May 30, 2010

Mussolini’s ‘Significant Other’: Giovanni Gentile, Fascism’s Ideological Mastermind

Giovanni Gentile:
the “Philosopher of Fascism”
By Niccolò Graffio
“Philosophy triumphs easily over past, and over future evils, but present evils triumph over philosophy.” – François de La Rochefoucauld: Maxims, 1665
In writing the history of a country or of an ethnos, all too often even the most well-meaning people are tempted out of patriotism to embellish the truth by either building up the good or omitting certain ‘unsavory’ facts about the past. On an emotional level this is understandable. After all, in a certain sense an ethnic group is a vastly extended family. The country, on the other hand, can be considered a sizable prolongation of the borders of one’s home. Who but the crassest enjoys speaking ill of home and family?

Nevertheless, if one wishes to strive for accuracy and objectivity in their writings, one must inevitably confront the specter of those who, during the course of their lives, engaged in actions that today go against the grain of established social mores. Otherwise, one risks being exposed to the charge of chauvinism (or worse).

It has been the stated purpose of this writer to show the reader how his people, the DueSiciliani, have carved out a place for themselves in this world in spite of the loss of their homeland, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, to the forces of the Piedmontese and their allies in 1861. Thus far, I and other like-minded folk posting on this blog have written of the commendable members of our people who have significantly added to Western Civilization through their contributions to the arts, sciences, philosophy (and even sports). 

Men like Ettore MajoranaSalvator RosaVincenzo Bellini and “the Nolan”, Giordano Bruno have unquestionably made this world better by being in it.

Similarly, we have written of those whose legacies provoke more ambivalent feelings. Men like Paolo di Avitabile and Michele Pezza, the legendary “Fra Diavolo”, led lives that to this day are considered controversial.

It now falls to this writer the hapless task of telling the tale of one of our own who went down “the road less traveled” to a decidedly darker place in the chapters of history – among the creators of 20th century totalitarian movements. As the reader will soon see, this journey cost him friends, a loftier place in the history books, and eventually his life!

Giovanni Gentile was born in the town of Castelvetrano, Sicily on May 30th, 1875 to Theresa (née Curti) and Giovanni Gentile. Growing up, his grades were so good he earned a scholarship to the University of Pisa in 1893. Originally interested in literature, his soon turned to philosophy, thanks to the influence of Donato Jaja. Jaja in turn had been a student of the Abruzzi neo-Hegelian idealist Bertrando Spaventa (1817-1883). Jaja would “channel” the teachings of Spaventa to Gentile, upon whom they would find a fertile breeding ground.

During his studies he found himself inspired by notable pro-Risorgimento Italian intellectuals such as Giuseppe Mazzini, Antonio Rosmini-Serbati and Vincenzo Gioberti. However, he also found himself drawn to the works of German idealist and materialist philosophers like Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and especially Georg Hegel. He graduated from the University of Pisa with a degree in philosophy in 1897.

He completed his advanced studies at the University of Florence, eventually beginning his teaching career in the lyceum at Campobasso and Naples (1898-1906).

Benedetto Croce
Beginning in 1903, Gentile began an intellectual friendship with another noted philosopher from il sudBenedetto Croce. The two men would edit the famed Italian literary magazine La critica from 1903-22. In 1906 Gentile was invited to take up the chair in the history of philosophy at the University of Palermo. During his time there he would write two important works: The Theory of Mind as Pure Act (1916) and Logic as Theory of Knowledge (1917). These works formed the basis for his own philosophy which he dubbed “Actual Idealism.”

Giovanni Gentile’s philosophy of Actual Idealism, like Marxism, recognized man as a social animal. Unlike the Marxists, however, who viewed community as a function of class identity, Gentile considered community a function of the culture and history in a nation. Actual Idealism (or Actualism) saw thought as all-embracing, and that no one could actually leave their sphere of thinking or exceed their own thought. This contrasted with the Transcendental Idealism of Kant and the Absolute Idealism of Hegel.

He would remain at the University of Palermo until 1914, when he was invited to the University of Pisa to fill the chair vacated by the death of his dear friend and mentor, Donato Jaja. In 1917, he wound up at the University of Rome, where in 1925 he founded the School of Philosophy. He would remain at the University until shortly before his murder.

