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Articles by: Joey Skee

  • Art & Culture

    An Epic of Mediterranean Culture

     The modernist agenda challenging the parameters of what constitutes art was put to the test on December 22, 1942, when Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (1902-1981), the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, exhibited “Joe Milone’s Shoe Shine Stand” near the museum entrance at 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan. This fascinating display was featured in The Christian Science Monitor, Corriere d’America, Harper’s Bazzar, New York Herald Tribune, The New York Times, Newsweek, Il Progresso Italo-Americano, Time, among other publications, my sources for this introductory post on the subject. Barr was quoted in several publications:

     
    Joe Milone’s shoe-shine furniture is as festive as a Christmas tree, jubilant as a circus wagon. It is like a lavish wedding cake, a baroque shrine, or a super-juke box with no blank areas in the ornament. Yet it is purer, more personal and simple-hearted than any of these. We must respect the enthusiasm and devotion of the man who made it as much as we enjoy the result. Nearby in the Museum is an exhibition of Useful Objects Under 10 Dollars; but this a superbly useful object without price (“Joe Milone’s Shine-box On Exhibit In Museum,” Corriere d’America, December 27, 1942, p. 18).
     
    Barr’s language, e.g., “purer,” “simple-hearted,” etc., points to his understanding of these unique objects. What exactly were these objects?
     
    The set consists of a red-white-and-blue bar chair with a batik seat, a polish-box, complete with a factory-made aluminum footrest, an extra stand for the customer’s unemployed foot and a plush-covered stool . . . . (“Museum Shows Shoeshine Stool Without a Peer,” New York Herald Tribune, December 22, 1942, n.p.)
     
    These mundane objects were transformed by the application of scores of "beads, billiard balls, bells, costume jewelry, a gilt cupid, ribbon rosettes, and innumerable other objects” purchased at “pushcarts and five-and-ten-cent stores” over the course of years (“Epic of Shoeshine Culture,” Newsweek, January 4, 1943, p. 64).
     
    Every inch of the dazzling chair and its satellite objects is covered or hung with gleaming metal, with glass doorknobs and red, blue, silver, brass and iridescent buttons, ball and bells. On a shelf beneath the chair seat a gilt Cupid in a cummerbund of pearls plays a mandolin as he stands on a tambourine splendid with glass emeralds, topazes and rubies. Little iron flowers painted by Joe in pink, blue, orange and pimento are screwed into the throne-like base of the chair. Varicolored ribbon rosettes cover the seat of the stool. A long-tailed bird in brass is placed advantageously.
     
    Delicate bathing beauties in Far Rockaway china sit on either side of the big shoe rest, while a china kitten wearing a necklace stands guards at the end.
     
    The entire stand and it accessories repay careful scrutiny with endless discovery of new and minute objects, but the resplendent effect of the complete collection rewards even the most casual glance (“Joe Milone’s Shine-box On Exhibit In Museum,” Corriere d’America, December 27, 1942, p. 18).
     
    Who created this fantastically ornate assemblage?
     
    Joe (can we safely assume his name was Giuseppe?) Milone was born in Sicily (town unknown) circa 1887 (Encyclopedia of American Folk, 2003, p. 42) and emigrated to the United States in 1910. He lived at 10 Delancey Street, with his wife and son Accursio. Milone had wanted to be carpenter but had hurt his hand. He worked as a shirt presser in a laundry and shined shoes to make extra income at the corner of 7th Street and Broadway, near the Wanamaker’s department store. It was at the nonextant crossroad that Milone met sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), whose studio was nearby, several weeks before the late December exhibit at MoMA. 
     
    According to repeated accounts, Nevelson complimented Milone on his decorated shoeshine box and he replied, “It is the most beautiful shoe-shine box in New York City.”  He then informed her he had another at home that he never used for work (Milone’s conscious transformation of a mundane, utilitarian object into a “useless” work of art, contradicts Barr’s read of the immigrant naïf) that was “the most beautiful shoe-shine stand in the world.” After visiting Milone at his Delancey Street apartment, Nevelson took the artistic bootblack and his creation to MoMA, showing it to museum curator Dorothy Miller who “found it remarkable” as did Barr. And so the exhibit, formally known as “Joe Milone’s Shoe Shine Stand” (MoMA exhibition #212), was mounted from December 22, 1942 to January 10, 1943.
     
    The sculptor claimed that “This box is the symbol of our age, a thing and space that can never happen again. This is subconscious, surrealist art. It is an epic of Mediterranean culture” (“Epic of Shoeshine Culture,” Newsweek, January 4, 1943, p. 64).
     
