February 25, 2010

The Good Italian

Benedetto Croce: The “Soul” of Italy
Benedetto Croce
By Niccoló Graffio
“Unless a capacity for thinking be accompanied by a capacity for action, a superior mind exists in torture.” – Benedetto Croce
Benedetto Croce was born in Pescasseroli in the Abruzzi region in the ruins of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies on February 25, 1866. The disaster which befell his homeland did not have much of an impact on his family, as they were people of considerable wealth. The Croce family had so much wealth, in fact, that from the day of his birth to the day of his death, Benedetto Croce never had to engage in any form of manual labor in order to survive. In that, he differed considerably from most of his countrymen.

Devout Roman Catholics, his parents sent him at an early age to Naples to be schooled in the tenets of their religion. By the time he reached mid-adolescence, however, Croce had decided he had no use for Catholicism, or any religion, for that matter, preferring instead a type of spiritualism of his own making to which he adhered for the remainder of his life. In 1883, while on vacation with his family in the village of Casamicciola, Ischia, a strong earthquake struck the area, destroying the home they were living in and tragically killing his parents and sister. He was buried (severely injured) under the rubble for several hours until rescuers were able to free him.

After inheriting the family estate he traveled to Rome with his brother Alfonso to pursue a career in Law at the University of Rome. While at the university, he reacted positively (and strongly) to the lectures on moral philosophy by Prof. Antonio Labriola, a prominent Italian Marxist theoretician. Deciding against pursuing a career in Law, Croce left the university in 1886 to return to his family’s palazzo in Naples. It was at this time he began to pursue a career as an independent scholar, buttressing his personal research with trips to places such as England, France, Germany and Spain.

Starting out as a historical writer, his books and articles were noted for transcending simple Positivistic philosophy by inquiring into the nature of art and history. He became heavily influenced by the writings of Georg W.F. Hegel and Giambattista Vico. He shared the latter’s view that history should be written by philosophers. Though initially (largely through the influence of Labriola) a dilettante Marxist (1895-99), he ultimately rejected this philosophy, and socialism itself, in his works Historical Materialism and Marxist Economics (1900). While he shared Hegel’s preoccupation with the nature of spirit, as revealed in historical and artistic activity, he was careful to distance himself from the Hegelian notion of the nation-state as the organic unity responsible for the development of the spirit. Instead he found understanding in the self-conscious, free exercise of historical enquiry.

In 1896 Croce began a long and productive collaboration with the Sicilian philosopher and educator Giovanni Gentile, the man who would later come to be known as the philosopher of Fascism. With Gentile, Croce edited such works as Classics of World Philosophy, Writers of Italy and The Library of Modern Culture. In 1903 he founded the bimonthly magazine La critica, an influential journal of cultural criticism which he edited until 1937 and to which he extensively contributed.

In 1908 Croce began his long and legendary debate with Sicilian dramatist and novelist Luigi Pirandello on the subject of the aesthetic sources of humorism. This debate would last many years, growing increasingly vicious (on both sides) as time progressed. Though it started as a philosophical dialogue, it eventually assumed a decidedly personal dimension. Both men made it unmistakably clear they disliked the other.

As Croce’s fame increased, he was pushed by friends and colleagues into politics, much to his opposition. He was made Minister of Public Education for a year, then in 1910 was appointed a lifelong member of the Italian Senate.

When World War One broke out in 1914 he vehemently opposed Italian entry into it, considering the conflict a suicidal trade war. His popularity suffered as a result. After the war’s end in 1918, however, his fame reignited and he eventually became a well-loved public figure.

In 1922 Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, became Prime Minister of Italy after his “March on Rome”. Croce was subsequently sacked as Minister of Public Education by Mussolini and replaced by Giovanni Gentile. Though initially supportive of Fascism, Croce quickly drew away from it…and Gentile. In time he became a vocal opponent of the totalitarian policies of the regime; a position which put him in some personal danger. He received death threats; his home and beloved library were raided by Fascist “Blackshirts”. Though his popularity in Italy kept him out of prison (or worse), he was officially blacklisted by authorities, who refused to publish his works. He was also kept under close surveillance by the Fascist OVRA, Mussolini’s secret police. This harassment would last the whole of the Fascist tenure of Italy.

In 1943, with the restoration of parliamentarianism in Italy, Croce became Minister without Portfolio of the new democratic government and member of the Constituent Assembly, and from 1943 to 1947, he was President of the reconstituted Liberal party. In 1947, after retiring from the politics he disdained, Benedetto Croce established the Institute for Historical Studies at his palazzo in Naples, where he kept an extensive library. He died in Naples on November 20, 1952.

