January 31, 2012

The Great Cocozza: The Tragically Short Life of Mario Lanza

Mario Lanza
By Niccolò Graffio
“My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends- It gives a lovely light!” — Edna St. Vincent Millay: First Fig, (1920)
My clearest memories growing up of my father was of him being a workaholic.  He had spent the first 17 years of his life living in Italy helping his mother and older brothers try to eke out a living on the family farm.  His father immigrated to America and found work with the railroads.  As happened to many of our people, he spent most of his time here while sending money back to help the family.  In addition, he saved up his money to help pay for the passage of his sons to follow him.  

You see, while all this was going on, Benito Mussolini was busy pursuing his dreams of building a “fourth shore” (i.e. establish a second Roman Empire under his command).  Towards this end he allied himself with Adolf Hitler, another winner, and together they ignited another European conflagration.

The result was peoples in Italy were forced to live under severe rationing and oppressive taxation for the duration of the war.  At its end many areas, especially rural ones, were at famine or near famine conditions.  It was under these circumstances my father was raised in and finally left when his father sent for him in 1946 to join him in America.
Unless one grew up in this country during the Great Depression, one could not possibly fathom life under such destitute and perilous circumstances.  Though he eventually became a prominent local businessman, the memory of his childhood haunted him throughout his life.  He worked 12 hours a day six to seven days a week to avoid the poverty he endured as a child.  He made sure we grew up with a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and plenty of food in our bellies.  I am forever grateful to him for that, though admittedly I wish I had seen more of him growing up.

It was largely my mother’s influence that shaped me as I grew to manhood.  It was she who instilled in me my love of everything good: good wine, good food and good song.  It was she who nurtured in me the realization that I was not an “Italian” but in fact a Sicilian!  It was she who made me realize that as a Southern Italian I was not only different from other Americans but other Italians, as well.

All this she was able to do while I was bombarded at school, at church and from the television with the tacit message that to be a Southern Italian, especially a Sicilian, was something shameful.  My mother was proof education begins in the home!  Yes, Mr. Roosevelt, I am a hyphenated American and I am proud of it!

Part of my education at my mother’s knee was her sharing with me her love of music and cinema.  My mother didn’t care much for the popular culture of my era, naturally preferring that of her youth.  I grew up in both worlds, gaining an appreciation of both.  When I was with my friends I would listen to the music of groups like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac.  When I was home with my mother I would listen to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, etc.

So it was likewise with movies.  With my friends I saw movies by actors such as Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood, etc.  At home many times I’d sit in front of the TV with my mom and watch classical Hollywood cinema with actors like Clark Gable, John Wayne, Bette Davis and the like.  Many my age would have said I was crazy (or worse) for doing such things, but fortunately I was not like them.

Of all the entertainers my mother loved, one of her favorites was the actor/singer Mario Lanza.  For those of you reading this that may not be familiar with him, he was a major Hollywood movie star of the late 1940s and 1950s.   His stupendous tenor, coupled with his Mediterranean good looks and superior acting talents, gave him a charisma that made him an overnight sensation!  Yet sadly he joined the ranks of so many other stars that died way before their time.  Though he has been gone over 52 years my mom still listens to his songs (she has all his albums).  

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, yes, he was a Southerner; the son of Abruzzese-Molisan parents, to be exact.  For that, and for his enduring legacy in the world of music, especially opera, he deserves an honored place among other Titans of the South.  I also know my mom would love to read about him.

Alfredo Arnold Cocozza was born on January 31st, 1921 in South Philadelphia.  His father, Antonio Cocozza, was born in the town of Filignano in the region of Molise, Italy.  Antonio immigrated to the United States when he was just 16 years old.  He later joined the U.S. Army and fought in the First World War, being badly wounded in his right hand during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (September 26th – November 11th, 1918).  Alfredo’s mother, Maria (née Lanza) was born in the town of Tocco da Casauria (Abruzzi region), not far from Filignano.  Her family immigrated to America when she was just six months old. 

Antonio and Maria met in South Philadelphia for the first time in 1919.  After a brief courtship they married and moved into her parents’ home at 636 Christian Street in South Philadelphia.  Two years later Alfredo was born.  Shortly after this the family moved to 2040 Mercy Street, also in South Philadelphia, where at the age of two “Freddie” was surprised by his parents with the gift of a piano.  Never one to do well in school, his teachers later recalled that he would much rather sing than study.

Antonio Cocozza was an avid music lover, especially of opera.  Freddie grew up listening to his father’s recordings, and often sang along with them.  By the time he reached the age of 16 it was apparent to his parents the boy had real talent and potential.  They took the teen to a baritone named Antonio Scarduzzo who recognized Freddie’s gift and agreed to teach him for 18 months.  After this he studied under another music teacher named Irene Williams who took a personal interest in him and worked to get him into the music world.

Not too long after this he came to the attention of William K. Huff, concert manager at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.  Huff in turn arranged for Freddie to have an audition with famed conductor and composer Serge Koussevitzky.  Koussevitzky was so impressed with the young man’s talents he invited him to attend (with full scholarship) the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. 

It was at Berkshire that Freddie had his (student) opera debut on August 7th, 1942 playing the role of Fenton in the Nicolai/Mosenthal opera The Merry Wives of Windsor.  His performances received rave reviews from representatives of the Metropolitan Opera as well as other music critics.  It was during this time “Freddie” Cocozza took to going by the stage name Mario Lanza, taking the masculine form of his mother’s maiden name.

His future as an opera star was recognized at this time.  Opera producer Herbert Graf, writing of Lanza in the Opera News on October 5th, 1942 said “He would have no difficulty one day being asked to join the Metropolitan Opera.”    

Unfortunately for young Mario, his nascent career in the world of opera was cut short by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, plunging America into World War II.  Drafted into the U.S. Army, he was spared being sent overseas due to his having a bad eye.  Instead he was put into the troupe of entertainer Peter Lind Hayes, traveling with him across the country putting on concerts at army bases.  He also appeared in the wartime shows On the Beam and Winged Victory.  Military publications dubbed him “the Service Caruso.”

