CHAPTER IV

 

ITALICITY

 

HELEN BAROLINI

 

 

This chapter concern "Italic Identity and Pluralistic Contexts: Toward the Development of Intercultural Competencies". I participate as a curious newcomer to the concept to see if I can, in fact, discover some transcultural phenomenon called "Ita1icity". What I can more easily relate to is interculturalism since that has been the main focus of my written work and the actual reality of my life. I can easily agree on Italy’s contribution to the whole human patrimony.

I have witnessed a great opening in Italy to the concept of Interculturalism from the time, some decades ago, an Italian publisher told me there was no interest in Italy in Italian American writers, or for novels on immigrants in general. The tide had changed by 1999 when on a speaking tour in Italy a woman in the audience in Verona said in reference to my novel, Umbertina—"that is our history, too, why don’t we have your book in Italian?" It was a thrilling moment of connectedness and I was able to respond that the book was being published in Italy and would soon be followed by another work of mine. Chiaroscuro: Essays of Identity. Also recently published in Italy is Rosa: Life of an Immigrant Italian to which I wrote an Introduction. Rosa’s true life story as a Northern Italian immigrant worker joins the stories of those others from the North of Italy portrayed by novelist Mari Tomasi. Finally the story of the great exodus of peoples from the North and the South of Italy is becoming accessible to an Italian public that had seemed indifferent. I remember when I lived in Italy wondering why no Italian novelist had found material in such a huge and compelling episode of Italian life.

My interest, my belief, is in literature: therein lies the true story of a people more than in official documents that recount the affairs of state. And literature is not the temporary bestsellers that are here today and forgotten tomorrow, but those writings that become a permanent record and a peoples’ lasting heritage. I believe in the translation of such literature to build bridges between nations and among peoples. One of my greatest joys was to acquire enough knowledge of Italian to be able to translate not only my late husband’s work, but also that of some other Italian authors.

This is the bridge across the seas envisioned in Antonio Barolini’s poem "Preghiera."1

 

Qui or là, Signore,

non so dove mi dirai di posare.

ma e tutto un ponte

sopra il mare

e non ci sono due lingue e due isole.

 

E unica la vita, la parola, la morte.

 

E unica la voce degli uccelli

e il gracile cantare

per le tue verdi isole sul mare.

 

I believe in what has been identified as the function of the novelist: to bring into view unexplored areas of life, for the lasting story of a people is in its literature. People have always told stories—it’s how we communicate, how we know each other, and others know us. My intercultural story has been told both in novels like Umbertina which is the multi-generational story of the nineteenth century exodus of Italians to the New World, as well as in essays exploring identity questions and even in a cookbook called Festa:Recipes & Recollections of Italian Holidays. Food is more than sustenance, it is a deep statement of a people’s culture; the ways of preparing and presenting food and the ritual of eating together has much to say about how a people think of themselves.

It was 1948 when I found my way to Italy as an uncertain American descended from Italian grandparents but knowing no Italian. imbued only with the wish to find my family heritage. Italy was still devastated from the effects of the war and still very much an agricultural society. I was a "first-wave" Italian American on the ancestral trail. And when, eventually, I married a Northern Italian he jested that it was possible because I had been re-made in America from my Southern Italian roots. And this was at a time when many Italian Americans aspired to marry out of their culture. I, instead, intensified the Italian cultural bond.

Antonio Barolini was a journalist and an author and soon after we married, as fate would have it, he was appointed consul-general in the very place I had come from, Syracuse, New York. Thus he had his own intercultural experience in the USA as I had had in Italy. The blending of cultures has continued with our daughters. Not only was my Umbertina a bridge-novel moving between two worlds, but his poetry collection, Elegie di Ciroton, did so as well. We became an intercultural couple influencing each other’s work. This past June a literary award was given to me by the Order of the Sons of Italy in America that recognized my work "for creating a bridge between the homeland and ancestral roots."

