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Articles by: Benedetta Grasso

  • Art & Culture

    The Essence of Parma: Music, Taste and Elegance

     Right in the middle of the Via Aemilia, a central crossroad since the Roman Empire, connecting the Po river with the Adriatic sea, Parma is in a perfect geographical location in Emilia Romagna and in Italy, situated halfway between Milan and Florence.

    For those fond of literature this city might already be familiar. Towards the end of the book The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal the young protagonist Fabrizio Del Dongo ends up prisoner in the Farnese tower in Parma. Still shaken and emotionally vulnerable after having met the love of his life, Fabrizio looks out of his cell from a small window and is ecstatic: the landscape in front of him is majestic and filled with beauty. He can see the Alps and the Monviso in the distance; he doesn't feel in prison because from there he can still be immersed in the pleasures of the "Italian life", something that fascinated and charmed "Romantic" travelers such as Stendhal as much as tourists nowadays.

    For those who have a better time with food than with books, Parma will still ring a bell. You don't have to be an etymologist to figure out that the famous Parmigiano cheese is produced mainly in the Parma region along with the delicious Prosciutto and Culatello.

    Eno-gastronomic tours, guided tastings and cooking courses are a must when visiting this city and region. Not only can the tourists drink wine while eating a delicious slice of ham and at the same time look at the castles and valleys in the countryside, but they can also take a look at how the main products of the region are made. For example there are several dairy farms where the cheese is prepared and aged with very fascinating and complex techniques.

    The Italian Government Tourist Board (ENIT) and the tour operator Parma Incoming know that when presenting Parma to New York City and the United States in order to attract more tourists, the emphasis must be placed in what Parma symbolizes abroad: taste, emotion, elegance and the Art of living.

    At the ENIT headquarters in NYC, on April 8, 2010 a delegation from Parma came to promote this enchanting city.

    The Parma Cathedral (Duomo) is a 12th-century Romanesque cathedral filled with Renaissance art. Its ceiling fresco by Correggio is considered an enthralling masterpiece.

    Parma is the birthplace of great artists such as Correggio, Parmigianino and the famous engraver Paolo Toschi, as well as filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci. Also one cannot forget Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini in the musical world.

    Giancarlo Liuzzi, responsible of Communications for the Teatro Regio in Parma presented an upcoming intellectually stimulating and stunning Verdi festival, "the longest birthday party ever organized" as Liuzzi described it. Giuseppe Verdi was born in Parma either on October 9 or 10, 1813. For the entire month of October, singers, directors, artists, conductors, opera aficionados and tourists will flow into the city of Parma for a festival that has something planned everyday. "The whole town will embrace the festival. Even children who might not understand opera yet will certainly appreciate puppet shows inspired by Verdi's main works,” said Mr. Liuzzi.

    For 28 days there will be the possibility to experience Verdi at 360 degrees. Every day one of his works will be performed in the main theaters of the region (Teatro Regio, Teatro Valli, Teatro Verdi, Teatro Magnani) or performed in concerts, through images and exhibits, panels and other relevant presentations all over Parma. Nabucco, Aida, La Forza del Destino, Don Carlos, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and Attila are just some of the many exciting operas by the Maestro.

    As Liuzzi said, Verdi is an “International brand” and that is why it's important to promote it in the US even before Italy, in order to have people from all over the world.

    The main operas will be performed at the Teatro Regio in Parma, a beautiful 19th century opera house, built by the Duchess of Parma.

    At the event, inside the Rockefeller Center, Enzo Malanca, President of Parma Incoming and Nicoletta Petrosino, also working for Parma Incoming, showed a video displaying the various strengths of the city and the beauties of the land.

    The tour operators, journalists, representatives of various Italian and American tourist organizations filled the room and enjoyed the lavish buffet that followed. Focaccia, parmigiano, culatello and scrumptious cakes were served accompanied by great red and white wine demonstrating once and for all the high quality of Parma’s gourmet food.

    This was a great way for New Yorkers in search of new tastes and new Italian itineraries to explore a culturally rich city and make plans for future travels.

    Parma echoes the notes of incredibly famous arias, evokes ancient crafts, promotes new technologies and recalls the words of the great writer Proust: “It was the name Parma - one of the cities that I wanted to visit the most since I read The Charterhouse –that appeared to me compact, smooth, “mauve” and sweet; if anyone spoke to me about any house in Parma in which I could be introduced I felt pleasure in thinking that I would have lived in a smooth, compact, “mauve” and sweet house, free from any bind to any other houses in other Italian cities, since I could only imagine it with the help of that short sweet syllable “Parme”, where air doesn’t circulate, which embodied everything of the Stendhalian sweetness and of the reflection of violets” (In Search of Lost Time, Proust)

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Polenta vs Cous Cous. LEGAlly Banning Ethnic Food from Northern Italy

    If there’s anything to be said about the Mediterranean culture is that it wouldn’t have flourished without the constant mix and interaction of its people, tastes and ideas.
     

    Be it the trade exchange in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire or the many invasions from all corners of Europe, be it the Americanization and the spread of the fast food industry or the “ethnic trends” that brought fancy Japanese or Chinese restaurants to the big cities, the country that rightfully prides itself as having one of the biggest culinary traditions, has taken its ingredients from all over the planet. This has improved the quality of life in Italy guaranteeing a diet that now has its own specific dishes but also a lot of variety.
     

    This mix of cultures in Italy is not simply in the kitchen; it’s not some sort of trend an expert could argue for or against…it’s not about what Italians eat, but about who they are. Take for example the physical traits of Mediterranean people: middle-eastern features intertwined with the Greco-roman ones mingled with the Northern European ones (e.g brought by the Normans in Sicily), rooted in the Indo-European and Caucasian origins which make up the rich and diverse DNA of any Italian citizen…
     

    Nowadays, cities like Milan, Turin or Rome are not that different from New York, with their “ethnic” restaurants, cafes or bars and a diverse melting pot. The more secluded Italian areas in the country-side are on the other hand of the spectrum, preserving ancient family traditions or very typical regional dishes. These two trends go hand in hand, like in the United States, because they combine a modern openness towards other cultures with attention towards quality, good food and the specificity of a culture. They go hand in hand, in the same way every successful economy has to support its own products, planted and grown on national soil and both exportation and importation.
     

    There’s a difference, though, at least as far as some are concerned, between the connotation of terms such as imported and ethnic. Something imported can come from very far away or can be a “gift” from a past culture but it’s immediately associated with that sense of globalized homologation that has always existed and reached its peek in the 21st century.
     

    Something ethnic is always something more exotic, different, folkloristic. 

    For those open to new cultures or new experiences food is often the first step and taste of a new point of view. The first time I went to a Chinese restaurant as a kid I came back wanting to read the kids’ version of Marco Polo’s Il Milione and searching for China in the big family atlas…
     

    Unfortunately though, when food and cultures or food and religion are associated, we can sometimes face extremism.

    Even more if we associate food with immigration, when new trends are not brought about by a powerful foreign company, by a trendy and hip chain but by the last or second to last group of immigrants slowly trying to establish a life in a new country.

    Sometimes the culinary tradition of an immigrant can prevail over the new ones. In the United States, Mexicans, for example, tend to prefer Mexican food over others but could anyone ever imagine, that, for example, after the Senate discussed a new immigration policy people or even worse a political party would rally and legislate to ban Mexican restaurants from the whole country?
     

    In Italy certain events that culminated at the end of march in a rally in Treviso, are leading to a very strange and dangerous “ethnic cleansing”.
     

    The Northern League in Italy (Lega Nord) is a party from the extreme right-wing, lead by Umberto Bossi, which has spread its influence over the past decade and has now been elected in various regions. Lega Nord’s political agenda aims at a federative state, a “0 tolerance” immigration policy and an economy that invests in the industries of the North and not of the South. Often linked to very extremist political remarks or racist declarations regarding southerners or immigrants, Lega Nord has endorsed and allowed a series of municipal bans of foreign food, leading to what can be called a “gastronomic racism”.
     

