July 27, 2011

Feast of San Pantaleone

Viva San Pantaleone!
A would-be executioner kneels in awe before the impervious saint
By Giovanni di Napoli

July 27th is the feast day of San Pantaleone, patron saint of Ravello. According to tradition, the Christian physician was beheaded (c. 305) during the Diocletian persecutions in Nicomedia, and that a woman collected his spilled blood. The ampulla holding the saint's blood reached Ravello in the eleventh-century after a storm at sea transported the monks of Saint Basil, guardians of the phial, from the East. It is believed the relic chose the town for shelter.

In honor of the martyr, I would like to share a few photos taken during my 2010 pilgrimage to beautiful Ravello—arguably the most bedazzling jewel gracing the Amalfi Coast—and its fabulous Duomo, home to the saint's relic.

The facade of the Cathedral
Tradition says Orso Papiro, the first bishop of Ravello, founded the Duomo in 1086. It was initially dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, but later consecrated to San Pantaleone. Major renovations were done in the twelfth- and seventeenth-centuries.

The Cappella di San Pantaleone
The Cappella di San Pantaleone houses the phial of solidified blood. Every July 27th the faithful gather to see the miraculous liquefaction and receive its blessings.

Medieval Fresco
Traces of Medieval paintings can be found in the transept.

"Pulpit of the Gospels" by Niccolò di Bartolomeo da Foggia
A spectacular thirteenth-century marble pulpit supported by six twisting columns and lion pedestals dominates the central nave.

Church organ and bronze doors
A church organ sits above the famous twelfth-century bronze doors cast in Constantinople by Barisano da Trani. One of Duomo's many highlights the door's relief panels depict warriors, saints and biblical scenes.

Treasures from the Museo del Duomo
The Museo del Duomo, located in the crypt of the Cathedral, is a must see. It is home to many precious objects, including (L-R) the Bust of Sigilgaida Rufolo by Niccolò di Bartolomeo da Foggia, the reliquary of Santa Barbara and an ornate crozier. Unfortunately, the bust of Sigilgaida was on loan to Germany at the time, so I scanned a postcard purchased from the museum. Depicted as the goddess Fortuna, Sigilgaida was the wife of Nicholas Rufolo, treasurer of King Charles of Anjou. The sculpture is considered one of the most significant masterpieces of thirteenth century Italy.

A view from Villa Rufolo's garden pavilion
Perched high on the cliffs of Monte Cerreto world renowned Villa Rufolo offers some of the most breathtaking panoramic views of the Amalfi Coast and the Bay of Salerno.

Photos by New York Scugnizzo

July 26, 2011

Sicily's Immortal Painter: Antonello da Messina

Ecce Homo
(Photo courtesy of New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli

Due to scant documentary information very little is known about the life of Antonello di Giovanni d'Antonio, better known as Antonello da Messina. As his moniker indicates, he was born in Sicily between 1425 and 1430 at Messina, then a prosperous port city in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. His father, Giovanni d'Antonio, was a stonemason; his mother's name was Garita, possibly a diminutive of Margherita.


Between 1445-55 Antonello traveled to Naples and studied the new technique of oil painting introduced from the Low Countries in the atelier of Niccolò Colantonio (born c. 1420). The Neapolitan was a leading exponent of the Netherlandish (Dutch and Flemish) style of painting; tempera and fresco being the common mediums practiced by painters at the time. Here, Antonello was undoubtedly exposed to the works of Spanish, Provençal and Netherlandish masters, including Jan van Eyck, whose paintings were avidly sought after by the city's patrons.

Naples—recently conquered (1442) by Alfonso I (Alfonso V of Aragon)—was a major European capital and important center for the arts. King Alfonso, called the "Magnanimous" for his generous patronage, continued the city's aggrandizement begun under the reign of the Angevin kings. Many of Europe's preeminent painters, sculptors, architects and poets found favor at the Neapolitan court. Perhaps one of the city's most recognizable historical monuments, the Castel Nuovo and it's extraordinary triumphal arch, originates from this period. Reminiscent of Classical Rome and the Medieval Capuan Gate, the Aragonese Arch is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. Continue reading

