Articles by: Stefano Albertini

  • Art & Culture

    The Meaning of Cinema

    Gianni Amelio, one of the most influential Italian film directors of our times, was recently in New York to present his two latest films at Open Roads, the Italian film festival at Lincoln Center curated by Antonio Monda.

    I interviewed him for i-ItalyTV in the garden of Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò right before the beginning of the round table discussion that featured the entire artistic delegation of Open Roads (see video). Rather unusually for a film festival, Open Roads invited Amelio to present a double bill: the feature film The Intrepid and the documentary Felice chi è diverso. I started my discussion with Amelio by asking him about the documentary, because that’s where Amelio got his start in filmmaking. After an apprenticeship on the set of documentaries by directors like Liliana Cavani, Amelio began making his own films, starting with a documentary about the making of what probably remains the most epic contemporary Italian film: Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900.

    How would you describe your relationship with documentary filmmaking?

    I don’t see much difference between documentaries and features; it’s all cinema to me, and I take both [genres] on with the same spirit, searching for the truth of feelings. Whether those feelings belong to a real person or to the character that an author has created is of little relevance to me.

    In your latest docufilm presented at Open Roads festival in New York, you interview homosexuals about their life in the 1900s. Where did this idea come from?

    I didn’t get the idea from people but from things. Newspapers, news reports, some images from movies dating back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. The language being used then would be totally unacceptable today. These images conveyed such cruelty and viciousness that I wanted to compare them with the private and personal lives of homosexuals in the postwar period. Stories of extraordinary moral strength were being belittled, insulted and crushed by the media.

    The other movie you presented at Open Roads, L’intrepido (The intrepid), tells the story of a man who creates a new job for himself every day; he replaces anyone who cannot do her/his job for the day. Is the economic situation in Italy so disastrous?

    I believe that right now in Italy—but not only there—the predicament of our survival is very worrisome. The prospects for the future for our children and ourselves are so bleak that we cannot afford to face them with tears in our eyes.

    And so you chose a comedian to play the role...

    Yes, we need to explore the road of paradox. When I tell the story of someone whose job is “being a replacement,” I am obviously trying to be provocative. The provocative approach makes the issue even more serious. I dealt with this problem by using a very popular Italian comic actor, who is, however, endowed with a sense of humor that doesn’t belong to the Italian tradition, but rather to a far older one that has its roots in the US. I was thinking more of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Buster Keaton.

    As you mentioned, many of your viewers are Americans with a passion for Italy, or Italian Americans whose personal or family history is one of migration, a theme that is very close to your heart. One of your best and most successful films on this topic is Lamerica (consciously misspelled), which is a story of emigration and interaction between people of different origins. Your own familiarity with migration comes from your father, who left for Argentina when you were very young. What is your relationship with this topic today?

    My father’s emigration represented the division and ultimate dissolution of my family. To me, making a film like Lamerica in Albania meant reconstructing a family of my own, since it’s there that I met my son. I adopted an Albanian boy and, through him, his whole family. Today he bears my name. He is a grown man with three wonderful daughters. He somehow compensated me for my missing out on my original family. He allowed me to create a new family, which is what I care the most about now.

    Another movie with biographical elements is Le Premiere Homme, one of my favorites. How does Gianni Amelio fit in Camus’ deeply autobiographical novel about his return to Algeria?

    Camus seems to tell a very personal story, strongly characterized by the fundamental political and historical background of Algeria going through the early phases of French decolonization. I’d say that his story resembles mine, especially my childhood. It all started because Camus’ daughter knew some of my movies and trusted me to direct a very intimate and difficult story to approach. She relied on these autobiographical elements and parallels. For example, like Camus, I grew up without a father, with a very young mother and an extremely authoritative grandmother. And Camus’ childhood, like mine, was marked by hunger.  

    What does Gianni Amelio do when he is not working?

    I live. Cinema is not my life’s goal; it’s a learning tool. Of course, when you make a movie, you dig deep into your soul, right into your guts, but above all you get to know others. You search for other people’s truths, and find your own in the process. Cinema is an extraordinary vehicle that allows you to continuously enrich your life. The human mind is flexible and it becomes even more so if you fill it with passages from books, images from movies, pieces of music or paintings. I think we shouldn’t spend our time spasmodically looking for success, for the big movie or award, but rather try to really know the things we love, and love the things we already know even more. 