After Italy’s humiliating defeat at the disastrous Battle of Caporetto in November, 1917, Gentile took a greater interest in politics. A devoted Nationalist and Liberal; he gathered a group of like-minded friends together and founded a review, National Liberal Politics, to push for political and educational reform.

Gentile’s writings and activism attracted the attention of future Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Immediately after his famous “March on Rome” at the end of October, 1922, Mussolini invited Gentile to serve in his cabinet as Minister of Public Instruction. He would hold this position until July, 1924. Surviving records show that on May 31st, 1923 Giovanni Gentile formally applied for membership in the partito nazionale fascista, the National Fascist Party of Italy.

With his new cabinet position Gentile was given full authority by Mussolini to reform the Italian educational system. On November 5th, 1923 he was appointed senator of the realm, a representative in the Upper House of the Italian Parliament. Gentile was now at the pinnacle of his political influence. With the power and prestige granted him by his new office, he began the first serious overhaul of public education in Italy since the Casati Law was passed in 1859.

Gentile saw in Mussolini’s authoritarianism and nationalism a fulfillment of his dream to rejuvenate Italian culture, which he felt was stagnating. Through this he hoped to rejuvenate the Italian “nation” as well. As Minister of Public Instruction Gentile worked laboriously for 20 months to reform what was most certainly an antiquated and backward system. Though successful in his endeavor, ironically, it was the enactment of his plan that caused his political influence to wane. 

In spite of this, Mussolini continued to grant honors on him. In 1924, after resigning his post as Minister, “Il Duce” invited him to join the “Commission of Fifteen” and later the “Commission of Eighteen” basically in order to figure out how to make Fascism fit into the Albertine Constitution, the legal document that governed the state of Italy since its formation after the infamous Risorgimento in 1861.

On March 29th, 1925 the Conference of Fascist Culture was held at Bologna, in northern Italy. The précis of this conference was the document: the Manifesto of the Fascist Intellectuals. It was an affirmation of support for the government of Benito Mussolini, throwing a gauntlet down to critics who questioned Mussolini’s commitment to Italian culture. Among its signatories were Giovanni Gentile (who drew up the document), Luigi Pirandello (who wasn’t actually at the conference but publicly supported the document with a letter) and the Neapolitan poet, songwriter and playwright Salvatore Di Giacomo.

It was that last name that provoked a bitter dispute between Gentile and his erstwhile friend and mentor, Benedetto Croce. Responding with a document of his own on May 1st, 1925, the Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals, Croce made public for all to see his irreconcilable split (which had been brewing for some time) with the Fascist Party of Italy…and Giovanni Gentile. In his document he dismissed Gentile’s work as “…a haphazard piece of elementary schoolwork, where doctrinal confusion and poor reasoning abound.” The two men would never collaborate again.

From 1925 till 1944 Gentile served as the scientific director of the Enciclopedia Italiana. In June of 1932 in Volume XIV he published, with Mussolini’s approval (and signature) and over the Roman Catholic Church’s objections, the Dottrina del fascismo (The Doctrine of Fascism). The first part of the Dottrina, written by Gentile, was his reconciling Fascism with his own philosophy of Actual Idealism, thereby forever equating the two.

Giovanni Gentile approved of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Though he found aspects of Hitler’s Nazism admirable, he disapproved of Mussolini allying Italy with Germany, believing Hitler’s intentions could not be trusted and that Italy would wind up becoming a vassal state. His views on this were shared by General Italo Balbo and Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister. Nevertheless, Gentile continued to support Mussolini. Since he recognized that Italy was a polity but not a nation in the true sense of the word, he believed “Il Duce’s” iron-fisted rule to be the only thing sparing the Italian pseudo-state from civil war.

With the collapse of Italy’s Fascist regime in September, 1943 and Mussolini’s rescue by Hitler’s forces, Gentile joined his emasculated master in exile at the so-called Italian Social Republic; an ad hoc puppet state created by Hitler in an ultimately futile attempt to shore up his rapidly crumbing 1,000-year Reich. Even then, he served as one of the principal intellectual defenders of what was obviously a failed political experiment. 

