September 20, 2011

A look at NYC's 85th Annual Feast of San Gennaro

A pictorial of Yesterday's (9/19/11) Feast of San Gannaro in New York City's Little Italy. The event is sponsored by Figli di San Gennaro, Inc. (Sons of San Gennaro), a non-for-profit community organization dedicated to keeping alive the spirit and faith of the early Neapolitan immigrants.

Statue of San Gennaro inside Most Precious Blood Church.
A historic standard graces the inside of the church.
Leaving Most Precious Blood Church after the celebratory Mass.
The Figli di San Gennaro color guard lead the procession.
The litter wends its way through the streets of Little Italy.
A statue of San Gennaro illuminates the courtyard of Most Precious Blood Church. Photos by New York Scugnizzo

September 12, 2011

Fiction as Life: An Interview With Author Tony Ardizzone

By Olivia Kate Cerrone

A culture thrives on its ability to engage with its past and the traditions that help inform its people of their identity.  Novels and short stories serve as an unique art form, where history, language, religious and social traditions are woven together and essentially brought to life on the page.  In the face of neighborhood and cultural dislocation, fiction writing is the Italian American community’s best friend.  We are reminded of and exposed to the influences that have and continue to shape us.  Tony Ardizzone is a brilliant voice in the realm of contemporary literature, one that the New York Times Book Review has described as “refreshingly original.”  He is the author of  seven books of fiction, including the critically acclaimed In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, Larabi’s Ox: Stories of Morocco, which won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and The Evening News, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.  Tony’s work has earned him fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pushcart Prize, the Prairie Schooner Readers’ Choice Award, the Black Warrior Review Literary Award in Fiction, the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award for Fiction, the Virginia Prize for Fiction, the Lawrence Foundation Award, the Bruno Arcudi Literature Prize, and the Cream City Review Editors’ Award in Nonfiction.  His stories have appeared in literary journals such as Ploughshares, Agni, Epoch, TriQuarterly and many others.  Outside of a long and accomplished career as an author, Tony is also a gifted and compassionate creative writing professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he was named the Chancellor’s Professor of English and received the Tracy M. Sonneborn Award for outstanding teaching and research.  His most recently published novel, The Whale Chaser, involves the largely unspoken history of the internment of Italian Americans during WWII.  I recently had the enormous privilege to discuss this new work, along with Tony’s insight into the craft of fiction writing, and some of the ongoing issues at play in Italian Americana.
Olivia Kate Cerrone: Your novels and story collections are driven by rich, compassionate narratives that exhibit a wide and rather provocative range.  Whether you take the reader to the 1960s-era neighborhood of Chicago’s North Side or to Marrakesh, Morocco, or the poverty-stricken countryside of 1900s Sicily, the characters one meets along the way are ripe with intimacy and complexity enough to make it easy for the reader to engage with their stories.  As a writer, how do you inhabit characters?  What specifically, if anything, sparks you to write a particular story?

Tony Ardizzone: When I begin to work with a character, I try to imagine what details make the character particular and unique.  I do my best to see, and I mean this both literally and imaginatively.  Henry James remarked that the writer was one upon whom things, meaning details, weren’t lost.  So I believe that good characterization begins with observation, with details, with particulars.  These are not only physical details, but also actions and gestures, what poker players refer to as “tells,” that offer the observer clues about the character, that suggest more than they actually say.  In early drafts, I’ll give a character an abundance of details – I’ll really clutter things up – and then in later drafts, I’ll cut the things that don’t seem essential.  I try to be logical, and I try not to impose on characters, but rather see what actions and gestures rise from them.

I think that setting can be an important device, so I nearly always give characters a well-described place to inhabit, that reflects or contrasts with aspects of their character.  In The Whale Chaser, I did my best to give each of the central characters a richly described room or place where the book’s narrator, a young man named Vince Sansone, could interact with them.  

