Articles by: Laura e. Ruberto

  • Op-Eds

    The Über-Country: Italy at 150 Years

      “But Italy is different, national yet something more, broader in spirit, apparently undying. Italy is old and new at the same time.”
    -         Ubaldo P. Maggetti, Professor of Italian, University of California, 1924


    In the 1924 pamphlet, The Contribution of a Great Race, published in San Francisco by “The Italians of California to their American Brothers,” Italy (the country) and Italian civilization are conflated into one mythical place. Both are characterized as overwhelmingly significant to the world at large: full of beautiful landscapes, creative people, and events of monumental importance. And even the “desirability of the Italian immigrant” is applauded.
    In the epigraph above, taken from this publication, Maggetti calls attention to the melding of nation and civilization by suggesting that Italy is almost an Über-country. Indeed, it’s not hard to see how Maggetti’s characterization of Italy as superstar is related to so much of what gets discussed within Italian and Italian American Studies—from exoticized images of Italy to Columbus-as-Italian-American-hero claptrap, from stereotypes of Italian Americans as guidos, gangsters, or madonne to the problematic of Italy as a country of both emigrants and immigrants.
    In fact, all of these topics—which so often spur both intellectual debate and bold artistic responses—are timely given the approach of the Italian nation’s sesquicentennial celebrations.
    Indeed, not long ago, on Facebook, Pasquale Verdicchio and I started una chiacchierata on a variety of Risorgimento-related themes. It all started around an episode of Bruno Vespa’s RAI Uno TV program Porta a Porta that Pasquale had posted.
    This particular episode, “L’Italia riparte con Garibaldi” (“Italy Re-launches with Garibaldi”) featured, as is often the case for this show, an impressive lineup (listed here with the titles with which they were introduced while the theme from Gone with the Wind played ):
    -          Sandro Boni, Minister for Cultural Affairs
    -          Francesco Rutelli, Leader of the Alliance for Italy Party
    -          Roberto Castelli, member of the Lega Nord
    -          Mauro Masi, RAI General Director
    -          Anita Garibaldi, descendent of Anita & Giuseppe Garibaldi

    While Pasquale and I exchanged comments on Facebook about the show—with its odd quips about brigantaggio, cultural unity, and social progress coming from politically disparate positions—we came up with the need for an online discussion forum that was different from anything we knew already existed. We imagined a forum expressly designed as a place to exchange ideas about Italy in light of its 150 years as a nation, especially in relation to issues related to migration.

    And thus we determined to start a free public blog site for online-discussion, and in no time we launched Diasporic Continuities: A Salon Discussion Point on the Changing Face of Italian Unification on the Verge of Its 150th Anniversary. It’s a simple site, mimicking in its fluid structure—or so I’d like to think—the ebb and flow of migration. Here's the beginning of Pasquale’s first post:
    One hundred and fifty years of nationhood. But what does it mean? Laura Ruberto and I thought it might be useful to consider what the legacy of that moment in history might be as Italy is changing demographically after a period of zero growth. 

    The celebration of Italy’s 150 years as a modern nation state offers an opportunity to create new links among scholars, artists, and others while also reinvigorating connections that already exist. Of course, I know I’m preaching to the choir here: such intellectual alliance-making is the basis of what is about after all!


    But there’s no time like the present to give thought to what Italian national and cultural identity means, in relation to practical politics and expressive culture in particular. Even more, it’s an opportune time to consider italo-identity in terms of transmigratory experiences, through the Italian diaspora broadly and new migrants and their families living and working in Italy today.
    Italy is getting ready for 2011, and Italians throughout the diaspora are getting ready, too. What are you doing?

  • Photographs of Jack Salvatori, the British Valentino

    In August 2009 I wrote a blog post on the film Umanità (Cinecittà’s Refugees and the Italian American Who Filmed Them), a rare visual document about war refugees living at Cinecittà in the 1940s, and Jack Salvatori, the relatively obscure director who made the film.
    Since that post I have communicated with Salvatori’s son, Ray Holland, first via a comment on my post and later through email.

    Holland has shared much biographical insight about Salvatori—who was not, as I had assumed precisely Italian AMERICAN, but rather born of an Italian father and a British mother.

    He spent most of his life in England and Italy, and fought in both World Wars

    He eventually also came to the U.S. to work in Hollywood and had small parts in, for instance, Henry King’s 1949 film Princes of Foxes starring Tyrone Powers and Orson Welles (which was mostly filmed in Italy).


    Last week I was quite fortunate to receive a large (and unexpected) envelope from England. It was from Ray Holland and was filled with photograph copies of original photos of his father. I post them here with his permission, noting what information he was able to share with me about the images. I hope that more information about this unique figure and his relationship to Italian cultural history may be uncovered through these photographs.


    As Holland describes on the comments section of my original post, Salvatori was sometimes considered the British Valentino, was friends with Lillian Gish, and was an extra in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief.

    Salvatori’s life and work are brilliant illustrations of the dynamic shifts associated with the Italian diaspora. Rather than a simple or unidirectional trajectory, he and his family’s experiences speak to the complexities of cultural shaping and what potentially gets misplaced or misconstrued in reconstructing such cultural maps—not to mention just how many envelopes there are still left for us to open.
    Many thanks to Ray Holland.

