August 28, 2010

It Begins!

Serie A 2010/11: Week One Predictions


Serie A is back and so is our coverage of the teams representing the south of Italy. In addition to Napoli, Palermo, Bari and Catania we welcome newly promoted Lecce to our ranks. As the season starts to develop I will expand on the coverage, but for now I will keep the introductions short and sweet.

Palermo v Cagliari:
Palermo will host the Sardinians this Sunday in an all-island affair at the raucous Stadio Barbera. The Sicilians have been highly competitive over the last several seasons and will be looking to improve on last year's fifth-place finish. Obviously, this means nothing short of fourth will be acceptable. The off-season acquisitions of Massimo Maccarone, Mauricio Pinilla, Armin Bacinovic and Josip Ilicic should more than make up for the loss of Edison Cavani (to Napoli) and proves that the club is still committed to winning. Unfortunately, they will temporarily be without the services of captain and prolific goal scorer Fabrizio Miccoli, due to injury. Palermo are also coming off a mid-week Europa League defeat against Maribor. Despite the loss the Sicilians move past the Slovenians on aggregate (5-3) to face CSKA Moscow. I fully expect the Rosanero to edge out their insular opponent.


Bari v Juventus:
Bari were one of the biggest surprises of the season last year (perhaps second only to Sampdoria), finishing in tenth place. They more than held their own against Serie A's top clubs and were a force to be reckoned with at home. They impressively conceded only 49 goals all season. The team however lost two of its biggest stars—Andrea Ranocchia and Leonard Bonucci—in the off-season. They will be sorely missed. The Galletti begin the 2010/11 campaign at "fortress" San Nicola against the dreaded Old Lady, Juventus. The giants from Turin will be looking to put last years embarrassing campaign behind them, including a loss to the Apulians. Last season Bari were "giant-killers;" we'll find out this Sunday how they measure up against the big-boys with the Bianconeri in town. I predict a draw.

Lecce v Milan:
Newly promoted Lecce have a tough task this week. Not only will they play Milan, one of Serie A's preeminent clubs, they will have to do it in hostile territory. The Salentini will journey north to Lombardy's San Siro stadium (Stadio Meazza), one of Italian football's most prestigious temples. If the Giallorossi wish to prove the pundits wrong about being a relegation favorite they could begin with a positive result against the Rossoneri. In my opinion, not losing against a quality side like Milan would be a good start. I predict a draw.

Catania v Chievo:
The Elefantini definitely want to avoid another slow start to their campaign. It took a Herculean effort to climb out of the relegation zone last year. In fact, they had one of the best records in the second half of the season and still ended with only 45 points. However, if they continue where they left off, Catania could be considered a legitimate contender for a top-ten finish, if not a Europa League spot. This week the Elefantini take the show on the road to face Chievo Verona at the Stadio Bentegodi in the Veneto. Perhaps Europe is a little too ambitious for them, but I do predict a Sicilian victory over the Gialloblu this weekend.

Napoli v Fiorentina:
As a Napoli fan, 2010/11 has a bittersweet beginning. My beloved Partenopei are coming off a mid-week victory (3-0 on aggregate) against Swedish outfit, Elfsborg, in a Europa League clash. This means Napoli get a shot at English powerhouse, Liverpool, Steaua Bucharest and Utrecht next round. My jubilation turned to disbelief, as the rumors circulating about the sale of Neapolitan striker, and fan favorite, Fabio Quagliarella to Juventus have been confirmed. I still don't know what to make of it, but the signing of Edison Cavani (from Palermo) and Hassan Yebda (from Benfica) will soften the blow.

The Vesuviani march into Tuscany this weekend looking to conquer the Viola at the Stadio Franchi. Fiorentina are always tough, especially at home. Napoli will have to improve their away record if they hope to finish in the top four this season. The victory in Sweden was a good start. It should come as no surprise that I predict a Napoli victory. Forza Napoli!

Avanti Sud!!!

