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Articles by: Inga Pierson

  • Art & Culture

    Gaspara Stampa: 16th Century Poetess, Singer

    Gaspara Stampa: 16th Century Poetess, Singer

    The passion and splendor of Italian female poet Gaspara Stampa are ours to enjoy once again, thanks to NYU scholars and the University of Chicago Press.  Stampa, who lived briefly but vibrantly between 1523 and 1554, collected a great many admirers in her native Venice before expiring at the tender age of 31.  Often compared to Sappho, any enduring depiction of her likeness seems to have been inspired by images of the Greek poetess or by the allegory of Music. 

    Last week saw the conclusion of a series of interdisciplinary lectures on 16th century Italy at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò.  In January Lina Bolzoni (of the Scuola Normale Superiore at the University of Pisa) presented her latest book, Il cuore di cristallo [The Transparent Heart, Einaudi, 2010] on Bembo’s poetry and portraiture.  Her talk was followed by Leonard Barkan’s on Michelangelo’s sketches earlier this month.  Jane Tylus, who provided enlightened commentary on both occasions, presented her own edition of Gaspara Stampa’s rhymes - The Complete Poems: The 1554 Edition of the "Rime" - on Tuesday.  A bilingual volume, Tylus and co-editor Troy Tower bring us the first complete edition of the Venetian poet’s work– in either English or Italian – since the 18th century.

     

    Tylus and Tower entertained early modern music scholar Martha Feldman, from the University of Chicago, and Casa director Stefano Albertini invited several performers - including a lutist and soprano Amy Brosius - to bring Stampa’s poetry to life.  The interdisciplinary approach has become a hallmark of Casa Italiana programming – which aims to deliver Italian culture and history to an audience beyond academia. 

    In Feldman’s words, 16th century Venice was “a riot of diversity”.  The city’s literary salons were frequented by a music loving aristocratic (and masculine) public and provided one of the few opportunities for female authorship and celebrity.  It was in these glamorous and progressive venues that poetizing courtesans such as Veronica Franco and “virtuosos” - as Stampa and her sister were called - made their brief-but-brilliant careers. 

    Among other female poets of the era, Stampa’s voice was “irrepressible”, Troy Tower affirmed in his introduction.  Tower echoes like-minded 20th and 21st century scholars who find the sense of immediacy and urgency in her verses both singular and laudable.  And yet the question of voice is doubly interesting when it comes to Stampa.  Tylus's research reveals that, in her own time, Gaspara was renowned above all for her angelic voice and musical talent.  In an age in which such women were entertainers and society 'stars', we might imagine Stampa to be the latter day equivalent of a Rihanna or a Beyoncé.  A controversial analogy, perhaps – but Stampa was unapologetic about her desire for expression and fame, the scandal of her associations with unmarried men, and the multiplicity of her lovers.  She lived to write songs. Love fed her flame and she longed to burn.  

    A corpus of rather voluptuous sonnets reveals that her ambitions transcended the ephemeral musical performances the academies allowed for.  While properly acknowledging literary tradition in Petrarch “Voi che ascoltate in queste meste rime” [You who hear in these troubled verses], Dante “Mi sento il cor di novo stile impresso” [destiny’s/ impressed upon my heart a sweet new style] and Sappho, it seems that Stampa aspired to a glory all her own.  Like the following tercet, much of per poetry betrays a vaguely defiant desire for distinction among the laurel-crowned lyrists of history:

    Et io ringratio Amor, che destinata
           M’habbia à tal foco, che da Battro à Tile
           Spero anche un giorno andar chiara e lodata.

    I thank Love who destined me for such a flame,
          As I hope that from Bactria to Thule,
          Someday I will be renowned and praised. 

    Sadly it seems that, like so many other feminine voices, Stampa’s was wholly connected to her body and persona and thus, the acclaim she enjoyed in her lifetime all but vanished upon her death.  That her legacy survives at all is a credit to her sister Cassandra who labored to publish her work posthumously. 

    A skilled musician in her own right, Tylus says she aimed to capture the “spirit” of Gaspara -  singer, songwriter and poet -, and the “ambiance” of the original 1554 edition.  Emphasizing the  bilingual character of her translation efforts, she said she hoped to provide a kind of “accompaniment” for Stampa’s extraordinary voice – that it might be properly celebrated once again.   

    Jane Tylus is Professor of Italian Studies and Comparative Literature, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Faculty Director of The Humanities Initiative at New York University.  Her most recent book is Reclaiming Catherine of Siena: Literacy, Literature and the Signs of Others (University of Chicago Press, 2010). She has also translated Lucrezia Tornabuoni’s poetry (Sacred Narratives: The Poetry of Lucrezia Tornabuoni de'Medici, University of Chicago, 2002) and she teaches a graduate seminar on translation in the department of Italian Studies.   

    Troy Tower graduated from New York University.  He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

  • Art & Culture

    Michelangelo's Sketches: A Theater of the Imagination

    In Leonard Barkan’s Michelangelo: A Life on Paper (Princeton University Press, 2011), fragments of poetry and image details point to an intense theater of the imagination - comic and tragic, banal and profound - where quotidian experience, art history and worldly and spiritual desires engage and coalesce. 

    Barkan, a professor at Princeton University, spoke at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò last week to introduce his new publication.  The second in a series of scholarly discussions on the intersection of word and image, the presentation included commentary by Jane Tylus, NYU, Italian Studies, and Alex Nagel of NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts.  A week earlier both participated in the presentation of Lina Bolzoni’s Il cuore di cristallo [The Transparent Heart, Einaudi 2010.]

