Articles by: Fred Gardaphe

  • Op-Eds

    Beyond Columbus: An Italian American Wake Up Call

    The City of Chicago removed the Columbus statues in two public parks in the dark of early morning on Friday, July 24th, then hauled them to an undisclosed location.  The city’s mayor, like a frustrated parent seeing a toy being fought over by two siblings, took it out of their hands and put it away, as if to say, when you two can learn to play together peacefully, then maybe I’ll let you have this statue again.    


    Removal of public Columbus statues is happening all over the U.S.A., giving Americans of Italian descent a wakeup call, nudging this sleeping minority to ask, what does this statue really means to their identity as U.S. American citizens. Some Italian Americans see the statue as a public representation of their immigrant stories; others see it as perpetual reminder that minorities will never share in the power to determine their own destinies without succumbing to the power of whites. That a single symbol can have such a range of interpretations is no surprise, for this is the nature of symbols.  


    Seen by some as a symbol of how Italians became U.S. citizens, by others as a symbol of the white supremacy and privilege given to those who have oppressed minorities for centuries, these statues have become rallying sites for those in support of the oppressed, demanding removal; for  others who contest these demands and defend the statues presence with threats of harm to those who try to take them down.  Yet, there are many others, and I would guess that the number is more than the sum total of both sides, who remain apathetic, and don’t care one way or another, preferring not to become involved in the controversy.  


    The violence that occurred during protests, some including  raging attempts to topple the statues,  has led to their removal.  All of this has happened because our education system failed to inform all citizens about the possible interpretations across America’s diverse cultural landscape.  All I ever learned about Italians in school were the two Cs: Columbus and Capone. I was never taught that Columbus had been a symbol of my Italian American identity.  I was never taught that my family’s immigration history mattered enough to be studied. That's why I got involved in education: first to figure out for myself why, if my culture was worth studying we weren't studying it, and then, after studying it, figuring out how I could get everyone to care about more than those two Cs. I guess with them both gone now, we'll have to rely on the culture we have created to represent us. 


    Columbus had slaves? Maybe, maybe not, but how does that mean anything to us today?  White people killed Indians, and when they were done, someone figured out that they needed people to do the work that they didn’t want to do, so they enslaved Africans; why they didn’t try to enslave the Indians is something I’ve always wondered. Then, after slavery was legally abolished, but social and politically sustained,  immigrants were brought in to take their place, given the hope that possibly, if you worked hard enough to become accepted by, or even become, the whites in power, then you could succeed. The root of this problem is not ethnic, not racial, but class difference.


    Big problems occur when ways of seeing the past become unchallenged ways of being in the present, and we have come into very challenging times.  Columbus as a symbol of Italian American culture was foisted on Italian Americans, starting in 1892, and now is being torn away from them. Who are the Italian Americans who, taking these actions personally, become offended enough to defend statues of dead people with baseball bats poised to engage others in violence? Who are the Italian Americans who want nothing to do with this historical figure?  


    Columbus was never part of Italian history. The problem is that most don't know how or why he became a part of what some see as Italian American history. To understand this issue better I suggested we begin by educating ourselves enough to make valid arguments that defend whatever interpretation we choose.  Try reading two articles by Dr. Laura Ruberto and Dr. Joseph Sciorra, before you weigh in on this issue: 




    It’s time to move beyond Columbus and focus on educating everyone about what it is that really matters to Italian Americans. 


    Let these events be the Italian American wake up call. If our culture really matters to us, then we need to invest our time and resources into that which transcends the symbolic and reaches the minds of those who are unaware of what it is we have done as we have become U.S. Americans. 


    What I want to see is a concerted effort by all Italian Americans to invest in providing a greater presence of the full range of Italian American histories in our education programs that will offer possibilities for new identities and new interpretative strategies and foster understanding and acceptance of all differences in this democracy.


    Don’t worry about Columbus, he, for better or for worse, has earned his place in history and will remain a figure full of interpretive possibilities. Today, Italian Americans need no longer depend on an identity that comes from marching in parades that celebrate the historical acts of one man. 


    Leaders of Italian American organizations that will never garner membership from all the millions of Americans of Italian descent, may claim that such removals are akin to hate crimes,  but, in reality, there is no comparison here with any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S.A.  Try complaining to those who had their lives, their land, their heritage removed through the violent acts committed in the name of God and the manufactured Manifest Destiny of a country that for centuries pretended that everything was all right, because everything was still all White.  


