Articles by: Joseph Sciorra

  • Boston Public Library (detail) Sacco & Vanzetti demonstration in Boston, March 1, 1925
    Art & Culture

    The Sound of Italian American Protest

    Since 2002, the Library of Congress selects sound recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.” For the second year I have nominated the two-sided 1927 Italian immigrant disc “Protesta per Sacco e Vanzetti” by Compagnia Columbia on Side A and “Sacco e Vanzetti” by /Raoul Romito on Side B (Columbia,

    14288-F). My nomination follows below. Feel free to use it you are so inclined to nominate this recording. Here is the form to nominate a recording.

    The 1921 guilty verdicts and death sentences of Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti set off international condemnation with demonstrations staged in Buenos Aires, London, Mexico City, Paris, and elsewhere. That the Italian immigrant community was intensely affected by this political cause célèbre is evident in the numerous recordings addressing the topic. In 1927, the year the court appeals failed and the execution date was set, four records were made in the United States by Italian immigrant performers, stars of the immigrant stage and recording scene:
    Giuseppe Milano, “A Morte e Sacco e Vanzetti” (Ideal Record, 5002-A)
    Alfredo Bascetta, “Lacreme ‘e cundannate” (Okeh, W81060)
    Alfredo Bascetta, “Lettera a Sacco (P’o figlio suoio)” (Okeh, 9332)
    Compagnia Columbia, “Protesta per Sacco e Vanzetti”/Raoul Romito, “Sacco e Vanzetti” (Columbia, 14288-F)
    These Italian-language, immigrant recordings are key sound documents of the Italian immigrant opposition to the arrest, trial, sentencing, and executions of Sacco and Vanzetti.

    The two-sided disc from Columbia (14288-F) with the Compagnia Columbia’s “Protesta per Sacco e Vanzetti” on Side A and Raoul Romito’s “Sacco e Vanzetti” on Side B is a significant recording in U.S. history. “Protesta per Sacco e Vanzetti” is a spoken-word recording with an ensemble enacting a rally in support of Sacco and Vanzetti. The recording features the accented Italian voices (e.g., Neapolitan, Sicilian) of performers representing people from different regions of Italy united in protest. The composer of this piece is Frank Amodio, who was an influential lyricist, composer, and publisher of Italian (primarily Neapolitan)-language recordings. Topical songs were one of his trademarks; he composed songs about Umberto Nobile’s expedition to the North Pole and the death of Rudolph Valentino, among others, as well as comic routines written for such greats of the Italian immigrant scene as Giuseppe De Laurentiis.
    This is a translation of the recording:

    A: Hey, what’s this crowd doing here?
    B: How can you not know? It’s an assembly for Sacco and Vanzetti.
    A: Oh, those poor guys who have been condemned to death?
    B: Yeah. But now we’re trying to save them.
    A: But those two, people told me; I know they’re guilty of murder!
    B: And you believe it! They say they didn’t even steal anything.
    A: Not even the robbery?
    C: Come on; enough! Stop saying dumb stuff. Those two poor guys haven’t done anything wrong.
    A: Oh, well. What do I know, for heaven’s sake? They told me what they’re accused of and I am just repeating it.
    D: Well, then why are they condemned to die?
    C: Oh, my friend. Who knows how many innocent men have been condemned like them?!
    A: Poor fellows!
    B: But, I mean, is there nothing one can do to save them?
    C: It’s for them that there are all these demonstrations and protests.
    A: Listen, it’s really a sin to send fathers with families to death for no reason!
    B: Oh, sure!
    A: Oh, we must hope for the grace of the Madonna.
    C: Forget the Madonna! We must be the ones to fight and save them. Even more because they are Italians like us.

    B: Oh, come on. It has nothing to do with who is Italian or American; when someone is innocent we should help them always.
    A: You’re right!
    B: Hey, shut up! Shut up! They’re starting to talk.
    A: Quiet!
    E: Friends, you already know what has brought us together here, and I am happy to see in this solemn moment a crowd made up not just of Italians but of people of all nationalities: Italians, Americans, Jews, English, Japonese. At this fatal hour we have come together to form a single race: the human race! With no differences based on age, on class, or on party.
    VOICE: Bravo!
    E: And we are here to support a holy cause, to save to of our brothers who because of a judicial error are condemned to die in the electric chair. We must protest energetically against this unjust condemnation. Yes, unjust! Because we all know that at the moment of the tragedy the two poor condemned men were far from the scene of the crime. I remember now the last question that the judge asked the two men: “Don’t you have anything to say after having been sentenced to the electric chair?” And the answer was, “Yes, we must say that we are innocent!” And they are innocent! And now, gentlemen, raise your voices in protest. If Sacco and Vanzetti go to their deaths, what will the law be committing?
    Crowd: An injustice!
    E: And what are the condemned men?
    Crowd: They are innocent?
    E: What are Sacco and Vanzetti waiting for?
    Crowd: For a pardon!