    Barkan explained that his goal is to reveal “a different Michelangelo” and to explore a more private, interior dimension of the artist’s life.  Born in Florence in 1475, Michelangelo had lived nearly a century when he died in 1564.  Thus, not only his work - but also his life - was at the center of the artistic transformation we call the Italian Renaissance.  Thanks to Barkan’s research, Michelangelo’s thoughts, feelings, desires and doubts emerge as if taken from the pages of a diary.  At the same time, the corpus of drawings he examines provides insight into the early modern world - through evidence of the artist’s relationships with students, family, patrons and friends. 

    For example, we learn that his nephew’s spending was a great nuisance to him and that, between his duties as a teacher and frequent commissions, he had very little time for a proper life of his own. 

    The desire for freedom – to imagine, love, dream, and improve - can be found variously expressed in broken phrases and sketches throughout the “carte” which circulated around his workshop.  Barkan is interested in the relationship between the fragments he discovered – it seems that Michelangelo himself saw the paper as a kind of theater of memory.  It wasn’t merely an empty space of potential representation but rather also a locale to which to return again and again, with designated 'rooms' for particular thoughts.  His scratch paper was folded into quadrants, turned over, rotated 90 degrees.  A grocery list for a banquet is complemented by a doodle of the foods included – arranged in a corresponding vertical column.  In another more profound instance, Barkan demonstrates how a finger – a study of God’s hand for the Sistine Chapel ceiling – points to the word “caro” [or dear] within a poem, written perpendicular to it. 

    In a second place, these mixed words, verses, and drawings betray the “anxiety of influence” and the determination that could only belong to a young sculptor and painter at the turn of the 16th century.  Following on the heels of Donatello and Leonardo was, at best, a daunting task.  In this vein, perhaps the folios that engage his thoughts on the David disclose the most about the man, his genius and the world in which he lived.  Michelangelo's David is not the triumphant adolescent in Donatello’s rendering but rather a colossal monument to measure.  Displayed at its unveiling in 1504 in Piazza della Signoria as a symbol of the Florentine Republic, his sculpture captures the moment before victory.   The biblical hero’s posture shows him sizing up his enemy, ready for action and on the brink of movement.  In the drawings which Barkan uncovers from this period, the figure’s immense right arm, its hand poised to launch the fatal stone, is featured at the center of a discarded sheet.  A strange “inscription” accompanies the sketch:

    Davicte colla fromba
    E io coll'arco
    Michelangelo

    David with his sling shot
    And I with my bow.
    -       Michelangelo

    Of course it is impossible to fully understand what the artist meant when he wrote and signed this verse one day between 1500 and 1504.  But it is interesting to note the analogy he so clearly draws between himself as an artist and the humble young man who conquered the giant Goliath. 

    Later musings reveal how a Counter Reformation emphasis on the human, together with the loss of perfection inherent in a Christian rediscovery of antiquity, plays an integral part in Michelangelo’s thoughts and work.  It is fascinating to discover the extent to which he  identified with the raw materials of his creations.  Of course the “prisoners” or slaves, lining the central corridor of the Accademia in Florence, constitute one of the more stunning examples of his artistic vision. The figures emerge in various states of release – even bursting forth – from the roughly hewn rock.  But, as Barkan shows, his citations of Petrarch and his often purposefully crude imitations of the great poet’s style open our eyes to an artist who longed to be a leaf of paper or even a boulder that might be brought to life – perhaps loved and enlightened – by the hand of another or the grace of God.  

    In her commentary Jane Tylus noted the symmetry between the Counter Reformation emphasis on penance and grace – and the way that sculptural metaphors in Michelangelo’s poetry suggest a “chiseling of the spirit”.   In the analogies which permeate the author’s often tortured verses, raw materials – like the human being in flesh and body - are to be marked, filed, carved and shaped.  

    Meanwhile Alex Nagel focused on the affinity between drawing and writing and the notion that these drawings might represent a kind of theater of the imagination.  "An arena of fragments – where the images are fluid, morphing and incomplete", existing within a complex of visual associations which is perpetually in flux – like the mind itself. 

    Leonard Barkan is Arthur W. Marks '19 Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at Princeton University.  His many books include The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism, Transuming Passion:  Ganymede and the Erotics of Humanism, and Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture.  He also writes prolifically on food and wine and is a frequent visitor to Casa Italiana.

  • Art & Culture

    Bernardo Bertolucci. Still Dreaming

    Undercutting the laudatory tenor of the many introductions made on his behalf, the director of “The Conformist”, “Last Tango in Paris”, and “The Dreamers”, addressed an audience of journalists and young filmmakers at the Italian Cultural Institute Monday playfully, “probably I make films because they are less boring than my real life”.  Quickly turning more serious however, he reflected that he has always remained faithful to an inner vision. 

    The subject at hand, the retrospective of his oeuvre - Bernardo Bertolucci - which opened Wednesday at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, celebrates nearly 40 years of filmmaking.  Across 4 continents - from China, India and Africa to the cosmopolitan cities of Paris and Rome - Bertolucci has revolutionized cinema several times over.  The retrospective features 20 films in newly remastered prints and includes some rarely seen gems: Bertolucci's first film, “The Grim Reaper” (1962) - a thriller set in Rome-, the U.S. premier of his 3-part documentary series, “Oil” (1967), and the original 5 hour director’s cut of “1900”.