    Following the slogan “Sì  alla polenta, no al cous cous” (We want Polenta not Cous cous), restrictions were promoted by Luca Zaia, the Minister of Agriculture who said that in Italy there is “the need to protect local specialities from the growing popularity of ethnic cuisine”. Zaia declared that he has never tasted (nor will he ever taste) a kebab.
     

    In Trieste cous cous, kebab or curry chicken can be sold only if accompanied by polenta and other northern specialties like musetto. Bortolotti, the mayor of Trieste (member of Lega Nord) ordered every ethnic restaurant in the city to serve traditional Italian dishes or they will close. A few days after having passed this ban, he signed an anti-Islam petition and said he was carefully looking at the legislations that allowed mixed marriages with immigrants. In Lucca, Tuscany, the City Council approved several regulations for bars, clubs and restaurants that don’t allow the “installment of  restaurant businesses whose activities can be linked to a different ethnicity.
     

    The only food allowed within Lucca is the “Tuscan one” and the setting of the places where it will be served has to respect the architectural and historical traditions of Italy, not permitting any kind of ethnic or extravagant display.

    In Treviso the Moroccan community was forbidden from organizing a street fair that would have made everyone come together in the hope of creating the biggest cous cous plate in the world and win the World Guinness Record.
     

    Somehow, it seems that the target of these bans are not necessarily foreign cuisines. Somehow it seems that French crepes, American burgers or the trendy Japanese sushi will be safe to keep… while African and Middle-Eastern dishes are a bit more problematic…
     

    Somehow it also seems easy to hide the “darker” intentions behind these actions.

    Movements like Slow Food are one of many organizations that promote local cuisine and the preservation of certain traditions and specific products. Slow Food’s work for example is remarkable in the way it transformed the food culture in a country and all over the world. All these acts of preservation of the original “ethnicity” are something we see all over the world in Farmers’ markets and as a way to search the roots deeper down…
     

    The risk is to fall for the hypocrisy of those who claim they are passing these racist bans with similar intentions to those who support Slow Food. People might not notice that closing doors is never a good sign and might confuse an admirable endeavor (Slow food-type org) with a racial law. The danger, in the end, is that an Italian, with a Coke in his hand and a ticket for a Moroccan beach in the other, might still declare, in 2010, that a kebab is a cultural imposition that cannot be tolerated… 
     

  • Events: Reports

    Destroying Roots or Planting New Seeds?

    The significant traits of a New York neighborhood are often found in its location, in its artistic and cultural trademarks, in the ethnic groups inhabiting it and, since the history in the United States is rarely represented by something as tangible as a monument, in the symbolism (or in the few buildings or objects) linked to the heritage of a people, of one of the many immigrant group that made this country.

    This is how we recognize the various blocks and boroughs, this is how we present them to a tourist. The real soul of these neighborhoods is in the community, in the transition that the changes within it have caused, but especially in the internal network, in the connections.

    Essential to a community are the places of gathering. No matter where you grew

    up, there must have always been a square, a shop, a bar, a church that not only functioned as a meeting center but that was central for the interactions between different groups and that physically affected the area and the landscape.

    Nobody likes to see their neighborhood change, often simply for the personal memories linked to a special place. We have all experienced, even at a really young age, that sense of void and alienation when, for example, a building that had always been there disappears, or even the signs over a shop that we passed every day walking to school or work changing colors... In most cases this is just an effect of nostalgia and it just takes some getting used to but sometimes it just doesn't feel right.

    It's a fairly common view that with destruction comes construction, but when this transition is actually successful we are never really talking about pure destruction: it's often a metamorphosis, a shift of what there was already there. Because before one wipes something completely off the face of earth, one should always think twice about the consequences. Thinking and proposing new ideas seem reasonable; it seems moral. As Nietzsche said, "morality is primarily a means of preserving the community and saving it from destruction".

    Brownsville in Brooklyn might not be the most charming neighborhood nor the more united in terms of ethnic groups. Although now predominantly African American (75%), there are also many Hispanic or Latinos, and Asian Americans; and in the past it was the home of a huge number of Italian and Jewish immigrants.

    Its history is very turbulent: since the 1910s it was the birthplace of violent gangs and associated with the idea of unemployment, crime, and poverty.

    Seeing this area for the first time gave me that strange feeling of confusion that one often gets when suddenly out of the perfectly rational grid of Manhattan. The anonymity of suburbia, mixed with the bleak atmosphere of an empty movie set. Empty stores, empty streets: a place where you can easily get lost since there are few things that stand out and direct you. Finally at certain corners, explosions of color: imaginative graffiti on the grey walls, children running around and having fun, women chatting and laughing. While circling around with a cab for a half an hour I suddenly noted a big white church, Our Lady of Loreto, at the center of a street filled with greenery and trees. 

    Churches in New York always take me by surprise. Be it Trinity Church, Saint Patrick, or Our Lady of Loreto in Brooklyn. It is always interesting to see the contrast between the modern skyscrapers with their neighboring buildings and architectural styles taken from centuries before. As shocking the contrast might be, it would be pointless to remove them, it wouldn’t feel right, because it’s in that clash of opposites that we find a certain sense of beauty.

    Our Lady of Loreto is a fairly unknown church and yet surprisingly so. It was built in 1908 in the Roman-Renaissance style. It is filled with artistic treasures, and for years it has provided a space for the Catholics (particularly the Italians but then it adapted to other communities) to practice their cult. This Church, like many other religious centers in New York City, in the past few years has drawn less and less people to its doors, causing Bishop Di Marzio (Bishop of Brooklyn) to close it down two years ago, for financial reasons.

    The focus rightly shifted on the less spiritual and more pragmatic needs of the community, such as the need for housing projects, which became a priority. Hence, the decision of Bishop di Marzio and his diocese to demolish the church.

    This last idea, to most people, and particularly to those who organized a rally on April 5 2010 in front of the church (by the way, the 102nd anniversary of the church’s opening, April 8, 1908), seems the least logical and quite unnecessary.

    The united groups have proposed over 100 units of affordable housing side-by-side with the church turned into an arts and cultural center, which would be crucial for the community and that many of its members actively want for their children and for themselves. Then there is the issue of Art and History. Although New York is famous for quickly changing its appearance (now not as much as some Far Eastern Metropolis) when something has been around for more than 100 years, although change can be understandable, demolition and the complete removal of it is often a tricky matter.

    As Mario Toglia, of the Calitri American Cultural Group,briefly explained to me: “We want to save this beautiful church because it was built as an Italian parish. The reason was that in the olden days, when the Italians came over as immigrants, they didn't feel welcome in the Irish church because at the time there were rivalries and the Irish faith had other customs. They came over with their tradition: for example they emphasized the veneration of the saints. They felt alienated and they wanted their own church and Vincenzo Sorrentino decided he would have a church built to represent the character of his congregation, It was built in the Italian Roman Renaissance style, with artistic representations. The statues were sculpted by Gaetano Federici, who was an immigrant from Castelgrande, and lived in Paterson, New Jersey. He was working together with another artist Adriano Armezzani. Here in Brooklyn, it’s their largest masterpiece. The main pediment depicts the house of Mary. The paintings inside are made by Gaetano Cappone, who painted the ceiling with a replica of Raffaello’s Transfiguration.

    If the Church is demolished, some of these artistic pieces will go in storage- such as the statues and the windows- but they would also be knocked down…who knows…hopefully not…”

    The Church has been determined eligible to be registered as a historic site by the NY State Office of Parks and Recreations but unless it becomes a NYC landmark its destruction is still a possibility. Most of the speakers at the rally either reminisced about the connections of the church with the past, history and the Italian American culture or endorsed the option of the Cultural Center. It was fascinating to see many of the members of the African American community (Patricia Deans, Jeff Dunston) be fascinated by the Italian American history and supporting the efforts for the preservation of the church.

    Arthur Piccolo, on eof the coordinators of the event, pleaded with Di Marzio not destroy it and said: “You are not a private developer, you’re the bishop of Brooklyn”.