OKC: In an interview with John King and Numsiri Kunakemakorn, of the Sycamore Review, you remarked that, “cultures live and define themselves by and through the stories they tell about themselves.  I see one of my responsibilities as a fiction writer as writing those stories, of giving the not-yet-defined some sense of definition, the voiceless a sense of voice.”  Consequently, perhaps, the oppression and discrimination that Southern Italians faced upon their arrival to the promised land of La Merica in the 1900s and beyond, is one that maintains a strong presence throughout your fiction.  From your novel In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, anti-Italianism is revealed to be an ongoing concern, as a group of Italian works learn that they will be paid less than their fellow black and white laborers:
“Being white isn’t something you can get to be,” said the man who could read. “You either are white or you are not.  We’re not, so forget about even trying.” 
Southern Italians are further dismissed as rats with an “inborn inclination toward criminality.”  Yet somehow, Italian Americans eventually attained “whiteness,” but at what cost?  Do you believe cultural balance is possible in the face of assimilation?  Especially now in these contemporary times?

In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu

TA:  Well, we all know that whiteness is a construct, and ideas of ethnicity and race are constantly shifting and relative to cultures.  When I wrote In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, I was very conscious of a book Madison Grant wrote in 1916, The Passing of a Great Race.  In it he spoke of the “Mediterranean Race,” which included the Berbers of North Africa, Spaniards and ancient Egyptians as being “racially identical” with Southern Italians, and therefore racially inferior to the master “Nordic Race.”  Grant used this argument to lobby for the Immigration Act of 1924, which would prohibit the number of “unfit” immigrants able to enter the United States, based on these ideas of racial inferiority.  Italians weren’t considered “white” when they first came to the U.S.  So there was a pressure upon Southern Italians – upon all “non-white” immigrants – to become “white” and embrace “white” values.

OKC:  Did you feel this pressure?

TA:  My parents and grandparents certainly did.  And I guess, to be honest, I did, too.  Like every kid, I wanted to blend in.  As a young boy in Roman Catholic grammar school back on the North Side of Chicago, bored to tears in class, I sometimes used to fantasize that I had a different name.  I changed “Tony” to “Tom” and “Ardizzone” to “Arden” and filled pages with my new signature: Tom Arden.  The boy everyone in class worshipped was named James Webb.  He had blond hair, clear skin, and was quiet and smart.  He was never hassled out on the playground, never taunted with ethnic jokes or slurs, like most of the rest of us were.  Everybody, particularly the nuns, loved James Webb.  I really envied him.  Ethnically, he was invisible.
After a while, I came to realize that what troubled me most was really a strength.  When I began writing short stories in college, I realized that I’d been dealt three cards that, if I was smart, I could use for the rest of my life.  The first was my name, Anthony Vito Joseph Ardizzone, and all the connotations that a name like that carries.  The second was that I’d spent thirteen years in Roman Catholic schools.  I had been an altar boy.  I had been a choir boy.  The third was that I grew up in and intimately knew the neighborhoods of Chicago’s North Side.  When one of my teachers assigned us James Joyce’s Dubliners my life sort of came together, at least my life as a fiction writer.  I saw that I could own Chicago in the same way Joyce owned Dublin, and that I could use my religious background in my fiction.  

OKC:  And the third card?

TA:  Well, it was a long time before the Italian-American part of me came out because I didn’t quite know how to use it, to honor it.  I didn’t read Italian-American writers until after I’d finished college, when I was in my twenties.  None had ever been assigned.  As a result, I had no literary models to base my work on and, looking back, at least part of me still felt ashamed of who I was.  My father shared this shame.  He was born in Chicago, the first-born son of Sicilian parents, and grew up in the projects, public housing, on welfare.  He didn’t speak English until he went to school.  His father was hospitalized with tuberculosis, and so since the age of ten, my father was more or less in charge of his family: his mother, two younger sisters, and mentally disabled younger brother.  This was the 1930s, during the Great Depression.  To make ends meet, each day after school he sold newspapers in Grant Park.  He worked two or three jobs his entire life.  When I was older, he told me how much he dreaded every two weeks pulling a red wagon from the projects where he lived as a kid to pick up the groceries the government handed out to the families on welfare.  In a letter I still have, my father wrote, “I nearly died as I walked thru all those blocks (8 to 10) with everyone (I thought) watching me.  My pride was so hurt.  I felt a stigma as I pulled my loaded wagon for the whole world to see.” 