    Sixty-six years later, we recognize the similarities with other examples of Italian-American traditional and self-taught artistic creations, from the glimmering strings of festa illuminations to the artisanal religious shrines crafted from wood framing and papier-mâché, and decorated with tinsel and gilded trimming, to the shimmering assemblages of Sabato Rodia’s Watts Towers and Litto Damonte’s Hubcap Ranch in California. The accrual method speaks to the encounter of Italian “arrangiarsi” and the detritus of American capitalism.
     
     

     (left: Madonna dell'Assunta festa shrine, Little Italy, Manhattan, c. 1950; right: Our Lady of Mt. Carmel grotto, Staten Island. Photo: Larry Racioppo.)
     
    Nevelson’s interpretation of Milone’s artistic work within the modern art frame was in sync with Barr’s perspective, which was informed by his “decidedly multicultural vision of modernism” (Helfenstein 2004, 46). It was under Barr’s direction that MoMA exhibited art by Latin American artists, African art (1935), the stone carvings of African-American William Edmondsen (1937), American folk art (1933 and 1938), Native American art (1941), and the religious folk art of the Hispanic Southwest (1943).  It was this “belief in the pluralistic roots of the international movement of modernism” (Ibid., 47) that  prompted the display of the Sicilian bootblack’s artistry.
     
    Milone’s exhibited shoe-shine box (along with the exhibition of self-taught painter Morris Hirshfield in the summer of 1943) was cited by Steven Clark, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, when he ousted Barr from his director position in October 1943. As Tom Patterson writes in his entry on Barr for the Encyclopedia of American Folk, “There were no further exhibitions of folk art or vernacular art at the museum during the last twenty-five years of Barr’s tenure [as advisor] there, nor have there been since” (p. 42).
     
    According to journalist Lou Nappi of the Corriere d’America, Nevelson “predicted that Milone’s shoe-shine box would eventually win its proper place in art and that it had not already done so because its simple qualities which make it a masterpiece have failed to be recognized as yet.” It never quite did. 
     
    MoMA never purchased Milone’s quartet of encrusted pieces, much to curator Dorothy Miller’s chagrin. Milone is quoted as saying that his art was not for sale, “not even for a million dollars.” It is presumed lost.
     
    It was Nevelson hope that: “Sometime, somewhere, somehow, somebody–if their (sic) sensitive enough–will find the right words with which to describe and analyze this magic thing.” This is my humble, first attempt.
     
    (Thanks to LuLu LoLo and Stephanie Romeo.)
     
    Bibliography
     
    Josef Helfenstein, “From the Sidewalk to the Marketplace: Traylor, Edmondson, and the Modernist Impulse,” in Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse. Josef Helfenstein and Roxanne Stanulis, Ed. (Champaign, Illinois, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2004), 45-67.
     
     

  • Life & People

    Backyard Figs from Brooklyn


     I love figs picked from backyard trees in Brooklyn. 

