Articles by: George De stefano

  • Life & People

    Want Some Brooshetta with your Fritalian?

    Does this Dunkin’ Donuts commercial annoy you as much as it does me?

    I’m sure you’ve seen it. A group of customers in an unnamed café look befuddled by the coffee menu because, omigod, the items are in a foreign language!  As the dazed ones gaze at the incomprehensible words, a faux-indie rock jingle plays. The singer, in a slacker whine, complains, “My mouth can't form these words. My mind can't find these words. Is it French or is it Italian? Perhaps Fritalian.”

    Then comes the kicker: actor John Goodman in a voiceover tells the viewer that at Dunkin’ Donuts you can “order your latte in English, not Fritalian.” 

    Evidently no one told Dunkin’ Donuts or the ad agency they hired that “latte” is indeed an Italian word.

    Funny thing is, the commercial, the second “Fritalian” spot released by the fast food chain since late 2006, was made to promote its Italian coffee drinks. I quote from Dunkin’ Donuts press release:

    “On Tuesday, February 26 [2008], Dunkin' Donuts wants to ensure that no coffee lover is denied a delicious espresso-based beverage. The world's largest coffee and baked goods chain will offer all customers a small latte, cappuccino or espresso drink of their choice, hot or iced, for the special price of 99 cents.”

    So why make a commercial that mocks the foreign-ness of the product DD is promoting? An executive with the Dunkin' Donuts’ advertising agency says the spot is “a thinly veiled swipe at a certain competitor.” Supposedly what’s being mocked is coffee chain Starbucks, which not only sells foreign coffee drinks but sizes them as “venti” and “grande” and charges too much for them. (No argument with that last point.)

    But I think the website Urban Dictionary, which posts users’ definitions of the latest neologisms, captured the essence of “Fritalian”:

    Fritalian: Slang term used for a menu item with a non-English name. Favored by drones who want to order gourmet coffee without the hassle and brainwork of being mentally able to pronounce such complex foreign words as ‘dieci’ or ‘latte.’

    Watching the spot, I ranted, “Just who is this bullshit aimed at?” New Yorkers certainly have no problems getting their mouths to form the words “cappuccino” or “venti caffe latte” when they’re at their local coffee bar. And I know my city is hardly the only one whose residents can accomplish this feat.

    My partner Rob suggested that the ads must be aimed at people in “the heartland,” aka Middle America, aka the Land of No-Dagos. Towns and suburbs where the folks presumably have never heard anything but English words.

    Ma dai.  This just isn’t true any more. I have no doubt that there are places, perhaps many, outside the big cities where the locals have problems pronouncing Italian words. For that matter, I wish I had a euro for every time I heard a New Yorker mispronounce “bruschetta.”

    But nowadays you can find Italian coffee, and cucina italiana, just about anywhere. As David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, said in an interview, it pleased him that Italian food was the most popular cuisine in America, and that there are “trattorias and buffalo mozzarella all over the country.”

    I recently spent a few days in Greensboro, North Carolina, staying at the home of an Italian American university professor and his Southern born and bred wife. They informed me that the local restaurants weren’t very good and suggested we eat in. Fine. I didn’t want strip-mall Chinese or barbecue, which I, with my New York attitude, assumed would be the basic choices. And anyway I love to cook.

    So we went to the local supermarket, a place called Harris Teeter. Now the name may conjure up for you, as it did for me, images of cattle feed and 50-pound bags of fertilizer. But the market over the years had evolved from a small greengrocer to a megastore locals now call the Taj Mahal, much the same way Balducci’s in New York grew from an immigrant-run fruit and vegetable stand to an upscale gourmet market.  

    The professor is of Sicilian background, as am I.  So we decided dinner would be cucina siciliana. But would we be able to find the ingredients we needed? For the pasta alla norma would I have to make do with -- dio proibisca – Kraft’s “parmesan” in lieu of ricotta salata?  Ronzoni instead of De Cecco? Hunts tomatoes rather than those imported San Marzano beauties?

    Turns out I was the provincial one for thinking such thoughts. Harris Teeter was a typical suburban supermarket, the size of a couple of football fields with aisles wide enough to drive a truck through. I’ve seen stores like this before and they always amaze me, much like our skyscrapers stun visitors from places where the skyline isn’t dominated by 40-storey towers.

    But what really surprised me was what was on the shelves. Fresh basil, rosemary and oregano. Arugula. Broccoli rab. (I remember when the only Americans who enjoyed that wonderfully bitter cruciferous green were us paisans.) Portobello and cremini mushrooms. Imported Italian baby eggplants perfect for the pasta alla norma. Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from Puglia and Sicily. De Cecco pasta, and a few other imported varieties. And not only San Marzano canned tomatoes, but a brand I buy in NYC whose label identifies their provenance not as Italy or Campania but Nocerino-Sarnese. This all was delightful. But now the acid test: would Harris Teeter have ricotta salata? 

    Yes it did. A brand made in America, but ricotta salata nonetheless, and if not quite as good as what I can easily find in New York, perfectly acceptable. We picked an inexpensive but good montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Harris Teeter’s wine section (no nero d’avola, unfortunately) to complement the pasta alla norma. That night, professore, moglie e io enjoyed classic cucina siciliana made from ingredients bought at a supermarket in Greensboro, North Carolina – one of those places where the locals should be, if Dunkin’ Donuts is correct, confused and resentful about consuming anything with a foreign name.   

    So I ask the donut and coffee chain, what were you thinking? Do you believe Americans still are having a “Freedom Fries” moment?  Do you know anything about what Americans want from their fast food retailers and what they’re capable of asking for?

    Maybe I’m making too much of a TV commercial, and one that’s meant to be satirical. But its assumption that Americans can’t or won’t order their coffee in “Fritalian” annoys me. And that slacker singing that irritating jingle – I want to slap him upside the head and say, “Stai zitto!”

    Then I’ll tell him that that means, Shut the hell up.

  • Art & Culture

    Steve Earle Reads Bartolomeo Vanzetti


    Steve Earle didn’t come by his nickname “the hardcore troubadour” by accident. The Texas-born singer-songwriter is an outspoken leftist who has written pungent and memorable broadsides about the death penalty, the war in Iraq, and the “war on terror.”


    Here’s a clip of Earle reading from the words of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the immigrant anarchist who, with Nicola Sacco, was executed by the State of Massachusetts in 1927 after a travesty of a trial replete with unabashed dago-bashing.


    You may recall that in 2002, Steve Earle caught hell from the corporate media and from outraged right-wingers over his “John Walker’s Blues,” a song about the captured “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. Earle’s critics absurdly accused him of glorifying terrorism because he wrote the song from Lindh’s perspective.  


    Then, two years later, Earle, not exactly one to be intimidated, released “The Revolution is Now,” which he deliberately timed to coincide with that year’s presidential campaign.  That Earle intended the album to be a political intervention was obvious from songs like “Condi, Condi” and “Rich Man’s War.” But he also lent the title track to promote Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 911.” With “The Revolution is Now” Earle not only captured the outrage of many Americans over Team Dubya’s depredations – he also won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album.


    Earle just repeated that success in January with a Grammy in the same category for his 2007 album, “Washington Square Serenade.” He made the record in New York, where he now lives, with his wife the singer Allison Moorer. The album, one of Earle’s best, blends his folk/country blues/rock with urban beats -- country comes to town and gets a taste of hip hop.


    Earle told journalist Anthony De Curtis why he decided to leave his longtime home Nashville for New York: “"If you feel like you don't know what America is all about right now, and you want to reorient yourself to what America should be about, it's a really good time to come to New York City," he said. “I needed really badly at this point in my life to see a mixed-race, same-sex couple holding hands in my own neighborhood. It makes me feel safer.”