OKC: In the haunting, but beautifully-rendered story “Nonna,” from your early story collection, The Evening News, an elderly, widowed Neapolitan wanders from her tiny, congested apartment through her much-changed neighborhood in Chicago’s West Side, searching for the old bakeries and corner stores that once served as a gathering point for the fellow Italian Americans she knew.  Childless and seemingly disconnected from family or friends, she gazes upon the passing faces and street signs, desperate for any trace of Italian, but finds none.  She is further disturbed by the looming eviction from her apartment, after having been moved several times already in the past, thanks to socio-political motivations toward “progress” in tearing down ethnic communities to build malls and parking lots.  Throughout reading “Nonna,” I could not help but think of Tina De Rosa’s classic novel Paper Fish, where the Italian neighborhoods of Chicago’s West Side are torn down by the abrupt and violent presence of wrecking balls and steamrollers.  How essential do you believe is place in terms of nurturing and/or replanting an ethnic community?

TA:  Place is essential, absolutely, for any ethnic community.  My story “Nonna” is set in exactly the same neighborhood Tina De Rosa set Paper Fish, the near West Side neighborhood Mayor Richard J. Daley decided to devastate so that the city could build the University of Illinois at Chicago.  After I finished college, before I went to grad school, I lived and worked in that neighborhood for two years.

Chicago has a history of destroying its Italian-American neighborhoods.  The neighborhood where my father grew up was on the near North Side, in St. Philip Benizi’s parish.  It was known as “Little Sicily.”  Over time it fell victim to “urban renewal” and piece by piece was destroyed to make room for the Cabrini-Green housing projects.  The  magnificent old church, built in 1904, was eventually torn down.  The Italians of Chicago, like the Italians of Boston and many other major U.S. cities, were eventually driven to the suburbs.  They were dispersed, scattered.  As were their communities.

Dislocation is an ongoing element in my work.  The Whale Chaser involves the relocation and internment of Italians and Italian Americans shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The Evening News

OKC:  The nature of storytelling maintains a strong influence in the narrative shape and structure of your work.  From her book By the Breath of their Mouths: Narratives of Resistance in Italian America, Mary Jo Bona described you as “a verbal ventriloquist, donning several literary hats, including that of historian, folklorist, magical realist, and contemporary author…[who] unites Italian and Anglo narrative traditions in an effort to simulate the increasingly dual traditions from which Italians in America partake.”  She goes on to suggest that this narrative style mirrors an oral storytelling shaped by the poverty and disadvantages that the great majority of Southern Italians once faced, as she cites you in an interview: “the fact that the characters don’t read, that they tell stories they have heard before and will tell again.”  How might the nature of this type of storytelling be one that shapes the culture of a community and how it interacts with one another, but it also defines what it means to be Southern Italian?

TA:  With the exception of a few letters my father wrote to me before he died, all of the stories I know about my Sicilian family were told to me, were oral narratives, stories told around a dining room or kitchen table.  

When I began to write In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, I set out to create a book that I felt hadn’t yet been written.  I was teaching ethnic American literature, studying the works of a wide range of other ethnic writers, and I couldn’t find a novel that treated Southern Italian immigration to the New World in a more or less complete way.  I realized quickly that I should write such a book but not realistically, with a more or less objective, descriptive third-person narrator.  So I decided to do it basically in voice.  The narrative tradition that I used came from my nonna’s house, from stories from my father’s side of the family.  I tried to write in the voices of my aunts and uncles, my father’s sisters and their husbands.

