writer Carlo Mazzantini, her mother the Irish painter Anne Donnelly. Born in Dublin, Margaret moved to Italy as a child and now embodies Italy and represents it abroad in its truest form.

    At the PEN Festival, Mrs Mazzantini is presenting her novel Twice Born (published in Italy in 2008 with the original title Venuto al Mondo). Twice Born is a compelling novel, one of those that keep you awake at night turning the pages and holding your breath. It’s moving and intimate but it also takes you on a historical and political journey in the war-torn world of ex-Jugoslavia during the early 1990s. 

    The story moves back and forth between the present and the past: a mother, Gemma takes her 16-year-old son to Sarajevo for the first time where he was born and his father Diego died.

    We slowly start to grasp the love story between Gemma and Diego that changes as the city changes over ten years and when the siege of Sarajevo begins things don’t look as rosy and hopeful as they did at first, as Gemma discovers she can’t have children.

    To discover Pietro’s story, how he came to life and the constant twists and turns, you have to read the book…

    Margaret Mazzantini gave us an interview.

    You have always been a multi-faceted artist, an actress, a writer, and a dramatist. It seems like in your personal and professional life cinema and literature always overlap. When you sit down to write, what inspires your creativity more? Do these different experiences help?

    Well, first and foremost I’m a writer and a writer has to be in sync with his or her times, with contemporary art. Obviously all these experiences converge and definitely my years in the theater, not only acting, but analyzing different texts, have helped me.

    More importantly, though, I observe. I’m an observer. There are writers who turn all their attention within, while I’m a writer who sits in front of an open window.

    I like how writing always manages to make you visualize things even if you’re not familiar with them. I don’t know if I would define my writing visual - possibly visual and visionary at the same time - but at the end of the day the greatness of an author is measured by the hidden intensity. It doesn’t simply make you imagine new things, but it unties the most intimate nods and it becomes cathartic.

    We need to be moved by books that tear down walls of incommunicability a lot of us have built today.

    A book becomes a secret map and the story is a gift that a writer gives to the writers, you give them the themes you care more about.

    A writer is a vision of the world.

    How was Twice Born conceived?

    The book had a long gestation period. It’s always like that when you have a story that buzzes in your head for years and it’s made of images you are not really conscious of.

    I’ve never written something just to sell or have it published.

    The inspiration for this book started in 1991, when my first child, Pietro was born. It’s not a coincidence, in fact, that I’ve called the character of the son in the book Pietro.

    He was a little newborn baby that required all my attention and I would spend my days inside breastfeeding and on the TV there were the images of the war in Sarajevo. I can remember that mixture of feelings: a world that was falling apart, horrible images of refugees, war, corpses across the sea, a few miles from my house and that powerful hope of having given life.

    You know, the war in Ex-Yugoslavia was one of the first wars that was televised almost live and we could follow it very closely, it had a real emotional impact on us.

    After several years I thought back on that time and told a story of a woman that defies every odd to have a child. She’s slowly stripped of her previous ways of life to immerse herself in a love story that crumbles along with the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall and ultimately the siege of Sarajevo becomes the siege of all the characters in the story.

    What makes this story International and in which ways does it represent Europe?

    When the book came out in Italy I received lots of emails and letter of readers, psychologists, historians, volunteers, young people who thanked me for depicting a side of history that they either took part in and touched them deeply, or knew very little about and discovered for the first time. There are aspects of our European history that for the old continent are still very relevant and I’m not sure how well those are known in the States.

    That being said, this is a story about a war, that could be any war; it’s universal and the setting could even be defined a “metaphysical” one. War brings out the best and the worst of people because it’s an extreme situation were all the masks fall down. There are “bad guys” and “heroes” but I chose to focus on the silent heroes.

    Twice Born tells a story that could have happened anywhere, but at the same time captures twenty years of European history.

    What are the aspects of this book that will resonate the most in America?

    Once again I feel like a good novel has to be universal and great writers such as Dostoyevsky talk among themselves and to the audience despite the language barrier. Somehow even the stories are always the same: the struggle of being human, our temporary lives…these are all universal themes that will touch an American audience as well as any other audience.
     

    i-Italy’s readers all have a double passport, real or imaginary. You can relate to this having different national identities among your own family, and your book focuses on Italians in another land. Pietro learns more and more things about Sarajevo, a new world, and absorbs them. How do you think this theme plays out in your book?

    It is absolutely true. It’s a book about us and “the others”, about different cultures and it’s particularly relevant today given our global and multi-ethnic world to see how even one own’s son can come from a different world. I think there is a focus on a cosmopolitan reality in the book on discovering who our “fathers” are.

    Sarajevo changed a lot through the years and serves as a background to the love story. Do you have a special connection to that city?

    I’ve been there and met truly amazing people that have showed me how strong they had to be during the war. In 1984 the Olympic torch was lit in Sarajevo starting an era of hope and struggles and the torch passes on and on from generation to generation, from the different “fathers” you will meet in the book, that Pietro will meet…and yet it still symbolizes that hope and a child born under the most terrible circumstances can still turn out to be a normal sweet teenager filled with ingenuity and a surprising innocence like any other teenager around the world.

    What are your expectations for the PEN World Voices? Are you excited?

    I’m definitely curious and excited. I have a lot of readers in Italy and an audience that I know really well so it’s always different to be abroad. In America, translations and foreign writers occupy a smaller percentage of the literary market, but it will be an interesting and positive experience. I have great expectations about the book because I know that it’s a story that is both universal and specific, a fable and a tranche de vie.

    I‘m also excited to meet other writers, and to embark on a small journey, although a writer only needs imagination to travel around the world…

  • Op-Eds

    Giorgio Napolitano, a Cosmopolitan Italian

    I can't count how many times I've been asked, especially abroad: " If Napolitano is the President of Italy why is he not the one making the decisions? Why don't we see him more on TV?".