July 22, 2011

Storytelling Through Art: An Interview with Narrative Painter Aldo Lira


Aldo Lira
By Olivia Kate Cerrone
With its roots dating back to antiquity, narrative painting served as an instinctive means of storytelling for artists to breathe life into the folklore and spirituality that hallmarked a people and their culture. This brilliant means of expression continues to engage artists to this day. Drawing from mythic stories and archetypical figures appearing in Southern Italian folklore, myths, literature, film and religion, narrative painter, Aldo Lira creates haunting, vivid dreamscapes that offer a fresh, exciting take on Southern Italian culture. Educated at the New York Academy of Art, the Art Students’ League of New York and with James Childs at the Drawing Academy of the Atlantic, Mr. Lira apprenticed under a wide range of Eastern European masters at Mark Kostabi’s Chelsea painting factory in New York City. Aldo Lira’s paintings have appeared in exhibitions throughout America and in Rosario and Sante Fe, Argentina. His vision is at once unique and daring, and one fascinating in terms of technical excellence and aesthetic beauty. I recently had the great privilege of interviewing Mr. Lira about his artistic life as a narrative painter and what his art brings to the Southern Italian cultural dialogue.


Visitation I

Olivia Kate Cerrone: In a profile written for the Pacific Art League, Judy Block reveals that your life as a painter emerged after an extensive and variegated career that included working for NBC studios to servicing an educational media group in Istanbul, where you lived for five years until a severe illness prompted an unexpected return to the States. During this period of recovery and essential transformation, you decided to pursue art. Why narrative painting specifically? What aspects, if any, from your former professional life in television and film influence the creative perspective that you bring to the canvas?

Aldo Lira: I’ve always thought of painting in terms of narrative painting. I appreciate other types of painting but I’ve always had a more deep-seated and visceral response to narrative work. That’s the short answer. The expanded answer is that I think we all have an innate and deep-seated response to narrative or stories. Some contemporary researchers – the psychologist Robert Ornstein among them - have found that earlier cultures relied much more heavily on the use of narrative and storytelling for transmitting information and values than it was previously believed they did. They did so because they knew it was the most effective way to do this. Some researchers of the traditional use of stories believe that stories affect us on a level that cannot really be reached in any other way. Regarding my work in the media, I think that the TV and film experience probably had the most impact on the way I compose an image. It sharpened my awareness of how a viewer perceives and experiences an image. I became more aware of how framing an image can influence whether a viewer experiences a more subjective identification with what they’re seeing on screen or whether they have a more objective or distanced response.


Chaos and Renewal (The Last Days and Beyond)

OKC: The imaginative brilliance of your work embodies a stunning and rather unique blend of Greco-Roman archetypes, contemporary flourishes, and spiritually-inspired myths with ominous, seemingly apocalyptic undertones. From your uncanny “Strange Gifts” series to the more dark, slightly macabre “Chaos and Renewal (The Last Days and Beyond),” your characters and their stories collectively exist in a timeless, paranormal universe. As a storyteller, how do you approach a painting? How do characters and their desires emerge for you?

AL: I’m extremely visually oriented and the place that I always begin is with the formal composition of a painting. I start with rough thumbnail sketches and try to get a sense of atmosphere or mood through these. Everything else is built up from here. In Chaos and Renewal, my approach had more to do with an attempt to deal with some very basic drives or impulses in life, such as the impulse that drives some of us toward chaos or destructive tendencies. In that painting, I wanted to give visual form to the idea that we have a choice to make in any situation There were, I feel, a lot of basic, but on some level, conflicting elements juxtaposed in that painting: destructive vs. constructive drives, masculine vs. feminine, decay vs. new growth. My technical painting skills at that time were still somewhat lacking, and it was a fairly large painting: 4.5 x 6 feet. If I were to repaint that today I would handle it differently. But a lot of people have responded to that painting and I think there is a certain unique kind of energy in it.

In more recent work, I’ve tried to base the narrative on elements that seem common to many paranormal experiences, including aspects of them that seem to defy the laws of physical reality as we accept them. UFO contactee stories often involve people being levitated for example. Often these events or experiences seem to occur in remote or out-of-the-way locations and so I usually have a rural or desolate sort of setting. It seems that reactions to these experiences are somewhere between awe and terror, maybe a kind of stupefied wonderment, and I try to depict some of these feelings or reactions with the characters in my paintings.

I really like your description of the characters in my paintings: that they “collectively exist in a timeless, paranormal universe.” Actually I’m convinced that we all exist in a paranormal universe, but are unaware of it most of the time. A renowned physicist observed that our five senses filter out far more information than they let in. There’s a lot happening all around us that we are normally completely unaware of. For example, there are theories such as that of parallel universes, where multiple universes co-exist, possibly within the same physical space but on differing wavelengths or vibrational levels so that they would ordinarily not impinge on one another. But leaks or breaks could occur and this would account for a lot of otherwise puzzling phenomena.

In the artist statement that I currently use, I state the following: My paintings depict encounters between the everyday world of human existence and that of the numinous or spiritual world that intersects with it.