I remember being seven or eight years old at my nonna’s house, listening to the men talking in the front room, as they sat watching a baseball or football game on an old black-and-white TV, then running back to the kitchen where the women talked as they worked near the sink or stove or sat around the kitchen table, and all of them were telling stories.  As I listened, I came to understand that more often than not they spoke indirectly.  Of course part of the reason was because there were kids like me around, kids with big ears.  But another part involved their wit, their clear and simple oral art, the joy they’d take when they could say something cleverly.  I learned that there were ways to talk without being literal.  And I learned that there was language that, if you wanted to understand it, you had to be smart, clever.

Perhaps this indirect way of speaking is a defense mechanism tied to Sicily’s past, a way of survival against the many foreigners, the invaders, who ravaged the island.  As the old saying goes, whoever ruled Sicily, ruled the world.  You could tell the history of much of Western civilization by looking at the history of Sicily.  

OKC:  Were there other influences at play in writing In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu?
TA:  I was reading a lot of books for my ethnic lit classes, and there were two books in particular that influenced me.  The first was Italo Calvino’s marvelous collection Italian Folktales, which gave me the idea of ending each of my novel’s chapters with rhyming couplets, like the Sicilian folktales, and also gave me the inspiration to use folktale as a way to tell a realistic series of stories.  The second book was Maxine Hong Kingston’s incredible China Men, in which she not only tells the history of a people, but also imagines three different ways that her grandfather might have come to the Americas.  I really liked what she did, and I was impressed by the boldness of her imagination.  

I also felt, after watching The Godfather II, that there would be no way a realistic novel could compete with the amazing landscape that Coppola captures in the backstory section of that film.  One of the obligations of writers, of artists of any type, is to make things new.  So I gave In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu a ruling narrator, a woman named Rosa Dolci, whose stories begin and end the book.  She’s a woman with a harelip, the wife of the family’s third son.  I imagined that each of the book’s chapters was told by a different character from the local village sitting in a circle at night around a fire, and so the novel makes a circle as each passes the torch of story from one character to the next, until dawn, when Rosa ties the knot.

OKC:  In a previous email exchange, you mentioned to me that writing Larabi’s Ox: Stories of Morocco enabled you to write In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, a novel you mentioned in your interview with the Sycamore Review as one you’d tried writing as early as the 1970s, but was unable to execute in a satisfying way.  What was it about writing Larabi’s Ox that inspired you to write a novel so heavily entrenched in Sicilian culture and folklore as In The Garden of Papa Santuzzu?

TA:  When I went to Morocco for the first time, I was shocked by how familiar things there seemed to me.  People would tell me things that they claimed were uniquely Moroccan, and I understood them almost immediately.  For example, they’d talk about the Hand of Fatima, which wards off perception and protects against the evil eye, and I connected that with the corno, with the mano cornuta and the mano fica.  They’d talk about water and the spirits that dwelled within water, and I knew about that from the Italian folktales I’d read.  I’d be invited into someone’s home and served a vegetable dish that my host claimed was uniquely Moroccan, and it would be carduni, prepared exactly the way my godmother, my Aunt Eva, made it.  Once I was in Ouarzazate staying with a Berber friend, whose family lived in a house that was probably a thousand years old, a house made of immensely thick earthen walls, and they gave me a plate of sweets that were exactly like the biscotti made by my grandmother.  I could list each ingredient in them.  I recognized so many Moroccan things that I came to realize that what I was really knew was a Mediterranean experience.  By that time, I was already reading the work of Italian-American writers – Pietro di Donato, Helen Barolini, Jerre Mangione, John Fante, Ben Morreale, and others – and of course I’d watched the Godfather films many times.  I knew that if I was able to write about Morocco maybe I could write In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu.  I realized that my father’s parents came from the African face of Sicily, and so like an Arab my approach to Sicily and Italian themes came from Africa, from the south.

