February 28, 2013

Announcing the 72nd Annual Feast of Sant'Antonio da Padova, Elmont, Long Island

Viva Sant'Antonio!
(Photo courtesy of Marcantonio Pezzano)
Outdoor Feast
June 14th – June 17th
Sponsored by the Saint Anthony da Padova Benevolent Association of Long Island

St. Anthony Chapel
(Villa Umberto)
90 Meachum Avenue
Elmont, Long Island,
New York 11003

• Italian entertainment
nightly (7:30 PM)
• June 16th – Procession from St. Anthony chapel (11:00 AM)

St. Catherine of Siena Church
33 New Hyde Park Road
Franklin Square, NY 11010
(516) 352-0146

• Vespers begin
on June 1st (8:00 PM)
• June 16th – Mass (10:00 AM)

* All schedules and activities are subject to change, so please check with organizers for any updates.

For more information contact italo61@aol.com

February 25, 2013

The Good Italian

Benedetto Croce: The “Soul” of Italy
Benedetto Croce
By Niccolò 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. Continue reading

February 24, 2013

Titan of the South: Il Cavaliere Calabrese

Mattia Preti, the Knight from Calabria
Pilate Washing His Hands by Mattia Preti
Photo 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. Continue reading

February 23, 2013

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 thatThe 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. Continue reading

February 22, 2013

Announcing the Societá Gioventú Quagliettana's 2013 Festa di San Rocco, Queens, NY

Viva San Rocco!
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
August 24, 2013

Come venerate glorious Saint Rocco at the Societá Gioventú Quagliettana's Annual Festa di San Rocco at St. Rocco's Place (37-04 28th Ave) in Astoria, Queens.

There will be both a Mass and Procession.

Societá Gioventú Quagliettana
3704 28th Avenue
Between 37 and 38 Streets
Astoria, Queens, NY 11103

* All schedules and activities are subject to change, so please check with organizers for any updates.

For more Information call (718) 626-6688 or visit The Societá Gioventú Quagliettana on Facebook.

Also see:

February 16, 2013

Olivia Kate Cerrone at the Gloucester Writers Center

Alfred Zappala at the Italian American Museum

The Italian American Museum Cordially invites you to attend a special presentation by Sicilian American Lawyer, Writer and Professor ALFRED M. ZAPPALA, ESQ.

Please join us as Alfred Zappala presents his new book, Figghiu Beddu (Beautiful Child). The book, which is the third Alfred has written on Sicily, details his travels throughout Sicily and the unique treasures that the island has to offer.

The book also introduces The Sicilian Project which was founded by Alfred in 2011 as an initiative to bring English language classes to Sicilian students.  Prior to the formation of The Sicilian Project, the teaching of English in Sicily was nonexistent or vastly inferior to the teaching of English in other parts of Europe.  Alfred will speak in detail about The Sicilian Project and its goals going forward.   

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 (6:30PM)
Italian American Museum
155 Mulberry Street
(Corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets)
New York, NY 10013

Suggested donation of $10

PLEASE RESERVE EARLY  
To reserve a place for this event, please call the
Italian American Museum at (212) 965-9000 or

For more information please visit www.alfredzappala.com

To the Shores of Tripoli

The Story of the Unsung Hero of the First Barbary War
Burning of the frigate USS Philadelphia
in the harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804,
by Edward Moran, painted 1897
By Niccolò Graffio
“It would be unjust of me, were I to pass over the important services rendered by Mr. Salvatore Catalano, on whose conduct the success of the enterprise in the greatest degree depended.” – Lt. Stephen Decatur: writing in his official report on the burning of thePhiladelphia; February, 1804.
Piracy is an ancient plague of mariners and coastal-dwelling peoples. For as long as men have taken to the seas in the name of commerce there have been those who have taken it upon themselves to prey upon them. The earliest mentions of pirates in history are found in the chronicles of the ancient Egyptians who spoke of the depredations of the “Sea Peoples” which disrupted the shipping lanes of the Eastern Mediterranean in the 13th century BC. Continue reading

February 15, 2013

The Roman Lupercalia, an Ancient Tradition

Dancing Faun
Casa del Fauno, Pompeii
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Lucian

The Lupercalia was a Roman holiday that was celebrated on February 15th and 16th. A holiday within a holiday, it began on the second day of the Roman Parentalia, which focused on honoring and appeasing ancestral spirits. Both the Parentalia and Lupercalia dealt with the concept of spiritual purification, a common motif in ancient rituals but found especially around February in Greco-Roman culture. Some even claim that the Lupercalia is the origin of St. Valentine’s day.

