August 21, 2011

A look at the 122nd Feast of Saint Rocco

Viva San Rocco! Stephen S. LaRocca (right),
President of Saint Rocco Society of Potenza, Inc.
Standard bearer leads the procession
Members of the Associazione Culturale Pugliese Figli Maria S.S. Addolorata (above)
and St Joseph's Society from Lodi New Jersey (below) joined in the celebration
The procession makes its way from the Church of St. Joseph
(5 Monroe Street, Manhattan) towards Little Italy
Devotees carry votive candles during the celebration
The original society statue now stands inside the Church of St. Joseph
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

August 17, 2011

Honoring the Great Caruso at the IAM

Cavaliere Ufficiale Aldo Mancusi at the IAM
Believe me when I tell you, if you are a music lover and were unable to attend the "Life and Times of Enrico Caruso" lecture at the Italian American Museum last Thursday (Aug. 11, 2011), you missed one heck of an evening.
First we were treated to a live performance by tenor Christopher Macchio, who sang the irresistibly romantic love-song, "Because." Published in 1903, the song was immortalized on RCA Victor by Caruso in 1913. I've been fortunate to hear Mr. Macchio sing before (I believe it was at the Mario Lanza lecture earlier this year at the IAM) and knew we were in for something special. Unsurprisingly, he did not disappoint. The packed audience gave the rising young talent a well-deserved standing ovation.
Not to be outdone, guest speaker Cavaliere Ufficiale Aldo Mancusi, founder and curator of the Enrico Caruso Museum of America, gave an entertaining talk about his idol, Enrico Caruso. I've attended many lectures at the IAM and this one easily ranks high up there among my favorites. Cav. Mancusi is obviously a man who loves his job; his knowledge and expertise on Caruso is staggering and the scholar’s passion for the maestro is infectious—I wanted to hear more! One gets the feeling that if he was allowed, Mancusi would have went on for hours regaling us with his fascinating stories about the "worlds greatest tenor."
Cavaliere Ufficiale Aldo Mancusi holding photo of Caruso's wife and daughter, Dorothy and Gloria


There was too much information to recap in a casual post (Caruso will eventually be featured in our Titans of the South) so I'll only share a couple of the more interesting anecdotes.
Born in Naples on February 25, 1873, he worked with his father at the local steel foundry. His gift for singing was discovered during choir practice. Fast-forwarding, he debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1903, where he would appear an impressive 863 times. Extremely successful, he was equally munificent. Examples of Caruso’s generosity were a common thread throughout Mancusi's presentation. Apparently, Caruso never forgot where he came from and spread his wealth around, always helping those less fortunate than himself. According to Mancusi, over 130 members of his family and friends back in Naples were on his payroll.
Caruso was injured during a performance of Samson and Delilah when a stage prop fell on him. Misdiagnosed with intercostal neuralgia by his physician, Philip Horowitz, his health seriously deteriorated. Towards the end of his life, and after several operations, Caruso needed a blood transfusion. Afterward, finding out the donor was an Irishman (Everett Wilkinson) from Meriden, Connecticut, he jokingly complained to his doctor he was no longer a full-blooded Italian.
The infection would eventually take his life. Enrico Caruso died on August 2, 1921. He was only 48-years-old.
Cav. Uff. Mancusi also exhibited several old photos, caricatures and a sculpture carved by Caruso himself, who was an accomplished artist as well as a singer. We watched video footage of Caruso's great-great grandson, Enrico Caruso IV (an accomplished tenor in his own right), who performed at a gala event honoring the Neapolitan tenor. Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani awarded a City Proclamation to the Enrico Caruso Museum at the same event.
Bust of Caruso and Victrola
We also listened to an original 1902 recording of "Vesti la giubba" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci performed by Caruso on a 1906 victrola. Technology has obviously come a long way in improving the sound quality of music, but there is something to be said about listening to vinyl on an old-fashioned phonograph instead of mp3s. I'm not sure if it’s just nostalgia, but I find evoking memories of the past very rewarding.
Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa (President and Founder of the Italian American Museum) and his staff deserve special praise for hosting this event. Their hard work and dedication in serving our community does not go unnoticed.
Christopher Macchio closed the evening with an outstanding a cappella rendition of the Neapolitan tearjerker, Core N'grato. It was a near-perfect ending to an extremely enjoyable night. Arguably, the pièce de résistance was the cannoli and espresso we enjoyed at Café Palermo afterwards.
Christopher Macchio, Tenor
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