By New York Scugnizzo

Round 1 results (added September 4, 2010)

Bari 1—0 Juventus
Chievo 2 — 1 Catania
Palermo 0 — 0 Cagliari
Fiorentina 1 — 1 Napoli

August 27, 2010

Pagliacci in Coney Island


Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto! Ridi del duol che t'avvelena il cor!
—Ruggero Leoncavallo, Pagliacci

["Laugh, Pagliaccio, though your love lie shattered; laugh at the pain that is poisoning your heart!"]

Canada's Mercury Opera troupe will be performing Ruggero Leoncavallo's renowned verismo classic, "Pagliacci," at the Coney Island USA Museum and Circus Sideshow [1208 Surf Ave. at W. 12th Street in Coney Island, (718) 372-5159], Sept. 1st at 8 pm. Tickets $55. For info, visit www.mercuryopera.com.

Leoncavallo was born in Naples on April 23rd, 1857. He studied at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella, one of Naples' preeminent music institutions. His "Pagliacci" premiered on May 21st, 1892 at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan; it was an instant success. Sadly, the opera is the only work from his impressive oeuvre still performed today. He died on August 9th, 1919, in Montecatini, Tuscany.

August 26, 2010

Of the Wonderful Force of Imagination


The ‘Natural Magick’ of Giambattista della Porta

Giambattista della Porta (1535?-1615)
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.” – Heinri Poincaré (1854-1912)

The (natural) sciences, geography and history are subjects that have always fascinated me. This is probably why I have always enjoyed walking the seemingly endless halls of this wonderfully vast edifice known as the American Museum of Natural History. Looking at all the exhibits, one cannot help but get a taste of all my favorite subjects. With 25 interconnected buildings that house 46 permanent exhibition halls, research laboratories and a library that is world-renowned, the museum is truly one of the wonders of the modern age.

I recall reading somewhere once that famed British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, when witnessing the “firing up” of a new, state of the art telescope designed to peer into the outermost reaches of the universe, exclaimed that he never felt prouder of our species than at that moment. I feel the same way whenever I come here, which is why I visit often. It is at once both a humbling and exalting experience. If you can manage the trip here just once in your lifetime I heartily recommend it!

We humans have a tendency to take for granted the things which make our lives easier and more fulfilling. Though we may be cognizant of the fact, it is still difficult for many to truly fathom that at one time these things did not exist. Americans especially seem to be guilty of this foible. One cannot pin the entire blame on them. America, after all, is a huge country (in terms of land area and population) that for decades has been one of the centers of affluence and culture here on earth. One could spend their entire life travelling these United States without ever going abroad, not feeling deprived for it.
American Museum of Natural History
(Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Maybe it’s because of my passion for history, but whenever I stare at superstructures like the American Museum of Natural History I find myself sometimes wondering what it was like before they existed. What was it like to live in a world devoid of the knowledge that we today too often take for granted? In the case of this natural history museum, who was the man (or men) who first sought to build such a structure, to ignite the fires of imagination in his fellows to learn to better understand the world in which they lived?

The circumstances surrounding Giambattista della Porta’s birth are somewhat shrouded in mystery. It is known he was born in the Campanian town of Vico Equense (now part of the Greater Bay of Naples Metropolitan Area) to a minor Neapolitan noble family. Exactly when is not known but is believed by most modern historians to be sometime late in the year 1535. His father’s name was Nardo Antonio della Porta. Giambattista was the third of four sons and only one of two to reach adulthood.

He was the child of privilege whose father sought to instill in his sons his own love of learning. The della Porta household was a place that frequently entertained poets, musicians, philosophers and mathematicians. Being raised (and tutored) in such an environment stimulated the boys’ imagination, giving them the well-rounded education their father wished for them.

Giambattista della Porta’s keen intellect revealed itself at a comparatively early age. By the age of ten he was already composing essays in both Latin and Italian. His father sent him and his brother Gian Vincenzo with their uncle on a tour of Europe that included all of Italy, Spain and France.

Nardo Antonio della Porta’s sons showed an affinity for the sciences and mathematics. Nevertheless, he encouraged them to study singing and music, as well, in spite of the fact none of them had any talent as such. Yet by doing this he helped to make his sons (especially Giambattista) come to appreciate the finer things in life, instilling in him an attitude that would carry over into his adult life when he would seek out noble company to aid him in becoming a true Renaissance man.