One of the oldest recorded pagan holidays, the Lupercalia is thought to predate even Rome itself. Because of its age, widespread popularity and resilience it is difficult to definitively say which gods it was associated with. There is evidence pointing toward Faunus/Pan, and even Bacchus or Juno, but in all likelihood the rituals were originally related to the more primitive animism that predated Roman urbanization and continued to remain in rural areas throughout the Roman Empire. Roman mythology credits the Arcadian Greek hero Evander with instituting Lupercalia in Pallantium decades before the Trojan War, on a site that would later become part of the city of Rome. It was finally suppressed by Pope Gelasius I in the 5th Century A.D. It was so popular that at the time many people who were nominally Christian were still celebrating it.

The original ritual was performed on Palatine Hill in Rome, but spread throughout both Northern and Southern Italy and the rest of the empire with Rome’s expansion. It was even celebrated in Greece, especially after the capital was moved to Constantinople. The themes of the rite were fertility and spiritual purification. The ceremony began in a cave (Lupercal) at the foot of the hill and involved the sacrifice of goats and a dog. The blood of the goat was smeared on the foreheads of chosen young men (luperci) then washed off with milk by priests, the men were then required to laugh at the priests. After drinking wine the young men, clad only in goatskin loincloths, would chase and whip willing young women with ceremonial goatskin thongs. It was thought that the women would be blessed with fertility, so they would bare their shoulders or hands in hopes of being touched this way.

Candlemas
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Another ritual involved the placement of young women’s names in a box. Young men would then pick a name from the box and the two would be “paired” until the next year. The joining was not supposed to be binding, but it was hoped that the young people would get to know each other and consider the possibility of marriage in the future. In later times the Church attempted to replace the names with that of saints and the young people were supposed to emulate them. The new version of the ritual wasn’t as popular, and young men were said to give love notes on this day to the girls they liked in order to get around the new rules, hence the alleged connection to St. Valentines Day. Some medieval sources claim that the name choosing rites were from Lupercalia, but critics claim that the name choosing ritual was from the middle-ages and not related to the classical era. In this particular case, the critics do have some compelling arguments.

There is also a claim that Lupercalia was replaced by the Feast of the Purification of St. Mary, also called Candlemas, which occurs on February 2nd. Again, there are critics who passionately refute this, but as even amateur historians know about the connection between purification and the month of February in pagan Rome, it seems inevitable that such speculation would occur regardless of whether or not it was true.

Plaster relief of Faun
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Historically it was common for new religions to demonize the religions they replaced, even as they absorbed some of their elements. Sometimes traditions from the old religion that were conveniently accepted for centuries were banned when one of the popes felt that their usefulness had run its course. The connection of Lupercalia to wolves was clear and the image of the god Faunus (Pan) was also commonly used to represent Lucifer or a fallen angel, so it is no surprise that during the suppression of Lupercalia the Church associated it with demon worship and werewolves.

If we take a step back from the conflicts between the old and new religions, and look at what the common folk were celebrating and praying for in February, we will see them asking for bountiful harvests, many healthy children and protection for their families and flocks. Throughout the ages, our people have asked for the same things.

To me, the Lupercalia, St. Valentines Day and Candlemas are all familiar, they all feel right. Whether it is because they reflect my ancestral soul or simply appeal to my subconscious emotional needs, I cannot say. What is certain is that these rituals have continued in some form for hundreds or even thousands of years. Aside from their spiritual aspects, that sort of resilience alone makes them special.