August 14, 2011

A look at the Feast of the Giglio di Sant’Antonio in East Harlem (2011)


A large crowd was on hand to view the dancing of the giglio
and partake in the festivities

The capo commences the lifting.
"Lets show the boys from Brooklyn how we do it in Manhattan."

Viva Sant’Antonio!

Proud Bruscianese! The rain didn't dampen any spirits

The inclement weather was no match for these beauties.
The "Giglio Girls" kept the party rolling

Dancing the giglio. Lifters flaunt their stamina by swaying the towering spire back and forth in time with the music

Mass was held at the historic Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

August 6, 2011

The 'Little Monk' – Exploring ‘O Munaciello and His Many Variations

The Nightmare by Johann Heinrich Füssli
By Lucian

Of the many ghosts and spirits of Naples, two in particular are more prominent than the rest. The first is the bella ‘Mbriana, who is generally seen as benevolent. The other is the Munaciello, a more malignant and complex spirit that has several counterparts in other regions of Southern Italy.

It is usually better to start at the beginning, so before I describe the behavior of ‘O Munaciello and related spirits, I’ll recount the two generally accepted Neapolitan hypothesis about his origins. One was connected to the mysterious underground city of Naples, it claims that ‘O Munaciello was actually the “pozzari” (well workers) who would use the many passageways to enter people’s homes at night, play tricks on them or try to collect on unpaid bills. The other occurs in the mid 1400s during the reign of the Aragonese. Caterinella Frezza, daughter of a wealthy merchant fell in love with Stephen Mariconda, a laborer. Their families opposed the relationship and one night assailants murdered Stephen in the lover’s secret meeting place. After this Caterinella was sent to a convent, where she bore a strange child. The nuns made him cloths similar to a monk’s and adopted him after his mother’s death. He never grew bigger than the size of a six year old and had a strange enlarged head on which he wore a black hat and hid within the cowl of his monk’s hood. People came to fear him and began to blame “The Little Monk” for all their misfortunes, except when he wore a red cap, which was seen as good luck. Unfortunately for the child, he wore the red hat only infrequently. One day the child disappeared, and it was assumed that he was murdered.

As author Matilde Serao stated in her book Neapolitan Legends:
“The tale of ‘O Munaciello does not end with his death. On the contrary, it begins.”… “It is not the gnome dancing on the soft grass of the meadows, nor the elf that sings on the shores of the river, it is the evil imp of the old houses of Naples. It is ‘o munaciello.”
Inhabiting the middle-class districts where he wandered in life, the spirit returns to interfere with the living. Sometimes he engages in harmless tricks, other times he breaks things or causes hardship. He’s been blamed for causing nightmares, depression and immoral temptations. It was said that he is unpredictable and capable of anything.
“It is the imp that makes old maids hysterical and causes them to fall down the stairs in convulsions. It is ‘o munaciello who turns the house topsy turvy, puts the furniture in disarray, disturbs the heart, confuses the mind and fills it with fear. It is he, the tormented and tormenting spirit who brings chaos in his black habit, ruin in his black hood.”…“But truthful history also tells us, good reader that when ‘o munaciello wore his red hood, his presence brought good luck. And because of this strange mixture of good and evil, of malice and goodness, ‘o munaciello is respected, feared and loved.” Matilde Serao Neapolitan Legends p.128-132
The spirit is known for his lascivious behavior toward young and beautiful women, but is also known to take young girls under his protection when they are in love. He is known to cause misfortune, then to comfort the victims of his actions. He leaves money for people with the understanding that they will be silent about his misdeeds, and punishes them if they do not honor the bargain. The esoteric version of ‘O Munaciello claims that his gifts of money were attempts to buy the souls of the living, and that he was an agent or avatar of the devil. Yet despite all this he is very popular in Naples and the people love him. Perhaps he is a devil, but if so he is their devil and as such is forever part of them.