View of Hudson River Valley with Figure and Paranormal Activity

OKC: How might, if at all, your Italian American background influence your ideas or even the physical execution of a painting? Have you ever drawn from Italian American family stories or Southern Italian folklore for inspiration or guidance?

AL: In terms of the physical execution of a painting and just the way that a painting “feels,” I think that genetics is definitely a factor to consider. I think that in my case it has more to do with the movement within and the basic geometry of the composition, as opposed to the method used to construct a painting. There was a definite tradition in the South, particularly during the Baroque period, of a bravura approach to executing a painting. This was in marked contrast to the step-by-step, carefully constructed paintings, more typical of Northern painters. There were a number of reasons for this, both cultural factors and issues having to do with the availability of materials. While I find the paintings of this era tremendously appealing, I have not always emulated this method used to realize them and have sometimes relied on a more process-oriented, constructed approach.

It would be hard not to be influenced by the Southern Italian heritage! I think the aspects of it that have had the most impact on my work have been folklore about the early saints and the miraculous events of their lives, and the old stories from classical mythology, many of which took place in Sicily. Some of these accounts read like modern-day encounters with occupants of UFOs.

This is something I’ve tussled with internally. At times I have paid a certain amount of homage to earlier painters from Southern Italy, primarily Naples, and Spain. These are two areas that have had a tremendous mutual impact during certain periods of history. I have also looked into traditional folklore and the mythology of the region and have tried to work some of this into my paintings, but I also find this hard to do because it tends to remove or distance the viewer from the contemporary experience. It’s like putting a kind of conceptual frame around the images, or viewing through a filter. As I’ve mentioned, there are many parallels between the earlier and the contemporary accounts but there are a lot of differences too, so I have really had to think how far I wanted to remove or historicize the experience for the viewer.

While on the topics of Southern Italy and the paranormal, I read an interesting excerpt from a book written by a prominent early 20th Century folklorist, Evans-Wentz. He stated that after many years research he came to the conclusion that there were a number of sacred sites throughout Europe that were being held in trust for what he termed a future “time of wonders.” He felt that the stories of supernatural or magical beings found throughout European folklore, called by many different names, were actually guardians of these sites. He claimed that Campania was one of these regions. If he was correct then it’s not surprising that so many events of a paranormal and even miraculous nature are said to have taken place there, from the early Greek mythology all the way to the present time.


Portrait of Kara in Landscape with Celestial Phenomena

OKC: On your website, you mention how light holds a very significant, almost spiritual place in your work, which is especially true for most, if not all, of your narrative paintings. One leaves with the impression that the presence of light, so often depicted as luminous bulbs and distant bursts of explosive energy, signifies something beyond the traditional, if not archetypical meaning of light in terms of goodness and sanctity. Could you speak to this?

AL: I feel that the light signifies an experience on a deeper and perhaps more transformative level, not necessarily good or bad in a conventional sense. An experience might initially seem negative, outside the ordinary range of experiences that a person is used to, perhaps threatening. In many of the accounts that I have drawn inspiration from there is definitely an element of the terrifying. But in many instances the result over time is that a person is transformed or altered in some fundamental way, and in the long run the effect is positive. This is an aspect that occurs in most accounts of a mystical, spiritual or paranormal nature but that makes a lot of people with a contemporary mindset uncomfortable. People interested in these things often seem to want to believe that it should all be sweetness and light. That may be a comforting thought to some people but it also ignores a lot of the available data. In any case I don’t feel that this parallels events that we experience in the more mundane aspects of our lives. We are very often “put through the wringer” and imagine that we are having bad luck, whether in a job or personal affairs. However when it’s over and we look back on it we realize how much we have grown as a result of the experience.


Strange Gifts I

OKC: Process factors deeply in the creation of your paintings. On your website, you provide a generous depiction of this complex two-step procedure, essentially a layering effect that begins as a monochromatic under-painting (sometimes described as a camaieu or grissaille, depending on the color used) that is imbued with brilliant color and glossy light through a series of velatura glazes (another, darker layer of transparent paint) and scumbles (a lighter, opaque or semi-opaque coat of paint). Does this style draw from the traditional workings of Renaissance masters or is it a more personal process, one derived from the many influences you have gleaned from apprenticing with an array of American, Bulgarian and Russian masters? How important is the technical discipline and concentration of following such a process involved with the resulting creative product?