    "I've been pretty heartbroken about the way things have gone politically in this country the last few years, and I seriously considered moving someplace else," he said. “Then I figured out that I didn't have to leave the country. All I had to do was come to New York.”


    Earle lives with Moorer in Greenwich Village, at the intersection of West Fourth and Jones Streets, a location immortalized in the photo of Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo used for the cover of Dylan’s 1962 “Freewheelin’” album. Earle, a Dylan devotee, says he loves to show tourists the exact location where the photo was taken.

    He also loves New York for the diversity of its inhabitants, for being a place that welcomes new arrivals and is constantly reinvigorated by them. As he sings on one of the best tracks on his latest album, he’s thrilled to be living in a “City of Immigrants.”   


    Benvenuti a La Gran Mela, Steve and Allison.       


  • Art & Culture

    Bravo Rava: Italy's Jazz Maestro Returns to New York

    Jazz lovers, and especially aficionados of Italian jazz, are in for a treat this month. Enrico Rava, the trumpeter who is Italy’s most renowned jazz artist, will play a four-day engagement at Birdland in Manhattan. With him will be two other exceptional musicians: Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, a rising star on both the Italian and international jazz scenes, and the septuagenarian American drummer Paul Motian, whose singular style is one of the great pleasures of contemporary jazz.

    Joining Rava, Bollani, and Motian will be bassist Larry Grenadier and saxophonist Mark Turner, two talented younger musicians who, with drummer Jeff Ballard, constitute the trio, Fly

    Enrico Rava, born in Trieste in 1939 and raised in Torino, has had an amazing career of more than 40 years. He has played on more than 90 recordings and as a leader on more than twenty. Rava commands virtually the entire history of jazz, from classic New Orleans styles – he started out as a Kid Ory-influenced trombonist – to avant garde, “free” playing.

    Praised for his warm, burnished tone, Rava exemplifies Italian jazz. His free jazz leanings notwithstanding, Rava has always been a melodic and lyrical player. The blues, swing, and free improvisation are in his music, but so are Italian folk songs, popular melodies, and operatic arias. One of my favorites of his many recordings is Italian Ballads, a 1996 album whose selections include Nino Rota film themes (“Juliet of the Spirits”), Neapolitan canzone (“Torna a Surriento”), and arias (“Un Bel Di, Vedremo”).

    Rava got the jazz bug from listening to his older his brother’s record collection in the late 1940s. In 1957 he had an epiphany that would set him on his life’s course as a musician. He went to a concert in Torino that featured legendary saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young and an exciting young trumpeter named Miles Davis.

    “I had many records of Miles,” Rava recalled in an interview last year with the online magazine All About Jazz. “He was my favorite trumpet player. But I didn’t even think about playing trumpet. Then I saw Miles.” “It was a very good group and Miles was so great…That night, I said, wow, I must try to play this instrument…I was almost 18, maybe 17 and a half. I got a hold of this trumpet and I learned it by myself, just listening to Miles records, Chet Baker records.”

    In 1962 Rava met Leandro “Gato” Barbieri, the Argentine saxophonist of Genoese roots, who urged him to become a fulltime musician. Two years later he joined Barbieri’s band and with him recorded the soundtrack for director Giuliano Montaldo's film, “Una Bella Grinta.”

    During the 1960s, Rava recorded and performed with many of the leading exponents of the free jazz movement. In Rome he met the American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and with him formed a quartet that also included the exiled South African musicians Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo. The quartet recorded the album The Forest and the Zoo in 1966 while in Buenos Aires.

    In 1967, Rava went to New York, where he fell in with some of that era’s boldest exploratory musicians: pianist Cecil Taylor, trombonist Roswell Rudd, saxophonist Marion Brown, former John Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali, bassist Charlie Haden, and trumpeter Hannibal Marvin Peterson. After a brief Italian sojourn, he returned to Manhattan in 1969, where he lived for the next nine years. During this time he joined pianist-composer Carla Bley’s Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, playing on her landmark album, Escalator over the Hill.

    In 1972, Rava made Il Giro del Giorno in 80 Mondi, his first album as a bandleader, for the Milan-based Black Saint label. Three years later, he recorded The Pilgrim and the Stars, his debut on ECM records, the German label founded in 1969 by producer Manfred Eicher. From 1975 to 1986, he made a number of outstanding albums for ECM, both as a leader of his own group and in collaboration with the Argentine accordionist Dino Saluzzi and the avant garde Italian Instabile Orchestra.

    Rava left ECM in 1986, but continued to record prolifically for various small companies while also extensively performing and touring. He returned to ECM in 2003, and over the following four years released several excellent recordings: Easy Living (2004), Tati (2005), with Stefano Bollani and Paul Motian, The Third Man (with Bollani, 2007) and The Words and the Days (2007).

    On The Words and the Days, Rava is accompanied by some fine younger Italian musicians who make up his regular performing quintet: Gianluca Petrella, trombone; Andrea Pozza, piano; Rosario Bonaccorso, double-bass; and Roberto Gatto, drums. One of the best things about The Words and the Days is Rava’s interplay with trombonist Petrella; together they make up an exciting frontline for a terrific band. The album’s production also is superb, with the stunning clarity and depth of sound characteristic of ECM, each instrument so defined that you’d think the band was playing “live” in your living room.

    Rava is certainly cognizant of his preeminent place in Italian jazz. “I think I started a lot of things in Italy because I was the first Italian guy to go to New York and stay there and play with American musicians,” he told All About Jazz. “I was the first one to record for an international label, the first one ever to have a big interview in Downbeat [the best-known jazz magazine]. Before me, there was no focus on that [Italian jazz]. No one knew that there were Italian jazz musicians.”

    Today’s Italian jazz scene is thriving, with many outstanding musicians, a number of whom Enrico Rava has discovered or nurtured, like Stefano Bollani. Jazz festivals are held every year all over Italy, the best known being Umbria’s, which attracts musicians and fans from all over the world. Italian music schools all have jazz departments, the music can be heard on the radio, and there are several prominent journals and magazines, with Musica Jazz the best-known.

    Enrico Rava is Italy’s most distinguished contributor to what jazz great Ornette Coleman called “the art of the improvisers.”  His upcoming New York engagement at Birdland is an occasion da non perdere – not to be missed.     


    Enrico Rava (trumpet)

    Stefano Bollani (piano)

    Larry Grenadier (bass)

    Paul Motian (drums)

    Mark Turner (sax, Feb 22-23)

    February 20-23


    315 West 44th Street,


    (212) 581-3080




  • Facts & Stories

    Deja Vu All Over Again: Mafia Mania Returns!