    There will be no solidarity of Italians on this issue, and we need to understand that there never was, and never will be an issue that can unite us all, save our common sense of being Italian American.  

    Fred Gardaphe is Distinguished Professor of English and Italian/American Studies at Queens College/CUNY and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. His writing includes plays, stories, and his books include Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, Leaving Little Italy, and From Wiseguys to Wise Men: Masculinities and the Italian American Gangster. His latest work, Crossing the Tracks: A Novel in Friction, is currently seeking a publisher.

  • Art & Culture

    White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement—And How I Got Out

    Christian Picciolini wasn’t born a racist, but he became one.  At the root of his racism was a fear of the unknown, and Picciolini tells us that it doesn’t take much for that fear of the other to turn into an anger that fuels terrible acts. The key to understanding why and how an Italian/American kid learned to hate that which he didn’t know lies in the way he wasn’t taught to deal with the frustrations that face every child as he or she grows from adolescence into adulthood; it doesn’t take much for a victim of racism to turn into a racist himself.

    Picciolini was born to Italian immigrants whose difficulties in making the transition from immigrant to American kept them from understanding the world into which they were sending their son as they concentrated on the work they needed to survive and thrive in working class America.   While they were busy building their beauty salon business, Christian was forging his identity through his negative encounters with classmate taunts about his difference and constant threats from the likes of “Goliath,” the class bully that Christian knocks down with one lucky punch, changing the way his peers perceive him, and teaching him that violence is the way to protect and defend yourself in a world that fears difference.

    As he moves from his grandparents care in a blue-collar neighborhood of Blue Island, Illinois, to his parents’ American dream home in middle-class Oak Forest, Christian gains notoriety and power with his fists.  While success in classroom comes easily, it’s not enough channel that mix of curiosity and fear of life that comes to every teenager, so he looks elsewhere for a way to make sense his own life. By the age of fourteen he’s under the influence of Chicago’s first Skinheads who give him a sense of belonging that is protected by fighting not only the establishment, but also those whom the establishment suppresses.  

    Surrounded by these formidable forces, Picciolini gathers like haters to build a revolution that connects disenchanted white kids like him to the larger white supremacy movement that is growing in the 1980s and ‘90s.  While he seems bent on changing the world, his actions don’t come without doubts: “From time to time, I may have felt guilty for my actions and pondered whether all the white supremacist stuff I was feeding these kids was right.  It didn’t always go down so easily for me—the anxiety from the constant violence that existed twenty-four hours a day, the hateful ideology I programmed myself with to override the old-world values I had been raised on.”

    Had those “old-world values” been reinforced through his education, had there been opportunities for the young boy to understand the history of his own ancestors, he just might have seen the arbitrary difference skin color creates, and the false sense of entitlement that that comes with empowering whiteness.  

    Picciolini writes powerfully of the damage he caused and the pains he felt before he could reject his past and embrace a different future.   This is not some wistful apology for a misguided life or an “I found the light” confession. White American Youth is the story what goes on inside every kid who gets lost in a world of fear and finds his humanity by connecting to the very ones he once feared.  This story confronts the reality of American racism that continues to wreak havoc in our world today, and shows us a way out.


    This is Christian Picciolini’s first book.  He is an EMMY-Award winning television producer, a visual artist and renowned public speaker.   

  • Art & Culture

    The Italian American Book - Where My Body Ends and the World Begins

    Anthony Lazzeri, is not a mamma’s boy, but only because he’s become a grandma’s boy. Since he lost his sister in the infamous Our Lady of Angel’s school fire of 1958, from which he barely escaped himself, he’s depended on Nonna to feed his stomach, head, and heart.  Or so he thinks. Nonna is a source of strength for Anthony because she avoids the past. “So, this was why we heard to few stories of the old country. Not because of shame or regret…but because to look over one’s shoulder at what came before would spell disaster,” he thinks.  But Anthony is not like his grandmother.

    Antney, as he’s called, lives with Nonna in the family two-flat his parents abandoned after Ellie’s death.  Ma, a working nurse, comes back now and then to care for him, but only when she thinks he needs her. Dad, a washed-up baseball pro, is pretty much absent, that is until Anthony gets stalked by Mr. Lipshultz, a retired cop who has never given up his search for the culprit of the fire that forever changed the Chicago neighborhood where they all live.

