My Two Italies: A Personal and Cultural History

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9780374298692: My Two Italies: A Personal and Cultural History

A poignant personal account from a child of Calabrian peasants whose lifelong study of Italy unveils the mysteries of this Bel Paese, "Beautiful Land," where artistic genius and political corruption have gone hand in hand from the time of Michelangelo to The Sopranos

The child of Italian immigrants and an award-winning scholar of Italian literature, in My Two Italies Joseph Luzzi straddles these two perspectives to link his family's dramatic story to Italy's north-south divide, its quest for a unifying language, and its passion for art, food, and family.
From his Calabrian father's time as a military internee in Nazi Germany-where he had a love affair with a local Bavarian woman-to his adventures amid the Renaissance splendor of Florence, Luzzi creates a deeply personal portrait of Italy that leaps past facile clichés about Mafia madness and Tuscan sun therapy. He delves instead into why Italian Americans have such a complicated relationship with the "old country," and how Italy produces some of the world's most astonishing art while suffering from corruption, political fragmentation, and an enfeebled civil society.
With topics ranging from the pervasive force of Dante's poetry to the meteoric rise of Silvio Berlusconi, Luzzi presents the Italians in all their glory and squalor, relating the problems that plague Italy today to the country's ancient roots. He shares how his "two Italies"-the earthy southern Italian world of his immigrant childhood and the refined "northern" Italian realm of his professional life-join and clash in unexpected ways that continue to enchant the many millions who are either connected to Italy by ancestry or bound to it by love.

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About the Author:

Joseph Luzzi, the first American-born child in his Italian family, holds a doctorate from Yale and is a professor of Italian at Bard. He is the author of Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy, which won the Scaglione Prize for Italian Studies from the Modern Language Association, and A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film. An active critic, his essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, and The Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of the audio courses In Michelangelo's Shadow: The Mystery of Modern Italy, The Blessed Lens: A History of Italian Film, and The Art of Reading. His honors include an essay award from the Dante Society of America, a teaching prize from Yale, and a fellowship from the National Humanities Center. Luzzi lectures widely on Italy, literature, art, and film.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction: The Witch of Naples

"You killed him! You killed him!"

"Giusè, aspetta," my mother called as I fled the kitchen in tears, accusing her and my father of murder on the holiest Catholic day of the year. Easter Sunday had started with such promise. That morning, the house had been filled with the smell of frittata, a sausage, egg, and cheese casserole that left rose-colored oil slicks on your plate. I mopped them up with u panu di Pasqua, the Calabrian Easter bread made from two hard-boiled eggs baked into a figure-eight-shaped dough that was flavored with anise.

As the flavors were blending, I had awaited the arrival of my favorite relative, Cumara Amandina. The mere mention of my godmother’s name could halt card games between my father and his expat circle. She had earned the most glorious title any Calabrian woman could hope for: fimminella, "little woman." She who cooks, cleans, bears children, nurses grudges, would sooner self-flagellate than commit adultery, and doesn’t put on too much weight with the passing of years. (As opposed to the non- fimminelle, huge women who roamed Little Italy like mastodons in black dresses.)

The gift of beauty didn’t end with Amandina. She had three girls, and the youngest, Giuliana, had earned that other honor reserved for the Calabrian female elite: she looked German. My people revered those few fair-haired creatures with blue eyes and light skin, women with none of the facial hair that afflicted so many of my darker relations. I was one of these black-haired and brown-eyed creatures myself, but I too had something that set me apart—something suspiciously ’merican that seeped out of my adventure books and striped rugby shirts. Giuliana and I seemed destined for each other from childhood. Had we met ten years earlier and thousands of miles away in a southern Italian village, we would have been the occasion for an exchange of livestock and toasts to healthy male children. As it was, she and I just stammered around each other, too paralyzed by old-world expectations to have anything close to a normal conversation.

Amandina arrived, and with a living, breathing present: my very own Easter rabbit. All during childhood I burned with envy as I watched other children care for their pet cats, hamsters, even parrots and lizards. Though our yard teemed with winged and hoofed animals of all kinds, our home was off-limits to the nonhuman. "I case sunu per gente e i animale per mangiare" ("Houses are for people and animals are for eating"), my parents would say. Anything with four legs was banished from the house. Especially dogs, the animals I yearned for more than any other. I often saw my parents carrying a decapitated chicken or a bucket filled with crows shot from a downstairs window—Pasquale and Yolanda Luzzi were hardly the ideal stewards for man’s best friend. The one dog we had, Sam, was kept in an escape-proof dog house sealed with wire mesh. Sam was no fool: he ran away a few months after arriving. Maybe he saw my father whaling away on our poor goat, as was his habit, and realized he would be much better off with a real American family.

I took the rabbit in my arms. Circumstances had kept me from becoming an "animal person," but this guy, with his white fur and gentle eyes—a present from my favorite relative to boot—was different, just like Cumara Amandina, who was much more delicate than the bruiser Calabrian matrons who poured into our home on Sundays. I would cherish him, I swore to myself. I’d make sure that the creature enjoyed a different fate from Sam’s. My mother and father smiled, Amandina gushed, and the bunny went back in his box.

That afternoon I imagined that the rabbit was resting while I played outside. In truth, he was about to face an ordeal that would have shocked even battle-scarred Sam. Apparently my mother and father weren’t just admiring the rabbit’s dreamy eyes; they were sizing up his haunches. I don’t know what it took—my mother’s usual two brisk whacks with a stick to the back of the skull or my father’s preferred twist of the neck in his thick fingers— but by five p.m. my pet had become an entrée. I came into the kitchen to find him splayed out, his glycerine blue eyes lifeless and coated in oil, over a bed of roasted potatoes.

It took my mom an hour to calm me as she explained that she and my father hadn’t tricked me. They had planned it all along and just assumed that I knew what was coming. She spoke with a smile. That was the worst of it: to her, destroying my pet was no different from weeding the garden.

I followed my mother to the kitchen table, slunk back into my abandoned seat, and, tears spilling onto my napkin, ate my pet rabbit.

* * *

When I went to sleep that night with a belly full of my godmother’s gift, I knew I had done something not necessarily wrong, but certainly strange: eating a pet bunny may have been acceptable in Acri, the Calabrian hill town where my family had lived before emigrating, but not in the suburban Rhode Island town where I grew up. I had to admit, the rabbit was delicious. But what if my friends found out? It wasn’t just the slaughter that troubled me. It was the feeling that everything I was learning in school, seeing on television, and picking up from my friends was pulling me away from my family’s world.

Around this time I was named to the Little League all-star team, a group of local boys who represented our town in a nationwide baseball tournament. After our third straight win, I came home bursting with joy: my cousin had pitched a no-hitter to advance us deep into the state play-offs. My eyes adjusted to the change in light as I entered my father’s lair: the refurbished basement where he held court, seated at the head of the dinner table in near darkness to reduce the electricity bill.

"Papà, abbiamo vinto, abbiamo vinto!" ("We won, we won!") I exclaimed.

He fixed me with a shark’s stare and spoke in Calabrian.

"I heard you made a fool out of yourself. And the whole town was watching."

I buried my face in my glove and ran from the room. It was not enough that I had been chosen for the team, nor that we had won. I batted .556 and fielded a flawless third base during that play-off run. But for my father all that mattered was that one fateful at bat, when I waved at a pitch nearly over my head, my hands squeezing the bat so hard that they creased the grip. A home run in front of the town’s faithful would have brought me the approval that was missing in our split-level on Batterson Avenue. He was right: I had strode into the path of the stitched leather ball, swung from the heels, and—like all those who daydream in front of fastballs—struck out.

I didn’t realize this at the time, but my father was swinging at wild pitches of his own—and gripping the bat just as tightly as I was—as he struggled to hang on to his diminished Calabrian world.

* * *

On November 21, 1956, eleven years before I was born, Pasquale Luzzi and his four children cleared customs at JFK and joined his wife, Yolanda, in the United States. They were emigrating from the poor region of Calabria in southern Italy.

My maternal grandfather, Carmine Crocco, had worked in the United States from 1909 to 1923 as an itinerant gravedigger, mostly in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, before moving back to his Italian village. He had won citizenship because of his U.S. military service in World War I, so my mother earned the right to bring her family to the United States, where—thanks to my father’s lifetime of factory work—we joined the middle class.

By the time I feasted on my Easter rabbit, we owned our own home, a squat three-bedroom that somehow slept eight. In true Italian American style, we lived mostly downstairs, a cavern coated with cooking grease—and the seat of my father’s royal authority—while the upstairs furniture was kept protected from the human stain. Eventually I would attend an expensive private university (thanks to scholarships and financial aid) and wind up on a career path smoother than any child of Calabria could ever have hoped for. But first I had to escape the Italian south.

My parents described their region as a land with a blistering sun and an arid terrain, a ferocious ’Ndrangheta (the local Mafia), and an untranslatable worldview called la miseria, "the misery"—a pervasive belief born of poverty that things will go worse than you expect them to and that fate is not your friend. For my parents, la miseria meant stillborn babies, barefoot children, and no meat on the Sunday table. In their world, only the leather-tough and the single-minded (the teste dure, "hard heads")—blunt, tanklike men like my father and his four brothers— endured. Even today, when Calabrian immigrants speak of the future, they will often add the subjunctive disclaimer "Si Dio vo’ " ("Should God will it"). The Calabrian God was one to fear, not to love, and the region he lorded over was no place for Grand Tourists seeking intimate encounters with Botticelli in the Uffizi. It was the quarry for men like the robust Norman Douglas and his Old Calabria (1915), a pioneering work in extreme travel writing:

"This corner of Magna Graecia is a severely parsimonious manifestation of nature. Rocks and waters! But these rocks and waters are actualities; the stuff whereof man is made. A landscape so luminous, so resolutely scornful of accessories, hints at brave and simple forms of expression; it brings us to the ground, where we belong; it medicines to the disease of introspection and stimulates a capacity which we are in danger of unlearning amid our morbid hyperborean gloom—the capacity for honest contempt: contempt of that scarecrow of a theory which would have us neglect what is earthly, tangible."

This raw genealogy at once repelled and seduced me. I longed to cure the disease of introspection—maybe Calabria would make a man of me. So in the 1990s, while many of my friends pursued lucrative careers on the new dot.com frontier, I entered graduate school to study Italian literature: a gut decision in a life marked, then and since, by hedged bets. I hadn’t pursued the subject as an undergraduate; a vague attraction to Dante’s poetry was my only link to the field. And let’s just say my college transcript didn’t inspire visions of an endowed chair at a leafy New England university. When I asked one of my professors for a letter of recommendation, he told me I was a likable-enough kid, but really . . .

But even in those first fitful steps toward Italy, I felt pulled by something more instinctual than academic clout or a career calling. I wanted access to my family’s history. Yes, they had abandoned Italy for good, but a part of them remained fixed in that blasted Calabrian landscape. Their broken English, canned tomatoes and slaughtered pigs, home-made wine and cured meats—it all reeked of the Old Country. Especially the tripe. Some days I would come home from school and burst into the house for an afternoon snack, hoping for a buttered slab of my mom’s freshly baked bread, only to have my hunger stifled by the odor wafting up from a downstairs pot. These were the days my mother boiled cow stomach, the blanched organ that revealed just how different—less refined, less American—we were from our neighbors, with their vacuumed Pontiac Bonnevilles and pine-scented air fresheners.

A career in the language and culture of my family would immerse me in the mystery of their lost Italian world, which sometimes felt like a birthright, more often a pipe dream. Around 1304, Dante compared the nonexistent Italian language—at the time, Italy comprised various city-states and their local dialects—to a scent that filled the air but whose source could never be found. Italian culture was like that to me. I sensed it all around—in the mildewed winepress and hanging prosciutto shanks of our cellar, in the oily redness of my mother’s sauces and the leathery texture of her cured goat cheese—but it was somehow remote from the "real" Italy, with its Renaissance palaces, handmade leather goods, and covered jewelry stalls on the Ponte Vecchio. My Ph.D. in Italian would be the passport to a cultural homeland that class, history, and society had all conspired to deny me and my family.

When I finally made it to Italy for the first time, as a college student in 1987, it was Florence and not Calabria that beckoned. I yearned for the Italy of Dante and Michelangelo, not the one of sharp cheese and salted anchovies. As soon as I arrived, I felt the weight of the past in the crooked cobblestone streets and the sidewalks that barely held off the Vespas straddled by women in chestnut lipstick and leather miniskirts. Each day, I left my apartment near the bombastic arch of Piazza della Libertà to walk down Via Cavour, the nineteenth-century boulevard that connects the city’s modern and medieval neighborhoods. My route to school skirted the market of San Lorenzo, where stalls of fruit, bread, meat, clothing, and wine have been lining up like dominoes since the late 1800s. From there it was a short stroll east to the Duomo, begun in 1298 by Arnolfo da Cambio and completed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1436. From this cobblestone womb of the city I would head west along the Corso and into the Piazza della Repubblica, the original site of the city, where the Romans—according to legend, Julius Caesar himself—established a military camp in the first century B.C. Once I had my espresso from the ornate Caffè Gilli, founded in 1733, I circled back east, south of the Duomo and into Santa Croce, the site of the basilica that houses the remains of the nation’s founding fathers. There I would stand before the statue of Dante, nineteen feet high and keeping angry vigil over the stones of Santa Croce.

As seduced as I was by Florence, I still longed to understand the Italy of my parents. So on a cold and rainy November day of my first semester abroad, I boarded the train for Calabria. I felt like I was in Europe until we reached Naples. Then the journey slogged from one local stop to the next on antiquated lines and obsolete regional trains packed with southern Italian families laden with salami. When I finally arrived hours later in Cosenza, my parents’ home province, I felt that I had lurched a century backward into a struggling nation, far from the smiling angels of Fra Angelico and the muscular women of Michelangelo. My blood is 100 percent Calabrian; I looked a lot like the young men milling about the station and piazzas. But the good people of Cosenza regarded me as if I had alighted from a spaceship. Like twins shipped off to different homes at birth, our bodies declared a common biology, but our bearing, gestures, and clothes suggested otherwise. This was my first journey south, but I would discover the Italy of my parents only much later.

* * *

"Sleep . . . is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them."

In 2003, as my Intercity train from Florence pulled into Napoli Centrale, I recalled these words from The Leopard, Lampedusa’s great novel about the fall of the Italian aristocracy on the eve of national unification in 1861. We southern Italians, remarks Prince Salina, alias the Leopard, wish for nothing more than a "voluptuous immobility," free from the demands of history and innocent of the crimes committed in the name of progress.

Naples, the seat of the Bourbon dynasty that ruled the Leopard’s...

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