    Napolitano, for many, is the embodiment of an ideal moderator, someone who, while never betraying or hiding his personal moral convictions, manages to be honest, impartial and neutral. Even when I was younger, I would look up to him almost as a “wise man” figure, one of the few who managed not to be tangled in the highly politicized tension – but not out of passivism - quite the opposite - getting things done even without executive power.
     

    He represents the highest, most complex, educated and multi-layered side of Italy: the one that you don’t really see on TV in both continents…the one I associate to my grandparents, who filled my house with books and culture, the one that often you really can’t get at a first glance. An Italian who speaks English fluently and deeply understands the jurisdictional system of other countries, their culture and who carries within him decades of History. He is sharp, rational and precise, and at the same time passionate and funny.
     

    It was a breath of fresh air, after looking at Italy from afar for years, to walk around my college campus, NYU, enter the beautiful patio filled with trees and benches of the Law School and join hundreds of other people – and a lot of young Law students – to listen to Napolitano talk, interviewed by Professor J.H.H. Weiler, Director of the prestigious Jean Monnet Center.
     

    The interview style - direct and with the typical “American” focus on personality, life-defining moments, inspiring thoughts and overarching themes – truly brought out some heartfelt memories.
     

    The President – without sentimentalism – took us with him to the streets of Naples in 1943: he described the fear during dozens of nights spent in an underground shelter where aristocrats, as well as upper middle class men and women, and poor people, had to seek refuge from the bombs; and then he made us feel the excitement after the Allies arrived, describing how the Americans, mingling with the Neapolitan population, where never perceived as an occupying force and when Mussolini resigned and was taken away by the “carabinieri”.

    He said it was a coming of age moment for him, that deep intuition that he suddenly had when he realized that the only way for Italy to survive was to lose the war. It wasn’t about winning, it was about fighting for the right cause.
     

    A cause that wasn’t necessarily the same one of his own parents, a middle class family that Napolitano described as “not fascist but not an anti-fascist either”. Much like Napolitano, though, his family was far from stereotypical. His father admired Benedetto Croce, an idealist philosopher, who was concerned with aesthetic philosophy, economy, history and politics and was then a deep influence on Antonio Gramsci, a founding member of the Italian Communist Party.
     

    His mother was a practicing catholic from Naples not only influenced by southern manners and ideas, since both of their parents were from Piedmont, related also to another prominent intellectual and philosopher, Norberto Bobbio.
     

    Napolitano talked about his love for theater, how he acted in a one act play as a young man but also how he loved writing essays and comments, he mentioned his favorite playwrights, Ibsen and Chekov, the books that instilled in him a passion for politics, especially the Letters from Prison by Antonio Gramsci.
     

    After the Cold War and McCarthysm, for an American it’s hard to really contextualize Italian communism. Just the mention of the word communism even nowadays carries with it the shadow of Stalin’s crimes and of a “rebellious” extremist and somewhat naïve agenda. While these idea are completely justified by history, it’s important to remember that in Italy it meant being an anti-Fascist first of all, and it actually linked together some of the most brilliant and multi-faceted intellectuals, economists, writers of the educated Italy, not necessarily the extremist one. 
     

    The focus of the lecture, though, centered on the State of the European Union. Napolitano underlined the positive process of the democratization of Europe and tried to focus on the disjointedness of its system and the issue of political participation. Europe, just a few years ago, was still made up of national states, and the Parliament might have created even a bigger distance between those elected and the electors. Still Napolitano thinks that the European Union is a great achievement and it can only improve.
     

    While there were periods when it might have been more “popular” (during the economic growth that the Euro brought along when states like Spain radically changed, developing immensely economically in a short span of time) Napolitano thinks that the problems are not in the Union itself but in the fact that it is used as a “comfortable scapegoat” by politicians and citizens alike.
     

    It was discussed how even after there is a bigger coherence after The Treaty of Lisbon, Barack Obama, for example, on the verge of today's war with Lybia, still refers to the individuals instead of a strong political organ that codifies the position regarding war, peace or certain laws of the entire Union.

    Napolitano commented on the crisis in Lybia and gave an important advice to the leaders, saying that they should not be conditioned by elections but that they have to lead with their ideas.
     

    Napolitano also deconstruncted the complicated issue of anti-Americanism in Europe. On one hand Europe, and Italy especially, has almost an unconscious admiration for America and still looks up to it, there are countries in which this sentiment often comes to the surface. Napolitano assured that Italy is really not one of them; he joked that Italy doesn’t “have a superiority complex” and while there was a moment in which Italy aligned itself with the Soviet block and in the youth culture ideas against American imperialism, it was all very contained and didn’t last long.
     

    He recalled his visit to the most prestigious Ivy League universities in 1975, after a struggle to get a visa due to his political sympathies and declared that this is a delicate moment for Italy, torn by “hyper-partisanship, a daily guerrilla, a reciprocal deligitimization” and his job is to put an accent on what unites, particularly during the 150th anniversary of the country’s unification, to inspire more trust, and more political conscience.
     

    The lecture ended with a reflection on immigration and a comparison between Italy and the States. With what is happening during these hours in Lampedusa (thousands of immigrants coming from North Africa to Italy) it seems obvious that there isn’t a clear European immigration policy and it is impossible to even implement simple principles.

    Napolitano emphasized how it’s important to have regulations like in the United States and a welcoming and yet organized immigration policy.
     

    In this serious and honest interview Napolitano recalled the difficult times during the 1970s in Italy, when terrorists and the Red Brigades created a tense political climate, his most gratifying battles, such as when he managed to nationalize electric power plants, and his intellectual inspirations such as Thomas Mann and Eugenio Montale.
     

    Giorgio Napolitano received the NYU Presidential medal, given annually at the Emile Noel Lecture for extraordinary achievement. It wasn’t just an award to an important politician but to a full-fledged individual, who has always combined different passions, politics and culture, Italy with cosmopolitism.