    They’re baaaack!
     America’s favorite characters from its longest running true crime/pop culture saga are in the news once again, with the early February arrests in New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey of 62 alleged members and associates of what the government and the media like to call “the Gambino crime family.” 
    Also busted were a few reputed wiseguys affiliated with two other well-known Mafia brands, the Genovese and Bonanno “families.”  
    The “massive anti-Mafia sweep” as CNN and other news outlets called the roundup, snared not only the alleged chiefs of the Gambino enterprise but also its middle management. Or as prosecutors said, using suspiciously Cosa Nostra-ish language, law enforcement lopped off not only the heads but also “the shoulders and chest.”
    In addition to the 62 alleged gangsters identified in the Federal indictment, state and local prosecutors indicted another 20-odd suspects. Both groups were charged with crimes that included murder, extortion, illegal gambling, loan-sharking and labor racketeering – all the traditional, bread and butter activities of La Cosa Nostra.
    The indictment provides another reassuring indication that venerable Mafia traditions have not entirely died out. Gender and ethnic diversity, de rigueur in most American businesses these days, have made only limited inroads in the Gambino organization. Nearly all those arrested were Italian American and Italian males. There were only two women among those charged, as well as a few Irish- and Jewish Americans, one Greek and one Arab.
    American and international media reported the arrests with a breathless excitement not seen since the furor over the final episode of “The Sopranos.” The New York Post and Daily News brought their typical tabloid verve and color to the story, but the more sober New York Times also got caught up in the Mafia mania.
    The Times’ William K. Rashbaum said of the sweep, “…if it was not the most debilitating blow ever struck against the mob, it left no doubt that organized crime, often declared as diminished or on the decline, remains a formidable force in the New York area.”
    Reading the 171-page, 80-count Federal indictment evokes a warm feeling of familiarity, and cine-nostalgia. I found myself fondly recalling the scenes in “Godfather II” when the Senate panel investigating Michael Corleone reveals the Mafia’s organizational structure and its exotic terminology. There’s also a soupcon of Scorsese and a dash of Chase in the Feds’ bill of particulars.
    “The Gambino family operated through groups of individuals headed by ‘captains,’ who were also referred to as ‘skippers,’ ‘caporegimes, and ‘capodecinas,” the indictment states. “These groups, which were referred to as ‘crews,” ‘regimes,’ and ‘decinas,’ consisted of ‘made’ members of the Gambino family, also referred to as ‘soldiers,’ ‘friends of ours,’ ‘good fellows’ and ‘buttons, as well as associates of the Gambino family.”
    “Each captain was responsible for supervising the criminal activities of his crew and providing crew members and associates with support and protection. In return, the captain received a share of the earnings of each of the crew’s members and associates.”
    “Above the captains,” the indictment continues, “were the three highest-ranking ranking members of the Gambino family. The head of the Gambino family was known as the ‘boss.’ He was assisted by an ‘underboss’ and a counselor, who was known as” – yes, you guessed it – “the ‘consigliere.’” And so on.
    The alleged Gambino boss is one John D’Amico, a septuagenarian known to his captains, crews, soldiers and associates as “Jackie the Nose.” D’Amico’s nom de mob, though colorful enough, isn’t one of the best. Some of the “good fellows” arrested with him have much more flamboyant monikers, and unlike their leader, many have more than one. My favorite? “Nicholas Corozzo, also known as ‘Nicky,’ ‘Little Nicky,’ ‘the Doctor,’ ‘The Little Guy,’ ‘Seymour,’ ‘Grandpa,’ and ‘Grandfather.’”
    “Seymour!” Now that’s a good one. But even that isn’t as delightful as “Anthony Giammarino also known as ‘Buckwheat.’” What, does Giammarino, like the beloved African American child star of “Our Gang” fame, have a finger-in-the-light-socket hairdo and a propensity to exclaim, “Otay!”?
    I’m well aware that some will think I’m being unnecessarily flippant. Many of the crimes enumerated in the indictments are pretty serious, after all. There are several alleged murders, including the 1976 slaying of court officer Joseph Gelb and the 1990 shooting of Jose Delgado Rivera during an armored truck robbery.
    The labor racketeering charges also are hardly minor. The Gambinos, according to the indictment, made big bucks from extortion within the New York construction industry, long a cash cow for organized crime. Embezzlement of union assets, the provision of no-show jobs to mobsters, and the charging of bribes in exchange for union membership cards plagued the Teamsters and two locals of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. Organized crime’s penetration of segments of organized labor has continued in spite of efforts to eliminate corruption, and it demands ongoing vigilance.
    Some of the charges, though felonies, are less serious: the 1995 robbery of a funeral home employee, intent to sell marijuana, and illegal gambling (“joker/poker type gambling machines,” bookmaking).
    But do the indictments support the claim made by the Feds and echoed by the media that Italian American crime, the Mafia, La Cosa Nostra, remains a potent force in the New York metropolitan area? From the official claims and the press coverage, one would think that gangsters had been operating with impunity over the past few decades, that there had been no successful RICO prosecutions and no convictions of top bosses. You’d never know that in 2003, Joseph Massino, the Bonanno boss and purportedly the last head of New York’s “five families” of crime still at large, was arrested and later convicted on murder and racketeering charges and sentenced to life imprisonment.
    Then, in 2005, Massino did something unheard of for an old-time Mafia chief: he broke omertà, the venerable code of silence, and became a government witness. 
    Massino’s betrayal, though shocking, wasn’t unprecedented. The tradition of omertà had begun to collapse even before, as wiseguys increasingly chose to do the unthinkable: spill family secrets to prosecutors rather than stoically accept decades of imprisonment.
    Moreover, although organized crime continues to infect parts of the construction industry, the government has had major successes in curbing labor racketeering there, as well as in the garment and waste-hauling industries, and at such profit centers as the Fulton Fish Market, JFK Airport, and the Javits Convention Center.
    Not to sound too cynical about all this, but the Feds have a vested interest in promoting the notion that the power of “The Mafia” is undiminished – money. That is, the continued and generous funding of FBI and other government anti-organized crime operations.
    There’s another reason to be skeptical of claims that Italian American organized crime is flourishing. Most of the men recently arrested are either old or middle-aged. The new blood that would reinvigorate the various established crime organizations just isn’t there.
    During the 1950s-1960s heyday of organized crime, young Italian American males growing up in the ethnic enclaves of Brooklyn or the Bronx, Chicago or Philadelphia, could rub shoulders with actual gangsters. The actor and playwright Chazz Palmintieri recalled the mob’s presence in the Bronx of his youth when I interviewed him a few years ago: “Oh, it was all over the place, it was all around. It was on the corners, it was in every social club.”
    The gangsters recruited new members from among working class young men who either lacked other opportunities or were too lazy or sociopathic to pursue them. But beginning in the 1960s, many Italian Americans left the mean streets of their urban neighborhoods for the suburbs. In the 70s, Joseph Pistone, the undercover FBI agent who, posing as “Donnie Brasco,” successfully infiltrated a Brooklyn crime family, discovered that the street culture that had sustained La Cosa Nostra was dying out.
    If the Mafia has not disappeared, it certainly is declining with the economic ascent of Italian Americans, as well from several decades of vigorous law enforcement.
    Media reports of the February roundup also noted that authorities in Sicily had arrested a number of mafiosi who purportedly were connected to the New York Gambinos. Last year, in fact, Italian and American media reported that law enforcement figures on both sides of the Atlantic were concerned that the Inzerillo clan of Palermo was collaborating with the Gambinos to launder millions of dollars in drug and extortion money through real estate and other businesses in New York.
    But the fact that Sicilian mafiosi have been forced to turn to their American counterparts to clean their dirty money is a sign of weakness. In the past, they easily could have done so in their homeland.
    Authorities identified Francesco “Frank” Cali, a Sicilian immigrant living in Brooklyn, as the point man for the nascent Palermo-New York connection. Cali was one of the 62 alleged gangsters named in the February indictments. Yet this supposed lynchpin of a trans-Atlantic criminal conspiracy was charged only with attempting to shake down a NASCAR construction site on Staten Island.
    One can, and I do, welcome the recent indictments of dozens of mob figures. Organized crime and its violent and venal men indisputably are a blight on society. But there’s far worse criminality in America than the Mafia’s, and it often goes unpunished. Veteran New York journalist and author Pete Hamill has observed that all the mob’s illegal profits don’t come close to those of “corporate sleazebags” like Enron and the Halliburton Corporation.
    Crooks like “Jackie the Nose” and “Little Nicky,” whatever their misdeeds, are small fish indeed compared to the Anglo-Saxon dons who sit at the apex of American institutional power.  “Big deal that the government has just rounded up a huge number of 20th century goombahs named ‘Fat Tony’ or the like,” wrote Ward Harkavy, a senior editor at the Village Voice. “We're still waiting for the roundup of the government's own 21st century gangsters, George ‘Dubya’ Bush and Richard ‘Dick’ Cheney.”

  • Art & Culture

    "Pompeii Awakened": The Dead City that Still Speaks



    In 1944, my father, George De Stefano Sr., was a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in southern
    . While in
    , he and some of his buddies went to Pompeii to see what the locals call “gli scavi,” the excavations of the Roman city destroyed when Vesuvius erupted in August, 79 AD.

    They, like many young men before and since, were eager to see one particular aspect of ancient Pompeian life: the dirty pictures. My father remembers visiting one building, which, based on his recollections, must have been the House of the Vetti, an opulent Pompeian home whose walls were decorated with X-rated erotic paintings. But the paintings were concealed behind wooden cabinets with locked doors. For a few lire, a worker would unlock the cabinet doors so my father and his friends could glimpse the shocking images.

    When I visited Pompeii more than 50 years later, I could view the same murals without the peepshow obstructions. Moreover, the erotic art objects and artifacts that had been taken from Pompeii and long been kept from public view were on display, in an exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples called “The Secret Cabinet.”

                The difference between my father’s and my experience of Pompeii is a modest metaphor for the subject of Judith Harris’ fascinating new book, Pompeii Awakened. Harris, a veteran American journalist who has lived in Italy for four decades, examines how the Western world has viewed Pompeii, the varied and shifting interpretations of the city and its civilization since its rediscovery in the mid-eighteenth century.

                Harris observes that in the two and a half centuries since, “the dead city has never lost its uncanny power to fascinate.” More than two million tourists annually flock to Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum (Ercolano). Harris herself got the Pompeii bug when she was a Cleveland schoolgirl. Her interest was piqued by a Victorian novel, “The Last Days of Pompeii,” which was a best-seller for decades and influenced cinematic portrayals of ancient Rome from the silent film era to the present.

    Enthralled by the novel, which culminates with the eruption of Vesuvius, she made her first “pilgrimage” to Pompeii as a student. Throughout her career, which has included reporting and commentary for RAI, the Wall Street Journal, Time and the BBC, Harris never lost her fascination with Pompeii, and her cultural history draws upon extensive research. She has interviewed “hundreds of archeologists, classicists, Pompeian scholars and cultural heritage administrators” in addition to visiting
    “more times than I can remember.”  The intrepid Harris even flew over Vesuvius in a hot air balloon.

    Pompeii, the birthplace of scientific archeology, has been the testing ground for every discovery and error in the field. New studies of pollen, skeletal DNA, charred plants and even fecal matter left by the Pompeians build upon but also contradict older discoveries. But Pompeii isn’t just about those who once lived there – it is also the story of those who rediscovered the city, the “creative people from all over the world...who devoted their talents, fortunes and their lives…in order to reclaim
    for the world.”

    “Patron and poet, architect and priest, strumpet and queen,” they studied and recreated the site “in their imaginations, for ours, ringing changes in the arts, society, politics, ideas, and the very look of our homes and cities, from wallpaper to the Wedgwood ceramic candy box on the table.”

    When Pompeii was rediscovered in the 18th century, “educated
    Europe was enthralled.”  Until then, “…no one knew, aside from what could be read in books, how the ancient Romans actually lived.”

    “To historians, archeologists and scientists,” Harris explains, “Pompeii’s significance lies in its offering a total picture of the ancient world, captured at a single point in time. Other ancient cities, such as
    , Angkor Wat, and Native American pueblo habitats were burned or abandoned. The vision they offer is limited and partial.”

    , though, was “simply blanketed, within the space of a few hours, under a layer seventeen feet thick and more, composed of dust, rocks and, above all lightweight pumice pebbles, resembling gravel.”

    From the moment of its rediscovery,
    evoked vastly different reactions in the minds of Europeans: for some it represented the apex of ancient civilization, an idyllic world; for others “the ultimate in decadence and sin.” (The latter view was confirmed by the erotic frescoes and art objects.) For those shocked by what seemed liked wanton polymorphous sexuality, Pompeii was akin to Sodom and
    Gomorrah, and all those who died on that terrifying day in August 79 AD got what they deserved.

    Harris evokes the stunning impact of Pompeian erotica on Christian Europe:

    Although the 18th-century erudites were familiar with risqué ancient poetry, and possibly had seen vases with obscene motifs and the wall paintings of Etruscan tombs…nothing like this had ever been seen, and surely not in such quantity. From the ruins emerged both mildly erotic and blatantly pornographic scenes, painted on walls and on vases, designed in mosaic tiles on floors, vulgarly scribbled onto street-front walls.

    Pompeian erotic art included “gigantic free-standing phalluses,” platters decorated with homosexual group sex scenes, and sculptures of Pan having intercourse with a she-goat. “In discoveries that to this day condition the attitudes toward Pompeii worldwide, objects of an obvious sexual content were found, shocking to many, titillating to others...In
    , erotic pictures were not a vulgar exception, they were the rule.”

    But awakened Pompeii spoke not only of sex and erotica; there were ideological and political lessons to be drawn from Vesuvian antiquity. For Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a politically radical, eighteenth century Prussian art historian, the Greek and Greek-inspired art found at
    was great because it had been produced within a democratic state which had a constitution – political heresy in an age of monarchy.

    But no one made more ideological hay from Pompeii than the 20th century dictator who fancied himself a Caesar. In perhaps the book’s most compelling chapter, Harris describes how Benito Mussolini used antiquity for political propaganda, to justify militarism, war, and racism.

    By the mid-1930s, Fascists “controlled all the tools of culture,” which was central to the regime’s power. “To build a totalitarian state,” Harris notes, “Mussolini had imposed harsh police measures and military controls. But without his cultural politics, this would not have sufficed in such a sophisticated country.”  Control over
    ’s archaeological heritage was a key component of Fascist cultural policy, and Mussolini enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Italy’s antiquarians.

    was essential to Fascist romanità: the discoveries “showed that majesty of ancient, Imperial Italy with which Mussolini wished to be identified.” 

    Mussolini’s handpicked administrator Amedeo Maiuri managed the sites at both Pompeii and Herculaneum. Even Maiuri’s opponents, Harris notes, praised his efforts to recover the sites in a systematic, scientific manner.

    But, encouraged by Mussolini to “operate on a grand scale,” Maiuri got carried away and unnecessarily cut “great swathes” into the sites; buildings also would be stripped and allowed to decay while the best findings went to the Naples archaeological museum. The remainder were sold legally to foreign museums or illegally ended up in private collections.

    “Mussolini’s overly aggressive excavation of Pompeii…in order to exploit archaeology as a propaganda tool…wreaked more destruction than all the Austrian captains of fortune, the arrogant Spanish, the drunken custodians of the early Risorgimento and the thieving bandits of Vesuvius.”

    After World War II, Maiuri, the ultimate bureaucratic survivor, resumed his explorations. He triumphed with the excavation of a Greek library in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. The library, the only extant one from the ancient world, contained caches of papyrus scrolls. Harris provides an absorbing account of the contents of the fragile scrolls, philosophic works of prominent Stoics and Epicureans, as well as scientific texts and scripts of plays.

    Vesuvian territory continues to be excavated. The latest and most important recovery is of a complex of buildings buried near the town of
    Somma Vesuviana
    .  But Somma Vesuviana lies directly beneath Vesuvius, “and therein lies the next threat” to the site – an overdue eruption of the volcano. In 1999, a committee of scientists warned that Vesuvius, “which harbors a destructive force greater than that of a nuclear bomb, is among the world’s fifteen volcanoes most likely to erupt.” 