AL: I did contract work for a Chelsea-based painter during the early 2000s. He came up with concepts and hired other people to realize the actual paintings. My co-workers there had been trained in the Eastern European academies that retained the teaching methods that had been dropped in the West in favor of Modernist-inspired approaches to painting. These guys were technically amazing painters and I learned a great deal working alongside them. The experience of working in a very fast-paced factory or commercial sort of painting environment was very unique. Getting paid to sit at an easel and paint-to-order for eight to ten hours a day really sharpens one’s technical abilities. I think that working for a year in that kind of situation was easily the equivalent of five years of sitting and painting in an academic environment.

In the past, I’ve experimented with a number of what are known as indirect painting processes. At one point several years ago I did a number of paintings using a polychrome under-painting, then went back to using the more usual monochrome under-painting. In recent months however I’ve done a couple of works using the polychrome under-painting approach again and have found that it now really appeals to me, and I feel that I will be using this more extensively in the future.

For me, the technical discipline and concentration of a strongly process-oriented approach is very important. I think that there are some things that, at least for me, cannot easily be achieved with the more direct, supposedly spontaneous approach that is more common today. Although I suppose it all depends on what a painter wants to achieve. When I was a student in college there was a period when I painted using a more direct, “loose” and painterly approach. However as narrative content became more important for me, I wanted to focus more attention on that and less on strong brushwork and other formal elements. Those elements are extremely important, but I didn’t want all of the attention to be on them.


Visitation III

OKC: What are your plans or hopes for artistic projects in the future?AL: Now that I’m living in upstate NY, I have more space, and as a result, I’m working on some larger paintings. I would like to push some of the themes in my paintings even further and I’m working out ways to do this. Some of these include a different use of color, and maybe the use of multiple, sequential paintings within one frame, diptychs or triptychs. I’ve also done some studies for works in which I would use the sequence of thesis, antithesis and conclusion that was used by the ancient painters and revived during the Baroque era. I think it may be a little harder to do this with the sensibilities of a contemporary audience but we’ll see.

OKC: Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your experiences. Any last thoughts?

AL: I would like to say that I really appreciate what John Napoli is doing with Il Regno. There is a lot of forgotten history in the Southern Italian past, as there is in Southern Europe as a whole. After many centuries of being the wealthiest and most developed nations in Europe, beginning in the late 1600s, these nations went into a period of decline (which is very likely temporary since there have been previous periods of decline and recovery). There has been a lot of rewriting and revisionism of the history of the region, and the average person pretty much has their ideas of what happened from television and Hollywood--two sources which have, for the most part, presented inaccurate information. Historians specializing in various aspects of Mediterranean history know what really happened, and are aware of the debt owed to the region not just by contemporary Europeans and the West in general, but by the entire planet. In addition, John is presenting information on the contributions made by Southern Italians throughout US history. So, thank you John, and please keep up the fantastic work!

Photos courtesy of Aldo Lira
You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at olivia.cerrone@gmail.com

July 21, 2011

Salvator Rosa

Self portrait, Salvator Rosa 
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Aldo Lira
“Painter, Poet, Musician, Philosopher, and Patriot, he combined in his fine organisation the supreme elements of high art, with the noblest instincts of intellectual humanity. He worked through his great vocation with a spirit of independence that never quailed, and with unflinching resistance to the persecutions of despotism and the intrigues of professional rivalry. His moral dignity refused to pander to the licentious tastes of the profligate times in which he flourished, and, in this respect superior to many of his great predecessors, he left not one picture that,
‘_dying, he might blush to own,’ while he exhibited in his great historical compositions, "The Death of Regulus" and "The Conspiracy of Catiline," a graphic eloquence which Herodotus and Gibbon have scarcely surpassed.”
The above paragraph, from the Life and Times of Salvator Rosa by Lady Sydney Morgan, published in 1824, is only one of many lofty and effusive tributes paid to Salvator Rosa during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries by the artists, intellectuals and literati of the time. Who was Salvator Rosa and what did he do to inspire such admiration more than 150 years after his death? Continue reading

July 20, 2011

Just One More Thing, Sir

Memorial for Actor Peter Falk

Peter Michael Falk as
Lt. Frank Columbo, LAPD


"He was truly one of the
all-time great TV cops. There will never be
another one like him.”
– Los Angeles Police Department spokesman: June 26th, 2011

The news of actor Peter Falk’s death was hardly surprising to me; it had been reported months earlier he was rapidly succumbing to that most dreadful of maladies, Alzheimer’s Dementia. Nevertheless, seeing the news in print gave me a gnawing feeling in my gut, the type I get whenever someone close to me passes on. As I get older that feeling is coming with a distressful, increasing regularity.

Though I never met the man, in a way he was close to me. Scanning his filmography (I love the Internet) it’s hard to find a movie he was in I haven’t seen. Likewise, more than a few of his TV appearances are familiar to me. Such is the one big plus of the boob tube. I watched him age on the small screen, even as I aged.