References:
Chauser and the Cult of St. Valentine, by Henry Ansgar Kelly ISBN 9004078495, 9789004078499
• The Religious Experience of the Roman People, by W. Warde Fowler M.A. published 1911, reprinted 1971. ISBN 0-8154-0372-0
• Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome by Cyril Bailey, published 1932, reprinted 1972 ISBN 0-8371-4759-X 
• Taboo, Magic, Spirits A Study of Primitive Elements in Roman Religion, by Eli Edward Burriss, published 1931, reprinted 1972 & 1974, ISBN 0-8371-4724-7
• "More to Explore" by Mary Jennings, National Geographic Magazine, January 2005

February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day (Lupercalia)

Perseus and Andromeda
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
In the spirit of Valentine's Day I'm posting Donn'Amaliá A Speranzella,(1) a poem by the great Neapolitan poet Salvatore Di Giacomo (b. 1860–d. 1934). The accompanying photo of Perseus and Andromeda was taken at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Some believe Saint Valentine's Day sprung from the Roman Lupercalia (Feb. 15th), an ancient festival of purification and fertility.

Donn'Amaliá A Speranzella

Donn'Amaliá a Speranzella,
When she dips a leavened batter,
a golden fry fills the pot.
Donn'Amaliá a Speranzella.

How adorable that pert nose,
so uppity over ranges,
That voice is sweet as a cherub's,
in firelight those lovely eyes
mirror copper pans and borage.

Just once, to get her attention,
I will risk my poor lovelorn me,
Yes, I shall become a small fish,
I'll roll myself in the flour,
and reaching for her dimpled hand,
I will throw myself in the pot!
Donn'Amaliá a Speranzella!

(1) Poem reprinted from The Naples of Salvatore Di Giacomo: Poems and a Play, translated by Frank J. Palescandolo, Forum Italicum, Inc., 2000, page 61)

February 13, 2013

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 Niccoló 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. Continue reading

February 12, 2013

Announcing the 89th Annual Santa Lucia Festival in Omaha, NE

Viva Santa Lucia!
Photo courtesy of 
Santa Lucia Festival Omaha, NE
The 2013 Santa Lucia Festival will take place Thursday, June 6th through Sunday, June 9th.

Lewis and Clark Landing
515 N Riverfront Dr.
Omaha, NE 68102

Free Admission!

Enjoy traditional Mass and Procession honoring Santa Lucia, fine Italian food, wine, beer garden, live entertainment, rides, games and more.

For more information please visit the Santa Lucia Festival Committee on Facebook or at their website santaluciafestival.com

February 10, 2013

Shadows Across My Screen

Elvira Notari and the Suppression of Southern Italian Cinematic Culture

Elvira and Nicola Notari
(Photo courtesy of http://geco.blog.rai.it)
By Niccoló Graffio
“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” – George Orwell (As quoted in My Few Wise Words of Wisdom by Charles Walker, 2000)
If one seeks to create a new nation out of pre-existing peoples, mythology becomes important.  Mythology, whether of a religious, philosophical or historical nature, can serve as a glue to bind together otherwise disparate elements in a society.  It is not enough to simply create this mythology; one must also propagate and inculcate it into the masses to the point where it is accepted unquestionably by the majority.  In times past this fell to the priests of whatever religion served the rulers of the polity.  Nowadays, it is the responsibility of those who walk the halls of Academia and the mass media.

The mythology thus created inevitably serves the dominant elements of that society at the expense of the subordinate ones.  The Sardinian Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci referred to this as “cultural hegemony”.  A point that is crucial to the understanding of this phenomenon is that the mythology can have and often does contain a number of factual components.  This is necessary, otherwise it becomes easy for critics of the ruling elite to debunk it and by extension the legitimacy of that society’s rulers. Continue reading

February 9, 2013

Feast of San Sabino of Avellino

Viva San Sabino!
February 9th is the Feast of San Sabino di Avellino, Bishop of Abellinum and patron of Atripalda. To commemorate the occasion, I'm posting a Prayer to San Sabino.(1) The accompanying photo of the Saint was taken at Saint Lucy's Church, National Shrine of Saint Gerard in Newark, New Jersey.