    For Bertolucci, who came of age in the era of free love, sexual experimentation, and social revolution, the experience of creating, of building and sculpting characters, is distinctly sensual.  In his work, the human body is the canvas on which history unfolds and human psychology releases its breathless beauty and harrowing fragility.  His interiors are sparsely decorated and the landscapes are empty – the human presence, however lost and small, looms disproportionately. 

    Somewhere between fantasy, dream, and mystic rapture, Bertolucci sees filmmaking as a kind of ecstatic experience.  Responding to questions Monday evening, he defined his opus as “one long, continuous film”, a procession of images externalized and governed by poetic inspiration.  He affirmed that, although he writes and re-writes his screenplays, he never looks at them once he begins filming.  A neorealist tradition, perhaps, but Bertolucci’s films are far from documentary in spirit.  They inhabit an alternate realm which, however coterminous with reality, is rather the inexpressible world of mortal confusion - or with Shakespeare, "the stuff dreams are made of". 

    Likewise the relationship with his actors is an intimate one: quite unabashedly, he declared that he “falls in love with the actors”.  Indeed, the love triangle Bertolucci, Brando, and Maria Schneider in “Last Tango in Paris” is famously one of the most arresting and decadent dysfunctional  relationships in the history of art.  Dismissing the fictional concept of character, Bertolucci explained that he needs the interaction with the human person, he needs “a face in front of [his] camera” and that he uses the camera to delve into the mystery of that person, “to uncover the secrets of their being”.  At times the director’s intensity and extraordinary talent for inspiring complicity, have proven to be dangerous and even ruinous.  Both Brando and Maria Schneider were said to have felt violated by “Last Tango in Paris” and Brando refused to speak to Bertolucci for nearly 15 years. 

    In a list of incredible talent that includes Jean-Louis Trintignant, Massimo Girotti, Dominque Sanda, Gérard Dépardieu, Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland, Jill Clayburgh, Debra Winger, John Malkovich, Alida Valle, Anouk Aimée, Peter O’Toole, and Jeremy Irons, Brando stands out as a “sacred monster”, and the director was clearly as marked by the experience of “Last Tango” as his actors.  He cites the film’s aftermath as one of the two great artistic crises of his career.  (The other being the controversy over the length of his virtuoso epic, “1900”.)

    As rare as the retrospective itself may be, it is even more exceptional to have the artist on hand to discuss his work.  And though a veteran of the industry, Bertolucci seems to have lost none of the wonder and excitement of a young director.  Far from disdaining television and new media, he extolled the virtues of Mad Men, comparing it to the 19th century novel - a “Dickens for the 21st Century” - and he confessed to being utterly vulnerable to its charms.  He sees digital technology as the “digital chance” - the democratization of filmmaking - and he observed that television and cinema seem to be exchanging their essential functions and properties. 

    Even in English Bertolucci is uncommonly articulate.  He arrived almost punctually – especially impressive in the world of Italian celebrity.  He spoke candidly and sincerely but also very clearly and eloquently – demonstrating the passion and feeling of an artist as well as the keen insight of a practiced master of his craft.  He seemed happy to talk with journalists, colleagues (cinematographer Vittorio Storaro made an appearance), and students alike.  And even after hours of interviews he graciously entertained our request for a digital “autograph”, allowing us to stage the esclusive photo above. 

    Best of all? We may see more of Bertolucci's cinema in the near future.  The director revealed, with some excitement, that there is a new project in development. 

    Organized by Cinecittà Luce and The Museum of Modern Art and curated by Jytte Jensen, of MoMA’s Film Department with Camilla Cormanni and Paola Ruggiero of Cinecittà Luce in Rome, the retrospective opened Wednesday December 15th and continues through January 12th.  It is sponsored by Eni S.p.A, an Italian energy company.  