Falk was a multi-faceted actor. Drama and comedy did he both, but his forte appeared to be gangster roles. Whether it was playing the ambitious mobster Guy Gisborne in the “Rat Pack” musical Robin and the 7 Hoods to his starring role as bank robber Tony Pino in the film The Brink’s Job (1978), he consistently won praise from critics and filmgoers alike. It was in his first major film appearance (as the sociopathic mob assassin Abe Reles) in the movie Murder, Inc (1960) he demonstrated his aptitude in the genre. For this unforgettable role he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. One of the two nominations he would receive in his lifetime (the other as lovable gangster Joy Boy in the comedy Pocketful of Miracles (1961)).

Peter Falk would not allow himself to be typecast as a gangster, though, lovable or otherwise. Included in his résumé is a memorable role as a cop-hating cab driver in the slapstick comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) as well as a standout performance as quasi-insane husband/father Nick Longhetti in the psychodrama A Woman Under the Influence (1974). He also gave a particularly warm portrayal of the Grandfather/Narrator in the cult classic A Princess Bride (1987).

The role of his life, however, the one that would forever secure for him a page in the annals of entertainment history, was his portrayal of the legendary TV LAPD homicide detective Lt. Columbo in the eponymous television film series. Though he did not originate the role, he was the first to bring it to the small screen as a regularly recurring one, and it was he who would forever be associated with the part.

The role was a departure for him, and American mass media, in a number of ways. For Falk it was not his first time starring in a tv series (he had previously starred in the short-lived The Trials of O’Brien) but it was his first successful one. While he never won a coveted Oscar in his entire movie career, the part of Lt. Columbo would garner for him a total of 4 Emmys!

For American mass media, it would represent one of the earliest (and perhaps, most famous) instances in which a character of Southern Italian heritage (Columbo is a Sicilian surname) was shown both in a positive light and completely free of the ethnic stereotypes usually heaped upon members of our ethnos. Though Peter Falk was not Italian (he was an Ashkenazi Jew with roots across Eastern Europe), his short stature (5’6”) and brunet complexion plus his excellent acting skills made him more than acceptable for the part.

No attempt was made to hide Lt. Columbo’s Southern Italian heritage, either. My favorite example of this occurred in the episode entitled Any Old Port in a Storm (1973) starring famed English actor Donald Pleasence as fratricidal murderer Adrian Carsini. When first meeting Carsini and learning of his Northern Italian heritage, Columbo quipped, “I hear they make them blond up there!” In another episode he made mention of the fact his boyhood hero was Joe DiMaggio, another Sicilian.

Lt. Columbo was a character worthy of the pen of an Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle. This fact was not lost on Peter Falk, who once jokingly referred to Columbo as an “ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes.” His disheveled, shabby appearance plus his seemingly slow-witted demeanor in fact masked the mind of a brilliant criminologist! The conceit of the character, of course, is that Joe Sixpack (personified by Columbo) gets to lock horns with the rich, famous and powerful, eventually bringing them to justice. Would that life imitated art.

Lt. Columbo’s strategy was simply to use his apparent inferiority to disarm his adversaries, lulling them into a false sense of security while he moved in for the kill. He used no gun. He was definitely not a ladies’ man! He drove no sports car; in fact, his car was a jalopy! Yet from the time the murder was first committed you knew it was only a matter of time before Columbo got his man (or woman). The only question was how.

In several episodes Lt. Columbo’s high intelligence was explicitly mentioned. The best example of this was in the episode entitled The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (1977). In this episode a murderous embezzler who was a genius in his own right (played by actor Theodore Bikel), learns too late the deceptively dullard detective was in fact his intellectual equal.

Peter Falk admitted he brought more than a little of himself into the part, which he understandably came to love dearly. Lt. Columbo’s trademark old raincoat was in fact Falk’s personal property! Like Columbo, Falk (by his own admission) was a slob. Going by what’s been written and said about him since his death, like Columbo, he was apparently a lovable one, too. Like Columbo, though, there was a lot more to actor Peter Falk than met the eye. Unlike most Hollywood actors, who usually stop with a secondary school education, Falk had a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University. He also worked for a time as an efficiency expert for the Budget Bureau of the state of Connecticut.