On April 15, 1944 Professore Giovanni Gentile was murdered by Communist partisans led by one Bruno Fanciullacci. Ironically, he was gunned down leaving a meeting where he had argued for the release of a group of anti-Fascist intellectuals whose loyalty was suspect. He was buried in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence where his remains lie, perhaps fittingly, next to those of Florentine philosopher and writer Niccolò Machiavelli.

As one might imagine, after his death Gentile’s name was scorned if not forgotten entirely by historians. In recent years, however, scholars have begun to re-examine his legacy. Political theorist A. James Gregor (née Anthony Gimigliano), a recognized expert on Fascist and Marxist thought and himself an American of Southern Italian descent, believes that Gentile actually exerted a tempering influence on Italian Fascism’s proclivities towards violence as a political tool. This, he argues, is one (of several) of the reasons why Mussolini’s Italy never indulged in the more draconian excesses of Hitler’s regime.

Even his former friend and colleague Benedetto Croce later recognized the superior quality of Gentile’s scholarship and the quantity of his publications in the history of philosophy. Yet he differed sharply from him in political ideology and temperament. While both men forsook any loyalty to i Due Sicilie in favor of the pan-Italian illusion of the Risorgimento, they disagreed mightily as to the nature of the Italian state and to what course it should pursue.

For Gentile the actual idealist, the state was the supreme ethical entity; the individual existing merely to submit and merge his will and reason for being to it. Rebellion against the state in the name of ideals was therefore unjustifiable on any level. To Gentile, Fascism was the natural outgrowth of Actual Idealism.

Croce the neo-Kantian, on the other hand, argued forcefully the state was merely the sum of particular voluntary acts expressed by individuals (who were the center of society) and recorded in its laws. To Croce, Gentile’s metaphysical concepts regarding the state approached mysticism.

Thus, while both men have sadly been largely forgotten, even in the intellectual circles they once traversed, Croce’s legacy survives in a much better light than the man he once called friend.

Further reading:
  • A. James Gregor: Giovanni Gentile: Philosopher of Fascism; Transaction Publishers, 2001.
  • Giovanni Gentile and A. James Gregor (transl): Origins and Doctrine of Fascism: With Selections from Other Works; Transaction Publishers, 2002.
  • M.E. Moss: Mussolini’s Fascist Philosopher: Giovanni Gentile Reconsidered; Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2004.

May 25, 2010

Celebrating Southern Italian Pride and Heritage

Il Regno's Battle of Bitonto Commemoration a success
With showers in the forecast and ominous clouds in the sky, it looked as if Brooklyn's Second Annual Battle of Bitonto Commemoration was going to be postponed. However, luck was on our side. The sun’s rays broke through the clouds, diminishing the threat of rain and allowing the event to go on as planned.
I'm happy to report that we had over twice as many people participate than last year, with supporters making the trek to Dyker Heights, Brooklyn from as far away as New Jersey, Staten Island and Long Island. The national and regional flags of Southern Italy were festively on display, and buttons, fliers and t-shirts were distributed, generating interest from the spectators and passersby.

The commemoration recalls the military victory of Charles of Bourbon over the Austrian Hapsburgs on May 25th, 1734 at Bitonto (near Bari in the Southern Italian region of Puglia). The Bourbon triumph led to the restoration of the independent and sovereign Southern Italian nation, The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Similar to last year, our bocce tournament was held with several teams vying for bragging rights. After a number of hard-fought matches, Mike and Tom from Staten Island were crowned this year's champions. They impressively went through the competition undefeated.

A raffle was held to help raise money for the Italian American Museum in New York's Little Italy. This year's prizes were a Concertos for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies CD (Helios), a bottle of Liquore Strega and a $50 gift certificate for Joes on Ave U, an authentic focacceria Palermitana.

I would especially like to thank Eddie (“Koz”) for generously supplying pizza and beverages for the participants.

It also needs to be pointed out that Franky “Shades” and several of his buddies have been laboriously restoring the bocce courts over the past few weeks. Without their selfless dedication and hard work there would have been no games. The city has shamefully neglected the maintenance of these courts, allowing them to deteriorate over the years and preventing people from playing. The lads provided a wonderful community service.