Some storytellers attempt to rehabilitate ’O Munaciello. Author Geraldine McCaughrean wrote a children’s book based on him called Monacello - The Little Monk. While I find the creature much more foreboding than she does, I must admit that exploring our ancestral legends for children’s books is a very positive idea and sounds like a lot of fun. My only reservation is that they will become too distorted or politically correct and lose their meanings.

In the case of Munaciello, his bad behavior is such a part of his personality that even Ms. McCaughrean could only do so much. The author made the following comment about her book:
“I visited a friend in Naples, and she showed me the city’s best secret – its Undercity: a gloomy, buried world of ruined houses and streets. Then I found out Naples has a secret inhabitant too – part-good, part-bad; a bringer of good luck and trouble; a boy with a sad history of his own. Legends like Monacello’s date from a time when stories were not just for children; when they hovered in everyone’s brain, somewhere between made-up and true. I never cared much for wicked villains or superheroes. Monacello is a mixture of sun and shadow – like we all are. My sort of hero.”
Monacello - The Little Monk
Despite such modern revisions of the legend, and the Neapolitans fondness for the “Little Monk,” the overall character of this being only gets worse as I research more about him. Other regions of the South have their own versions of Munaciello. Some claim it is the same being; others disagree. Either way, the similarities are impossible to ignore and suggest a common origin to the various legends. Munaciello has several names in Naples alone, and his variants have many more outside of the region. Often the names refer to a type of creature as opposed to a unique one. Most are associated with house spirits. For the sake of expediency I’m going to list only a few along with their particular variations of the legend.

The Monachiccio of the Basilicata region are described as gnomes about the size of a six-year-old child. They sometimes interfere with people’s sleep by sitting on them, tickling their feet, pulling their hair, pinching them or making noise. They always wear red hats, which they cannot be without. If their hat is taken they will cease their activities and beg for it back, making bargains in order to get it. Their character varies throughout the region. For example, in Matera they make mischief, but do not cause real problems or serious damage, but in Maratea they are considered pure evil and their actions range from little pranks to propositions, which can result the loss of your soul or cause your death. Carlo Levi’s famous book Christ Stopped at Eboli contains a chapter describing the monachicchi (literally "little monks") and their exploits.

The Mamucca of Messina is described as an annoying fairy that concealed objects and teased people, and appears much as Munaciello. The name Mamucca originally was connected to a pirate attack in the area in 541 A.D., which was repelled but famous for its atrocities. Many innocent people, including several monks, were extensively tortured and mutilated by the raiders.

The Scazzamurrieddhru of Salento plays tricks and sometimes trades favors. It has a special relationship with pets and horses, helping to care for them but sometimes irritating them or braiding their hair. It wears a hat, which if taken, can be ransomed back for a reward. It is considered the protector of young women who are battered by stepmothers or their masters. Also known as Scazzamurril (Foggia) or lu Laùru, the spirit is best known for spoiling sleep by sitting on the victim’s chest, causing paralysis, shortness of breath, or nightmares. For this reason it is also called the Carcaluru (from "Limestone", "put pressure"). If you enter a cemetery at night, the spirit may punish you by jumping on your chest and causing uncontrollable laughter until it kills you. The name Laùru may be connected to Lares, an ancient Roman house spirit, but the worst behavior of the creature probably originates with the incubus or nightmare spirit described by Petronius Arbiter, Pliny (the Elder), and Augustine, among others.

The Spirit of Nightmare was most likely an ancient explanation for a modern condition known as sleep paralysis or night terrors. People who suffer from this sleep disorder can experience paralysis, loss of speech and shortness of breath. The attacks cause extreme fear and often are accompanied by realistic hallucinations in which the afflicted perceive an evil presence in the room or sitting on their chest. Sometimes the hallucination is also perceived as a sexual assault, which explains the ancient and medieval stories of the incubus.