    The tenor Raoul Romito sings “Sacco e Vanzetti” on Side B. Little is known about Romito. It has been written that he emigrated from Tuscany in the 1920s possibly fleeing for political reasons from the Fascist regime. There’s speculation that he had anarchist leanings. Even less is known about the lyrist R. Vampo and composer F. Pensiero.
    This is a translation of the recording:
    Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested,
    by surprise in Boston one night,
    they were accused of murder
    and they were awaiting the verdict.
    But the whole world rises up against this act,
    and many discussions took place,
    trying at least to shed light on the wrongdoing,
    but all in vain: The law found them guilty!
    Much money was spent
    hoping to save
    These poor men from this spurious charge.

    nd Sacco said: “We’re innocent,
    and those accusing us know it very well,
    they figured us for criminals
    pulling the chains tighter around us.
    If our fate in this case his death,
    it’s class hatred that condemns,
    while throughout the world a voice
    calls out to try and free us.
    “And I’m done,” he said,
    “Vanzetti, he’ll speak;
    I don’t know how to conclude my speech. He’ll continue.”
    Vanzetti, the other martyr, speaking
    in a calm voice and with no fear,
    discussed that most heinous crime
    and also the horror of the dark verdict.
    To the judges he said, “Condemn us!
    One day you’ll feel a terrible remorse.
    It’s true, our ideas are advanced,
    But we shouldn’t have to die for that.”
    The world watches and waits
    and even still cries out, saying:
    They shouldn’t die on the electric chair!

    This two-sided U.S. recording offers sonic insights into how Italian immigrants thought, felt, and dealt with the political persecution and pending deaths of two immigrant anarchists and the ways that commercial recordings contributed to the creation and maintenance of an acoustic community. 


    *Joseph Sciorra is director of Academic and Cultural Programs at John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, a Queens College (CUNY) research institute
     Visit his blogger >>

  • Book cover with a photograph of the Valentini family boarding an airplane in Italy for New York City, March 25, 1963.
    Facts & Stories

    New Italian Migrations to the United States

    In 1969, Prince Spaghetti produced a TV commercial featuring twelve-year-old Anthony Martignetti racing home after his mother calls for him from the window of the family apartment in a three-story walkup in Boston’s North End. What the ad does not reveal is the simple fact that Anthony was born Antonio in Pozzuoli (Naples province), Campania, in 1957 and had immigrated in 1966—following the enactment of the Immigra­tion and Nationality Act of 1965—with his family to the United States. In hindsight, the young Martignetti’s undisclosed immigrant status can be understood as a cultural touchstone revealing the presence of a new wave of Italian immigration to the United States, one that would have significant impact in cities like Boston and elsewhere. The commercial, with its energetic young immigrant from Italy’s second mass migration, suggests discrepancies in the many narratives constructed and recounted about Italian migration and settlement in the United States.

    Again and again standard studies of Italian American history take as their starting point late-nineteenth-century immigration to the United States, and see immigration as concluding by 1924, the year of the Johnson–Reed Act, with a linear narrative of arrival—acclimation—assimilation from immigrant to third generation. Such neat accounts omit the phenomenon of Italian im­migration to the United States since 1945, or, when they do mention it, they do so in passing.

    The book New Italian Migrations to the United States, Vol. 1: Politics and History since 1945(University of Illinois Press, 2017) proposes a radical rethinking of conventional historical periodization about Italian migration through a reevaluation of the political, social, and cultural significance of Italian emigration to the United States in the second half of the twentieth century and up to present day. This interdisciplinary work brings together an elite roster of scholars in Italian American studies to examine the ways Italian Americans mobilized against immigration restrictions, the politics of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act and its effects on women, the transnational workings of ethnic political brokers in Queens, second-generation Guido youth culture, and the transformation of identity in Boston’s North End. 

    The second volume in this series, New Italian Migrations to the United States, Vol. 2: Art and Culture since 1945, also coedited by Ruberto and Sciorra is due out with the University of Illinois Press in fall 2017. 


    On Monday, September 18th, coeditors Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra will present the book, along with contributors James S. Pasto and Donald Tricarico, at the John D. Calandra Italian American Studies at 25 West 43rd Street.

    Nota Bene: This blog post was liberally borrowed from Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra's "Introduction: Real Italians, New Immigrants," New Italian Migrations to the United States: Volume 1, Politics and History since 1945, University of Illinois Press, 2017, pp. 1-33.


    New Italian Migrations to the United States
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  • Op-Eds

    Discovering the Black Madonna Right before My Very Eyes

    For over a dozen years I have been researching the historical devotion to the Madonna Nera del Tindari in Manhattan’s East Village starting (see my article). Started in 1905, the focal site of the devotion was stablized by 1913 when Vincenzo Cavallaro constructed a chapel at 443 East 13th Street, between Avenue A and First Avenue. Importantly, photo editor Stephanie Romeo uncovered a photo in the Library of Congress archives of the feast held on September 7, 1915, with the religious statue across the street at 440 East 13th Street, suggesting yet another change. Sometime afterwards the chapel was relocated again, this time next door to Rotella’s Funeral Home at 447 East 13th Street. 

    What I could never figure out, given the one continuous façade of 447 East 13th, was the architectural footprint of the chapel, especially in relationship to the funeral parlor: Did devotees enter the chapel through the funeral parlor? I have pondered this issue since 2004 when I began meeting each September 8 with friends, colleagues, and others at the Phoenix Bar, the 447 East 13th site of the former chapel to the Sicilian Black Madonna. Recently I had a revelation.

    This past April, I was walking past the bar, which then had a huge empty lot next door on the left where the post office loading docks had previously stood. There I saw it for the first time, even though I had looked at the building for over a decade: The space where the chapel was once located and where a new generation of Italian Americans gathers each September was in fact a separate building. How had I not seen this before?

    With the neighboring building razed, the separate edifice revealed itself to me. I then did something I had never done before: I entered the bar, went to the back, and walked out to a patio behind the chapel building. It was indeed a separate building. How and when was this building constructed? I’m planning on an eventual visit to the archives of New York City’s Department of Building to investigate this one-room building.


    I chatted with Stephanie about my discovery and she located a curious fictional account about the construction of the chapel to the Black Madonna in Chris Moriarty’s book The Inquisitor’s Apprentice (2011).  This is a Jewish-themed fantasy novel for young readers set in the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Lower East Side. In Chapter 25, the young protagonists Sacha and Lily are looking for a boy named Antonio. Piecing together various clues the characters figure out that he can be found in the chapel to the Black Madonna of Tindari on East 12th (not 13th) Street. According to the author:

     . . . the Sicilian Stonemasons Fraternal Association volunteered to build a chapel for the Black Madonna if someone would donate the space for it.  So who steps up to the plate? Mr. Rotella of Rotella’s Funeral Home on Twelfth Street. He donates his whole basement—well, except for the part where they keep the corpsicles. So the Order of the Santissima Madonna di Tindari builds their chapel there.

    The “Sicilian Stonemasons Fraternal Association” seems like a wonderful idea for the builders of the chapel, especially for someone like me who continues to look for additional information. But there are a number of elements in the book that suggest much of the account is purely fictional—the most glaring example being the idea that devotees to the Madonna have moved into the funeral parlor basement—and that the author’s source material may have, in fact, been my 2004 article.


    Notice the sliver of property between East 445 and 447 13th Street from this 1915 map, the chapel's footprint. 

    It’s entertaining to see the author imagine what the chapel looked like, based I assume on the description I provided in my article that mentioned the ex-votos found at the chapel in 1936 by a WPA researcher: “surrounded by offerings made by devotees in semblance of cures effected on different parts of the body, such as arms, legs, hands, breasts, etc.” For Moriarty, the basement door was “entirely covered with shiny little tin plaques . . . that turned out to be images of legs, feet, hands, elbows, hearts, kidneys, and livers” (p. 281). The description continues:

      The first thing he noticed when they stepped through the door was that it was dark—so dark he couldn’t see anything at all for a moment. Then he saw the Madonna herself, and that swept every other thought out of his head.


    She sat at the far end of the room, in a little alcove whose walls, floor, and ceiling were completely carpeted with more of the silvery talismans. They flickered in the light of the votive candles so that it looked like the Madonna was flying—but flying on human hands and legs and hearts instead of on angel wings.

    Still, the thing Sacha really noticed was the statue’s face. When Rosie had told them about the Black Madonna, Sacha had expected it to look like black people he had seen around New York. It didn’t. It looked like someone had taken an ordinary Italian Lady and her baby and painted their skin with black paint from the hardware store. It should have been ridiculous. But it wasn’t. In fact, there was something about it that made you want to speak in whispers.

    I emailed the author to inquire about her sources but have not received a reply.


    The mystery of this building has yet to reveal itself completely.  But until it does, we will gather again at the Phoenix Bar this September 8th to honor and conjure the ancestors in this constantly morphing space.

    Thanks to Stephanie Romeo for her collaboration and friendship. 


  • Art & Culture

    Giovanni Crozzoli, Immigrant Tower Builder

    My scholarly carrier has been dedicated to understanding and writing about the arts of working-class people, especially the material culture of Italian immigrants and their descendants. With my academic training as a folklorist I have paid serious attention to the aesthetics and social dimensions of women’s embroidered cloth, religious architecture, and the singular genius of the likes of Sabato Rodia and his fantastic Watts Towers. I have helped arrange for the creative works of Vincenzo Ancona and Giovanni Indelicato be permanently placed in safe and appreciative museum settings. In addition, I have assisted in the process of listing the Lisanti Family Chapel and the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Grotto in New York City on the National Register of Historic Places.