We had so much fun that plans of forming a local bocce club is in the works.

Il Regno remains dedicated to the preservation of our culture and our heritage.

May 23, 2010

Il Maggio di San Giuliano: The Marriage of Trees and the Feast of Saint Giuliano the Martyr

Viva San Giulliano!
Remote Accettura lies in the rugged Southern Italian hinterland of Matera, a province in the region of Basilicata, also called Lucania. The small hilltop town boasts one of the oldest festivals in Italy, il Maggio di Accettura.
Some say the Maggio, or May Festival, predates the classical era. Others, because of its similarities with the Germanic Maypole, claim the Lombards introduced it. Whatever its origins, the pre-Christian fertility rite has been repurposed for the Christian observance. In a medley of traditions, "The Marriage of Trees," as the ancient ritual is known, is now happily associated with Accettura's patron saint, San Giuliano di Sora and the celebration of Pentecost.
Beginning on Ascension Day (Holy Thursday), a group of woodsmen search for and cut down the tallest and straightest tree they can find from nearby Montepiano. Called the "Maggio," the hewed tree is carried back to town on a train of oxen. On Pentecost Sunday, another group of men cut down a smaller tree from nearby Gallipoli Cognato, the forest on the opposite side of Accettura. This tree, called the "Cima," is carried back on the shoulders of the townsmen.
Scaling the Maggio
The felled trees—representing the King and Queen of the forest—are ritualistically united in the town square. Pruned and smoothed (except for the top of the Cima, which is decorated with paper streamers), the trees are vertically affixed to one-another in a symbolic wedding. The towering couple are then raised upright.
On the Tuesday after Pentecost, Holy Mass is celebrated and followed by a procession with elaborate candle-houses (cinte) and the statue San Giuliano. The revelers feast, dance and sing into the night. Some of the more daring youths scale the "newlyweds" and perform dangerous acrobatic feats. Until recently, near the end of the festivities, marksmen competed for prizes by shooting down the Cima's streamers and decorations. 
On the Feast of Corpus Domini, the tree is toppled (the felling of May) and cheering villagers rush to get a sprig for good luck. The trunk is chopped up and distributed for firewood. The annual ceremony will help ensure the Accetturesi a bountiful harvest and great fecundation. In celebration, I'm posting a prayer to San Giuliano. The accompanying photos come courtesy of

Prayer to San Giuliano 

Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that the examples of San Giuliano di Sora  may effectually move us to reform our lives; that while we celebrate his festival, we may also imitate his actions. Look upon our weakness, almighty God, and since the burden of our own deeds weighs heavily upon us, may the glorious intercession of San Giuliano protect us. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
A similar arboreal celebration called the Festa della Pita is observed in Alessandria del Carretto, a small town in the province of Cosenza in Calabria. On the last Sunday in April, a large fir tree is cut down and carried to the town's main square, piazza San Vincenzo. The tree is shorn, smoothed and rubbed down with animal fat. On May 3rd, with much fanfare (food, music, fireworks, etc.), it's raised upright. The origin of the festival is lost in antiquity, but today its performed in honor of the town's patron saint, Sant' Alessandro Papa Martire. Scenes of this wonderful celebration were captured in Michelangelo Frammartino's avant-garde film, Le quattro Volte (2010).

May 17, 2010

People of First Class: Notable Mathematicians of Southern Italian Origin

By Niccolò Graffio
“There are many categories of scientists, people of second and third rank, who do their best, but do not go very far. There are also people of first class, who make great discoveries, which are of capital importance for the development of science. But then there are the geniuses, like Galilei and Newton. Well, Ettore was one of these.” – Enrico Fermi
Ettore Majorana
The "Ettore" Fermi was speaking about was of course, the eminent Sicilian physicist Ettore Majorana. Fermi was heaping praise on the intellectual accomplishments of his late colleague. While Fermi’s categorization of scientists is admittedly an oversimplification, it does serve to point out one sad fact about them. All too often it’s only the “greats” in the world of the sciences whose names find their way into the collective memory of the masses (thanks to good press).