Prayer to Saint Sabino

Lean down from Heaven our great protector St. Sabino, who from amongst all cities chose Atripalda as your last abode and final resting place. Here your holy bones still exude precious manna that assures us of your presence with us for all time. You have given your people copious graces and all who invoke your powerful name. We beg you, keep far from us all the divine punishments, render our fields fertile, keep the contagion of disease far from us, save us from earthquake and protect us from every evil, especially the evil of sin. Abundantly rain down your blessings upon us and our brothers who are far from us in America. Amen. 

(1) The Prayer to Saint Sabino was reprinted from the placard at the base of the statue.

Remembering a Titan — Frank Frazetta

Self Portrait
By Giovanni di Napoli

For as long as I can remember, I've been drawing. One of my earliest memories was a water color painting I did of the Red Baron's triplane soaring through the sky. It was nothing special, but my parents made so much of a fuss over it that I never forgot. I was fascinated with soldiers and war and as I grew older, my pictures grew more graphic and detailed.

An early influence in my life was Frank Frazetta. I'll never forget the first time I saw his work. A friend showed me the cover of his uncle's Molly Hatchet album featuring Frazetta's "Death Dealer", a fierce warrior mounted on a nightmarish black steed. It was like an epiphany. I sought out other works by the artist, which led me to the jacket covers of several science fiction and fantasy novels, sparking my interest in the stories of Robert E. Howard (Conan) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan).

Imitating Frazetta, my own renderings became more fantastic, yet more realistic because I began to focus on anatomy. I also started to include scantily clad damsels in distress to my drawings which, predictably, got me in trouble on several occasions in Catholic elementary school.

Frazetta's images depict aesthetic beauty and unapologetic virility, and as a healthy, idealistic adolescent boy they appealed to me on some primal level. Not just pretty pictures, they served to transmit archetypical ideals—valor, strength, beauty—traditionally passed on through myths and legends. It is said a picture is worth a thousand words; Frazetta's spoke volumes to me. Continue reading

Paolo de Matteis

Andromeda and Perseus (ca. 1710) by Paolo de Matteis
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli
Paolo de Matteis was born in Piano del Cilento, near Salerno, on February 9, 1662 in the Kingdom of Naples. According to the Neapolitan biographer Bernardo De Dominici (1683-1759) the young Paolo showed great promise as a painter. His parents encouraged him, providing him with art instruction, though his father wanted him to pursue a more distinguished career in liberal arts. Brought to Naples he studied philosophy and mathematics under the guidance of some of the Kingdom's leading intellectuals, including Lionardo di Capoa and Tommaso di Cornelio. Paolo's natural talent, however, was painting and he was allowed to return to it. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

February 8, 2013

Announcing the 2013 Sons of San Paolino Giglio Feast, Franklin Square, Long Island

Feast Dates: Wednesday, June 26th through Sunday, June 30th 

For more information call the Sons of San Paolino hotline at (516) 352-2618 or visit their website at www.sanpaolino.org

February 7, 2013

Tack Tidningen Kulturen

Hypogeum Purgatory
(Photo courtesy of Tidningen Kulturen)
Il Regno would like to thank Tidningen Kulturen for reprinting our article "Enigmatic Traditions: The Neapolitan Cult of the Dead" on February 2nd, 2013. Tidningen Kulturen is a Swedish online newspaper and cultural journal.

The author was very pleased and wanted to express his appreciation.

Some new photos were used and they did a nice job with the formatting. The following is a link to the reprint in their newspaper.

February 6, 2013

The Most Glorious Voice

Rosa Ponselle

Rosa Ponselle – La Magnifica

By Niccolò Graffio
“In my lifetime there have been three vocal miracles: Caruso, Ruffo and Ponselle. Apart from these there have been several wonderful singers.” – Tullio Serafin
As documented in previous articles, our people, the children the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, have left their mark on the history of mankind in a number of ways.  We have produced prominent political figures, artists, doctors and even famous scientists.  