In January, 1945 Lanza received a medical release from Walla Walla General Hospital in Washington.  Shortly after this he moved to California to be with his girlfriend Betty Lyhan; they married three months later.  They then moved to New York where Mario continued his studies.

He returned to a singing career performing in a concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Atlantic City in September, 1945.  It was here he met and performed under conductor Peter Herman Adler, who later agreed to mentor him.  

Lanza then studied with noted teacher Enrico Rosati, who upon first hearing him sing was said to have looked up to the heavens and exclaim “I have been waiting for this voice to come along for many, many years!”  After studying with Rosati for about 15 months Lanza joined soprano Agnes Davis for a tour of Canada.  After this he was set to begin a tour of Mexico, America and Canada as part of the Bel Canto Trio with soprano Frances Yeend and baritone George London.

While performing with Ms. Yeend at the Hollywood Bowl on August 28, 1947 Mario caught the attention of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer.  Mayer, the head of MGM Studios, was attending the concert with actress Kathryn Grayson, with whom Lanza would later make his first two motion pictures.  Mayer convinced Lanza to take a screen test and subsequently signed him up to a seven-year contract with the studio.  As those close to him would later relate, Mario would come to regret that decision.

His first movie with MGM was That Midnight Kiss (1949) which was a commercial success.  This was followed with another commercial success the next year, The Toast of New Orleans.  It was on the soundtrack of this movie that Lanza sang “Be My Love”, the first of three million-selling singles that would make Lanza wildly popular.  The song was also nominated for an Academy Award.

Yet ironically, Mario Lanza’s sudden fame and fortune made him feel all the more insecure, for he now realized the mistake he had made pursuing a career in Hollywood before establishing himself as a tenor in the opera world.  Had he done the latter first, he would have had a firm base for himself in the event his movie career fizzled out.

His next movie, The Great Caruso, was made in 1951.  It co-starred Ann Blyth.  For Lanza this movie represented the pinnacle of his success in Hollywood.  It was also the fulfillment of a dream, for the legendary Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso was a boyhood idol of his.  The movie, a largely fictionalized account of Caruso’s life, drew barbs from a number of critics, but it was a resounding commercial success!  One person who gave it two thumbs up was Caruso’s son Enrico Jr., a tenor in his own right.  Years after it was made he was quoted as saying “I can think of no other tenor, before or since Mario Lanza, who could have risen with comparable success to the challenge of playing Caruso in a screen biography."

Lanza was now an idol in his own right.  Unfortunately, like the idol of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he had feet of clay.  He was scheduled to complete a film in 1952 called The Student Prince, but was dismissed by MGM after walking off the set due to a disagreement with the director,  Curtis Bernhardt, over one of the songs in the film’s soundtrack.  In what could only be called a spiteful act, the studio then leaked to the press that it was problems with Lanza’s weight that led to his dismissal, even though his weight was clearly normal at the beginning of production.

As a result of this, Lanza’s insecurity came to the fore.  He became a recluse who went on alcoholic binges.  He remained in this depressed state for more than year.

By 1955 he was able to come out of his shell and returned to pursuing an active movie career.  He starred in the 1956 film Serenade co-starring Joan Fontaine.  The movie did not do nearly as well at the box office as his previous endeavors.  He subsequently was sent by MGM to Italy where he then worked on the film Seven Hills of Rome (Italian title: Arrivederci Roma) a 1958 film co-starring Marisa Allasio.  The movie was nominated for a Laurel Award (1959) by Motion Picture Exhibitor Magazine.

After completing Seven Hills of Rome he went on an extended singing tour of the British Isles and mainland Europe.   It was around this time that Lanza’s physical health began to deteriorate.  His frequent alcoholic binges, coupled with his habit of overeating and crash-dieting, no doubt hastened his decline, but there is evidence from his family history a genetic factor may have also been involved.

In late 1958 Mario Lanza would make his final movie For the First Time (1959).  It would receive special praise from critics, especially for Lanza’s rendition of the tenor aria “Vesti la giubba” from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s immortal opera Pagliacci.  

In April, 1959 he would suffer a mild heart attack, followed by a bout of double pneumonia in August of that same year.  Two months later, dogged by recurring weight gain due to his habit of overeating, he unwisely checked into a hospital in Rome to begin a controversial weight loss program known as “the twilight sleep treatment”.  This involved keeping the patient immobile and sedated for long periods of time to induce weight loss (not a very good thing to do to a heart patient).  On October 7th, 1959 he developed a pulmonary embolism and died.  He was only 38 years old.

Death continued to work its maleficient magic on his family even after he was gone.  Within five months of his demise his widow Betty would die of a respiratory ailment for which she had been receiving treatment.  She was only 37.  Their younger son Marc would die of a heart attack in 1991, also at the age of 37.  Their elder daughter Colleen was struck and killed by two passing vehicles on a highway in 1997.  She was only 48.  Damon, their eldest son, died of a heart attack in 2008 at the age of 55.

As often happens when an iconic figure dies prematurely, Mario Lanza’s death spawned a conspiracy theory.  According to this one, Lanza was “iced” by none other than Carlo “Lucky” Luciano for reneging on a promise to perform for the mob boss, making him look bad.  The pulmonary embolism Lanza suffered in the hospital was induced, so they say.  That there is no record of Lanza ever having any communication with Luciano and that his history of heart disease is well established matters little to the purveyors of this nonsense.

Though his life and career were tragically cut short, his impact on the world of music, especially opera, speaks for itself.  A number of later tenors, including José Carreras, Plàcido Domingo and the great Luciano Pavarotti, to name a few, claim to have been inspired by him.  Whatever one may think of his personal shortcomings, he is still fondly remembered by those in the world of film and music.  His position in the history books is secured and he is truly deserving of being numbered among the greats as a Titan of the South!

Further reading:
1) Armando Cesare: Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy (Great Voices 7); Baskerville Publishers, 2004

January 14, 2012

The Unacknowledged Prejudice: Anti-Italian Sentiment in Modern America (A book review)

Anti-Italianism: Essays on a Prejudice (Italian and Italian American Studies) Edited by William J. Connell and Fred Gardaphé.  U.S.A. PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2010.  210 Pages.  