Almost as interesting as Croce’s life was his “fall from grace”, so to speak, after his death. In his lifetime Benedetto Croce was unquestionably the leading intellectual of the country of Italy, and by the 1940s was one of Europe’s best-known public figures. His literary journal, La critica, can be found to this day in almost every American research library, along with many if not most of the 80 books he authored on such topics as philosophy, history and aesthetics. His ideas on political liberalism were discussed in American circles until well into the 1960s. Proponents of democracy throughout the world respected him for his outspoken opposition to Fascism. In 1937, Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, an influential Sicilian writer and expat living in the United States, called Croce: “…the most famed Italian abroad, at least in the scholarly world, since the days perhaps of Galileo."

Yet in spite of all this, by the 1970s Croce had been almost completely forgotten in American intellectual circles. No less a personage than the late René Wellek pointed out, shortly before his death in 1995, that in movements influential at various points since Croce's death…from Russian formalism and structuralism to hermeneutics and deconstruction…Croce "is not referred to or quoted, even when he discusses the same problems and gives similar solutions."

The question begs: why? Part of the problem lies in the fact that when Croce (and Gentile’s) ideas were first introduced to the American scene in the 1920s, both men were immediately typed as neo-idealists and neo-Hegelians by Anglo critics. In truth, Croce was neither (though Gentile was certainly both). Nevertheless, this typing made it difficult for Croce’s innovations to penetrate American thought, and it is partly to blame for his never garnering a significant American following.

Another factor no doubt was Croce’s opposition to egalitarianism. In the decades following the fall of Fascism (and Nazism), many if not most Western intellectuals promulgated it and the Anglo brand of liberal democracy. Croce, on the other hand, had mixed feelings about democracy. A proponent of constitutional monarchy, Croce supported democracy in principle, yet he also wrote: “"Sound political sense has never regarded the masses as the directing focus of society…" According to Croce, if democracy had any value, it was in allowing free intellectual discourses. The masses would ultimately benefit from this, but they lacked both the cognition and erudition to understand and appreciate them.

Though Croce was the leading anti-Fascist intellectual in Italy, ironically, here in America he was bitterly criticized by Italian émigrés such as Giuseppe Antonio Borgese and Gaetano Salvemini for (at least inadvertently) laying the groundwork for Fascism.

Finally, there can be no doubt a thread of anti-Italianism, that wonderfully ubiquitous Anglo tradition, had a hand in Croce’s passing to obscurity. By the end of WWII, Benedetto Croce had become the leading moral authority in Italy. Though Croce was arguably the most cosmopolitan European intellectual of his day, many Anglo-American intellectuals regarded him as a local Italian phenomenon and not really part of the European mainstream. Even “sympathizers” such as John Crowe Ransom viewed him and his work as part of a “provincial” Italian culture. That Croce had been heavily influenced by German intellectuals such as Hegel and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and in turn had influenced noted German scholars such as Erich Auerbach, Rudolf Borchardt, Eugen Lerch, Karl-Julius Schlosser and Leo Spitzer, as well as British philosopher Robin G. Collingwood and Anglo-American philosopher John Dewey, was of no importance.

Unlike his contemporary (and intellectual adversary) Luigi Pirandello, who inherited his parents’ everlasting loyalty to i Due Sicilie, Croce “forsook his people” and instead embraced the pan-Italian philosophy of their conquerors. For this reason, it is tempting for this writer to dismiss him out of hand, or worse: ignore him. To do so, however, would be to perpetrate an egregious injustice against an intellectual giant who helped shape the modern world. Whatever I or anyone else may feel about him, no one can deny he truly was a “Titan of the South”.


Further reading:

1) Myra Moss: Benedetto Croce Reconsidered, (1987), UPNE
2) Fabio Fernando Rizi: Benedetto Croce and Italian Fascism, (2003) Univ. of Toronto Press

Note: for a more in depth reading of Benedetto Croce’s philosophy (too voluminous to cover in such a small article):

February 24, 2010

Il Cavaliere Calabrese

Mattia Preti, the Knight from Calabria
Saint John the Baptist Preaching
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli

Mattia Preti was born on February 24, 1613 in Taverna, a small town on the slopes of la Sila Piccola in Calabria. In 1630 the young artist followed his older brother Gregorio to Rome (who arrived two years earlier), where they studied painting at the Accademia di San Luca. There, he became familiar with the works of Caravaggio and his followers. His initial paintings are reminiscent of the dramatic chiaroscuro style of the Lombard master.
The success of Preti's early works opened up many opportunities for him and he soon acquired important commissions in the Duchy of Modena, most notably the frescoes for the apse and dome of San Biagio. In 1641 or '42 Urban VIII admitted him into the Order of St. John of Malta as a Knight of Obedience. This earned him the moniker Il Cavaliere Calabrese, or the Knight from Calabria. According to his often-quoted biographer Bernardo De Dominici, Preti also traveled to Venice, Spain and the Netherlands, broadening his techniques and developing his skills. Many historians, however, doubt the validity of these travels.
Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that it was in Naples (1653-60) that the artist reached the zenith of his career. After the plague of 1656 wiped out approximately sixty percent of the city's inhabitants—including many of Naples' eminent artists (e.g. Bernardo Cavallino)—Preti was commissioned to paint massive votive frescoes for the city's seven gates. Now lost in time, only two bozzetto, housed in the Capodimonte Museum, give us a glimpse at the illustriousness of these works.
Pilate Washing His Hands
The same year Preti painted five canvases, including the powerful Christ Thundering Satan Down from the High Mountain (Museo di Capodimonte) for the important Neapolitan patron, Diomede Carafa, Duke of Maddaloni. His crowning achievement during this period in the southern capital was a series of ten paintings for the church ceiling of San Pietro a Maiella. Despite the fact that local artist like Luca Giordano were critical of Preti and other "foreigners" the Calabrian's influence on Neapolitan art is unquestionable.