     
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    }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }The director of “The
    Conformist” (1970), “Last Tango in Paris” (1972), “1900” (1976), “The
    Last Emperor” (1987), and “The Dreamers” (2003), met the press at the
    Italian Cultural Institute to discuss the retrospective of his work –
    Bernardo Bertolucci – which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art
    Wednesday. Bernardo Bertolucci encompasses over 40 years of filmmaking
    across 4 continents – from China, India and Africa to Rome and Paris –
     and it features 20 films in prints newly restored by Cinecittà Luce. 
    The cinematic gems to be shown at MoMA include the critically acclaimed
    films mentioned above as well as Bertolucci’s first film, “The Grim
    Reaper” (1962), a thriller set in Rome, the U.S. premier of the rarely
    seen 3-part documentary series, “Oil” (1967), and the original 5 hour
    director’s cut of “1900”. Jytte Jensen, of MoMA’s Film
    Department, Edoardo Ceccuti, of Cinecittà Luce, and Riccardo Viale, of
    the Italian Cultural Institute were on hand to introduce the director.
     Vittorio Storaro, cinematographer and longtime Bertolucci collaborator,
    also honored the director with his remarks.   With a
    certain humility the maestro confessed that he makes films “because they
    are less boring than my real life” while asserting that, throughout his
    career, he has always remained faithful to an inner vision. The
    influence of his predecessors, celebrated filmmakers such Roberto
    Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti, emerged in a
    series of neorealist precepts: the hand’s on approach, improvisation,
    the script as sketch, actors not as professionals but as players of
    themselves. But for Bertolucci, who came of age in the
    era of free love, sexual experimentation, and social revolution, the
    experience of creating, of building and sculpting characters, is
    distinctly sensual.  In his work, the human body is the canvas on which
    history unfolds and human psychology releases its breathless beauty and
    harrowing fragility.  Interiors are sparsely decorated and the
    landscapes are empty – the human presence, however lost and small, looms
    disproportionately. For Bertolucci, film is an
    ecstatic experience - somewhere between fantasy, dream, and mystic
    rapture.  Speaking to an audience of journalists and young filmmakers on
    Monday, he defined his opus as “one long, continuous film” a procession
    of images externalized according to a mystical pattern governed by
    poetic inspiration.  Bertolucci affirmed that, although he writes and
    re-writes his screenplays, he never looks at them once he begins
    filming.  A neorealist tradition, perhaps, but Bertolucci’s films are
    far from documentary in spirit.  They inhabit an alternate realm, which
    however coterminous with reality, is rather the inexpressible world of
    mortal confusion – or, as Cinecittà Luce Director Edoardo Ceccuti put it
    in his introduction, “the stuff that dreams are made of”. Likewise
    the relationship with his actors is an intimate one: he declared,
    unabashedly, that he “falls in love with the actors”.  Indeed, the love
    triangle Bertolucci, Brando, and Maria Schneider in “Last Tango in
    Paris” is famously one of the most arresting and decadent dysfunctional 
    relationships in the history of art.  Dismissing the fictional concept
    of character, Bertolucci explained that he needs the interaction with
    the human person, he needs “a face in front of [his] camera” and that he
    uses the camera to delve into the mystery of that person, “to uncover
    the secrets of their being” – both as an individual as well as in a
    universally human way.  At times the director’s intensity and
    extraordinary talent for inspiring complicity, have proven to be
    dangerous and even ruinous.  Both Brando and Maria Schneider were said
    to have felt violated by “Last Tango in Paris” and Marlon Brando refused
    to speak to Bertolucci for nearly 15 years. In a list
    of incredible talent that includes Jean-Louis Trintignant, Massimo
    Girotti, Dominque Sanda, Gérard Dépardieu, Robert De Niro, Donald
    Sutherland, Jill Clayburgh, Debra Winger, John Malkovich, Alida Valle,
    Anouk Aimée, Peter O’Toole, and Jeremy Irons, Brando stands out as a
    “sacred monster”, and the director was clearly as marked by the
    experience of “Last Tango” as his actors.  He cites the film’s aftermath
    as one of the two great artistic crises of his career.  The other being
    the controversy over the length of his colossal epic, “1900”. As
    rare as the retrospective itself may be, it is even rarer to have the
    artist on hand to discuss his work.  And though a veteran of the
    industry, Bertolucci seems to have lost none of the wonder and
    excitement of a young director.  Far from disdaining television and new
    media, he extolled the virtues of Mad Men, comparing it to the 19th
    century novel, a “Dickens for the 21st Century”, and confessed to being
    utterly vulnerable to its charms.  Moreover, digital technology is the
    “digital chance” or the democratization of filmmaking and television and
    cinema seem to have exchanged He observed that and cinema seem to
    exchanging function and value. Despite the cerebral
    quality of his filmmaking, Bertolucci, even at 90 and handicapped by a
    stroke, is articulate.  He arrives almost punctually – especially
    impressive in the world of Italian celebrity.  He speaks candidly and
    sincerely but also very clearly and eloquently – demonstrating the
    passion and feeling of an artist as well as the keen insight of a
    practiced master of his craft.  He seemed happy to speak to journalists,
    colleagues, and students alike.  And even after hours of interviews he
    graciously entertained our request for a digital “autograph”, allowing
    us to stage the photo above. Organized by Cinecittà
    Luce and The Museum of Modern Art and curated by Jytte Jensen, of MoMA’s
    Film Department with Camilla Cormanni and Paola Ruggiero of Cinecittà
    Luce in Rome, the retrospective opened Wednesday December 15th and
    continues through January 12th.  It is sponsored by Eni, an Italian
    energy company.   From left to right: Jytte
    Jensen of MoMA, Curator of , Consul General Francesco Maria Talò, and
    Edoardo Ceccuti, Director of the Istituto Luce photos by Chiara Capponi

  • Art & Culture

    Pirandello's Muse: Marta Abba Unveiled

    Friday, at Casa Italiana, Pietro Frassica of Princeton University presented his new book “Her Maestro’s Echo: Pirandello and the Actress who Conquered Broadway in One Evening” (Troubador, 2010), based on the correspondence between the revered dramaturge and his actress- muse Marta Abba.  Abba bequeathed her archive to Princeton in the late 1980s and Frassica’s many labors include an English translation of selected letters, published in 1994, and several other volumes in Italian.  The new text aims to shed light on the person of the actress, also providing a more in depth analysis of the artistic relationship between the two.  A dramatized reading of excerpts by Meghan Duffy and Ric Randig - staged by Mimi Gisolfi D’Aponte and sponsored by the Pirandello Society of America - followed.

    The second historic, early 20th century 'artistic' romance Casa Italiana has unearthed this fall, the event complements the Gabriele D’Annunzio exhibit currently on view in the Casa gallery (through Dec. 15).  The former pays homage to D'Annunzio's enduring liaison with the diva Eleonora Duse.  Moreover, the themes of we encounter here – modernity and language, cinema and technology, representation and perception, art and politics – also find an echo in the Guggenheim retrospective Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany 1918-1936 (on view in NYC through January 9).  

