Articles by: Stanislao g. Pugliese

  • Tampa, Florida, 1910. The lynching of Castenge Ficarrotta and Angelo Albano simply for being Italian (from the forthcoming book edited by William Connell and Stanislao Pugliese, “The Routledge History of Italian Americans.”)

    "Immigration Ban." An Italian American Perspective

    It seems that every generation of Americans desperately needs an outsider to fear. We eagerly accept—even devour—salacious stories of Chinese opium dens, Irish drunkards, Italian Mafiosi, Latino gang members, Mexican rapists and Muslim terrorists. The president’s Executive Order is formally titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” But in our new reality of “alternate facts” please note that not one act of terrorism has been committed on American soil by recent refugees. With perverse irony the Executive Order only confirms the propaganda of Islamic terrorists that the United States is at war with Islam.


    On the other hand, Americans often point with pride to the history of accepting immigrants, as embodied (literally) in the figure of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Surely no other country on earth owes its success as much to immigrants as the United States; it’s just that we often forget this running thread of our own history. The most common betrayal—which we hear today—is “Yes, but WE weren’t coming here to kill Americans.”


    The first person affected by the EO was Hameed Khalid Darweesh who spent over a decade working with the American military in Iraq, at great danger to himself personally and to his family. He had been vetted over two years by military and immigration authorities. Simply from a practical point of view, military authorities said the ban would cripple their ability to recruit assistance in Muslim countries if people know they won’t be accepted into America even after a rigorous vetting.


    Italian Americans have a particular responsibility in this new (or old) political landscape. The mass wave of immigration from southern Italy (1880-1924) was met with trepidation, fear, anger and hatred. (See William Connell and Fred Gardaphé’s collection of Essays Anti-Italianism). Italian Americans struggled to find their way as Americans while retaining custodianship of their native culture. This delicate balancing act required us to sometimes forget where we came from, and often even required a change in our very names (“Giovanni” became “Johnny” in school; Frank Sinatra’s father became “Marty O’Brien” to get boxing matches; Walden Robert Cassotto became “Bobby Darin”; writer Francesca Vinciguerra became “Frances Winwar”).


    I have just returned from the Christmas season in Naples where the tradition of the presepio is alive and flourishing. As I marveled at these works of folk art and popular culture, I often thought of that original refugee Semitic, Middle Eastern family and how today, in a country that purportedly loses no occasion to declare itself “Christian” would now turn them away. A modern parallel could be seen in the tragic plight of the SS Saint Louis, a steamship crowded with more than 900 Jewish refugees in 1939, who were refused entry into the United States. One argument advanced at the time—hard to believe--was that the Jews might be Nazi spies! The Syrian and Muslim families that we reject today would have become the “American Jews” of the future: fully integrated and contributing their extraordinary talents and energies in the perpetual re-imagining of what it is to be American. We have taken what may be our single greatest resource and are squandering it without any consideration of our history, image across the world or our collective futures.


    For example: In 1938 Enrico Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Soon after accepting his award in Stockholm, Fermi refused to return to Fascist Italy, which had just promulgated anti-Semitic legislation (Fermi’s wife was Jewish) and sought refuge in the United States. In December 1941, when Fascist Italy declared war on the United States, more than 600,000 Italian Americans were declared “enemy aliens” and placed in internment camps. (Unlike Japanese Americans who spent the entire war period in the camps, the Italian America ns were released on Columbus Day 1942.) With bitter irony, some people in the camps had sons who were fighting for the US armed forces. With historical irony, Fermi was a key figure in the development of the atomic bomb that ended the war in the Pacific.


    For almost two years, I have spoken and written about the dangers of a possible Trump presidency, from the perspective of a scholar of Italian fascism and anti-fascism, warning that Donald Trump exhibited many of the psychological and political traits of fascism. Tragically, Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay on “Ur-Fascism” is almost a blueprint for the Trump campaign and administration. At times, I was criticized for making an erroneous historical comparison. But recall the moment in the second debate when Trump threatened to jail Hillary Clinton? I tweeted at the time that the remark was proof that Trump didn’t know (or refused to recognize) the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship. Or at press secretary Sean Spicer’s first press conference in which he warned that the new administration would “hold the press accountable.” Spicer either doesn’t know or knows all-too-well that in a democracy, the press holds the government accountable; it’s only in a dictatorship that the government holds the press accountable. If you don’t know the difference, you don’t understand a basic premise of American society.


    For years after the war, Italian Americans continued to suffer discrimination. Yet by the 1980s we had supposedly “made it.” Italian Americans could boast of accomplishments in all fields of American life, from sports to politics. Yet at what price? How and why did our heroes change from Fiorello LaGuardia to Antonin Scalia (who, were he alive, would probably vote in favor of this Executive Order, notwithstanding his judicial philosophy of “originalism”). And our prominenti? A look this morning at the websites of NIAF, OSIA and UNICO revealed not one word of protest against the president’s Executive Order. Have we forgotten our own history? Have we decided that this generation of immigrants is so different from us that they merit no human solidarity?


    Perhaps this argument of the political and human evolution of Italian Americans can best be summed up with two photographs. The first is from Tampa, Florida and shows the 1910 lynching of Castenge Ficarrotta (with pipe placed in his mouth after hanging) and Angelo Albano simply for being Italian. The second is of Italian Americans lining the streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn during the protest march of African Americans after the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in 1988. (The photos come from the forthcoming book edited by William Connell and this author, The Routledge History of Italian Americans.)


    * Stanislao G. Pugliese is professor of modern European history and the Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies at Hofstra University.

  • Op-Eds

    Framing “Our” Frank Sinatra

    As America approaches the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth on December 12, Hofstra University hosts a six-day conference in November to assess his musical legacy and place in the country’s imagination. With keynote speakers Gay Talese and Pete Hamill, singers, musicians, journalists and biographers, as well as performances by Hofstra University music students, the conference concludes with a scholarship concert with jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli.
    In many ways exemplary of the first-generation success story, Sinatra is also a paradoxical figure for Italian Americans. He both confirmed and challenged the common stereotypes of Italian-Americans. He—along with others such as Fiorello LaGuardia and Jo DiMaggio—changed how Americans viewed Italians, permitting earlier Americans to see that Italian Americans could indeed become assimilated. On the other hand, his sometimes boorish behavior at the bar or casino reinforced some of the worst stereotypes.  
    Sinatra’s appeal rested not just on his masterful singing but on these carefully constructed images and myths.  Sinatra was fully conscious of their construction although he was not always sure how much the myths depended on his consciousness of their construction.  Pete Hamill, in his book Why Sinatra Matters recalls Sinatra musing late in life:  “Sometimes I think I know what it was all about, and how everything happened.  But then I shake my head and wonder.  Am I remembering what really happened or what other people think happened?  Who the hell knows, after a certain point?”  And contrary to the cock-sure assertiveness of “My Way,” Sinatra at the end of his life was less sure of “his way” than at any time in his life.  “Maybe that’s what it’s all about.  Maybe all that happen is, you get older and you know less.”

    In the arena of images available to us in framing “our” Frank Sinatra, I would here suggest another possible–although admittedly flawed–construction.  Sinatra conflated within himself several of the stock characters of the tragicomic art form of commedia dell’arte.  In some ways Sinatra resembles Arlecchino (Harlequin), the immigrant, with a primitive and simple personality who evolves into a smart, sophisticated character.  To survive, Arlecchino must make use of his wits to best the arrogant and greedy characters he encounters.  Flanking Arlecchino are the Zanni, poor immigrants, ever hungry, yet shrewd, insolent, masters at the art of arrangiarsi (“arranging” or “systematizing” oneself).  In his own dexterous manner, Sinatra, too, exemplified the peasant and immigrant’s art of arrangiarsi.  Brighello (the name comes from briga, “to fight”) is the first among the Zanni: Cunning and avaricious, he is the trickster who prefers young lovers.  And personifying the tragicomic nature of the human condition, the Neapolitan Pulcinella.  Agile, nimble, skillful, dexterous, adroit, clever, stoic yet a dreamer, Pulcinella is a victim of melancholy, the enduring disease of the Mezzogiorno, the Italian south.  Melancholy–not to be confused with depression–can best be described as a pensive sadness or a sober musing that occasionally gives way to despair.  And just as Pulcinella’s coppolone (sugar loaf hat) came to symbolize his character, Sinatra’s snap-brimmed hats, worn at various angles to indicate his mood, came to symbolize an American icon.

        There is a certain character trait that is common in these personalities of the commedia dell’arte: they are always attempting to create and control anarchy at the same time.
        In many ways, he represented the dilemma of the emigrant, torn from an impoverished, rural society that was paradoxically both intensely Catholic and yet deeply pagan, bereft of the benefits of modernity.  
        Sinatra was caught in the double bind confronted by all immigrants to America: The necessity of assimilating into American culture while retaining a distinct ancestral identity.
        Sinatra managed, for most of his career, to sing on the right side of the fine line between pathos and bathos.  The quality of pathos came from longing and loneliness.  Hamill comes closest to the mark in arguing that “Sinatra had only one basic subject:  loneliness.”  Yet that is only part of the whole, for that loneliness was always accompanied by pathos, melancholy, and nostalgia for something (not just a woman) irreparably lost.  In his embrace of longing, loss, and nostalgia, Sinatra gave voice to the immigrant myth.  “The core of the immigration myth,” writes Hamill, “is this:  it was about the way people overcame misery, how they found their consolations, and, in the end, how they redeemed America in a time when America believed it was not in need of redemption.”   Sinatra was one of the “agents of consolation”: Although he wasn’t as successful, the average Italian American could look to Sinatra as one of “us” who had climbed to the top without sacrificing the ethos and mores of the via vecchia (old way).
        Immigrants from the Italian south, who never considered themselves Italians while in Italy, rediscovered a shared cultural history in America. If Machiavelli’s Prince argued that the state could be a work of art (or artifice), Baldassare Castiglione’s Renaissance manual, The Book of the Courtier, held that the self is a work of art. It was Castiglione who coined the term sprezzatura as the art of making the difficult appear easy. DiMaggio epitomized this on the ballfield while Sinatra exemplified sprezzatura on stage and in the recording studio. Although both were meticulous craftsmen who would work hours to perfect their craft, the appearance was one of unforced and spontaneous brilliance.


    There are almost as many Sinatras as our imaginations may will into existence:  the wise-ass scugnizzo from the streets of Hoboken; the vulnerable crooner who made the bobby soxers swoon at the Paramount; the self-destructive moth to the flame of Ava Gardner; the eternal Maggio and the Comeback Kid; the head Rat with rock glass in hand; the original “gangsta” epitomizing cool and a certain way with women; the ferociously proud Italian American; the Chairman of the Board; Ol’ Blue Eyes; civil rights spokesperson . . . . In short, Sinatra was the palimpsest upon which much of American culture was written in the twentieth century.


    *Stanislao G. Pugliese is professor of modern European history and the Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies at Hofstra University.


  • Art & Culture

    The “Human Capital” into the Ailing Soul of Northern Italy

    “Il capital umano” (“Human Capital”) based on the novel of the same name by American writer Stephen Amidon, by film director Paolo Virzì is Italy’s official entry in this year’s Academy Awards competition. Virzì, born in Livorno March 1964, is one of Italy’s foremost film directors. He studied at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, in Cinecittà, Rome and was strongly influenced by his reading of classic American literature.

    His debut film, “La Bella Vita” (1994), was presented at the Venice Film Festival and won the Ciak d’Oro prize, the Nastro d’Argento award and the prestigious David di Donatello Award in the “Best New Director” category. His later films continued to be recognized for their insightful commentary and critique of Italian society. In 2010, the Italian Film Industry Association selected his “La prima cosa bella” as the country’s official entry for the Academy Awards.

    It can’t be a coincidence that a novel originally set in Connecticut can so easily be transposed to northern Italy in 2010. What does this say about contemporary Italy?

    In fact it’s not a coincidence. The world has gotten smaller. We all have the same smartphones in our pockets, we’re all living in the same landscape, we’re all dreaming the same dream and suffering the same distress. Of course each person has his or her own characteristics, as an individual but also as a social, political, and aesthetic being. We took the plot from a novel set in Connecticut and breathed into it the ailing soul of northern Italy.

     Italy has always had characters such as Giovanni Bernaschi. But perhaps the most odious character is Dino Ossola, the striving bourgeois who is so greedy he imperils his business, his relationship with Roberta and his daughter’s future. Italy has always been a conformist country. Now it is a conformist country and a consumerist country; a volatile combination. While “Berlusconismo” is certainly a catalyst, what other factors have come together to create this particular crisis in Italian society?

    I’m interested and amused that you use the adjective “conformist” to describe a country like Italy and a people like the Italians. Another hundred words come to my mind, especially to describe the historic moment that you call “Berlusconismo”: slackers, suckers, fatalists, male chauvinists, rule-benders, with an ancestral sense of the family in the name of which crimes large and small are committed every day, and I could go on . . . but “conformist” is not wrong. Without a doubt Italy is a consumerist country, like all the countries in the capitalist world. The years of Berlusconi marked a fatal rupture with what was traditionally considered – also by the conservative bourgeoisie – a world of preeminent values: culture, the heritage of identity, history, memory. We have become a more vacuous people who – on the contrary of the commonplace according to which we are elegant people with a lust for life – dress horribly, eat badly, and don’t know how to have fun.

    How do you see your film in the context of the history of Italian cinema with a social and political consciousness? Can you tell us about the influence of Gianni Amelio and Furio Scarpelli on your work?

    PV: Gianni and Furio were, respectively, my directing and screenwriting teachers at the film school I attended more than thirty years ago, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, in Cinecittà, Rome. Furio Scarpelli, who was one of Italian cinema’s greatest writers, was kind enough to hire me to work for him when I was only twenty one. For the first few years of cutting my teeth, I was his assistant, and from him I think I learned almost everything, in particular a passion for mixing tragedy and irony, in a highly-satirical but also very humanistic cinema, with a marked sympathy for the lower classes. From Gianni I think I tried to steal a kind of visceral manner of conceiving cinema, of becoming passionate about the magic in the moment of shooting, as well as a passion for the world and for people and at the same time for cinema as a possible medicine that makes life livable.

    What is the relationship between commedia all’italiana and political films?

    Too many different things are grouped together under the expression “commedia all’italiana.” But there are at least a dozen Italian films, with performances by popular Italian actors like Sordi, Gassman, Manfredi, and Tognazzi, that are the true political novels of our country: We all loved each other so much, The Great War, The Terrace, The Family, Il Sorpasso, The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians, Divorce Italian-Style, The Organizer. I have given you eight titles, but I could easily name another dozen. And it’s no accident that five or six of these were written by Furio.

    You have often been influenced by literature (Italian and American) in your work. Can you explain the particular benefits and problems of working with a literary text?


    I think I’ve always had a licentious and never reverential relationship with the novels that I’ve used as the basis for conceiving a film. And every time I think I’ve adapted them with great respect, but above all as a vehicle for going somewhere else.

    Can you tell us something about the musical score by Carlo Virzì?

    We were trying to create a mysterious, sardonic atmosphere that would not evoke the Italian musical tradition. We were looking for the echo from another place. Carlo used musical instruments from Vietnam, Japan, India, and Australia. They inspired him to imagine Brianza as a jungle where nature, especially in winter, becomes threatening and, if you look at it in a certain way, seems about to swallow up the mansions of the rich, the little houses of the social-climbing lower middle class, the malls, the decayed working class districts, everything. The contemporary idea of affluence – which already seems obsolete – can no longer guarantee certainty or hope; this idea seems to have collapsed in order to be absorbed by the barbarous nature of these places.


    This is your second film to represent Italian cinema at the Academy Awards (“La prima cosa bella” was the first). And for the second year in a row, Italy has had two great films at the Oscars. Is this a sign of a rebirth of Italian cinema or simply greater recognition in America?

     With all my personal respect and even veneration for American cinema and for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for the great films shot in the United States, I’m not sure we should measure the reputation, credibility, and health of our cinema solely through the recognition of the Hollywood community. If you want to know my opinion of contemporary Italian cinema I sincerely believe that it is one of the most lively and interesting in the world, but do bear in my mind that I might have a certain bias.

     What are you working on now and what future projects do you wish to complete?