At the time I was writing Papa Santuzzu, I hung up old pictures of my grandparents and would often just look at them, asking them for help in how to write their stories until I finally felt I could do it.  I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been my grandfather, whose name I carry as my middle name, as he stood in Menfi, on the shores of the sea separating Sicily from Africa, as he said goodbye to his parents, who he would never see again, as he made the trek to Palermo where he caught the ship that in 1911 took him to the New World.  

The Whale Chaser

OKC:  In your latest novel, The Whale Chaser, young Vince Sansone is driven from his home in Chicago by his violently abusive father to a tiny fishing village of Tofino on Vancouver Island, where he works as a fisherman like his father, before falling into the local drug trade, and then finally finds his place as a whale guide, or whale chaser.  Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the 1960s, Vince undergoes his own intense transformation through wrestling with the demons of his family’s past, including those of his grandfather, who was one of thousands of Italians and Italian Americans whose property was seized, and one of hundreds who was interned in a prison camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  What inspired you to write this novel?  With regards to the experience of Vince’s grandfather, how were you able to depict the realities of this tragic, but little-known piece of Italian American history through the lens of fiction?

TA:  One of my friends, the writer Charles Johnson, who is perhaps best known for his National Book Award-winning novel The Middle Passage, told me that James Allen McPherson once told him that it was the obligation of every African-American writer to put into each story or book they write a little bit of unknown or untold African-American history.  I like to think that this suggestion might apply to every writer working with a subject matter or experience that’s marginalized, that writers have an obligation to give voice to stories that are still untold.

When I wrote the earliest drafts of The Whale Chaser, I struggled with pieces of a puzzle I didn’t yet understand.  I knew I wanted to write a novel about a boy who leaves the U.S. for Canada in the late 1960s for reasons other than the draft, and I knew I wanted to write a book that was partly set in Canada.  For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel each summer to the Pacific Northwest, and as a result I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.  I wanted to write about that experience.  I also wanted to work with the theme of abuse, both physical and sexual abuse.  There’s a psychological dislocation that happens in those situations.  It seemed right for the book and its larger themes.  And of course I knew I’d be working with my three givens: Roman Catholicism, Chicago, and my ethnic background.

One of the first lines I wrote was a line that is still in the novel’s first chapter:  “Like my father and my grandfather, I draw my living from the sea.”  You can see that I was still affected by the image of my grandfather standing on the shores of the sea.  But then I wondered why was this family living in Chicago?  Why wouldn’t a man who took his living from the sea live on a coast?  Then, eventually, the novel’s backstory came to me.  The family had been displaced from the West Coast.

One of the historical facts that The Whale Chaser raises concerns the seizure of property and the internment of Italians and Italian Americans shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  February 24, 1942 is known as la male notte, “the bad night,” when tens of thousands of Italians and Italian Americans were arrested as “enemy aliens,” and when hundreds were arrested and later interned in camps, some for a period of over two years.  

Several vibrant Italian-American fishing communities in California were destroyed in a single night since the fishermen’s boats were seized and impounded.  The government feared the boats could be used for spying.  Curfews and prohibited zones were created.  Due to the travel restrictions placed on Italian Americans, Joe DiMaggio’s own parents couldn’t even go to his restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.  Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who helped create the atomic bomb, was prohibited from traveling freely along the East Coast.  Consider the reaction to 9/11. Consider what governments are capable of doing.

One of the great ironies in all of this is that the ethnic group that served in greatest numbers during World War II was Italian Americans.  I imagined Vince’s father coming home to Monterey after the war, coming home to a boarded-up house, finding that the family boat had been impounded, finding his mother desolate, his father imprisoned.  And while I don’t want to make excuses for the violence with which he treats his son, I hope the book’s readers will at least understand some of his frustrations.  He is balanced, by the way, by one of the most gentle characters I’ve ever written, Mr. Santangelo, the neighborhood butcher, whose lovely daughter Vince falls in love with.  So in The Whale Chaser we have the son of the fishmonger falling for the butcher’s daughter.  As I was writing the book’s early drafts, details and motifs like these began to click into place, and soon I realized that when Vince runs from the U.S. to Canada he had no other choice but to go west.  In a karmic sort of way, he needs to recover what was taken from his family, what was stolen from his grandfather.  So Vince goes as far west in Canada as he possibly can, to the town of Tofino on the West coast of Vancouver Island.  It’s the literal end of the road, the western terminus of the Trans-Canada Highway.