    Charles Piazza, principal organizer of the event, reiterated the importance of combining affordable housing with the interest of the community in having a place where to gather and learn more about their roots, intertwined with other communities, or simply pursue artistic passions.

    Joseph Sciame, former president of the Order of Sons of Italy, remembered when as a young boy, he lived near there and had vivid memories of spending Easter in that church with his grandparents.

    The verbs used the most were network, add, change, transit, develop, in opposition to demolish or cancel. Nowadays, living in hopefully more humanistic times, it seems very unusual to wipe out something that functions as a museum, something that has any cultural significance. Especially when sometimes much smaller and less historical things (like old toys or billions of sport or rock memorabilia) are preserved and exhibited just for the sake of memory or as symbolic of a person, a place.

    At the rally, the dean of the Calandra Institute, Anthony Tamburri quoted the words of the poet Felix Stefanile Who wrote: "there's no ontology without archeology".

    As of now, it is not clear how this whole issue will end. It should be noted though that this is a significant matter to Italian Americans, who through artists like Federici, for example, defied certain stereotypes as immigrants. These latter do not have monuments in New York to represent them before the Catholics, the cultural institutions or, most importantly, the community of Brownsville. The neighborhood, no matter what religion or race, will be more united and uplifted by the power of history and art.

  • Life & People

    The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Between Past and Present

    In most cases, nowadays, when we go to our workplace one of the first things we notice is a giant sign pointing to the closest stairwell or an emergency exit; our boss might even hold a meeting for newcomers with precise and concise instructions on what to do in case of a fire; a few inches away from the sign is an alarm that is directly connected to a fire-fighters station or even more advanced technological devices to assure safety to all the workers. Norms and regulations, policies for equal opportunities and an attention to allow everyone to access or leave the building safely - at least in a city like New York in 2010 - are luckily part of our everyday experience but it hasn't always been that way.

     

    Although sometimes there is very little you can do in case of a fire or a natural catastrophe, unions and governments in the United States have fought to guarantee more and more rights to workers, reaching some important goals over the past century: those milestones that you study in school, that affect the rights of disadvantaged minorities and change politics forever. March 25 is one of them, a National Historic Landmark, unfortunately a tragic one.
     
    If you are a kid and go to a public school in New York City you will probably know this date by heart because every year there will be a field-trip with your classmates to the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street; under the rain or the sun, or fighting against the wind, you would proudly put on a red fire-fighter hat holding your teacher's hand or curiously looking at the much older NYU students crowding around campus, walking by. You might not fully understand what a union is, but even in kinder-garden you will realize the dangers of fire and the importance of respect and basic rights as a human being.
     
    On March 25 1911, 99 years ago, the lives of workers and immigrants who arrived in New York were often miserable. Very few women worked and those who did, did so in very poor conditions and worked under terms that were barely legal. During the 20th century Italians and Jews were among the immigrants that tried to start a new life in a new world no matter how hard it was to do so and on that bright Spring day of 1911 the women who were working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (mostly Italians and Jews) were the victims of one of the largest industrial disasters in New York and the worst workplace disaster before 9/11. 146 garment workers died while the building was destroyed by fire or jumping out of windows.
     

    As the flames reached up to the 9th and 10th floors of the factory nobody was able to escape. After a few years of strikes and protests by the unions (where women were beaten by policemen to obtain basic rights), the relationship between the owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, and the garment workers were tense and some of the details of that day, that triggered the resentment of many workers later on, were unclear as far as who could be blamed. The doors of the factory were locked because it was a Saturday (normally not a work day) and it is said that the owners felt this would “keep the women busy at their machines”, preventing them from taking cigarette breaks.
     
    When the firefighters came they couldn’t reach the higher floors because their ladder was too short and that is why today there is a symbolic rising of the ladder along with many other commemorations where the new modern ladder rises up above the Asch Building (now Brown Building of Science, NYU) where the factory was.

    The aftermath of this tragic accident was filled with protests and huge changes in terms of workplace’s legislation. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union fought for safer conditions, and stricter regulations in case of fire were applied all over the city and the country.

     

    In 2010 public school students, union workers and demonstrators, women, descendants of the few survivors or relatives of the victims, gathered around the Asch Building to commemorate the event. Due to the high number of students the atmosphere was almost didactic with songs and speeches encouraging not only remembrance, learning and teaching important lessons, but also explaining clearly why this is a New York City Landmark and why it’s crucial that the young generations be fully aware of how to make the world a better and safer place in the name of solidarity, dignity and respect. The leader of the Teacher’s Union in New York encouraged the children to “raise your voice when something is wrong”. The emphasis on young generations is not just rhetorical in this case since the women who died were all between the ages of 13 and 23, which nowadays would still be considered “kids”.
     

    The musical band Fiasco and the NYC Labor Chorus sang various Union songs, folk and popular songs that emphasized the camaraderie of the workers, the strength of those who fought together for a cause and were linked to the time or the origins of the victims. One song stood above all, a song that is often linked to the Italian Resistance but that was created and sung before by the garment workers and the field workers in Italy, called “Bella Ciao”. The song is often sung in political demonstrations in Italy to evoke communist ideals and refresh the memory of what the partisans did, dying for the freedom of the country (e questo è il fiore del partigiano morto per la libertà; "this flower stands here for a partisan who died for freedom”) . Here it didn’t have a revolutionary connotation, but more of a sense of nostalgia and sadness for those who gave their life in vain.

    Most of the people standing at the corner of Green and Washington Place were holding in their hands white pieces of cloth or signs with attached a white shirt-waist with the names of those women who died written on it. All the women were singing together maybe thinking of their ancestors and of the fact that a few weeks before, on March 8, the whole world celebrates yearly the International Women’s Day. It’s celebrated also as a recurrence created in relation to this tragic fire.
     
    Each one of the speakers shared their point of view with the crowd and the relatives retold the sad stories of that day. Bruce Raynor, President of Union Workers United reiterated the importance of dignity, respect and protection on any job. The firefighters underlined the importance of hard work and sacrifice.
     

    A memorable and significant account came from the NYC Comptroller John C. Liu an immigrant himself who arrived in the United States when he was five year old from Taiwan, son of a banker and of a garment worker. Because of his mother, John C. Liu said he could relate and sympathize with the victims since he had to work with her in a sweatshop when he was very young.

    The immigrants of today are no longer Italians or Irish but Chinese or Mexicans, for example, and unfortunately even in our modern society most of them are not protected enough on the workplace. Even worse are the conditions of certain factories in other countries, such as Bangladesh.

    Paradoxically, as some NYU students involved in the democratic groups on campus pointed out during the event, due to the economic crisis a lot of fundings and supplies were cut to the fire department this year.

    Almost a 100 years after the Triangle Factory Fire the picture is far from being perfect.

    The hope is that the white shirtwaists lifted up in the sky, the myriads of events all across the city programed every year to honor this national landmark, the stories of those who burnt in less than fifteen minutes will always stir people’s conscience and remind them that productivity and making more money is never more important than safety.

  • Art & Culture

    Paolo Giordano: a Prime Number in New York

     Many people say Math is the only universal language. Numbers are the only currency accepted everywhere and although Arithmetic, Physics and their notions are often obscure and detached from our emotional life, we often look for a meaning in the structure they provide us and for the objectivity beyond pre-conceived ideas.

    It is fascinating therefore to see a writer, Paolo Giordano - also a young physicist – through a simple mathematical reference at the center of his book, generating such a “buzz” for what turns out to be a very emotional and heartfelt story, driven by the quirky and endearing personalities of its main protagonists.

    The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is not a book about Math but - like Math - it has a very universal and objective feel which has allowed it to become an International bestseller. The original title wasn’t even meant to be linked to a mathematical principle and yet, as Giordano explained at a lecture at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò (NYU)  on March 22, 2010, it’s one of the main reasons why the book is so successful everywhere, creating a perfect mix of deep intellectual intuitions and sincere and honest writing.

    The story revolves around Mattia and Alice and follows them at various stages of their young life. Both traumatized as children they grow up living parallel lives of a sort, never completely opening up to each other.