    If that were to occur, the results, Harris says, will be dire indeed: “As has happened for at least four millennia, all in its path will be entombed – people, first of all.”  But despite government offers of compensation, inhabitants of towns and villages on the slopes of the volcano refuse to leave their homes. Harris finds one bright spot in this dark scenario: “advances in vulcanology should allow advance warning…Despite chaos, many will escape, as they have in the past. Even at
    , home to something between 15,000 and 20,000 people in August AD 79, only 2,000 skeletons have been found.”

    Buried and rediscovered many times, Pompeii and the other “lost cities of Vesuvius,” Harris concludes, continue to “haunt the imagination.”  For anyone who has walked the stones of those ancient cities, and anyone who intends to someday, Pompeii Awakened is essential reading.











  • Op-Eds

    Condom Sense Comes to Italy...Finalmente!



    I have over my desk a poster that I consider to be one of the best pieces of social marketing I have ever seen.

    The poster, from the Lega Italiana per la Lotta contro l’AIDS (The Italian Anti-AIDS League), features a photograph of two items, set against a blood-red background. On the left appears a cornicello, the ancient horn-shaped amulet worn to protect against the malocchio (evil eye); on the right, an unrolled condom. Under the cornicello is the word “irrazionale”; under the condom, “razionale.”

    The Lila poster notes that the “profilatico,” when used correctly, “is an effective means of preventing HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.”  Unlike the cornicello, it actually does protect its wearer from grave misfortune. Men who use condoms are making a rational choice to protect their health and those of their partners.

    But until very recently, irrationality trumped reasonableness when it came to condom advertising on Italian TV.  Since the AIDS epidemic began in
    during the 1980s, the Italian government has run public information campaigns about the disease. But the words “profilatico” or “preservativo” were never used, mainly to avoid the ire of the
    , which perversely deems a piece of protective latex a greater danger to Italian society than a deadly virus.

    That will all change in January 2008, with the airing of a series of taboo-breaking HIV awareness ads that mention condoms by name. The ads, by film director Francesca Archibugi and paid for by the Ministry of Health, are designed to help Italians, and especially young people, overcome their embarrassment in asking for condoms in pharmacies and other outlets.

    One ad, shot in a pharmacy at
    ’s Fiumicino airport, shows a young man trying to get up the nerve to ask for condoms. His impatient girlfriend charges up to the counter and asks for them. An older heterosexual couple follows her example. Suddenly the pharmacist is overwhelmed by customers demanding condoms.

    Francesca Archibugi, known for films such as “Shooting the Moon,” emphasizes the urgency of pro-condom advertising in
    , where some 4,000 new cases of HIV infection are diagnosed each year.

    “The true dangers are never talked about – there’s a moralistic facade which, when uncovered, reveals great ignorance,” she told the Reuters news agency.

    The Lega Italiana per la Lotta contro l’AIDS supports Archibugi’s point. Based on calls to the organization’s telephone information lines, Lila says that knowledge about HIV transmission in
    is “often extremely confused” and “often linked to emotional elements that have nothing to do with the actual possibility of infection, or with prevention.” In the latter instance, Lila is referring to the irrational fear of catching HIV from things like toilet seats or mosquitoes.

    The long overdue condom ads are part of a larger government anti-AIDS campaign that Lila has urged health minister Livia Turco to support. In a June 2006 letter to Turco, Lila’s national president Filippo Manassero noted that she had the opportunity to reverse the neglect that characterized the Berlusconi administration’s handling of the epidemic. Manassero criticized the previous government for its “progressive disinvestment” in HIV/AIDS and a general “lowering of the guard in respect to the issues of prevention.”

    He noted that the government had registered more alarm over avian flu and SAARS, even though “there has not been a single case [of those diseases] recorded in our country” while 40,000 Italians have died from AIDS.     

    In his letter Manassero called for a “serious HIV prevention campaign aimed at the general population, with clear and explicit messages specific to gender, with clear messages about condom use.” In addition to messages for the general population, he called for a focus on specific groups at higher risk for catching or spreading HIV, including adolescents and young adults, gay men, drug users, sex workers, foreigners, and HIV-positive people.

    The first ads produced by the Health Ministry for the new anti-HIV campaign feature heterosexuals, which makes sense given the epidemiology of AIDS in
    . The most recent statistics (from 2006) show a cumulative total of 57,375 AIDS cases. In the early years of the epidemic, most cases were caused by drug users sharing infected syringes and needles. But now, most are due to unprotected heterosexual contact.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in 2006, about 42 percent of new AIDS cases in
    were among heterosexuals, 29 percent among injecting drug users, and 21 percent among gay men. Rome and Milan have the highest annual incidence rates, followed by Genoa and
    . During 2006, 1,126 new AIDS cases and 254 AIDS deaths were reported. But these reported cases most likely do not reflect the full extent of the epidemic in Italy because HIV reporting occurs in only 10 regions/provinces of the country's 20 regions: Bolzano, Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Lazio, Liguria, Modena, Piemonte, Rimini, Sassari, Trento, and

    If Italy does not have the worst AIDS epidemic in
    Europe, the numbers of new HIV infections and actual AIDS cases are high enough to warrant the campaign Lila advocates and that the health ministry appears to fully support. And with most HIV infections being transmitted by unprotected sex, condom promotion needs to be at the heart of any prevention campaign.

    It’s amazing that it took so long for condom advertising to come to Italian television. Sexual innuendo and explicit sexual content is common on both government-owned and private TV channels, and in advertising. And not only TV advertising. A few years ago while on vacation in Sicily I was surprised to see huge billboard ads in
    that likened a brand of mozzarella to a woman’s breasts. In
    Rome last summer, I saw ads for a health club that featured both naked men and women, with only their genitalia obscured.

    Italians are hardly a prudish people. So why the squeamishness about frank condom advertisements?  When Francesca Archibugi describes her new ads as a “triumph over taboo,” she’s speaking about the Catholic Church’s longstanding assertion that condom use fosters “immoral” and “hedonistic” lifestyles. Although Catholicism is no longer the official state religion of
    , the Church looms large in Italian public life, insisting that Catholic values must be those of society in general. Some criticize Islamic societies for not recognizing a secular sphere where religion should not intrude. But the
    hardly is a fan of Church-State separation, either.

    Vatican, under both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has dogmatically and often hysterically denounced any form of sex that is not of the heterosexual reproductive variety, reserving special venom and cruelty for homosexuals. 

    The Church continues to insist that the only surefire protection from AIDS is monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Needless to say, this is of no use to all those human beings, Italian and otherwise, Catholic and not, who don’t live their lives in accordance with this intransigent, unrealistic, and yes, inhumane dogma. Pope Benedict XVI even has urged Catholic pharmacists to refuse to sell condoms and other contraceptives, arguing that “conscientious objection” by chemists “must be recognized as a right by the pharmaceutical profession.”

    The new TV condom ads are sure to put Italy’s fragile center-left government – which overall is not even particularly progressive on matters of sexuality -- on a collision course with the
    . But so far Livia Turco is standing her ground.  She has stated that although the Pope had the right to “urge young people to be sexually responsible,” he had “no business telling professionals such as pharmacists what to do.”

    Italy’s new condom promotion campaign, though a step forward doesn’t go far enough. Educating the public about the importance of protected sex should be paired with widespread distribution of free condoms. New York City and
    Washington, D.C. both have established massive condom giveaways in response to high rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

    The Italian Young Socialists (Federazione Giovani Socialisti) on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2007, kicked off a campaign to do away with the value-added tax on condoms and to promote free condom distribution. Marco Alberio of the FGS said, “In our country the price of condoms is high and that means that young people don't buy them and that can be bad news for their health.”  It’s fine to encourage people to buy condoms in pharmacies, or even from the condom vending machines found in Italian cities. But when it comes to the public health and HIV, the best price of a condom is free.