I have always seen my writing as an ongoing discourse between my American self and my Italian heritage. Thus I wrote Festa not only as recollections and recipes of my family life in Italy, but also as a handbook of tradition to pass on to my daughters and then to the next generation. Along with literature, I value ritual and allegory in life and this I addressed in my book Festa. More than just recipes I wanted to give the sense of ritual as a kind of magic to soften the routineness of day-in and day-out life. In the Afterword I quote the anthropologist Margaret Mead saying she did not think that "ritual can be relegated to the past... It is an exceedingly important part of all culture. It is on ritual forms that the imagination of each generation feeds." And living in Italy I found that Italian culture embodies ritual.

Whether it was the long ago ancestor of Antonio Barolini adding an ex-voto to the wall of a Venetian church already bedecked with hundreds, or my daughters and myself preparing the seven-fish dinner of Christmas Eve, or, when she was alive, my mother right into her nineties rolling out the ancestral cookies from Calabria passed down by her own mother, or my grandson in Urbino marching solemnly with the rest of his first-grade class into church on October 4th to honor Italy’s patron. St. Francis of Assisi—wherever and whatever it is, ritual speaks to us as a needed part of our being. Celebrating over food is persistent in the collective human consciousness. Carl Jung. also saw the need for ritual in our lives—something we cannot get away from as long as we have our humanity. There is in human nature that which makes us express symbolically what is deep within us. The danger is not in ritual becoming superstition or mere formality, but in human beings becoming so depersonalized that they lose their need for the mysteries, and so their humanity ... ritualizing makes real to the participants who they are and where they come from.

Italy preserves ritual. On a visit back I found posters affixed to the city walls of Ravenna proclaiming the feast of the Guardian Angel. I remembered the prayer to her Guardian Angel that my youngest daughter learned at school in Rome. The Guardian Angel of Italian children goes back in time to the Roman tutelary spirit of the classical world. I remember that Italian daily papers always include, along with birth and death notices, the saint of the day. Even for those of us who are not part of institutional religions, ritual is important.

Italy came late to nationhood and is less aggressively nationalistic than other countries. more open to the spirit of the European union. Italy is still a country particularized by region. province, even town and village. In an era of globalization, it is the United States that is making a global imprint through nation-building, consumer marketing, and the dominance of English rather than through humanist ideals. Times have changed from when Europeans and Americans venerated Italy as the cradle of Western Civilization. Who could have imagined MacDonald’s or Starbucks in the center of Rome, blue jeans worn at the theater or opera, cell phones everywhere, even in the hand of a gondolier on the Grand Canal of Venice, or a giant mall outside Florence and supermarkets everywhere.

In the Fascist period, there was an effort to spread the concept of ‘italianità" to form a nationalistic Italian character. But Italians have always identified more with their region than with "nation"; for them that is a later concept: their allegiance is localized. They speak of themselves as Veneti, Toscani, Napolitani, Romani, etc., and supposed characteristics such as stinginess, dullness, sanctimoniousness, are harmlessly and commonly applied to the inhabitants of the various regions. There exist regional divisions as extreme as the Lega del Nord and the Question of the South. Pizza is neopolitan, risotto is from the north, the Florentine steak is Tuscan. A rather unusual example of cross-cultural confusion pointed out to me by a friend is that American basketball player Kobe Bryant endorses "nutella"—and probably thinks of it as American product.

Since nationhood came late to Italy in comparison to other European nations, this perhaps has made them less nationalistic than other Europeans and more inclined to see themselves as part of a European union. Paradoxically. this campanilismo itself makes Italians more open to multinationalism—a patchwork of city-states, after all, was part of their very history. And the Italian worker migrates all over Europe to find work, thus becoming exposed to other countries and cultures.