    I love figs more than mozzarella di bufala, more than a simple plate of rigatoni with tomato sauce, and even more than fried zucchini flowers (a subject deserving its own future post).
    I covet the bountiful container in which they often arrive in my hands, the tree’s wide leaves used as bedding and blankets. I yearn for the various stages of ripeness in which they present themselves to me, their starburst bottoms exploding open. I hanker for the black purplish flesh that swims around my mouth, clinging to my teeth. And I crave the pulpy, purple red flesh, sweet and sticky, dissolving across my tongue, sliding down my throat.
    Perhaps my insatiable appetite is driven by the simple fact that I own neither a backyard nor a fig tree, and that my desperate pursuit of this late summer fruit fuels my lust. (I will never forget my 84-year-old Uncle Nick's request when, in the summer of 1986, I asked him what he wanted me to bring back from his hometown Carunchio in Abruzzo, a place he hadn't visited since the early 1930s: "Figs. Fresh figs.") For a while, an elderly couple on my block provided me with the cornucopic excess of their backyard tree. But they have long since passed and now I scrounge the borough of Brooklyn for my annual fix. 
    Italian Americans have planted, cultivated, and harvested fig trees all over Brooklyn. For decades, the assiduously wrapped and bounded trees, capped with plastic buckets, have haunted the borough’s winter landscape like captive souls in a de Chirico painting.
     "Yard With Wrapped Fig Tree, Brooklyn" by Edward Coppola
    Gardeners have begun abandoning the ritual wrapping of the trees either because the Mediterranean ficus carica has adapted to the northeast climes or global warming has created the ideal conditions. Italian Americans’ grand horticultural skills have left a rich legacy throughout the borough from Carroll Gardens to Williamsburg. In these once predominately Italian neighborhoods, “newcomers’ – from yuppies to hipsters – now reap the delicious bounty of those nurtured fig trees. I am admittedly envious.
    I’m not sure when my gluttonous obsession began. I don’t remember eating backyard figs before my late teens. The summer fig is not my madeleine of a lost Italian-American childhood, as it is for so many.
    It was only a few years ago that my mother finally planted a fig tree in the backyard garden, where over the years she has cultivated tomatoes, arugula, peppers, zucchini, and peaches. Two years ago, the tree finally fruited. 
    That summer my father brought a huge tray of figs to my brother’s house where we siblings were taking turns caring for my mother who had broken her arm. I was the only one of the four children at home that day. I immediately devoured a dozen figs right in a row, then slowly ate some more. When I was done – how did I stop myself? – I placed the remaining fruit in the smaller bowl, declaring later by phone, “Oh, by the way, dad said he brought some figs after I left. I think he put them in the frig.” 
    My rapacious desire for backyard figs kicks in when a co-worker brings in the overflow from his tree to the office. I sneak into the office’s common room, scoop up a dozen (or so) figs, scuttle back to my office, and then casually return to my colleague’s generous gift, proclaiming loudly, “Oh, look, fresh figs!” And then I take another three (or four). 
    By September 18th I had had three glorious encounters with backyard figs: from my parents; from my co-worker; and from my friend Anthony Scotto. By this week, I was jonesing for more.
    Then on Wednesday, Anthony emailed me with this message:
    Joe, hope all is well... just picked about 50 figs yesterday, and the tree is still quite full with both ripe and ripening fruit.  if you're going to be in my area any time soon, you're welcome to drop by and take whatever you can pick.  Anthony
    My mouth watered. Between work and family obligations, I was unable to venture to the other end of Brooklyn. I was desperate. When I replied that it was impossible to visit him in Bensonhurst, Anthony wrote back the following day:
    no worries.  i was up in the trees this morning (picked nearly a hundred these past three days) and there are still many unripe figs
    Scores of ripe figs mine for the plucking.
    It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon and the last figs of the season are calling me with their siren song, enticing me to a backyard in Brooklyn.
     

  • Art & Culture

    What’s So Funny about the Virgin Mary?

    Literary scholar and Queens College’s Distinguished Professor Fred Gardaphé has noted on numerous occasions that contemporary Italian Americans suffer from “irony deficiency,” especially as it concerns depictions of Italian Americans on big, small, and tiny screens. 
     
    The pungent and trenchant humor of folk witticisms, proverbs, and stories (think Giufà, the trickster fool) in local and regional languages have long ceased to be part of our everyday life. Farfariello (Eduardo Migliaccio), Nofrio (Giovanni DeRosalia), and other comic actors who used parody and comedy to aid immigrants navigate their way through a strange and estranging landscape are historical figures. In a similar vein, post-World War II comic performers like Lou Monte and Pat Cooper eased the transition of second- and third-generation Italian-Americans from ethnic slums to the white suburbs with their novelty songs and comic routines by bridging emic and etic perspectives. 
     
    In recent times, middle- and upper-class Italian Americans have been repeatedly taken to task for being humorless and downright choleric as they bemoan everything from the demise of the old neighborhood to Tony Soprano. 
     
    AH, COME ON! I’m just busting your balls and your ovaries. Can’t you take a joke?
     
    I left the recent celebration of the Black Madonna in Manhattan with a better understanding of the changing nature of Italian-American humor and religion. This year’s event on September 8th made evident how perspicacious playfulness with Catholic objects, imagery, and ritual is re-energizing folks' understanding and enactment of that ever changing sensibility known as italianità. It was the ludic juxtaposition of what historian Robert Orsi calls “religious idioms” that contributed to the event’s dynamic artistry and acumen.
     

     
    Recent interest in the Black Madonna among Italian Americans is predicated on the linkage between pagan earth goddesses and the Virgin Mary. What is intriguing about this revisionist reformulation is not necessarily its historical accuracy or its divergence with Catholic teachings but the exciting and often humorous ways New York Italians are recalibrating their ethnic identity to sync with their progressive religious and political beliefs.
     
    The location of the five-year-old event is a gay bar that once housed a Sicilian chapel, an ironic convergence of Italian, Catholic, and homosexual topographies that can’t help but cause a wry smile. Performance artist LuLu LoLo (aka Lois Evans nee Pascale) walked into this hybrid space dressed as Saint Mother Cabrini. As her web site explains, Ms. LoLo “draws inspiration from her Italian heritage, movies, the circus, religious processions, and 99 cents stores.” LuLu’s campy minestrone is keeping with Cox's observation that “[j]uxtaposition celebrates the collision of symbol and situation as the occasion for new experience and unprecedented perception.” The sight of this petite artist dressed in a black habit chatting in a gay bar was hilarious. 
      
    Poet and performance artist Annie Lanzillotto and I emailed people encouraging them to bring objects to contribute to a collaborative altar we were proposing. After a few drinks, we moved outdoors where people began putting their objects within the building’s oval window frame to create a Manhattan wall shrine (edicole sacre). Author Tiziana Rinaldi and others attached a series of objects including a printout of a (white) Virgin Mary, flowers, and ribbons. In homage to the elders, Annie placed a Spaldeen rubber ball into the evolving shrine, along with a branch from a peach tree her grandmother Rose planted years ago. Literary scholar and poet George Guida brought a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs, a droll comment on the suburbanite, hyphenated childhood of many. 
     
     
     
    Evident on East 13th Street that night was “a tendency toward excess, a creative layering of objects that simultaneously evokes many relationships, many meanings – religious, familial, personal, political” that folklorist Kay Turner noted about women’s traditional domestic altars.
      

     
    At one point, there was a call for “the baby.” Antonella – I didn’t catch her last name – handed off her infant Leonardo who was passed along the crowd and hoisted up to the makeshift shrine, lightheartedly echoing the blessing of children during feste, a gesture that both conferred power to the shrine and conveyed a blessing onto the child of that special night.
     
     
    (from left to right: Annie Lanzillotto, George Guida, and the Fabulous LuLu LoLo and Leonardo.)
     
    Attendants ranged from practicing Catholics and stone cold atheists. On the fifth year of our meeting, I was again reminded of scholar and author Mary Cappello's observations on religion in her memoir Night Bloom:
     
    No matter with what conviction I tell myself that I have left the precepts of Catholicism behind--for they were more harmful than helpful to me--Catholicism still asserts itself as the bedrock, perhaps the major tableau vivant of my desiring, and Christianity's visage seems to mediate my most intimate relationships with other people, and even my my means of communicating with myself.  It has left its indelible mark, and on some level I will never fully own the power and magic of its traces.
     
    The evening’s good drink, conviviality, and artistic playfulness of religious symbols created a space where we all gathered beneath the protective mantel of the laughing Madonna Nera.

     
     

  • Op-Eds

    The Sound of Italian-American Cultural Philanthropy


     

    Hunkering down from tropical storm Hanna last Saturday night, I had just popped in a new DVD when the phone rang. My brother was calling to urge me to turn on the TV to Channel 13, New York City’s PBS station. There was actor Danny Aiello making a pitch for the station’s September pledge drive. The cultural hook for this fundraising event was a specially-produced musical program entitled “That’s Amore: Italian-American Favorites.” 
     
     
     
     
    So WNET-TV was looking to expand its donor base with an appeal to Italian Americans? Excuse me while I get my guinea up, but what has Channel 13 ever done for Italian Americans? 
    In March, WNET aired Steven Fischler’s documentary film Beyond Wiseguys: Italian American and the Movies. And then there was . . .
    thinking
    thinking
    thinking
    OH, YEA!
    Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
     
    Now that really made me want to reach for my credit card.
    The pledge drive was, as we say in Brooklyn, a real goomba fest. The uber-gesticulator Aiello looked like an Italian hula dancer, his flailing hands accompanying his narrative in hyper Vegas kinesics. Crooning and belting Italo-specters – Louis Prima, Perry Como, Connie Francis, Julies La Russo, Jerry Vale, “and more!” – were resuscitated from cathode broadcasts of the past. The patina of black and white television (Ah! Those flaring skirts!) and the tawdriness that was TV in the 1970s (Ah! Those countless light bulbs!) enshrined these “legends” and “genesis” in a pantheon of mid-twentieth century Italian-American entertainment giants.
     
    Don’t get me wrong. No one loves Connie more than me. I still have the 78 rpm recording of La Rosa’s “Eh, Compari!” I heard repeatedly as a kid growing up. And most of the featured artists are in my iTunes. But Channel 13, this is your attempt to reach out to Italian Americans? 
    As a scholar, I couldn’t help but notice the academic issue of WNET defining “Italian-American music” with fuzzy phrases like “Italian flavored hits” and ”Italian sounding songs” or that Rosemary Clooney (one of many singers who were “adopted as our own”) was said to have recorded “classic folk songs” like “Come On-a My House” (composed in 1939), “Botch-a-Me (Ba-Ba-Baciammi) (composed in 1941), and “Mambo Italiano” (composed in 1954).
     
     
    Woefully missing was any music recorded before World War II. The singers and songs of all those immigrant grandparents and parents who were shamelessly and endlessly evoked were absent. 
    Ria Rosa M.I.A. 
    Joe Masiello Who’s that?
    Gilda Mignonette        silence
    Age was a major fundraising strategy. “The soundtrack of our culture and our memories,” we were told. Recent concert footage of nonagenarians Tony Martin and Frankie Laine – “made just weeks before he died!” – made explicit the targeted donor.   Making his way through the ever increasing chorus of his signature song “Eh, Compari!” during a present-day show, La Rosa confessed, “I’m getting too old for this song.”
    This music is the sound of a triumphant middle-class longing for its mythic past of Sunday dinners and front stoops back in the old neighborhood. The pledge drive’s wistful pallor was evident in the bucolic scenes of Italian peasants playing bocce and eating a communal dinner outdoor filmed in soft focus. People hugged and kissed in the golden glow of sunset.
    Language played a critical role in Channel 13’s framing of Italian-American culture. A simple count of the words and phrases used during the two hour pledge reveals that nostalgia, claims of authenticity, show biz hype, and ethnic buzzwords were the semiotic payload for donor money:
    ·       “great,” “greatest,” “best,” (not including the Sinatra compilation entitled “Nothing But The Best”), “big,” “biggest,” “the most,” “super,” “amazing,” “sensational,” legend,” (not including “Mr. Sinatra” [x 3]), and “genius”: 64 times
    ·       “true,” “real,” “sincere,” “original(s),” “unique(ly),”and “the one and only”: 46 times
    ·       “family,” “parents,” “mother,” “mamma,” father,” “poppa,” “grandparents,” “grandmother,” “grandfather,” “children,” and “kids” (but not including radio personality “Cousin Brucie” or “wedding[s]”): 40 times
    ·       “favorite(s)”: 9 times
    ·       “memory(ies)” and “remember” (not including “time,” “long time ago,” or “yesteryear”): 8 times
    ·       “respect” and “rispetto”: 5 times
    ·       “(old) neighborhood”: 5 times
    ·       “paisan”: 4 times
    ·       “culture”: 4 times
    ·       “heritage” (including “preserve”): 4 times
    ·       “honor”: 4 times
    It was beyond my abilities (and my family’s tolerance level to hear the broadcast I had taped more than a fourth time) to catalogue the number of times the words “love,” lover,” “amore,” heart, “feeling, “emotion(s),” tear(s),” crying” were used.
    TJ Lubinsky, the producer of the “That’s Amore” compilation,” proclaimed “No one has put this together.” Oh, really? How about:
    And the elephant in the room, “Mob Hits - Music From and a Tribute to the Great Mob Movies?” (And let’s not forget “Mob Hits II: More Music from the Great Mob Movies” and “Mob Hits Christmas.”)
     
    What was truly shocking to watch was PBS exploiting the mob factor as part its donor appeal. Actor Vincent Pastore – who we were reminded starred in “The Sopranos” – arrived with John “Cha Cha” Ciarcia and Joe Rigano, his co-hosts of the Sirius Satellite Radio's Wise Guy Show.” They proceeded to perform their mafia minstrelsy with shtick about “pilfering” promotional items and selling them out of the back of the car, and taking bets over the phone instead of pledges.  The November revival of Louis LaRusso 1975 play “Lamppost Reunion” with Pastore, Frank Pellegrino, and Aiello’s son Ricky was described sotto voce as being about “a friend of ours.” The play’s about Frank Sinatra, for God’s sake!
    This is my Channel 13? The station I go to when I first turn on the television in my cable-free house? Where I watched the primaries? Where I watch science programs with my son? Sesame Street?
    The two-hour taped Italo-pledge drive was repeated the following day and then the following Saturday. The viewers were informed on all three days with the same looped clip that the station had reached its fundraising goal.
    I returned to my DVD, Reginald Barker’s1915 silent film The Italian, with actor George Beban. Film scholar Giorgio Bertellini eloquently explained in his audio commentary how this classic of American silent cinema was about type, typology, and how “Italian” is constructed. Ninety-three years after the film – which was originally entitled The Dago – was released, PBS is still fishing the murky waters of Italian-American type in search of money.
     