For example: you’d be pressed to find anyone in America today who hasn’t at least heard the names of people like Archimedes, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and ‘Madame’ Marie Curie, even if most of them don’t know exactly what it was these people did that landed them in the history books.

Of course, being a great scientist or mathematician is no guarantee of widespread fame. This writer finds it bewildering that to this day most Americans he meets with college degrees confess to being unfamiliar with the name of the renowned German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss! Throw the names of some “B-list” entertainers and/or sports figures at them, however, and more often than not the light of recognition quickly sparks in their eyes. Ours is truly a society of inverted and peculiar values.

I digress. My point is simply this: there are many scientists and mathematicians, who, although not in the category of people like Einstein or Newton, nonetheless are deserving of honorable mention for the important contributions they made in the advancement of the sciences. This article makes mention of three of them, who are all the more deserving of our respect and recognition because, like us, they were children of the lands that made up the late Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Let no one ever tell you otherwise, people: we have contributed!

Francesco Maurolico
Francesco Maurolico was born in the city of Messina, Sicily on September 16th, 1494 to a family of Greek origin. He learned Greek, mathematics and astronomy from his father, Antonio, who in turn had been a pupil of the famous Greek scholar Constantine Lascaris. He took holy orders in 1521 and entered the Benedictine Order in 1550, becoming a monk at the monastery of Santa Maria del Parto à Castelbuono. Two years later he was consecrated as abbot at the Cattedrale San Nicolò di Messina.

In 1569 he was appointed professor at the University of Messina. Among his works were the following:
  • His Arithmeticorum libri duo (1575) includes the first known proof by mathematical induction.
  • He published a methodology for measuring the earth, which was used about a hundred years later (1670) by the French astronomer Jean-Felix Picard (not Jean-Luc Picard!) to measure the meridian.
  • His astronomical observations include sighting of the supernova that appeared in Cassiopeia in 1572. Tycho Brahe published details of his sighting in 1574.
  • He worked on numerous ancient Greek mathematical texts, providing new and sound interpretations of Greek mathematics.
He died in Messina, Sicily in July, 1575. The lunar crater Maurolycus is named in honor of him.

Giuseppe Lauricella was born in the city of Agrigento, Sicily in 1867. He studied at the University of Pisa where his professors included Luigi Bianchi, Ulisse Dini and Vito Volterra. He is remembered for his contributions to analysis (ex: Lauricella’s theorem) and the theory of elasticity.

In 1893 he defined and studied four hypergeometric series of three variables. He also indicated the existence of ten other hypergeometric functions of three variables. These were named and studied by S. Saran in 1954. There are therefore a total of 14 Lauricella-Saran hypergeometric functions.

Sadly, he died in Catania, Sicily from scarlet fever at the age of 45 in 1913.

Francesco Paolo Cantelli
Francesco Paolo Cantelli was born in Palermo, Sicily on December 20th, 1875. He attended the University of Palermo, graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1899. His thesis was on celestial mechanics.

His early work was in astronomy involving statistical analysis of data, in particular the statistical style of mathematics and to applications of probability to astronomy and other areas. In 1903 took a job as an actuary at the Istituti di Previdenza where he undertook research into probability theory publishing some important papers.

In 1925 Cantelli was called to Naples where he taught actuarial and financial mathematics. From 1931 he was professor at the University of Rome where he remained for the rest of his life, retiring from his chair in 1951.

He is chiefly remembered for important contributions he made to actuarial science, the foundations of probability theory and to the clarification of different types of probabilistic convergence. However, he also did research in financial mathematics as well. He died in Rome, Italy on July 21st, 1966.

May 16, 2010

Around the Web: Hero or Villain?

Portrait bust of Giuseppe Garibaldi
Garibaldi-Mucci Museum, Staten Island, NY
"To commemorate Garibaldi's landings is a bit like a rape victim lauding the man who assaulted her." — Filippo Spadafora, Giuseppe Garibaldi — Man and Myth
In memory of the 150th anniversary of General Garibaldi's invasion of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Best of Sicily Magazine recently published an excellent article by historian Filippo Spadafora entitled “Giuseppe Garibaldi — Man and Myth.” It is a rare account of the "Hero of the Two Worlds," covering many of the freebooter’s exploits and exploding the various myths surrounding this once untouchable pillar of United Italy. Please take the time to read it.

