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Articles by: Stanislao Pugliese

  • Op-Eds

    The Acquarius and The Recurrent Cycles of Human History

    For the past 25 years, on my first day of an introductory history course, I ask students why they hate history. At first, they are surprised and even astonished by my question. But they soon lose their reticence and offer all the usual answers: “history keeps repeating itself;” “we never learn from history;" “history has no importance in our contemporary world or my life.” As professional historians, we have perhaps failed in our duty to fully engage the public with the past. I can’t help thinking of this failure as we witness hour-by-hour the fate of 630 human beings literally adrift at sea in the Mediterranean. Their lives hang in the balance because of the political choices and poisoned culture of contemporary Italy.

    "Italiani brava gente:" That era has come to an end

    Once upon a time Italians still enjoyed their (undeserved) reputation as “italiani brava gente.” That era has definitively come to an end. Italians are demonstrating that given the right (that is, wrong) conditions, they can be just as prejudiced and racist as anyone else. 

    The Aquarius and the incendiary hashtag on Twitter

    The Aquarius rescued 630 people adrift off the Libyan coast over the weekend according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée, who jointly operate the ship. They reported 120 minors and six pregnant women on board. According to EU protocol, the ship should call into the nearest port to permit humanitarian aid and assistance. But both Malta and Italy refused, with Italian Minister of the Interior, leader of the anti-immigrant Lega party Matteo Salvini, provocatively tweeting the hashtag #chiudiamoiporti. Amnesty International condemned both Malta and Italy for abandoning the age-old custom of rescue at sea. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea stipulates that any ship learning of distress at sea must assist, no matter the circumstances.

    Once upon a time the Italian immigrants in the US

    There was a time—just one generation after the unification of Italy—that millions of desperate Italians fled the new country, seeking a better life in the Americas, Australia, Belgium and elsewhere. Until 1924, immigration to the US was almost limitless, with few actual controls in place. And we all know the discrimination and prejudice suffered by our ancestors in foreign lands. 

    The position of Spain 

    A change in government in Spain, though, has delivered some measure of hope. Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was recently forced to step down, permitting a center-left government to form there under Pedro Sanchez. Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said Spain would offer refuge – in pointed contrast to Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Salvini. Calvo said Spain could simply not remain impassive in the face of a humanitarian crisis. The refugees are expecting in Valencia by the week’s end. It would seem the story has a happy – or at least a not tragic – ending. But authorities warn that the precedent established by Italy will result in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the near future.  We have arrived at a situation where the internal, domestic policies of countries in Europe will determine whether innocent people live or die. 

    The recurrent cycles of human history

    As a historian of twentieth-century Europe, my mind goes back to the fate of the SM St. Louisin 1939, when the internal, domestic policies of far-off countries sealed the fate of over 900 German Jews. On 13 May 1939, the ship left Hamburg for Cuba. There, they were denied docking at port, either on tourist visa or as refugees. (After five days anchored in harbor, only 30 passengers were eventually allowed to disembark.) The US Coast Guard, acting on instructions from the vehemently anti-Semitic US State Department, refused the ship entry to American ports. Canadian officials acted similarly. The ship returned to Europe and docked at Antwerp on 17 June 1939 and passengers were distributed to Belgium, Holland, France and the UK. World War II began 11 weeks later. Roughly one quarter of the passengers would subsequently perish in the Nazi extermination camps. 

    A widespread underlying fear

    Somehow, a narrative has taken hold in Italy, Hungary, Britain, Poland and the United States that these countries are under “assault” by others. Rising economic uncertainty is part of the reason for this but surely there is an underlying fear and ugliness that infects even those whose economic interests are not threatened. A deadly brew of xenophobia, nationalism, and racism threatens the European project as well as the lives of thousands of innocent people. 

    Napoli and Palermo: Where refugees are welcome

    To their credit, the mayors of Palermo and Naples have issued a call for their cities to welcome the refugees. Some years ago, Napoli mayor Luigi De Magistris was in NYC and spoke eloquently at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in midtown. As a port city, De Magistris insisted that Napoli was open to the world and understood the ancient custom of welcoming the stranger. He poignantly asked why it is possible that money could travel around the world in seconds without restriction but people – living men, women and children with hopes and dreams – were not granted the same right. Italy may one day return collectively to this more humane and compassionate vision of the world. For now, we are dependent on individuals, civic associations, religious organizations and spontaneous groups to remind us of our civil and human responsibility. 

    ---

    Stanislao Pugliese
    Professor of History
    Queensboro UNICO Distinguished Professor of Italian & Italian American Studies
    Hofstra University

     

  • Frank Serpico behind the scenes with Antonino D’Ambrosio. Photo: Trevor Tweeten
    Art & Culture

    The Past is Never Dead. It's Not Even Past

    A new film on the life and legacy of Frank Serpico premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23, and will soon be seen in national distribution. With the participation of Al Pacino and John Turturro (among many others), Antonino D’Ambrosio’s work is a brooding reminder of the extraordinary power of individual courage combined with the moral and ethical imperatives of Italian American culture. 

    For the first part of his life, Frank Serpico had to deal with the corruption of the NYC Police Department. Once he agreed to testify at the Knapp Commission in 1971, and then after the Peter Maas book and Sidney Lumet film (1973) starring Al Pacino, he had to deal with the mythical figure of “Serpico.”  “People don’t know who Serpico was,” he says on camera. “For a long time I didn’t, either.” This interplay of history and memory is the red thread running through the film. “The past is always present for him,” remarked director D’Ambrosio. 