    With the help of his girlfriend, and fellow fire survivor, Maryann, Anthony tries to piece together his life after that historical trauma as well as the car accident (or suicide attempt?) that breaks his leg.  As Anthony is trying to reconcile his injury with his losses, his next-door neighbor Lipshultz thinks he’s got the goods on Anthony as the source of that fire; the ex-cop is doing his best to prove it when he is found dead in his home.  What follows is a strange family reunion.

    Where My Body Ends and The World Begins is Tony Romano’s second novel, one that is part family-secret saga, part detective story, and all psychological thriller.  What goes on in Anthony’s mind rarely gets into the minds of others, save Maryann, Nonna, and Ellie. Think Hitchcock’s Psycho. Think Endless Love.  Then think beyond both of them as Romano concocts a rich tale worthy of a second read, for even if you read closely, you’ve got to go back to see just how he did it.

    From it’s thick grey winters to its dripping humid summers, from the bustle of city streets to the hustle of its folk, Chicago is more than backdrop in the capable hands of Romano’s prose.  With a cast of characters who could all vie for best supporting actor in a novel, and a plot that keeps you on your toes, this novel takes off like the old Riverview rollercoaster and doesn’t let up until you been through some very interesting turns, twists, and stomach dropping dips.

    There’s danger in taking on real-life events in a work of fiction, especially one as far-reaching and emotionally laden as the school fire that killed ninety-two children and three nuns, but Romano uses his research well.  He never lets the tale get bogged down by the mundane necessities of reporting or trying to reconstruct history. It’s story that Romano’s after, and he captures it well as he shows us all how childhood trauma can haunt a family for generations.  What we get is a number of versions of key events, even after Anthony tracks-down a key suspect years later. Periodically Maryann takes over the narrative to add her take on what’s happened, but since she too has had a “breakdown” of sorts, we are left wondering who’s got it right.  


    Tony Romano is the author of the story collection, If You Eat, You Never Die, and the novel, When The World Was Young.     


    Where My Body Ends and the World Begins

    Tony Romano
    Publisher: Allium Press
    262 pages
    Paperback $17.99
    ISBN: 978-0-9967558-7-0 

  • Art & Culture

    Twenty-two Short, Shorter and Shortest Stories About Women

    Rita Ciresi is the author of four novels and two story collections. Her writing has garnered awards such as the prestigious Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Prize for the Novel; the Barnes and Noble “Discover New Writers” series; finalist status for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and the Flannery O’Connor Award from the University of Georgia Press.  

    Cirsesi’s early writing often dealt with younger protagonists groping toward their future while trying to deal with their families’ pasts; often her characters face the question: can the daughter of Italian immigrants use any of her ancestral culture in creating her own American self?   In her latest collection of stories, “Second Wife,” Ciresi moves away from a focus on ethnicity to create a series of “everywomen” who speak to the ups, and mostly, the downs of life after marriage in voices that lure and drag us into some very interesting places.

    If brevity is really the “soul of wit,” as Polonius tells Gertrude in the second scene of Act II of Hamlet, then these stories give us a good look at the soul of this talented writer.  “Second Wife” collects twenty-two short, shorter and shortest stories, some a few pages, some a page, and one a single sentence, each as engaging as the next.

    Stories, like the opening, “Bag Boy”—the longest at eight pages—

    turn in on themselves, leaving us with a number of ways to think about what we’ve just read. Here we have what could be called a novel in a story because Ciresi packs her story full of other stories.  Ciresi is a master of the ability of to make the reader aware of the not said by adding more information through implication in her dialogues and rich ambiguities in her words. By the time you get to the end, you’re already thinking about what happened earlier to make you realize that this story is more than just a fantasy about a grocery bagger.  

    In a single sentence, the story, “Depression, origin of,” achieves its goal of telling a tale that touches us deeply in less than twenty words, leaving us wanting to know more about this person—so much so that we might even try imagining her past, present and future for ourselves. 

    Known for her great sense of humor, Ciresi mixes the tragic with the comic in many of these stories about women in relationships that are beginning, ending and often static.  Whether in love, hate or fear, the second wives here make us all think of what we can do to keep our own lives from being like these.   Some of these entries are fantasies; “Physical Therapy,” “Hot Yoga” and “Love for Sale: 99 cents,” all tell us more about a character’s relationship to reality than would a simple explanation of what’s happening.  Others work as mysteries, such as “Don’t Want Other People to Know Where I Am,” which opens with someone taking a psychological quiz and ends with, well, let’s just say it ends with us wondering.