    Pirandello and Abba met in Rome in 1925; he was nearly 60, an established and accomplished writer, playwright and director of the Teatro di Roma.  She was barely 25, a recent graduate of the Accademia dei Filodrammatici in Milan, flush with enthusiasm after a successful debut in a Milanese production of Chekhov's “The Seagull”.  Upon seeing her perform Pirandello wrote to request her collaboration and each, in his own way, would remain forever altered by the encounter. “Come tu mi vuoi”, [As You Desire Me] (1932) is considered to be the best of their joint ventures but their letters do much to illuminate Pirandello’s obscure masterpiece, “I giganti della montagna” [The Mountain Giants], the last of his plays. 

    Writing Marta from Paris, the poet describes his imaginative toil and the new play elatedly, “The lightness of a cloud over the depth of an abyss; powerful laughter exploding among the tears.” The source and the reason for this rush of inspiration is, of course, Marta herself: “With all your soul, which rejoices in me and creates inside me that sense of a fable in which all the characters breathe, and the words bloom like flowers that seem astonished at being born”(Paris, February 16, 1931). 

    It is easy enough to dismiss these words as the musings of a man in love with a beautiful young women, but upon reading Marta’s words, we discover that she was no Galatea.  A spirited, independent woman with ideas and thoughts of her own, she exhorts her maestro, “I should like it that you extend yourself further […] Do not be afraid to […] embrace everything, including the beauty that fills our spirits with wonder and dismay”(Salsomaggiore, May 28, 1930).  In fact, throughout their correspondence, Marta develops from a proud, girlish actress – flirtatious and yet reproachful in response to the poet’s attentions - into a mature and sensitive young woman.  From her hotel room in New York in 1936, she reflects upon the plight of the “modern woman” and entreats Pirandello to consider the feminine experience: “with your sharp eye, you might come up with the right words to express it”.

    The period in which their correspondence flourished (1925-1936) saw a great deal of transition and turmoil - politically speaking as well as artistically.  And, as is often the case, dialogue proves to be all the more revealing – transforming historical personages into nuanced characters on the set of life.   

    The archive holds some 552 letters penned by Pirandello and 238 in Marta’s hand.  Their conversations range from Mussolini to the invention of the ‘Talkie’.  They discuss Pirandello’s anxiety over work, money and family and Marta’s concern for female emancipation. This period marked the height of Italian Fascism – and the letters expose the pair’s ambivalence in the face of Fascist politics.  Pirandello went abroad (to Berlin) in 1928, presumably to distance himself from the party.  Meanwhile Abba was criticized for the “autonomous” nature of her performances and her rather “free interpretation of characters” – neither was appreciated in a young woman.  After a visit with the Duce, in her report a “tragic man”, she divulges - not without irony - the statesman’s irritation over Pirandello’s “foul temper”, his homage to Verga, and his dismissal of D’Annunzio. 

    The portrait of an epoch emerges through this emotionally and intellectually charged exchange: Pirandello, however ready to embrace the new technology - especially in film - struggled with mechanical reproduction and other modern modifications.  Swooning over the moon (and Marta) from a balcony in Nettuno at 2AM, he laments her multiplication in the municipal streetlamps. Meanwhile, for her part Abba resisted the film industry, clinging tenaciously to the stage. (Notably, Greta Garbo replaced her in the screen adaptation of "As You Desire Me" (1932). 

    Perhaps “The Mountain Giants” - in many ways the fictional mirror of Abba and Pirandello's mutual affection - best explains the artists’ struggle with reality.  In Frassica’s words, the play is “a testament to the power of fantasy and poetry but also to the tragedy of art in a brutal modern world”.   A portrait of the illusive imaginary world Marta helped him to create and maintain, the mild- monstrous ghosts in Pirandello's final poetic effort - living distantly yet nearby in fantastical allegory - also serve to illustrate the contradictory impulses which characterized 'modernity' in Interwar Europe.  

    Pirandello (b. 1867) expired in 1936 and Abba, who had already moved to the States, married Severance A. Millikin, a wealthy business man and art patron from Cleveland OH, in 1938.  Abba’s life spanned much of the 20th century (1900-1988) but, though her performance on Broadway - especially in Gilbert Miller's "Tovarich" - won her praise and fame in the U.S., her artistic career never recovered from her maestro’s loss.  She divorced Millikin in 1952 and returned permanently to Italy.

  • Art & Culture

    Memory, History and the Literary Conscience

    Memory, History and the Literary Conscience: "Libri come" in NYC

    Jonathan Galassi's brilliant translation of Leopardi's "Canti" includes this excerpt from the canzone "La sera del dì di festa" [The Evening of the Holiday].  Young Giacomo strikes an operatic chord as nightfall on the village feast day celebration inspires him to contemplate the end of all things.  As he visualizes the missing pages of history, his mind's eye is filled with the ruin littered fields of epochs past.  "Where are those ancient peoples?", he cries.  What has become of their clamorous battles, their stunning tragedies, their sparkling monuments?  Silence falls like curtain over the theater of his hopes and dreams. 