    Giordano, who won the most important literary prizes in Italy (Premio Strega and Campiello) selling millions of copies of his book, is a captivating writer who alternates gloomy and “dark” moods to very whimsical and poetical ones, combining modern settings to very archaic instincts. The story is set in Turin (Giordano’s hometown), in Northern Italy, but it’s not the Italy a foreigner expects. It’s realistic and yet not limited by cultural filters. Giordano, born in 1982, also gives the prospective of his generation and part of the country that hasn’t been represented enough, especially abroad.

    Interviewed by Antonio Monda, NYU Professor and journalist for Repubblica, Giordano explained how his protagonists are like prime numbers, “easy to define, not dividable by anything other than themselves and difficult to solve”. More precisely they are like “twin prime numbers”, couples of prime numbers separated by an even number, pairs that go together but are never really close to each other.

    The lecture hosted by Casa Italiana allowed for a pleasant and meaningful discussion with Prof. Monda who highlighted the essential themes and motifs of the story and reflected on Giordano’s writing. The author explained that “most authors write their first book as manuscripts about themselves, their life, while I took a more objective approach using the third person and two protagonists. Yet, not only in the circumstantial details such as the fact that Mattia is a physicist or the city is Turin, I think that my deepest fears and personal thoughts are captured by it”. Monda defined the book “sincere, honest, intelligent, personal and painful”. The director of Casa Italiana Stefano Albertini expressed his goal and interest in bringing “more Italian titles on the US bookshelves and more young artists to Casa Italiana”

    “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is being adapted into a movie, currently in post-production and Giordano said he was really satisfied with the adaptation (he co-wrote it) and had “looked for a production that wouldn't necessarily be big, but would do a good job”.

    Paolo Giordano was so kind to share some of his time with me for an interview at the Cosmopolitan Cafè in Tribeca where we explored even more of his story and discussed the reason for his New York visit: the publication of the book in the United States.

    My first impression when I read your book in Italian was that the story could be set anywhere, even New York, that this “slice” of Italy wasn’t something hard to contextualize or to be appreciated only with a certain Italian cultural background. Nor was it a folkloric or touristy piece brought abroad. It was something very “exportable” that I could give to an American friend as if I were handing him a David Foster Wallace book. Even the New York Times review didn’t emphasize the fact you were Italian. Do you agree? How important is the story's setting, for you?

    It is indeed a very de-contextualized story in its essence, but it’s not something that I rationally pursued. I think it reflected some of the cultural references I had in mind growing up. I always read a lot of American literature and watched many North-European movies and that idea of the small town, a bit isolated an anonymous, where you have the School, the River, the House stuck with me: it wasn't anything too specific or typically Italian. But at the same time the novel is very Italian, in the sense that it reflects Turin, an atypical city, which is in itself less contextualized.

    What do you think Turin adds to the story?

    Well, as I was saying it kind of removes the story from other typical Italian settings, that have a need for more specificity and Turin is a city very similar to the big European cities or even New York. What it adds is an essential atmosphere for the book: somewhat dark, foggy and cold…

    Do you feel like our generation, your generation of Italian writers, is more “globalized” and more able to overcome stereotypes?

    I have to admit that I do belong to what ‘s generally called the MTV generation, that developed its tastes in the 1990s and is very well connected to the rest of the world. There were external stimuli coming from abroad; while growing up I would intentionally search for foreign writers or artists as well as Italian ones. It's definitely something that has allowed me to play the right cards abroad and communicate more effectively today.

    As far as my generation of writers is concerned I believe that there are two opposite approaches which are both very effective and I both admire. You either choose to be more “general” or you go for a very specific and realistic story, such as Gomorrah, which becomes universal for its precision and detail.

    What makes your characters Alice and Mattia typically Italian?

    Nothing in particular and also, in a way, everything about them. Perhaps, more specifically, there is this moment in the book in which Mattia has to go study Physics in Copenhagen and he's afraid to leave his hometown, his country. I had the same fear when I had the opportunity to go study abroad, between my degree and my PhD, and even if I knew it was the right thing to do, I didn’t feel like it. I don’t know if this is specifically Italian but it’s true that as Italians we feel very attached to the place where we grow up and to our roots, and are less prone to move around during our college years, which is not necessarily a negative thing.

    What do you think of Italians studying abroad then?

    Even if I didn’t do it, I believe that it is very healthy and important and formative to go abroad for some time in your life. It’s a journey you need to be willing to embark on.

    Were you able to follow the translation of your book?

    Yes, I read the final version and particularly this American edition, which is re-edited from the British one.

    Is there anything that changed, anything that shifted meaning?

    Not really. Although the British version is definitely the one that in terms of writing is the farthest from the original and is often pretty free, it does keep the mood and the meaning exactly as it was thought.

    As a Physicist and a Mathematician, how important is a scientific, rigorous method in your writing? Do you emphasize the technical aspects?

    It makes me pay more attention to technical aspects of writing and to the general structure. I don’t identify myself with writers like Italo Calvino who believed in the “scientific novel”, which might be very intellectually stimulating or well-constructed but sometimes leaves out the deepest emotions. For me the most important thing is always to start from feelings and emotions and then the more I manage to shape these emotions, to give the story a structure, the better it is.

    Math has definitely helped me to research a linguistic and stylistic perfection. I also love books that have a pretty loose structure or are purposely disconnected, but that’s also a kind of structure influenced by Physics.

    I particularly enjoyed the first two chapters which focus on the protagonists’ childhood. They are fresh and they portray children in a very original and honest way and they trigger the entire plot. Do you have any childhood memory that made you the person that you are now, that drove you towards writing?

    It’s interesting because I find it very natural to write about children and often the explanation that I give myself is linked to when I was a young child. Although I didn’t have any particular trauma like Alice and Mattia, I was over-emphatic towards everyone, eager to always be accepted. I was often influenced by other people’s thoughts and ideas but mostly I was afflicted by other people’s stories. I felt like they were my problems or my own emotions even if they belonged to someone else and I was never really able to detach myself from them and say “this has little to do with me”. I was always kind of anxious for somebody else and this trained me to sympathize with my characters, which is the most important thing.

    What was your experience with the Italian publishing and literary scene?

    All the prizes I won, the events I took part in and the attention I received obviously took me by surprise. I was almost a “virgin” in the Italian cultural scene and it was good because this way I didn’t have time to build up ambitions and I managed not to get caught up in the rush of the race or the complications any industry has. I went from 0 to a 100 very quickly and it was life-changing.

    What about here in New York? Do you feel your book is well received? Are you comfortable with the publishing business here?

    Although I haven’t been here for long I enjoyed holding lectures and book readings. The audience has been very kind and open so far and I see similar dynamics in the publishing business: the way you work with editors, publishers, the way I approach reviews and the way newspapers cover your events or books is pretty much the same.

    What I noticed here, at least in New York, is that cultural events such as book readings are not something “exceptional” but they are a thriving part of the daily life and people seem more used to them and more comfortable within the structure of these events. Sometimes it might seem like reading and writing are treated more seriously here, as a common, daily occupation.

    One of the main themes in your book is “solitude”. Is this a constant of our modern world and of cities like New York?

    I actually disagree with this, because the idea that big cities like Turin or New York are linked to solitude is only partially true. I think it’s much worse to feel different and alone in a smaller community, a little town in the country-side, where everyone has known each other for their entire lives, on the contrary to New York where you can be whoever you want. I think “solitude” is more of a common anxiety among us today, a fear of something, but not necessarily a reality.

  • Art & Culture

    Up in the Clouds with Matteo Montani

    The reddish and orange light of the sunset tinges the charming brick walls of the Greenwich Village’s buildings, and the rays of light graciously illuminate a very unique garden in the very heart of this neighborhood.

    It’s a gorgeous spring day at the Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò on West 12th street, and a warm wind follows the glimpses of twilight, giving a feeling of lightness, like being immersed in a dreamlike atmosphere.