    Stanislao Pugliese, who discusses the historical and cultural context of Serpico’s story in the film, here interviews D’Ambrosio.

     

    [Stanislao Pugliese:] What inspired you to make the documentary?

    [Antonino D’Ambrosio:] In essence, Frank Serpico is an American archetype and the fact that he is an Italian-American (from an immigrant, working-class background) resonated with me deeply.  It connected with my own personal story, which is very similar.  It is an enduring story of survival propelled by compassion and unbendable purpose, one that amplifies how one rises after they’ve been knocked down, exposing the moments when darkness settles and one needs a light that shines a path forward. Another way to describe this is as creative-response or our striving capacity as human beings to transform our obstacles into opportunities to make the world work better for everyone. Serpico demonstrates this ability most profoundly by how he has lived following the birth of the “Serpico” legend in the early 1970s. Frank Serpico is often thought of in two ways: one, the hero cop who “ended police corruption forever” by nearly trading his life do so; and two, as a basis for “the Pacino film.” These calcified pop-culture myths obscure the larger and indispensable story of a person who never relented in pursuit of telling the truth. Some describe this as the core element of the American Dream: you work hard, live with honesty, humility, and honor and all the rewards of America are then made available to you. The reality is quite different and can often be brutal and harsh. The story of Frank Serpico is then so much more than an honest cop who did the right thing: it uncovers the unrealized possibility of the American democratic experiment and the unlimited potential of the human spirit.

     

    What was it like working with Frank?

    It was ultimately humbling and life-changing.  There were many moments that were quite challenging because  anytime you shine both a spotlight on and place someone under the microscope it can be unsettling.  You have to develop trust and give yourself over to the process.  But the challenge of telling the story of someone who encountered so much betrayal in his life led me to find many different creative openings to realize the vision I had in mind for this film.  In some ways, I had to keep tapping reservoirs of courage and resoluteness to keep pushing this project to completion. The film itself and the process of making it and sharing it with the world is a reminder that true commitment is to act—and that’s what Frank’s story is about, this film is about and being alive on this planet is about.

     

    In what ways were your backgrounds influential in making the film?

    Our shared common backgrounds—as Italian immigrants from a working class family/neighborhoods (Brooklyn and Philadelphia)—was fundamental in getting this film done.  There, speaking a common language (Italian) and discussing key things we learned from our parents—honor, integrity, hard work, being skeptical of power—were all things that connected us.  There are things that both our families did—passing down mantras, ethical codes if you will.  Things that Serpico adhered to, included “Never Run When You’re Right,” “Only Actions Count,” “There is not us v. them—there’s only us.”   These are things I deeply believe—I describe this as “creative-response” and these are the stories I like to tell via my writing, filmmaking, visual arts.  Serpico’s whole approach to being a cop and to living life is a creative-response—another key intersection of our backgrounds.

     

    Was the 1973 Lumet/Pacino film a help or a burden in making your own film?

    The Lumet/Pacino film was a help—as a matter of fact I saw it as a key device in presenting my own unique vision of this story.    Since my film is a deep character study of an American archetype and a psychological study of a whistleblower (or as Frank describes himself a “lamplighter”)—I saw the original film, particularly as a “home movie” allowing me to reflect back on Frank’s memory—the past and present colliding constantly in my film.  This became important as Frank himself performs his life throughout my film and the film is very much about memory, representation and reality.   Also, the Lumet film and Peter Maas book helped me frame more of the story of Frank’s ongoing challenge with becoming an icon and hero in popular culture both of those things he rejects—these labels end-up undermining both Frank’s life and the people he inspires—making it seem that you have to be an extraordinary person to rise-up to serious challenges and obstacles in life.  But Serpico’s story is the opposite of that—it’s about the everyday citizen who in the face of frightening odds, embraces his fear—which is the true essence of courage—and rises-up to do the extraordinary.  So highlighting the negative effects of celebrity and fame also allowed the film to present a more nuanced, empathetic portrayal.  It’s also important to remember that the book and the Lumet film only looked at a certain period of time of Frank’s life (his early 30s).  He’s lived more than 40 years of an interesting and intense life since then. 

     

     

    * Stanislao Pugliese is Professor of History and the Queensboro Unico Distinguished  Professor of Italian & Italian American Studies at Hofstra University.

     

     

  • Art & Culture

    Remembering Pino Daniele

    When Pino Daniele died of a heart attack two years ago, several precious links of cultural history were snapped.

    There was the link between contemporary music in Italy and the tradition of the canzone napoletana; the link between that tradition and the world- wide Neapolitan diaspora; the link between Neapolitan music and the Mediterranean shore; the link between that tradition and world music generally.

    In 1977, at age 22, he released Terra mia. Critics and the public both recognized a new talent, one skillful at seamlessly and fruitfully synthesizing various genres of music. Just three years later the album Nero a metà combined African-American blues, rock, and Neapolitan music to great effect.

    The album (“Half-Black”) was dedicated to musician Mario Musella whose mother was Neapolitan and whose father was a Native American GI soldier stationed in Naples during WWII.

    Playing saxophone on the album was James Senese, himself the son of a Neapolitan mother and African American GI. In an interview on RAI, Pino described the album as “alla ricerca di un’identità quasi svanita” (In search of an almost vanished identity). Accompanied by extraordinary musicians, he resurrected that glorious tradition.

    In 2012 Pino Daniele released his last album La Grande Madre. When in June of that year Daniele spoke at NYU’s Casa Italiana with Director Stefano Albertini, Letizia Airos and John Turturro, the audience marveled at the creative sparks—almost like static electricity— that crackled between the two artists.