Some parts of Northern Italy have their variations of Munaciello or Scazzamurrieddhru, such as the Mazapegol of Romagna. Sort of a cross between the gnome and an incubus, they are hairy, monkey-like imps that wear red caps and sneak into the beds of young attractive women, sitting on their stomachs and causing nightmares. It is said that the women can banish them by doing something disgusting that upsets the creatures.

My overall impression of ‘O Munaciello and his counterparts is not easily described. Perhaps the best way to put it is that it was intellectually thought provoking, but at the same time reached out to the darker corners of the mind.

Garden gnome, Capri 
In life Munaciello was not treated well, in death he returns to meddle in the affairs of the people who mistreated him, often in a negative way. Is this a consequence of their attitude towards him or a vindication of it? Either interpretation can be argued. Being an abused underdog is certainly a cause for sympathy, but does not automatically make the victim a good person or trustworthy. Some psychologists say it actually makes a person more prone to abuse others; although I personally don’t think enough credit is given to the many people who overcome a difficult past. It is interesting that the story of the Munaciello clearly illustrates such a situation long before modern studies were done on this topic.

Although sometimes acting as a protector or benefactor, the negative things that are done by this being are hardly compensated for by receiving some money in your shoe, and even that comes with possible consequences. Aside from the few harmless variations of the legend, the only component of the tales that allow people to get the upper hand is stealing his red cap and negotiating with the creature for its return. The rest of the time the spirit (or gnome) is in control, regardless if it is providing protection or making trouble. When my editor was reviewing my notes he playfully asked me: “Knowing what he’s capable of, would you steal his cap?” To which I could only respond “No my friend, I don’t believe I would.”

The Munaciello and similar beliefs are still popular in Southern Italy; there was even a song dedicated to the Scazzamurrieddhru by Domenico Modugno in 1954. I’m certain that there was some demonizing of the figure, as has been the case with most of the old beliefs, so I’ve tried to be fair and include the more positive aspects of the legends. However, even some of the nicest descriptions of this complex spirit contain something bad, and the possible connection to the spirit of nightmare is not at all flattering. When examined in depth, the stories give us a lot to think about. Perhaps the most important part is the possibility of losing your soul, because with something that important, should a chance be taken?

When ‘O Munaciello or his fellows pay for your silence, the possible consequences must be considered, and the warnings of the legend are just as valid in the modern world. The combination of corporate greed and cosmopolitan social engineering is marginalizing and eliminating our people and our culture. The most obscene aspect of this modern cultural leveling is that it encourages the participation of the very people it is destroying by promising short-term profit or an imaginary “utopian paradise.” Sadly, Southern Italy has seen the same promises before, from the architects of the Risorgimento. Once again, we are being asked to sell not only our soul, but also the soul of our people, for a handful of silver pieces and empty promises.

Munaciello references:

Leggende napoletane/Neapolitan Legends by Matilde Serao, translated by Jo Di Martino, Alfredo Guida Editore, 2003, ISBN 88-7188-670-4

Siren land by Norman Douglas, Dodo Press 2008, ISBN 978-1-4099-4192-7

Monacello - The Little Monk (Modern children’s story adaptation) by Geraldine McCaughrean, Illustrator: Jana Diemberger, Phoenix Yard Books, 2011, 978-1907912030

Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, ISBN 978-0-374-53009-9

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Revised Diagnostic and Coding Manual, 2001, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, ISBN: 0-9657220-1-5

PDF file: Legends and ghost stories in Naples between two centuries: Matilde Serao, Roberto Bracco and Benedetto Croce, study by Armando Rotondi

August 1, 2011

The Scholar Low-Rate: Michele Amari of Sicily

Michele Amari
By Niccolò Graffio
Michele Benedetto Gaetano Amari was born July 7th, 1806 in the city of Palermo which at that time was the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily. The original Kingdom of Sicily, the one formed by Roderigo II (Roger II) in 1130, was partitioned by the Aragonese and Angevins at the end of the War of the Sicilian Vespers with the signing of the Peace of the Caltabellota (1302).