    The little garden inside this famous NYU cultural facility dedicated to Italian Culture is filled with people chatting, who seem relaxed, yet are somewhat surprised at this unusual warmth; they seem to be almost floating around between the pretty tables and chairs, the statues and the greenery, eagerly peeking inside to look at the paintings on the walls in the hallways.

    This surreal atmosphere, where the colors blend together and the objects seem not to have borders, in which time is suspended for a moment and the light wraps the audience in an eye-deceiving and almost hallucinatory embrace, might not just be the effect of this magical New York spring sunset; it has a lot more to do with the artist behind this event, Matteo Montani.

    “Walking through the door of the Abstract, of the non-real, the artist is like an alchemist or a Shaman, guiding the onlooker into a world where the images on display are either redolent of a known image, or alternatively take the onlooker into a world of pure perception and visual emotion.” Riccardo Miracco, Art Director and former Director of the Italian Cultural Institute, writes these words in the introduction to the very beautiful catalog that accompanies Matteo Montani’s exhibit, which showcases his work captures well that which Montani’s work aims to accomplish.

    The majority of his oil paintings incorporate the mixing together of shades of blue, white, black and grey, with a few exceptions, such as the “explosion” of red in the painting titled “Autumn Tale”. These techniques create an oneiric quality diffused with a scientific one, as if we were looking at pictures of microscopic research data.

    Some paintings look like snapshots of internal visions, nocturnal dreams where images are not always well defined, and the things that happen or we see lack a clear logic and definite beginning and end; some are like quick flashes, as if one were to close his/her eyes with the sun beating on the eye-lids, with only spots of coloring remaining visible.

    Other paintings by Montani seem to evoke pre-cellular activity: nature before it is actually the nature that we see. Yet other pieces are dimmer, more ghostly, and appear like cerebral activity’s transcripts, radiographies, or a heart monitor’s line going up and down; others simply immerse the viewer in a blurred natural phenomenon, or evoke a landscape that literally leads one to feel immersed in the clouds.

    Matteo Montani is a young artist from Rome who uses innovative painting techniques. Stefano Albertini, the Director of Casa Italiana shared some of his personal impressions on the artist and the exhibit:

    “I came to discover Matteo Montani and his work thanks to Isabella del Frate, who is a member of our advisory board and an expert on Contemporary Art. I’ve worked with her for many years and we have come up with a calendar that works on two levels. Our first goal is to showcase the great masters of Italian Contemporary Art, such as the more historical artists from the 20th century. We have had exhibits dedicated to Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, Achille Perilli, and a kind of exhibit of homage to Giorgio De Chirico. Our desire and interest is to bring these artists here in the United States which, for many of them, is where they started or where they are mostly recognized, auctioned and collected; Burri, for example, is one artist who began his career here.”

    “At Casa Italiana we also had other, more specifically historical exhibits on women involved with Futurism or on Gerardo Dottori, for example, but our second main goal for our calendar is to allow the Casa to be a venue for young artists.

    Matteo Montani, in fact, is a 30-something year-old artist, and he’s producing fantastic works of art in which, within the bi-dimensionality of the canvas, he creates a dimension of movement and the illusion of depth.”

    When Albertini was asked what effect these paintings have on him, he said: “I love them. What struck me is that I was favorably surprised by the reaction of the NYU students that are part of the staff or intern here at Casa Italiana, helping the director and the other official members with organizing and putting together these events. They are all in their early twenties and every one of them came up to me and said that this is the exhibit that they liked the most so far. Maybe there is something more universal about it, more irrational, or maybe it does speak more to people of this younger generation. Everyone’s comment reflected that these paintings made you want to jump and dive into them…”

    Matteo Montani’s exhibit of paintings opened on March 18, 2010 at the Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò, and will be on display through April 29, 2010. Lovers of art and members of important artistic foundations in New York attended the event, including the exhibit's curators and the artist himself.

    Matteo Montani is a young Italian artist with a well established career as a painter, acclaiming wide recognition in the United States. Viewing his paintings is a visual and sensory experience that takes the viewer into dream-like landscapes with colorful visions, provoking surreal and pensive states of mind.

     

  • Facts & Stories

    Behind the Lines: Italian Americans Liberating Italy on Secret Missions

     It’s the final year of World War II. While Italy is torn between the political choices of its leader and its alliance with Germany, the Partisans are making every effort to fight the German occupation, engage the help of the Allies, and distance themselves from racial and Nazi crimes. 
     

    Meanwhile, in the United States the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) is created, a wartime intelligence agency and a predecessor of the CIA.
     
    It is then – when it became clear that the United States would have had to fight in certain parts of Italy – that some OSS officers approached a group of Italian-Americans, mostly first generation immigrants or people who had just arrived from Italy, and asked them to undertake secret missions in their ancestral homeland to help the U.S. Army as well as the Italian Resistance.
     
    This fascinating story is the subject of a documentary project by Nancy Schiesari called “Behind the Lines.” Schiesari met with those who carried out these missions and with Italian Partisans to investigate what happened and learn about these people who spoke both Italian and English and could act as liaisons between the two countries. The documentary includes priceless eye-witness accounts and archival footage as well as re-enactments.
     

    Nancy Schiesari is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin where she teaches filmmaking and cinematography. Her documentaries have aired on the BBC, PBS, and the History Channel. She’s a talented artist with many years of experience that have allowed her to explore her personal passion through her art which has received several awards.
     
    In this interview she was kind enough to share the movie’s background and her personal history, as well as discuss the issues that are crucial to fully understanding and appreciating this little-known episode in American history.
     
    How did you come up with the idea for this documentary and how is it connected to your personal history?
    I have thought about this project for a long time because I grew up surrounded by these stories and ideas. My personal history requires some background information but it’s essential to fully understanding the documentary. My parents were both involved in World War II in Italy. My mother and father met before the war. My father was a bright man who had recently graduated from the University of Padua, specifically from the medical school. He was the only child in his farming family who went to college.
     
    Like every other Italian, he had to complete his compulsory military service before attending college. When the war began he was drafted into the army under Mussolini as a medical captain in charge of 3,000 troops in Yugoslavia and Albania. At the end of the war he was a POW in Germany. In fact, he didn’t have much of a choice. He could either fight with the Germans on the Axis side or become a POW, and he chose the latter, spending two years in a prisoners’ camp. Meanwhile, my mother’s family experienced a very different situation. Her father immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1910 to work as a miner. He came from Tuscany and his family lived in rugged mountain villages. My grandmother was from a very different social class, part of the Italian cultural elite, and at first she hated the life of an immigrant in America and was very depressed. Suddenly they were very poor; Pennsylvania had very few roads and they lived in small houses. Her daughter (my mother), though, really loved America and loved going to school in Pennsylvania. She was a straight-A student and had a happy childhood.
     

     Eventually her mother decided to take them back to Italy to visit her own mother with the intention of never returning to America. Once the whole family was reunited, the Fascists had come to power and her family had been chased out of town since they were anti-Fascist.
     
    Did anyone in your family come in contact with the Partisans or the OSS?
    My aunt, my mother’s youngest sister started dating a guy from the University of Florence, a philosophy student, and she joined a political group which he led; it was a Resistance group. He had contact with the OSS and Americans. My aunt suddenly became very dangerous to the whole family because everyone knew who her fiancè was.
     
    All of the sisters helped or actively joined the Partisan movement in some way, hiding in mountains around the gothic line. My mom stayed kind of neutral because her boyfriend was a POW. She didn’t really take sides. After World War II, my parents, who were in their early 30s, decided to get out of Italy and one of my aunts came with them. They emigrated for personal reasons (his parents didn’t approve of their marriage) and due to the difficult economic conditions in Italy at the time. In Pennsylvania they would later tell me about the Resistance and their personal stories.
     
    There must have been a lot of historical research involved in this project. How did you approach it and how long did it take?
    In terms of my research and my approach to this documentary, I’m really thankful for digital technology. The way I made documentaries when I was young and studying filmmaking was by using 16 millimeter cameras – and it was much harder. In terms of the scope of my research, I always wanted – as I did in my previous documentaries – to mix my political interests with my art, to make a difference in our society and change people’s thinking.
     