    They had never met until then but Turturro had closed his paean to the canzone Napoletana with Daniele’s extraordinarily poignant and poetic “Napul’è” from his rst album in 1977 (see the box below). The song has been adopted and embraced by many as an unof cial anthem of a wounded but resilient city.  

    After Pino’s death, president of Napoli soccer team Aurelio De Laurentiis, decreed that “Napule è” would be played at the end of all home games.

    Watching from New York, the sounds and sights from the San Paolo stadium were moving and emotional. Watching a game at Ribalta on East 12th Street or Luzzo’s on First Ave.

    In those first weeks after his death, one noticed tears streaming down the faces of patrons as Pino’s voice came to us from far-off Naples. That lament, full of longing and loss, but with a icker of hope, echoes with us still. 

  • "Americordo": The Italian Jewish Exiles in America

    A lesser-known aspect of the history of fascism in Italy and the larger tragedy of the Shoah is the exile of Italian Jews to America. Yes, some Americans of a certain age are enamored of Vittorio De Sica’s 1971 Academy-Award-winning film “The Garden of the Finzi-Contini” (often not aware that it is based on a 1962 novel of the same name by Giorgio Bassani.) 

    Some Americans are readers of Primo Levi, especially after his extraordinary Periodic Table wastranslated into English and praised by such writers as Susan Sontag, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. And some Americans are conscious of the long-running debate on the role of the Vatican and Pius XII during the Nazi occupation of Italy. But few Americans—or Italian-Americans for that matter—are familiar with the plight and influence of 2,000 Italian Jews who fled fascist Italy under the most difficult circumstances after the appearance of the “Manifesto of the Racial Scientists” in the summer of 1938 and the subsequent promulgation of anti-Semitic legislation—based on the notorious Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany—several months later.
    Now, Centro Primo Levi Editions has published an English translation of Gianna Pontecorboli’s Americordo, and the story should be better known.

    When asked to explain the generis and project of CPL Editions, Alessandro Cassin, Director of Publishing for Primo Levi Editions, recalled “For about 10 years, the activities of Primo Levi Center, were tied to our public programing, to our online activities, and to the synergies between the two. As our web presence grew through the online monthly Printed Matter, we realized that the more content we provided the more interest we stimulated. In other words, publishing books is a natural extension of our website.”

     
    (The Centro Primo Levi is on West 16th Street while CPL Editions last year renovated the old S. F. Vanni Bookstore on West 12th Street, steps from the Casa Italiana of NYU.)  “One of our objectives,” Cassin continued, “is to present the history, culture and traditions of the Jews of Italy, as to stimulate further study in this field. One of the main problems is that few of the texts —both classics and new— are available in English, so we began translating a selection of books we believe are important.”
    Pontecorboli’s writing—admirably translated by Marion Lignana Rosenberg (who died tragically during the project) and Steve Baker of Columbia University—is clear and direct, thankfully fee of the rhetorical excess that sometimes accompanies the subject.

    This book is a humble homage to the history of some 2,000 Italian Jews who crossed the ocean to flee the Fascist regime’s unjust racial laws, having understood early on the tragedy in which those laws would culminate only a few years later. This story has never been told in its entirety, though many of the exiles have written books and personal memoirs.

    When fascism came to power in 1922, some Italian Jewish families welcomed the new regime, an indication of how assimilated into the communities had become. With no anti-Semitic platform to speak of (but numerous anti-Semites in their ranks), the fascists didn’t appear at first to be as dangerous as their German counterparts. Italy had Jewish prime ministers and Rome had a Jewish mayor when France—home of the Enlightenment—was convulsed by the Dreyfuss Affair. Were not the Jews of Rome the “Pope’s Jews”? Had not Mussolini promised to protect Italian Jews since “they had wept at Caesar’s tomb”?   
    But by the mid-1930s all had changed and the first Italian translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while little noticed at the time, was an ominous shot across the bow. By the fall of 1938, thousands were faced with a wrenching decision: to stay or go into exile?

    It was a disparate group. In addition to architects, musicians, artists, journalists, designers, mathematicians, and no less than three later Nobel Prize winners, there was a seamstress, a door-to-door salesman . . . This is a collective portrait of ordinary and extraordinary people; a polyphonic biography. Appropriately enough, the story begins with Pontecorboli recalling the arrival back in Italy of an aunt and uncle who had fled in 1938.  

    Giuseppe Prezzolini, one of the prominenti in his role as Director of the Casa Italiana at Columbia University, astutely observed that “These Italian Jews were . . . entirely different. They constituted a special emigration. Once arrived they never set about asking for assistance; instead, they actually gave assistance, each helping the others. They didn’t mingle with New York Jews or even with Italian-Americans. . . As far as Jews were concerned, they were Italians, and Italian-Americans considered them Jews. For Americans they were the subject of wonder and awe.”

    Author Gianna Pontecorboli was born in Camogli (Genova), earned a degree in Economics from the University of Genova in 1968 and has had a distinguished career as a journalist in Italy and the United States. She writes often about politics, culture and the economy. Currently, she is the UN and US correspondent for the Swiss newspaper Corriere del Ticino; she is also a writer and founding partner of the online paper Lettera 22.

    She kindly and graciously responded to several questions about the book.

    Obviously, this is a very personal work. Can you explain how the idea came to you and your own history? 

    “I think the most interesting thing may be to talk about how this book was born. I’d like to start with a small, personal story. A few years ago we organized a family dinner in Genova. We were five cousins who came from three different families. At a certain point the conversation came around to the “American uncle,” my mother’s brother who had decided to move to the US together with a cousin shortly after the passage of the Racial Laws. 