May 9, 2010

Giovanni Paisiello

Giovanni Paisiello painted by
Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun
By Giovanni di Napoli

Giovanni Paisiello was born on May 9th, 1740 in Roccaforzata, a small town near Taranto in the Apulian region of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The son of a veterinarian, he received his first instruction in music at the local Jesuit school, which he attended for eight years. The boy's musical talent soon attracted the attention of Don Girolamo Carducci, who, in 1754, succeeded in having the youth attend the Conservatorio di S. Onofrio, Naples' preeminent institution for musical training.

During his first year at the conservatorio the young Paisiello studied under the celebrated Neapolitan composer, Francesco Durante (1684-1755). Focusing mostly on sacred music (psalms, etc.), Paisiello eventually composed a successful comic intermezzo, which led to commissions from the Teatro Marsigli-Rossi di Bologna. In 1764 he wrote the opera Il Ciarlone, then I francesi brillanti, establishing his reputation in Northern Italy as a major composer in the operatic genre known as opera buffa.

Paisiello returned to Naples in 1766. He married Cecilia Pallini, despite having cold feet, in 1768. During this period he composed several operas, most notably Le finte ContesseL 'Osteria di Marechiaro and the very successful L 'Idolo Cinese. His fame continued to grow. 
In 1776 Paisiello accepted an invitation by Catherine II of Russia to be her maestro di cappella, replacing his fellow countryman, Tommaso Traetta (1729-1779). He spent the next eight years in St. Petersburg producing acclaimed works, such as NittetiI Filosofi ImmaginariLa Serva Padrona and Il Barbiere di Siviglia (not to be confused with Gioachino Rossini’s revised version in 1816).

Deeply impressed with his work, King Ferdinando IV of Naples offered Paisiello the Kingdom's highest musical office, the prestigious Compositore della musics de' drammi. In 1784 he left Russia for Naples, stopping briefly in Vienna. 

Paisiello's summer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a resounding success. Commissioned by Emperor Joseph II, he wrote a number of concert symphonies and Il Re Teodoro in Venezia. This opera's influence on Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni is unmistakable.

When he finally returned to Naples, King Ferdinando IV made Paisiello his official court composer. Here he produced masterpieces such as Nina, ossia la pazza per amore and La Molinara, who's popular aria "Nel cor più non mi sento" inspired many composers, including Beethoven. In 1787 he composed "Inno del regno delle Due Sicilie" or "The Hymn of the Two Sicilies," which became the nation's national anthem.

When Napoleon Bonaparte's forces invaded the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1798 Paisiello did not retreat to Sicily with the Bourbon court. He "reluctantly" accepted the new position of maestro di cappella nazionale to the ill-fated Parthenopean Republic. However, after Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo's Sanfedesti Crusade, and a general amnesty granted to Republican sympathizers by the Bourbons, Paisiello was readmitted into the Neapolitan court.

An avid admirer of Paisiello's music, Napoleon requested his services in Paris. Granted leave by Ferdinando IV, Paisiello served as the little corporal's maître de chapelle. The Neapolitan also composed music for Napoleon's Imperial coronation at Notre Dame. It was during this time that he wrote the opera Proserpine, which was poorly received. In 1804 Paisiello returned to Naples.

The French conquered Naples again in 1806, driving the Bourbons to Sicily once more. Joseph, Napoleon’s brother, was crowned King and Paisiello became his maestro di cappella. In 1808 Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, succeeded Joseph (who became King of Spain) and followed suit by appointing Paisiello as his court composer as well.

After Napoleon's downfall in 1815, the Bourbons were restored to power. Ferdinando IV granted a second amnesty and Paisiello continued to serve the Neapolitan court until his death on June 5th, 1816. 