    Condom advertising and other forms of sexual health promotion, coupled with wide availability of condoms, are critical to HIV prevention. For
    to do otherwise would be to permit many needless and preventable HIV infections and AIDS cases. It would mean choosing “irrazionale” over “razionale.”    









  • Facts & Stories

    Organized Crime in Today's Italy. A Commentary

    Consider the spate of recent news stories in Italian and English-language media: “Brazen killings show power of Italian ‘Ndrangheta’” (Reuters); “Italy Police Arrest Mafia ‘Boss Of Bosses’” (Reuters); “Italy dealt double blow over organised crime” and “Organised crime does pay in Italy” (The Guardian, London); “Fugitive mafia dons held after stake-out” (Associated Press); “Where Savage Parasites Rot a Nation From Within” and “Italians Tune in to Real-Life ‘Sopranos’” (New York Times); “Mafia is ‘Italy's biggest commercial business’” and “Mafiosi warned over their ‘morals’” (The Independent, London), and “La mafia? E' la prima azienda italiana” (La Repubblica).

    Perhaps the most significant and doubtless most disturbing items from this small, but fairly representative sampling are those about the October 2007 report from the Italian business association Confesercenti, which found that organized crime is “Italy’s biggest commercial business.” (“Organised crime does pay in Italy” and “La mafia? E' la prima azienda italiana” also covered the report.) According to the association, organized crime accounts for 7 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product, with extortion, drugs, loan-sharking and prostitution being major profit centers. The sums “earned” by Italy’s criminal gangs surpassed those of the oil company ENI and were almost double those of auto manufacturing giant Fiat.

    The Big Four of Italian organized crime -- Sicily’s Mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra, the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta and Puglia’s La Sacra Corona Unita -- haven’t gotten filthy rich only through illegal activity. For some time they have spread their tentacles to legitimate industries, such as food, health care, and hotels. The Confesercenti report states that criminals have infiltrated big business as well as smaller and family-run firms: “Companies listed on the stock market with headquarters in Milan and Turin are among the victims, not just small shops in the Naples suburbs.”

    But northern Italian businesses are by no means only victims of southern criminals. As crusading Neapolitan journalist Roberto Saviano reported in Gomorrah, his celebrated exposé of the Camorra, criminals help businesses from the north and elsewhere in Italy to ship everything from corpses to used computer printer toner to illegal dumping sites in the south.

    The Mafia long has been active in public works, controlling many construction firms and building projects. The Confesercenti report alleges that Impregilo, Italy's leading engineering concern, Condotte SpA, a water pipeline company, and Italcementi, Europe's largest cement group, all pay off the Mafia.


    The High Price of Organized Crime

    Leoluca Orlando, the reformist and anti-Mafia former mayor of Palermo, says the report dramatizes the high price Italy pays for the infiltration of its economy by gangsters. Were it not for organized crime, he observes, Italy would be “one of the most modern of European countries, with state-of-the-art social services and infrastructure.”

    As Orlando and many others have noted, organized crime retards social and economic progress in Italy. Such practices as illegal garbage and toxic waste dumping degrade the environment. But criminality also poisons political life, as connivance between the underworld and compliant public officials long has been a fact of life. Italy’s various criminal organizations, in fact, could not have become so powerful without the support of politicians.

    “This mixture between illegal and legal, criminal and institutional, is the heart of the Mafia's historical model, but it has grown and spread independently of the presence of Sicilian mafiosi,” according to the Sicilian social scientist Umberto Santino.

    Santino’s insight is important, and not only because it identifies the nexus between illegal and legal as central to Sicilian organized crime.

    It would be all too easy to regard Sicily and other parts of the Mezzogiorno as mired in criminality, violence, and cultural backwardness. Many commentators – northern Italians, other Europeans, and Americans -- have characterized Sicily and the south in exactly those terms. But take away the exotica of secret criminal societies, blood feuds, and oaths of silence and you can discern some startling similarities between the so-called atavistic Italian south and the purportedly dynamic and open society of the United States.


    Crime and Corruption: Whose “Cosa Nostra”?

    The presidency of George W. Bush has seen corruption scandals in the departments of Defense, Education, Justice, Interior, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development. The chief procurement officer of Bush’s Office of Management and Budget was sent to prison in connection with the bribery scandal involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In 2007, the General Services Administration came under investigation for steering federal favors to Republican Congressional candidates during the 2006 elections. And as of this writing four inspectors general, the officials charged with investigating improprieties in cabinet department, are themselves under investigation.

    But public and private corruption predates and certainly is far more extensive than the malfeasance of the Bush administration and its political and corporate cronies. Wall Street securities frauds, the fixing of public contracts by elected officials in exchange for bribes, the legalized bribery of political campaign contributions and the unscrupulous practices of major corporations make Italy’s sleaze seem, if not minor, hardly unique.

    The newsletter Corporate Crime Reporter, in a 2004 report noted, “Because the Justice Department’s statistics on corruption in the United States have rarely been publicized, the world might not understand the true extent of the decay here in the United States.”

    In compiling its list of the “Top 100 Corporate Criminals of the Decade,” the Corporate Crime Reporter focused on corporations that pled guilty or no contest to crimes and were criminally fined. The corporate malefactors comprised violators of environmental, antitrust, food and drug, campaign finance, fraud, public corruption and tax laws. It’s unlikely that employees of these corporations addressed their CEOs by the Old World honorific titles of “Don” or “Godfather.” But in their outsized power and disdain for legality and the public good, these business executives bear more than a passing resemblance to Italy’s mob bosses.

    The Mafia’s corruption of politics has engendered cynicism among the Sicilian electorate, an often well-founded belief that politicians serve not the public but the interests of moneyed and powerful elites. Now take a look at the state of participatory democracy in America, with its low voter turnout, an often ill-informed electorate, and corporate-controlled media.

    Moreover, American politics has a long and squalid history of corruption – bribes, kickbacks, public bid rigging, and voter fraud. Organized crime groups have enjoyed mutually enriching relationships with politicians since the early days of the American republic, in the frontier towns of the West, New York’s Tammany Hall, the electoral wards of Chicago, and the county political machines of New Jersey.

    There are, of course, significant differences between Italy and America, and between Italian and American organized crime. For one thing, no matter how powerful American crime groups became, they never enjoyed the same degree of territorial control and political power as Italy’s. Today the Italian American Cosa Nostra is a mere shadow of its former self, undone both by vigorous law enforcement and by socioeconomics, including the waning of the old, blue-collar urban street culture that provided recruits for mafia groups.

    (Recent news stories from Italy and the U.S. speak of a purported attempt by Palermo mafiosi to regain power through a renewed alliance with New York gangsters of Sicilian background: “La riscoperta dell'America: nuovo fronte di Cosa Nostra,” proclaimed La Repubblica. But even if the stories are accurate, the reported plans of the palermitani, who were nearly eliminated during the 1980s by more ruthless gangsters from Corleone, seem more like wishful thinking than cause for alarm. The FBI already has identified one Frank Cali, a Brooklyn resident of Sicilian origin, as the American point person for the supposed Palermo-New York crime connection.)

    Reasons to be Hopeful

    But there’s another major difference between the U.S. and Italy, and it’s one that bodes well for Italy.

    There never has been an anti-Mafia or anti-organized crime movement in the United States. “I think it’s interesting that we’ve never had a grass roots movement that’s really seen organized crime as a horror that has to be eradicated,” says criminologist James B. Jacobs, a New York University professor who has served on the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. “The main momentum for dealing with organized crime came from law enforcement professionals themselves, who saw organized crime as an affront, but didn’t really come from the public or from business or from labor.”