Perhaps his greatest personal triumph was his overcoming a physical handicap. At the age of three he had his right eye removed due to a retinoblastoma. He wore a glass eye for the remainder of his life. He never let it stand in his way. When he first started acting his agent told him, “Of course, you won’t be able to work in movies or TV because of your eye.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Law enforcement agencies across the country heaped praise upon Columbo, which they felt was more realistic than the flashier weekly dramas that showed everybody and their mothers solving murders (except, of course, for the police). The show was also popular internationally, being shown in a total of 26 countries. It was especially popular in France, Bulgaria and (believe it or not) Iran!

A Columbo series of books adapted from the TV series were also published, as were a series of novels written by William Harrington.

How sad then such a great actor came to such a horrible end. In 2007 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Dementia. On June 23rd of this year he died at the age of 83. Before this, though, the disease had robbed him of the accumulated memories of a lifetime.

Peter Michael Falk, for the many years of viewing pleasure you gave me, I say “Thank you.” For your legendary portrayal of a positive Southern Italian TV character who achieved icon status, I say “Bless you.” I, for one, will miss you.

Niccolò Graffio

Further reading:

July 18, 2011

A look at the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and San Paolino 2011



Thousands of spectators descend on Williamsburg, Brooklyn,
for the celebration

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

A hundred men carry the giglio in the sweltering heat

A labor of love and devotion

The memory of the heroes killed on 9/11 were evoked

Santa Lucia of Siracusa inside the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

July 16, 2011

Titan of the South: Vincenzo Gemito

Il Pescatore at the Museo Civico in the Maschio Angioino, Napoli
A year before his death the great Neapolitan sculptor Vincenzo Gemito wrote, "If the artist lacks knowledge of the past, he will never be able to make masterpieces." (1) As with art, this rule also applies to people. Without historical memory there is no shared identity or vision. This is why we study our history and keep our ancestral folk traditions alive. A people cut off from their past are enervated. Those who don't know their history will never be able to fulfill their destiny. Gemito's genius is a source of inspiration and a reminder of the potential that is still in us.


Vincenzo Gemito was born in Naples on July 16th 1852. Abandoned at the wheel of the Santissima Annunziata by his mother, with only his ear pierced for protection against the evil eye (Jettatura), the charitable sisters of the foundling hospital took him in and named him Vincenzo after a nearby piazza. The child was given the surname Gemito, meaning “to whimper”, because of the pitiable mewling sounds he made.

An excerpt from Ferdinando Russo’s (1866-1927) poem, The Wheel at the Annunciation reveals the pervasiveness of child abandonment at the time:
Night and day one went and another came;
never did that wheel ever tire!
It turned always... always it turned and turned... (2)
Giuseppe and Giuseppina Baratta, a poor couple grieving the recent loss of their infant son, adopted him on July 30th. A former monk, Giuseppe worked as a house painter, but died when Gemito was only six-years-old. To help support his foster mom the young scugnizzo sold coffee in the streets. Giuseppina eventually married Francesco Jadicicco, another poor house painter, with whom Gemito had a loving relationship. He affectionately referred to his new stepfather as Masto Ciccio.

The boy worked with Francesco as a house painter until the age of nine when he became an assistant to the sculptor Emanuele Caggiano (1837-1905). Astounded by the boy's natural ability, Caggiano encouraged Gemito to pursue further art instruction. In 1864 Gemito enrolled into the Real Istituto di Belle Arti (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) where he became lifelong friends with the Roman painter Antonio Mancini. Together they studied in the workshop of Stanislao Lista (1824-1908), a prominent artist whose realistic style significantly influenced contemporary Neapolitan sculpture. Continue reading

Testa di ragazzo at the Museo Civico in the Maschio Angioino, Napoli

July 11, 2011

A look at "Old Puglia"

By Giovanni di Napoli 
"It is clear that the God of the Jews did not know Puglia, or He would not have given His people Palestine as the Promised Land." — Emperor Frederick II (quoted from Old Puglia)
In the conclusion of my critique of Norman Douglas' Siren Land (Dodo 2008), I stated my desire for books "that not only reveal the tragedy behind the Risorgimento, its aftermath and true legacy, but also expose the fallacies of books like Siren Land." I wrote this, of course, before reading Old Puglia: A Portrait of South Eastern Italy by Desmond Seward and Susan Mountgarret (Haus Publishing 2009), a wonderfully informative book that more than satisfies my requests.

The book's title, Old Puglia, appears to be an allusion to Douglas' other Southern Italian travelogue, Old Calabria, written in 1915. Far from a tribute to the British literary traveller, the authors refer to Douglas as "a deplorable figure, a sponger and a paedophile," but admit (as do I) that he is also "undeniably amusing and learned." (Old Puglia, p. 11)

Besides having similar titles, both books extensively quote the musings of earlier travelers. This, however, is where the similarities stop. Douglas rambled through a destitute South during the height of Italian emigration and, keeping with the lies and misinformation of the Southern Question, blamed the region's backwardness on the previous Bourbon and Spanish rulers. Seward and Mountgarret on the other hand, travelled through a relatively "fashionable" region and hold the Risorgimento primarily responsible for the South's recent troubles.