  • Art & Culture

    The Grande Dame of Italian Cinema

    Think of some of the most famous Italian movies like The Leopard, Bycicle Thieves, Rocco and his Brothers, Big Deal on Madonna Street. Think of the setting, the character, the emotions, the historical relevance, the directors…You’ll probably be pretty familiar with them, you might recognize those scenes or at least a poster and perhaps you associate them with the image of Italy you hold in your heart… But do you know whose hand was actually behind those scripts? Who put those words in the characters’ mouth and influenced immensely Italian cinema? The answer is: a highly educated, passionate and witty lady named Suso Cecchi D’amico (born Giovanna Cecchi, 1914-2010).

    For her screenwriting was a living, a job, but especially a craft. A pragmatic one. It wasn’t about claiming her authorship. It was about grasping the essence of what the director wanted to do and delivering the words. Her career, in the 30s and 40s, didn’t start as a pretentious call to Art; it was similar to what her character pursued: a realistic endeavor with a touch of culture, humor and awe.

     
    A true artisan trusted by directors such as Visconti, Antonioni, Monicelli, Rosi. A chamelion, to a certain extent, in the way she adapted to such diverse styles. A woman, full of life, who became friends with this circle of artists, creating and becoming an integral part of a cultural movement centered around Rome, obviously, but also around the small town of Castiglioncello, on the Tuscan seaside, where a lot of actors, writers, intellectuals and artists met in the summer vacations or wile collaborating on a script or shooting a scene (for example parts of The Easy Life, Il sorpasso by Dino Risi was shot there).

    Castiglioncello was Suso’s adoptive city, her true home, a place where her family (Cecchi)met another prominent Roman family the D’Amico, creating everlasting friendships and allowing her to meet the love of her life Fedele D’Amico. Suso grew up during the wars but her education and upbringing was a perfect contrast to the cultural  and actual impoverishment of Italy during those years. As the golden age of Italian cinema flourished in fact, behind there was always somehow the touch of Suso. Who helped making Italy flourish, without ever considering herself a cultural icon, a VIP, just an essential piece in a well-constructed clockwork.
     
    Born in Tuscany from Emilio Cecchi, a writer himself and the painter Leonetta Pieraccini, it’s obvious that the artistic genes were already in her blood. Her writing is deeply filled with literature and high-brow culture, theater and erudition but her true talent is in making things simple, in finding comedic elements in tragic situations, in bringing out of others and other things what matters instead of super-imposing a theme or a pre-fixed idea in them.

    As she explains herself in a documentary, directed by Luca Zingaretti and Margherita D’Amico (her granddaughter) it’s important to recognize that cinema, screenwriting has its own rules and adaptation is truly a form of Art in itself. Bicycle Thieves was a short story without a clear dramatic story purpose, nor the ending that we all come to know and love. Those are the essential touches of a screenwriter. Same goes for The Leopard, a beloved Italian classic, a historical novel for which Suso had to incorporate the symbols and descriptions of the book into a scene and translate them into visual emotions.

    Unfortunately Suso Cecchi D’Amico died in 2010, along with another giant of Italian cinema Mario Monicelli, a few months before him. To honor and discuss her life achievements, ideas and influences, her son Masolino and her daughter Caterina, as well with Antonio Monda, journalist of La Repubblica and NYU professor, held a panel at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò where many people, students and journalists gathered on December 1st, 2010. During the evening a short documentary (by Luca Zingaretti, 2007) of interviews to her shot in Rome and Castiglioncello was screened, as well as pictures of her, clips from her movies that were then discussed and as a homage to Mario Monicelli, Big deal on Madonna Street, a movie on which the two of them collaborated.

    Another crucial collaboration in her career was significant as an important bridge between the two worlds. As her son recalled she was asked to contribute to the script of Roman Holidays with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Her task was to “make it more Italian”, meaning that she had to infuse realism, certain expressions, turn the real Rome in more than a background to a the rom-com structure of the original script.

    Suso gave during her life and indirectly during this event important advices to writers: she worked hard, methodically, she wrote something if she truly liked it, she did a lot of research, traveled to see how story actually happen. She wasn’t possessive of her work. She made it part of her life, never compromising, never turning it into a nerve wrenching task. She worked with her type-writer on her knees, not in her room. She adapted to directors but here and there let her voice emerge.

    In the documentary she tells stories about her generation of writers, directors, her peers and her family that in Italy is linked to a certain highly educated group of people in Rome. She talks about that sense of a new beginning, of a honesty found only when not trying so hard to become someone one is not. She jokes a lot, with her dry humor and cynicism but she brightens up when recalling her first love, how young and excited they were while spending those long months in Castiglioncello, living through wars and cultural changes, writing and doing what they loved, meeting people that were like soul-mates for her, intellectuals with deep and complex ideas about music, art, movies, politics and life.

    The documentary ends with kind of her joyful comments and yet a honest resignation about the state of modern Italian cinema and Suso seems to imply that back then young people had really different values, a culture that was a lot less mundane.

    Although young people might be standing on the shoulders of giants, such as Suso herself and there was a golden age hopefully there can always be a new one. 

  • Art & Culture

    To Design, Perchance to Dream

    What do Design and Dance have in common? At a first glance very little: the former focuses on a well constructed “still life”, with concrete fixed physical objects, while the latter embodies movement, change, lightness and often storytelling. Yet, especially in recent years, when it’s placed in the hands of talented artists, design has become about a lot more than planning a space or visualizing an atmosphere. It’s the true essence of 21st century modern art, it sets a mood or tells a story.
     