    But in Italy, much of the opposition to organized crime has come from civil society. Community and political activists, trade unionists, business people, feminists, students and other youth, cultural figures, and clergy courageously oppose organized crime and its corruption of politics and the economy. Sicily, in particular, has given birth not only to fearsome mafiosi like Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, but also such heroic anti-Mafia fighters as trade unionist Placido Rizzotto, leftist organizer Giuseppe “Peppino” Impastato, the parish priest Giuseppe Puglisi, Leoluca Orlando, and, more recently, Rita Borsellino, sister of the prosecutor Paolo Borsellino, who, with the internationally renowned magistrate Giovanni Falcone, was assassinated in 1992 by Cosa Nostra.

    In Sicily, civil society, law enforcement, and the justice system often have had a relationship of mutual reinforcement, as the arrests and imprisonment of major mafiosi have energized grassroots forces, while police and prosecutors rely on the support of outraged and mobilized citizens.

    The struggle to defeat La Cosa Nostra has racked up some impressive victories in recent years, In 2006, police arrested Bernardo Provenzano, the boss of all bosses, who had eluded capture for more than 40 years. Provenzano’s arrest, which provided a powerful morale booster to anti-Mafia forces, also opened a treasure trove to law enforcement. When police searched Provenzano’s hideout they found hundreds of pizzini – tiny scraps of paper bearing coded messages to his underlings. They revealed names of other top mafiosi, including Provenzano’s presumed successor, Salvatore Lo Piccolo, whom police arrested in October 2007.

    Sicilian law enforcement has been so successful in its anti-Mafia campaign that Piero Grasso, Italy’s national organized crime prosecutor, announced in November 2007 that the government had completely dismantled the “cupola,” that is, the Mafia’s ruling commission.

    The Confesercenti report highlighted not only the shocking reach of organized crime in Italy but also described its political economy, the peculiar mix of legality and illegality, legitimate business and underworld enterprise. The forces of lawfulness and social reform certainly have their work cut out for them. But if the sheer vastness of organized criminality shocks and dismays, sometimes what seem like small gestures of individual resistance offer hope.

    Amid all the recent alarming newspaper headlines, the Associated Press reported, on November 22, “Palermo court gives stiff sentences in Mafia extortion trial after bold testimony.” It turns out that Vincenzo Conticello, one of the owners of Antica Focacceria San Francesco, a popular Palermo restaurant (and one whose panelle and caponata I’ve enjoyed on several occasions), not only refused to pay “protection” money -- known as the pizzo -- to local mafiosi; he reported them to police and, in court, pointed out their leader, Giovanni Di Salvo. Di Salvo and several of his associates were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 to 16 years.

    Prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone said the verdicts could help “put the brakes on extortion rackets,” which he said were Cosa Nostra's main source of income.

    Organized crime is too vast and powerful to be defeated solely by such brave acts of refusal as Vincenzo Conticello’s. But it never will be beaten without Italians like him.

  • Op-Eds

    Italian Passages. Thoughts from the 40th AIHA Annual Conference

    The air in Denver, Colorado may be thin and dry. But there was more than enough intellectual oxygen at this year’s AIHA conference to offset the climatic challenges of “the mile-high city.”

    Academics and independent scholars from across the United States, and from Canada and Italy, attended the Denver conference, the 40th that AIHA has held since its founding in 1966. The conference’s panels and roundtables explored the far-ranging experiences of Italians in America, their diverse histories and cultural expressions.

    There were sessions about immigrant communities in Appalachia, upstate New York, the Midwest, Colorado and the Western frontier. Others focused on the work of authors Mario Puzo, Don De Lillo, Tina De Rosa, and John Fante, “de-constructing” the Italian American family, the movement of Italian American rappers known as “hip-wop,” the politics of Columbus Day, gay Italian Americans and their families, the constructed “authenticity” of celebrity chef Mario Batali’s cucina italiana, and the legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti.

    There also were poetry and fiction readings, performance pieces, and documentary films. The two documentaries I viewed deserve wide exposure: Circe Accursi Strum’s and Randolph Lewis’ “Texas Tavola,” a fascinating account of St. Joseph Day celebrations among Sicilian-Americans in Bryan, Texas, and Anthony Fragola’s “Un Bellissimo Ricordo,” a moving profile of the late Felicia Impastato, mother of the murdered Sicilian anti-Mafia activist Peppino Impastato.

    The scholarly and artistic work on display at Denver not only flouted the reductive stereotypes of Italian Americans all too common in American society; it also demonstrated the vitality and intellectual rigor of Italian American studies. The Little Italies established in the new world by immigrants may have either disappeared or continue to exist only as tourist destinations. But the disappearance of these geographically-based communities and their traditions hardly means the demise of Italian America. As scholarship presented in Denver made evident, Italian American identity not only has survived but continues to evolve, sometimes in unpredictable and surprising ways.

    Paola Sensi-Isolani, professor of Anthropology and Sociology at St. Mary's College of California, offered a perspective on the conference’s theme, “Making and Thinking History,” that resonated powerfully with me. In her keynote address, she spoke of her “attempt to look at the underside of the past and the present, to question glossed-over representations of the immigrant experience, to ask for more than filiopietistic triumphalism, to remember those Italian immigrants who dared to speak out against the powerful, those who were anticlerical, the women, the union activists, the anarchists and radicals, the priests and nuns in isolated parishes, and just the simple forgotten Italian immigrants…In short, to look at both the people who claim history as their own and the people for whom history, for economic, political, or ideological reasons, is often suppressed or omitted from conventional studies.”

    Sensi-Isolani’s approach – questioning, iconoclastic, and radical – offers a potent antidote to nostalgia and sentimentality about the past. It recognizes the complexities of history that celebratory narratives of ethnic experience often conceal or deny. It encourages critical inquiry and skepticism about received wisdom, and particularly about monolithic and exclusionary conceptions of Italian American history and identity.

    Her words struck a chord in me not only because they made eminent sense but also because they reflected, and validated, my own perspective and my work in the field of Italian Americana.

    Being openly gay, left-wing and atheist, I have often felt at odds not only with the “prominenti” who claim to represent Italian Americans but also with prevailing conceptions of people of Italian origins as politically conservative, family-oriented (and “amorally” familial), and Roman Catholic. Ethnic boosterism, and the notion that I owed allegiance to members of my tribe simply because we were of the same ethnicity, always turned me off.

    Sensi-Isolani’s evocation of rebels and nonconformists, of those whose lives have been forgotten or hidden from history, is consistent with my sense of italianità – and my own history as the grandson of immigrant radicals. When I was an angry and impatient young left-winger, my mother would exclaim, “You sound just like my father,” with a mix of pride and apprehension – pride because she honored his radicalism, apprehension because he suffered for his politics, including being fired from jobs due to his labor agitation, and she didn’t want that to happen to me.

    My Sicilian grandfather was one of “those Italian immigrants who dared to speak out against the powerful,” but I know his life and struggles only in fragments, in memories of conversations we had when I was very young – I can recall him heatedly denouncing the Vietnam war and its capitalist profiteers -- and from my parents’ recollections dealt out piecemeal, while we were a tavola. He used to have Italian-language radical newspapers and other publications, but at some point they all were lost.

    I know I will not be able to reconstruct my grandfather’s life from the fragments I have inherited. I feel a sense of loss and frustration over these lacunae in a history both familial and collective. But my contribution to the Denver conference was a paper about another Italian American radical whose life can be documented, as he, formerly a prominent public figure, is still alive and eager to share his remembrances.

    Frank Barbaro is to me emblematic of a milieu that the late Philip Cannistraro called “the lost world of Italian American radicalism.” Born in Brooklyn to southern Italian immigrant parents, Barbaro, now 80, was a leftist longshoreman on the gangster-ridden New York docks during the 1950s, organized tenants and lead rent strikes, got elected to the New York State Assembly as an anti-war candidate while the Vietnam conflict raged (his 26-year tenure included chairmanship of the Assembly’s Labor committee), and served six years as a New York State Supreme Court justice.