    My dedication to this scholarship and cultural activism has caused me to wake from joyful dreams in which I discover some heretofore unknown work of folk or self-taught art. I’m lucky to say that my dream came true again.


    Last month, I had the good fortunate of meeting Joseph “Chris” Crozzoli at his New Jersey home to see the marble tower that sits in his front yard. This piece—a scaled-down version of one of the two towers in Bologna—is one of several works made by Chris’s grandfather Giovanni. Chris took the time to tell me about his grandfather’s life and artistry.

    Giovanni Crozzoli's house (right), 2008. Photo by Joseph Crozzoli.

    Giovanni Crozzoli was born in Tramonti di Sopra (Pordenone province), in the northern region of Friuli, in 1894.  He served in World War I as an Italian Alpini solider. (He collected a pension for his service from the Italian government up until at least 1940.) After the war he built a stone shrine/memorial in his town road to his brother Vittorio who died in the 1916 Battle of Gorizia (also known as the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo).

    He arrived at Ellis Island on July 1, 1923 and after six years brought over his wife Anna and their sons Vittorio and Marino. After the family’s reunification he bought a house at 1831 129th Street in College Point, Queens, which was owned by the family until Vittorio died in 2013.

     Left: Crozzoli's union book, 1924. Right: Crozzoli (center) with family members with stone entrance way of upstate New York house he built, circa 1956.

    The 1923 ship manifest listed Giovanni as a bricklayer and indicated that his final destination was Boston. Less than a year after arriving he became a member of the Bricklayers, Masons, and Plasterers International Union of America. In New York City, Giovanni worked until his retirement as a mason for Facchin and Son Construction, a College Point company owned by a paesano.

    Giovanni Crozzoli standing with his towers during the 1930s.

    It was the work that Giovanni did during his off hours that brought me to Chris’s New Jersey home. Chris told me that during the Depression his grandfather collected discarded chunks of marble from a neighborhood company and chipped away to create tiny bricks. In addition, to the two towers from Bologna, he also created the Leaning of Pisa, and a castle. The Pisa tower originally stood in the front yard and was eventaully moved to back yard. The second, shorter Bologna tower currently sits in the front yard of a College Point house and Chris speculates that his grandfather gave or sold it to a paesano. Giovanni died in 1966.

    When Chris’s father died in 2013, the family sold the house but he wasn’t going to leave behind the towers. With help of friends, he dismantled the tower and carted it to New Jersey, while his brother Victor hauled the replica of Pisa’s campanile to Long Island.  

    Chris Crozzoli preparing the dismantled tower for moving.

    But these works are not all that Giovanni Crozzoli created in the United States. Here’s a photo of him working on a shrine that he built for an unidentified church on Long Island. And then there were the decorated flowerpots, but that’s for another blog. Stay tuned.

  • Life & People

    Innovation in Tradition: The Columbus Day Giglio Party

    One of the points of my book Built With Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture is that Italian Americans, like other New Yorkers, are active agents in shaping their local environments through their artistic and religious endeavors.

    Their religious creativity is not a mindless perpetuation of “tradition” or a nostalgic adherence to “old ways” but rather a conscious choice about what matters in their lives, for themselves and their communities. Giving artistic form to religious belief in the context of urban life is the way individual, communal, and place identity are imagined, engendered, and reproduced.

    No better example can be found of innovation in tradition than the emerging event of the “Columbus Day Giglio Party” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn celebrated on October 12th. 

    Since 2012 the Giglio Boys Club has been sponsoring a block party on Lorimer Street, between Metropolitan Avenue and Devoe Street. The event is about Columbus in name only. It is occasion to “dance the giglio” on the Monday of a three-day weekend in the fall instead of in the heat of the summer. (Chapter five of Built with Faith talks about the historical giglio feast and other processions in Williamsburg.)

    The feast in honor of St. Paulunis of Nola was first introduced to the U.S. in 1903 when the brothers Giuseppe and Pasquale Villani built the first ceremonial tower in Williamsburg. In time the feast would sprout up in Harlem, Manhattan, Ravenswood-Astoria, Queens, Cliffside-Fairview, New Jersey, and Massapequa, Long island. (Immigrants from Nola also created a feast in Quilmes outside of Buenos Aires, in Argentina.) The original Brooklyn feast was organized by the Società di Mutuo Soccorso San Paolino di Nola, a lay religious mutual aid society. In 1954, the feast was taken over by the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church on Havemeyer Street.

    While the church feast takes places each July, the Giglio Boys Club has started a new tradition with a scaled back, one-day event. It’s not known if the Columbus Day Giglio Party will continue next year according to Jamesy Nunziata, the driving force of the event. Either way, the excitement of the giglio feast has been extended a bit longer and Italian Williamsburg has been created anew.

  • Op-Eds

    Why I’m Boycotting This Year’s Italian American Studies Association Conference

    I’m not attending this year’s Italian American Studies Association (IASA) conference in Washington, D.C. I have decided not to participate because IASA has coupled its annual conference with the annual gala of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF). While these two organizations share an interest in things Italian American, that’s where the similarities end. The respective goals of these two organizations’ concern with things Italian American are in opposition. Ultimately, this partnership is to IASA’s detriment.
    IASA is a scholarly organization, as its website states:
    Our Association is devoted to the interdisciplinary study of the culture, history, literature, sociology, demography, folklore, and politics of Italians in America. [. . .] IASA uses scientific and scholarly methods as it seeks to explore and disseminate authentic information and interpretation of the wide-ranging experiences of Italians in America.
    The organization’s interdisciplinary nature also allows space for creative artists, especially writers, to present their work.
    NIAF is an ethnic-focused advocacy group as its online mission statement reads:
    to serve as a resource for the Italian American Community; to preserve the Italian American heritage and culture; to promote and inspire a positive image and legacy of Italian Americans; and to strengthen and empower ties between the United States and Italy.
    IASA does not seek “to promote and inspire a positive image and legacy of Italian Americans;” on the contrary, it studies the representations of Italian Americans in film and literature. Media and film scholars who present at IASA conferences may discuss some aspect of “The Sopranos,” but their object is not to advocate for a “positive image” of Italian Americans.
    In addition, some IASA members study historical and contemporary manifestations of Italian American voluntary associations like NIAF and the Order Sons of Italy in America, analyzing their political and cultural positions on a number of matters. For example, some of my preliminary scholarship on the topic can be seen in previous posts on (in the RELATED ARTICLES box above), although numerous published examples can be found in Italian American Studies bibliographies.
    Another problematic of this partnership is that NIAF has repeatedly presented public views of a partisan variety, thereby potentially compromising the academic integrity and rigor of the scholarship coming out of IASA. IASA is now officially affiliated with an organization that has publically advocated for politically conservative Supreme Court nominees Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito. The issue is not the specific politics the organization endorses but the simple fact that a scholarly organization such as IASA should remain independent of such partisan engagement.
    Perhaps the most disturbing outcome of this partnership is the way in which NIAF has branded and, I would suggest, co-opted the IASA conference in its publication of the conference program. NIAF has effectively hijacked IASA by splaying its tricolor logo on the IASA program and linking its events to the academic papers and panels. IASA’s thoughtful program next to NIAF’s celebratory events creates a risible parody of an ethnic-scholarly program that might have been created by The Onion:
    • “Joe Piscopo and Friends Celebrate Frank Sinatra’s 100th Birthday”
    • “NIAF-ILC Leadership Forum: The Struggle for Columbus Day”
    • “Solemn Mass in Italian celebrated by Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio”
    Not only is this arrangement embarrassing for IASA and its members, it is a setback.
    For many years, the organization’s members struggled to rename the association from the American Italian Historical Association to the Italian American Studies Association. For those advocating for the current name—and I was one of them—the original had become inaccurate and outdated as IASA’s scholarship had moved beyond that of history. In addition, the name Italian American Studies Association was more aligned with other scholarly organizations whose focus is ethnic and racial groups, like the Association for Asian American Studies and the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies. The coupling of the NIAF gala and IASA conference reinforces the kind of belittling of ethnic studies—that is not specific to Italian American Studies—with anti-intellectual and reactionary responses criticizing ethnic studies work as not serious.
    In the recent past, NIAF has invited some scholars associated with IASA to speak about their research and other concerns on special panels during the NIAF gala. Such a model for partnership—in which professors of Italian American studies were sought after for their contributions to understanding Italian American history and culture—is in line with the goals and vision of IASA and better serves both the academic scholarship and NIAF’s mission. This year’s gala-conference partnership undoes that by subsuming the academic within the advocacy and celebration rather than highlighting the academic work as a separate approach, one that seeks to document, understand, and critique the history, culture, and on-going experiences of Italian Americans and the Italian diaspora.
    I have been an on-again, off-again member of IASA since 1989 and have been attending the conference annually since 2002. As an social scientist working in the field of Italian American Studies I am committed to the strengthening of IASA as the premier organization in the field. While I miss the opportunity to hear current scholarship and to dialogue with my colleagues this year, I will be participating in the 2016 conference.
  • Andrea Cuomo, Immigrant Pebble Artisan

    In the height of the 2014 campaign for New York State governor, the New York Times published an article analyzing a video ad for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reelection bid. The ad’s political message highlighting Cuomo’s claim to have lowered property taxes during his first term in office was not what grabbed my attention. Instead my eyes lingered on the opening shots of the pebble-studded object crafted by the governor’s immigrant grandfather Andrea. The first thing Cuomo tells the viewer is that his paternal grandfather Andrea built the “castle” (also the name of the ad) “50 years ago for the yard in his first home.”