  • Art & Culture

    A ‘Casa’ that Makes New York Ever More Italian

    For almost 25 years, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò has helped make New York more Italian. Thousands of people each year cross the threshold of the elegant Anglo-Italianate building – once the residence of legendary 19th century General Winfield Scott – to participate in one of the 100 events the Casa offers every year.

    From concerts to art exhibits, from academic lectures to conversations with writers, directors, actors, and singers, from film screenings to theatrical performances, the Casa’s calendar is studded with treats for people of all generations and backgrounds.

    Of course, you could argue that there are several other institutions in New York with a similar mission and a comparable program of events. But I think there are a few features that make the Casa and its style unique.

    Una casa! First and foremost we take pride in the name and the vision that inspired its founder, Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli- Marimò. What makes us a casa, a home, besides the fact that the building was conceived of as a residence in the mid-19th century, is the desire to provide students, guests, and friends with a beautiful warm Italian home in the Village.

    From the Italian marble and oversized family portraits in the grand hall to Sarah’s Garden (the green gem is probably the most beloved space of the building) to the furnishings from the Baroness’ own homes that give each room a particular personality, every detail adds to the feeling that ours is a cozy, family place. A casa, a home, whose doors and windows are open.

    From the outset, the Casa has promoted Italian culture in the broadest sense of the term. Its decision to focus on contemporary Italy was prompted by the desire to present New Yorkers with a country that, while boasting the highest number of UNESCO sites of any nation, is not an outdoor museum but rather a modern, complex place that remains pivotal to the international scene, whatever its shortcomings.

    Over the years we have paid a great deal of attention to the canonical fields of Italian studies, Italian American culture (especially thanks to the Tiro a Segno Visiting Professorship) and Jewish Italian studies (in collaboration with the Centro Primo Levi in NY). The latter two fields of Italian studies are often underrepresented in American academia.

    But anyone with a remote interest in Italian culture familiar with the Casa’s programs should know that we do not just host events. Our events are not even the most important thing we do. The image of the Casa as a vetrina, or showcase of Italian culture and art tells only part of the story. I prefer to think of the Casa as a workshop, a Renaissance bottega where we make art as much as we display it.

    Obviously the Department of Italian Studies at NYU plays the most prominent role. Housed in the Casa from its foundation, the Department is now the largest of its kind in the US and often ranked the best as well. During the day, well before the events begin, the Casa is animated by classes, seminars, lectures, and discussions led by an accomplished interdisciplinary faculty that includes scholars of literature, cinema, history, and the visual arts. Theses, research projects, and dissertations that will shape the future of Italian studies are conceived and created at the Casa every day.

    In the last few years the Casa has also made a home for opera ( and theater companies ( that have quickly become integral to the bottega. The talented young people the companies attract bring their ideas and dreams to life in our auditorium, travel throughout the city, and, sometimes, the entire country. Recent noteworthy productions include Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (fully staged!) and Scarlatti’s only opera buffa, Il trionfo dell’onore (never before staged in the US) for UPO and Machiavelli’s La Mandragola and an adaptation of three novellas from Boccaccio’s Decameron, both in contemporary English translations, for KIT.

    Rounding out the picture is our Italian Book Club (for more information contact: [email protected], Contemporary Italian Auteur Cinema Film Club (contact: [email protected] com), and Youth Club (contact: [email protected] com).

    Even though I am the director of the Casa (and I couldn’t think of a more exciting, challenging, multifarious job), I’m far from being its leading voice. Remember, the Casa is a bottega, populated by an assortment of people with various interests and passions who come together to engage in a lively and vibrant cultural dialogue between Italy and the US.

  • Life & People

    The American Fortune of Niccolò Machiavelli

    Machiavelli always fills the classroom. Years, decades go by. The students change, the way they dress changes, but when you offer a course on Machiavelli at an American university you can rest assured that your class will always be full. But there are always surprises. For almost 20 years I’ve been teaching Machiavelli’s theories and writings at New York University, the largest private university in the United States.