Of all the endeavors of mankind, however, perhaps none has felt our mark as greatly as the realm of music!  Books, TV shows and movies have been made about eminent singers and songwriters whose roots lie in Southern Italy.  We have not only produced people considered noteworthy in this regard, we have produced those who can be considered truly great!

Opera is that noble art form that combines singing, songwriting, acting and drama.  Our unmistakable fingerprint lies upon it!  Whether it is the brilliant musical score of Bellini or the beautiful tenor of Caruso, we can say with no small measure of pride that we have contributed to the betterment and perpetuation of this hallmark of classic Western Civilization.

Those of our people who attained the status of legends in the opera world would therefore qualify as “Titans of the South”!  The following gifted soprano, of humble origins who grew up to sing before kings, queens and presidents, was certainly no exception.  

Rosa Melba Ponzillo was born January 22nd, 1897 in Meriden, Connecticut.  She was the youngest of three children.  Her parents were Neapolitan immigrants from Italy.  

At an early age Rosa and her sister Carmela displayed talent as singers.  Rosa especially had an unusually mature voice for her age and was able to sing with little musical training.  Rosa’s first musical instructor was her own mother, and later a woman named Anna Ryan, a local church organist who gave her piano lessons.  In time Rosa became a piano accompanist for silent films playing in and around Meriden.

It was her sister, Carmela, however, who lured her away from a career as an instrumentalist with her own desire to become a cabaret singer.  Following the lead of her sister, Rosa would often augment her engagements by singing popular songs to delighted audiences while the projectionist would change reels.

Eventually she would give up her career as a piano player/singer and follow her sister Carmela to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where she joined her older sibling in Vaudeville.  The two were billed as The Ponzillo Sisters (or sometimes as “Those Tailored Italian Girls”) and were a success on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit.

With increased fame, however, came demands for increased fortune.  As a result their act was dropped.  The two made their way to New York City where Carmela took voice lessons.

It was Rosa, however, who would hit it big when she came to the attention of the legendary Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso who heard her sing.  Caruso was said to have been deeply impressed by the richness of her voice and arranged for her to audition for Giulio Gatti-Casazza.  Gatti-Casazza was, at that time, the director of the Metropolitan Opera.  Equally impressed with her, Gatti-Casazza offered her a contract with the Met for the 1918-19 season.

She made her operatic debut (billed as Rosa Ponselle) on November 1915, 1918 opposite Caruso himself in the challenging role of Leonora in Giuseppi Verdi’s La forza del destino.  She prepared for the role under the tutelage of Romano Romani, who would remain her voice coach and teacher for the remainder of her career.

Her performance brought the house down!  Ironically, she was nervous almost to the point of paralysis being in the presence of the great Caruso.  Though she would go on to establish an unforgettable career, stage fright would plague her the rest of her life.

She would hide this fact from her fans, who were drawn to her redoubtable voice and Mediterranean allure.  She would go on to sing a total of 19 seasons at the Met.

While most of her career was spent performing there, she also sang at Covent Garden in London (1929-30) and the Maggio Musicale in Florence (1933).  In both places audiences greeted her performances with great enthusiasm, but she decided against singing at La Scala in Milan and returned home to America.  During her tenure at the Met, she sang a total of 22 dramatic and dramatic-coloratura roles.  Among her many successes were Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon and Joseph Carl Breill’s The Legend.

The work that would establish her as a living legend, though, was her performance in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.  To this day, many music historians argue her performance was the best of this most difficult role.

In spite of her great success, she always remained acutely sensitive to criticism.  In 1935 she performed the role of Carmen for the first time at the Met.  Though audiences packed in to hear her, critics were less than positive.  Olin Downes of the New York Times wrote an especially brutal review which reportedly hurt her deeply.  

In 1936 she married Baltimore socialite Carle A. Jackson and settled just outside Baltimore, Maryland in a luxurious home she would live in the rest of her life.  By this time years of battling stage fright (and officials at the Met), plus her receding upper register, had taken their toll on Ponselle.  Rather than abruptly retire she quietly slipped away from the stage.