With Italy regional in allegiance rather than nationally cohesive and with the influx of immigrants from Africa, the Philippines, etc., to fill the work gap, there is even less of a so-called "national type." As Italy’s birth rate keeps lowering the differences will become even more apparent. Despite a recently published guide to entice Americans on how to be Italian and lead the so-called ‘slow-life" in the land of ‘slow-food," Italians themselves seem more and more to emulate a fast-paced American culture geared to materialism, eat the fast food of a tavola calda and lead a more frenetic lifestyle. Italian television and journalism is rife with American expressions from "exit polls" to "blind trust" with a recent headline reading: ‘Bush OK con Silvio." Italian girls, reported correspondent Vittorio Zucconi are now named Debby, Kristen, Suellen—a trend started perhaps when actress Loren anglicized herself into Sophia. Language is the Homeland said the Nobel Laureate, poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz. But the Italic peninsula long ago finished having a universal language in Latin; English and perhaps Spanish now fill that role.

If not Boccaccio perhaps the spread of Italian cinema has had its effect on current American mores where the more open expressiveness and plethora of sexuality has overcome the puritanical restraints in American culture. But in a United States enamoured of Italy there still continue to be distortions in perception of Italian Americans as shown in film, theater, literature, and popular culture. Using an Italian American character is popular in American fiction but often rendered in a distorted way by authors of non-Italian background. For example. in Marge Piercy’s novel "Fly Away Home" an Italian American family is described as having a roast beef dinner on Christmas Eve—a cultural impossibility. Other questionable renderings of Italian Americans appear in John Patrick Shanley’s "Moonstruck," Tenessee Williams’ "The Rose Tatoo," Arthur Miller’s "View from the Bridge," Francine Prose’s "Household Saints," and so on. On the positive side, unlike Anne Bancroft. contemporary Italian American actresses have kept their Italian birth names and are Laura San Giacomo, Marisa Tomei, Annabella Sciorra, Sofia Coppola. Even so, some Italian Americans continue (a la Americana) to mispronounce their own names (e.g., politicians Battaglia and Coniglio and TV sports announcer Sal Marciano) and even mangle common names of Italian foods like prosciutto and mozzarella.

History gives us examples of the peninsula’s expansion into Europe beginning with the Roman Empire, then the Holy Roman Empire, to culminate with the influences of The Italian Renaissance in all areas of culture. From the time of the English poet John Milton, Europeans and then Americans journeyed to Italy on The Grand Tour to acquire culture and become civilized. Italy was the Arcadian vision of the English Romantic poets and l9th century well-to-do Americans like Henry James’ family of Cambridge, Massachusetts. A sojourn in Italy was essential to one’s education and cultural formation. And in all of Europe and even New England, Mme. de Staël’s 1807 novel Corinne, ou l‘Italie was the sensation of her time. Much of this I address in the Prologue to my new manuscript, "Six American Women & the Lure of Italy."

In my own personal family history’ there was no lure to Italy, much less allegiance. I grew up without an Italian heritage, simply an identifying Italian surname and this was difficult in the days when fascist Italy was our enemy in war. There was actual shame in being Italian American.

However, as an avid reader I always knew there was another Italy. I sought it out after my university graduation. In Italy I learned the language, the culture, the foods, the styles, the life. When my Italian husband was assigned to the U.S. as correspondent for "La Stampa" of Turin, he experienced "americanization" as I had "italianization." ‘The intercultural results are evident in our three daughters: the eldest is the Chair of the Italian Dept. at Columbia University and a well-known Dantista whose books have been translated into Italian; the second chose to remain in Italy where she married, raised a family and teaches English; and the third had her childhood education in Italy and still has her closest friends there. However. the merger of cultures will not, it seems, last beyond their generation.