He published his first work Magia Naturalis, sive de miraculis rerum naturalium in Naples in 1558. It achieved immediate popularity, being republished in Latin at least five times over the next 10 years as well as being translated into Italian (1560), French (1565) and Dutch (1566). In the preface della Porta claims the first edition of his “Natural Magick” was translated into Spanish and Arabic as well!

A polymath, Giambattista della Porta wrote at length on a variety of subjects. His next major published work was entitled De Furtivis Literarum Notis, a work on cryptography. As far as is known he was the first to describe what is known today as “digraphic substitution cipher”, foreshadowing the concept of polyalphabetic substitution. Noted scholar of cryptology Charles J. Mendelsohn said of him:

“He was, in my opinion, the outstanding cryptographer of the Renaissance. Some unknown who worked in a hidden room behind closed doors may possibly have surpassed him in general grasp of the subject, but among those whose work can be studied he towers like a giant.”

In 1586 della Porta wrote De humana physiognomonia libri IIII, a detailed work on the still-controversial subject of physiognomy. By this time, though, interest in the subject was rapidly waning throughout Europe. Two centuries later, however, the book would influence Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), who helped revive interest in it.

While still a young man, della Porta founded the Academia Secretorum Naturae in Naples in 1560. It was the first scientific society in modern history. Its members nicknamed themselves Ostia (men of leisure). Prospective members had to present a new fact in natural science as a condition for membership; otherwise membership was open to all. This Academy would become the prototype for all later scientific societies including the famous Royal Society of London.

For Giambattista della Porta, “Natural Magick” encompassed interest not only in the embryonic world of the natural sciences, but in what we today would call the Occult. He was especially interested in the pseudo-science of alchemy. This was not at all unusual at the time, even for learned men. In fact, as late as the latter part of the 17th century no less a personage as the great Isaac Newton dabbled extensively in alchemy! This was understandable, since even at that time there was as yet no clear distinction between alchemy and the modern sciences of physics and chemistry.

Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church, especially the “Holy Office” of the Inquisition, took an exceedingly dim view of people who dabbled in such subjects. Della Porta was summoned to Rome to stand before Pope Paul V to give an account of himself and his society. Though he emerged from the meeting unscathed, he was charged by the Pope not to dabble any further in “things unknown” and was forced to disband his Academy under suspicion of sorcery in 1578. Years later (1610) he would join the Accademia dei Lincei (It: “Academy of the Lynxes”); a scientific society whose founder, Federico Cesi, was inspired by della Porta.

Della Porta the prolific writer churned out books on a number of topics over the years. Among other things he wrote an agricultural encyclopedia entitled Villa, as well as works on meteorology, astronomy and optics.

It is that last subject that is especially interesting, for there is tantalizing evidence Giambattista della Porta was one of the first creators of the device today we call the telescope. The earliest known working telescopes appeared in the Netherlands in 1608 and are generally credited to a German-Dutch lens-maker by the name of Hans Lippershey (1570-1619). Sacharias Jansen of Middleburg and Jacob Metius of Alkmaar, two contemporaries of Lippershey, also claimed credit.

However, in the 1589 publication of his magnum opus Magia Naturalis, Giambattista della Porta wrote the following:

"With a Concave lens you shall see small things afar off very clearly. With a Convex lens, things nearer to be greater, but more obscurely. If you know how to fit them both together, you shall see both things afar off, and things near hand, both greater and clearly."

Who actually created the first telescope is really not as important as who was the first to realize its importance in the furthering of science and use it for such a purpose. That honor, of course, goes to the “Father of Modern Science”, Galileo Galilei of Pisa! Galileo took Lippershey’s crude device and improved it, allowing him to study the cosmos in ways no other astronomer before him could have done.

Ironically, just months before Galileo announced his momentous discoveries, Giambattista della Porta had dismissed the telescope as “unimportant”, being too busy trying to perfect an occult-like device that supposedly would allow two people to communicate at a distance (“Taumatologia”). He would later express regret for doing this, but the window of opportunity was closed in that regard.

This more than anything illustrated della Porta’s great weakness: his obsession with secrets. He believed that great knowledge was only meant for princes, not the masses. He dabbled in esoteric sciences the followers of Galileo were already dismissing. He was frequently referred to as the “Professor of secrets”, a title he relished. In fact, he obfuscated his own date of birth, probably to give more of an air of mystery about him. In the end, it probably cost him a much loftier place in the history books.

Ahhh, only if, Giambattista, only if.

In spite of this, he made a significant number of contributions to a variety of fields including Agriculture, Hydraulics, Instruments, Military Engineering and Pharmacology. In 1606 he wrote a book on raising water by the force of the air.

As he grew older, della Porta liked to collect rare specimens and grow exotic plants and fungi. In his book Phytognomonica he lists plants according to their geographical points of origin. In this same work he also was the first to observe fungi spores. For this he is considered one of the pioneers of the science of mycology.

One especially splendid contribution he made to the sciences was in the establishment of a private natural history museum on his estate. It was visited by travelers from all over Europe. One of whom was the renowned German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, who was so impressed by it he later built his own larger and more famous version in Rome, the Museum Kircherianum. Thus, it can be rightfully argued Giambattista della Porta is the “Father of Natural History Museums”, if not museums altogether!

This wonderful polymath was a productive writer in the field of Drama as well. His 17 extant theatrical works comprise 14 comedies, one tragicomedy, one tragedy and one liturgical drama.

In spite of his run-in with the Inquisition, Giambattista della Porta remained a devout Catholic for the remainder of his life. In his last years he became a lay Jesuit brother.

He apparently never got over being overshadowed by Galileo, and till his dying day insisted that he was the actual inventor of the telescope. In fact, he was working on a treatise in defense of his claim (De telescopiis) when he died on February 4th, 1615. The cause of death is unknown. I like to think that last fact would greatly please the “Professor of secrets”.

Coming back to earth, I collect my thoughts and look around one last time down the myriad halls of the greatest natural history museum on earth. I’ve been in here numerous times (and I’ll keep coming back) but it suddenly occurs to me that, to the best of my knowledge, nowhere in this vast repository of the natural sciences is there a memorial to the man who undoubtedly started it all. Couldn’t they have at least put up a plaque in some corner acknowledging his contribution; some small recognition? Then I smiled.

“Recognition or not, Giambattista della Porta, if you were alive today and could see where your work has led I know you would be pleased!” With that, I headed for home.

Niccolò Graffio

Further reading:

Louise Clubb, Giambattista Della Porta, Dramatist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965
Giambattista della Porta: Natural Magick, Nuvision Publications, 2005

August 24, 2010

The Legacy Of Our Buried Past


Vesuvius looming over the temple of Jupiter at Pompeii
(Photos courtesy of New York Scugnizzo)

By Lucian

The anniversary of the destruction of Pompeii reminded me of my visit to the ruins. It was easy to feel that greatness while walking among the stones of the ancient city, preserved for centuries by the deadly ash of Vesuvius. It also humbled me to behold the legacy of the eruption, a destructive force of nature that, within a day, turned a vibrant city into a tomb.

Vesuvius has erupted several times since Pompeii. The last was in 1944, destroying a B-25 Bomber group located in Capodichino Airport (Aeroporto di Napoli, Capodichino) in Naples. The Allied occupational forces, which had taken the city a few months earlier, assisted in evacuating nearby villages. This was a relatively minor eruption compared to 1906, 1872, or 1631. Earlier eruptions during the Roman Empire caused ash to fall as far as Constantinople. In 1845 the Osservatorio Vesuviano (geological observatory) was opened in the Kingdom of Naples, and is the oldest scientific institution dedicated to studying volcanoes. Surviving the Risorgimento, it was allowed to continue its work, and can still be seen today after miraculously escaping the lava flows of the 1872 eruption.