OKC:  You mentioned in a previous email exchange about a new collection you are working on called The Calling of Saint Matthew, that is set in Rome circa 2004-05, “with each story generated by one or more of Rome’s churches.”  Could you speak to this new project and what inspired its creation?

TA:  The Calling of Saint Matthew begins in late December 2004, at the time of the devastating Southeast Asian tsunami, and ends the following April, with the death of Pope John Paul II.  Each of the stories in the collection focuses on at least one of Rome’s churches, with its art or history serving as a triggering point, a generative subject.  Those familiar with Rome will recognize that the title story is concerned with the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, where three of Caravaggio’s paintings hang.  The title story focuses on an investment banker from Boston named Matthew who visits Rome, and San Luigi dei Francesi, with his wife, Elena.  

Stylistically, I’m returning to third person, much as I did in Larabi’s Ox, with a narrative stance that relies more on description than on voice.  God willing, I hope to be able to finish this book within the next year or so.

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

TA:  I should be the one thanking you.  We all know that the landscape for writers, particularly with the closing of so many newspapers and the death of so many book review sections, has changed drastically, and now readers are hearing less and less about books and writers who aren’t best sellers.  Nearly all writers concerned with ethnic experiences fall into this group, so let me thank you for your time and the gracious attention you’re giving my work.  I’m so complimented that Il Regno is giving me this space to discuss my writing.  Critics like you are so important to the continuation of our art form, our culture, and our literature.

Please visit Tony Ardizzone at:

Tony Ardizzone with be reading from The Whale Chaser at the John D. Calandra Institute in New York City on December 8th, 2011 at 6pm. This event is free and open to the public.

You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at:

September 11, 2011

A look at the Annual Procession of Maria S.S. Addolorata in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

The annual procession in honor of Our Lady of Sorrows has been celebrated in Carroll Gardens since 1948. The event is sponsored by the Congrega Maria S.S. Addolorata.
Maria S.S. Addolorata
Members of the Congrega Maria S.S. Addolorata pose for a picture outside Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary — St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church
Fireworks kickoff the festivities
Balloons are released into the sky
The procession begins
These adorable little angels are the tradition's future
Outside the 76th Precinct to give thanks to New York's Finest
The procession makes its way through the neighborhood
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

A look at the Fourth Annual Procession of Maria S.S. Addolorata in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn

A pictorial of yesterday's (9/10/11) Fourth Annual Procession of Maria S.S. Addolorata at St. Athanasius Church in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The event is sponsored by the Associazione Culturale Pugliese Figli Maria S.S. Addolorata.
Stephen LaRocca, President of the Saint Rocco Society of Potenza, makes an offering inside the beautiful St. Athanasius Church

These cuties were the life of the party

The procession makes its way through the neighborhood

Balloons with a portrait of the Madonna were released into the sky

Members of the Societa S. Padre Pio (pictured) and Saint Rocco Society of Potenza joined in the celebration

(Left) Balloons with portraits of the Madonna lined the procession route  
(Right) Some houses along the way had shrines devoted to the Madonna

Grand Marshals Filomena and Vito Carmelo accompany the Monsignor

Participants enjoying the festivities

Figli Maria S.S. Addolorata members pose for a picture outside St. Athanasius Church (Photos by New York Scugnizzo)

September 9, 2011

A glimpse at the 8th Annual Black Madonna di Tindari Festival

Revelers dance the pizzica (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)

By Giovanni di Napoli

Last night in honor of the Nativity of the Virgin (September 8th), I briefly attended the 8th Annual Black Madonna di Tindari Festival in Manhattan's East Village. It was held at the Phoenix Bar (447 E 13th St.), a former storefront chapel dedicated to the Black Madonna established by Sicilian immigrants at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

Sadly, there was no Madonna on display. Apparently the statue is now in a private collection in New Jersey and the organizers were unable to obtain its use for the celebration. I did, however, get to mingle a little with the many interesting guests, have a drink with some friends and enjoy some live pizzica music and dance.