    See video here.

    Andrea was raised in Nocera Inferiore (Salerno province) in Campania and came to the United States in 1926. This was the man that Mario Cuomo described as having “thick callouses on both his hands” in his famed speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

    Here was another direct link to an Italian-American craftsperson using beach pebbles to decorate his cement creation. As I have documented on this blog there are scores and scores of flowerpots on front porches across Brooklyn and I have yet to determine their origins. But there are also other unique objects similar to that of Andrea Cuomo’s creation that I have traced, more or less, to Italian Americans—a tower, a lighthouse, a shrine—installed in front yards in Brooklyn. 

    Andrew Cuomo writes evocatively about his grandfather Andrea’s pebble creations in his 2014 political memoir All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life, which I have excerpted here: 

    My grandfather was a talented artisan. He especially enjoyed building with stone. He had built from brick and marble a large outdoor stove with a chimney.

    Another project was a concrete fishpond that was probably all of twelve feet in diameter but to me, as a boy, it was the Atlantic Ocean. The pond was filled with clear water so you could see the gold fish. He created a waterfall, powered by a garden hose, which cascaded into the pond.

    At either end of the pond were two stone castles. These were my favorites. He built them in his basement during the winter from stones he’d picked up at the beach during the summer. Each stone was round, approximately two inches in diameter, whites and off-whites, and smooth from the water and sand. With these stones he fashioned four-foot-tall miniature-cement-and stone castles. He labored for days on them and was proud of his simple but impressive creation.

    I was taken with them and could spend hours playing with the fish and just imagining. I thought the whole affair was grand and my grandfather was Michelangelo. This was his expression of this artistic side, a side of his personality that he had the opportunity rarely to show. Life was too practical for him. He was an Italian laborer, a delicatessen operator seven days a week—who had time for art or creativity? It was a luxury—and his life had no space for luxuries. But now in his later life he had his artistic flourish and it was enough for him.

    My grandfather Andrea left Tramonti [his wife’s Immacolata’s hometown Salerno province] in southwestern Italy in 1926 and came to his country, a skilled craftsman with no prospects and a wife and baby back home. He took a back-cracking job laying sewers in New Jersey to earn the money to bring them to America. It took him twenty–three years to accomplish his goal: owning his own single-family home with a yard.

    Andrew Cuomo moved one of his grandfather’s two castles to his home in, of all places, New Castle, New York. His memoir includes a photograph of his parents Mario and Matilda posing on a Manhattan apartment building balcony with what appears to be the second castle built by Andrea. 

    Both father and grandson understood and appreciated the importance of Andrea’s “simple but impressive creation,” uprooting and transporting them to their new homes. I can help but wonder who else has preserved other examples of this Italian-American folk art

    (Thanks to Anthony Scotto for his help on this blog post.)

  • Art & Culture

    Giovanni Indelicato, Bootblack Artist, Rediscovered and Reclaimed

    The phone call came in at 12:10pm on Friday, May 9th. I wasn’t at my desk and so the reception for the Calandra Institute took a message. It was not until 4:00 that I saw the written message when I just happened to check my snail mail inbox. I was leaving the office early because I was driving the next morning at 5:30am to Galloway, New Jersey to attend the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s annual conference. The message read:

    From: Lynne Atkins of auction house in Jersey Shore Message: Re: An article you wrote on Joe Milone. The Auction house is selling items regarding his work tomorrow. Please call, would love to speak with you.

    The “article” was my 2008 blog post “An Epic of Mediterranean Culture” about a Sicilian immigrant bootblack whose decorated kit was discovered by artist Louise Nevelson and eventually displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in 1942. Towards the end of my blog I wrote, “It is presumed lost.”

    Could it be? Had it been found? And if so, it was to be auctioned the very next day. I called Lynne back immediately.

    Lynne, along with her husband Herb Atkins, is the owner of Concepts 1 Auction House in Point Pleasant. She told me Milone’s granddaughter had the presumed lost work of Italian-American vernacular artistry and that it was brought in for auction by her husband. I was overwhelmed with excitement.


    Lynne directed me to the auction house’s web page where I saw small images of the work. There it was, found. Lynne told me that auction would begin at 12:30 the next day. I told her I would be there. Galloway was an hour drive north to Point Pleasant.


    The first thing I did was to call Paul D’Ambrosio, president and Chief Executive Officer of the Fennimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Paul is a colleague who has done definitive work on painter Ralph Fasanella and with whom I worked with on the donation of a piece by the late folk artist Vincenzo Ancona. He was driving to Boston. Thankfully his secretary gave me his cell phone number and I left an animated message.


    That night as I was preparing to go to sleep, the artist’s granddaughter Cherylann Indelicato emailed me.