Authors at the Italian American Museum's Anti-Italianism: Essays on a Prejudice book presentation. L-R: Professor Fred Gardaphé, Dr. Elizabeth G. Messina, Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa, LindaAnn LoSchiavo and Professor William J. Connell. (Photos by New York Scugnizzo)
By Niccolò Graffio

The first Europeans to arrive on these shores hundreds of years ago in many cases came as religious refugees fleeing from authoritarian governments that did not look kindly upon them.  Others arrived seeking economic opportunities denied them back in Europe due to restrictive, archaic economic systems.  A number of these people, unable to pay their fares, had them paid for by employers here; in return they assumed the lot of indentured servants.

When writing about the phenomenon of immigration to America, historians often like to focus on periods in our history of successive waves of peoples.  The first period is often termed the “Colonial era” roughly spanning the years 1600-1775.  During this time the main body of immigrants to what would become the original 13 states originated largely from the British Isles, the Dutch Republic (later the Kingdom of the Netherlands) and what would eventually evolve into the nation of Germany.  During this time another large body of peoples arrived on these shores under circumstances even less auspicious than those of indentured servants – slaves from West Africa.

From the time America declared its independence until about 1830 America experienced something of a respite in immigration.  Things ‘picked up’ again after 1830 when another wave of immigrants began to hit these shores; once again from the British Isles, Germany and now from Scandinavia and Ireland as well.  Previous arrivals to these shores had by now established themselves, and indeed a number of them achieved a fair degree of opulence.  

While many new immigrants did take advantage of America’s expanding borders to seek opportunities out west, others chose the comforts of living in towns and cities.  The new arrivals were in some ways different from previous ones.  The Irish and many of the German arrivals were Roman Catholics.  This did not sit well with the largely Protestant natives.  In addition, the new immigrants, fleeing conditions of deprivation, were willing to work for lower wages than their American counterparts.  This caused no small degree of resentment among members of the working class here, who looked upon the newcomers as rivals for available jobs.  

It should therefore come as no surprise, then, a number of nativist groups arose in reaction to the new wave of immigrants.  The most active of these groups was the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, a secret society dedicated to stopping the immigration of Irish, German and Catholic immigrants to these United States by any and all means necessary!  It eventually morphed into the infamous Know Nothing movement.

The next great wave of immigration began around 1850 and lasted until about 1930.  This period would witness the greatest number and diversity of immigrants in American history to that point.  Burgeoning populations in Northern and Northwestern Europe drove millions of immigrants from Germany and the UK to our shores.  After 1845 large numbers of Irish Catholics arrived here to flee the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine.

After 1870 came a veritable flood of so-called “new immigrants” from Southern and Eastern Europe.  These regions had previously sent few immigrants to these shores.  Population explosions in these areas plus cheaper fares due to steamship technology largely drove the exodus.  Huge numbers of Poles, Russians, Ashkenazi Jews, Hungarians and Greeks streamed into this country.  In addition, for the first time large numbers of immigrants began flocking from the nascent state of Italy, mainly from the southern portion.

It was this portion, the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which gave by far the largest number of immigrants from Italy.  Records from Ellis Island indicate about 80% of Italians who came to America originated in Southern Italy.  As with other newcomers, they faced many hurdles in their attempts to become part of the fabric of America.  Unlike most of the other immigrant groups, however, the hurdles they faced (particularly ethnic prejudice) in some cases persist.  Why, is a subject, sadly for which there is a dearth of written material.  

Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa, president and founder of the Italian American Museum, shows anti-Italian cartoon during the museum's book presentation.
One notable exception is the book Anti-Italianism: Essays on a Prejudice, edited by William J. Connell and Fred Gardaphé.  While it is true several other books have been written on the topic, in my opinion this one makes the best attempt at dealing with the subject matter comprehensively.  In a series of essays by various authors, the subject of anti-Italianism is tackled not just from an historical perspective, but from a sociological one, as well.  In addition, some real solutions to the problem are proffered, not just the usual whining you see in books of this type.

William J. Connell is a professor of history and holder of the Joseph M. and Geraldine C. La Motta Chair in Italian Studies at Seton Hall University.  Fred Gardaphé is the City University of New York Distinguished Professor in Italian American Studies in Queens College, CUNY.

Many of the essays dealt with the issue admirably.  Some enlightened me to events in the history of our people here in America to which I was previously unaware.  Admittedly, however, in the case of a couple of essays I found myself wondering why they were included in the book at all!  

Since 80% of Italian Americans are of Southern Italian descent, I also found myself wishing the book had been written and compiled more from the perspective of Southern Italians, rather than just Italians in general.  It is an unpleasant fact that, as in Italy, here in America more often than not Italians of northern extraction (so-called “Padanians”) will readily turn on southerners whenever it is to their advantage.  Perhaps someone reading this could one day write a book fubu (for us, by us).

Professor Fred Gardaphé
Leading off the book is an excellent essay by Fred Gardaphé entitled Invisible People: Shadows and Light in Italian American Culture which deals with the burning question, “Are Italians White?”  Depending on your own answer to this question, it may surprise you to learn a significant portion of the population of this country (especially in the South) at one time would have unhesitantly answered in the negative.

Modern Italian Americans, according to Gardaphé, walk a tightrope between being accepted by their fellow European Americans as “White” while somehow finding a way to cling to the culture(s) of their forefathers which are largely disdained by other European American groups, especially Irish, Anglo and German Americans.  Indeed, many Italian Americans, especially those of the third and fourth generation, have virtually abandoned their Italic roots and have taken to simply referring to themselves as “Americans”.  

A good question to ask, of course, is one I hardly ever hear anyone asking.  What exactly is meant (in the racial sense) by the word ‘White?’  As Massachusetts College of Arts history professor Noel Ignatiev pointed out in his book How the Irish Became White (New York; Routledge, 1996), many Anglo nativists in 19th century America (especially north of the Mason-Dixon Line) viewed Irish Catholic immigrants as something decidedly less than White.  It therefore comes as something of an irony they in turn would one day heap such an invective on us.