Remains of a victim

Volcanic eruptions have always been a threat in the Mezzogiorno. Etna, Vesuvius, and the Phlegrean Fields (Campi Flegrei) are all still active. The Marsili volcano, located under the Tyrrhenian Sea approximately 150 km west of Naples, can erupt at any time, causing tidal waves the length of the Italic peninsula and Sicily. I’m sure that the Italian government has emergency plans in the event of disaster, but their inability to stop corrupt officials and organized criminals from dumping dangerous toxic waste in Naples itself gives me little confidence in how well they could handle such an emergency. Perhaps I’m being unfair to them. When I see average people in Europe or America unable to handle normal or trivial events, I’m surprised that natural selection hasn’t caught up with them, so I guess it makes sense that the leaders they help elect might not meet our expectations. The condition of Western society these days brings to mind a quote from Oswald Spengler:
"Faced as we are with this destiny, there is only one world-outlook that is worthy of us, that which has already been mentioned as the Choice of Achilles — better a short life, full of deeds and glory, than a long life without content. Already the danger is so great, for every individual, every class, and every nation, that to cherish any illusion whatever is deplorable. The march of time cannot be halted; there is no question of prudent retreat or clever renunciation. Only dreamers believe there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice.

“We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on…without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.” (Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics)
Pompeii is a reminder that our ancestors survived in very difficult times, and still managed to be pragmatic, creative and disciplined. This is not to say that all of our ancestors were nice people, but who can seriously make that claim. At least I can respect them, more so than I do many people today.


Ruins of Pompeii

I have heard mean spirited anti-southern slogans such as “Go Etna!” or “Go Vesuvius!” which enthusiastically assert that a volcanic explosion obliterating Sicily or Naples would be a wonderful thing. That they could wish something like this on Southern Italians is worse than repulsive, and to wish for the destruction of our land and history as well is a crime against civilization.

Why bury the history of the Southern Italian people? What would be the purpose of doing this to anybody? Unfortunately such actions are common throughout history and continue today, and our homeland was, and still is, a frequent target. Many treasures of the past were willfully destroyed by successive regimes since the fall of Rome, most recently during the Second World War where both the Allied forces and the Germans deliberately destroyed ancient architecture or works of art. However, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the Germans, under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, were far more likely to steal them or falsely claim credit for them.

Statue of Faun

As to why someone would do this, there is more than one opinion. There are those who claim that people with low self-esteem will try to tear down others in order to compensate for their own deficiencies, but some of them are as likely to claim that whoever disagrees with them is somehow mentally diseased and needs to be “cured.” It may comfort some people to believe that anyone who is oppressed is automatically moral and noble, or that the oppressors are always unintelligent brutes, but absolutes like this have more to do with propaganda than reality. Other claims are just as political, such as conquering an “inferior” people “for their own good.” Who on Earth wants that sort of help? In the case of Italy, the North has accomplished so much, from the ancient communes to the Renaissance, that to say their behavior is a result of low self-esteem or an inferiority complex is absolutely ridiculous. A more reasonable explanation for burying a people’s past is to make it easier to dominate them. Without their own culture, history and language to fall back on, a conquered people will more readily accept the viewpoint of their overlords. This explanation fits well into every situation where cultural leveling has been practiced or where inconvenient archeological findings threaten politically accepted views. There will always be those who wish to bury “offensive” facts under tons of cement, or volcanic ash, and hope that they will go away.

Statue of Apollo

I would like to think that Southern Italy’s well documented contribution to civilization would make it difficult to marginalize, but it is not as difficult as it would seem, and it is not the only historically significant region or people to suffer in that regard. Since The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies fell in 1861, the efforts to suppress our culture, history and languages have led to a profound lack of knowledge and understanding of our own past; but with some effort that knowledge can be reclaimed. To those who would wish Etna and Vesuvius to bury us as it did Pompeii, I will say that such an event can never erase us completely, because our volcanoes are themselves as much a part of us as that ancient city that was buried so long ago. During the Risorgimento, some Southern Italian resistance fighters aptly referred to themselves as “Sons of the Volcano.” Surrounded by history and woven into our mythos, Etna, Vesuvius, and the Phlegrean Fields will always be important parts or our rich cultural heritage.