After passing through several hands, the two kingdoms were conquered from the Austrians during the War of the Polish Succession (1733-38) by a young Spaniard, the Duke of Parma, who would then go on to be recognized (on July 3rd, 1735) as King Charles of Naples and Sicily, the founder of the Bourbon Dynasty in Southern Italy. The Two Sicilies (i Due Sicilie) as they had been known de facto for centuries previously, were once again legally recognized as a single nation by the powers of Europe at the proclamation of the re-unification of the two kingdoms into the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies on December 12th, 1816.

At an early age Michele Amari was inculcated with the teachings of liberal republicanism, thanks in large part to his grandfather. A bright lad and avid learner, by the time he reached the age of 14 he had obtained a clerical position in the civil service of the Bourbon bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, his liberal upbringing, plus the ill-fated Sicilian separatist rebellion of 1820, inspired him to join the ranks of the Carbonari (It. “charcoal-burners”). The Carbonari in Southern Italy were revolutionary secret societies that were probably offshoots of the Freemasons. Originally organized to overthrow the Bourbons (whom they regarded as foreign rulers) and install constitutional liberties, the Carbonarists eventually found themselves vacillating between them and French vassal Joachim Murat during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15).

After the fall of Murat and the restoration of the Bourbons, the Carbonarists in Sicily devoted themselves to the cause of liberty and secession. In Naples, on the other hand, the Carbonarists worked for the overthrow of the Bourbons and the establishment of republican rule. Their name was derived from the rituals they borrowed from the trade of charcoal-burning, an occupation widely practiced in the mountains of the Abruzzi and Calabria.

Joachim Murat
Fears of foreign rule were justified when King Ferdinand I of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies “borrowed” 50,000 soldiers from the Austrian Empire and used them to crush the Carbonarist rebellion in both Naples and Sicily, re-establishing his autocratic rule.

Michele Amari’s father was implicated in the rebellion and arrested in 1822. He was tried and along with many others sentenced to death. His sentenced was commuted, however, and by 1834 he was freed. His incarceration, though, cemented Michele’s hatred of the Bourbons, and he vowed to work for their overthrow. He even began a vigorous program of physical exercise to prepare him for the day of revolution.

In addition, he deeply studied the subjects of English and of history. His first literary essay was a translation of Sir Walter Scott’s essay Marmion (1832). Seven years later he published Un Periodo delle storie Siciliane del XIII. secolo (Eng. “A Period of Sicilian History of the 13th Century). The book was a work on the Sicilian Vespers that became an immediate success and subsequently spawned many additions. However, it was also politically charged, containing many unfavorable allusions to the Bourbon government in Naples. In 1842 he barely made it out of the country in time to avoid arrest.

Settling in Paris, France, he struck up friendships with a number of French historical scholars including Augustin Thierry and Jules Michelet. These men awoke in Amari a deep-seated interest in the Arab history of Sicily. With intense study, he was soon able to add Arabic to the list of languages he mastered.

In 1844 he began what was to become his masterpiece, La Storia dei Musulmani di Sicilia (Eng. “The History of the Muslims of Sicily”). His work was interrupted, though, in 1848 when the island was swept up by the short-lived Sicilian Revolution of Independence. Amari put down his pen to once again join the rebels against the Bourbons. During the time the rebels held sway over the island Amari was appointed member of the war committee as well as being professor of public law at the University of Palermo. Later, he became Minister of Public Finance in the Stabile cabinet.

The revolution was immensely popular with both noble and peasant alike. The first shots were fired on January 12th, 1848 in the city of Palermo. It soon spread over the whole of Sicily. Sicilian nobles were able to resurrect the Constitution of 1812, which King Ferdinand I had squashed years earlier. In true Sicilian fashion, the government it proposed was remarkably ahead of its time. It was based on the Westminster system of parliamentary government and included principles of representative democracy as well as making Parliament, rather than the Crown, central to the government of the state. The de facto head of state was Ruggeru Sèttimu, Prince of Castelnuovo.