  • Art & Culture

    La Madonna Nera of New York City


     

    Since 2004, Italian Americans (myself included) have gathered informally each September 8th at Manhattan’s Phoenix Bar. This annual celebration recognizes the Sicilian immigrants from Patti (Messina province) who organized Il Comitato Pattese alla Vergine SS. del Tindari in 1905 to honor the Black Madonna in the streets of New York City.  Eight years later, this lay, voluntary association opened a store front chapel and social club at 447 East 13th Street and operated it until 1987.  In 1998, the space was converted into the Phoenix Bar. 
     
     
    Members of Il Comitato Pattese alla Vergine SS. del Tindari, circa 1935.
    Courtesy: Anne Palermo Carroccio.
     
     
    Lauren, the bar’s original owner, was at first leery of a gathering for the Virgin Mary, concerned about Catholic homophobes and/or an attempt to usurp this gay space. As the event evolved, her concerns were alleviated and Lauren, the bartenders, and patrons began anticipating our arrival. Jamie, the bar’s new owner, was well aware of the annual fete when I called him last week (“Of course I know about the Black Madonna!”) and is as gracious as his predecessor (“Let me know if you need anything.”).
     
    The annual “event” is a spontaneous, free flowing, evolving affair, consisting of what ever participants want to do that particular year. Artists B Amore, Annie Lanzillotto, Adele La Barre Starensier, and others who draw on southern Italian and Italian-American culture in their work regularly contribute to the occasion. In 2005, folks danced to recorded pizzica music from Puglia. The following year, people created a chalk drawing of the Madonna del Tindari on the sidewalk outside the bar. This year there is talk of an altar being created from whatever objects people bring.
     
     
     
    Adele La Barre Starensier & her painted banner, 2006.
    Photograph: Smiljana Peros
     
    Participants’ varied and occasionally conflicting motives – cultural, religious, political and/or convivial– contribute to the sometimes faltering, sometimes exhilarating results. Many attendees are influenced by a series of interrelated works dealing with ethnic revival and cultural reclamation, from Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum’s book Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy (1993) to I Giullari di Piazza’s opera “Earth, Sun, & Moon” (1995), from neo-stregheria to neo-tarantismo. A few attendees are practicing Catholics actively reviving older, often defunct immigrant religious devotions. Others simply come to chat and laugh with like-minded paesani over a cold beer. 
     
    A new generation of Italian Americans has adopted and transformed the Madonna Nera image into an icon of italianità by linking it to a reconfigured, ecumenical spiritually, a politically progressive position, and a multicultural perspective, as an ongoing reimagining of what it means to be “Italian” in the 21st century.  Come and join us.
     
    Monday, September 8, 2008, 6PM

    The Phoenix Bar

    447 East 13th Street, off of Avenue A

    Manhattan
     


  • Art & Culture

    Lace in the Crystal City


     

    Last week I visited the brilliantly conceptualized and beautifully executed exhibition “Lace, the Spaces Between” at the Benjamin Patterson Inn Museum in Corning, New York. The modest, one-room exhibit is subtitled “Domestic Lace Making and the Social Fabric of the Italian American Community in Corning.” It closes on December 20th.
     
    Corning is known as the Crystal City because of its historic association with glass making. Italian men arrived at the turn of the twentieth century to labor on the three railroad companies, with women and children coming afterwards. They settled in the Irish neighborhood along Water Street, frequented St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, established the Marconi Lodge, and listened to the symphonic marches of the Sons of Italy Liberty Marching Band. 
     
    For exhibit curator Constance Sullivan-Blum “[h]andmade domestic lace can be seen as a metaphor for the Italian American experience in Corning, [. . .] representing the social dynamics of the immigrant experience as people struggle with preserving their cultural identity while adopting new practices both by choice and by coercion in their new homes.”
     
     

    The exhibited needlework focused on crochet – “the lace of poor people” – made to imitate bobbin lace created for elite families. Through text and artifacts, the exhibit shows the various crochet patterns like “violets” and “wild strawberries,” and techniques like reticella that involved cutting and pulling threads to create a frame for additional threads.
     
    The exhibit goes out of its way to identify individual makers like Paulina Baldina Capozzi, Julia Pieri, and Lucia Yorio, to name but three, and situate their handmade objects in context. Cary Castellana Granata’s decorated bed sheet and pillowcases are displayed on a mock bed. Visitors are invited to enjoy the beauty of a series of filigreed dollies, runners, and table cloths by opening drawers of a dresser tucked in a corner.
     
     

     
    Over time, Italian-American women adapted their skills to their new environment. They borrowed Irish patterns from their neighbors, gave American names to Italian patterns (e.g., “wild strawberries” were redubbed “pineapples”), used thicker and multicolored threads, and utilized patterns published by Carmela Testa and Company of Boston.
     