Roman legends and Virgil’s Aeneid claim that the primary gateway to Hades is through Lake Averno in the Phlegrean Fields. It is located near Cumae, an area that was settled by Greeks as early as 700 B.C., which predates the Greek founding of nearby Naples by over 200 years. It was here that the Sibyl of Cumae, the prophetess of Apollo, spoke to Aeneas on his journey to the underworld. The region has archeological sites such as the Antrum of the Sibyl, the Terme Romana, the Amphitheatrum Flavium, Crypta Romana, and the recently uncovered temples of Jupiter and Apollo that fit well into Virgil’s account.

Telamon at the Forum baths

Mt. Etna, named after Aetna (Aitnê), a Sicilian nymph, was originally home to Adranus, a fire god worshiped by of the Sicils before the Greek settlements in Sicily. Adranus was driven out of his abode by Hephaestus, also known as Vulcan to the Romans. The Greek God of fire and the forge was originally said to reside in Lemnos. Greek colonists in Sicily moved the legendary forge of Hephaestus to Etna, the largest volcano in Europe. Under Etna Hephaestus and his assistants, the Cyclops, forged lightning bolts for Zeus and items of power for the gods and heroes of men. The fire that Prometheus gave to man was stolen from Hephaestus' forge. Mount Etna is supposed to contain a gateway to Tartarus, the lowest layer of Hades where the gods imprisoned and tormented their enemies for eternity. Aeschylus the poet said that the giant Typhon was imprisoned under Etna; his name is the origin of the word “Typhoon.” The rebellious giant Enceladus was slain and also buried there. Other giants were said to be buried or imprisoned beneath volcanoes, especially Etna, and their movements were said to cause the eruptions. Mimus, the brother of Enceladus, was supposed to be buried under Vesuvius by Hephaestus along with other giants, and their blood would flow up through the nearby Phlegrean Fields.

Statue of Diana

Vesuvius was said to be sacred to Hercules, and the town of Herculaneum was named in his honor. The eruptions of Vesuvius sometimes had odd timing, leading people throughout the ages to credit the gods. The day before the eruption of 79 A.D. the Romans observed Vulcan’s holiday (Vulcanalia), and celebrated in the name of their god of fire, unaware of their impending doom. Not only did Vesuvius destroy Pompeii, but also the towns of Herculaneum, Cossa, Leucopetra, Oplontis, Stabiae, Sora, Tora, and Taurania. Pliny the elder was killed by the eruption. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, recorded the events that as he saw them that day. Because of his detailed descriptions, the type of eruption that he witnessed is now called “Plinian.”

Even Christians have included Vesuvius in their legends, it is said that when Lucifer was cast from Heaven he fell to Mt. Vesuvius and proceeded to destroy everything in his fury. Seeing this from Heaven, Christ wept and one of his tears fell to Vesuvius and miraculously caused a vine to grow, eventually renewing the land. The wine Lacryma Christi (Christ’s tears) is named after the legend and is produced at Vesuvius. The volcano has been associated with vineyards and fertile soil for millennia.

If you plan to visit Pompeii, consider touring the vineyards on the slopes of Vesuvius as well. For though Vesuvius is a bringer of destruction and death, it also brings the land fertility and life.

August 18, 2010

Movie Review: "The Sicilian Girl"


Basquiat playing at the same theater was an ill omen.