To be a “good American” (and therefore be accepted as ‘White’) Gardaphé points out we must suppress our ethnic identity.  I can attest to the veracity of this.  I have witnessed on innumerable occasions when those of Irish and German descent who loudly and proudly proclaim their roots are met with approval if not acclamation, usually by those of northern and western European descent.  On the other hand, I’m usually met with silence (or else chided with ethnic slights) whenever I speak pridefully of mine.  Even worse is when I get a ‘patriot’ who then laughably proceeds to lecture me on the evils of calling oneself a “hyphenated American”.  It’s always amusing to point out this sermon originated with Teddy Roosevelt, a man who was known to have been notoriously ethnocentric!

Professor William J. Connell
William J. Connell’s essay Darker Aspects of Italian American Prehistory goes right to the heart of the matter and discusses the origins of anti-Italianism here in the United States.  It was interesting to learn many of this country’s Founding Fathers (like John Adams) harbored some anti-Italian sentiments.  Benjamin Franklin was another one; though it’s worth mentioning ‘Benny’ didn’t like Swedes, Germans, Jews or Spaniards, either.  Had he lived a few decades later he might have made a welcome addition to the Know Nothing movement.

Connell’s thesis is Anglo aversion to the peoples south of the Alps, in part, has its roots in the Protestant Reformation and the rise of Calvinism.  John Calvin, the founder of the Calvinist faith, attacked the character of the peoples of Italy with vituperation.  To him, Italians were lazy, religious hypocrites because the bulk of them refused to renounce Catholicism and embrace Protestantism.  

That the Roman Catholic Church was centered in Italy (and secure in its position thanks to the Roman Inquisition) plus the fact peoples like the Irish, Bavarians and Poles likewise remained Catholic mattered little to him.  His treatises were littered with anti-Italian libels; many of which, according to Connell, influenced people like William Shakespeare and by extension, later Americans.  That John Calvin was a Frenchman at a time when anti-Italianist thought was already rife throughout France (thanks to Italian economic hegemony at a time of rising French nationalism) should have been mentioned.

In that he contrasted strongly with the redoubtable German cleric Martin Luther, who saved his fire and brimstone denunciations for the Catholic Church and the corruptions he felt it spawned, rather than the Italian peoples themselves.

Dr. Elizabeth G. Messina
Another interesting essay was Elizabeth G. Messina’s Perversions of Knowledge: Confronting Racist Ideologies behind Intelligence Testing.  It dealt with the unseemly history of the Eugenics movement in early 20th century America; in particular, how intelligence testing was used to “prove” Eastern and Southern European peoples were cognitively inferior and therefore ‘unworthy’ of immigrating to America.  Ms. Messina is a psychologist who is a faculty member of the Dept. of Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.  She goes fairly in-depth in her essay in how psychologists like Carl C. Brigham and Robert Yerkes, recognized pioneers in the field of intelligence testing, misused their skills in an effort to advance eugenics thought in the United States.

Yerkes and Brigham collaborated closely during World War I administering and compiling data from Army Alpha and Beta testing on Intelligence.  Brigham summarized this data in his book A Study of American Intelligence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1923) with the forward written by Yerkes.  Two outcomes resulted from this book: a) the popularization of eugenics b) the Immigration Act of 1924 which put severe restrictions on immigration to this country from natives of Eastern and Southern Europe.  

Both Brigham and Yerkes used the veneer of scientific testing to thinly mask their own devotion to the social philosophy of Nordicism or Nordic theory.  That is, peoples of northern European descent are innately superior, cognitively and otherwise, to those of eastern or southern European descent.  While Ms. Messina is correct in assessing the damage done to our people by misuse of intelligence testing, her essay would have been helped in no small way by the revelation Carl C. Brigham denounced Nordic theory just seven years after publication of his book (at the height of the Eugenics movement in this country), and thereafter attempted to distance himself from it.  Of course, the damage had already been done.

One essay that stands out in my mind as being unnecessary and even nocuous to this book is Joanne Detore-Nakamura’s “Good Enough”: An Italian American Memoir.  It basically consists of a string of recollections by the author of instances of anti-Italian bigotry she experienced throughout her life.  Since one would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t personally experienced some kind of bigotry from someone, somewhere at some point in their life in this country, the essay to me read more like an exercise in whining than a study in ethnic prejudice on a large scale.

LindaAnn LoSchiavo
By far the essay I enjoyed the most was LindaAnn Loschiavo’s If Defamation is Serious, Why don’t Italian American Organizations Take it Seriously?  This is because Ms. Loschiavo, a writer and dramatist who pens a column on Italian culture and Italian American issues for L’IDEA magazine, offers what I feel to be the best solution to combating this problem.

Ms. Loschiavo’s argument is that other groups in this country who have traditionally faced ethnic prejudices and stereotypes (Irish, Jews, Latinos, etc) have combated it not by just calling attention to the problem, but offering positive alternatives in the form of ethnic literature and theater.  Rather than just let others (and in certain cases, our own) churn out the usual Mafia-type swill associated with our people, Ms. Loschiavo calls on Italians in general and Italian American organizations in particular to seed efforts to create Italian ethnic theater in America, which she points out is appallingly absent!

She is, in effect, throwing down the gauntlet and calling on our people to wage a culture war against those who continually defame us by offering our people and others a positive alternative.  Indeed, this is a wonderful idea!  As Thomas Jefferson once so eloquently stated, “The pen is mightier than the sword”.  To offer a positive alternative is the reason why I became involved with this blog in the first place!

It now remains to be seen if others feel likewise; if they feel it’s worth their time and money to combat age-old prejudices and bigotries.  Simply whining about the problem accomplishes nothing!  That is why overall I recommend Italians (and non-Italians) read this book.  It’s a good start.

January 6, 2012

An Epiphany at the Met

A look at 'The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini' and The Robert Lehman Collection
The Adoration of the Magi, Neapolitan School
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli

I returned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art today to see its latest exhibit, The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini. In addition to viewing some of the finest examples of fifteenth century European portraiture, I was really hoping to see more works by Sicily's Renaissance genius, Antonello da Messina. To my delight there was an additional portrait by the Sicilian master on display. The Met already has two of his paintings in its permanent collection—Portrait of a Young Man (pictured below right) and Christ Crowned with Thorns—so it was a fantastic opportunity to see another one of his masterpieces.