In 1661 Preti settled in Malta where he worked diligently for nearly forty years. He became a Knight of the Order of Jerusalem and was commissioned to do many projects, including the monumental decorative series for the ceiling of the Cathedral of St. John in Valletta. Tradition has it that his baroque masterpiece in the Cappella di Aragona of Saint George and the dragon (painted in Naples) was a test to see if he was worthy to paint the vault.
Turkish Boy Cutting a Block of Tobacco
His time on the beautiful isle of Melita was among the artist's most prolific. From the tiny Mediterranean jewel he continued to supply his patrons in Naples and his hometown of Taverna (to which he returned on occasion) with plenty of art.

Mattia Preti died on January 3, 1699 in Valletta, Malta.

February 23, 2010

Giambattista Basile and the Literary Fairy Tale

Giambattista Basile 
Photo courtesy of il portal del Sud
By Giovanni di Napoli
"Whoever reads Basile's tales can't fail to see the direct ties they have with southern Italian folklore. And we should remember with pride the debt that the European imaginary owes to both our culture and Basile. But we should remember above all that The Tale of Tales is more, and to this it owes its present and perennial greatness." — Carmelo Lettere (1)
The distinction for composing Europe's first collection of literary fairy tales belongs to Giambattista Basile, a Neapolitan soldier, poet and courtier. His Lo cunto de li cunti, overo Lo trattenemiento de 'peccerille (The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones) contains the West's earliest literary versions of some of the most celebrated fairy tales, including "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Hansel and Gretel." Sometimes called Il Pentamerone, the collection was written in the early seventeenth century and published posthumously in 1634-'36. Basile's Tale of Tales predates Germany's renowned Brothers Grimm by nearly two hundred years.

Because he wrote his tales in Neapolitan, Basile's magnum opus remains fairly unknown today. After Italian unification in 1861 Neapolitan was officially replaced with the so-called "Italian language" (i.e. the Florentine vernacular) and undeservedly relegated to the rank of "dialect." The literary works written in the languages of the South have suffered as a consequence and Basile's Tales fell into obscurity. Neapolitan, like the other regional tongues of Italy (e.g. Sicilian), continue to decline in importance due to the cultural leveling taking place in Italy.

Unfortunately, we have very little information about Basile's childhood. We do know, however, that he was born in Posillipo, on the outskirts of Naples, circa 1575, and had as many as seven brothers and sisters by Cornelia (née Daniele) and his father, surnamed Basile. According to Benedetto Croce, they were "respectable although not well-to-do." His sister Adriana would go on to become an accomplished singer and composer, using her popularity to help promote her siblings.

Unable to find a patron in his native Naples, Basile sought his fortune abroad. He arrived in Venice around 1600 and served as a soldier of fortune in Candia, defending Venetian interests against the Ottoman Empire. In 1607 he fought in a naval battle against the Turks near Corfu. During his service Basile began writing poetry and befriended the Venetian nobleman Andrea Cornaro. An important historian, poet and hero of Lepanto, Cornaro invited Basile to join his prestigious literary society, the Accademia degli Stravaganti

Adriana Basile
Photo courtesy of il portal del Sud
Homesick, Basile returned to Naples in 1608. Thanks to his sister's connections he served as a courtier, writing verse for his patrons, including madrigals, odes and villanelle, a popular music genre originating in Naples a century earlier. A series of letters dated from 1604 and an ode to the A lo re de li viente (King of the winds) are his earliest known works. They were later used as a forward in La vaiasseide (The Epic of the Servant Girls) by Neapolitan poet Giulio Cesare Cortese. 

In 1611, under the patronage of Prince Luigi Carafa of Stigliano, Basile published Le avventurose disavventure (The Adventurous Misadventures), a semi-autobiographic marine pastoral set in his native Posillipo. Soon after, he founded the Neapolitan Accademia degli Oziosi, with one of Naples' leading poets Giambattista Manso, the Marquis of Villa.

Basile traveled north again in 1612 to join his sister Adriana, who, due to her immense success as a singer, acquired an estate as part of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga's court in Mantua. He gained the favor of Duke Ferdinando (Vincenzo's son) in 1613, and served as court poet. Here, Basile published his Opere poetiche (Poetic works), which was comprised of many of his earlier writings.

Later that year Basile was back in Naples bouncing from post to post, providing administrative services for various nobles. He was in Montemarano in 1615, Zuncoli in 1617, and Avellino in 1619. His frustration with the uncertainty of "public life" and the lack of appreciation from certain court lords was revealed in his letters and Le Muse napoletane. Thanks to Adriana's influence with the viceroy Duke Antonio Alvarez de Toledo, Basile obtained the governorship of Anversa in 1626. And finally, in 1631, he was appointed governor of Giugliano. 

At the height of his success, and following an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Giambattista Basile died on February 23, 1632 during a virulent flu epidemic. He's buried in Santa Sofia Church in Giugliano. After his death, Adriana was instrumental in getting some of his most important works published, including his Del Teagene, Le Muse napoletane and Lo cunti de li cunti.

Basile and fellow seicento poets Cortese and Felippe Sgruttendio (almost certainly a pseudonym) are often credited with the evolution of Neapolitan, one of Italy's oldest and richest vernaculars, into a literary language. His Tale of Tales would also be instrumental in influencing the development of the fairy tale genre throughout Europe, inspiring such notable storytellers as Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Inexplicably, the work would not be translated into English until 1847 by John Edward Taylor and into Italian in 1925 by Croce. While many today would consider the original stories to be inappropriate for "little ones," they continue to be told in sanitized versions and loved by children around the world. The Tale of Tales is a must read for anyone interested in Southern Italian cultural history.

(1) Quoted from his "Illustrator's Note" in The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones by Giambattista Basile, translated by Nancy L. Canepa, Wayne State University Press, 2007, p. xxvi

Further reading:
The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones by Giambattista Basile, translated by Nancy L. Canepa.

February 22, 2010

Attention Italian Americans: Save a Life!


Sgt. Michael Costanza and family.

Attention all Italian American groups and citizens, we have an extremely important time sensitive MISSION!
Our dear friend, Sgt. Michael Costanza of the MTA police has been diagnosed with Leukemia; he is a young man, only 34 years of age with a wife and two young children.

Sgt. Costanza needs to find a compatible bone marrow donor. Both of his siblings have already been tested but unfortunately they are not a match. He and his family need our help. We need to get the word out to the Italian American community, especially the Sicilian community since he is of Sicilian descent; if you are from the same region, there is a slightly better chance of being a match. We need to get as many people tested as we can to find a donor; we have less than 6 months to find a match. 

Sgt. Costanza at that time a member in the NYPD is one of the many selfless individuals that spent months at Ground Zero immediately after the September 11th terrorist attacks helping sort through the rubble for survivors and aide in the clean up process as well. Now it’s our turn to return the favor and be his family’s hero. Please come to Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal on Saturday, February 27, 2010 from 11Am to 6PM

Please partake in a simple, non painful check swab (saliva test).

The National Council of Columbia Associations of Civil Service, Brooklyn Staten Island 10 13, NYPD, MTAPD, and Columbus Citizens Foundation are reaching out to all of our friends and family in hope that we will be able to find a match for Sgt. Costanza.
Please pass this on to anyone that you know and let’s show what we already know, that the Italian American community can come together for a good cause and let’s make a miracle happen.

The PBA will be sponsoring the bone marrow recruitment drive for persons that can not afford the test, however it is only $26.00

(Reprinted from Giornale Italo Americano, Feb. 18, 2010)

“Stress the positive, fight the negative”


Andrè DiMino

Last Thursday (Feb. 18, 2010) members of Il Regno attended the Coalition of Italian American Associations (CIAA) monthly dinner meeting in NYC’s Little Italy. Guest speakers included “two outspoken critics of MTV’s Jersey Shore,New York Post columnist Linda Stasi and UNICO National President Andrè DiMino. The Master of Ceremonies was the distinguished Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa, Professor Emeritus, Queens College (CUNY), and founder and president of the Italian American Museum.

Speaker Linda Stasi made some good points about the show “Jersey Shore.” Perhaps the most important thing she said was that to stop media outlets and advertisers from supporting anti-Italian stereotypes and slander you need to hit them where it hurts the most, their wallets. These entities care about profit, interfere with that and you get their attention. This is nothing that many of us haven’t said before, but coming from a familiar and “mainstream” public figure that message will reach more people. 

She also read from her Dec. 10, 2010, column “Italian exec behind ‘Jersey Shore’”:

"('Jersey Shore' furthers) the popular TV notion that Italian-Americans are gel-haired, thuggish ignoramuses with fake tans, no manners, no diction, no taste, no education, no sexual discretion, no hairdressers (for sure), no real knowledge of Italian culture and no ambition beyond expanding steroid- and silicone-enhanced bodies," … "Would that programming ever have been allowed if the group were African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Jewish people?"

Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa

She also encouraged Italians to contact and link up with the anti-defamation organizations of other racial and ethnic groups and get them to support our cause. This sounds logical, but the reality is that if these aggressive and influential groups truly cared about anti-Italian discrimination, then MTV would have already pulled their offensive show off the air. There might be some effort that I am unaware of, but as far as I know only Italian ethnic organizations have taken any interest in stopping the latest defamation of Italians.

From what I understand The National Council of La Raza, a somewhat militant Mexican ethno-cultural organization, managed not only to stop MTV from doing a similar derogatory show about Puerto Ricans, but actually received donations from MTV as an apology. They crossed an ethnic barrier, and went beyond their nationalist policies to assist their fellow Hispanics in this effort. Good for them, but you don’t see them helping Italians under similar circumstances, and I don’t believe that you will any time soon.

Other ethnic groups are not going to do our fighting for us; the cavalry isn’t coming. If we are unwilling to defend ourselves then we cannot expect others to stand by us, or respect us.

The second speaker was more in tune with this perspective. Andrè DiMino, the UNICO National President was well spoken and very clear about his organization’s position and goals. I could not have been more impressed.

He didn’t just focus on MTV’s derogatory “Jersey Shore.” He brought to light several other recent instances of Italian defamation, illustrated how this has been an ongoing problem for generations, and how UNICO National was formed 88 years ago to fight against it and promote a positive view of Italians and their culture.

One of the many points he made was how a negative stereotype of Italians could affect a young adult on a job application or interview. Some people may not take this seriously, but it happened to someone close to me and I assure you that it is very real. As Dr. Scelsa stated, perspective affects everything. If people believe a negative stereotype about you then they will treat you accordingly.

I personally feel that this concept can be applied to other things as well: if people don’t think that you’ll defend yourself, then they will bully you. Bullies like their victims to be helpless, they like them to beg, they avoid people who fight back. UNICO National refuses to be bullied. The point is not just about defending Italians against defamation, it is to make people understand that we will not tolerate it. The more people understand this the less they will attempt to disparage us.

Entirely too many people have gotten so used to being abused that they see fighting back as something wrong. Well, it isn’t wrong, it’s normal and when other groups of people do it they are praised for it. We can take a lesson from them. It was mentioned that UNICO National doesn’t just dwell on the negative things, that they also promote a positive image of Italians and their culture. I must say that defending your people and culture against defamation is a positive thing, not a negative one. So the way I see it, everything I learned about UNICO National during this event was positive.

Dr. Scelsa said it best: “If you don’t fight the negative people will not listen to the positive.” UNICO National does both, and I’m happy that they do.

February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day (Lupercalia)

Dancing Faun
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
In the spirit of Valentine's Day I'm posting 'E Rimpetto, or Breath to Breath,(1) a poem by the great Neapolitan poet Salvatore Di Giacomo (b. 1860–d. 1934). The accompanying photo of The Dancing Faun—taken at the Casa del Fauno in Pompeii—is in remembrance of the Lupercalia (Feb. 15th), the pre-Roman "wolf festival" celebrating the coming spring, believed by some to be the antecedent of Saint Valentine's Day.

Breath to Breath 

The other day I clouded my window
by my breath, and with a finger I traced
across the dimmed glass of my window:
"ah! How much love I bear you, Donn' Ama."

After that bold impulse and brash message,
so boldly writ on the pane of my room,
my knees weakened, I leaned against the wall,
breathless, it took courage to write that scrawl...

Whenever was I forward, daring?
Whenever so enamored of one?
I was always thought of bashful and shy,
Look now at that same stammering person!

At that moment, my heart leapt to my throat...
Yes! On her window a reply was shaping;
she was writing back! I died on the words...
I read: "I bear the same love, Donn' Erri!"

'E Rimpetto

L' ato iuorno c' 'o sciato facette
d' 'a fenesta na lastra appannà;
e c' 'a ponta d' ' dito screvette:
"ah, che bene ve voglio, 'onn' Amà!"

Doppo scritto, 'onn' Amà, v' assicuro,
mme senette 'int' 'e gamme chià,
e appuiato restaie nfaccia 'o muro,
senza manco curaggio 'e parlà...

Quanno maie mm' era tanto azzardato?
Quanno maie mm' era ardito accussì'?
Si cu vuie nu scurnuso c' è stato.
mo nce vo', stuscurnuso songo i'.

Tutti nzieme nu zumpo facette...
Me parette, v' 'o giuro, 'e murì!...
Tu... screvive!... E tremmanno, io liggette
ncopp' 'a lastra: "e pur' io, donn' Errì!..."