In the Forward they write: "The Risorgimento of 1860 was far from being a 'liberation'. During the late nineteenth century, new speculator landlords reduced Apulian laborers to near slavery, one in ten leaving after the Second World War." (Old Puglia, xvi) Again later, while discussing the history of Andria, an ancient town on the eastern slopes of the Murgia plateau, they note:
"The dying King Ferdinand II stayed at Andria in January 1859, apparently in the Carafa palace. He was on his way to Bari, inspecting Apulia for the last time, and came here to see the San Ferdinando agricultural colony. Very much a benevolent despot, the king had established the colony over twenty years before as a refuge for laborers whom he had forcibly evicted from the Barletta salt marshes, to save them from the lethal malaria. In contrast to Ferdinand's paternal approach, the Risorgimento would bring poverty and despair." (Old Puglia, p. 71)
Far from perfect, especially after the chaos of the Republican interlude, the Bourbon record is not above scrutiny. However, I was more than a little surprised to read something other than the usual less-than-flattering rumors about them. Especially because, as we all know, the winners write the history books and the Bourbons serve as a convenient scapegoat for the failures of the House of Savoy and Italian unification. To their enemies no atrocity was beyond them, consider Henry Nelson Ferrybridge's spurious Naples and Sicily Under the Bourbons, A Series of Sketches (Nabu Press, 2010) which erroneously claims that King Ferdinand I dashed his newborn grandson on the ground when his daughter-in-law, Archduchess Maria Clementina of Austria requested the release of Luisa Sanfelice, a female political prisoner sentenced to death for treason. (p. 101-102)

Harold Acton reports the incident in his Bourbons of Naples (Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1957), simply saying there are several versions of the story. He does quote General Pietro Colletta's account: "the King threw the baby back on its mother's pillow and left the room without another word", which is a far cry from Ferrybridge's description. Acton goes on to tell us how the "news of the Prince's birth and orders for public rejoicings" were brought to Naples and how "Political propagandists made a martyr of this ill-starred light of love [Sanfelice]. Truth was so blended with fiction that fiction prevailed." (p. 434)

In fact, throughout Seward and Mountgarret's book the Bourbons are portrayed as benevolent tyrants, which runs counter to almost everything we ever read about their regime in popular studies. Part XIV of Old Puglia, entitled "Risorgimento?" deserves special attention, particularly the chapter, The Death of the Regno:
"King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies died on 22 May, 1859, two months after his last visit to Bari. His death paved the way for the Risorgimento. Nowhere would he be more regretted than in Apulia where, like Emperor Frederick and King Manfred, he had hunted in the forests. If he did not build castles, he keenly encouraged New Bari's development, besides giving Apulian titles to three of his sons, the Counts of Bari, Trani and Lucera.

"Nicknamed 'Bomba' for supposedly threatening to shell rebels into submission, a lie spread by enemies, Ferdinand was hated by Liberals. He kept the absolute monarchy he had inherited, imprisoning his opponents. Mr. Gladstone described his government as 'the negation of God', conveniently ignoring England's own prison-hulks and record in Ireland. Yet no Southern ruler has been more popular. ...A Southerner to his fingertips, who spoke and thought in Neapolitan dialect, and whose staple diet was pasta, he always listened to petitions, granting generous pensions. If he was superstitious, making St. Ignatius a field-marshal on full pay, so were his subjects.

"Under his firm rule, the South prospered. Despite lower taxes than other Italian states, it had more money in circulation than any, with the biggest gold reserves; 443 million in gold lire in 1859 compared with Piedmont's 27 million. In the same year the Royal Navy of the Two Sicilies included ninety-five steam ships, far more than Britain's Royal navy, though admittedly most of them were tiny. His government built the first Italian railways, steamships, electric telegraph and lenticular lighthouse. Dockyards at Naples and Bari were the most modern in the peninsula. So were the new roads. 'Anybody who avoided subversive politics enjoyed complete freedom and could do what he liked', Giacinto De Sivo wrote in 1868, 'Countless foreigners prospered so much that they settled here', he adds bitterly. 'Then Gladstone came and ruined us ... unbelievable calumnies were repeated in newspapers all over the world.’