Rosa’s marriage to Jackson was never a good one and they divorced in 1949.  The breakup was especially traumatic for her, and she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result.  She eventually recovered, and though she never returned to the stage, she continued to sing at home for friends, who reported her voice remained as magnificent as always.  
In 1954 RCA Victor had her record a wide variety of songs, which became commercial successes. She remained busy in retirement, aiding the fledgling Baltimore Civic Opera Company by coaching and giving voice lessons to up and coming singers who performed there. Among her students were future greats Placido Domingo and Beverly Sills.

Rosa Ponselle died at her home on May 25th, 1981 aged 84, after a long battle with bone marrow cancer. She is buried in Druid Ridge Cemetery located in Pikesville, Maryland just outside the city of Baltimore, MD.

Though the bulk of people alive today would probably express ignorance at the mention of her name, to opera buffs she remains a legend. She is ranked with Dame Joan Sutherland and La Divina herself, Maria Callas, as one of the three greatest sopranos of the 20th century. She was the first American-born, American-trained opera singer to star at the Met, and she has rightfully earned herself a place alongside other Titans of the South!

Further reading:
• James A. Drake: Rosa Ponselle – A Centenary Biography; Amadeus Press, 2003

February 5, 2013

Feast of Saint Agatha of Sicily

The Martyrdom of Sant'Agata,
Maschio Angioino, Napoli
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli

February 5th is the Feast Day of Saint Agatha of Sicily, patroness of nurses, women with breast cancer and the victims of rape and torture. The protector of Catania, she is also invoked to guard against fire, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters, the potential for which is ever present in the shadow of Mt. Etna. Agatha is also the patron Saint of Malta, where it is said that her intercession saved the Maltese from a Turkish invasion in 1551. 

Born in Catania (some say Palermo) to a wealthy family, Saint Agatha devoted her life to God. Also very beautiful she was sought-after by many suitors for marriage. Taking a vow of chastity the young maiden turned down all proposals. However, when the powerful Senator Quintianus was rebuked he vindictively threatened to denounce her as a Christian for disobeying Emperor Decius' edict on religious sacrifice. Standing firm against his threats and unwanted advances Agatha was arrested and condemned to the brothels. 

Cattedrale di Sant'Agata, Catania
(Photo courtesy of Olivia Cerrone)
Tortured and beaten, young Agatha's spirit could not be broken. Instead of being violated she converted the Madam to Christianity. Angered by her obstinacy Quintianus had Agatha's breasts chopped off. Mutilated and close to death, a vision of Saint Peter miraculously healed her wounds. Still not satisfied the cruel Senator had his victim rolled over hot coals. Dragged to her cell and left to die, Agatha never wavered in her faith. With her dying breath she prayed to the Lord and thanked him for her victory over her tormentors will. She died on February 5th, 251 AD.


In Catania her feast is extremely popular and enthusiastically celebrated from February 3rd through 5th. Almost a million people converge to show their devotion and participate in the rituals. In honor of the Saint, delicious sponge cakes in the shape of her breasts are made with ricotta, chocolate and candied fruit, and have a red candied cherry on top of them.

To commemorate the occasion, I'm posting A Prayer to Saint Agatha.(1) The accompanying photos were taken at the Chapel of the Souls in Purgatory in the Maschio Angioino (Castel Nuovo), Napoli and in Catania.

Sant'Agata, Catania
(Photo courtesy of Olivia Cerrone)
A Prayer to Saint Agatha

O St. Agatha, who withstood the unwelcome advances from unwanted suitors, and suffered pain and torture for your devotion to Our Lord, we celebrate your faith, dignity and martyrdom. Protect us against rape and other violations, guard us against breast cancer and other afflictions of women, and inspire us to overcome adversity. O St. Agatha, Virgin and Martyr, mercifully grant that we who venerate your sacrifice, may receive your intercession. Amen

(1) The Prayer to Saint Agatha was reprinted from a prayer card