The verifiable exogamy among Italian Americans is particularly notable in Italian American authors. Why? I have asked myself Do they choose partners of other cultures because they think them more educated, cultured, socially acceptable? I continue to wonder if they have made a choice to marry outside their parents’ culture as Mariana DeMarco Torgovnick describes herself doing in her memoir Crossing Ocean Parkway. In Brooklyn she went from the Italian neighborhood to the Jewish one where she married a Jewish man and advanced herself from DeMarco to Torgovnick, an intellectually upwardly mobile move she says. As intermarriage has become prevalent among Italian Americans, how has it affected the passing on of an Italian heritage to the children of such marriages. I see mixed results. Some embrace Italian traditions. others remain entirely’ ignorant of them. In the case of my friend, a retired professor of English Literature of Italian background who married a Swedish woman, the Italian influence on his children is nil. Since family culture is mainly transmitted through the mother, in his case Swedish became the dominant influence in the family—becoming his children’s second language and cultural choice while his attempts at fostering Italian never took root.

Is Italicity merely a new notion of the moment? Everyone loves Italian food, film, fashion, culture and countryside. But as my professor daughter reports of her non-Italian descended students of Italian, once they’ve "gone native" and lived in Italy, though they retain their love of the language and literature, they are often disillusioned with the obstacles of Italian life: corruption in government; evasion of taxes by those, like autonomous entrepreneurs, who are not subject to oversight; non-functioning services; the reign of bureaucracy so endemic that it takes eight months to get a telephone installed; the domination of the media by millionaire Berlusconi; the lack of civic discourse, responsibility and communitarianism. What author Ioseph Papaleo called "Fortress Family" is diminishing with the falling Italian birth-rate as more couples are having one child or none at all; single women are preferring the workplace to the home; and the trend is for nursing homes to take care of the elderly rather than for their families tending them at home.

One fears that it is not Italicity which will become global, but Americanization which already has. The American correspondent in Rome, Sylvia Poggioli recently reported on National Public Radio her findings regarding how America is seen through European Eyes. In her report on Italian attitudes towards the U.S. she found that while the government of Italy supported the U.S. war in Iraq, the Italian people were overwhelmingly opposed. This reflects a longstanding duality: while Italians enthusiastically embrace American culture, they are fierce opponents of American politics. I can remember, during the years of the Vietnam war when I was living in Rome, how I was constantly confronted about the war though I personally was not its supporter. This is a long-standing paradox: Italian intellectual anti-Americanism in regard to many social issues such as the environment, the death penalty, gun control, lack of medical insurance and nursery schools, and the excesses of the Protestant work ethic exists while americanization is visibly a part of contemporary Italian life.

Besides the good things of Italian life that everyone loves, another side of Italy is shown in the titles of two recent books reviewed by Alexander Stille in the October 27. 2003 issue of The New York Review of Books: one book is The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones and the other is Italy and Its’ Discontents: Family, Civil Society. State, 1980-2001 by Paul Ginsborg. Stille’s review reveals an Italy that has been not only the exemplar of la dolce vita but also the 20 century laboratory of some very bad ideas: fascism, amoral familism, mafia, left-wing terrorism. The title of Stille’s piece is "Italy: the Family Business" and he refers to Prime Minister Berlusconi’s children managing all his media properties and not letting him sell them off as he should be obliged to do according to his position as head of the government. Stille mentions that half a century after Edward Banfield’s study, The Moral Basis for a Backward Society in which Banfield described amoral familism in an Italian village, "for Ginsborg, a central quality of Italian life is amoral familism"—and he longer means the rural poor, but successful entrepreneurs who successfully run family businesses. An astonishing 83 percent of Italian businesses are family owned: sons stay on in the family home before marriage often marrying late or not at all. These self-employed family businesses routinely evade taxes while salaried, civil servant employees subject to automatic withdrawal of their wages for taxes bear the burden. Stille concludes: "Berlusconi has established amoral familism on a national and even planetary scale."

Even so there is no doubt that Italy is much better off now than at the end of World War II when the country was in ruins. The Catholic vs Communist political stand-off led to outbreaks of both right-wing & left-wing terrorism resulting in the shocking kidnapping and murder of Prime Minister Moro.