    The exhibit deals with women refusing to learn or practice needlework, as new economic and social opportunities became available: 
     
    “The refusal of young women to learn crochet symbolized cultural change. Young women were unwilling to iron linens, clean lace or take the time to make lace doilies. They saw lace as an inconvenience that added work rather than an art that increased the beauty of the home. They also rejected socializing in women-only crochet circles and acquired the social interests of other American youth.”
     
    I learned about the catastrophic flooding of the Chemung River in 1972 during a storm (the remnants of Hurricane Agnes) that destroyed much of the city, including the Italian community of Water Street. 
     
     
    The exhibit concludes with examples of contemporary Italian-American women involved in domestic needlework, part of a larger needlework revival in the United States. Some women learned directly from their elders, while others use American-style stitches and patterns.  
     
    “Lace, the Spaces Between” is an important contribution to our understanding of Italian-American women domestic artistry and work.
     

     

  • Art & Culture

    A Sicilian named George Wallington



     

    I’m a frequent listener to the loquacious and erudite jazz historian/raconteur Phil Schaap’s “Bird Flight,” a radio program on WKCR-FM/www.wkcr.org dedicated to the music of Charlie Parker. This month Schaap played a fascinating segment on the evolution of the Dizzy Gillespie composition “Night in Tunisia.” Running down the respective line ups for the different recordings, Schaap mentioned the name “George Wallington.”  The pronounced Anglo-Saxon name jumped out at me because I recognized it as the moniker of Sicilian-born pianist Giacinto Figlia (1923-1993). 
     
    I had the good fortune of having read about Figlia/Wallington in Anthony Scotto’s unpublished article on the musician. Scotto sent me his edifying manuscript a few months back for comment and I enthusiastically recommended that he submit it to VIA, Italian Americana, or another publication.
     
    Scotto writes that Figlia “occupies a vanguard position in the development” of bebop. The rather poor recording of "Night in Tunisia" I heard was performed by Gillespie’s band, considered to be the first bebop band, at New York City’s Onyx Club in January 1944. The live recording of this single song, the band’s only known recording, was discovered and first released in 1996. Figlia was nineteen-years-old. 
     
    Between 1940 to 1958, Figlia performed and recorded with such luminaries as Parker, Gillespie, Lester Young, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan, to name but a few. (According to one account, it was a quip by Stan Getz about Figlia’s impeccable sartorial choice that led to the pianist adopting his nome d’arte “Lord Wallington.”) The New York-raised artist was a prolific composer, having written over fifty songs, including the bop standards “Lemon Drop” and “Godchild.” 
     
    In 1958, Figlia/Wallington retired from music to start an air conditioning business with his father and two brothers, only to return twenty-seven years later. Scotto writes that Figlia’s “music still sounds vibrant, remarkably crisp and very listenable” after all these years. It was Scotto’s research that helped me to better appreciate this little known artist. 
     
     

  • Life & People

    Sending a Telegram to the Pope


     

    As long as I can remember, this 6” x 6” square ceramic plaque hung in the family bathroom. It seems that even before I could read, and well before I learned (standard) Italian, I knew what the words meant:
     
    There will be great popes,
    there will be powerful kings
    but they are just like me
    when they sit here.
     
    Recently, I asked my mother, Anna, about the plaque’s provenance. She told me she’d bought it in Naples in the summer of 1958 on a return visit to Italy. “Why?” I asked. “I liked what it said,” she replied. “Everyone is equal.” What better expression of Gramsci’s concept of a counter hegemonic national popular culture as augmented by Bakhtin’s notion of the lower bodily stratum than this unassuming souvenir?
     
    My mom has always displayed an anti-authoritarian feistiness. As a child during the early 1960s, I witnessed her repeated resistance to representatives of state and church power, taking on cops and priests alike. Her contumacy was not untypical of many southern Italians, as authors and scholars such as Carlo Levi and Richard Gambino have noted. (After World War II, Italian-Americans became increasingly compliant as they bought into a white, middle class, and ultimately politically conservative agenda.)
     
    As a returning emigrant, my mother may have found the plaque’s piquant adage particularly appealing. Having left Maranola, a hamlet (frazione) of Formia (Latina province) in Lazio in 1951, where she had experienced both the splenetic fulminations of a malevolent stepmother and the terror of World War II, my mother may have felt empowered by her new and invigorating status as an (Italian-)American woman – married, with a male child, and flush with dollars – to confront the waning powers from her past. 
     
    At some point, the plaque had fallen and for years the broken pieces sat forgotten in a drawer. Eventually, my father glued them together and I reclaimed the family heirloom. Today, it rests on a miniature pedestal in my family’s bathroom.
     