    E fieramente mi si stringe il core,
    A pensar come tutto al mondo passa,
    E quasi orma non lascia. Ecco è fuggito
    Il dì festivo, ed al festivo il giorno
    Volgar succede, e se ne porta il tempo
    Ogni umano accidente. Or dov’è il suono
    Di que’ popoli antichi? or dov’è il grido
    De’ nostri avi famosi, e il grande impero
    Di quella Roma, e l’armi, e il fragorio
    Che n’andò per la terra e l’oceano?
    Tutto è pace e silenzio, e tutto posa
    Il mondo, e più di lor non si ragiona.

    and my heart is stricken
    to think how everything in this world passes
    and barely leaves a trace. Look,
    the holiday is gone, the workday follows,
    and time makes off with every human thing.
    Where is the clamor of those ancient peoples?
    Where is the renown
    of our famed anscestors, and the great empire
    of their Rome, her armies,
    and the din she made on land and sea?
    Everything is peace and quieto now,
    the world is calm, and speaks no more of them.

    Following an animated reading by Mr. Galassi himself, Benedetta Tobagi and Stefan Merrill Block concluded Radio3’s New York edition of the popular "Libri come" program with an impassioned investigation of the treacherous "silent peace" Leopardi laments in his poem. 

    Rosa Polacco, one of the festival curators, confessed that the idea to bring the two into conversation had occurred to her intuitively.  As it turns out, Polacco's notion was fortuitous because together, the two exposed the multiplicity of ideas and meanings associated with the term "memory".   What does memory mean to an individual, a family, a community, a nation?  A tangle of neurons and sinuous membranes, the organic tissue of one's brain matter and, at the same time, a knot of names, places and dates – buildings and monuments – destined to decay and crumble.  Geneology, archeology, historical record, collective memory, social memory, oral tradition, memoir, documentary, ritual, convention, commemoration.  The ancient shadows of Homer, Plato and Virgil in these authors’ works seem to beckon us to consider the crossover point between personal stories and public history.

    The act of remembering, as Benedetta and Stefan show us, is as much a search for humanity as it is for truth and facts.   Benedetta’s memoir, whose title reads in a bold red: “Come mi batte forte il tuo cuore” (How Your Heart Beats Fast within Me) and in smaller, black print: “Storia di mio padre” (The Story of My Father), recounts her search for the father who was both famous and patently obscure.  Too well known and, to his daughter - merely 3 years old when he was assassinated - virtually unknown.  For the orphaned Benedetta, the facts, already problematic in their malleability, were soulless without the force of a familiar embrace or the venerable nuisance of paternal advice.

    "È triste non ricordare il volto di una persona amata, ignorare quell’impasto di dettagli che la rende inconfondibile.  Il modo di muovere le mani – mani larghe, ma dalle dita affusolate, come le mie -, la piega delle spalle, l’andatura, magari un tic, un vezzo.  Particolari che le fotografie mostrano a malapena, gesti e attitudini appena suggeriti" (93).  

    "It is sad not to remember a loved one’s face, to be ignorant of that mixture of details which renders him unmistakable.  The way he moves his hands – broad palms with tapered fingers, like my own -, the curve of his spine, his stride, maybe a twitch or a quirky habit.  Details which scarcely show up in photographs; gestures and positions that are merely distant suggestions".  

    Likewise, Stefan’s fiction represents a recherche of sorts: for the tragic humanity at the heart of Alzheimer’s disease.  His novel, "The Story of Forgetting", blends imaginary characters with scientific research and, one supposes, at least a bit of documentary testimony.  Thus, it is not only a “story” about forgetting but also a “history” of the malady.  We imagine the protagonist Seth to be the author’s courageous avatar – clearing the clinical cobwebs, ransacking the attic, confronting his father.  Only Seth is looking for his mother: the person in which he originated and whose mystery he carries, written in his DNA.  In other words, the facts alone are as cold and sterile as the nursing home where the ailing woman is confined.  While interviewing a young lady who lost a loved one to the illness, Seth experiences a sudden rush of insight:

    "My imagination of their sadness and hope; it was as if there had been a hollow, unfathomable dark place and their stories had held light to its walls, mapping its depths.  (…) Maybe the point of my so-called empirical investigation had been as simple as that, to hear their stories and, by imagining the shapes of their burdens, to being to understand the shape of my own" (252).  

    It is perhaps fitting to conclude with one of Benedetta’s most moving discoveries.  Among the young Walter’s notes, there are several letters which testify to his passion for journalism (“the most beautiful career in the world”).  No topic or assignment was undesirable or uninteresting: “You get used to anything and everything.  There is humanity in every situation, you just have to know how to find it and to appreciate its worth”(68).  In short, in this world at least, the truth and the human are incontrovertibly linked. 

    It seems that Benedetta has taken these lessons to heart, as one of the founders of the Case della memoria (Houses of Memory), an initiative aimed at reconciling the victims of terrorism to nothing less than history itself and with the idea of creating and fostering a community of understanding – because, when one loses someone dear, the facts alone are wholly insufficient.

    Jonathan Galassi is President and Publisher at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux where he has held various executive offices since 1985.  His numerous translations from the Italian include the oeuvre of the poet Eugenio Montale.  His translation of Leopardi's "Canti" is the first in over 50 years. 

    Benedetta Tobagi lives in Milan but travels frequently to speak to young people and to promote the Case della memoria initiatives she has enthusiastically embraced.  She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy part-time at the University of Oxford in London.  Her father, Walter Tobagi, a journalist for Corriere della Sera, was assassinated by a member of the Red Brigades in 1980.  The circumstances surrounding his death – and the reason for his targeting – remain unresolved.  Her book is also an investigation of the colossal scandal which may have led to his death.

    Stefan Merrill Block lives in Brooklyn, NY.  His debut novel, "The Story of Forgetting" - written at the age of 26 -  was an international bestseller.  Enormously popular in Italy, the book captured the attention of Walter Veltroni who penned a laudatory review.  Growing up, Block helped to care for his grandmother who suffered with familial Alzheimer’s.  He very recently concluded a second manuscript on his grandfather's life.  The author attended Washington University of St. Louis and, when he isn’t writing, he makes documentary films. 

  • Arrigo Minerbi, Framed Head of  Eleonora Duse
    Art & Culture

    The Secret Life of Gabriele D'Annunzio: a New Exhibit at NYU's Casa Italiana

    @font-face {
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    }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }Father of modern Italian poetry, conquistador of celebrity culture, the original “Latin Lover”, decorated war hero and inspired revolutionary are just a few of the titles attributed to the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio at the world premier of  “Gabriele D’Annunzio: Living Life as a Work of Art” at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò.  The exclusive showing features artifacts from the poet’s estate, an impressive complex on the shores of Lake Garda, grandiloquently named, The Vittoriale for the Italian People.  The exhibit will be on view at Casa Italiana through December 15th.

    The wonderfully varied opening program, arranged by Casa Italiana director Stefano Albertini, included a dramatic reading of D’Annunzio’s poems in both Italian and English and a screening of the world’s first blockbuster movie, Cabiria.  Short lectures were given by Giordano Bruno Guerri, President and Director of The Vittoriale, Paolo Valesio, Giuseppe Ungaretti Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia University and Angela Dalle Vacche, Professor of Literature, Communication and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

    Prof. Albertini credits Anna Maria Andreoli, former president of The Vittoriale, with the idea for bringing the show to New York. 

    The exhibit artfully traces D’Annunzio’s life from his birth in Pescara, through his literary schooling in Prato and marriage into Roman society, to his military heroism as a pilot in WWI and the zealous conquest of Fiume (now Rijeka) in 1919, and finally to the establishment of his country estate, The Vittoriale, in Gardone Riviera.  Along the way, we meet the many illustrious female artists who shared his extravagant desires and his bed.  A marble bust of D’Annunzio’s most famous companion, the actress Eleonora Duse, greets viewers in the Casa Italiana lobby.  Her ethereal gaze matches that of the many early photographs reproduced for the show in her honor.  Those interested in the history of fashion and design will find a treasure trove in an impressive display of the great dandy’s clothing, shoes and accessories.  Accoutrements from his table, including ornaments by the sculptor Renato Brozzi, line the minor gallery, along with the poet’s beloved equestrian gear and model airplanes.

    The traveling exhibit, whose next stops include Athens and Tokyo, is among several new initiatives under the leadership of The Vittoriale’s current director, Giordano Bruno Guerri. A well-known contemporary Italian historian and T.V. personality, Guerri envisions a D’Annunzio “revival” worthy of the great poet’s contributions to the modern era.  In his introduction, he emphasized the need to divest D’Annunzio of the common associations with fascism and decadence which have relegated him to relative intellectual oblivion. 

    Guerri’s many diverting anecdotes describe a man who was leaps and bounds ahead of his time, a trend-setter capable of publishing a bestseller at 16, making the suntan fashionable, “bombing” Vienna with leaflets, instructing Mussolini on public speaking and of single-handedly conquering a city on the Italian- Yugoslav border.   D’Annuzio’s avant-garde exploration of language in poetry and prose, Prof. Valesio tells us, laid the groundwork for Ungaretti and Montale.  Meanwhile Prof. Dalle Vacche reveals his gender-bending preferences for flowing garments and women in pants.   Having understood the commercial value of celebrity before anyone else in his era, D’Annunzio’s fame was such that when director Giovanni Pastrone wanted to sell his first film, he contacted the poet.  The film reached theaters with D’Annunzio’s billing and it quickly became an international sensation. 

    Born in March of 1863, D’Annuzio died in March of 1938. Historical circumstances effectively placed him between two worlds and perhaps, this serves to explain the many contradictions in his character. He was a passionate conservationist: he invented the term “cultural goods” (“beni culturali”) and the notion that these should be protected by a ministry of the State.  And yet, no artist or writer embraced the turning of the 19th Century and the dramatic onslaught of modernity with quite the same vigor and energy.  D’Annunzio was interested in science and technology, in sexuality and freedom, in women and fashion, in architecture, gardens and airplanes, ships and military offences, poetry and Nietzsche. He wanted to be a Prince and yet he founded a Republic in which women could vote and hold elected office almost 30 years before those rights would be recognized in Italy.  He cultivated a monastic life-style and yet he continued to write, love and collect things with unyielding frenzy.  He lived for luxury but insisted on the essential simplicity of beauty. 

    It was this assembling of the past and future in his person and in his artistic activities which made him a harbinger of modern Italian poetry.  In Valesio’s words, D’Annunzio marshaled the literary monuments of the past and spent his career chipping away at the perfection of his assemblage. 

    Likewise, the exhibit is a rare opportunity to experience the novelty and the enthusiasm of early 20th Century modernism.  D’Annunzio, his projects, and his things, embody the spirit of an age of excitement and innovation which was all but destroyed by the second world war.

  • Art & Culture

    Renaissance at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò

    Monday evening, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò hosted Nicola Gardini for the presentation of his latest book, Rinascimento [Renaissance], Einaudi, 2010.  Gardini, who received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at New York University, is now Lecturer in Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford.  He was introduced by his former advisor and mentor Daniel Javitch, Professor of Comparative Literature, NYU; Stefano Albertini, Director of Casa Italiana; and Jane Tylus, Professor of Italian Studies and Director of the Humanities Initiative, NYU.

    “This project aims at the heart of the Renaissance,” Gardini explained, “which I identify more with a culture and a mentality than with an historical period.  I wanted to tell a story that would also reach a non-academic public and I wanted it to be about literature.” 

    The literary angle is a distinctive feature of the book and it allows the author to explore the soul of the Renaissance to unprecedented depths.  Renaissance means re-birth, yes, but the stirring, in Gardini’s vision, like the awakening from a beautiful dream, is more thoughtful and painful than the re-discovery of antiquity is commonly held to imply.  Gardini’s focus is temporality: the discovery of secular time and the understanding of being and asserting oneself within it. 

    But with the discovery of time comes, necessarily, the knowledge of its passing, just as the unearthing of the past is also the revelation of its loss.   And yet, noble poet scholars from Petrarch to Ariosto, Poliziano, Machiavelli and Guicciardini labored all the same to bring the monumental fragments they uncovered to light.  And Gardini discusses their projects with the subtlety of an author who has toiled over the very same texts which kept their candles burning late into the night. 

    Rinascimento’s titles speak to the lyrical inspiration behind Gardini’s efforts: “Time and Things”, “Virgil’s Real Name”, “The Historian and the Poet”,  “The Wound of Being”, “The Shadow of Others”,  “Congedo”.  Likewise, his poignant conclusion summarizes the dialectic between recovery and loss inherent in the “new” knowledge of history. “Born to conquer time, the Renaissance ends by surrendering to it.”

    Scholar, poet and essayist, Gardini was educated in Classics at the University of Milan.  He is the author of numerous important literary studies, critical editions and translations.  His most controversial book, I baroni [The Barons], a memoir on corruption in the Italian university system, sent shockwaves through the Italian press.  Ted Hughes, Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden are just a few of the poets he has translated into Italian.  

  • Art & Culture

    Re-Thinking Italian American Studies at the Calandra Institute

    Is there more to Italian American culture than the annual street fairs, ‘Jersey Shore guidos’ and macho mafiosi?  How does Italian-American studies fit into the larger panorama of ethnic and immigration studies?  of Italian Studies?  In the post postmodern era of ‘conspicuous culture consumption’, how does the Italian-American intellectual chart a new course? 

    These questions and others were explored extensively throughout the weekend at the John D. Calandra Institute’s most recent cultural event: "Re-Thinking Italian American Studies: A National Symposium."  

    Co-organizers Fred Gardaphé, Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College in New York and Anthony Julian Tamburri, Professor and Dean of the Calandra Institute, envisioned a forum for examining the expanding influence and popularity of the field of Italian American Studies.  At the initial press conference Friday evening Dr. Tamburri explained to reporters that new developments in the national languages and ethnic studies disciplines had not only changed the shape of Italian American studies but had also expanded its scope and importance within the Academy. 

    The growing wide-spread interest in Italian-American studies speaks to the many challenges facing ‘nationhood’ and ‘national identity’ in the global 21st century.  “Italian American” is by definition hybrid, trans-historical and inter-national: a dynamic identity that exists in tension between the global and the local.

    Together with other ethnic studies programs such as African American and Latin American Studies, Italian American Studies has weakened and destabilized the strict confines of the traditional national entity. 

    In a series of panel discussions, some of the Tri-state area’s distinguished professors debated the notion of a political and cultural identity - ultimately eschewing established definitions based in geographic, political and/or ethnic boundaries in favor of an “imagined community”. 

    Soft-spoken Teresa Fiore, newly appointed Inserra Chair for Italian and Italian American Studies at Montclair State University, observed that, for her students, Italy is now "more of a destination than a point of departure". 

    In other words, the Italian American community as a close-knit, highly localized cultural linguistic immigrant cluster has been replaced by a more confident, diverse and scattered generation in search of its roots.  While Fiore, the only female panelist, suggested that scholars look to their students for guidance and inspiration, her colleagues debated other ways for developing and improving their programs. Peter Carravetta, Alphonse M. D’Amato Professor of Italian at Stony Brook University, advocates a grass roots approach to cultural studies and frequently meets with ‘Sons of Italy’ clubs and other neighborhood specific groups. Peter Viscusi, Professor of English at Brooklyn College, emphasized the importance of working with colleagues in other fields and programs, of participating in interdisciplinary efforts and generally integrating Italian American studies into the larger theater of the Humanities.

    In an interview with Prof. Gardaphé we learned that this was “a real meeting of the intelligentsia” and the first conference in the history of the field dedicated specifically to the Italian American Studies program.   Invitees were limited to the most distinguished faculty members and only those who direct Italian American Studies departments or programs were asked to speak.  

    In response to accusations of elitism, Gardaphé shrugged, “I’m interested in the future of Italian-American Studies and I’d like to see departments and programs open up across the country. We have other conferences for discussing our individual research agendas.” The proceedings continued throughout the day on Saturday and included presentations by Richard Alba of The City University of New York, William Connell of Seton Hall University, Stanislao Pugliese of Hofstra University and Paolo Giordano of the University of Central Florida.