    Every time I begin a course, I dedicate the first lesson to understanding why these youngsters, who come from all over the world, who take notes with their iPads, who almost don’t know how to write with a pen, who seem completely disinterested in politics, who barely know the name of the incumbent president, why they want to study the writings of the founder of modern political science. The answers vary with the times and reflect the constant and ever-ambivalent attraction of American society educated in the Italian Renaissance.

    At the beginning of the 1990s, most of the students were undergraduates in business and management. At first I did not understand why they decided to move from accounting and marketing to Florence of the 1500s – and then I found out that there was a booklet circulating that treated Machiavelli’s The Prince as a kind of guide for the modern manager. These were the years of the economic boom, with billions of start-ups and the great illusion that unbridled capitalism could only grow and thrive thanks to the audacity and the lack of scruples of a new ruling class.

    Then there were the Tupac years, named for the rapper born in East Harlem whose life was marked by extraordinary success (more than 75 million records sold) and incredible violence. While in prison, young Tupac discovered Machiavelli’s books and was so fascinated by his writings that he even changed his stage name to Makaveli. The gunshot that killed him at the age of 25 prevented him from deepening his discovery, but his legend lives on. During the second half of the 1990s and beyond, that myth has populated my courses with a colorful audience of students who, thanks to the conversion of their musical idol, have discovered a new way of looking at history and politics.

    More recently, the television series dedicated to the Borgias, presented as a crime syndicate in the context of an ostentatious Rome during the1500s, depicted a credible Machiavelli (Julian Bleach) at the center of intrigue, plots, and conspiracies that are difficult for 20-something Americans to resist. But the real surprise has come from the last wave of students, almost all of them drawn into the classroom by a video game: Assassins Creed 2, with accurate and detailed recreations of Florence, Venice, and Rome during the Renaissance, and a billion dollar investment that involved dozens of consultants from many fields. The adviser to the protagonist (the player) is, obviously, Machiavelli – and I must say that the advice he gives is quite plausible and altogether consistent with the Machiavelli’s original writings.

    But what fascinates me most when I teach Machiavelli is to see the substantial “conversion” of all students, whatever the reason that led them to enroll in the course: a rapper who was gunned down or a sophisticated yet violent video game. It is a Machiavellian conversion to realism, an appreciation for a way of writing about politics in a clear and straightforward way, while at the same time capturing the complexity and depth. Machiavelli’s aspiration to write about politics in a rigorous and scientific way, stripping away any elements of propaganda or rhetoric, reveals the major discovery to which I can “initiate” my students and that, in the end, will help train them and give them a different perspective on today’s politics. 

  • Op-Eds

    Those Evil Public School Italian Teachers

    “Freedom means the possibility of educating one's children freely, and freely means not to be forced to send them to State schools, where the teachers want to inculcate principles contrary to the ones of their parents”. (Silvio Berlusconi)

    I work in the largest private university of the United States and obtained my PhD in the most prestigious private university of the West Coast, that Stanford which served as an incubator for the Silicon valley, but which also hosted the most esteemed of humanists: from Michelle Serres to John Freccero and Rene Girard. But I am a product of the Italian public school: from my first grade in Bozzolo to the University of Parma. School was also central to the lives of my family: my grandmother, father, and aunt all dedicated their lives to the public school, without regrets.

     The Prime Minister's sentence is deeply offensive towards those I value most in the world, but this is a secondary problem. The President offends millions of Italians on a daily basis and nobody seems to even notice anymore, so I will do the same, but I cannot refrain from sharing my thoughts regardin the sense and value of the public school system in Italy. I am not going to report numbers and stats, but I do want to report that over 90% of students from Elementary through High school attend state schools. We also know that some of these schools are in disastrous structural conditions and lack the areas and equipments they would need. Unfortunately we also know that there are teachers who are unprepared and uninterested. As far as private schools are concerned, apart from some outstanding exceptions, especially among the confessional schools (such as those run by Jesuits and Salesians, always devoted to education), there are many at the service of not so brilliant students, who not being able to finish public schools, move to one of many diploma mills that have sprout like mushrooms during the last few years, where a significant tuition fee assures certain - and often accelerated - promotion and graduation.