     I’m working on a new film that I will shoot between spring and summer, which will be ready probably for 2016. It’s an Italian film that will be shot primarily in Tuscany.

     * Dr. Stanislao Pugliese, Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies at Hofstra University

  • Op-Eds

    A Specter Haunting Italy

    The vote in the Italian Senate to strip Silvio Berlusconi signals the end of a bizarre political epoch but it should not obscure the fact that Berlusconi is the symptom of a deep-rooted pathology in Italian culture.  

    In a May 2003 interview with the Times’ Frank Bruni, Berlusconi repeated his ominously warning, crafted during his entrance into politics in 1994, “Only I can save Italy from communism.”

    It was a refrain the Italians had heard before. Is it possible that an Italian politician could utter that line without knowing that fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had thundered the same from the balconies eight decades ago? By then (1922), the threat of a communist revolution in Italy had already dissipated. Similarly, today there is no threat to the Italian Republic from communists, and it is arguable that such a threat never really existed, even at the peak of the Italian Communist Party’s popularity in the 1970s.

    Supposedly under siege by what he perceives to be a politically motivated judiciary looking into his corrupt business practices, Berlusconi had resurrected the specter of communism, but in reality he is the embodiment of another ghost, that of fascism.

    There can only be two possibilities regarding Berlusconi’s public remarks that only he “can save Italy from communism”: either he is deaf to the irony of his own rhetoric or his hearing is pitch-perfect and his comments are really a not-so-subtle reference to his own brand of “benign” fascism. Controlling most of the mass media in Italy (from private and public television stations to newspapers, radio, publishing houses, and magazines), Berlusconi assiduously acquired—with the help of influential but corrupt politicians like Socialist Bettino Craxi—a stranglehold on popular culture. He tried to stifle intellectual dissent by rewriting the nation’s history books (since he considered them too lenient on the antifascist partisan movement) and prosecuting anyone who “insults the office of the prime minister.”

    At one point, Berlusconi’s vice prime minister was the “postfascist” Gianfranco Fini, and Umberto Bossi another key member of his governing coalition. Bossi, in his own farcical and theatrical political theater, marched through the Veneto to Venice with his followers a few years back. Italians seem to have forgotten to be wary of politicians who “march” on their cities. One is reminded of Marx’s observation, “History repeats itself: first as tragedy, second as farce.”

    In the process of “saving” Italy from communism, Berlusconi developed a Christ complex as well. In interviews, he has lamented that his responsibilities are so overwhelming that he no longer has the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his labor (such as sailing on his yacht or visiting his many vacation homes). “Italians simply do not realize how much I’ve had to sacrifice to be prime minister,” he laments, conveniently neglecting that most Italians do not have a villa on the Emerald Coast of Sardinia. In January 2007, in a perfectly brilliant synthesis of fascism and Christianity, in which Berlusconi morphed into a combined Duce and Christ, he “anointed” Fini his “heir apparent” in what amounted to a symbolic “investiture.” And if the reference to his own Christlike essence were not clear enough, Berlusconi remarked that he would happily pass to others such as Fini “the bitter chalice” of political power.

    It was not the first time that Berlusconi had (ab)used the fascist past. In an interview with the British journal The Spectator, Berlusconi claimed that “Mussolini never killed anyone” and that in the practice of confino,the Italian dictator merely sent his political enemies “on holiday” to such idyllic locales as the islands of Lipari and Ponza or quaint hill towns in the Italian south, conveniently forgetting the deaths of Antonio Gramsci in prison, Piero Gobetti in exile, and the double assassination of the Rosselli brothers, which became the basis for Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist and Bernardo Bertolucci’s film of the same name. 

    As anyone who travels frequently to Italy can attest, Berlusconi’s brand of unfettered consumerism has done more damage to the country’s traditional way of life than that which would have supposedly been inflicted by communism. But the sad truth of this two-decade long political farce is that it tapped into Italy’s long history of conformism, venality, clientalism and cynicism about political power and public service. If fascism was, as Piero Gobetti theorized, the “autobiography of a nation,” Berlusconism is the media-facilitated “selfie” of the Bel Paese.
    * Stanislao G. Pugliese is Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies
    Hofstra University