  • Life & People

    Re-reading Diane Di Prima, in Honor of International Women's Day

    Last month, Diane Di Prima gave an inaugural address as San Francisco’s fifth poet laureate. In commemoration of International Women’s Day, I celebrate this important Italian American cultural figure, creative writer, and feminist thinker; a woman whose life and work help remind us that U.S. ethnic identity is never static, stale, or flat.
    Di Prima, born in Brooklyn in 1934, has lived in Northern California for the last forty-plus years. She’s generally considered the most prominent woman Beat poet and has always evoked her Italian ethnic identity in her writing. In practically every genre she has practiced, she references her immigrant family’s past and her experience as a woman in an Italian American family.
    In My Recollections of My Life as a Woman, she covers her family background in detail; it is in her earlier Memoirs of a Beatnik, however, that I have always turned when wanting to read a particularly succinct, sharp, and provocative description of her background.
    In it, what starts as a chaste depiction of family celebrations becomes yet another moment to explore her character’s sexual experiences and varying concepts of pleasure. With indirect references to bella figura and the lack of personal space among Italians, she points to just how much context helps communicate (or not) intentionality:
    Our feasts and festivals had been hearty peasant affairs, at which, ever since I was twelve, I had found myself dodging the amorous advances of a portly uncle, who was ostensibly teaching me the tango; at which I had had to stand for inspection while my grandmother and my mother’s older sisters felt of my budding breasts, drawing them out with their fingers, or spanned my bottom with their hands, while commenting in Italian on my good and bad points as a future breeding animal. All this was done in a spirit of utter kindness and delight. No one of my thirty-four aunts or uncles had ever been heard to complain of their sex life or marriage—it would have been an inconceivable breach of etiquette—except for unfortunate Aunt Zelda, whose husband had simply left her, and who therefore could no longer pretend to be happy whether she was or not. (pgs. 48-49)
    In the spirit of the Beat movement which she helped shape, the piece shows her poetic focus on sexual experimentation, creative expressions of identity, and personal introspection. At the same time, the passage so efficiently lays out her immigrant subjectivity.
    Listen and watch Di Prima read the first part of “April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa,” about one of her grandfathers, an anarchist from near Formia.


    Here the poet links her grandfather’s political workwith his Italian (American) background, but also with contemporary revolutions, contemporary calls for change: “we do it for you, and your ilk, for Carlo Tresca/for Sacco and Vanzetti, without knowing.” the poem continues (beyond what is on the above video clip).
    Of course, Di Prima’s oeuvre contains complexities of style, tone, and approach that I am not touching on here. She celebrates female power and the diversity of human experiences with a genuineness that is unambiguously playful. That she also creatively highlights her ethnicity offers us yet another kind of Italian American identity that we can look to, one that is far removed from the stereotypes, clichés, and seemingly boring pancakes (see John Turturro in the New York Times) too-often associated with Italian American women’s and men’s lived experiences.
    Happy International Women’s Day!


    For just a sampling of the academic research on Diane Di Prima’s work, in particular in relation to her Italian American identity, see:

    Barbara Kirschenbaum, "Diane Di Prima: Extending La Famiglia," MELUS, 1987.

    Roseanne Giannini Quinn, “The Willingness to Speak": Diane di Prima and Italian American feminist body politics” MELUS, 2003.

  • Art & Culture

    Frank Capra Films Italian-San Francisco

    On December 3, 1921, a documentary called La visita dell’ Incrociatore Italiano Libia a San Francisco, Calif., 6-29 Novembre 1921 (The Visit of the Italian Cruiser Libia to San Francisco, Calif, November 6-29, 1921) premiered at the People’s Theater in San Francisco.
    The film was directed by a then-unknown Italian immigrant, Francesco “Frank” Capra, who had come to the U.S. at age 6 from Bisacquino, Sicily, and was raised mostly in Los Angeles. The theater was on Howard Street, near Third, and might have been razed to build the George Moscone Center in 1981, though any Italian American tie-in between the city’s slain mayor and the Hollywood director would be coincidental.


    Harvey Milk & George Moscone, San Francisco, 1977
    La visita, though may very well be the first film directed by the future Oscar-winner and remains today under-circulated and under-studied. At the Pacific Film Archive’s Jan. 24, 2010, screening of the film, Capra biographer Joseph McBride noted that Capra himself did not even readily admit to having directed La visita until much later in life (most sources name 1922’s Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House as his directorial debut).

    As the title of La visita explains, the short film documents the arrival and sojourn of the Italian warship Libia to San Francisco in November 1921. The Libia, in a post-World War I two-year celebratory tour, had previously stopped in other Italian American enclaves in California: San Diego, San Pedro, and Monterey (the film concludes with a rudimentary world map and a line tracing the cruiser’s route around the globe).
    In certain ways, La visita embodies a nationalistic fervor that we can rightfully call fascistic (although Mussolini’s March on Rome occurred in 1922, his Fasci di Combattimento were formed in 1919, and by May 1921 Agostino Di Biasi had even formed a Fascist organization in New York). Between the fluttering Italian flags, the clouds of balloons, the name of the ship, the healthy lean men in uniform, and a written prologue that references the glories of the madre-patria, it’s hard not to think of the colonizing efforts and nationalistic fervor that helped bring Mussolini to power.
    Whatever Capra’s ideological commitments,the film is an amazing document of early-twentieth-century San Francisco and the cultural elite of the city’s Italian community; at the same, it offers subtle previews of elements that would later get defined as Capraesque.
    The film presents a vision of the city that is almost wholly Italian, so centralized it is on the neighborhoods comprising today’s North Beach and parts of Fisherman’s Wharf. Other than a ceremonial encounter on what seems to be the steps of city hall with a group of local officials, including then-mayor James Rolph, the film stays almost entirely in or around Washington Square and Pier 43—comprising practically the two ends of what was then known as the Latin Quarter.

     "Self-portrait, Looking at North Beach and Bay," 1934 John Gutmann

    What’s more, the narrative focus is on happenings related to the Italian Virtus Club (the film’s producers). The club was an Italian American athletic organization—one of a handful of Italian fraternal organizations that existed with a specific sports angle in the city. Eventually the clubs merged into the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club. That the word “Italian” was removed from the name of the club during WWII and reintroduced in the post-civil rights era (1978) is a tidy illustration of the fluctuating connotations of an Italian immigrant identity in the U.S. 
    In the film we see members of the Virtus Club meet the cruiser when it moors and accompanies the sailors throughout most of their stay in the city. Before the joyful encounter, we see a few shots of fisherman and their families on their fishing boats as well as Capra himself talking on the pier.

     Italian Crab-Fisherman, San Francisco (by J.B. Monaco, circa 1900)

    There is a beautiful series of shots as the fishing boats move towards the cruiser, almost embracing it, as the large ship moves towards the pier. Here is how Brown University Italian Studies doctoral candidate Evelyn Ferraro recalls this scene: “it so nicely evokes the reunion of a mother—la nave madre patria—with the migrant children, but in a reverse situation whereby the symbol of the madre patria is the mobile element” (email exchange, January 29, 2010). In fact, the last inter-title, in  flowery verse, refers to the cruiser as the “lembo viaggiante” (literally, the “traveling hem,” suggesting a part of the country that has gone astray perhaps) and then reads “Viva l’Italia! Viva la Marina Italiana! Viva la Libia!”
    From a soccer game to a grand dinner and ball at the famed Fior d’Italia (a spot that claims to be the oldest continually-operated Italian restaurant in the US), these sailors were living large. The Italian visitors were showered with treats: trays of pastries and cakes paraded onto the Libia as a way to sweeten the “bitter waters” of the ocean, a special reception in their honor by the local Vittoria Colonna Club (a social service organization run by Italian American women) at one of the Bank of Italy’s buildings, and a meal with Hollywood celebrities like Dorothy Revier (née Velegra), known as the “Queen of Poverty Row,” later the model for the “torch lady” for Columbia.


    The "Queen of Poverty Row"
    Although a solemn mass is said on board, most of the scenes are secular, indulgent, and jovial (that it was the era of prohibition certainly makes one wonder what the sailors may have brought from the homeland to share with their American cugini). In referring to his canonical works, Lee Lourdeaux argues that the Italian aspects of Capra’s films show the “joyful side of communal city life” (Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America 132); such a view certainly comes across here.
    The sailors’ stay on the Barbary Coast did not cause much of a stir in the city at large, an idea reinforced by the film’s focus on all-things Italian American. Joseph McBride noted a number of headline events happening in the city that month (most scandalously the trial of Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle) that probably detracted from this international visit.


    Mug shot, Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle, 1921
    The reprint comes from the Library of Congress in conjunction with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. How exactly the Library of Congress obtained its copy is unclear, though at some point someone at the Italian American Athletic Club recognized Capra’s name on a reel in their archives and sent it to D.C. (McBride lecture, PFA, January 24, 2010).
    The film’s intertitles are all in Italian (titles by “Frank Capra and J.J. DeMore/Giulio DeMoro”), suggesting that the film was meant for export or, more likely, for an Italian immigrant audience  in the States. As work by Giorgio Bertellini, Sabine Haenni, and others has recently begun to characterize, U.S. film production in the silent era was quite international, with a recognition of the niche markets afforded by recent immigrant filmgoers.
    In any case, the film remains a gem: important for the transnational migration history it documents and the socio-cultural stories it displays. Further, it calls attention to Capra’s Italian identity in ways that much of his work tends to do only indirectly. That in it we might also start to detect the playful narrative style and sometimes cloying tone Capra was later known for only adds to the significance of this silent film.

  • Op-Eds

    On Guidos, Gramsci, and Irony Deficiency

    In response to recent posts on i-Italy, Facebook, the H-ItAm listserv, and elsewhere regarding Jersey Shore and the Calandra Institute’s upcoming colloquium on Guido culture, I have been asked by the i-Italy editors to chime in.
    This topic brings to the surface broader concerns and the need of influential community leaders to help make a change. I’m talking about the need for more old-fashioned organic intellectuals—the kind that would make Antonio Gramsci feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

    I’ve come up with a short list of some issues concerning Italian Americans I think could be changed for the better with the help of proper intellectual guidance and earnest debate:

    -We need more paesani on the highest court in the land. Regardless of their politics, the fact that there are only two Italian American Supreme Court Justices suggests Italian Americans en masse are not being taken seriously.
    - MTV, HBO, or any other media outlet should not be allowed to create shows that depict Italian Americans, past or present. I don’t care so much about depictions of Italians as mafiosi or guidettes (after all, here in California no one knows what the difference is anyway); I’m just plain annoyed when they get some cultural detail wrong. I mean, what if there’s a wedding scene and they forget the cookies? Che vergogna!
    - We should be hostile to cultural or political references that connect contemporary immigration to Italy (think of the recent events in Calabria) with Italy’s history of emigration. Italians have nothing in common with the immigrants who live and work in Italy today; such comparisons are ludicrous! And why, why should we believe Dennis Hopper anyway?
    - In fact, we should discourage education generally, and seriously reconsider censorship. It might be time to bring back “red squads”—but rather than focus on communists (way too retro) they could infiltrate any institution that is trying to promote critical thought, dialogue, or debate.


    Ma dai! Who would get behind such nonsense?
    But let’s return to my man, Gramsci. Now, Gramsci—yes, I am in all earnestness, citing that rabble-rousing radical—figured most folks were already set in their ways and thus realized that unless some people started looking at the world a little differently, no cultural transformation (an alternative national popular culture, if you will), could possibly happen:
    No mass action is possible, if the masses in question are not convinced of the ends they wish to attain and the methods to be applied.
    (Gramsci, “The Southern Question”)
    And how better to get to that common ground than to hear from informed and well-trained scholars as well as listen to people’s real-life experiences and points of view?
    It seems to me that getting people talking and thinking critically about themselves, the media, and the development of culture generally is certainly something that would make Gramsci raise his glass.
    And this is the kind of action I’m interested in talkin’ about.

  • Art & Culture

    Radical Italian American Christmas Cards

    The other day I noticed this Tina Modotti photograph being sold as a holiday card.

    "Baby Nursing," 1926

    The image of mother and infant fits the season, of course, but it certainly made me wonder what it means when an art work made by a communist Italian American photographer has become a consumer product for Christmas. (And, yes, I know all about the Italian-Communist-Catholic possibilities.) Then again in the liberal, breastfeeding-friendly Oakland street I was on—Piedmont Avenue—it wasn’t really all that startling.
    In his “Photography and Politics,” Rod Purcell reminds us of the social functions of photography that in part
    will decide whether the photographs are displayed (in public or private, formally or informally), sent to family or friends, posted on a web site, used as a Christmas card or simply viewed and disposed of (digital snaps taken at a party).
    In this case the photograph-as-Christmas card assumed, and to some extent constructed, a consumer who would readily associate that image (even without necessarily knowing who Modotti is) with other political movements as well as a particular aesthetic sensibility, a shopper on the lookout for radicalized Christmas merchandise. Not surprisingly, Modotti-as-Italian-American hero was not in the mix (see some of my other posts, for instance)
    It was this casual encounter with someone I think of as an undervalued model for Italian American female identity (and progressive politics generally) that started me thinking about other Italian American radical Christmas references—like, for instance, the presepi created and documented by my Joey Skee, aka Joseph Sciorra.
    And so it is in the spirit of the season and with radical Italian American thinkers and artists on my mind that I share a scene from Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete.
    Midway through a narrative about backbreaking labor under brutal conditions, fellow traveler di Donato offers a soft-focus image of a simple Christmas celebration. Read out of context, the passage might seem like an exercise in nostalgia, a longing for a past purified of its daily suffering; within the description, however, lies a series of everyday ways families may have come together to recognize Christmas as they negotiated their existence in their adopted country.
    Anima had hunted in many stores before she found the small tree. Luigi set it up upon the washtub in the corner of the kitchen, for the other rooms were frigid.
    Paul had planned excitedly with Annunziata about presents for the children. Fifty cents each! He spent hours in the five and tens, and Louis accompanied him.
    Geremio and Johnny snoozed in the old baby carriage. Joie, Giorgio, and Lucia cut tissue paper and sorted tinsel while Annina carefully hung the fragile Christmas balls.
    Annunziata busily mixed the flour, yeast, milk and eggs while Luigi at table gave the dough thumping blows; the dough that would be rolled into strips and fried in sizzling olive oil.
                            “Children mine, do not cast eye upon them.”
                            “Why not, mama?”
                            “It is a sin….And they will not come good!”
    They fry, sending out a golden oily fragrance, and brown into thick and thin bubbly misshape.
    (Christ in Concrete, pgs. 205-206)
    The scene mixes American traditions, like a tree, with Italian food customs like sweet fried dough and thus captures an immigrant Christmas moment.



    And me? Well, I’m left wanting to create a series of holiday cards with all my favorite Italian American activist heroes…



    Mock-up "Pete Panto Santa Card"

  • Art & Culture

    Californians Sell Little Italy, One Crate at a Time

    ~~ sunny, lush land, fruit in abundance ~~
    ~~ exotic, saucy women, bountiful in their beauty ~~
    ~~ swarthy, wine-drinking, hardworking men ~~
    These common popular culture images of Italy, Italians, and Italian Americans have been created and sustained by a variety of sources—not just the literature, film, and music we often critique, but also by powerful marketing tactics and consumer trends.
    Sabine Haenni, in the The Immigrant Scene, illustrates some of the ways European immigrants’ production and consumption of entertainment-oriented spaces in the early twentieth century helped shape U.S. popular culture. In much the same way, I’d like to invite the possibility that consumer products, fruit and vegetable crate labels in particular, designed specifically with Italian immigrants in mind helped construct viable popular (and often stereotyped) images of such immigrants, even as they created a national, readily-accessible Italian American virtual community.
    Fruit and vegetable crate label lithography and box-end imagery got their start in 1877 as part of a simple attempt to send oranges from California to Missouri via the transcontinental railroad. Just a decade later, cheerfully designed and vividly colored crate labels were a must for growers hoping to get their produce bought in the Midwest or along the East Coast. This California-born advertising technique would continue until cardboard boxes replaced wooden crates in the 1950s.
    In those sixty-plus years, labeling caught on in all parts of the country and was certainly not always connected to Italian-owned businesses; however, the strength of California agribusiness and the high number of Italians in the industry make labeling an obvious place to look for cultural influences on identity and community. These labels—now collectors items found on eBay, at swap meets, and in antique shops—become telling visual markers of how Italian immigrants negotiated their position in a new land.
    Reminiscent of the individually tissue-wrapped fruits common in Italy and elsewhere (see this amazing online collection of such wrappers), Italian American growers’ crate labels construct idealized images of both Italy and California, while providing us with a neatly packaged view of immigrant life. In fact, they construct an Italian immigrant community that goes well beyond the geographical borders of any singular Little Italy, and in so doing imagine the possibility of a generic—and, by default, leaning towards the stagnant and trite—Italian American identity. The imagery is not specific to the Italians of Harlem, Boston’s North End, or Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield; instead, it creates an Italian American consumer, punto e basta.
    Most of the labels were produced by lithograph companies in San Francisco and Los Angeles and were by and large designed by German émigré artists. The Italian American, Othello Francis Michetti, a water colorist and lithographer was, though, an innovator in the field, especially for his use of color and billboard approach to labeling. Michetti (1895-1981) was born in Alanno (Abruzzo) and emigrated with his family to New York, where he studied at the Arts Student League, later moving to San Francisco. He painted rural life and country landscapes from many of the places he visited or lived, including his native Italy.

    One of Michetti's watercolors (unknown town, Italy)
    My interest in California fruit and vegetable labels from Italian American-owned businesses lies mainly in what they can tell us about how immigrants create a sense of place out of all aspects of culture. In the case of crate labels, the primary motivation behind the designs may be financial but the result is far broader. (What does it mean, for instance, that as Italian Americans moved en masse towards becoming white ethnics, they continued to exploit clichéd images of both Italian and Italian American life?)
    Even a cursory look at these labels suggests some of the ways Italian American culture and history are informed by California’s agricultural possibilities, and, at the same time, some of the ways the Golden State’s most idealized images have been constructed through concepts of what it means to be Italian/Italian American. (OK, so what I’m getting at is far too theoretical for a blog post. In brief, it’s a recognition of a fluid relationship created and sustained by transnational migration—not only in the traditional sense of the mobility of individuals, but in the broader sense of real and virtual mobility of art, goods, and ideas generally.)
    We might consider categorizing these labels in roughly three groups, or ways that Italy gets linked to the marketing of fruits and vegetables: through place, through women, and through culture.

    * PLACE

    Take this Cefalù table grape label where the island of Sicily comes to signify California grapes. One can guess that the Cesare family was from Cefalù but also that such a visual reminder of a place so different from any American landscape—and yet reminiscent parts of the California coast—was aimed at other Sicilian immigrants.

     (label in author's collection)

    * WOMEN
    People—women in particular—with Italian-sounding names and accoutrements symbolically link fresh produce to female beauty and Old World traditions. As such, this category of labels helped fabricate stereotyped gendered images of Italian American women as associated with food but also with the lusty and exotic.

    (label image courtesy of Pasquale Verdicchio)

    According to Laurie Gordon and John Salkin’s history of orange crate art in California, labels were initially aimed at housewives, but after a 1919 California Fruit Growers Exchange study, there was a shift when it was found that it was wholesale buyers in East Coast auctions that were choosing the fruit, often without opening the boxes.
    Adding to this is the fact, detailed to me by historian and collector Thomas Pat Jacobsen in an email exchange, that Italian and non-Italian growers alike marketed their goods “to fellow Italians in the East” (email exchange, November 24, 2009). This factor is key. By doing such targeted marketing, as I see it, they were de facto creating an identifiable, generic Italian American culture.

     (label in author's collection)

    The final category offers us symbols associated with Italian American life and also a kind of attempt to document assimilation by connecting Italian American growers to an Italian history of progress.
    The Mondavi Bocce players label is a perfect illustration of selling to a specifically Italian American consumer. Although the Mondavis eventually moved to a broader client base, the family built the foundation of their wine business as grape-sellers to Italian American communities in the Midwest and East coasts (see Julia Flynn Siler’s The House of Mondavi).

    (label in author's collection)

    The next two labels are made all the more revealing when juxtaposed. The first, an Americanized spelling for “carro a mano” or “handcart” with the Italian aranci, (a word which more readily denotes the the orange tree, rather than the fruit itself, which would be arancia or arance), uses a realistic exchange between a street peddler and a woman with exaggerated ethnic clothing and physical markers to suggest wholesome goodness and Old World authenticity.


    (This image comes from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco virtual collection; see a zoomable version of the label here.)

    In the De Marco citrus label, the plump fruit of California is linked to Italian-inspired forms of transportation and progress: (1) a ship, reminiscent of one of the Colombus fleet; (2) a pre-WW II plane, possibly evoking the Fascist pilot, Italo Balbo; and (3) an ocean liner, suggestive of Italian immigration, or more likely, the SS Rex. All this to sell oranges. It is a bold image, especially considering the potentially unsavory associations with Fascism and its jarring difference from the quaint messages of community and individual sincerity in the Mondavi or Carro Amano labels.



    (This image was found here.) 


    In the end, what we can gather is that in their design and marketing choices, growers reached out to Italian consumers across the US. Ethnic-specific crate labels directed to immigrants connected individuals across space and time, much like online marketing or social networking does today. They helped make Italian Americans out of regional immigrant groups and as a result constructed and reinforced stereotypes.

  • Art & Culture

    Searching for the Ethnic Angle in John Baldessari’s Art

    I recently had an opportunity to see a retrospective of John Baldessari’s work at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor, and I was struck by the consistency of his style even over many decades and a variety of media. Baldessari’s particular blend of texture, color, light, and words comes through from his now-classic “I Will Not Make Anymore Boring Art” (1971) to his photogravures “Some Narrow Views: Either Tall or Wide (2004).


    But I sensed something else, something more elusive than texture, something harder to describe than color, something more than irony. I sensed an ethnic side to Baldessari’s art; I became certain, in fact, that it was there to be found. My search may well be willfully essentialist, but I like to think of it as a postmodern musing on identity and culture, as Pasquale Verdicchio recently reminded me in a conversation, whereby migration comes to support rather than negate the possibility of a particular kind of ethnic positionality within art.

    John Baldessari was born in 1931 in National City, California—just minutes away from downtown San Diego and the Mexico-U.S. border. His parents were both immigrants: his mother, a Dutchwoman who had come to the U.S. to work as a nurse and his father, an “ethnic” Italian, who came to the U.S. as an Austrian citizen (from the town of Albiano, today part of Italy, in the province of Trento) looking for work (more on this later). 

    We could argue that as a postmodern artist Baldessari produced an entire oeuvre—each piece a pastiche evoking hybrid identity, multiple perspectives, varying interpretations—that suggests a migrant’s experience as an outsider embracing a new world. Or, at the very least, we could say that his work is representative of the multicultural space of twentieth-century California. By themselves, such generalizations don’t get us too far.

    Early in his career, Baldessari worked a lot in video, including making an 8-minute piece in 1974 called “The Italian Tape.” It’s a smart, though rather obvious, reflection on misunderstanding and language, with an over-the-top Italian romantic melody suggestively playing in the background. By itself, it cannot get me to where I want to be.
    Two decades later, in 1992, he made a series collectively called “Cliché” (“Cliché:  North American Indian, Red,” “Cliché: Eskimo, Blue,” “Cliché: Japanese, Yellow”)


    Cliché: Japanese, Yellow

    Cliché: Eskimo, Blue

    Cliché:  North American Indian, Red

    Was it living along the U.S.-Mexico border? Growing up with immigrant parents? Or merely the epoch of self-conscious identity politics that led Baldessari to create these pieces? Regardless, it’s there—at once a critique of ethnic representation in popular culture and a beautiful amalgam that, if it wasn’t for the title, might even be misunderstood as supporting rather than dismantling stereotypes. Nevertheless, the series suggests an awareness of ethnicity that might seem missing in much standard postmodern art.

    But there’s a quality even more essential to Baldessari’s work that emerges from a consideration of his oeuvre, an aspect of his approach that may gesture toward a diasporic identity. Central to most of his work is process: Baldessari takes objects apart and puts them back together differently; he manipulates photographs, constructs objects, he calls attention to the everyday by rearranging things. Certainly this attention to, so to speak, the constructedness of things is emblematic of much twentieth-century art. To suggest that such moves might somehow link Baldessari to aspects associated with an Italian immigrant/Italian American identity (attention to labor, working with your hands, decorating/beautifying/making place out of the everyday, l’arte di arrangiarsi, of making do, etc.) would be stretching things, making something out of nothing.

    And then I come across an oral interview with Baldessari from 1992, conducted by Christopher Knight. I quote a section at length.

    CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT: And what did your father do?

    JOHN BALDESSARI: Well, he was sort of a self-made man. He arrived in Colorado in the midst of, well, the beginning of the Depression, I suppose, and was a coal miner. And I guess he had a real entrepreneurial streak, from stories he would tell me. He already was making money then by essentially recycling. Which it was interesting, by the way, parenthetically, going to India, I felt right at home where they recycle everything, don’t throw anything away, and I’d think, “God, I know this life.”


    JOHN BALDESSARI: And he would pick up cigarettes and dry them out on the stove and reroll them and sell them you know. And I guess he made his first break, he said, by. . . . There was a triangle of land where railroad tracks, that apparently wasn’t used or anything, and he asked the railroad company if he could use it. And he was living in the Alps, was well trained in cultivating land—you know, taking rocks out and so on. And [he] cultivated that area and started growing onions. And parlayed that into where he was actually shipping onions, and had already started making money. And I remember once my sister got him to sit down and go through all of the jobs he’s ever been through, and she said she just lost track. But it was always this propelling himself hustling, you know, never really working for somebody. And we had a restaurant, he had grocery stores. And I guess at the point where I was born, what he was doing was pretty interesting at the time, was in the salvage business, and he would contract to tear down buildings, houses. You know, either buy them for very little or just get them for nothing, and then salvage all of the material and build houses with the material and sell off the rest of the stuff in a store he had. And until the idea of tract housing caught on, it was a pretty good scheme. And then parlayed that money into buying real estate and. . . . And I remember as a child, basically what I did was sort of. . . . You know, taking apart faucets and reconditioning them, painting them, and taking nails out of lumber and. . . . And I sometimes think that has a lot of bearing on the art I would do because I was. . . . It would almost be in like some sort of museum, you know, looking at maybe two hundred different kinds of faucets, but all generically the same, but seeing all the variations. And taking them apart, painting the handles or what have you. And always looking at things—like “Why is this faucet better than that faucet?” that sort of thing. And I got a taste of the hands-on thing—you know, taking things apart, putting them together, painting things, and so on. My mother babysat me by. . . . You know, I would get something, ten cents a day, something like that in an allowance.

    Self-conscious or not, taking his words in all seriousness, Baldessari’s memories of his childhood experiences and working class immigrant milieu seem to be reflected in his art.
    Indeed, Baldessari’s art is obviously not representative of an Italian American ethnic identity in the way that Joseph Stella’s or Ralph Fasanella’s paintings are. His work instead suggests to us that artistic output might offer layers of meaning that are not always visible, that may not even be self-conscious, but rather speak to the multidirectional movement of ideas and identity.



    Check out one of Baldessari's videos, "Six Colorful Inside Jobs," a piece with a self-conscious take on everyday spaces.


  • Life & People

    Uncredited Extras: Cinecittà’s Refugees and the Italian American Who Filmed Them

    Starting in the summer of 1944, on June 6, just two days after the U.S. troops entered Rome, the Allied Control Commission took over the studio space of Cinecittà, Italy’s famed film studios. By August the city of cinema—which had only opened eight years earlier (Mussolini had inaugurated it on the symbolic anniversary of the founding of Rome, April 21, 1937)—became a camp for displaced persons.


    Mussolini at Cinecitta's Inauguration, 1937
    Most refugees were Italians who had lost their homes, but there were also hundreds who arrived from former Italian colonies, as well as others from close to thirty different nations. At times there were upwards of 3000 people housed among sets sectioned off with haystacks and plywood. Although much of the studio space was “liberated” of its war refugees by 1947, it was late August 1950 before Cinecittà was fully restored to its original purpose.
    Among the few visual reminders marking this extraordinary moment in Italian (cinema) history is a little-known film directed by an almost-forgotten Italian American filmmaker. Information about the filmmaker, Jack Salvatori (1901-1974), and the film, Umanità (1946), is almost nonexistent.
    Noa Steimatsky, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago, recounts the fascinating history of the studio and offers a wonderful close reading of Umanità in her article “The Cinecittà Refugee Camp” (Spring 2009, October).  Steimatsky’s central argument involves a reconceptualization of postwar neorealist films, which, oddly enough, again and again ignored the existence of the Cinecittà camp, its explicit Fascist references, and its hundreds of child refugees—even as neorealist filmmakers attempted to represent the everyday tragic realities, especially those of children, in Italy’s dopoguerra city streets (think Bicycle Thief).
    Steimatsky also points out that one of the most revealing visual documents of the Cinecittà refugee camp is Salvatori’s fictional film. The film—from what I have gathered as I have not been to the Italian film archives to see it—constructs a series of war-related romances among the ruins of late-forties Italy and the downtrodden backdrop of the camp. Included among the lovers is a pair of American aid-workers. This cinematic nod to the Marshall Plan predates the kind of films produced during the “Hollywood on the Tiber” period (starting with Mervin LeRoy’s Quo Vadis in 1949, just as the refugees were leaving, as Steimatsky notes), during which American companies found ways to take advantage of cheap labor, exotic Mediterranean settings, and economic incentives meant to benefit Italian companies.


    Still from Quo Vadis (1951)
    So far I’ve managed to find only a few facts about Salvatori and I’m eager to discover more. One intriguing tidbit: he was born Giovanni Salvatori Manners in Rome, to a family originally from Ireland. This transnational identity in and of itself offers a useful example of how migratory movements are rarely as straightforward as they first appear and raise all sorts of interesting cultural and socio-historical questions.
    After spending time making movies in New York, Salvatori moved to France, where he directed and starred in films, apparently until the beginning of World War II. He worked for Paramount, which, along with other U.S. studios, had built soundstages on the outskirts of Paris, in Joinville, in order to take advantage of the European market and produce multi-language films. In fact, Paramount produced at least five different versions of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 short story “The Letter.” The English-language version was filmed in what today is called the Kaufman Astoria Studios in New York—where Rudolf Valentino and the Marx Brothers made their movies—but the German, Italian, Spanish, and French versions were all filmed in Joinville. (The Marx Brothers and Valentino suggest their own complicated set of issues related to ethnic representation.)

    Marx Brothers publicity shot and Rudolph Valentino as The Sheik

    Salvatori directed the Italian version of "The Letter," La donna bianca, which seems to have screened in New York, as did at least some of his other films. Indeed, the work history of someone like Salvatori forces us to reevaulate the direction of influence immigrants and immigrant communities have on both their adopted and native countries and to recognize the multidirectional ways culture moves. (I am reminded here of the work of film scholars such as Giorgio Bertellini and Sabine Haenni, both of whom have taken an interest in, among other things, the reception of early Italian-language films in the U.S. and the nonlinear movement of culture associated with Italian transnational migration, especially within urban, entertainment spaces.)

    The story of Jack Salvatori, a largely unknown immigrant filmmaker whose cultural sensibilities draw from Italian (and presumably Irish) connections, suggests a peculiar and under-examined moment of displacement within Italy’s borders; in so doing he illustrates some of the unusual ways immigrants continue to have a say in the construction of their homeland.

  • Facts & Stories

    Excavating New Futures: The Cairano 7x Experience

    I’ve written before on i-italy about Cairano and the area of Alta Irpinia—it’s a part of Italy familiar to me first because my father was born and raised in Cairano, second because I worked on a six-month ethnographic research project in the area a few years ago.

    June 22-28, 2009 the hilltop town held its first Cairano 7x: Paesi/Paesaggi/Paesologia
    encounter, seven days of music, theater, academic lectures, readings, archeology and architecture tours and educational projects, photography, film, local/(slow) food tastings, and lots of inspiring conversation and creative exchange.

    Most who know anything about Cairano were surprised to learn that such an event was being organized here—even I, with my U.S.-Italian American Studies background and personal connection to the place,was skeptical, especially when I saw the impressive lineup of particpants (internationally recognized architects, archeologists, cultural studies professors, writers, photojournalists, musicians, and artists—including the likes of Mario Dondero, Fabrizio Caròla, Mauro Minervino, Ian Chambers, Lidia Curti, Franco Arminio, and others noted below ).

    Cairano, a village of fewer than 400, is the smallest village in landlocked Alta Irpinia, in the province of Avellino. That the village sits on a curvacious mountaintop, about 750 meters above sea level, also makes it one of the most visually striking Irpinia villages. In the area, many folks know Cairano by name—and indeed even orient themselves according to its position overlooking the Ofanto River and Conza della Campania—but few ever have a reason to visit.

    And yet people came. And although fraught with glitches, as any large, first-time event would be, Cairano 7x was a big success. It was an occassion for a variety of people—both from the area and well beyond—to participate in a series of encounters (for lack of a better word) that encouraged reflection, both in theoretical and practical terms, on the possibilities for an economically depressed and culturally rich space such as Irpinia. Much of the week was devoted to considering forward-thinking ways to address sustainable and creative development, initiatives that could benefit the existing population, the land, and the history of Irpinia itself.

    The population spike transformed the feel of the town, as did some remarkable physical changes. For example, the Albero Vagabondo, an installation made by Giovanni Spiniello from found garbage, took root for the week with help from local children. Indeed, ecology, space, biodiversity, and a general green sensibility formed an important thread in the week’s program.
    And not all the physical changes were fleeting. A brick cupola, designed and constructed by a group of architects and engineers, sprouted up over the course of the week. (Well, it wasn’t finished, but plans are in place to complete it soon.) The cupola evokes Cairano’s geographical hump and offers striking views of the vast fields below, known as Il Formicoso, an area of the countryside the government plans to make into a garbage dump (to the great worry of many in the area).
    Cairano 7x at the Formicoso

    Building the cupola, early in the week

    One concern of some of the organizers and participants—many of whom first came together as the Comunità Provvisoria—was how to connect the participants coming from outside Cairano with the Cairanesi. There were a number of exchanges and activities that seemed particularly successful in making such connections.

    The Giardino in movimento (quickly nicknamed the Giardino nelle grotte)—led in part by Mario Festa and others of the group + a SUD—is a public garden created by reclaming a few unused cellars built into the sides of the hillside and abandoned from emigration and/or the 1980 earthquake. Part of the garden was a space improvisationally called the Museo provvisorio, a wonderful display of found objects excavated under the guidance of local archeologists, including Elda Martino. Both projects illustrate the creative ways individuals who came from outside of Cairano connected with the village itself and the people who reside in it.
    Archeological Display at the Giardino

    (poor quality photo, mea culpa)

    By the end of the week the Giardino had become a meeting place, not just for the 7x participants but for the entire village—best illustrated, for me at least, by the closing performance by Vinicio Capossela. The performance was announced only locally (and very quietly at that). Capossela, whose family comes from nearby Calitri and Andretta, had been in town for the most of the week’s events and had read earlier in the week from his recently published  In clandestinità. But Sunday evening, shortly after sunset, he read from an unpublished piece about Cairano (il paese dei coppoloni, as he fondly reminded us all) and vicinity. Then he sang interpretations of traditional folk songs, starting with a few inspired by Matteo Salvatore, and all of which evoke the area’s history of emigration, labor disputes, and uniquely southern joy and malaise.

    Another exchange between locals and outsiders that I found particularly fruitful was the performance/conceptual art piece by Alessandra Cianelli and Cinzia Sarto. Their piece, “De-riva/Shoes” started with the inter-twining the idea of movement, space, and women’s lives. They entered the village wearing smocks they had imprinted with the map of the town and they then went around Cairano throughout the week asking women for old pieces of fabric. From these pieces they sewed a kind of quilt, the center being a piece of white cotton with the map of the town drawn on it. Cianelli and Sarto also used found objects—especially old shoes and a discarded bed—to create a short video inspired by their conversations with Cairanese women. (The four-minute video will be available to view online shortly.)
     One of the smocks with Cairano map imprinted on it

    (on display outside of one of the reclaimed cellars)

    There were many other significant events, readings, screenings, performances, conversations, and personal and public exchanges. I’ve left a lot out—including my own presentation of a soon-to-be published memoir by my Cairanese grandmother about Cairano and her emigration to the U.S. But it would be impossble, and in any case very dull reading, to list everyone here. It’s also consistent with the open-ended meridionale spirit of the event to leave things unsaid, unfinished, indeed, as free-flowing as the tarantelle played by Cairanese Zi’ Carminuccio through-out the week.

    Visit the Cairano 7x webpage for photos, videos, blogs, etc. And look out for next year’s Cairano 7x. Antonella Zarrilli's video of Cairano 7x offers a good sense of the feel and style of the week's events.

    (Although I am leaving many people out, I would like to acknowledge the work of some of the main organizers of the event, listed here alphabetically: Franco Arminio, Luca Battista, Luigi D’Angelis, Agostino della Gatta, Antonio Luongo, Elda Martino, and Angelo Verderosa. The event was also supported in great part by Franco Dragone, the Pro Loco of Cairano, other individuals and entities, and countless volunteer hours.)