November 21, 2017

Risorgimento Lecture and Plaque Unveiling at the Italian American Museum

Prof. Eric J. Ierardi with standard of the Guardia D'Onore
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Curiosity got the better of me Thursday evening (Nov. 9th) and I decided to attend the “Risorgimento” lecture and dedication of a bronze plaque in honor of Il Padre della Patria, King Vittorio Emanuele II, at the Italian American Museum. Sponsored by the Guardia D’Onore* (Guard of Honor) and the American Foundation of Savoy Orders, I was not hopeful for an upfront discussion about this controversial period of history.
Sadly, due to an unfortunate accident, the original speaker could not make it so Prof. Eric J. Ierardi filled in for him. Perhaps I’m too polite, but seeing as how Prof. Ierardi read from a prepared speech, and admitted he wasn’t an expert on the subject, I didn’t think it expedient to blindside him with condemnation and refutations. However, when I did voice my dissatisfaction to Dr. Joseph Scelsa, President of the Italian American Museum, to his credit he immediately offered us an opportunity to present our side of the story at a future date.
First of all, I would like to say the representatives of The Guards were genteel and friendly. I have nothing against them personally—in fact, I can easily see myself discussing history and politics over a beer with them—we just don’t see eye-to-eye about certain aspects of the Risorgimento and the Italian nation.
For the most part the lecture was simply rehashing the official history of Italian Unification; e.g. the origin of the name Italy (Vitalia, or “Calf-land”) originates in Calabria; the Battle of Magenta was fought on June 4, 1859; the first capital of Italy was Turin; and statues of the King still stand in many Italian cities. All of which is true. I don’t even have a problem with them calling King Vittorio Emanuele II Il Padre della Patria (Father of the Fatherland), after all, there is no Italy without him. The problem is Vittorio Emanuele II was not a very good father. I see him more like the Titan Kronos who devoured his children than a respected father figure.
(L) The Hon. Carl J. Morelli, Chairman of the Board of the American Foundation of the Savoy Order, and (r) Prof. Ierardi unveil the bronze plaque with Dr. Scelsa
I don’t begrudge others their opinions, but I do take umbrage with some of the unfounded accusations bandied about; for example referring to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies as a corrupt state that needed Garibaldi to invade and liberate it. Despite repeating a thoroughly discredited trope of southern Italy as backwards and oppressed, for the life of me I cannot see how someone can say in the same breath that the Neapolitan Bourbons were corrupt (without citing a single example), then praise Cavour and Mazzini for conspiring with the French and inciting riots in Lombardy (which at the time was part of the Austrian Empire) and the Papal States.
The ingrained bias against southern Italy was clear, not even the "hated" Austrians were mentioned in such disparaging terms. Apparently, these fabrications are necessary to legitimize the conquest and annexation of a foreign sovereign state. For someone like me, who is a proud Duesiciliano American and does not identify with being Italian, the Unification of Italy is not something to be celebrated.
Where Prof. Ierardi did shine, however, was his knowledge and zeal for the Guardia D’Onore. Taking great pride in their function as honor guard, whose duty it is to protect the tombs of the Royal Family at the Pantheon in Rome and elsewhere, he laments the lack of interest from young people and the aging of its membership. A way too common complaint these days among religious and traditional associations, they are not alone in facing this daunting dilemma.
(L) Table with Guard literature and flag.
(R) Detail of plaque showing historic medallion
The plaque unveiling ceremony itself was short and sweet, and the handful of attendees seemed pleased. While I don’t care much for the King’s visage, admittedly the workmanship of the bronze medallion affixed to the tablet was top-notch. Since the museum will be undergoing massive renovations in the near future, the plaque will not be displayed until its grand reopening.
Despite the current iconoclast climate running rampant across the nation, I would not like to see the monument destroyed by an irate mob or an overzealous ideologue. Even though it is an unpleasant historical reminder, it serves as a historical record. Frankly, the medallion is right where it belongs, in a museum where current and future generations of Italian Americans can openly discuss and debate this period of their history.  
* The United States Delegation of L'Istituto Nazionale per la Guardia d'Onore alle Reali Tombe del Pantheon