    Ciresi’s writing is sharp and sparse; she makes more out of less.   But, don’t be misled, there’s a power here that size masks. Each story engages the reader at once and when you get to the end we often find that what we think might be happening isn’t even close to what actually is occurring.  There are layers to each that reward multiple readings; quite easy given their size.  This experience alone is worth the price of admission to a world where hurt is real, revenge can be hilarious, and endings can be “Like That,” another Ciresi story that says a whole lot in just five sentences.

    “Second Wife” is the mark of a master storyteller at her best. In a world where tweets are about all some can mentally digest, Ciresi has found a way to make shortness work to lengthen our thoughts.    ww



    *Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College/CUNY and the John D. Calandra  Italian American Institute.

  • Op-Eds

    Dante In Love: Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova Reinterpreted

    There have been many translations and interpretations of Dante’s Vita Nuova, mostly used by students and scholars, so one might ask, could one more do something so completely different that it matters today? Valerio’s Dante in Love combines and transcends earlier work by creating a palimpsest through which we read Dante through Valerio. The brilliance of the work is how it presents a translation of the original Italian while simultaneously covering it with insightful commentary along the way.

    Now whether you’re familiar with Vita Nova or not, Valerio’s take on it is worth the read. More than an insightful read of this important text, Dante in Love is interactive in an intriguing way. Strategically placed throughout the work are phrases followed by blanks, such as: “I measure my love for _____ by __________ and “I’m a mess when my love ________.” At first, I thought we needed to rely on Dante to fill them in, then I realized, these are for readers to complete. By doing so, we connect our experiences with love to Dante’s, and in the process, we contribute to the work, learning much about how good writing creates good thinking.

    Like Dante, Valerio uses contemporary English vernacular to render this over seven-century-old writing into a version that speaks to us right now. The story is simple and common: a young man falls in love, and through his inexperience and uncertainty shadows the one he loves, making mistakes that all of us know; he pretends to ignore her, while stalking her at public and private events; he composes sonnets of adoration and despair; he dreams of her; he befriends her family and acquaintances; he becomes lovesick; he grieves her absence in his life, especially after her death when he wonders how he can go on living.

    Beatrice becomes somewhat of a celebrity of her town, and the young Dante’s crush on her, unrequited, becomes the fuel that feeds his artistic endeavors, becoming the center of all the writer creates in poetry and prose. Written many years before his great Divine Comedy, Vita Nuova helps us to see the early life of an artist who will go on to create one of the greatest written works of Western humanity. Through this “new life” or “young life,” we can locate ourselves in him, and better understand what make us all seek love.

    As of now, this is an electronic-only book, so you’ll need to have the right tools to access it. Explanatory notes and a link to the original work follow the text to help us better understand how and why Valerio created this unique reading experience. Like the work that he translates, interprets and interpolates, Valerio has composed an ode to a masterpiece that demands attention and rewards rereading.

    For the sake of that good beguiling story to emerge and crystallize, I have compressed and modernized Dante’s words in Italian into English, from the point of view of my life as a writer.

    * Anthony Valerio is the author of The Mediterranean Runs Through Brooklyn, Valentino and the Great Italians, BART: A Life of A. Bartlett Giamatti, Conversation with Johnny, Anita Garibaldi, A Biography, The Little Sailor, Toni Cade Bamabara’s One Sicilian Night, and John Dante’s Inferno.

    * Fred Gardaphe: Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College/CUNY and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute.

  • Professore Fred Gardaphe with his Queens College students

    Feeling Italic ...

    Growing up in an Italian/American community, I was not aware of differences between me and others until I left my house in Melrose Park, a Little Italy outside Chicago. We seemed to be as American as everyone around us, and as Italian too, but we never used the term, Italian American to define our differences. When asked where I was from, which didn’t mean neighborhood, I always answered, Italy.

    When I finally got to Italy, the first in three generations of my family to do so, I found an Italy that couldn’t understand the Italian I thought I was speaking; I found a place never described by my nonni, who had left there in the 1920s. The Italian they taught us was dialect; the images they created of Italy in my mind through their stories were long before many modern conveniences had arrived in Castellana Grotte, province of Bari in Puglia. That trip showed me how un-Italian I actually was.

    I returned home confused and determined to sort it all out as I began my career, something that wouldn’t happen until I became an Italico myself. The process began with connecting the outside of Italy to the inside of me. I had to master the language; I had to know the history; I had to know Italy’s past; and this was all done through years of study and travel, years that resulted in the establishment of my career in research and education focusing on Italian/American studies.

    Bassetti writes that the power of uniting business and education can lead to the kind of interaction that is future oriented with the aims of turning us away from nations battling each other and towards nations working for the common good of all humans. In this way his ideas coincide with new developments in Italian/ American Studies such as the establishment of the Italian Diaspora Summer Seminar under the aegis of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute/Queens College and the University of Calabria, that has moved Italian/American Studies into the 21st century by establishing new ways of organizing and studying the impact that Italian immigrants have had, not just in the United States of America (the focus of what has been traditionally referred to as Italian/American studies), but throughout the world where Italian immigrants have set up homes in new lands.

    This work is echoed by the recent success of the “Transnational Italies” exhibition project, led by Dr. Loredana Polezzi of the University of Cardiff and Dr. Charles F. Burnett of the University of Bristol, who have made the Italian Diaspora experience from many countries speak to today’s viewer in both space and time, globalizing the notion of Italian heritage so that it speaks not only to, but also beyond, national borders.

    Bassetti’s ideas help us to see beyond the quagmire of fear and violence often created by the idea of the nation-state as it strives to defend itself from others even as they absorb them into the populace.

    Can we break down the borders in this new globalized world? Can we move away from the chauvinism of national identity to focus on the humanity in and of us all? Can we find ways of connecting to others in the world beyond the idea of geographical locations and national identities?

    We can do all that if we start moving away from the myths created by monolithic national identities and toward the knowledge created by glocal interactions that enable us to make the world great together. We can do that by taking the first step of realizing that Italici share the values that can make us all better citizens of the world.

    Information of the Book:

    Piero Bassetti: Let's Wake Up italics! Manifesto for a Glocal Future

    Bordighera Press (1 April 2017)

    *Fred Gardaphe is Distinguished Professor of English and Italian/American Studies at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College/CUNY

  • Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The-Godfather Part-III (1991)
    Art & Culture

    Into the Mind of the Godfather’s Father

    For many, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films are untouchable classics of cinema mastery. For others, like those in the Italic Institute, they are an abomination, as John Mancini, an Institute analyst says: “Coppola is no hero. In The Godfather, he did to Italian Americans what D.W. Griffith did to African Americans in the 1915 film, Birth of a Nation: He demonized them as criminal. He created a tribute to thieves and murderers.”

    To counter the publicity surrounding the publication of Coppola’s The Godfather Notebook for the 2016 Christmas season, the Institute produced a video that you can catch on youtube, that attempts to cast Coppola as a villain, a “Christmas Grinch” who practiced purposeful defamation “even when he had the chance to tell the true stories of real Italian American heroes and heroines.” From there they launch into a hagiographic gallery of Italians Coppola might have chosen to make films about: A.P. Giannini, founder of Bank of America; Rocco Petrone of NASA and Governor Ella Grasso, all mentioned in this brief piece pro- moting the Institute’s work. 

    Now whether you agree with the Italic Institute or not, there can be no doubt that Coppola’s work has had a great impact on the way Italians have been presented in American culture. His latest addition, The Godfather Notebook may not be for everyone, but for those who know the film well, it is a must buy. 

    Beginning with an insightful introduction, the Notebook, brings us behind the scenes of the film’s creation and into the mind of one of the most important directors of American cinema. From his an- notations to the pasted-in pages from the novel, to excerpts from the screenplay, and stills from the shoot, Coppola takes us through the think- ing behind the making of his magnum opus.

    If you know the film well, you will appreciate the ideas surround- ing the decisions the director made before and during the production. What was thought and left out and put in gives the reader an idea of all the possibilities that the artist encountered on preparation for his cinematic journey.

    For each of the fifty scenes imagined there are typed notes—full of the typos that come in first-drafts— scene synopses, era considerations, possibilities for imagery and tone, core themes for each, and potential pitfalls that would detract from the director’s effort to capture his vision. Many of the scenes never make it into final production; some were shot and never included; others were planned much differently than they turned out. All in all, the value here is the unique access the Notebook gives us to the way Coppola worked, and this is the beauty of the book.

    Coppola’s introduction becomes both a rationale for making a film on a subject he had little knowledge of, and an account of what he calls “the downs and downs” of its making, for there were many problems the young director encountered from the casting through the editing that come to light on these pages. His honesty comes through in lines like, “I think I made the notebook out of profound fear. It’s important to un- derstand that at the root of it all, I wans terrified.”