    Italian public school did not only have an obvious educational function, but also a political and social one. Our country's unity, which we are celebrating this year, was obtained on the battlefields of Solferino, Custoza, and Goito, but the unification of Italians was obtained in classrooms (as De Amicis rightfully reminded us, possibly with too sweet a rhetoric for our sensibility), where underpaid but esteemed teachers created a national sense of belonging by teaching our language, history and literature. Until recently, if one befriended someone who had completed the eleventh grade, one knew that he had read Dante's Inferno and after twelfth grade knew about the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. From Palermo to Trento, from Casalmaggiore to Canicattì all of us learned at school who we are and where we come from.

    And how about these inculcating teachers, as Berlusconi calls them, whose beliefs are contrary to the families? I know plenty of teachers: my professors, my parents and their friends and those colleagues of mine whom I taught with before coming to the States. Not all of them were Madame Curie or Benedetto Croce, but some were true teachers: updated, cultured, dialectically effective, able to raise interest and passion to the most abstruse of topics. Some were communists, one was an anarchist, a couple were fascist nostalgics, some were liberal, some we never knew. At the experimental high school Virgilio in Mantua, which I attended for a year, almost everyone was leftist and that experiment was based on the principles of don Milani; they wore turtlenecks and everyone spoke informally to each other. In my Istituto Magistrale Sofonisba Anguissola in Cremona, most of my teachers were extremely catholic unmarried sixty-year-old ladies who wore austere black work coats (this was the 1980s, not the Middle Ages). Everyone spoke formally to each other. I studied history both according to the communist Villari and the catholic De Rosa. The professors usually pointed out who the author was. Our strongly moderate and conservative art history professor used Argan but every so often told us to study it keeping in mind the “he was a communist”. I don't believe mine was a different experience from that of different generations of Italians. I am happy to have met professors with different principles from those of my parents and that dialogue helped me develop my critical spirit and appreciate and respect different opinions and ideas.

    My father would spend the month of August touring the farmlands near Mantua and Cremona to convince the farmers to allow their children to continue their studies at the Istituto Professionale (public!) for Agriculture. He taught agrarian economy using three languages: dialect, Latin and Italian. Taken away from barns and put into classrooms for a few years, many of these kids graduated and even finished college. My mother would bring the more difficult scholars home in the afternoon, to the reluctance of my brother and me. My grandmother, with polio, at age 18 went to the newly Italian Istria to teach classes of 70-80 students. She spent more than 40 years in public schools. She was poor like everybody else: during the war a teacher's salary would buy two pounds of salt.

    The most serious effect of President Berlusconi's words, as I anticipated, is not offending these teachers, but is the destabilizing and terrible message he is sending to millions of Italian students in public schools. It is as if he had said: your professors aren't there to teach you new things, or explain difficult concepts to you, to open up unknown worlds to you, and to help you think with your head and develop a critical spirit; they are simply political agitators who try to brainwash you. Berlusconi's sentence de-legitimizes the whole teaching class and places all teachers in the accused box as agitprops. It takes away from the teachers the only thing they have left: the respect and esteem of pupils and fellow citizens.

    When my grandmother retired and was brought around town on a wheelchair, the men she met would tip their hats and salute her as “sciura maestra” [Mrs. Teacher], not because she was richer, more powerful, or more clever, but because they knew that she had dedicated her life to the community, not “inculcating principles”, but opening minds and filling them with good things that would make everyone's life better. Italian teachers are among the least paid graduates in Italy (and Europe). Berlusconi is trying to take away even what remains of the respect and esteem that still surrounds them and that is indispensable for their authority in the classroom.

    We must not allow him to do so!

    Stefano Albertini

    New York University

  • Opinioni

    Quei cattivi maestri nella scuola pubblica italiana

    "Libertà vuol dire avere la possibilità di educare i propri figli liberamente, e liberamente vuol dire non essere costretti a mandarli in una scuola di Stato, dove ci sono degli insegnanti che vogliono inculcare principi che sono il contrario di quelli dei genitori". (Silvio Berlusconi).

    Lavoro nella più grande università privata degli USA e ho conseguito il mio dottorato di ricerca nella più prestigiosa università privata della West Coast, quella Stanford che è stata l’incubatrice della Silicon Valley, ma dove si trovava anche il fior fiore dei grandi umanisti: daMichelle Serres a John Freccero a Rene Girard, ma io sono il prodotto della Scuola pubblica italiana: dalla prima classe elementare a Bozzolo all’università di Parma. La Scuola è stata anche la ragion d’essere della mia famiglia: mia nonna, mio padre, mia zia hanno dedicato la loro vita, senza mai un rimpianto, alla Scuola pubblica.