By Niccolò Graffio and Giovanni di Napoli
"You have died for what you believed in, but without you, I too am dead" — Rita Atria, diary
Last Saturday (August 14, 2010) Niccolò Graffio and I went to Manhattan's Film Forum movie theater to see Marco Amenta's "The Sicilian Girl," a movie loosely based on the short life of Rita Atria, a young girl whose testimony played a crucial part in the convictions of several Mafiosi back in the 1990's. Normally I don't subscribe to Mafia genre films because I feel they tend to glorify gangsterism and promote negative stereotypes about Southern Italians, especially Sicilians. However, I was curious to see how the heroic Paolo Borsellino, a Sicilian magistrate assassinated in 1992 for his anti-Mafia crusade, and Rita Atria, the daughter of a murdered Don, were portrayed.
Typical of the movie industry, they took an incredible story and snuffed the life out of it. In fact, they didn't even have the courtesy of naming Borsellino's character (played by the talented Gérard Jugnot) who was simply referred to as "the prosecutor." I'm aware the movie was called "The Sicilian Girl" and focused primarily on Rita "Mancuso" (Veronica D'Agostino), but after the murder of her beloved father and brother, Borsellino was a major, almost father-like figure in Atria's life. It was, after all, his murder that led to her decision to kill herself. In Rita’s suicide note (which the movie egregiously left out for a more mawkish ending) she wrote, "I am devastated by the killing of Judge Borsellino. Now there's no one to protect me, I'm scared and I can't take any more."*
Niccolò Graffio: Giovanni, like you, I'm not a fan of gangster movies. The genre historically shows these criminals in a positive, almost envious light. Let's not also forget the fact the bulk of these movies are poorly written and executed. Even those that are well-written and produced, like The Godfather and Scarface suffer from this moral defect. To me, that shows extremely poor judgement on the part of those in the movie industry. With the very rare exception of movies like Matteo Garrone's brilliant Gomorrah, which ripped the face off the Neapolitan crime syndicate known as the Camorra and laid it bare for the world to see, we can safely say the days of Little Caesar are long gone.
As for the charge of promoting ethnic stereotypes? Well, the late Art Buchwald, in a syndicated article he wrote several years before his death, charged that anti-Italianism (i.e. against Southern Italians) is the last socially acceptable form of ethnic bigotry left in America. Certainly Shark Tale and TV shows like Jersey Shore are indicative of that fact. I can't for the life of me imagine any movie or TV production company churning out films about Jewish or black gangsters for very long and avoiding the charge of racism.
As for this film? I too, had a number of problems with it from the beginning. It was understood, and not even tacitly I might add, this was a movie about the life of the late Rita Atria. Why then the need to change the name of the central character? The ending leaves no doubt as to the true identity of "Rita Mancuso", so the defense of legal formalities is bogus. Despite this, the movie actually did pick up a little steam as it went along, then came crashing down in the last 20-25 minutes.
Giovanni di Napoli: Aside from the Borsellino slight and sentimental pap, my biggest problem with the film was the lax security during Rita's time under the witness protection program. I don't want to give too much away, but I find it very difficult to believe the Italian authorities, no matter how impotent they may be against organized crime and corruption, would have allowed their key witness in a major Mafia trial the freedom to come and go as she pleased without constant surveillance and protection. It was almost like watching the bumbling FBI agent, Barney Coopersmith (Rick Moranis) guard the "lovable" gangster, Vincent Antonelli (Steve Martin) in the 1990 Mafia spoof, "My Blue Heaven."
NG: Incredulity has always been a hallmark of the film industry, yet the viewer is to believe this young lady, a leading witness in one of the biggest anti-mafia trials of the time, was allowed to come and go as she pleased in a country that is riddled from top to bottom with corruption and organized crime. Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone travelled with heavy security; that didn't stop them from being murdered.
GdN: The jokes about the most unbelievable part of any movie is the disclaimer that states it’s "Based On A True Story" and “only the names, places and facts have been changed" most definitely applies here. I should have kept my usual aversion towards "mafia films" and never have suggested it. I only hope this film doesn't discourage people from researching the true life-stories of courageous individuals like Rita Atria, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, whose memories deserve better than this movie.
NG: Two other things about this film I didn't like: the total omission of the courage of Rita Atria's sister-in-law, Pierra Aiello. In fact, she isn't even mentioned in the film. Another is the way Rita is portrayed as being driven by a desire for vengeance. That was undoubtedly true in the beginning, but as excerpts from her diary show, as time progressed she came to realize the world she grew up in was fatally flawed and needed to be changed. Had this epiphany been more graphically illustrated, along with the deep emotional bond that developed between her and "the prosecutor", it would have added a more human dimension to this sadly predictable and formulaic piece of cinema. All together this was a bad film and I recommend people avoid it. Rita Atria and Paolo Borsellino deserved better.
* Quote reprinted from The Independent, Monday, September 21st, 1992

August 16, 2010

Discovering The Riace Warriors

The Riace Warriors, L-R: statue A and statue B

By Giovanni di Napoli

On August 16, 1972 Stefano Mariottini, a young chemist from Rome, was on holiday in Monasterace, a small town in the Southern Italian province of Reggio Calabria. Enjoying the pristine waters of the Riace Marina, located along the magnificent Ionian Coast, Mariottini made a discovery that has been referred to as "one of Italy's most important archaeological finds of the last 100 years."