    For this project, I wanted to focus on the Italian Resistance and, as I mentioned, digital technology allowed me to take a small DV camera to Italy and do research on location. It all started at Trinity College in Connecticut. They held a symposium there and invited the main participants in the Italian Resistance who had also been in contact with the OSS. Many of the main operatives in the OSS who were still alive attended the conference. The Italians and the Italian Americans of the OSS came together; the two groups could finally talk to each other and my aunt was also invited. There I met the main people in my documentary, and I then followed them back to Italy, visiting their homes in Rome and Ravenna.
     
    Was it difficult to get in touch with the World War II survivors and the agents? Did you receive any help from the Italian government, political parties, or veterans’ groups?
    I received help from my university, the University of Texas at Austin). I was awarded a grant and took a semester off to do research, and I also received a small grant from NIAF.
     
    I was very lucky to meet Ennio Tassinari, a leader in the Resistance movement, who put me in touch with AMPI association of Italian Partisans. He was very well-connected and took me under his wing. He had a very interesting life: he worked for the OSS, he was in communist party at one point, and he did so much for the liberation of Italy. We traveled together and he introduced me to different Partisans who I later interviewed.
     
    All of the people recruited were first generation immigrants who purposely left their homeland behind, focusing all their hopes on another land. How did the OSS pick those people among all of the immigrants? Were there people who already knew what was going on in Italy? Or were they “indoctrinated” by the OSS?

     All of them had already been drafted into the U.S. army. They were regular infantry soldiers, they were already on duty, and some of them hadn’t yet served in Europe. In the meantime, they were trained like other troops, since they considered themselves simply as Americans of Italian descent who would have eventually have to go and fight in World War II.
     
    The people chosen by the OSS were mostly first generation immigrants but there were others who had just come over as Italian citizens and could get their citizenship expedited by going into the military.
     
    I’ve collected several stories describing how they were approached, pulled aside, and then taken into a room where a couple of officers started interviewing them. They were asked questions such as: “Do you speak some Italian?” “Do you understand this?” “Would you be interested in joining a dangerous mission where you would be dropped behind enemy lines?”
     
    At the same time they didn’t have to go, they weren’t forced; they were given a choice as volunteers. Once chosen, they were sent to a special camp in Washington, D.C. and another place up north, where they were trained in sabotage and to survive behind enemy lines.
     
    Did you ask them how they felt being sent back to their homeland? Was it more “Italy needs you” or “the U.S. needs you?” In other words, were they more anti-Fascist Italian patriots or American patriots ready to defend the U.S.?
    When they were in America the feeling was very different than in Italy, especially at the beginning of the war. Mussolini was making a good impression abroad as a political leader. Even President Roosevelt met with him. He and Hitler were inspired by the national socialism of his early politics, since Mussolini was a socialist before he was a Fascist, and in a way, he wanted to move towards a “new deal.” At first he was practically hero here; he was even interviewed by the big newspapers in New York. He inspired a sense of respectability in Italian Americans who were experiencing issues as immigrants and were being exploited, discriminated against. It was more the figure of Mussolini as a leader than his actual politics that made the immigrants proud.
     
    Obviously this was the case up until Italy decided to side with Germany and support Nazi-Fascist ideals and values, even racist policies. By then some of the people chosen by the OSS had already identified more with being American, even if they had relatives in Italy, because they had been in the U.S. long enough. I don’t think they thought of all Italians as Fascists or their relatives as their enemies, but when they left for the war the American ideology prevailed and they really wanted to liberate Italy from the Nazis and to restore freedom.
     
    What did these people feel when returning to their homeland, the country they had left not too long before, without any intention of going back?
    It was very moving for them. They saw Italy so broken and devastated. They only came in during the last year of the war when the Allies were about to land and they witnessed the aftermath of the German occupation. Through their airplane missions they helped the Resistance destabilize the Nazis, since people were starving and the cities were destroyed by the bombs.
     

    One of the people I interviewed went to visit his relatives in Salerno and he saw that half of their house was missing and only one room was left intact. People had nothing, and although they appreciated the culture, the impression was probably that of an impoverished country. I think some of them, with the best intentions, were glad, though, to be going back to America. They might have thought something like this: “There we have freedom, prosperity, and a chance to make a living.”
     
    One of the OSS survivors, an Italian American, told me that his parachute landed him in a tree, and he stayed in that tree for two days and played dead. He miraculously survived the Nazis who came by and actually though he was dead. When he came back to America he kneeled down in New York and started crying.
     
    In one of the clips online, it’s suggested that American soldiers speaking their native language had a tremendous effect on Italian morale. In another clip, the protagonists explain how wearing a U.S. army uniform prevented them from being killed or treated as war prisoners if they were captured by the Nazis. Were the missions as effective as planned? And why aren’t they more well-known?
    I believe the missions were very effective. The OSS dropped clothes, cigarettes, food, and supported the Partisans physically and psychologically. They gave them supplies and necessary items to survive the winter. The Partisans were about to give up but the OSS kept them fighting. The important thing to say, though, is that they did not fight alongside the Partisans, shoulder to shoulder. It was a little different; it was mutual support and help.
     
    They were not really recognized for a few very simple reasons. First, the OSS became the CIA and changed its name. As one of the most important organizations in Italy, the CIA had to immediately deal with other issues, such as the elections. There was still a direct connection to certain Italian Americans through the CIA, but the OSS no longer existed.
     
    They were also supposed to be secret missions. I’ve actually heard some of them saying things like, “We got no recognition for what we did. Some G.I Joe did something small in a battle and got to be a hero but we didn’t get a lot of that.” At the same time, they are very proud of what they did, and they knew that the missions had to be kept secret, at least for a number of years.
     
    The papers documenting the missions are now in D.C., but they were not available to the public before 1996. Luckily I was able to research these papers and some of the OSS survivors sent me copies.
     

    Do you know of similar missions being launched today, for example in the Middle East?
    Do you think that in these cases the people involved might feel compelled to help the U.S. for similar reasons as the Italians did (liberation, fighting a dictatorship, etc.)?
    Although I don’t want to make any political claims, and I do believe these are very different situations, interestingly enough I’m now working on another documentary about tattoos on the bodies of soldiers who go to Iraq, and I’ve seen these young kids leaving for war and coming back as complete different people.
     
    Anyway, there is a difference in the emphasis on heroism, today there are also many more choices, and therefore it’s a voluntary decision that brings with it certain questions. In World War II, most people had to fight or they would be killed or become POWs; there was a strong ideological purpose in wanting to bring freedom to Italy that had practical  results.
     
    There is a connection, though. The nephew of one of the OSS members I interviewed is in the Special Forces in Afghanistan and he realizes how similar his work is to what the OSS had to do. He sees himself as a continuation of what his uncle started, but it’s a tricky thing to compare the two wars.
     
    For my grandparents who fought in the Resistance, America has always been very idealized. They grew up loving American culture, music, and movies as a synonym of freedom, joie de vivre, higher and deeper ideals. This sentiment not as widespread in other countries that also helped by the U.S. What do you personally think connects Italy and America in terms of their fascination for each other?
     
    My father always said Italy had much more in common with the United States than with Germany, and not just in terms of political views. The German way of life, their way of doing things, the culture they produced, their strict authoritarianism was very far from the Italian culture and from what they aspired to. There were more cultural affinities with the United States. Italians were deeply influenced by American culture, and they understood it without filters; they loved jazz and all everything from the States, even something as “hip” and superfluous as a Valentino haircut, which everyone wanted to have thanks to Hollywood movies. Somehow America was the culture they looked towards and embraced, and yet they sided with the Nazis in this tragic war.
     

    You directed a profile of Scorsese called History Man which aired on the BBC in 2003. Did you ever consider pitching this story to him? It seems like a perfect plot for one of his movies.
    Well, it would be interesting to see a more narrative version of this story. I’ve been fascinated by the idea and I’ve thought about it. I had some trouble getting closer to him again, but at the shoot I proposed the idea of focusing on the OSS missions and I left a treatment with a screenwriter. It’s not something I’ve really pursued. I don’t know if I really should or want to. I’ve directed various documentaries and I like this format.
     