Portrait of a Young Man 
by Antonello da Messina
Understandably, photos are not allowed to be taken at the exhibit, so anyone interested can visit the museum's website to see icons of the portraits. Obviously, these tiny reproductions do no justice to the actual artwork so I recommend viewing the pieces in person, if possible. Otherwise, the next best thing would be to order a copy of the exhibit's excellent catalogue, The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011). The tome is highly informative and full of magnificent color plates. I must emphasize the photos accompanying this article are not from the exhibit!

Messina's Portrait of a Young Man, on loan from Berlin's Gemäldegalerie, is his last known painting, executed a year before his death in 1479. The panel is by far his smallest, measuring a mere 8 X 5 3/4 inches. It is also the only known work by the artist that has his subject standing before a landscape. Interestingly, the figure's right shoulder was shortened to make room for the vista. An inscription in Latin on a label attached to the stone parapet in the foreground reads, "Antonello of Messina painted me." The date is worn, but in 1771 the Venetian art critic Antonio Maria Zanetti the younger records that it read 1478. 

A label in English on the back repeats an amusing anecdote circulated in 1648 by biographer Carlo Ridolfi. It claims the sitter in this picture is none other than the great Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini! Allegedly, Bellini posed as a Venetian nobleman to uncover the Sicilian's reticent oil-painting techniques. Since the painting is referred to as a Portrait of a Young Man and not "The Portrait of Giovanni Bellini" I think it's safe to assume most art historians don't take the story too seriously. After admiring his work, it’s not difficult to see why Messina was so inspirational to Venetian portrait painting.

Curiously, the Sicilian's Portrait of a Young Man in Red is included in the exhibit's catalogue, but is not on view. [Ed. note: I was later contacted by the museum and informed that the piece in question only appeared in the Berlin venue of the exhibition.]

As far as I'm aware, Antonello da Messina is the only Southern Italian artist included in the show. However, other works that may be of interest to our readers include the bronze bust of Alfonso II of Aragon (or Ferrante I of Aragon) by Guido Mazzoni and a marble bust of Beatrice of Aragon by Francesco Laurana.

Scholars can't agree on the identification of Mazzoni's impressive statue. Some believe the highly realistic portrait is of Ferrante I, King of Naples and Jerusalem; others claim it represents his son and heir Alfonso II, Duke of Calabria. Throughout the centuries the piece has alternatively been described as one or the other monarch. The figure wears the heraldic devises of the royal family, including the Order of the Ermine, founded by Ferrante in 1465. The bronze, on loan from the Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte in Naples, has a dark patina and shows traces of gilding. Its dimensions are 16 1/2 x 19 3/4 x 10 1/4 inches.

Unlike Mazzoni's statue, the identity of Francesco Laurana's Beatrice of Aragon is obvious, thanks to the appellation "Diva Beatrix Aragonia" clearly etched at the base. Daughter of King Ferrante I, the maiden's lovely visage has been immortalized in this fantastic marble. Believed to have been carved c. 1474-75, the title also gives us a clue as to when the portrait was made. Since the Neapolitan princess was married to King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary in 1476 the omission of Queen from her title tells us it must have been made before the royal wedding. It stands 16 x 15 7/8 x 8 inches.

Laurana, of course, is the Dalmatian-born sculptor who assisted Pietro da Milano and Domenico Gagini with the relief carvings on the Castel Nuovo's triumphal arch. I had the wonderful privilege of seeing some of Laurana's work, including the Madonna and Child in the Castle's chapel, during one of my pilgrimages to Naples.
There is also a pen-and-ink drawing and a gilded bronze medallion of Alfonso "The Magnanimous," King of Aragon, Naples and Sicily by Pisanello on view.

Afterward, instead of revisiting some of my favorite artwork, I broke from my usual routine and decided to explore a few of the museum's other galleries I haven't frequented recently. My inquisitiveness paid off handsomely.  I discovered two amazing fourteenth century paintings from Naples in the Robert Lehman Collection Atrium (gallery 952). I'm not really sure why I failed to notice these gems before, but they truly are exquisite.

Seeing how today is the Epiphany it was apropos one of the paintings depicts The Adoration of the Magi (pictured top). The work is attributed to the Neapolitan School, sometime before 1343. Its tempera and gold ground on wood and including the tooled border measures 21 3/8 x 15 inches.

The second painting, Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, is by the Neapolitan painter Roberto d'Oderisio (active c. 1330-82).  The panel measures 23 x 15 5/8 inches and is also tempera on wood with gold ground. D'Oderisio (also known as Oderisi) was a disciple of Giotto during the Florentine's influential stints as court artist in Naples under the Angevin Dynasty.
Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene by Roberto d'Oderisio
Feeling lucky, and being somewhat a creature of habit, I couldn't leave without taking a quick peak at the artifacts in the nearby Medieval art galleries. In the display case that usually holds intricately carved oliphants (hunting horns) from Southern Italy was a dazzling crystal ewer. Carved from nearly perfect rock crystal in Norman Sicily between 1100-1200, it's one of the largest examples in existence. In all probability the vessel's unique jagged handle was originally gilded.

Never disappointed with the Met, this was an extraordinarily rewarding visit. I was able to see many new and remarkable pieces of art, including famous works by Northern Italian artists, which is generally not the purpose of this blog.