The event started off wonderfully, but unfortunately I was unable to stay long because of a prior engagement I had to keep. I look forward to next year's celebration and giving it the coverage it deserves.
Ephesian Artemis 
(Photo courtesy of Around Naples Encyclopedia)

It should be noted there are hundreds of representations (statues and paintings) of the Black Madonna across Europe. She is, of course, depicted with a dark complexion, but not with African features, similar to the Ephesian Artemis in the Naples Archaeological Museum. In fact, some of the more interesting theories about her coloration claim that she sprung from the pre-Christian chthonic goddesses (Cybele, Rhea, Gaia, etc.) or the Egyptian goddess Isis.

For more information on the Black Madonna of East Thirteenth Street please visit for a wonderful article by Dr. Joseph Sciorra. 

Addendum (added on September 22, 2011):

A reader submitted a photo of the Gates of Dawn that she took on vacation in Vilnius, Lithuania. The Chapel of the Black Madonna can be seen on the second floor.

Addendum 2 (added on March 16, 2012):

Better late than never. While researching for my upcoming sketch about Onofrio Avellino I discovered an overlooked photo I took in 2010 of the "Black Madonna of Sorrento" in the Santuario della Madonna del Carmine. The Sorrentine icon "only" dates from the sixteenth century. 
Vergine Bruna di Sorrento (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)

September 6, 2011

Preserving Our History, A Capitalist Perspective

Endangered mosaics and frescoes at Pompeii 
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

By Lucian

We have written before about the tragedy befalling the archeological treasures of Italy; and how the greed, corruption and misplaced loyalties within modern cosmopolitan society have contributed to their destruction. The damage to our cultural heritage has finally reached a point where it is having a negative impact on business that will only worsen if the status quo continues. In other words, the short-term profit for abandoning our traditional values is ending and the consequences have only just begun.

In the past I have attributed at least part of the blame to the greed of corporate shareholders and the trend of eliminating small or family run businesses in favor of large companies that have no use for ethnic or cultural loyalties; a trend that seems to have the full support of most western governments. I also blame the ideologies that generate anti-Western sentiment while they exploit the almost naïve generosity the West confers, and of course the many misguided Europeans that believe that cultural suicide is something to be proud of.
Temple of Apollo, Pompeii

However, I do my best to be fair, and while corporations are entities in and of themselves, they are made up of many individuals, some of whom are becoming just as disgusted with the condition of our archeological sites as I am. Unlike me, some of these people are in an infinitely better position to do something about it, two such men in particular.

I recently read an article in Newsweek (July 25, 2011), by Barbie Latza Nadeau, entitled “Italy’s Luxury Bailout.” From this I learned of the preservation efforts of Diego Della Valle and Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. Both of these business leaders recognize that their company brands depend on the world’s perception of Italian culture, and that the Italian tourist industry accounts for 8.6% of Italy’s gross domestic product.
Stucco from the Tepidarium, Pompeii

Mr. Della Valle, whose family is from the Le Marche region in Central Italy, is head of Tod’s, a luxury leather goods company. He has donated over $40 million of his private funds for the restoration of Italian cultural and historical sites such as the Roman Colosseum and La Scala opera house, and has not asked for advertising rights or control of the work being done. His company is now pursuing similar initiatives. “La Scala is easily one of the top 10 symbols of Italy’s cultural excellence” said Della Valle. “That makes it vital to our global image. Closing it would send a message to the rest of the world that Italy doesn’t care.”

Mr. Montezemolo was born in Bologna, and is the president of Ferrari. He excels at raising funds for similar causes. Earlier this year he formed Italia Futura, a group that promotes Italian culture and history through the preservation of its art and archeological treasures. “Culture is our core business,” said Montezemolo. “If we don’t invest in that business, we have no future.”
Temple of Jupiter, Pompeii

Together they are encouraging other Italian businesses to follow suit, adopt monuments and sponsor restoration and preservation efforts. Their actions have been praised, but also criticized. Their brands and future profits depend on maintaining a positive view of Italian culture and the traditions that have come to be associated with it. There is also unofficial talk of Mr. Montezemolo eventually using Italia Futura as a machine for his own political ambitions. In this light, their motivations have been labeled self-serving. I, however, do not see this as a bad thing. In fact, it almost assures a stronger effort to preserve several of the things that people like me care about.

There will be those who ask why a Southern Italian ethnocentric blog would promote Central and Northern Italian businessmen, especially since we continually state that Southern Italy has been historically exploited by the Northern government and corporations. The answer is twofold.
The sacred grove of Venus, Pompeii

First, and quite simply, these men are also preserving Southern Italian sites and relics such as Pompeii. We need the funds and we need them badly. Is this attitude selling out? I hardly think so. We relentlessly promote our people’s cultural history as one of the cornerstones of our philosophy. With this in mind it would be foolish to refuse their efforts to help preserve it, especially at a time when the aid comes freely. Italian companies, among other Western corporations, have donated millions in relief efforts to third-world countries with little possibility of return profits, so when they invest in our own cultural heritage and protect their own interests in the same action, there is little cause to complain.

Second, Della Valle and Montezemolo may not be Southern Italian, but they are European, and Northern and Central Italy are part of our greater European heritage. I obviously care about preserving Southern Italian cultural interests, such as Pompeii, Matera and the Palazzo dei Normanni, but I have no wish to see any other ancient European landmark destroyed; or, for that matter the relics of the Egyptians, Asians or any other people. I am, however, of European descent, and as such the history of all Europe is of special significance to me. A sentiment that is commonly understood and practiced among Asians, Africans and Native Americans, many of whom take there own cultures and historical relics very seriously indeed, as they should.
The Roman Colosseum

The key to promoting your interests in any Capitalist society is making your ideas financially profitable. If you can do this, people will sell your idea for you, even to their own detriment. Take, for example, the fashionable “Che” T-shirts featuring the Communist revolutionary point man Che Guevara. If this person’s ideas, or methods, were applied, many of the bourgeois merchants manufacturing these T-shirts would be imprisoned, murdered or driven into poverty or exile. As you can see, this doesn’t stop them.

Now look at a situation where very successful businessmen have come to the conclusion that their profits actually depend upon the preservation of our cultural heritage. This is a significant development with enormous potential, and we should encourage it. The fear of commercialization is valid, but that possibility may not be as big a threat as it first seems. Over commercialization would not only cheapen our cultural heritage, it would cheapen the brands that rely on it, and eventually cause a loss of profit. “I don’t want Pompeii to become a Disney World,” said Montezemolo. “But I also don’t want it to disappear entirely.”
Inside the Roman Colosseum

I honestly don’t know how either of these businessmen feel about Southern Italian political autonomy, I haven’t dug deeply enough to confirm anything. If I had to guess, I’m sure that their opinion would have a lot to do with popular sentiment and the effect they think it would have on their businesses. On the Italia Futura website, I did see some positive support for Southern culture and economic potential. I do know that I am grateful for the efforts that they have made in supporting Italian culture and history, both Northern and Southern.

In conclusion, the motivations of these powerful businessmen might have an element of self-interest, but as long as it contributes to the preservation of our culture, then it doesn’t matter. With respect to cultural preservation, selfish motivations or political ambitions are, at this point, irrelevant to our purposes; the long-term results should be the focus. It is often said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, so perhaps the path to salvation can contain some questionable cobblestones. With Heaven or Hell, it is the ultimate destination that is important, after all.