While swimming—almost 340 yards off the coast and about 27 feet deep—Mariottini spotted an arm protruding from the sandy sea floor. So lifelike was the limb he thought he found a corpse. The startled diver soon realized that the lifeless appendage belonged to a bronze statue. Upon further inspection he found the leg of a second statue sticking out of the seabed.

Excited by his discovery, Mariottini reported his find to the authorities. With his help the Carabinieri unit from Messina, Sicily—supervised by the Archaeological Superintendency of Reggio Calabria—recovered the sunken statues from their watery resting place with air balloons. A crowd of curious locals and vacationers gathered on the beach and watched intently as the statues were rescued. They applauded with great delight as they were brought ashore.

The initial restoration was done at the Museo Nazionale di Reggio Calabria, but lacking the sophisticated equipment necessary to clean the statues thoroughly, the bronzes were transported up north to the Superintendency of Antiquity in Florence, Tuscany. The restoration was completed in 1980 and the statues were finally made available to the public, first at the Museo Archeologico in Florence, then in Rome at the Palazzo del Quirinale, where an estimated million people visited them. They were eventually returned to the prestigious Museo Nazionale di Reggio Calabria where they draw well over 100,000 visitors annually.

The statues have been nicknamed the "Hero" and the "Strategist" for their apparent characteristics. It's said statue "A" or the "Hero," "emanates an almost savage warlike force." While Statue "B," "emanates an image of conscious and civil humanity." Both depict lifelike nude warriors that once bore shields and lances. The Strategist also wore a Corinthian helmet. No trace of their armor or weapons remain. Analysis has dated them from the fifth century B.C.

Not long after their discovery a debate ensued over the statue's origins. Some believe that they were cast overboard by a ship in distress looking to lighten up its load during a terrible storm. The vessel could have been a Roman trireme laden with booty and slaves returning from the conquest of Greece. Others claim that the statues stood proudly on the bridge and went down with the ship. The proximity to the shore and the smashing waves explains why over the course of time no wreckage or significant debris was discovered at the location.

Scholars can't even agree on who the statues represent. Are they gods from Olympia or Homeric heroes? Both Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, and Pericles of Athens have been suggested. Many other hypotheses, including the heroic Theseus, Cecrops, Erechtheus, Pandion I and II, Anthiocus, Acamante and Codrus, have been put forward.

There is just as much dispute over the identity of the artist(s). Some have put forward Pytagorus of Rhegion, Onatas of Aegina, Alkemenes and Polyclites of Argo as the possible sculptors. Others postulated that they could detect the hand of Kalamas or Myron. However, most believe they were both the work of the great Phidias of Athens.

The contention these statues came from Greece, while popular with many historians, is simply not supported by any historical evidence. They could have easily originated in Asia Minor or Southern Italy. Before Rome set out to conquer the Peloponnese it first conquered Magna Graecia (Southern Italy). For example, the Italiote city-state of Taros (modern Tàranto, in Puglia) was a thriving and influential metropolis. It was founded in 706 B.C. by Lakonian Greeks on a strategic peninsula between the Mare Grande and the Mare Piccolo. As early as the 4th Century B.C. it had a population of 300,000 people. However, during the Second Punic War the Tarantines sided against Rome and in 209 B.C. Taros was sacked by Quintus Fabius Maximus. The city's walls were toppled, it's inhabitants deported and its treasure plundered, including all marble and bronze statuary.

Whatever their story may be the fact remains that the Riace warriors are two of the finest examples of ancient Greek sculpture existing today.

Further reading:
• The Riace Bronzes and the Museo Nazionale of Reggio Calabria by Maria Gullì and Marcello Partenope
• The Greek Cities of Magna Graecia and Sicily by Luca Cerchiai, Lorena Jannelli and Fausto Longo