    La frase del Presidente del Consiglio offende profondamente le persone che stimo di più al mondo, ma direi che questo è un problema secondario. Il Presidente offende quotidianamente milioni di italiani e nessuno sembra farci più caso, quindi anch’io me ne farò una ragione, ma non posso non condividere qualche riflessione sul senso e il valore della Scuola pubblica in Italia. Non mi dilungo su numeri e statistiche, ma voglio ricordare che dalle elementari alle superiori sicuramente più del 90% degli studenti frequenta scuole statali. Sappiamo anche che alcune di queste scuole sono in condizioni strutturali disastrose e non dispongono degli ambienti e dell’attrezzatura di cui avrebbero bisogno. Sappiamo anche, purtroppo, che ci sono alcuni insegnanti statali menefreghisti e poco preparati. Delle private sappiamo che, oltre alle ottime eccezioni, soprattutto tra le scuole confessionali (soprattutto quelle gestite dagli ordini religiosi come gesuiti e salesiani, sin dalla loro fondazione dedicati alla formazione della gioventù), ce ne sono parecchie al servizio di studenti non brillanti che, non riuscendo ad essere promossi nella Scuola pubblica, passano a uno dei tanti diplomifici sbucati come funghi negli ultimi anni e che, dietro pagamento di una lauta retta, assicurano promozioni e diplomi anche accelerati.

    La Scuola pubblica in Italia ha avuto non solo un’evidente funzione educativa, ma anche politica e sociale. L’unità del nostro Paese di cui celebriamo l’anniversario quest’anno è stata fatta sui campi di battaglia da Solferino a Custoza a Goito, ma l’unità degli italiani si è fatta sui banchi di scuola (come ci ha ricordato, forse con una retorica troppo sdolcinata per la nostra sensibilità ma non senza fondamento De Amicis), dove insegnanti malpagati, ma stimati, hanno creato un senso di appartenenza nazionale attraverso l’insegnamento della nostra lingua, storia e letteratura . Fino a qualche tempo fa quando al mare d’estate si incontrava un ragazzo che aveva fatto la terza superiore, si sapeva che anche lui aveva letto l’Inferno e che una studentessa che aveva finito la quarta aveva studiato anche lei l’Illuminismo e la Rivoluzione francese. Da Palermo a Trento, da Casalmaggiore a Canicattì avevamo imparato tutti insieme sui banchi chi siamo e da dove veniamo.

    E cosa dire di questi insegnanti inculcatori, come dice Berlusconi, di principi contrari a quelli delle famiglie? Io di insegnanti ne conosco tanti: i miei professori, i miei genitori e i loro amici e quelli che sono stati miei colleghi nelle scuole in cui ho insegnato prima di venire negli Stati Uniti. Non erano tutti Madame Curie e Benedetto Croce, ma alcuni erano veri maestri : aggiornati, colti, dialetticamente efficaci, capaci di destare interesse e di appassionare ai temi più astrusi. Alcuni erano comunisti, uno anarchico, un paio fascisti nostalgici, alcuni liberali, di altri non si è mai saputo. Al liceo sperimentale Virgilio di Mantova, che ho frequentato per un anno, erano quasi tutti di sinistra e quell’esperimento l’avevano fatto basandosi sui principi di don Milani; portavano i maglioni a collo alto e ci davamo tutti del tu. Nel mio Istituto Magistrale Sofonisba Anguissola di Cremona, la maggior parte dei miei docenti erano cattolicissime donne nubili sulla sessantina che portavano austeri grembiuli neri in classe (anni ’80, non il medio evo). Ci si dava del “lei”. Ho studiato storia sia sul comunista Villari che sul cattolicissimo De Rosa. I professori, in genere ci facevano sempre notare chi era l’autore. Il moderatissimo e conservatore docente di storia dell’arte aveva adottato l’Argan e ogni tanto ci ammoniva di studiarlo ma di ricordarci “che era comunista”. Non credo la mia sia stata un’esperienza tanto diversa da quella degli italiani di tante generazioni. Sono contento di aver incontrato anche professori con principi diversi da quelli dei miei genitori perché quella dialettica mi ha aiutato a sviluppare il mio spirito critico e ad apprezzare e rispettare la diversità delle opinioni e delle idee.