    Last year at a family house party, my father Enrico unexpectedly exclaimed: “I’m going to send a letter to the Pope,” as he strode to the bathroom. My kids were amused at their grandfather’s irreverent proclamation. Later I asked him about his scatological reference, one I have never heard my father utter. He explained that when he was growing up in Carunchio (Chieti province, Abruzzo), male family members would state, “Vado a mandare un telegramma al Papà” as they made their way to the weeds behind the house to defecate. “There was no bathroom, not even an outhouse," my 86-year-old father told me. "Everything changed after the war."
     
    My unbaptized, heathen children, my “spiritual” wife, and I – an apostate and born-again atheist ­– have since modernized the expression: “I’m faxing the Pope.”  (The public announcement of one’s evacuation is a ludicrous yet enduring family tradition well-suited for a small Brooklyn apartment with a single bathroom.)  At times, we update the Italian peasant epigram to suit our political leanings by simply stating, “I’m emailing George Bush;” feculent offerings and a ribald statement. And this, my dear friends, is one way Italian-American culture is reproduced. 
     
     

  • Facts & Stories

    A digital message in a bottle.


     

    A Los Angeles television researcher contacted me this week about information on Italian-American history. He is working on an American version of the BBC program “Who Do You Think You Are?” that traces a celebrity’s family tree. The first email I received read:
     
    “We are looking into the family history of an Italian American family who came from Tuscany and settled in NYC around 1890.   He became a sculptor, or molder.  In 1920 census.  They lived lower east side, also near Greenwich v.  also in New Haven.”
     
    We spoke on the phone in what amounted to "Italian-American History 101,” going over emigration patterns, North-South tensions, turn of the 20th century New York City, artisan craftsmen, etc. When I asked who the Italian-American celeb was, he offered to tell me on the condition I signed a non-disclosure agreement. I wasn’t that interested.
     
    His second email provided additional information on the celeb’s immigrant ancestor:
     
    “The artist (actually, perhaps artisan) is Mansueto Rigali, he arrived in 1890 from near Lucca and settled in Manhattan in 1890s, 1900s; he went New haven 1910 (metal worker) and in 1920 I find him in the census for Brookhaven, Suffolk county, NY as a sculptor with his own shop.  Family lore says he made religious sculpture.  I am interested to find out about his life, his trade, guilds, business and so on.  I have other data, e.g. marriage, kids, death in Brooklyn in 1927, (he had 10 kids, 6 died). [. . .] They lived Pearl ST and also Madison for quite a while, I think that’s lower east side.”
     
    He wasn’t asking for specific information on Rigali but sources for photographs, historical accounts of the time, etc., which I provided to the best of my knowledge.
     
    But this TV researcher’s query got me thinking about the power of the Internet. A number of people have contacted me about my various posts to the i-italy blog with invaluable information and contacts I was unaware of previously. What would happen if I posted this little something about Mansueto Rigali? Who would respond? How long would it take? 
     
    Here’s my digital message in a bottle. I’ll keep you posted.
     
     

  • Art & Culture

    A wall, a poem, a summer epiphany.


    Meriggiare pallido e assorto

     
    Meriggiare pallido e assorto

    presso un rovente muro d’orto,

    ascoltare tra i pruni e gli sterpi

    schiocchi di merli, frusci di serpi.


    Nelle crepe del suolo o su la veccia

    spiar le file di rosse formiche

    ch’ora si rompono ed ora s’intrecciano

    a sommo di minuscole biche.


    Osservare tra frondi il palpitare

    lontano di scaglie di mare

    mentre si levano tremuli scricchi

    di cicale dai calvi picchi.


    E andando nel sole che abbaglia

    sentire con triste meraviglia

    com’è tutta la vita e il suo travaglio

    in questo seguitare una muraglia

    che ha in cima cocci aguzzi di bottiglia.
    Eugenio Montale

     

     

     

     

    To lounge at noon pale and lost in thought
    against a scorching garden wall,
    to listen to blackbirds crackle and snakes rustle
    amongst the thicket and bramble.
     
    To spy the lines of red ants
    in the cracks of the earth or among the vetch
    sometimes breaking and sometimes interlacing
    at the summit of minuscule heaps.
     
    To observe between the foliage
    slivers of the sea in the distant pulse
    while the cicadas’ tremulous scraping
    arises from the bald peaks.
     
    And walking into the blazing sun

    to feel a sad amazement

    how all of life and its travails

    is here on this pathway, a wall

    topped with sharp shards of broken bottles.
     
    Translation by Joseph Sciorra.

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