The nascent Sicilian state, like its predecessor during the time of the Vespers, was sadly short-lived. The armies of King Ferdinand II invaded the island and by May15th, 1849 had completely crushed the rebels. Though they ultimately lost, their influence was far-reaching. The Sicilian Revolution of Independence touched off a series of rebellions that engulfed the whole of the continent of Europe. It also greatly weakened the Bourbon hold on Southern Italy. Michele Amari once again was forced to seek refuge in Paris where he continued his scholarly research on the old Muslim presence in Sicily. He published his first volume in 1854.

By 1859 Michele Amari’s scholarship in Arabic studies was known throughout Western Europe. Early that year he was appointed professor of Arabic at Pisa. Later that same year he received a similar appointment at university in Florence.

In 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi and his Thousand invaded Sicily. Amari returned and was appointed to a position in the new government. Though he considered himself very Sicilian in sentiment, he foolishly threw his lot in with the northern conqueror. Like so many others of his people, he was taken in by the false promises of liberal republicanism and equality. In fact, he became one of the staunchest advocates for the unification of Sicily with the new “nation” of Italy, being instrumental in convincing many influential Sicilians to support the so-called Risorgimento. For his support, Prime Minister Camillo Benso di Cavour had him appointed a senator. It has been said Amari supported unification with the expectation Cavour would soon grant Sicily some regional autonomy. If true, he was undoubtedly soon disappointed.

After 1864 he retired from politics to return to his scholarly pursuits, completing the last volume of his Storia dei Musulmani in 1873. By the time of his death on July 16th, 1889 he had earned a reputation throughout Europe as one of its leading experts on Orientalism. In particular, he was widely regarded as one of its leading, if not in fact its leading, translators of Medieval Arabic writings. He had accumulated a number of honors, both national and international, and counted many important literary figures among his friends.

His works on the Sicilian Vespers and the Muslims of Sicily are still considered definitive works and required reading for anyone who truly wishes to gain an in-depth knowledge of the subjects. The latter work, in fact, has been translated into numerous languages, most recently into Arabic by a group of Egyptian scholars in 2004. More recently (2005) this literary masterpiece was the focus of a conference at the Algerian National Library that involved a number of Italian universities. Amine Zaoui, the director of the library, had expressed his hope one day this work would be accessible to all Algerian readers.

Yet in spite of his lingering fame across the Atlantic, here in America Michele Amari has been all but forgotten, most conspicuously by Italian-Americans. This is all the more interesting given the fact the bulk of Italian-Americans (80% by some estimates) are of Southern Italian extraction. Even more incredibly is the fact no biography of this learned historian has ever been written in English!

The strange dearth of material on this man becomes more apparent when one compares and contrasts his life with that of another Italian writer, Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). Like Amari, Manzoni was a writer who embraced the Risorgimento and promulgated its tenets in his writings. His novel (and masterpiece), The Betrothed (It. I promessi sposi) is considered by many to be the most outstanding example of Italian literature. Both men were intensely patriotic pan-Italians.

That, however, is where the similarities end. Unlike Michele Amari, the Sicilian, Alessandro Manzoni was a Milanese. Whereas Amari risked imprisonment (or worse) in his zeal for the Risorgimento, Manzoni never was at any risk for his political activities. Whereas Amari knew poverty more than once in his lifetime, Manzoni was comfortable living on a stipend bequeathed him by his mother’s lover.

Both men created outstanding works of literature. Yet if one makes the rounds of literary intellectual circles here in America, even Italian-American ones, one readily finds an abundance of written material by and about Alessandro Manzoni. Curiously, there is little if any on Michele Amari. Knowing his biography and his enduring influence overseas, how does one rationalize this?

Is it merely an oversight on the part of those who’ve taken it upon themselves to keep alive the flames of Italian culture here in the New World? If not, is it rather, as writer/blogger Tom Verso termed it, a “Gramsci Test Case”; an example of what the astute Sardinian political philosopher termed the “cultural hegemony” of Northern Italy over the terroni living in the south?

I already know the answer, dear readers. Do you?

Further reading: