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A Tale of Two Italies: an Essay Review
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-08-07 11:13:38
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My Two Italies by Joseph Luzzi (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

Joseph Luzzi is a Dante scholar, a writer and professor of Italian at Bard College; a fellow alumnus of Yale University whom I had the good fortune to meet a few years ago at an alumni reunion. He is the first child of a Calabrian family born in the US. His family arrived in America in 1956. In 2008 he published his first book titled Romantic Europe Europe and the Ghost of Italy (Yale University Press 2008), followed by A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), and then his Italian-American memoir My Two Italies published last year.

What attracted me to this book was its title. Which were the two Italies that Luzzi describes for us in his memoir? Has the country two different faces? The standard answer would be Northern and Southern Italy, low and high culture, but that would be too simplistic and inadequate and would not differ much from the standard memoir of Italian-American immigrant stories, of families who crossed the Atlantic to start a new life on a new continent. Those memoirs usually include a description of how such a journey was experienced by different generations. The Great Immigration of Southern Italians (which comprise 90% of all Italian emigrants) took place in the first decade of the 20th century when two million arrived in America. That was the peak of Southern Italian emigration. Between 1880 and 1920 a total of 5.3 million arrived.

But this is a different kind a narration. How so? In the sense that Luzzi’s family arrives some fifty years after the first major wave, in 1956. He is born eleven years late in 1967 and is of course a second generation Italian-American. His primary language is English but Calabrese dialect is still spoken in his family and so he gets a flavor of another distant culture that beckons him and to which he will travel later in his life. I have often pointed out that the hyphen between Italian and American is symbolical of the bridge that needs to be built between the two cultures in order to be an authentic Italian-American; two languages seem to be necessary. One has to achieve a rather rare feat: the ability to feel at home in both cultures and yet not to feel completely at home in either. That is to say the ability to absorb what is best of both cultures and reject what is worst. That can only be done if one is willing and able to compare the two and then make a judgment on both vis a vis each other.

Be that as it may, what makes this narrative unique is that by the time Luzzi makes it back to his parent’s country, he is an educated man with a Yale education and knows all about the Italy of Petrarch, Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli, Vico and all the others important principals of Italian high culture. To his surprise, his parents’ Calabria although geographically closer to Florence feels just as distant to him as it did in Rhode Island. Yet he continues to feel attracted by his parents’ roots.

He discovers that indeed there are two Italies and the distance between them is not only geographical; hence the title of the book which is from a Shelley quote where he says that “There are two Italies…The one is the most sublime and lovely contemplation that can conceived by the imagination of man, the other is the most degraded, disgusting, and odious.” Indeed, there is the Italy which is the heaven of exiles and those who love the universal culture of the Renaissance, and there is the other Italy, the “campanilista” Italy of the poor and the farmers, the marginalized and the uneducated still found mostly in Southern Italy, the Italy of contradictions and paradoxes. Perhaps that is what makes the country so appealing to cultured people such as Shelley.


High Italian Culture: Michelangelo’s David

What Luzzi as an Italian-American is able to do is to take an unflinching hard look at both Italies without falling into an exaggerated sentimentality or becoming over-critical of one or the other. He loves both, for one of his feet is planted in one Italy via his parents and the other foot is planted in the other Italy via Yale University and the world of high culture. Of course those affections are not of the same nature.  This is one of the accomplishments of this memoir, and it could have only been achieved by someone like Luzzi with his unique kind of experience.

Try as you may, you will not get from this book lyrical poetical accounts of the Tuscan country side a la Shelley, or the sunlight reflecting in the Venetian lagoon at Sunset, a la D’Annunzio, neither will you get a mere “verista” narration of rough peasants making a hard living from the land a la Verga, the kind of landscape in which Luzzi’s parents lived and worked. Linguistically those origins are rooted more in a Calabrian dialect, in some places still the ancient Greek of Magna Grecia, than in the refined “dolce stil nuovo” of Dante. Luzzi accomplished this by focusing on the story of his family and so we are able to see a more encompassing picture of the challenges faced by all Southern Italians who emigrated to America. He goes into the details of daily life, the resilient traditions, the centrality of food and the dinner table for the family, of sticking together no matter the circumstances, crucial for survival in the old country as well as the new one. This closeness of the family is both a blessing and a curse, of course. It can smother one but it can also protect one and provide the strength needed to endure and survive disgraceful acts of political corruption.


Calabrian peasant culture

So Italy has two faces: it gives you much that is beautiful and even sublime but it also demands that you endure something unpleasant such as a Berlusconi or the Camorra, or the phenomenon of “la bella figura,” doing things just for show, or the clownish Italy of Fellini, or, on this side of the Atlantic the embarrassing negative ethnic stereotypes such as Don Corleone of Godfather fame, or Tony Soprano, or Dean Martin “Italian” songs which are all but Italian. That does not mean that one looks down one’s educated nose on popular Italian culture considering it “low” culture. To do so is to render one’s cultural roots almost irretrievable.

The special nuance of this narration of the immigrant experience consists in the fact that while it is a personal individual story of an immigrant family, it is also a universal story made possible by the rich academic knowledge that Luzzi is able to bring to the table. As he tells us in the first page of the book his goal is “not to solve the riddles of the past, but to bring them truthfully vividly to life.”

I would recommend this book to all Italian-American and even non Italian-Americans who wish to understand the paradox that is Italy, a country which can encompass both the particular and the universal, the sublime and the sordid, as it was and as it continues to be. The book will help them in getting rid of some of the stereotypical notions they may still be holding on to about this fascinating country with two faces. This examination of one’s cultural background may be problematic for one’s cultural identity as an Italian-American because it may mean to come to the bitter-sweet realization that the two Italies in both Italy and the US have some faint resemblance but they remains fundamentally distinct from one another. The challenge is to synthesize the two. That is a difficult act resembling the balancing act of a tight-rope walker. If you take up the challenge, you will come away from this read enriched and inspired. As Luzzi writes, “We Italian Americans commemorate our past only to remind ourselves how far we have traveled from it.  Our pride in our ancestors grows with the distance we set between them and ourselves.”


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