    Mio padre passava il mese di agosto a girare per le cascine delle provincie di Mantova e Cremona per convincere i contadini a far proseguire gli studi ai loro figli nel suo Istituto Professionale (statale!) per l’Agricoltura. Insegnava agraria usando tre lingue: dialetto, latino e italiano. Tolti dalle stalle e messi nelle aule per qualche anno, molti di questi ragazzi si sono diplomati e laureati. Mia madre gli scolari più discoli e difficili se li portava a casa al pomeriggio tra la riluttanza mia e di mio fratello. Mia nonna, poliomielitica, andò diciottenne ad insegnare nell’Istria che era appena diventata italiana a classi di 70 e 80 studenti. Nelle aule della Scuola pubblica ha passato più di 40 anni. Era povera come tutti gli altri: durante la guerra con lo stipendio di un maestro si comprava un chilo di sale.

    L’effetto più grave delle parole del Presidente Berlusconi, come ho anticipato, non è l’offesa a questi maestri, ma è il messaggio destabilizzante e terribile che manda ai milioni di studenti italiani delle scuole pubbliche. È come se avesse detto: i vostri professori non sono lì per insegnarvi cose nuove, per spiegarvi concetti difficili, per aprirvi mondi che non conoscete, per aiutarvi a pensare con la vostra testa e a sviluppare lo spirito critico; sono semplicemente agitatori politici che cercano di plagiarvi. La frase di Berlusconi delegittima l’intera classe insegnante e mette sul banco degli imputati come agit-prop tutti i docenti. Toglie agli insegnanti l’unica cosa che era loro rimasta: il rispetto e la stima degli allievi e dei concittadini.

    Quando la mia nonna era in pensione e la portavano a fare una passeggiata sulla sua sedia a rotelle, gli uomini che la incontravano si toglievano il cappello e tutti si rivolgevano a lei chiamandola “sciura maestra”, non perché era più ricca, più potente o più furba, ma perché sapevano che aveva speso la sua vita a favore della comunità, non a “inculcare principi”, ma ad aprire le menti, e a riempirle di cose buone che avrebbero migliorato la vita di tutti. Gli insegnanti italiani sono tra i laureati meno pagati d’Italia (e d’Europa). Berlusconi sta cercando di togliere loro anche quel po’ di rispetto e stima che ancora li circonda e che è indispensabile alla loro autorevolezza in aula.

    Non permettiamoglielo!

    Stefano Albertini

    New York University

  • Life & People

    The President Becomes a Student

    After having briefly greeted the representatives of the Italian community, President Napolitano retired to a side-room of the bright and majestic hall of the chancellery of the Italian Embassy in Washington.

    There were only about ten guests plus the President, who was accompanied by Ambassador Terzi and his retinue. People were wondering who the President had withdrawn with and what he had to say to these few chosen ones that was so reserved. But these people weren't policy-makers, elected within the representations of Italians abroad, or successful entrepreneurs.

    The President asked to meet a group of Italian scholars, professors of Italian in various American universities and colleges.

    And the most surprising thing is that the President, after Ambassador Terzi's introduction, wished to listen and understand – through the experiences of each and every teacher present – the state of Italian studies in the United States. Stories differed from the small colleges to the large research universities.

    And while the professors spoke about their difficulties and successes, of the rising interest of students in Italian studies, and of their programs in Venice, Florence and Perugia, the President carefully took notes or asked questions to clarify or broaden his points of interest. Finally, the President made a brief closing comment especially committing himself to ease relations with Italian universities, but most of all he thanked the professors for what they do and the passion they put into it.

    But apart from his words, what I will always remember of that hour will be the image of this man, burdened with years, wisdom, culture, recognized by everyone as having rare intellectual honesty and lucidity, sitting there humbly and carefully listening, taking notes and asking questions to better understand how the language and culture of the country he represents are perceived in the United States, a country whose history and political tradition he knows better than just about anyone.