    Design is also about innovation and quality and in this sense Italian design has always been associated with these traits all over the world. It shows a modern, technologically advanced Italy constantly paying homage to the ancient aesthetic beauty in which it is immersed.
    So how do you combine these two very different artistic expressions? Through a more three-dimensional conception of Art in which one medium helps to enhance another - sound and light effects mix with stills and with sculptures – and through two people, an American and an Italian: the widely known experimental artist Robert Wilson and the famous ballet dancer Roberto Bolle.
     

    On top of this, add the location, New York City: a gallery in Chelsea which hosts an exhibit entitled Perchance to Dream that opened on November 30, 2010 as part of a much bigger set of events, partially focused on Italian design and partially on yet another collaboration of Roberto Bolle with an English artist, Peter Greenaway. Perchance to Dream combines Wilson’s and Bolle’s points of view. As Wilson himself explained, after the cutting of the ribbon at the inauguration, a great dancer, an impeccable and extraordinary dancer like Bolle, “has an interior sense of movement and that movement begins with stillness”. Working with Roberto made him realize how even a portrait is the perfect balance between relaxation and tension, and an object, much like the human body, has imperceptible, subtle changes that he tried to capture and convey creatively.
     
    Mr Bolle (born in Casale Monferrato, Italy, in 1975) who has been trained since a very young age at La Scala in Milan, interviewed at the event, added that for him there was never a doubt when committing to this project. “Both Design and Dance are an artistic and aesthetic expression and their mission is to research Beauty and spread Beauty. In everything I do, I try to create something beautiful, bring out the higher values that dancing represents”.
     
    The exhibit will run until December 18 and was created by I Saloni Milano (along with FederlegnoArredo/Cosmit and ITC) as part of a celebration to honor Italian Design abroad and the 50th anniversary of the Milan Furniture Fair.
     
    In Robert Wilson’s “experience” the seven rooms in the gallery are dark and in the hallways the echo of gunshots and sudden thumps resounds. Most of the rooms feature still photos of details and partial black and white shots of Bolle’s face and feet. In the actual portraits if you look closely the eyelids slightly move every now and then, therefore capturing those minimal movements within stillness. The larger rooms look like a De Chirico painting that has come to life. The homage to Italian design through physical objects, sculptures, ruins and symbols is more blatant in those. At the center is a room in contrast with the others: a wallpaper of roses on one of the room’s sides, small red lights and a “peep-hole” in which a Technicolor picture of a clownesque Roberto Bolle is accompanied by circus-like music. In accordance to yet another of Wilson’s main concepts: work with “counterpoints”. He created this event on Italian Design with this in mind, the idea that to enhance an object, a room, a concept, you need something different that makes people see the main thing better, as he explained in his opening speech.
     
    Umberto Vattani, the president of the Italian Trade Commission, introduced the artists and welcomed the guests underlining the importance of the 50th anniversary of the Milan Furniture Fair. He recalled how in 1972, at MOMA, there was the first exhibit on Italian Design, a groundbreaking event that introduced to Americans what now is recognized as one of the highest trademarks of the “Made in Italy” exports.

    He also added that “in 1992 we celebrated 500 years from when an Italian discovered America (1492) and now Americans are discovering Italy” Rosario Messina (President, Flou) declared that “in spite of the economic crisis Italian companies continue to invest in the American market and that it is important to benefit from creating a “system” that coordinates the initiatives linked to this business.”
     
    “Until today Design was connected only with creativity” Mr Messina said “but as tonight’s exhibit demonstrates and also Peter Greenway’s interpretation of the Last Supper, design has become a form of Art and is interpreted this way. It’s a language that can be understood everywhere in the world."
     
    Roberto Bolle, an icon of Art, Beauty and Dance, is a physical embodiment of Italian talent and yet an international appeal and experience. He has performed around the globe (at the Met, for example), he has collaborated with artists from various countries, danced for the Queen of England, the Pope and the most respected dancers in his field, he grew up in a modern, culturally open environment and he has a genuinely joyful and positive attitude about life and his brilliant and unbelievable career.

    “I met Robert Wilson while we were working on a different theatrical project and from our encounter the idea to create these unique portraits was born. He’s an exceptional, extraordinary person, very human and sensitive." “I feel the responsibility of being one of the representatives of Italy in the world. I’m proud of my country, especially when it carries works of arts outside of its borders, when it helps crating a work of art. I feel extremely lucky to represent what I feel are the highest endeavors for our country."
     
    Perchance to Dream by Robert Wilson
    Videoportraits featuring Roberto Bolle
    A project by Change Performing Arts
    An initiative by I Saloni Milano
    Presented by FederlegnoArredo/Cosmit
    In collaboration with The Italian Trade Commission
    Supported by the Italian ministry of Economic Development

  • Events: Reports

    Hybrid Moments: Italian American Identity and Indie Music

    What comes to your mind when you think of Italian-Americans and music? Probably Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Frank Zappa and, of course, Frank Sinatra. Or maybe the techno music blasted on the South shores boardwalks and clubs. Both of these associations are obviously correct and rooted in the Italian-American culture.

    But, what about the contemporary alternative music scene? Grungy bands in the Lower East Side, the punk and hardcore culture don’t immediately remind us of “Italianness”, but a closer look at the last name of some artists, the personal background, the titles and the themes in their lyrics or their stage persona reflect an Italian-American heritage.

    A series of events at the Calandra Institute explores this subculture within another subculture. The music itself speaks to a larger crowd and doesn’t lead to a complete identification but it is fascinating to explore this subject.
    The program “Hybrid Moment” spans from exhibits to movie screenings, to lectures and presentations and the Symposium begins on November 5, 2010. We sat down with Rosangela Briscese, one of the organizers of the event.

    What inspired you to create this event ?

    I thought about it for a while because of musicians that I know that are Italian-Americans and who are not typical Frank Sinatra-style singers, but I noticed that they embodied some ways of being Italian-Americans in their performance style, but people didn’t necessarily think of as a stereotypical Italian-American. So it seemed like they were involved with their Italian-American culture even though you might not think of them as typical.

    An example of some performer that shows these traits?

    There’s one of the musicians who’s coming to our event , Vic Ruggero, (The Slackers) and he has an onstage persona that is kind of old-school New York. He wears a hat and a white undershirt, he has a very heavy Bronx accent, a lot of his songs are about guilt, crime, and darkness and redemption and sin…
    I’ve been to other parts of the country and I’ve seen The Slackers perform, in Michigan or Texas: people in the audience really respond to the fact that he’s a New Yorker Italian, so I thought that he was really interesting because he doesn’t correspond to a typical image.
    I brought it up with my coworker Lucia Grillo and she said that she had been thinking about a lot of the same things and that she was also very interested in the hardcore, punk scene. We realized how many IAs (Italian Americans) are involved in these kind of more alternative genres and how, again, it is not stereotypical, not the clubs scene,  “fist-pumping” but it is its own subculture. People go to their concerts and they have their own hairstyles, their own clothes, their own group within the hardcore culture.
    Another example is Vinnie Stigma who is a major figure in the New York hardcore scene, specifically the Lower East Side: his band is very big, so we started to think about how, once again,  they are seen as non stereotypical but at the same time they are Italian-Americans, they are just interpreting the culture their own way.

    For some of the singers their identity is veiled, like Ani Di Franco, and for others, like the ones you mentioned,  it is more overt. Towards which one of these attitudes do you think the youngest generation is moving?

    It’s complicated because the youngest generation might be assimilated but they also refer to italianness as a way to get back in touch with their roots .

    It’s hard to say because there are definitely a lot of young IAs involved in indie music that don’t really feel their Italianness and that’s something that came up when we started inviting people.
    I don’t know, though, if it’s a generational thing or not, because we got in touch with a pretty wide age group, and we kept having opposite responses: we had those that even if they had never really thought about their identity were interested in this topic after we brought it up, but also those that felt like they were so distant that they couldn’t think they could contribute, they didn’t want to contribute. Fugazi’s lead man Guy Picciotto, who’s in a band that takes his title from an IA expression, for example, was part of the latter group: he didn’t feel connected.

    Do you think the audience is somewhat aware of the heritage of these singers?

    I think some of  them are, but it depends. One example is Ted Leo, half Italian and half Irish. I’ve seen him perform and listened to him on the radio and he refers to his Irish heritage a lot more. I said to one of my friends that we were inviting him and she replied: “Ted Leo! But he’s Irish! Is he Italian?”

    A lot of people aren’t aware or maybe they are simply used to assimilation and they see the ethnic identity but it kind of goes over their head.

    Is one of the goals of this event to make the audience more aware?
    Yeah, I think our goal is to make people aware of their heritage, but not just because we want to say “look there are so many Italians doing so many great things” ; our efforts are about showing that there is a diversity within the community, It just fits in the larger picture of the events that we do at the Calandra Institute of showing that there are IAs that are scientists, other are graffiti artists and all kinds of other things. Bring awareness as part of a larger picture of the Italian-American experience.
     
    Do you see a difference in relation to how other ethnic groups embrace music, like how African American culture relates to music as part of their ethnic identity?
    Well, yes, because we’re not saying punk is Italian even though there were a lot of Italian-Americans involved in some of the very early famous bands, like the Misfits – by the way that’s where we get the title of the Symposium from “Hybrid Moments” , in fact they are a band from northern New Jersey and most of their members were IAs. We’re not saying that there is a certain kind of music that is exclusively IA or correlated with being IA, we’re showing what it’s like to be IA and to be making music as part of an underground scene.

    What about the event The return of the Son of Shut Up n’ Play Yer Guitar: Zappa plays Zappa and De Andrè plays De Andrè. Are Americans familiar with this Italian poet and legendary songwriter, Fabrizio De Andrè?

    I think for most of the audience it will be the first time they are introduced to him and in this specific presentation Goffredo Plastino will have video and audio clips so it will give people a sense of what the music sounds like and he will try to contextualize him ad I think people will be able to understand him if they think of similar American musicians. They will be taking it in all at once and they will also learn who he is, who his son is, and what his relation is to Frank Zappa.

    There’s also an exhibit and a movie.

    We opened the exhibit last Wednesday and we had a great response. The photographer is IA, was born in Italy, and came in the USA when she was 8. Her father is Sicilian and her mother is from Bolzano, so she has a very interesting background. She talked about the experience of being an immigrant and feeling like an outsider and then photographing these punks and skinheads, these outsiders tied things together, making the connection between feeling like an outsider and observing outsiders. She likes to photograph groups on the fringe. And the movie is about three brothers in New Jersey who were in a punk band in the 1980s, they played local shows and their biggest gig was the CBGB and again we wanted to show the diversity of the IA experience. We are showing it the night before the Symposium (November 4) and our idea is to introduce people to the subject before the discussion begins, showing an example, visualizing things. It’s not a movie about someone famous, it’s about regular people, the “average community” as the title says. It focuses on what it was for them to grow up. It takes place around the same time the photographs were taken.
    Also in terms of the musicians and singers involved, I’d like to specify that we’ve branched out to the bigger alternative, independent music scene, instead of focusing on certain specific genres like punk and hardcore. We want people to embrace what it means to be Italian-American and to be involved in this underground scene.

    *********
    Symposium Program (subject to change)

    9:30-10:00 am
    Coffee & Pastries

    10:00-10:30 am
    Introductory Comments
    Rosangela Briscese & Joseph Sciorra (John D. Calandra Italian American Institute)

    10:30-11:30 am
    East Coast Metal
    During the 1980s, Italian-American musicians in bands like Anthrax, Dry Kill Logic, and Stormtroopers of Death created an alternative to California's metal scene in the Bronx and Westchester, New York.
    Moderator: Joseph Sciorra
    Participants: Howie Abrams (A&R Consultant/Artist Manager), Rob Caggiano (Anthrax) & Nicholas Sciorra (Sciorra Media Group)

    11:45 am-12:30 pm
    The Return of the Son of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar: Zappa plays Zappa and De Andrè plays De Andrè
    Goffredo Plastino (Newcastle University/Association for Cultural Equity)

    12:30-1:45 pm
    Lunch on your own

    1:45-2:45 pm
    Anima e Hardcore
    Two influential proponents of punk talk about the rough sounds and mean streets of New York's hardcore scene.
    Moderator: Gerry LaFemina (Frostburg State University)
    Participants: Carl Porcaro (Killing Time) & Vinnie Stigma (Agnostic Front)

    3:00-4:00 pm
    Italianità in a Minor Key
    Ruminations on the sometimes veiled, sometimes overt Italian-American presence in the indie scene.
    Moderator: Antonino D'Ambrosio (La Lutta NMC)
    Participants: Kaves (The Lordz), Martin Perna (Antibalas), & Vic Ruggiero (The Slackers)

    4:15-5:00 pm
    Closing Remarks: Punk as Anti-Guido
    Gerry LaFemina (Frostburg State University)

    Free and open to the public. Seating is limited. Please call (212) 642-2094 to pre-register with the Calandra Institute. Be prepared to show a photo ID to the building's concierge.

  • Life & People

    Zampogna: the Soul of Southern Italy

    For most Italian-American immigrants, traveling back to their homeland (or their parents’ or grandparents’ one ) is often a journey of self-discovery.

    It might sound “cheesy”, but even if one visits the monuments in Rome for just a few weeks, or does the most “impersonal” and typical tour of the country, the personal connection, the memory imagined or lived, retold generation after generation, the expectations, the cultural transitions, all enhance the trip and make it more meaningful.

    Italy has evolved a lot from the historical conditions and mentality that existed when most immigrants left for the States almost a century ago: nowadays things are often very different from what Italian-Americans expect Italian culture to be, especially in the urban areas where things are closer to the high life quality of a city like New York combined with the Italian way of life and the awe-inspiring “open air museum” made up of culture, history and Art that go hand in hand with modernity, without annihilating each other. Italy is a massive contradiction: there are things that haven’t changed at all, and others that have shifted, improved and created a new and more complex culture just as exciting as the traditional one.

    David Marker is after the first kind of experience, the “untouched reality”, the traditional one (at least for certain regions). He travels back to Italy to explore his passion for a very ancient instrument, the zampogna (a kind of bagpipe), an instrument that even most Italians are not familiar with. David has played it since he was young and takes this journey very seriously, as an opportunity to visit his somewhat close family (older cousins and other distant relatives in Sicily) and to buy new instruments or play with musical experts ultimately leading him to a festival entirely dedicated to this instrument.

    David Marker decided to direct his own documentary about this journey, filming it and capturing the memories.

    He declares that for him “Italian music is Italy” and this is a testament of how it is often pop culture, of every kind, that digs deepest into a country and connects people instantly.

    In the documentary he shows us his arrival at his family house in Sicily, a few family moments and the instrument itself, in the hands of old men, in his hands, in old workshops. The zampogna is made of animal skin, goat usually, and every time we hear it played in the documentary the music is beautifully edited with surrounding sounds, the bells, the steps, the voices…

    We follow David as he tells us how his great grandfather immigrated to the United States, but while connecting with his distant cousins, over this particular passion and about this trip, he says: “After this trip, I feel like I actually knew him”.

    He describes Sicily as a land he is completely immersed in and not just visiting, like a tourist, where family is the glue of society. “The more I understand about this culture the more I understand about myself”

    We see different kinds of approaches to how you build a zampogna. David meets with a carpenter/carver that doesn’t use a lathe but advocates artisan’s handmade work. All zampogne are generally mostly handmade anyway and therefore each instrument is unique.

    A very interesting moment in the documentary occures in Sicily, when David asks some young teenagers to sing him a song and they kind of goof around. Soon after he meets a small group of old men (one of them is the one who makes zampogne) in a park and they improvise for him a sort of poetic jam session, following an ancient rhyming tradition, with articulate, polished, complex words and a back and forth between the verses, sometimes singing in duet. David also comments on how, through this poetry, they seem to be engaged in a Socratic dialogue, discussing love, music but also political and historical issues.

    For a second one can glimpse the history of poetic tradition and music in Sicily, which in the Middle Ages (13th century), when the Scuola Siciliana was born (poets that were admired by their Tuscan followers, such as Dante) put music and poetry on the same level, as the same form of art. This is a quick way of contextualizing something as specific and simple as the zampogna in a deep cultural phenomenon, an oral tradition that has been kept alive for generations.

    David Marker uses this contrast between the teenagers and the old men to emphasize the message of his documentary, the risk of losing a tradition, although one could argue that nothing is ever completely lost and what seems like a deeper culture, just because it is old, could just reappear in other forms and be channeled in other ways.

    It is true, though, that the zampogna itself is sort of risking extinction and only those who are really passionate about it buy, build or play this instrument.

    The documentary follows the director’s journey also to Calabria where he stays with a family who play all together (including the kids) in beautiful improvised jam sessions.

    He then goes to San Gregorio Magno near the Appennines (where the other side of his family lives) and shows us, through another man who makes these instruments, the pastoral connection. He follows this shepherd capturing yet another disappearing reality, that of simple shepherds that only take care of their sheep as their main occupation.

    The documentary ends in Scapoli, where there is a Zampogna festival, and although it is a small, almost extinct tradition we see it revived, with people dancing, singing in the streets, playing, and a lot of young people having fun.

  • Art & Culture

    Nathan Englander: How I Write

    Nathan Englander might not be the most familiar name to many Italian-Americans and Italians.

    It might be better known, though, to Italian Jews living in the old continent or abroad, because his writing and his upbringing sometimes reflect themes or depict atmospheres that are well understood by this well-connected religious community worldwide. Yet Englander is first and foremost a New Yorker, a contemporary American novelist, born and raised in Long Island and famous for his literary talents, regardless of his cultural and religious ideas.

     With his collection of short stories “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” he quickly rose to fame being recognized by the New Yorker as one of the “20 writers of the 21st century” and receiving illustrious literary prizes. His novel the Ministry of Special Cases, about a Jewish family in Argentina in the 1970s, confirmed him as an established writer in many countries.

    His most immediate connection to Italy comes especially from the ongoing collaboration and conversations with Antonio Monda, professor of Italian Cinema at New York University, journalist for La Repubblica , and a New York cultural “icon”, who has interviewed Nathan many times, promoted his books, held conferences with him and traveled around the world. Together, they have often discussed the issues of faith, literature, and the relationship between the literary environment in Europe and the US.

    Therefore it seemed natural to see the two of them together for Lezioni Americane: Libri Come, at the Italian Cultural Institute on October 20, 2010.

    The theme of this cultural event that featured Carlo Lucarelli, Benedetta Tobagi, Jonathan Galassi and many others was the question “How I write?” and, in a way, it also helped to celebrate the connections between Italy and the United States. 

    Nathan Englander is one of those writers that write copiously: pages and pages and pages. Nathan confessed that his work requires time, decades sometimes. He even writes long-hand most of the time, and can be found scribbling in coffee shops. He talked about his approach with a lot of self-irony and no pretentiousness at all. As many writers, there is more material that ends up in the trash than in the book, during the creative process. Antonio Monda recalled a time when he wrote an article about Englander in La Repubblica, after reading the first two chapters of a book that didn’t even end up in the final edition of the book.
     

    Once the book is done, Nathan said, you have to trust the editor with the changes. “It is easy to become deaf to critiques with time and fame, but it’s always better when they tell the story has a good heart but there are changes that need to be made”

    Throughout the conference, Mr. Englander focused upon two upcoming projects, both with a particular spin on writing as a technique. One is a translation and the other is an adaptation.

    The translation brings Nathan back to his religious roots. The Haggadah, in fact, is a holy text for Judaism: it’s read during the Seder, the first night of Passover (Pesach), and it provides a “guide” for that night’s the rituals, but most of all, it pays homage to storytelling, it is the pure magic of storytelling. Every Jew that night has to be able to retell the story of the Exodus (usually to one’s son or daughter). It’s not the text that is in the Torah, but the story obviously is the same. The Haggadah, much like the Song of the Songs is one of those Jewish poetic texts, which has been re-translated and reinterpreted by scholars, artists, and writers. It is a challenging text that sort of demands to be re-interpreted by those interested in it.

    Nathan Englander is working on the translation alongside with another famous young Jewish author, also a New Yorker, Jonathan Safran Foer. Englander defines himself as a “failed atheist” and said that he felt the responsibility of writing a text from which people are not only going to look for the touch of their favorite contemporary authors, but are also going to pray from it.

    It will be fascinating to see such young and fun, modern writers tackle something so ancient and traditional.

    The other upcoming project for Mr. Englander is a play inspired by one of his short stories, The 27th Man, commissioned by Nora Ephron. Englander said that his approach to writing had to change now that more people were involved in his writing than usual, and that has taught him to “make an infinite number of decisions and stick to them”, to be more decisive and see both sides of an issue. For a writer it’s almost harder to revisit one’s own story than someone else’s material, but Englander said he fell in love with the enriching world of theatre.

    The two speakers discussed the insularity and yet the overwhelming cultural spread around the world of American literature. Englander said that American editors should seek out more for European writers and translate them based on what they love, because it is always surprising who will be successful and who won’t.

    Although he is constantly inspired by his contemporary American writers he owes his literary passion to the major Russian writers such as Dostojevsky and to Italians like Calvino or French like Camus. In general, he said “the best books are those that seem like they were written only for you”.

    In recounting his upbringing he explained how every religious Jew, when a book falls on the ground, should pick it up and kiss it. This simple traditional gesture has taught him the respect for books since he was a child. He emphasized the importance of education and said that, as a kid, he never thought it could be possible to become a writer, but it is never too naïve to have big dreams.

    For his next novel he plans to go back to Israel, where he lived for several years, and write a story set there. “Israel” he said “I feel is still the best place in the world where everyone really feels alive”. 

  • Art & Culture

    New Voices on Primo Levi: Andrea Liberovici

     When the books and the tragic life story of Primo Levi started spreading around the world, they had an enormous cultural and psychological impact on everyone’s conscience and on our collective sense of Memory.  Primo Levi became one of the most prominent Italian Holocaust survivors after he wrote the book “if This is A Man” (translated in 24 languages) in which he recounted the gruesome details and the gradual loss of humanity of the concentration camps.

    Through his works Levi did not only make people of every generation remember and discuss the causes and effects of this tragic historical event, but he also conceptualized the Holocaust by creating images that capture the lowest aspects of humanity’s inhumanity.

    The Centro Primo Levi, the Jewish Center of Italian Studies in New York City, has honored the writer in many ways and this year's 4th edition of the International Symposium “New Voices on Primo Levi” focuses on the relation between the “West” and the “Rest”. If most Western countries and institutions are largely familiar with this history, not many people know that, for example, in Korea and Japan, Levi’s works triggered a national reflection upon the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombings and the discriminations of the Korean minority.
     
    Opening the Symposium, on October 26th at 8:00 PM (Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue) is Andrea Liberovici’s The Transparency of the Word, Cantata for Primo Levi.
    Andrea Liberovici is an acclaimed mutlti-media artist, a talented composer, a director, and the founder of the Theatre Company “teatrodelsuono”. He has collaborated with many International artists.
    Mr. Liberovici is coming to New York not only for The Transparency of The Word but also for the premiere of another show of his, Mephisto’s Songs. In an interview he kindly explained his approach to his work, the inspiration for both shows, and what Primo Levi's message means to him.

    Although the shows seem really different, there is a deep connection to Levi’s honest portrayal of mankind’s fears and inner monsters.
    Levi once said that “aims in life are the best defense against death” and it seems that having his words come to life again is a meaningful step towards fighting mankind’s darkest instincts and ultimately death itself.

    What led you to re-discover Primo Levi’s work and which of his words inspired you in creating the musical experience La Trasparenza della Parola?

     

    I grew up surrounded by the cultural environment linked to Primo Levi. My father was actually a personal friend of his. Emilio Jona who has written this amazing text for the the concert La Trasparenza della Parola, was also an intimate friend of his. He knew Levi’s works deeply and in his text there are not only different specific quotes but the entire concert is built around nine essential keywords extrapolated from Levi’s novels. He has written short poems around these nine keywords.

    My dad -who was also a composer – was commissioned to write the music for this text in 1987, when Primo Levi died, during the first Salone del Libro in Turin. There was a big memorial night for Primo Levi and that’s where the concert had to be performed, but at the time it was almost too big to be considered possible and for budget reasons it didn’t work out. The text was preserved even years after my father passed away, in 1991, and when I met with Emilio a couple of years ago he showed me the text my father had to have composed music for and asked me to take up the project and find new ideas. I looked at it and I liked it a lot, for many reasons. Primo Levi was always in my personal memories: I read him as a young man and I heard people talk about him when I was a kid. When I started to re-read his works for this concert I realized how his analysis of mankind, of its darkness, is timeless and shocking. It was clear to me that this was a classic like Shakespeare, because every time one realizes that he gives an almost scientific x-ray of the human nature that is constantly true: we are at war between us, the absence of human rights and violence hasn’t stopped with World War II. He analyzes incredibly well the deepest and darkest aspects of our souls. He becomes a classic because he writes about the men linked to that massacre and men are still the same and have a mephistophelic side in them.

    You performed this show in Turin, Levi’s birthplace. Does the city itself, New York, add a special significance this time?

    Well, first of all I’m extremely pleased and honored to be in New York but, for me, in a way, this concert could be performed anywhere in the world and have the same effect, be it in Baghdad or South Africa. This concert is just a little drop in a vast ocean, but the more opportunities we have to talk about the basic rights of humankind, the happier I am. Of course New York is one of the capitals of the world and as I said it is crucial to have Primo Levi’s work discussed here: I wish that Levi was studied in every school in the world. I’m also very grateful that institutions like the Centro Primo Levi exist because of the importance of spreading these words.

    All of your works are characterized by a syncretism of media. Do you find yourself comfortable in the definition that was given to you of a “global composer”?

    It’s a definition that at first could sound a
    little pretentious but truthfully it is what my work is really about. I started as a composer (I studied in a Conservatory) but I also went to a Drama Academy in Genoa, one of the most illustrious in Italy and I always thought - and now even more with new technologies - that all the arts, all media should ultimately converge. New technologies, the ones linked to creativity, are these exciting new instruments that are available to us at the moment. It is as if one created a new piano that could connect notes, images and even sounds that are not necessarily “musical”. There are various artists that brought performance art and the merging of different media to a new level. I think the goal for any artist or anyone who’s interested in communication, in music or in cinema, is to really understand in what time he or she is living, to be in touch with his or her time. When the first piano was created, music changed completely, and new harmonies were possible to be composed because the way of thinking about art and the way we perceived certain things in the world had been revolutionized. And that is why, today, I like to work with images and videos as well.

    You are also bringing to New York Mephisto’s Songs at the Apollo Theatre. Goethe’s Faust has been interpreted over the centuries in many ways, what is your take on it? Why does it still matter today?

    This is a project I have been working on for a long time. I created a show in 2005 with Gassman called Urfaust and it was the first time I approached that text from a dramatic point of view. Urfaust is the version of the “famous” story that Goethe wrote as a young man and it’s more direct and shorter than what then became Faust. This story is a great classic as well and much like Primo Levi perfectly captures the human soul. Faust is someone who in spite of his almost total knowledge, having studied every single subject known to man, from theology to physics and mathematics, still feels as if he is missing something, as if he knows nothing about the world in its essence, about the meaning of life. He signs a pact with the Devil to understand what it means to really be happy. With that in mind, I wondered who is actually really happy in our modern world, a world where we know everything, we depend on information and media, but we still wonder how to pursue happiness. In another of his classics, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship,

    he explains that only when we act with the other’s best interest in mind and not our own do our selfish needs shift from wondering 'how am I', to 'how are you' in the deepest sense of the question. Unless there is this shift, this development, when you put this into action, only at that moment will you know yourself. With Urfaust I had the intuition that Faust and Mephistopheles were connected, were in fact two sides of the same person and there is nothing mystical in this idea of the Devil. We constantly act on our self-destroying instincts, instead of just living and being happy here and now, and not in another life. Men of today are not that different from men in Goethe’s age, dominated by wrath, greed, passions, all these “extraordinary illusions”.

    And how do the songs reflect these ideas and connect with our modern culture?

    After that first experience with Urfaust I composed a series of songs, monologues and videos. Goethe’s Faust, in fact, is actually not a dramatic text like Urfaust is, but it’s a giant novel, an epic one, a collection of popular ballads, as defined by the author himself. If I have to think about popular ballads today I’m inspired by the structure and genre of pop, funk, rhythm n’ blues. I don’t completely conform to these genres, like a more traditional musician would, so the songs are loosely inspired. There are 8 songs that follow an hour of the day of the main character Mephaust: a day filled with love delusions, ambitions, fears, sex and thoughts about the world and all of mankind.

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