    Dear Dr. Sciorra,

    While googling my grandfather’s name and shoe shine stand, I came across your 2008 article in the I-Italy blog regarding Mediterranean Culture, where you discussed at length the story of Joe Milone a presser from Sicily who had created a work of art with the world's most beautiful shoe shine stand. Louise Nevelson discovered my grandfather's masterpiece, and it was exhibited at MOMA and at the World’s Fair.

    Towards the end of the article you mentioned that this beautiful shoe shine stand represented many things, and that it is probably lost. I thought you might be interested to know that I still have all of the pieces of this beautiful shoe shine stand that my grandfather created. I have saved it as a memento of my heritage, and always wondered if I should share it again with the world! I have also saved all the articles written about this truly remarkable piece, and would be happy to share them with you.

    Thank you for recognizing my grandfather and his labor of love.

    Cheri Indelicato

    A month after the auction I met with Cherylann and her husband Alesso Accomando in their Point Pleasant home and they told me how the pieces came to be auctioned:

    For years the pieces were stored in sealed boxes in the garage, with her father Accurso’s handwriting. Cherylann had once called the auction house Sotheby’s who expressed no interest in the work. She had gone around to auction houses in town but no one was interested. In a move to clean the garage she told her husband, “Do what you want with it.”Alessio, who had not seen the contents of the boxes, decided to put it all on the curb as garbage but when he pulled out one of the pieces from the box he realized that this was no ordinary shoeshine kit. He approached his neighbor and together they decided to take it to the flea market in town. There Pat O’Shea, who operates a table, suggested he bring it to Concepts 1 Auction House.

    Encountering the Art Work

    It seemed like the stars were aligned and Saturday was to be an auspicious day. I was fortunate because I was originally scheduled to be in Italy during this time but had cancelled the trip because of my workload. In addition, I was attending the conference but was not presenting or chairing a panel, which meant I could leave when I wanted. Upon arrival in Galloway, I gushed with exhilaration to colleagues telling them I had to forgo lunch together because I was attending the auction.

    When I arrived in the one-story auction house, the day’s bidding was in full swing but I was announced as entered the building by the auctioneer Herb Atkins: “Here he is folks! He’s come down from New York for today’s auction, what everybody is waiting for. The shoeshine box! And it begins at 12:30!” I felt as if I was being treated like the Anthony Bourdain of folk art, a celebrity who was conferring cache on the piece to be auctioned.


    And there it was, displayed on the table for all to see. I had only seen black and white photographs. There were seven pieces: shoeshine kit, the bootblack’s seat, the customer’s seat, other items that completed the set. They were highly decorated with brightly-colored plastic beads, brass studs, figurines, and fabric. It was stunning to behold.


    The house was packed with what appeared to be exclusively local folks. No art collectors from the Big Apple or elsewhere.



    I first met Lynn who in turn introduced me to Cherylann and Alessio. They showed me a scrapbook of the shoeshine kit’s display with newspapers articles, photographs, MoMa press releases, and a letter from Nevelson.

    The items documented that the work was used in a department store window display and featured in a Harper’s magazine spread for the season’s new lines of shoes.


    Cherylann lent me the book so I could scan it as they were leaving for Italy that Tuesday. And soon the auction began.



    The bid opened at $5,000. No one moved. Then the bid was lowered to $4,000. No takers. $3,000. Silence. At $2,000 the bidding started and I was standing in at the center of the vortex of three bidding individuals. A middle-age man sitting in the audience to my left started and the bid was immediately taken up by a 30-something man standing just behind me. Soon the seated man dropped out. As the bid was closing, a woman in her 40s upped the bid, and it turns out it was Pat O’Shea. We had chatted briefly before the bidding started about the importance of the work and how belonged a museum. She stuck to her guns and won the work at $3,000. I told her I was in communication with a museum who was interested in the piece if she was interested in selling. I took down her contact info and I returned to my conference.

    The next day I put Pat O’Shea and Paul D’Ambrosio in contact with one another, and they worked out a deal for the museum to buy the piece. Eve Kahn wrote about the purchase for the New York Times.

    I am thrilled at having had a hand in locating a “lost” work of Italian-American vernacular art and securing its acquisition in a prestigious museum. Equally important was discovering the artist Giovanni Indelicato. So how did Giovanni Indelicato become Joe Milone?

    Encountering the Artist

    Cherylann, who was one-year-old when her paternal grandfather died, said that her father Accurso recounted that it was Louise Nevelson or someone at MoMa who decided that that the name Giovanni Indelicato was “too ethnic.” Why or how the name Joe Milone was suggested did not enter family memory. This erasure of the Italian-American artist from newspaper accounts of the day and the annals of American visual art is now poised to be undone with the rediscovery of his work. A combination of an interview with Cherylann and online searching using his artist’s real name we are able to reclaim Giovanni Indelicato for the history books.