Today Italy is an industrialized nation, prosperous. well-educated, and women have astonishingly won important rights against all odds in a country where the Church is so dominant. More questionable in current Italian society is the celebration of wealth "Dallas" style, and the worship of material success as a sign of political leadership, evidenced in the election of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi to lead the government.

The ancient Greeks invented the state (polis) and statecraft. The polis was the natural association that nurtured what was best in its citizens and gave them their identity. Civic duty was primary, and Aristotle’s logic put polis before family because it established the context of rights and duties that makes family life and civilian life possible. In Homer the stateless, lawless man is viewed as the most tragic of figures. Quite different is the Italian view where Familism was not only the strongpoint of Italian society. but also its greatest obstacle to civic organization and communitarianism.

Still I believe there is a world heritage to he mined from Italian culture—and that is humanism. the great gift, retrieved from the ancients, of the Italian quattro and cinquecento Renaissance. The Greek classics were not only rediscovered but were spread through Europe by the genius of the master-printer and scholar of Venice, Aldo Manuzio. renowned as Aldus. He is a personal hero of mine and the subject of my book, Aldus and Ills Dream Book.

As celebrated as are the Renaissance artists, inventors, and sculptors, it was also the period of thinkers and scientists who celebrated the qualities and possibilities of humankind. This humanistic gift is what makes the Italian character so appealing—so ready to empathize with other human beings, so approachable and recognizable. It is what contributes to Italian saper vivere.

I spent some of my time in Italy exploring the early printing presses there and concentrating on Aldus—finding his birthplace Bassiano outside of Rome, the castle at Carpi where he tutored the young princes (and in modern times became known for the infamous concentration camp located nearby), and then the location of the renowned Aldine Press in Venice. Aldus’ life and work remain exemplars of dedication to making available to all people in his celebrated low-cost pocket-sized editions works that before had been available only to a privileged class. In 153 editions he gave readers the best of what had been thought and written of the past, including Dante, as well as contemporary authors like his fellow Humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Aldus was a true exemplar of intercultural exchange—he brought learning out of the cloistered halls of monasteries or palaces and made it available to the public at large through his invention of the octavo book. He brought the Greek and Latin classics to a greatly expanded audience throughout Europe.

The other great idea, still prominent I believe in Italian life is the concept of educazione meaning not only being educated in book learning but also being well brought up in the sense of knowing how to behave—being ben educaio rather than mal educato. How to behave well, interact with others, show consideration for others is still an Italian quality. It is not just the courtliness of Castiglione’s Courtier, but the common decencies of everyday life. Going into a store, people salute each other with buon giorno, say prego, per favore, per cortesia and grazie—never, "no problem!" The other side of the coin, the true nmal educazione, is the kind of snobbismo practiced by those who consider themselves of an upper class.

In a recent work I wrote of my regret in Florence at seeing the change from a quiet walker’s town to the surge of tourists and traffic. The old agricultural Italy is gone, Italy is a major industrial nation in the world. The world has shrunk and its common denominator seems to be americanization. Yet a humanistic aspect of Italian life still persists. The values of a fully realized human being were emphasized in the Italian Renaissance and from Italy spread throughout Europe, and perhaps can still be influential as a concept of Italicity.

So perhaps in Tancredi’s words to the Prince in The Leopard, ‘If we want everything to stay as it is, it all had to change." In this case perhaps ongoing change is the basis for renewal of Italy’s humanistic message. Henry James once saw how the traveler to Italy became more civilized just by being there, and hopefully this humanistic lesson has not been totally lost in the current wave of materialism. "People," said James, "who had never before shown knowledge, taste, or sensibility" were blown over just by being in Italy. In fact, the fruits of nature and of human endeavor continue to affect the visitor to Italy. Perhaps the greatest gift Italy offers is not only its past and its lesson of continual renewal, but also the evidence of civilization it imparts in the values of non-denominational humanism.

 

NOTE

 

1 From Elegie di Croton (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1959).