    As a legislator Barbaro represented Bensonhurst, Brooklyn while it was still a predominantly Italian American enclave not exactly known as a hotbed of radicalism. Yet the district’s voters repeatedly returned him to office, his militant and unapologetic leftism notwithstanding. Socialist, pro-choice, pro-gay rights and anti-death penalty, Barbaro succeeded in electoral politics because he delivered needed services for his mainly working class constituents while also building coalitions among the various constituencies for progressive social change.

    Frank Barbaro, an “ethnic” politician who never pandered to ethnocentrism, has shown that an elected official can serve – and maintain – his base while pursuing an expansive agenda. His progressive populism, however, is not sui generis; rather, it is rooted in an Italian American radical history whose exemplary figures include Congressman Vito Marcantonio, labor organizer Peter Panto, Fiorello La Guardia, and many others, both those whom history remembers and those whose stories, like my own grandfather’s, have been obscured or forgotten.

    As AIHA’s Denver conference demonstrated, the association is a “big tent” that accommodates scholars from diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and viewpoints. If AIHA is, as past president Anthony Tamburri has claimed, “the only organic voice for/of Italian America,” it is because its members eschew the language of nostalgia and “filiopietistic triumphalism” in favor of critical engagement with the complexities and heterogeneity of the Italian American past and present.


  • Art & Culture

    Central Park & “La cantantessa”. Consoli’s music in NYC

    She sang powerfully and well; her voice, a distinctive contralto-mezzo soprano, filled the theater, and her adept band never sounded better.Besides being a beautiful setting, the outdoor venue gave Consoli the freedom to rock harder than she has in the confines of Joe’s Pub, the intimate downtown club she played during her previous New York stopovers.

    Consoli opened with “Sulle Rive di Morfeo” (On Morpheus’ Riverbanks), a track from Eva Contro Eva that offers some of her finest lyric writing, with haunting poetic images of lovers strolling where “nitide acque” (murky waters) “divorono” (devour) their footsteps. Performing it solo, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she gave a more intense reading than the album’s dreamy version, with dramatic pauses and hard guitar strums on the downbeat.

    Her take on “Morfeo” would set the pattern for her interpretations of the Eva material. The low-key and subtle arrangements work well on the album. But at the Delacorte, Consoli wisely pumped up the intensity, quickening the tempos, accentuating the rhythms, and, with her band, adding new colors and textures. “Pendio d’Abbandono” (The Slope of Abandon) sounded fuller and more Arabic than when she performed it last year at Joe’s Pub, with flute and violin evoking the swooping strings of an Egyptian orchestra.

    Several of Eva’s tracks are story-songs that offer sharp observations of Sicilian society. “Maria Catena” (Mary Chain) is a vignette of sexism and religious intolerance, as the title character suffers the rumor-mongering of the good Catholics of her small-town parish church. The priest, swayed by the talebearers, denies her the Eucharist. Christ on the cross, observing Maria Catena’s mistreatment, is pained more by the slander than by the nails piercing his flesh.

    The song’s sicilianità was accented by new band member Giancarlo Parisi on friscalettu, a Sicilian wood flute.

    Consoli followed it with “Piccolo Cesare,” taking aim at a tyrant – a “little Caesar” – who, fearing that his subjects are beginning to think for themselves, tries to suppress the “popular conscience” because it is like a contagious fever that “feeds ideals of equality.”

    Eschewing electric guitars, Consoli played only amplified acoustic, as did her longtime collaborator Massimo Roccaforte, who also played banjo, mandolin, and bouzouki. But when Consoli and her band gave makeovers to a couple of numbers from her previous album, L’Eccezione, there was no loss of rock ‘n roll power.

    “Fiori D’Arancio” (Orange Flowers) bristled with the rage of its narrator, a woman ditched at altar.

    “Miranda Odiava i Gatti” (Miranda Used to Hate Cats) was even better. The recurring electric guitar riff from the recorded version was played by multi-instrumentalist Parisi on flute, which softened it a bit. But that just made an effective set-up for the raging, stomping chorus, which lists the irritants big and small that drive the stressed-out Miranda to pick up a pistol and start shooting: social climbers, crowded beaches, religious hypocrites, daisies in black hair, and the smell of cats in heat. Between verses, Consoli made mewing sounds and struck sinuous feline poses.

    On “Geisha,” a song of erotic surrender from her 1998 album Mediamente Isterica, she injected some aggression, screaming the last line, “Fai di me la tua geisha!” (Make me your geisha.) Shifting emotional gears, she gave a tender rendition of “L’Ultimo Bacio” (The Last Kiss), a gem that provided the title for director Gabriele Muccino’s popular 2001 film.

    The evening’s biggest surprise was “Masino,” from L’Eccezione. On the recorded version, which is only a minute and a half long, Consoli sings (in siciliano) and plays all the instruments. At the Delacorte she extended and opened it up, making it a driving rocker featuring the redoubtable Giancarlo Parisi, who danced across the stage while soloing on the zampogna, Sicilian bagpipes.

    Consoli closed her hour-long set with a rousing “Malarazza” (Evil Breed), a song often attributed to Domenico Modugno, who recorded it in 1976. (The Sicilian trumpeter and bandleader Roy Paci included a hip-hop version on his 2005 album, Parola D’Onore.) It’s actually a Sicilian folk song derived from a 19th century stornello by the poet Lionardo Vigo. Consoli said it was about a “good boy” who prays to Jesus to kill his enemy – the boss who treats him worse than a dog. The Gesù of “Malarazza” isn’t a turn-the-other-cheek type. He admonishes the supplicant to stop crying and to instead grit his teeth, pick up a club, and fight back.

    As the Central Park concert made evident, Carmen Consoli’s music has evolved, from straight-ahead rock and pop to a style which foregrounds the Sicilian folk elements. Her sound still has the drive and excitement of rock, but the Mediterranean runs through it as never before.

    Consoli told the Italian news agency ANSA that with her songs she is recovering the Sicilian past and musical traditions “for too many years obscured by music from abroad.” “I have managed,” she added, “to earn myself a space with my music, with melodies that look to the past and at the same time are modern.”

    Her dedication to her homeland’s music is reflected not only in her own work but also in her collaboration with other Sicilian artists, the band I Lautari and the singer Rita Botto. She performed with I Lautari at the Prima Maggio (May Day) concert in Rome this year, and will once again share a Roman stage with them, and Botto, this month (October 2007) in a show billed as “La Musica Antica del Nuovo Millennio.”

    Consoli plans to record a new album next year, and it most likely will continue the fusion of Sicilian roots with her unique songwriting sensibility.

    Having performed in New York and elsewhere in North American over the past few years, Carmen Consoli, now 33, has won a dedicated, albeit small following here. The goal, according to promoter Mark Gartenberg, who presented her Central Park show, is “to continue to grow a mainstream audience, at least in terms of world/international music, for Carmen.”

    Gartenberg, who also has promoted New York shows by Avion Travel and Vincio Capossela, believes that Consoli and other contemporary Italian musicians can reach a broader audience in America. He makes a comparison to Mariza, a Portugese fado singer, who went from playing small clubs to performing in Carnegie Hall. “In a few years I’d like to get Carmen into rooms like the Beacon Theater [a popular mid-sized Manhattan venue] or Town Hall, maybe the Brooklyn Academy of Music, playing for mixed audiences of Italians and non-Italian international music buffs.”

    Gartenberg hopes to book Consoli in similar venues in other major cities in the United States and Canada.

    “I believe Carmen has what it takes to do it,” he says.

    Carmen Consoli

    September 25

    Delacorte Theater, Central Park