Giovanni Paisiello was without a doubt one of the most popular and courted composers of the era. He worked for some of Europe’s greatest patrons, including Catherine the Great, Emperor Joseph II, Napoleon and Joseph Bonaparte, Joachim Murat and King Ferdinando IV of Naples. The Neapolitan was influential and prolific, writing over eighty operas. He also composed a number of cantatas, concertos, oratorios and sonatas, both sacred and secular, of the highest quality. Paisiello was truly a Titan of the South.

May 6, 2010

Echoes of our Homeland

An Evening With John T. La Barbera

Pulcinella, a Commedia dell’arte stock character associated with Naples, playing the mandolin. From the IAM presepio collection. (Photos by New York Scugnizzo)

Last Thursday, I had the great pleasure of attending a lecture about the Neapolitan mandolin by John T. La Barbera at the Italian American Museum. Entitled "Echoes of Mulberry Street," Mr. La Barbera—an accomplished musician and expert on Southern Italian traditional music—discussed a variety of topics, including the history and evolution of the instrument.

La Barbera began with the mandolin's genesis from the soprano lute, known in Europe since the 1300's, to its modern incarnation. He focused on the important design changes, such as the innovative almond shape and round back, as well as the development of steel string models (attributed to the Vinaccia family), during the eighteenth century in Naples. These improvements, plus the impressive repertoire of the Neapolitan school, helped popularize the instrument.

It was pointed out that Naples—prior to its conquest by Piedmont in 1860—vied with Paris as Europe's music center. The Siren city was the third largest in Europe, behind only London and Paris, and one of the most musically influential. However, after its subjugation, Naples lost not only its status as the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, but also its prominence as music capital.

Following "unification" Southern Italy was stripped of its wealth. Turin looted the kingdom's abundant cash reserves and dismantled its industries. Policies dictated by northern interests, including oppressive taxation caused a substantial decline in the southern economy. The severe economic decline drove millions of southerners to emigrate over the next several decades, a phenomenon never before experienced throughout its long history.

La Barbera highlighted the important role Neapolitan emigrants played during the mandolin's "golden age" between 1894 and 1918. They maintained a love for the instrument, which was an important part of their culture, and kept the traditions alive in the New World. For a brief period it even became fashionable for women to use mandolin cases as pocketbooks.

The influence of the famed Neapolitan tenor, Enrico Caruso, in popularizing the instrument was also briefly touched upon. When the virtuoso sang the romantic and sentimental Neapolitan songs the mandolin often accompanied him.

Not only were the emigrants writing and publishing mandolin music in America (e.g. E. Rossi from 187 Grand Street), they were manufacturing the instruments as well. The most significant of these artisans were Angelo Mannello and Nicola Turturro—Neapolitan emigrants to New York in the late nineteenth century—who established themselves as premier instrument makers. Examples of Mannello and Turturro's outstanding craftsmanship can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During his stay in Naples, La Barbera purchased old sheet music published in the United States by Neapolitan immigrants, underlining the importance of the music and the bond between the diaspora communities and their ancestral homeland.

An example of a Neapolitan mandolin and
traditional sheet music from La Barbera's collection.

From what I understood of the presentation, the "echoes of Mulberry Street" were echoes of a time and culture in Naples that was shattered and thrown to far away places. On Mulberry Street and places like it, the emigrants kept a tradition alive among our people while it withered in our ancestral homeland, and so allowed it to one day return.

I've been fortunate to see Mr. La Barbera perform in the past and own several of his CD's (as well as his book, Traditional Southern Italian Mandolin and Fiddle Tunes), so I was already familiar with his great passion and skill. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that award-winning opera soprano Cristina Fontanelli would accompany him during the performance. The duo did an amazing rendition of the Eduardo di Capua and Giovanni Capurro's Neapolitan classic, O Sole Mio.

(L-R) Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa (founder and president of the Italian American Museum), John T. La Barbera and Cristina Fontanelli.

A brief question and answer period ensued, along with a book signing. La Barbera was enlightening and entertaining.

My personal highlight of the evening was having dinner and drinks afterwards at Il Palazzo with Mr. La Barbera, Mrs. Fontanelli, the enchanting Carolyn Masone from Essence of Italy and friends (Roseanne, Chris and Mike). The meal was wonderful and the company better, there was no shortage of entertaining anecdotes. It was an honor to partake in the intimate and convivial affair.