    What is the goal of your project? What do you want people to get from it?
    I want them to fully acknowledge that part of history. I think that the history of World War II has some gray areas and some of it hasn’t been fully explored, and this has sometimes led to certain stereotypes about Italians. I also wanted to make sure that this was documented before people died, since obviously that generation is leaving us. I feel like I should invest even more time in this project. There are probably 80 hours of archived oral history interviews and I think that it’s important testimony.
     

    Is there one story that stands out among the rest?
    There is the “Ginny Mission,” something I would even consider making a documentary about in and of itself for the History Channel. A small group of Italian Americans landed on the stretch of coastline between Bonassola and Framura (in Liguria, Italy) and were charged with the task of blowing up the nearby railway tunnel, to cut off German supplies to their troops nearby. There were hundreds of tunnels in the region that couldn’t be bombed from planes which allowed the Germans to move their troops and supplies along the western shore.
     
    The OSS had to blow up a tunnel but every attempt failed and they were secretly executed by the Nazis in La Spezia, even though they were wearing uniforms and not civilian clothes. The German commander who shot them was General Anton Dostler who was brought to trial in October 1945 since he broke the rules of the International Convention. He was later convicted of war crimes and shot at Aversa.
     
    What are your future plans for this documentary?
    Right now, I don’t have a complete final version that I want to release. I’m focusing on the website that has received thousands and thousands of hits, and I look forward to continuing to build the website with more clips and share these wonderful characters and this wonderful history. Although it will be a long process, I’m passionate about this documentary and I would love for many people to hear these stories and discuss them.

  • Art & Culture

    Mid-August Lunch. Live the Italian Ferragosto at the Movies!

    August 15, Ferragosto... Every Italian city looks like an empty movie set, a ghost-town. No store is open, the streets are deserted and the few cars around are rushing out to escape the heat of the summer. Some families prepare for this day, Ferragosto, days in advance, like for a hurricane, knowing that it won’t be possible to buy essential ingredients or supplies on the actual holiday.  
     

    Ferragosto is a unique Italian holiday which is not so easy to define as it seems at first. For some people it’s a religious event (a Catholic holiday  that has its roots in a Roman Summer Feast at the end of harvesting), celebrating the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, but if you asked many Italians, even the most religious, this is not really what this day is about. 
     

    For many people it’s a synonym with being at the sea-side or in certain cases the mountains or the country-side. This is the typical picture of a family on Ferragosto: towels and tablecloths spread open on the sand, the food covered in the shadow of colorful giant beach umbrellas, kids running in and out of the water and their parents taking a break form work and enjoying a day of complete vacation. 

    Ferragosto is also connected with food, in a particular way. In the South there is the tradition of a big meal, which - much like Thanksgiving in the US - might start in the afternoon and then become like a prolonged lunch and dinner all together.

    In other regions of Italy food comes into play in other ways, through special family recipes or traditions. When I would spend my summers in Piedmont in a country-house, for example, Ferragosto was symbolized by my grandma’s “pesche al cioccolato”, a typical Piedmont recipe for the “Assunta” (dialect for Ferragosto) which consisted of oven cooked peaches with inside a filling of macaroons and dark chocolate, the most delicious dessert ever in my childhood memories… 
     

    The famous chef and TV star Lidia Bastianich Ferragosto used to spend her Ferragostos in the country-side as well: “As the cities quietly stopped their activity and all of Italy is on vacation there is the need to do something, to celebrate one’s work through the year. We went to the country-side and we spent the day eating on and off the table. I don’t recall necessarily a big Ferragosto meal, as it happens in the South, but inevitably everything culminated at the table or in a picnic, carrying food in plastic net bags: sandwiches, fried zucchini, chicken, prosciutto, wine, kept cold in a bucket of cold water” 

    Lidia shared these and more memories on a very particular occasion on February 24 2010 at the Italian Cultural Institute while a movie - appropriately called Mid-August Lunch (by Gianni Di Gregorio)was screened,- linking this warm Summer day with a cold winter night in New York…and taking a very funny and personal look at this Italian holiday… 

    In fact, even if Ferragosto can be described in different ways it ultimately stands for complete vacation with family and friends, sharing food and being out of the city, out of the everyday routine.
     

    The irony is that the premise of the movie is exactly the opposite. Gianni, in the middle of August, is at home in the charming district of Trastevere in Rome and for him the days are one like the other. He’s living with his mother, a somewhat tyrannical and yet sweet and endearing woman who takes advantage of his son’s generosity and keeps him around the house. He seems happy and content with his life, cheerfully taking care of his mother in any way he can. The problems start as Alfredo, the accountant who administers the apartment block makes him realize he’s in debt and he hasn’t been paying the rent or his utility bills.

    Cornered by his financial issues Gianni is forced to accept a deal, agreeing to look after Alfredo’s mother on Ferragosto, while he goes away with his young lover, in exchange of money and the relief of some bills. Alfredo drops at Gianni’s place his mother  Marina but also his aunt Maria, another woman over 80 years old. A few hours later his doctor makes a similar offer and due to the same financial issues, Gianni can’t say no. Another elderly lady, Grazia, the doctor’s mother finds herself in the crammed apartment. 

    As the movie unfolds the four ladies - with very distinct and strong personalities - will comically interact with each other, with positive and negative effects and by the end will have created a bound that is hard to break and shared a Ferragosto meal. 

    The movie was screened at the Italian Consulate and preceded and followed by a discussion by Antonio Monda, NYU Professor and journalist, Lidia Bastianich, Italian American chef, and Andrea Visconti, a multimedia correspondent for the magazine Espresso.
     

    Simonetta Magnani, the attaché  for Cultural Affairs (Cinema and Art) for the Italian Cultural Institute introduced the guests and Emily Russo, the co-president of Zeitgeist Film announced the film-release. Mrs Russo explained that this is the first Italian film that Zeitgeist is releasing and that it will open on March 17 at Film Forum in New York and nationally afterwards. 
     

    Antonio Monda read a message from the director Gianni Di Gregorio in which Gianni apologized for not being in New York but declared that he felt like he was taking a concrete step to the realization if his dreams and ironized on his movie concluding the note with these words: “You Americans always say that us Italians are mama-boys and a have a thing for good food…well…you know… that is true!”
     

    Antonio Monda described the movie as “a legitimate heir of the ‘Commedia all’Italiana’. A movie that has a very deep sense of humanity, that deals with themes such as solitude and the egoism of our modern society in a light way, having the characters react through irony and pietas”

    He went on saying: “ I think this is one of the most delightful, tender interesting and also original film made in Italy.” 

    The discussion between Andrea Visconti and Lidia Bastianich, enriched by the audience’s questions, was very well-organized and thought provoking. The movie was analyzed in depth, in its themes, motifs and characters, through fascinating intuitions and reflections on from the eloquent hosts.  
     

    Lidia Bastianich focused on how food was represented and how the message of the movie was carried through food metaphors and images, through the main activities of the movie which are buying food, getting food, preparing it and talking about, something that, as Lidia said, is also a strong element of Italian Culture. 

    When the audience exited the room, entertained by this short “slice of life” - an almost too realistic and honest example of film-making - everyone left with the feeling that Mid-August Lunch is about a lot more than a  summer holiday and good food: aging, memory, being a woman, the richness of the generations connecting, sons becoming parents to their own parents, observing life and being an a active participant in it…
     

    As Andrea Visconti pointed out this is a story about Italy at large. “The main four characters have alla different accents. Zia Maria has a southern accent, Grazia a central one, probably from Umbria, Valeria, the mother has a sophisticated Roman accent while Marina a more “vulgar” Roman accent.”
     

    This movie is remarkable in its attention to language, in the directness and the joyful spirit through which it addresses different issues and in its production, a low-budget project that involves the director and his mother as actual protagonists of the story, inspired by real life and as actors in the movies. 
     