    At that moment we realized that all five of us had incredibly vivid memories of when he and his wife visited Italy. We were all children, but none of us forgot the excitement that enlivened the family and especially their fascinating stories. And, at the same time, we remembered the tension we perceived in our parents questions.”
    “When I came to NY at the end of the 1970s the environment in which my aunt and uncle had lived was still largely intact and so it was natural that it aroused my curiosity and the emotions of my childhood. I had the opportunity to meet many of the Italian Jews who had arrived after 1938 thanks to my work, and I was fascinated by-the fact that they were perfectly integrated with Americans, Jews, and Italians, while at the same time remaining ‘different.’ And I was impressed by the success that many of them had had, in spite of the difficulties they encountered.”

    “I immediately understood that their story deserved to be told. I still remember perfectly visiting one of them in his house in Larchmont, outside of NY. On the way back I told the person who was accompanying me, ‘this story deserves a book. I will have to write it.’However the time was not yet ripe, both because there was not yet the interest there is now in revisiting that period in time and because I realized immediately that the experience and suffering of the past still haunted many of them and it would be difficult to for them to tell an impartial and serene tale.”
     
     Do you discern a difference (ideological, psychological, political, cultural) between those who choose exile and those who remained behind? Was there any antagonism between the two groups? 
    “The exiles who chose America belonged primarily to the Jewish upper middle class, which had the money and the contact to take a real leap into the darkness. The majority were professionals or intellectuals who had lost their work because of the racial laws. Many--but not all of them--were antifascists. As far as I know, their decision to leave was received with sorrow but also with understanding by those who decided to stay and they were received with open arms when they went back after the war.”
     
    What personal and intellectual qualities did the exiles carry that helped them become successful in America?
    “Obviously cultural and intellectual qualities played a major role. One of the factors was the idea that they had lost their support system and they had to prove themselves in the new world. The friendship of the other exiles and the help of different organizations like the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue were crucial to reassure the weakest."
    How is this history of Italian Jewish exiles understood today in Italy?
    “I had a lot of interest when the book came out in Italy. It is a new story for the larger Italian public.”

    Alessandro Cassin promises that “CPL Editions will continue to expand our offering of books that relate to the Jewish presence in Italy, from ancient time to the present, from a variety of points of view.” They have also created a CPL Editions  APP—which can be downloaded for free at iTunes or google play—and “allows our readers to be updated on our new books and on read Printed Matter on their phones and electronic devices.”
    The nearly four-dozen black and white photographs evoke a world we forget at our peril.  From Rome, Milan, Fiume, Venice and dozens of other Italian towns and cities, to New Haven, CT, Cold Spring Harbor, NY, Princeton, NJ, it was another chapter in the millennial history of the Diaspora.  With a useful bibliography, 80 short biographies and a preface by Furio Colombo, this is a valuable and necessary book that will appeal to both scholars and general readers alike.        


    Stanislao Pugliese is the Queensboro UNICO Distinguished Professor of Italian & Italian American Studies at Hofstra University.

    --

     AMERICORDO: The Italian Jewish Exiles in America, by Gianna Pontecorboli; translated by Marion Lignana Rosenberg and Steven Baker; Centro Primo Levi Editions 2015; 380 pp. paperback, $12.00; available as an ebook; primolevicenter.org.

    Reading and Discussion with author and Judge Guido Calabresi, Monday, March 28, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò  NYU, 24 West 12th Street, 6:00 p.m.

  • Life & People

    Viva la libertà

    Viva la libertà—which won both the David di Donatello and the Nastro d’Argento— begins with a press conference held by Enrico Oliveri, leader of the left-wing opposition in contemporary Italy. (American viewers will recognize Oliveri as played by the great Neapolitan actor Toni Servillo, best known from Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo where he was the late Italian prime minister and powerbroker Giulio Andreotti and Academy-Award winner La grande bellezza where he played the tormented failed journalist Jep Gambardella).

                                    

    Oliveri, his handlers, and his constituents, all realize the party is trailing badly in the polls as national elections loom. Oliveri is the first to acknowledge that he is the outward manifestation of a more deep-rooted malaise in the party; one that he cannot address. His press conference is interrupted by an outburst from a member of the audience who rises to denounce his failed leadership that will drag the party into a devastating loss in the election.

    Curiously, as she is being led away, the protester cries out in Latin “in obscura nocte sidera micant” Which, as any classicist will tell you, is carved into the door jamb of the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco outside Rome: “the darker the night, the more brilliant shine the stars.”  While Oliveri’s trusted right-hand man, Andrea Bottini (Valerio Mastandrea) insists she was sent by the opposition to foment a revolt in the party, the phrase is ambiguous in this context. Is it a warning or a prophecy? 

    Oliveri, overwhelmed and teetering on the bring of a nervous breakdown, decides to leave Italy for a few days, seeking solace and comfort in the company of a former love, Danielle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) now living with her film director husband and young daughter in Paris. His sudden and unannounced disappearance throws the party and its functionaries into further crisis.

    In desperation, Andrea seizes upon the suggestion of Oliveri’s wife Anna (Michela Cescon) that they press his twin brother, recently-released from an insane asylum, and known by his pseudonym Giovanni Ernani as a philosopher, into Oliveri’s role as party leader. (Ernani is the author of the treatise tellingly titled The Illusion of Living). Since childhood, Ernani had the ability to uncannily mimic his brother; a skill his brother could not reciprocate. He faults his politician brother as one who has “never been able to be himself.” So begins a contemporary fable, a political farce, a Pirandellian play on identity, and a philosophical and ontological puzzle. 