I would like to point out my interest in the museum and its treasures is not simply nostalgia, but rather an affirmation of what is transcendent in our people and a reminder of our future potential. It is a spiritually uplifting experience for me.
Rock Crystal Ewer, 1100-1200, Sicily
The following source proved invaluable to this post:
The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011)

January 1, 2012

Innovating Naples: An Interview with Author John Domini

By Olivia Kate Cerrone

John Domini
A cultural dialogue remains relevant and enriched in the company of voices intent on cultivating new ground and means of expression.  Great artists know this, even if their material might be viewed as abstract or even dangerous.  Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, John Domini is a fierce and unique presence in contemporary fiction, one highly conscious of the value and meaning of style in literature. The author of five books, Domini combines his passion for his Neapolitan roots with postmodernist sensibilities in an exciting new trilogy of books set in Naples: Earthquake I.D.A Tomb on the Periphery, and the forthcoming The Color Inside of a Melon.  Educated at John Hopkins and Boston University, Domini studied under Donald Barthelme and John Barth.  His fiction has appeared in a wide range of established literary journals, including the Paris ReviewPloughshares, and Gargoyle, among many others.  An excerpt from The Color Inside of a Melon recently appeared in the Del Sol Review as “Catwalk Plastique.”  The New York Times Book Review has praised his work as “dreamlike…grabs hold of both reader and character,” and Alan Cheuse of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” described it as “witty and biting.”  In Italy, Earthquake I.D. was published as Terremoto Napoletano by Tullio Pironti Editore press, the same house that publishes Don DeLillo, and was also a runner-up for the prestigious Domenico Rea prize.  Dzanc Books is set to release electronic versions of Domini’s previous story collections Bedlam and Highway Trade, along with the novels Talking Heads: 77 and Earthquake I.D. in 2012.  Outside of fiction, Domini has published book reviews and nonfiction in The New York TimesThe BelieverBookforumGQThe Boston Globe, and many other publications. Recent poems by Domini have appeared in the journal Zone 3, as well as in the anthology Poetic Voices Without Borders 2 through Gival Press. The recipient of a Major Artist grant from the Iowa Arts Council, Domini now teaches writing at Iowa State.  I recently had the enormous privilege to speak with John about his Naples trilogy and his perspective on literary fiction as a Neapolitan American writer.
Olivia Kate Cerrone: In a Bookslut interview with Michael Madison, you revealed that your Naples trilogy emerged after a visit to Naples that you described as having “saved my own life…Naples, degraded and chaotic as it was, got me living again, it got me writing.”  Can you speak to this experience and how it served you?
John Domini: Well, I always wonder if I understand my own experience -- but I suppose we can go on faith.  My visits to Naples started in preadolescence, and it was there, at the age of eleven, that I first began writing.  An adventure novel, this was, a boy's adventure, and ever since the city has been bound up in my sense my calling.  Then as an adult, in the early 1990s, I began to return to Naples on my own and at a very different vantage point.  During that period I seemed to need the city just about every year.  It's clear to me now that it all had to do with the collapse of my first marriage and the search for another life, or at least the next stage in this life.  The collapse of my marriage is pretty humdrum, the sort of growing apart that many people go through, but it does seem interesting that I expressed myself my fledgling single-man status by throwing myself into Neapolitan life.  I wrote articles about it, and all of them wound up in print, a couple in the New York Times.  By the later '90s, something else had emerged, either the New Me or -- maybe better -- a loose trilogy of stories set in Naples.

Of course, over the years that followed, the original vision became riddled with changes. The art, in its making, is always a bucket of worms.  Still, so far as personal changes are concerned, Naples had a single clear impact. It affirmed that I could be an artist and, after such a long time as part of a couple, a decent single person.  I didn't have to be some sort of floundering, troublemaking teenager 30 years after the fact.  That is, I could be the kind of artist who's alert to others more than to myself, psychologically probing.  See, another sort of artist would be writing about reconnecting with his old family.  My experience is not so different from that of Frances Mayes, in her Under the Warm Tuscan Sun and its sequels, but my writing is diametrically opposed to hers.  For Mayes, her personal renewal is the whole book, but for me, even the expression “personal renewal” seems a tad hyperbolic, and bumbly, wrinkled John Domini is only a backdrop to his fiction.  I want to be out there in Naples.  I want the troubled city, not the troubled guy. If my novels are any good, they never reduce Naples to a metaphor for myself.   

OKC: Your trilogy takes place in a contemporary, gritty Naples recently struck by a devastating earthquake that has rendered countless terreomotati, (the earthquake victims) homeless.  Each of these books share the deeply complex and multi-faceted terrains of the city -- Camorra-controlled Neapolitan neighborhoods, ancient archeological sites, and NATO and UN-supported refugee camps teeming with African immigrants, the clandestini, whose presence remains a growing and undeniable reality.  So both Earthquake I.D. and A Tomb on the Periphery create worlds within worlds propelled by the complicated wants and mysteries of their characters.  As an artist, how do you access such material?  Where and when does the research end and the imagination take over, or are they perhaps in a symbiotic relationship of sorts? 
JD: First, thanks; it's wonderful to have a reader experience the fullness I was striving to create.  Second, when I look back on that creation, I can't always trace sharp lines between what came out of research and arose from my imagination.  At most, a few defining shapes come clear.  Certainly, research often sets the perimeters of place.  Research takes us to the space-time continuum and establishes what's possible in what space and what time.  The imagination takes us to extraordinary people in that place and time -- and thus beyond its limits.  In all three of my Naples books, structure and plot develop out of unusual things happening in unusual places.  For instance, in Earthquake I.D., the first, Paul's “healing episodes” remain largely unpredictable and hard to understand. The phenomena itself comes out of my research about Naples, but since there are a lot of local stories about some child performing magic, some grandmother with mystical sight or hearing, these rumors tend to be taken with a grain of salt. The upshot, for my Earthquake I.D.?  While Paul's “miracles” draw a degree of public attention, it falls away after a while.  Beyond the healing and the response lies the challenge to the imagination.  If the novel goes on working, after the initial setup, that's the exercise of the imagination. A narrative has to stand on its own as an imaginative artifact. A more socially engaged fiction like Earthquake, more rooted in research, must both reflect society and nonetheless carve out its own special society.

A Tomb on the Periphery
OKC: A high-paced energy of chaos and intrigue fuels both books, setting the tone for Earthquake I.D. with the opening consisting of the Lulucita family being assaulted in a violent hit and run robbery to the desperate plight of small-time crook and young Napolitano, Fabrizio of A Tomb on the Periphery, who assists a mysterious and bizarre American woman in a tomb-raiding expenditure that soon involves the likes of the Italian police, Cammoristi, illegal aliens, NATO officials and ghosts.  One cannot help but detect a very specific stylistic choice you made perhaps in crafting together these rich narratives and their highly imaginative plots.  How do you approach style in your fiction?  Is it a conscious choice, perhaps conveying a kind of Neapolitan essence?  If so, how?