    Mid-August Lunch won two prices at the Venice Film Festival and had a great critical reception in Italy. Gianni Di Gregorio made this movie, his first one, after a career as an AD and a screenwriter (he co-wrote Gomorrah with Matteo Garrone): a movie that perfectly combines an endearing home-made feeling with the dream-like experience and entertainement big movie productions can give.

  • Art & Culture

    "Vincere": The Hidden Passions of Benito Mussolini

    As we leave the 2010 Academy Awards behind us and get ready for a new season of movies that will sweep us off our feet, make us  reflect on important topics and entertain us, it is worth noticing an original gem from Italy, “Vincere” by Marco Bellocchio, which will be released in the United States on March 17, 2010.

    The movie begins several years before Benito Mussolini's March on Rome of 1922 and focuses on the personal life of Mussolini, and a tragic love story that spiraled into a vortex of tormented passions and madness, forever changing the lives of those who were deeply linked to his rise to power, also putting his personal ethics into question.

    Benito Mussolini was a young socialist leader before Italy entered World War I. In Milan he met a woman who fell madly in love with him, to the point of giving up everything that she owned and making enormous sacrifices to be with him.
     

    This woman was Ida Dalser (played in the movie by Giovanna Mezzogiorno) with whom Mussolini had a brief but intense relationship.
    When Ida became pregnant, the two married secretly in 1915. As Ida’s hopes and fascination with this charming man grew, Mussolini abruptly decided to leave,  inconsiderate of her feelings, and Ida discovered that he had gotten married to another woman.
     
    Mussolini married Rachele Guidi, a more simple woman than Ida, from his own home town, an appropriate match for his upcoming political campaigns. Yet the ghosts of his past haunted him, and he decided to destroy all evidence of his other marriage, and did his best to, keep Ida and the child as far away from him as possible.
    Ida was separated from the child. The movie follows his problematic upbringing and how he eventually ended up in a mental institution, as well as Ida’s attempts to find him and be recognized as Mussolini’s wife.

    The movie is dramatic and very emotional,  yet realistic. One views  a slice of history from the point of view of a woman, a tragic “outcast”, yet strong and determined character, one that is deep and humane.

    A few months ago, on September 30, 2009, Marco Bellocchio came to New York to present his movie at Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò (New York University)  in a discussion with Stefano Albertini, director of Casa Italiana and Antonio Monda, NYU Professor and journalist.
    On that occasion Bellocchio recalled how his inspiration was triggered by the discovery of this truely hidden relationship between Mussolini and Ida, that he himself hadn’t heard of until a few years ago. In fact, Mussolini was a young charismatic journalist for “Avanti!”, a socialist publication and, as Bellocchio explains, his encounter with Ida happened at the same time as a crucial crossroad in his career. While the Socialists pushed for Italy to remain neutral and not join the war, Mussolini was an interventionist and was expelled from the Party.
     
    In the movie, the carnal passion of his relationship with Ida is as strong as his political ambition and it’s interesting to see that while Mussolini literally drives Ida mad, leading her to a very dark place emotionally, the fate of Italy follows a very similar pattern and tragic arch.
     
    Bellocchio is an internationally known director who has worked on over twenty feature films, and has always infused them with his political views and interests, with the themes of madness, family relationships and social issues underlying his work.
    "Vincere" received incredibly positive critical reviews in Italy as well as abroad, was nominated for a Golden Palm in Cannes, and won various festivals in the United States.

  • Events: Reports

    Triumphant Art: The Power of Architecture Under the Flavian Dynasty

    Arches, porches, magnificent white steps, Ionic columns, statues….

    Columbia University, the prestigious campus in uptown New York City, owes a lot of its architecture and “Ivy League” charm to Greco-Roman culture, which has often set the standards for certain patterns and symbolic uses of Art in buildings and infrastructures.

    It seemed particularly appropriate, then, to attend a lecture about architecture and Triumphant Art under the Flavian dynasty in Rome, as part of a series of events that aims to share these interesting topics not only with college students, but with the general public too.

    The Italian Academy is an important center for research, fellowships and studies promoting Italy, its culture, scholars and prominent figures, founded in 1991.

    Its historical location, located within campus, is commonly known as “Casa Italiana”. Established in 1927,  it’s an elegant and classy building on W 118th street.

    It was there that  Francesco De Angelis, Associate Professor of Roman Art and Archeology at Columbia gave an engaging lecture taking his audience on a virtual journey through famous monuments built  during the time of the emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian.

    Barbara Faedda, the Assistant Director of the Academy, was extremely enthusiastic about this event: “It relates really well with the Symposium we held about Rome’s Jewish Ghetto with Kenneth Stow (University of Haifa) and Irina Oryshkevich (Columbia).”

    She noticed how this year there is a particular attention, as it has somehow always been  to Rome and its history in the New York cultural scene.

    Allison Jeffrey, Assistant Director in Charge of Events announced the upcoming events of the program Italy at Columbia that in the past 3-4 years has involved several academics and general audience in the activities held at the Academy . On March 2nd, as an example, the Institution hosted the  Symposium “Next Stop on the High Line: The Trento Tunnel” (Jeffrey Schnapp (Stanford Humanities Lab),
Elisabetta Terragni -CUNY, Kurt Forster- Yale) while on March 10th James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia
    University, spoke about  Shakespeare’s “Anthony and Cleopatra”.

    Prof Francesco de Angelis' Lecture focused on the meaning and the importance of arches in the Flavian Architecture, between 69-96 C.E.

    It’s fascinating, in fact, to see how monuments, on the surface so different and built centuries apart, like, for example, the St Louis’ Gateway to the West and the Arch of Titus in Rome, share similar meanings and significances: they are both a homage to territorial expansion, a celebration of success, triumph but not only. Arches are about brotherhood, opening doors and gateways, welcoming someone to a city, signifying a religious event.

    The arch was indeed a very successful architectural motif in Rome - where there were more than 800 arches - as it is nowadays.

    After the great Fire of 64 and the civil war of 69, a reconstruction program was promoted and put into action by Vespasian, who built for example some of the most famous monuments such as the Tempium Pacis.

    The Arch of Titus, signified a “triumph”, a procession through which successful armies entered the city of Rome, walked through the Fori Romani and culminated on Capitol Hill. In this case the triumph was held after the victory in the Jewish War in Palestine, narrated by the famous historian Josephus Flavius.

    The arch though was commemorative of this procession, since it was made much later after the death of Titus (82 C.E.). On the arch there is one of the few testimonies of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Holy Temple, that the Jews believe houses of God’s presence. Sacred objects like a seven branched menorah and trumpets can be seen. For many years the Roman Jews refused to walk under it, since it was associated with submission and only in 1948, with the founding of the State of Israel, the Jewish Community symbolically walked under it in the opposite direction to that taken by the ancient procession.

    The Professor dwelled also on the depiction of Titus in a chariot accompanied by the goddesses Victoria and Roma.

    Within the inscriptions, the frieze and its decorative sculptures lies the hidden power of this arch:  the “quasi-cosmic meanings” of a military success now glorified, of human emperors now transformed into gods and divinified, are hidden in it.

    The “tour” continued on with the Tempium Pacis, the Forum Transitorium, with its narrow structure surrounded by thin columns and with  the Colosseum, otherwise known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, another monument partially financed by the capture of Jerusalem. The theatre was started by Vespasian, inaugurated by Titus and completed by Domitian.

    The columns that support its arches represent all artistic styles: Tuscanic order (Doric), Ionic and there are two kinds of Corynthian.

    As most people, in the Colosseum the audience could enjoy shows such as   gladiator fights, public executions, mock naval battles, mythology ballets or animal hunts. However, the real spectacle was often given by the public itself, that actively interacted with the scene before its eyes. The theater could host an avarage of 50000-70000 spectators and its inaugural celebration lasted 100 days.

    The lecture was clear and instructive,  easy to appreciate and understand even for those who weren’t as familiar with the topic. This virtual tour  left the audience fascinated by this crucial historical period and ready to learn more.

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