    While Andrea had thought of Ernani as merely a stop-gap measure, at most for a few days, events escape his well-laid plans. Ernani is (mis)recognized as Oliveri at a restaurant and an intrepid journalist from the Corriere della Sera manages to sneak a brief interview while Andrea is away from the table. Ernani/Oliveri speaks truthfully and bluntly: “If the electorate is disappointed in the poor quality of the politicians, they are to blame.”  And Zen-like koans: “Fear is the music of democracy.” Ernani’s words are headline news the next day (“Mai parole piú chiare”) and shock the country. He continues to unabashedly “speak truth to power.” In the process, he rejuvenates and electrifies the party faithful. At a mass rally just before the election, he improvises a stirring speech on “passion” and a polling/electoral earthquake is underway. 
     

    Meanwhile in Paris, Oliveri rekindles romance with Daniella, whose husband, Mung, is an internationally known film director. He confides to Oliveri that cinema and politics have a lot in common in that both harbor geniuses and charlatans. Not said, but understood between the film director and the politician is the idea that both mestieri depend on illusion to move their respective audiences. Oliveri also develops a tender relationship with Daniella’s young daughter who serves to ground the weary politician to quotidian pleasures.   

    Ernani the madman—saner than everyone else around him—revels in life. He returns to his asylum to dance with friends; he seduces the German Chancellor (Merkel) into a bare-footed tango; he is the shot of adrenaline into the weary corpse of the political party. His impassioned speech to the party faithful on the eve of the election reminds audience of the importance of rhetoric—understood in the classical sense—in moving men and women for the public good. 

    Which raises a few questions: who, in the film, is the real madman? Who determines the boundaries between illness and mental health? Ernani is the court fool who speaks truth to power, but does this mean that Italian politics needs a madman to emerge from its current crisis? Or that only a fool would consider trying to solve Italy’s myriad political problems? As Andrea dryly remarks to Anna: “There a method to his madness. And he’s funny too.” 

    In the wake of the electoral debacle suffered by American Democrats in the recent elections, is there a message here for Obama? Be fearless, don’t be afraid to win (as Ernani chastises Andrea), free yourself from the constraints of “normal” politics, shed your shoes and your inhibitions and govern in bare feet. 

    After a few idyllic days, Oliveri returns to Rome from Paris. As he is driven through the Eternal City at night, images of past political glory lay in ruins. He does not seem renewed and willing to take up the reigns of power and responsibility. When Andrea visits the leader’s office early the next morning, he can’t tell if it’s Oliveri or Ernani sitting on the “throne.” Andrea casts an apprehensive peek at the shoes, half expecting the person sitting there to be barefoot (and therefore Ernani). But the politician, whoever he might be, is wearing his expensive loafers. And in a stunning final shot, as the camera closes in on Servillo’s extraordinarily expressive face, the character changes before our eyes from Oliveri to Ernani’s warm and exuberant smile. Hope? Illusion? Pathos? Or inescapable tragedy?   

    Viva la libertà, directed by Roberto Andó; story and screenplay by Roberto Andó and Angelo Pasquini; produced by Angelo Barbagallo. Director of photography Maurizio Calvesi; edited by Clelio Benevento; music by Marco Betta, costumes by Lina Nerli Taviani. A Bibi Film production with RAI Cinema. Opens in New York on November 7 at Lincoln Plaza and the Quad Cinema and November 28 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, followed by national release to select cities.

     
    More info: www.distribfilmsus.com
     

    Stanislao Pugliese, Professor of History and Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian Studies

  • Life & People

    Matera. Candidate for European "Capitale of Culture" 2019

    In 1985 former actress and Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercuri and her French counterpart Jack Lang created the idea of selecting a “city of culture.” Athens was, unsurprisingly, the first, followed by Florence in 1986. Since then the honor has gone to two other Italian cities: Bologna in 2000 and Genoa in 2004. Starting in 2000, the European Union decided to award the honor to two or more cities in a single year. Hence 2019 will be devoted to one Italian city and one in Bulgaria (most likely Sofia).

    The city of Matera and the region of Basilicata have thrown their hat into the ring, seeing this as an opportunity to showcase their city to the world.  Not that the world hasn’t already been seduced by Matera. In 1993, the UN and UNESCO added Matera to its  list of “World Heritage” sites. Panoramas of the city are extraordinary: with the houses of white tufo and roofs of weathered grey tile rather than the tradition red terracotta, the city seems to be both part of Italy and strikingly different, something from another time and place.

    Matera is perhaps best known for its “sassi”; the pre-historic stone formations and caves which were inhabited by the peasants. In the centro storico, there are two neighborhoods: the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso. These simple dwellings were used as late as 1954, when the national government of Alcide De Gasperi decided the sassi were an affront to the image of a modern Italy and forced the peasants to abandon their sassi and live in modern houses built higher on the hill of the town. One such habitation, the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, restored to its former rustic condition, displays the contract between the owner and the government, which paid the peasant and his family the princely sum of 42,000 lire (about US $30). (Another can be visited online at www.anticmatera.it)

    Americans though, are probably not familiar with Matera and the region of Basilicata, which sent relatively few emigrants to America compared to nearby Campania and Calabria. They may recall that the Jewish anti-fascist intellectual and member of Giustizia e Liberta’, Carlo Levi, was sent to confino there by Mussolini’s regime in 1935. Out of that experience, Levi wrote “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, first published in 1945 and then made into a film by Francesco Rosi in 1979. (At the time, the fascist regime had re-named Basilicata by its ancient Roman name “Lucania.”) Levi, who was born in Turin and lived most of his life in Rome, is buried in Aliano, not far from Matera, a sign of his love and esteem for the very different civilization he came to know. The cover of the latest edition of “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has a photo by Mario Carbone of Matera.