(1) Reprinted from The Naples of Salvatore Di Giacomo: Poems and a Play, translated by Frank J. Palescandolo, Forum Italicum, Inc., 2000, pages 68-69)

February 13, 2010

A Matter of Honor

In Days of Old when Knights were Bold….
Actors recreating the legendary ‘Challenge of Barletta’.
(Photo courtesy of www.DisfidadiBarletta.net)
By Niccolò Graffio 
“Whoever would not die to preserve his honor would be infamous.” – Blaise Pascal: Pensées, III, 1670. 
History and Geography were always my two favorite subjects in school. No doubt the fact I was so good in them was a factor (I never received less than an “A” in either of them). The overriding factor, though, was my lifelong fascination with peoples and places from the past. I must confess to having a special attachment to Greco-Roman history, but given the enormous contributions of ancient Greeks and Romans to the history of Western Civilization, it should be understandable. 
In my salad days I was introduced to those periods in history known as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by attending a Renaissance Faire in upstate New York (Sterling Forest, to be exact). This is not to say I did not learn about these periods while in school. I did, but they were such quick and dry reading (thanks in large part to the politically correct curricula of the New York City Dept. of Education), they really didn’t pique my interest. Standing there in Sterling Forest, however, surrounded by medieval trappings (melded with the crass commercialism of modern-day America), opened up a whole new world for me. 
Since then I have attended a number of similar events in other areas of this part of the country. Wherever I have gone, I couldn’t help but notice these events had a Medieval-Renaissance England theme to them. This is understandable, given the Anglo-Saxon roots of America, but Anglos are not the only people living here, and they are certainly no longer the majority. With notable exceptions of places like say, Minnesota (which has festivals celebrating the Norse ancestry of many of its inhabitants), one walking through one of these Renaissance fairs would be tempted to believe no one outside Anglos and Celts was doing anything of any significance during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
This, of course, would be grossly inaccurate. From my readings (independent of the public fool system) I learned, for example, that during the 15th and 16th centuries Poland-Lithuania was a sprawling empire that covered much of present day Eastern Europe. The University of Kraków, located in the empire’s capital, was a famous center of cosmopolitan learning that attracted scholars from all over Europe. I never learned any of this in high school or college and certainly I have never seen anything to indicate this at any Renaissance festival! One would think the Poles would at least deserve an honorable mention, especially since there are millions of Polish-Americans.
Truth be told, I cannot fault Anglo- and Celtic-Americans for celebrating their heritage. Rather, I am dismayed at the lack of interest in most others for their roots. I am especially disconcerted at the level of apathy in Southern Italians for our ethnic heritage. The process of deracination, begun with the conquest and destruction of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by Northern Italians in the latter half of the 19th century, was given further impetus to refugees who fled here by the natives who demanded immigrants assimilate into the great melting pot that is the United States of America. Hyphenated Americans simply could not be tolerated, even though, ironically, the new arrivals were relegated to the same second class status they were afforded in the new “nation” of Italy.
Under those circumstances, it should hardly be surprising our people have in large part lost sight of their identity and their history, medieval or otherwise. Today, Southern Italians in America are either continuing the process of assimilation at a frightening pace, or else making caricatures of themselves like the fools who parade around the boob tube in shows like Jersey Shore.
On the other side of the Big Pond, however, things are a bit different. Even though Piedmontese soldiers suppressed the political Brigante movement with a brutality that would not be seen again on the continent of Europe until the rise of Bolshevism and World War 2, they could not stamp out its memory completely. Embers of nationalist sentiment continued to burn quietly in forgotten corners of the so-called Mezzogiorno down to the present. Now that dissatisfaction with the policies of the hopelessly corrupt government of Italy are growing in both North and South, these embers are slowly coalescing into a reawakening of ethnic memory in the minds of many Southerners, like the fiery Phoenix of ancient Egyptian mythology.
Part of this reawakening consists in the rediscovery, retelling and reenactment of events in our people’s past that serve as a source of national pride. Those that do these things understand that tradition, honor and pride are necessary and good in instilling a sense of self and belonging in people. This is something “guidos” and “guidettes” will simply never understand! One of these events I learned about only recently; an event in the history of our people known as “The Challenge of Barletta”.
Some background information is in order. In 1458, Alfonso V, King of Aragon (now in Spain), died. He had earlier conquered the Kingdom of Naples and reduced it (along with the island of Sicily) to the status of dependencies of Aragon. Upon his death, the Kingdom of Naples passed to his illegitimate son, Ferrante (King Ferdinand I). John II of Anjou, Duke of Lorraine, disputed this and invaded the kingdom, attempting to reassert his family’s ancestral claim to the land. With the help of allies he was ultimately able to defeat John and secure his throne. His reign, though, was wracked by wars and rebellions. In 1489, the Ottoman Turks, under the rule of Mehmed II, captured the city of Otranto, murdering most of its inhabitants in the process. The city was recaptured the following year.
Ferrante’s reign was oppressive and corrupt. His death in 1494 was the pretext for the invasion of his kingdom by King Charles VIII of France. Charles invoked a vague claim to the throne through his paternal grandmother, Marie of Anjou. Thus began the period of history known as the Italian Wars. Charles’s army reached the city of Naples on February 22, 1495, deposing Ferrante’s son and successor, Alfonso. Charles’ victory would not last, however. The speed and success of his invasion of the Italian peninsula galvanized the Pope and many local Italian rulers to form an alliance, the League of Venice, against him. By the end of 1495 most of his armies had been forced to withdraw. He never returned.
In 1498, Charles VIII of France died without a male heir. Louis XII, a descendant of King Charles V, succeeded him. A tough, capable, and energetic ruler, Louis overhauled the French legal and political systems, while setting his sights on Italian real estate. He had particular interests on the thrones of Milan and Naples. This set the stage for the second phase of the Italian Wars (1499-1504). After sweeping victories in the north, he signed an alliance with King Ferdinand II of Aragon (Ferdinand I of Spain), agreeing to divide the territories of the Kingdom of Naples with him. Naples fell before them in 1501. Soon afterwards, however, a quarrel broke out between the two kings over how to divide the spoils. The erstwhile allies quickly became enemies and hostilities broke out between Spain and France. Italian rulers scrambled to choose sides.
The Spaniards, under the command of the legendary General Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (“El Gran Cápitan”), barricaded themselves in the city of Barletta in the Duchy of Puglia. The French advanced on the city but were repulsed in battle, with many being taken prisoner, including their commander, General Charles La Motte.
After the battle the Spaniards prepared a banquet in honor of the Italian knights allied with them. La Motte took the occasion of the banquet to rise and insult the honor of the Italians, charging them with cowardice in battle. For a split second you could have heard a pin drop, then shouts of anger rang through the banquet hall. Accusations and insults were hurled by both sides. The Italians demanded an apology; the French refused. This stain weighed heavily on Italian honor. Talking it over amongst themselves, they agreed it could not be forgotten or forgiven. Two knights, Giovanni Capoccio and Giovanni Brancaleone, were chosen to deliver the obligatory challenge to the French camp. Under the rules of knightly behavior, the French had no choice but to accept. Both sides agreed to the following terms:
• The knightly battle would consist of a series of jousts between the French and the Italians
• Each side would have 13 knights
• The contest would be to the death!

The call was put out by the Italians for men to come forward to defend the honor of their people. Thirteen men readily stepped forward.
The French side was commanded by La Motte, the man whose mouth started it all! The Italian side consisted of the following:
Ettore Fieramosca – a condottiero (mercenary warlord) and noble from Capua, Campania who had previously distinguished himself in battle against the armies of Charles VIII of France. He led the Italians.
Ludovico Abenevole – called “Animal” due to his ferocity in battle. Like Fieramosca, he hailed from Capua. The historian Cesare Caracciola described him as a “knight of highest merit”.
Mariano Abignente – born in Sarno, Campania. Documents attest both to his noble origins and his ties to the Neapolitan Royal Family.
Guglielmo Albamonte – born in Palermo, Sicily. He moved to Capua after the Challenge. He was captain of the cavalry at the Battle of Ravenna.
Giovanni Brancaleone – his real name was Giovanni Bracalone. Born in Genazzano, outside the city of Rome.
Giovanni Capoccio – both the cities of Rome and Spinazzola in Puglia claim him as their own. Tradition has it that he was the “strongest Italian champion after Fieramosca”.
Marco Corollario – born in Naples. Sadly, the only thing known for sure about him is he had a daughter named Cassandra.
Bartolomeo Fanfulla – a veteran of the siege of Pisa and the Battle of Bibbiana. Born in Lodi, Lombardia.
Ettore Giovenale – born in Rome. Like the rest of his companions, a veteran of the Italian Wars.
Ettore de’Pazzis (aka Miale) – though some believe him to have Tuscan origins, most modern historians state he most certainly came from Troia in Puglia. This fact is confirmed by his family’s coat of arms.
Pietro Riczio – aka Riccio. Born in the city of Parma, Emilia-Romagna. In documents that have survived, he was dubbed “a valiant man”, which leads some historians to surmise he had earlier distinguished himself in combat.
Romanello from Forli – according to the historian Pietro Gasparino, Romanello was the nobleman Martino Schiacca. Like Riczio, he hailed from Emilia-Romagna.
Francesco Salamone – born in the town of Sutera, Sicily. At the time of the Challenge, he was in the service of Inigo Lopez.

Thirteen Italian knights, with seven, possibly eight, being Southerners, stepped forward to defend the honor of their respective peoples from the stain of the French insult.
Both sides met on a neutral field between the cities of Andria and Corato in Puglia at dawn on February 13, 1503. The Challenge, which consisted of a series of chivalrous battles on horseback, lasted all day and well into the night. Witnesses said the din of weapons clashing and men shouting was deafening. When it finally ended, the Italians had won all the contests! The stunned French were forced to concede defeat, and General La Motte had no choice but to swallow his pride and apologize to his betters. Afterwards the French withdrew from the area.
News of the victory spread over the whole of the Italian peninsula and into Sicily. There can be no doubt the feeling of pride it instilled in many Italians, Northern and Southern, emboldened them in their many future battles against the French. Such is the power of emotion in shaping and focusing human behavior. The ecstatic citizens of Barletta erected a monument to commemorate the occasion. To this day, Barletta is nicknamed Città della Disfida (“City of the Challenge”).
Three centuries later, when the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Caesar, invaded the Kingdom of Naples in their disastrous attempt to subjugate that area of the world, French soldiers entered the city of Barletta. When they saw the monument, the French soldiers did their knightly ancestors proud…they toppled it! After French withdrawal from the area, the locals rebuilt it.
In recent years, in the spirit of Renaissance fairs everywhere, the locals hold a festival twice annually (in February and in the summer) to commemorate the Challenge. It has apparently become quite an attraction as actors from as far away as Ireland have come to play parts in the recreation. One day, soon, I plan to visit Barletta to see it. When I do, dear readers, there will be pictures to post. I promise you.
Here in New York City, the closest our people, the expats of Due Sicilie, have to a celebration of our heritage is the annual Columbus Day parade in October. Unlike most of our kind, I do not look forward to this “celebration”. Why? I fail to see what the exploits of a Genoese sailor, in the service of Spaniard monarchs, has to do with us. The parades in Manhattan and Brooklyn serve only to illuminate the cultural genocide that has been done to our people in this country, both by the locals and us.
It is particularly galling (and noteworthy) to observe the differences in the floats and costumes of the various peoples of Italy. Northern Italians are usually decked out in the finery of their Renaissance-era nobility. One has to seriously wonder how many of them are, in fact, directly descended from nobles. Nevertheless, their attempts to exalt personages from their peoples’ past through mimicry speak volumes of them and their collective mindset.
Southerners, on the other hand, are invariably dressed in the folk costumes of the classe contadina. Costumes of the nobility and learned scholars of Due Sicilie are conspicuously absent. Small wonder then we are often referred to as a “peasant race”. As with Northerners, this speaks volumes.
If I sound like an elitist, there’s a good reason for it…I am! While peasant origins are nothing to be ashamed of, neither are they something to celebrate. Medieval and Renaissance-era European peasant life was harsh, even by today’s standards. Infant mortality, poverty and illiteracy were widespread, and the life expectancy was dismal. Keep in mind, also, the great advances of the times were invariably done by members of the upper classes, not the lower ones. Peasants were often brutally treated by their noble overlords and the law. What could there be to celebrate in such misery? Where is the honor in exalting the baser members of society?
If we as a people were truly in touch with our ethnic heritage, there would be a place in such processions for the peoples who, through back-breaking physical labor, fed the nation. That place, however, would be behind those who through creative genius rather than physical labor, helped shaped the world we live in today. That place is where it ought to be. Anyone who cannot understand that has their priorities in disorder.

February 9, 2010

Ferdinando Carulli: A True Guitar Hero

Ferdinando Carulli
By Giovanni di Napoli

Ferdinando Carulli (b. Naples 1770 - d. Paris 1841) was perhaps the most significant composer and instructor for the guitar in the Nineteenth Century.  Highly prolific, many of the virtuoso's works, including his "Harmony Applied to the Guitar," continue to be used today to train students the classical guitar.

According to most sources he was born on February 9th, others claim the 10th.  His father, Michele Carulli, was originally from Bari and a distinguished statesman in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; his mother, Patrizia Federici, is believed to be Neapolitan, but more information about her is lost.  He was raised on the Via Nardones near the Palazzo Reale in Naples.

Carulli learned the basics of music from a priest, which was not unusual at that time.  The Cello was his first instrument, but at twenty he discovered the guitar and made it his life's passion.  Because no suitable instructors were available at the time, the Neapolitan was principally self-taught and formulated his own guitar technique.

In Naples his concerts were very popular.  Word quickly spread of his exceptional skill so eventually he toured Europe to meet the demand.  In 1801, while in Tuscany, he married a French woman named Marie-Josephine Boyer, and together they had a son, Gustavo.  After a very successful tour in Paris, then considered the "music capital" of the world, Carulli settled there with his family for the remainder of his life.

His work and reputation as a teacher inspired guitarists from all over Europe, especially Italy, and many travelled to Paris to learn from the master.  Counted among his students were members of the Parisian nobility and upper classes.  His methods became the standard for teaching classical guitar.

Many of Carulli's greatest pieces were not published because of their complexity; the publishing houses believing that they were too difficult to become popular enough to invest in.  Unfortunately, much of his advanced work was lost due to the shortsightedness of these businessmen, who deemed his instructional works more profitable.

Among his hundreds of extant works are concertos, quartets, solos, duos, trios, variations, and fantasias, including the popular "Trio, Op. 12," for flute, violin and guitar and "Concerto Op. 8" for guitar and orchestra; and for the musically challenged among us, his "Duo in G Op.34" was the theme music for the British cult 1980s sci-fi/TV game show The Adventure Game.

Carulli died in Paris at the age of 71 on February 17, 1841.