JD: From early on I knew that, in order to capture the city's quality, or at least to scrape together a tasty pile of crumbs, the writing had to be sensually rich.  This put all sorts of demands on all sorts of passages: description, meditation, even dialog. Again, looking back, I can make some sense of the process.  I can identify a few useful systems and technologies, such as working from longer sentences to shorter.  The natural impulse, when trying to wrestle Naples into English prose, is to let sentences run on into all sorts of combinations, jamming emotional material together with sensual stuff and even with the more academic touches (like when Goethe came to town).  In later drafts and further edits, though, these sentences needed breaking up, cutting down.  I became more and more concerned about relying too much on outstretched and over-involved syntax.  My concern wasn't so much for the reader, because I never know who will be reading it.  Rather I trimmed and added sharp corners for the sake of the story.   

None of which is to say I've jettisoned the long sentence!  They've got their place, sure.  My current novel, The Color Inside a Melon, opens with long, tumbling sentence in second person, tumbling and distancing in the way that thoughts can be at extreme moments -- and a key phrase in this sentence becomes recurring refrain, popping up three or four times later on. 

And a couple of additional points belong in any discussion of style, so far as Naples books are concerned, at least.  The first has to do with the inner city's layout and architecture.  The Greco-Roman nucleus presents classic structures undergoing constant adaptation.  The classic, everchanging -- isn't that a fitting paradox, and inspirational, for the sturdiness and vitality a novel's style requires?  Then there's the omnipresent sensuality, whether it takes the form of mouthwatering food, heartbreaking trash, or, let's be honest, a smiling openness about sexuality.  My Neapolitans and Neapolitan-Americans are people wholly aware of bodies, their own and others.  They know the body's pleasures and, in finding ways either to strive for that or to work around it, they forge their characters.

Book reading at Soda Bar, Brooklyn
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
OKC: In an interview with Emanuele Pettener of Rain Taxi, you remarked how “each narrative is a balancing act on sifting cultural tectonics,” one that involves “what Lawrence called its 'subtle interrelationships…' the old expression 'Oriental complexity' suggestive of the Moorish maze that is downtown Naples, might help communicate what I value in literature.”  What did you mean here?  How does this, at all, connect to what informs you as a Neapolitan American writer?
JD: I have no problem thinking of myself as a Neapolitan American writer.  That's the inheritance I was born with, and certainly it's an inheritance that informs my sense of the novel: its complexity, its avoirdupois, its startling linkages. The definition's in my genetic coding. On those rare days when I'm feeling that my work is pretty good, I find aspects in common with Dante here, Sciascia there, or Calvino over there.   

Now, the danger of defining yourself as a Neapolitan American writer or for that matter a Beiruti American, is that people want to define that narrowly, and pin you within its confines.  I'm talking about pigeonholing, a complaint I share with a lot of writers.  In my Naples books, remember, people take in the city from different angles.  There's the American angle, with its clumsy struggle to do good; the Neapolitan angle, on the border of criminal life; and the African immigrant angle, fired by the vision of a better future.  How is the city defined to each of them? What is this city to them?   The answer for each character assigns him or her specific gravity, a weight that breaks right through the plastic label “Neapolitan-American.”  You know, often I need to catch a word or phrase in a character's voice, I need it to hear him or her, in order for some defining passage about them to open up and take shape.  In other words, whatever social insight these books offer must fit within quite specific human parameters, parameters that also, ideally, provide the formal excitement of a unique story.  

After all, I'm never going to be truly Neapolitan.  È davvero impossibile, it's impossible, truly.  I speak the dialect haltingly, if at all, and I don't know all the stories, the vendettas, the songs.  Rather, I'm Neapolitan to the extent that I feel its influences on my imagination.  And there's no denying the place is fascinating. The city may be the longest lasting in the world, if we measure by the continuous usage of a single space, a single downtown.  Certainly there's no downtown so old anywhere west of Damascus.  Athens, Istanbul, and Jerusalem, remember, were repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt.  So all my novels' diverse angles on Naples have to reference that same original city.  So too, as a Neapolitan American I'm basically just an urbanist -- what the poet and essayist W.S. Di Piero calls a “city dog.”  

I suppose I should add that I'm also working on a memoir called Cooking the Octopus, which is an old Neapolitan expression: the octopus cooks in its own water.  'O polpo ccuoce in acqua su. There are family secrets to be explored, and the subtitle may be: Discovering Naples, My father, and Myself.  That should be my next book project after The Color Inside of a Melon.

OKC: Barbara Lulucita, the Neapolitan American main protagonist of Earthquake I.D. is a woman who finds herself at odds with her maternal responsibilities as a mother of five and spiritual identity as a lifelong Catholic, as her marriage becomes increasingly strained during her husband Jay's involvement in the refugee camps and the sudden phenomena of her young son Paul's Christlike healing powers.  I found this character to be highly engaging, and not to mention realistic in her rendering.  Did you find it a challenge to access this character or writing from a female perspective?  What was that experience like for you?
JD:  It was important that her spirituality be real, a Catholic faith she experiences palpably.  That was one of the first elements in her to come clear, during the process of creation. But then, working from a female perspective has often opened me up, freed me from my own head.  I must say that Barbara is not my first main woman character.  I did a collection of stories called Highway Trade, published in the late '90s, which was a roughly linked sequence that took place in the very different setting of the Willamette River Valley, in Oregon. In those stories most of the protagonists are women. 

As for Barbara, she emerged as I rewrote the opening of Earthquake I.D. again and again.  This was one of those cases in which that one scene, done over maybe a dozen times, maybe more, finally delivered to me Barbara's crisis and to the essence of the whole novel.  I think I used the word “zig-zag.”  She is very much a bird of prey, as her pet name Owl Girl intones, but also one who is struggling to get away from her husband and his involvement with NATO and the UN.  She both prays and preys.  When I got those contradictions right, that zig-zag, I got the whole story.   

That first chapter is also a challenge in the reading.  As a reader you're challenged to go with this person through this shocking self-discovery, erupting in her heart while her husband is at his lowest point -- the guy could be dying and she realizes that she doesn't want to live with him anymore.  A terrible reaction, but entirely human, isn't it?  Don't we turn on each other in moments of crisis?  We say, I should never have been here; it's someone else's fault.  So once I got into that and was able to set up the challenge right in the first chapter, per carità, the whole thing followed.  

Barbara, well, she's pretty sharp, but she has an all-too-familiar gap in her understanding.  She doesn't know herself as well as she does much of the rest of the world.  So too the conflicts she suffers, such as wanting to divorce Jay but continuing to have sex with him, are common experiences for a marriage in trouble.  The behavior may be complicated, but that doesn't make it any less common.  What else about my “Owl Girl?” I guess I'd add that the antagonism she works through doesn't prove altogether useless; Barbara doesn't wind up in some terrible comeuppance.  She instead emerges with a better sense of self. Doesn't Barbara reject of the confining old Italian American persona of la Mamma?  Doesn't she gain greater access to herself and her world?

Earthquake ID
OKC: Your previous works of fiction, including two short story collections and a novel, were acclaimed for their brilliant use of language and innovation.  In your early years as a writer, you studied with John Barth and Donald Barthelme, some of America's greatest postmodernist writers, and from the Rain Taxi interview previously mentioned, you remarked how the author “Gilbert Sorrentino argues that Italian art is defined by 'the brilliance of formal invention,' itself rooted in a distrust of any authority, any Establishment version of reality.”  Do you see yourself as strictly a postmodernist? 

JD: I have no trouble considering myself Neapolitan-American -- and the same goes for being a postmodernist.  I mean, I'm of the age.  Barth, Barthelme, I grew up with those guys.  But I'm the kind of postmodernist who, at least in the novel, is asserting the value of social understanding, even the value of character and plot. I like a busy, active novel with a lot going on, though I say this as someone who can enjoy a novel that trashes conventional narrative. I very much admire, for one, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a novel that hardly tells a story at all.  His Marco Polo is no particular kind of man from a particular part of Venice, going on a journey that delivers both man and city to a greater understanding.  Rather, what holds Invisible Cities together, is its recurring imaginative space, the many cities that carry us finally not to mere insight, but to infinity.   

Now, Gilbert Sorrentino provides something similar, and he's American of course, Italian-American. Let me just say that the line you quoted comes from his essay, “Genetic Coding,” in his collection Something Said.  Useful as his definition is, though, and much as I admire the man's work, I can't entirely agree with what he says about the nature of Italian art.  I can't agree that it comes down, finally, to the baroque.  What is Michelangelo without torsos twisted by conflict, or Fellini without faces distorted by pain?  Still, I can agree with Sorrentino about the absolute centrality of language.  If a novel is going to work, its imaginative freedom and muscularity must be felt in the language too.  Only, Sorrentino too loved good American shoptalk; he too didn't refine every sentence to the utmost, to the baroque at its most suffocating. 

Language often takes us to that critical term 'tone,' which is the emotional tenor of an event.  Myself, I tend to a brimming emotionality, feelings on the verge of spilling over, and that I would say is Italian and Italian American.  A denatured tone, flat, almost absent of emotion -- that's been done pretty well in American literature, but it's not my thing.  The most famous example would be Raymond Carver, and he did do marvelous short stories, but it's just not my thing.  I want more in there.  If I'm describing how a Christmas tree looks, I want the prickle of the branches and the stickiness of the sap.  
John Domini and Fred Gardaphé at Soda Bar, Brooklyn
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
OKC: During the recent 2011 “Delirious Naples” conference at Hofstra University, the critic and professor Fred Gardaphé cited your work in his paper, “Go Make Naples: Lessons from Italian-American Artists.”  Gardaphé remarks upon the uniqueness in your approach to writing about contemporary Italy, in that you go beyond the traditional Italian American literary approach: “their art, more often than not focuses on the family and their own reactions to returning to the home of their ancestors.”  Why did you choose to write about Naples in this way?
JD: I'm deeply gratified by what Gardaphé has to say.  Part of what he's praising is how my writing goes beyond family and home, and my characters are aware of objectives outside the bedroom and kitchen.  Look, nobody needs me to tell them that family is central to the Italian ethos.  Sociologists and anthropologists have written at length about how our native culture puts allegiance to the clan -- which doesn't necessarily mean the Mafia, but can, with tragic results -- anyway, they put that allegiance before whatever they feel for community or the country.  There's no getting around how much family means to Italians, si sicuro.  Still, my Neapolitan presepe include figures that represent issues other than family.  Mine do take country and community into consideration.  Barbara in Earthquake, Fabbrizio in Tomb, are aware of a social contract that goes beyond Mamma e Papa, and by extension their stories suggest the frailty of the supposedly inviolable Italian family.  When there are breakups in Southern Italian families, they can be irrevocable and terrifying.  Never darken my door, that sort of thing.  We see that even in pop story forms, don't we?  In the Godfather, Michael Corleone has to kill his own brother.   

All over Southern Italy, you have families that turn on each other or suffer deep rifts.  Such rifts are only to be expected, aren't they, when there just isn't enough to go around?  Inner squabbles become vicious, because if you should lose the fight, you lose everything. I should point out that the “Delirious Naples” conference was dedicated to the memory of the anthropologist Thomas Belmonte.  His book The Broken Fountain is about the Fontana del Re slum in Naples, and focuses upon a poor family in that is breaking apart; only one son survived adolescence, and he became a drug addict.  Now, the city is also home to many lovely families, with many lovely things to say about them.  Other writers can point these out (foremost among recent Italians would be De Crescenzo and his Cosi parlò Bellavista), but my own imagination reaches beyond the nuclear family and its hothouse psychology. I'm more interested, or also interested, in other social pressures, including some specifically 21st-Century pressures, and how identity yields and changes under those.

OKC: Thank you so much for talking with us. Any last thoughts? 

JD: I just want to thank you and Il Regno.  I've never had such in-depth treatment.  I value the kind of questions that take me to basic issues, yet allow so much room to breathe.  It helps me to understand myself as a writer, as well as helping whatever readers there may be out there.  Grazie mille, davvero.  

Please visit John Domini at http://www.johndomini.com/

You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at: Olivia.Cerrone@gmail.com