    Carbone had accompanied Carlo Levi to Basilicata and Matera in 1960. For a variety of striking photos of Matera, including a few by Carbone and others from the vanishing world of the 1950s and 1960s, visit >>>

    In 1964 the poet, writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini travelled to Jerusalem to scout locations for his next film, “Il Vangelo secondo Matteo”. He returned from the Holy Land dismayed: Jerusalem was “too modern” for his film. A friend told him to visit Matera and there he found the inspiration for what I would consider the greatest religious film of all time. (Directly, ironically enough, by a gay, atheist Communist.) “Matera is where the sun shines,” Pasolini later wrote, “the real sun, the fiercely ancient sun.” In Pasolini’s film, the streets, alleys, houses, sassi and tufo of Matera become living protagonists, just as much as the charismatic (from the Greek “kharisma” or gift of the gods) Barcelona actor Enrique Irazoqui (Christ) or the director’s own mother, Sussana Paolini as the elder Mary. (In 2011, Irazoqui was named an honorary citizen of Matera.) Domenico Notarangelo, a “Roman centurion” extra in Pasolini’s film recalls the director and offers his photos from the set of Matera in 1964 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=28MkAUADUNQ 

    Forty years later, the actor and director Mel Gibson filmed his controversial “The Passion of the Christ” in Matera.

     * Stanislao G. Pugliese is professor of history at Hofstra University and the author of the forthcoming biography Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone.  

  • Art & Culture

    Being Jew in Italy: The Ghetto of Venice

    In March 1516, the Council of Ten of the Venetian Republic decreed the formation of the first ghetto in western world.

    “The Jews must live together in the houses that stand near San Girolamo. And so that they donot go about at night, let two gates be made, one on each side of the Old Ghetto where there is a small bridge, and one on the other side of the bridge—that is, one gate for each place. And let these gates be opened in the morning at the ringing of the Marangona [the main bell of St. Mark’s Basilica] and locked at midnight by four Christian gatekeepers, appointed and paid by the Jews themselves at a rate that our Council decides fair . . .”

    So began the history of one of Europe’s most melancholy and tragic institutions.  Many people today know that the ghetto of Venice to be the first of its kind; they may not know that the history of the Jews in Venice predates the ghetto.

    Documents prove that Jews were trading in Venice as early as the 10th century.  There is some evidence that Jews had lived in the Giudecca quarter (formerly called the Spinalonga) between the 11th and 13th centuries.  Oral tradition in the Venetian Jewish community holds that there were two synagogues in the Giudecca (demolished as late as the 18th century), and a plaque with Hebrew inscription was found in the Giudecca near the church of the Zitelle in the 19th century. Despite common prejudice and anti-Semitism, medieval political authorities soon came to recognize that the Jews could bring invaluable commercial ties with the near east and important revenue into the city-state.
    In 1385, the Venetian Senate invited German Jewish moneylenders to the city. This was soon followed a year later by a

    concession of land on the Lido for a Jewish cemetery.

    But the relationship, even if mutually beneficial, was fraught with obstacles.  
    Jews were permitted in the city only for fixed lengths of time and obligated to wear a yellow circle sewn onto their coats. Increasing numbers of Jews arrived in the first decade of the 16th century, stimulating an increase in bigotry flamed by the certain orders of the Catholic Church. Hence the formation of the ghetto in 1516. (The Papal State, not to be outdone, instituted its version of the ghetto in 1555.)

    There is still philological debate over the origins of the word itself. Many hold that the word derives from the Venetian word “getar” (to throw or smelt) because of the old foundry that had been on the site. Others hold that the word comes from the German “gitter” (iron grill) or the Hebrew “get” (divorce).  All agree that the area was far from ideal: there were prisons nearby as well as the monastery of San Girolamo (whose monks were responsible for the burial of executed criminals).

    The ghetto was created not just to separate Jews from Christians while permitting the Venetian Republic to enjoy their financial contributions, but also for a theological reason. According to certain currents of Christian theology, the Messiah’s promised second coming would not transpire before the mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity. Hence, the ghetto also saw the practice of the “predica forzata” where Jews were forced to attend sermons – often given by converts – that demanded their conversion to Christianity.

    Venetian Jews not working in the financial sector, printing or medicine (Jewish doctors were permitted to leave the ghetto in the evening under escort) were reduced to the “strazzaria,” hence the stereotype of the Jewish rag-pickers dealing in used textiles and clothing.  
     
    An influx of Levantine Jews in the mid 16th century, bringing different customs of worship and dress, created a contrast with their more modest Ashkenazi brethren. They were followed by Roman Jews in 1575 and Sephardic Jews in 1589. Soon the ghetto was so crowded that authorities and scholars estimate there was only two square meters per inhabitant. Denied permission to build outward beyond the ghetto, the Jews built vertically, with the result of eight- and nine-story buildings, most of which were not structurally sound. The Ghetto Vecchio was expanded into a Ghetto Novo and eventually a Ghetto Novissimo (1633). In such a small space, there are actually no less than 5 distinct schools or shuls: the Scuola Tedesca (1528), the Scuola Canton (1531), the Scuola Levantina (1541), the Scuola Italiana (1575), and the Scuola Spagnola (1580). Today, a visitor is struck by the presence of Lubavitcher Jews and images of Brooklyn’s Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994.