"The men of the Risorgimento had once hoped Ferdinand would become King of Italy, but he refused, from respect for the rights of other Italian sovereigns, especially for those of the Pope. Had he lived longer and, however unwillingly, granted a constitution and Sicilian autonomy, the South might have been much happier. But he died at forty-nine from a mysterious disease – probably diabetes – which, characteristically, he ascribed to the Evil Eye." (Old Puglia, p. 395-397)
A little further on the authors provide a glimpse of the brief, but tragic reign of King Francis II (Ferdinand's successor) and Garibaldi's invasion:
"In April, however, Garibaldi landed in Sicily where Palermo had risen in revolt. The late king had put down an earlier Sicilian rising and would certainly have known how to deal with this one, but his twenty-two year old son, Francis II, did not.... After Garibaldi overran Sicily in May, Francis granted a constitution, only hastening the regime's collapse.

"Many Southerners lost confidence in their inexperienced young king. When Garibaldi landed on the mainland in August a handful of liberals tried to start risings, supported by a few business men eager for new markets in the North and by peasants who hoped naively that the great estates would be shared out. Foggia declared for Garibaldi, but in Bari and the other Apulian cities royalist mobs routed similar demonstrations.

"In September King Francis abandoned Naples to Garibaldi, withdrawing to the fortress city of Gaeta to concentrate his troops. Piedmont, saddled with an astronomical national debt, realised that it could take over the rich Southern kingdom. In October a Piedmontese army invaded the Regno, occupying Naples and besieging Gaeta, bribing generals and officials. Even the most loyal despaired and at the end of the month, in a carefully rigged plebiscite, Apulians voted with the rest of the South for 'unity.'" (Old Puglia, p. 397-398)
To some the Risorgimento's sacred tenants (as with other secular religions) are beyond reproach, but Seward and Mountgarret offer a more sober assessment of the nineteenth century political and social movement for Italian unification:
"The Risorgimento must be judged by its fruits, and for Apulia they were very bitter indeed. Far from improving conditions, the destruction of the ancient Regno made them much worse, just as de Sivo claimed. ...Few dreams have ended in such disillusionment as the Risorgimento did for the Mezzogiorno. Too late, Southern Italy realised that, far from being liberated, it was the victim of another Northern conquest, by arrogant invaders who sneered that 'Africa begins south of Rome.' The Duke of Maddaloni (head of the great Carafa family) protested in the new Italian parliament, 'This is invasion, not annexation, not union. We are being treated like an occupied country.' That was what the death of the Regno meant to Apulia." (Old Puglia, p. 398-399)
The authors close the chapter with a sentiment shared by many Southerners today:
"If brought up to date politically, the Borbone monarchy could have offered the Mezzogiorno a chance of becoming a self-governing, prosperous Southern Italy. Instead, the Risorgimento handed over the South to Northern asset-strippers, to be misgoverned from a far away capital. What had been a prosperous country soon became an economic slum in which the Apulians suffered as much as anybody. Some of them, however, were not going to give up without a fight." (Old Puglia, p. 399)
The next two chapters — The Brigands' War and A War of Extermination — go on to describe the violent conquest of the seven hundred year old Regno by the Piedmontese invaders and the stubborn resistance offered by Southern loyalists. I was very interested to learn that Spanish Carlists joined the struggle on the side of the South and read with horror about the atrocities committed by the combatants. "The cruelties of the Piedmontese armies to the Neapolitan royalists," wrote the Earl of Malmesbury, "were unsurpassed in any civil war." Anyone unfamiliar with the true story of Italian unification and is looking for more than the orthodox version should read these chapters. They are a real eye opener.

I would like to point out that despite my focus on the Risorgimento, Old Puglia is not a Bourbon apology. According to the authors the project began as a travel book, but because "almost nothing about the region has been published in English since the days of Norman Douglas and the Sitwells" they decided "to fill the gap by providing a simple readable account." (Old Puglia, xiii-xiv) They accomplished this with great success. The book is packed with many fascinating and memorable anecdotes normally left out of other histories, including captivating narratives about Paolo di Ribeco's uprising in Bari, King Ferrante's coronation at Barletta and the duel at Ostuni between Count Cosmo and Duke Petracone Caracciolo. I especially enjoyed the story about Don Cirò and his murderous cadre of revolutionaries who were hunted down and executed by the Bourbon Colonel Richard Church and his corps of Greek and Swiss irregulars.

I highly recommend Old Puglia; it is well written, very entertaining and filled with a wealth of information. My only criticism (if you can call it that) is that 420 pages were not enough. I wanted more! Now I wish someone will write the story of "Old Campania," "Old Basilicata," "Old Molise," and the rest of Southern Italy with the same erudition and passion Seward and Mountgarret did for Puglia.