    Giovanni Indelicato was born December 13, 1887 in the Sicilian city of Sciacca. According to shipping manifests in the online archive at there are two possibilities for his arrival date in New York City harbor: at 18-years-old in July 21, 1905 or 20-years-old on April 12, 1906. (Another Giovanni Indelicato arrived from Naples in 1910 at age 23. 1910 is the date for his immigration as stated in the 1930 census.) The information for both dates and individuals is similar in a number of ways:

    • Occupation: farm laborer/farmhand
    • Final destination: Brooklyn
    • Never been in U.S. before.

    The Indelicato who arrived in 1905 came with $12 and was going to stay his brother Martino Indelicato at 88 Watkins Street, Brooklyn. The Indelicato who arrived in 1906 came with $12 and was joining his uncle Calogero Bruno at 72 Glenmore Avenue, Brooklyn.

    The curious thing is that 88 Watkins Street and 72 Glenmore Avenue are down the block from each other in the Brownsville neighborhood. Could this have been the same individual?

    At some point Indelicato (who sometimes went by the Americanized name John) married Cira (listed as Cieida in the 1930 census) who was born in 1887 and said to have immigrated in 1915 (1930 census). She came from the town of San Cataldo, in the Sicilian province of Caltanissetta. Their son Accursio (who would go by the name Joe) was born in March 1925.



    Indelicato was a presser in the garment industry but hurt his arm. In 1928 he owned a grocery store. Cherylann believes he may have lost it during the Depression.

    According to the 1930 and 1940 census the family lived at 10 Delancey Street. At some point the couple was estranged; according to Cherylann neither of them appear in any photographs at her father’s 1947 wedding and by 1959, when Cira died, she and Giovanni were not living together. Indelicato died August 10, 1960. (Online records say it was August 7th.) They are both buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Queens.

    With this brief biographic information we reclaim a bit of the artist Giovanni Indelicato but not his motives, his inspiration, or thoughts on creating and then seeing his work exhibited. But it’s a little more than the art world knew just a month.

    My thanks to Cheri Indelicato, Alesso Accomando, and Stephanie Romeo for this information.



  • Events: Reports

    Why MAFIAs? Studying What Many Have Chosen To Ignore

    On March 20, 1971, the New York Times ran the front-page headline “‘Godfather’ Film Won’t Mention Mafia.”The story reported that producer Al Ruddy of Paramount Pictures and Joe Colombo, founder of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, had agreed to strike the words mafia and Cosa Nostra from the script of the film The Godfather.

    “Don’t even mention the ‘M’ word!”

    This was a propitious deal of quid pro quo, for Colombo was the head of the Colombo crime family who had nefariously appropriated the role of Italian-American leader and spokesperson.

    In exchange for script censorship, the intimidation, theft, and violence that had plagued pre-production and production ceased, and mob-controlled labor unions began cooperating with the filming. In addition, gangsters were cast as bit players and extras, and subsequently Hollywood actors began socializing with criminals off the set. This encounter between the realities and representations of organized crime contributed to the ongoing replication of refracted imagery in a media house of mirrors.

    A two-day symposium
    The theme of the Calandra Institute’s seventh annual conference is “MAFIAs: Realities and Representations of Organized Crime,” and the two-day event seeks to cover a broad variety of worldwide manifestations of organized crime. As the sole university-research institute for Italian American studies, the Calandra Institute is uniquely positioned to address this topic of interest to specialists including criminologists and lm historians, among others. Consequently, the Calandra Institute is partnering with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where Friday’s session will be held.

    Italian American Mafia and all the others

    Given the historical association of Italian Americans with organized crime in the United States, it behooves us as scholars of Italian-American history and culture to tackle this subject with all the intellectual rigor of our various disciplinary insights. As we know, organized crime is not unique to any one country or ethnic group but rather develops out of specific economic and social conditions across the globe at different historical moments. Thus, conference participants will speak on topics pertaining to Jewish and Polish American mobsters in the United States as well as organized crime in Colombia, India, Japan, Pakistan, and Sweden. The breadth of this program is in keeping with the Calandra Institute’s 2012 conference “Reimagining White Ethnicity: Expressivity, Identity, Race,” which sought a wider and deeper intellectual discourse across disciplinary fields.

    Breaking the silence
    Those involved in Italy’s anti-mafia movement—a topic that will be discussed by a number of conference speakers— have inspired people worldwide with their courageous strategies for confronting the silence and acquiescence that have existed for too long around criminal activities of this nature. MAFIAs, the Calandra conference, is in keeping with that sentiment of resistance inasmuch as it aims to shine a light on heinous practices that many have chosen to willfully ignore.
    * Joseph Sciorra, PhD, anthropologist, ethnographer, and folkolorist, is the Director for Academic and Cultural Programs at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute (Queens College, CUNY). He has published several works in the field of Italian American studies and is the editor of the social science and cultural journal Italian American Review.

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