    Although rather small compared to other centers of Jewish life in Europe, the Jewish community of Venice was intellectually and culturally distinguished for centuries. Among the luminaries are Elia Levita (grammarian), poetess Sara Copio Sullam, and the rabbis Leone da Modena and Simone Luzzato. Venetian Jews were permitted to study at the prestigious Università di Padova and Venice became a center of Jewish scholarship and, with the arrival of Daniel Bomberg from Antwerp, the printing trade. Meir Magino was a famous glassmaker from the ghetto while Margherita Grassini Sarfatti was a noted journalist, critic, patroness of the avant-garde (and Mussolini’s mistress).

    Setbacks were common: bubonic plague passed through several times (a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery on the Lido says simply: “EBREI 1631.” The Counter-Reformation proved particularly difficult, as when Pope Julius II ordered the destruction of the Talmud in 1553 and Venetian authorities responded with a mass bonfire in Piazza San Marco. The messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi in the mid-17th century divided Venetian Jews and by 1737 the community was forced to file for bankruptcy.   

    The Enlightenment and Risorgimento improved conditions within and outside the ghetto. Napoleon’s soldiers literally pulled down the gates of the ghetto (1797) and emancipation permitted the Jews to participate fully in the Risorgimento, especially the Pincherle, Treves and Pesaro families (whose monumental tombs are easy to find in the Cimitero Ebreo.)

    The first decade of fascism saw an uneasy truce between the new regime and the community; this was shattered in 1938 with the passage of the Racial Laws. By that time, the population of the ghetto had dwindled to a mere 1200. World War II was to bring tragedy. When, in September 1943, Italy switched sides and the Germans occupied Venice, almost all Jews, including the elderly and almost blind chief rabbi, Adolfo Ottolenghi, were deported to concentration camps and murdered.  

    Today, the community numbers some 500 and the ghetto’s most striking features are the two monuments to the Holocaust by Arbit Blatas and the omnipresent Carabinieri. But with a vibrant intellectual and cultural life, a kindergarten, a retirement home (casa di riposo), a bakery, a library, a museum established in 1954, and numerous thriving shops, the ghetto of Venice is a living monument to over 500 years of history.

    Information for this essay was derived from the website of the Comunità Ebraica di Venezia at www. Jvenice.org and the Museo Ebraico di Venezia at www.museoebraico.it

    Stanislao G. Pugliese
    Professor of History
    Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies
    Hofstra University

  • Op-Eds

    The Italian American Community’s War on Negative Stereotypes: a Failure

    Some random thoughts:

    In charging Italians and Italian Americans with confronting the “unbearable prejudice” of association with organized crime, Saviano has actually reminded us of our collective responsibilities. Like Paul Ginsborg, Maurizio Viroli, Alexander Stille and others who, in examining the phenomenon of “Berlusconismo” have charged Italians with the responsibility of such a deplorable political development, Saviano grants agency to Italians and Italian Americans. We are not just the passive victims of the reality and the representations of Mafia and Camorra, but are (or should be) the writers of our own history.

    At a recent conference on Naples at Hofstra University, I was stunned and outraged when several people in the audience (not academics or scholars) criticized us for having organized a panel on the neo-melodica musical tradition in Naples and its relationship with the Camorra. How dare we criticize Naples and defame the Neapolitans? I asked: “Are we supposed to only talk about pizza and ‘O sole mio’”?

    As much as I admire Tom Verso’s writing, I think he overstates his criticism of Saviano.  One of the more interesting aspects of Saviano’s journalism and his talk at NYU is the insistence on the inter-connected relationship between capitalism and organized crime; between crisis capitalism and criminal capitalism, or, what I have called in my course on Naples last semester as students and I were discussing Saviano’s book, “capitalism on crack cocaine.” Included here is Saviano’s explicit condemnation of the “legitimate” economy. What does it mean when Citibank openly launders $200 from Raul Salinas (brother of former Mexico president Carlos Salinas) who had an “official” salary of $190,000?  To paraphrase Mario Puzo: “you can steal more money with the point of a pen [or the click of a mouse] than with the point of a gun.” How are we to interpret that just three weeks after the fall of Berlusconi, Michele Zagaria, infamous Camorra boss, is arrested in Naples after being sought by the police for nearly two decades?

    There is currently in vogue a tendency to criticize Saviano as a lightweight, a media-hound, a celebrity in love with his persona. I was in Pescara in July 2010 when he received the Premio Flaiano and moved when he thanked the people and police of that city for putting him up at a seaside hotel where he could hear the ocean at night instead of the usual police barracks he was used to.  The death threats against him are real and he should be credited with showing us a more sophisticated understanding of organized crime.
     
    Also, note how Saviano speaks about the reporting of organized crime: it is much easier to speak about the depravities of bosses, of their ostentatious villas and Hollywood-inspired dress, clothing and mannerisms, of rendering the AK-47 into a fetish object. (Gomorra – both book and film – are guilty of this to some degree.)  It is much more difficult, as Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino did, as Saviano does, to understand the incredibly complex web of legality and illegality, commerce and cocaine, consumerism and violence, banking and bullets. This is what truly renders him a dangerous man in the eyes of others.

    I would suggest that, like the “war on poverty”, the “war on drugs” and the “war on terrorism,” the Italian American community’s war on negative stereotypes to date has been a failure.  Protesting negative media representations is all well and good, but what we are lacking is a sense of the ironic and tragic nature of history.  

    “Italy is a country that’s forgotten how its emigrants were treated in the United States, how the discrimination they suffered was precisely what allowed the Mafia to take root there.” Saviano wrote in an op-ed essay for the New York Times on January 24, 2010, commenting on how recent African immigrants to Calabria were struggling against the ‘Ndrangheta. “It was extremely difficult for many Italian immigrants, who did not feel protected or represented by anyone else, to avoid the clutches of the mob. It’s enough to remember Joe Petrosino, the Italian-born New York City police officer who was murdered in 1909 for taking on the Mafia, to recognize the price honest Italians paid.”

    I recently learned that Saviano’s mother is from the tiny Jewish community in Naples. So perhaps it is fitting that we recall the saying of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret to redemption.”

    Stanislao Pugliese is professor of history and the Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies at Hofstra University. He is the author, most recently, of “Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone.”

  • Life & People

    Una tragedia ridicola

    While the world-wide success of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra brought us directly into the dark heart of Naples’ Camorra, Francesco Durante’s Scuorno offers an enlightened and enlightening brief introduction into the cultural mindset of Neapolitan culture. 

    Durante, born on the island of Capri, has made a living as a musician, translator,editor and professor of literature, and is known in Naples as a journalist and the editor of the works of Domenico Rea while in the United States he is perhaps better known as the author of the monumental, two-volume project Italoamericana: Storia e letteratura degli italiani negli Stati Uniti.  
     

    The catalyst for this book, and Durante’s point of departure, is the recent crisi dell’immondizia oppure, per i napoletani “a munnezza.” Italians around the world were embarrassed to see images of mountains of garbage fermenting in the streets of Naples with the obligatory panoramic images of Vesuvius or the Bay of Naples in the background.  No less than the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, took it upon himself to “solve” the crisis, promising to move the government to Naples until the emergency was resolved. As Durante points out, thinking of deep-rooted structural problems as “emergencies” has been a particular feature of the Neapolitan consciousness.

    Durante begins his book with a lament: “Siamo stati la città dell’ultima epidemia di colera in Europa (1973). Quella  del terremoto (1980). Quella delle ricorrenti faide di camorra . . . . Ora, dell’immondizia.” This led him to reflect on Naples, Neapolitans and Neapolitan history using sociology, anthropology, architecture, engineering, geography and politics. Naples and the Neapolitans have always occupied a unique place in the mental topography of Italians and other Europeans. For every Goethe who delighted in the aesthetics of the city (“non sarà mai del tutto infelice chi può ritornare col pensiero a Napoli”), there was someone such as Auguste Creuzé De Lesser who in 1806 wrote, in his Voyage en Italie et en Sicile “L’Euope finit à Naples et meme elle y finit très mal.” (Which Durante uses as the epigraph for this book.) Napoli, wrote Walter Benajamin, è veramente bellissima – vista da lontano. Insomma, Napoli è “il paradiso abitato dai diavoli.” To its credit, Naples is a living, breathing metropolis, not a theme park like Venice. È una città poliglotta e proteiforme.  

     Naples drowning in garbage is, for Durante, similar to the image of New Orleans literally drowning in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But as in Saviano’s Gomorra, we discover that the Neapolitan are only partially responsible for the tragedy: much of the garbage that finds its way to Campagna comes from the north, from Lombardia and the Veneto, regions that pride themselves on their cleanliness and their lawfulness but which take advantage of another culture in the Mezzogiorno. Durante recognizes that the “disastro” as he calls it, “è lento, silenzioso, strisciante, diffuso. Come molte cose napoletane, non ha né capo nè coda, ed è perciò più difficile da governare.”

    As with the Camorra, as with the corruption that followed the 1980 earthquake, aswith the cholera epidemic, the crisis works to confirm the worst stereotypes and deep-rooted prejudices about Naples including the supposed ability of Neapolitans to live in chaos, but all this “induce all’ironia, al sarcasmo, e anche al riso. Una tragedia ridicola insomma, e quanto tale tipicamente nostrana.” 
     

    The Greek humus of Naples is never far from the surface. Chaos is the reigning deity and for Durante, the sympathetic figure of Antonio Bassolino, the center-left mayor of the city in the mid 1990s, was a figure in a Greek tragedy, a victim of hubris. The good citizens of Naples know full well that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The writer Valeria Parrella comments that “prima magari ti accoltellavano per fame, ora lo fanno per prenderti il cellulare.” And yet they remain; or, if they leave, as did Durante (twice) they return. “Lontano a Napule, non si po’ sta” says the song. 

    Here there are thoughts on the Neapolitan dialect, the popularity of the presepe, women, transvestites, sex and religion: besides San Gennaro the city has 51 patron saints, leading Durante to conclude that it was not the Angiovins, the Bourbons, the French or the Spanish who molded the Neapolitans, but the priests.  
     

    A great delight is Durante’s meditation on the miracles (or failures) of San Gennaro (“ineffabilmente incomprensibile”), the Socratic dialogues with friends about the city, the mania for the lotto and dream interpretation, and the reminders of the works of Raffaele La Capria, Domenico Rea, Erri De Luca, Anna Maria Ortense, Giambattista Basile and even Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone.  

    The book ends with the enduring and delightful image of a small statue of Pulcinella, that indomitable Neapolitan, on a spaceship orbiting the earth. To find out how he got there and his fate, the reader should read this book. 
     

    Stanislao G. Pugliese is professor of history at Hofstra University and the author of “Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone”        

    ---
    Francesco Durante, Scuorno (Vergogna) Milan: Mondadori, 2008. 211 pp, € 17.50.