    From this notebook came the screenplay, which can now be seen as a collaboration that goes beyond the author and director to include suggestions from actors like Marlon Brando. So whether your on side of the Italics Insitute or not, The Godfather Notebook will bring fuel to fire your thinking about his monumental work of literary interpretation that led to the cinematic creation of one of the most controversial films of our time.

    As for the Italic Institute’s take on this, one could only wonder why they are so vocal about fictional portrayals of Italian Americans and so silent about the real-life anti-American antics of the likes of Joseph Arpaio and Carl Pasquale Paladino. Could it be they suffer from irony deficiency or reality vision impairment?  

    Information of the book >>>

    Fred Gardaphe:

    Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens College/CUNY and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute 

  • "Built With Faith" won the first Italian American Studies Association Book Award at the annual IASA conference in Los Angeles, November 5, 2016.
    Art & Culture

    Studying Italian-American Material Culture in NYC

    Joseph Sciorra, one of the few scholars in the world to take this material seriously, provides masterful insights into what most people take for granted and even more ignore. His “thick descriptions” of private shrines, presepi—Nativity scenes, the Rosebank Grotto of Staten Island, New York, and religious processions, are all well grounded in thorough histories and journalistic accounts of these public performances of personal devotions to Catholic saints.

    Through his engaging style, based on the best of ethnographic methods, he presents a study that reaches beyond the academic to inform and challenge us to see and react to this Italian American material culture in new ways. Sciorra’s “Introduction” recounts the work he did over a thirty-five year period in New York City and provides a rationale for the way he has documented not only thehistoryoftheseacts, but how, over the years they have been “reproduced, discarded, and reinterpreted.”

    Chapter One, “Private Devotions in Public Pulaces” covers the evolution of the Roman larari—shrines to gods found in homes, gardens and streets of ancient Rome — to their historical le edicole in Italy, contemporary manifestations of these can be found in “bathtub madonnas,” front stoop shrines during feste, statues and yard altars that all become what Sciorra calls “Points of Encounter, Nodes for Communication,” where people can meet and discuss their reactions to these public expressions of private devotions. Along with historical data and interpretative analyses, Sciorra presents interviews with builders and devotees and includes anecdotes from his encounters over the years. 

    Chapter Two, “Imagined Places and Fragile Landscapes,” covers the traditions and practice of setting up Nativity scenes, both dramatic and static, in homes and in museums from early Italian examples such as the one created by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 to the crèche set up annually in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. His insights help us to see how these expressions of faith interact with contemporary life: “The presepio’s power is it subtle ability to embrace us in
    its miniaturized intimacy and conjure a reverie of entangled thoughts and meanings. The multiple narratives revealed there offer insight into our relationship to the past and the future, to the holy and the mundane, to the self and communal, and ultimately our longings and desires.” 

    If you’ve ever wondered why people decorate the outside of their homes during the Christmas season, Chapter Three presents, in great mix of academic and journalistic style, not only the history of these practices, which actually originate in Northern Europe and the U.S., but also culturally critical insights as to how these practices are rooted in conceptions of social class and taste. 

    In Chapter Four, Sciorra provides an in-depth study of the creation and evolution of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island. Through his study of this shrine he captures the “multivocality” of a community project through interviews with and accounts of those who were present at its creation, and those who have come along to maintain this important site of religious devotion.

    Chapter Five covers the important aspects of religious feste processions and their relationships to multicultural geographic spaces and their populations in the city. Each chapter is well illustrated with clearly reproduced photos and illustrations that bring to life the impact that material culture has on spiritual developments. A concluding chapter brings all the studies together to demonstrate how past and present migrations and settlements speak to and through these public representations of personal beliefs, helping us to better understand the shifting mosaic lives in New York City. 

  • “Gomorrah”: Not Your Normal Gangster Show

    This is not the case in Italy, where anti-Mafia movements in Sicily include people who risk their lives, and sometimes lose them, in their attempts to rid their society of this criminal element. Italians understand gangsters through the lens of Italian history and culture; this is not the case in the U.S. It’s taken a long time for Italian mainstream storytelling media to take on the gangster in any significant way, but one look at the latest addition to the list will tell you that Stefano Sollima’s television serialization of Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction “Gomorra” (2006) is not your American cousin’s underworld story.


    To understand the Mafia, Camorra, Ndrangeta, or even the lesser-known Sacra Corona Unita, you need to look back to their roots in the aftermath of the unification of Italy in the mid-19th century. One of the best accounts of this, yet to be translated into English, is Francesco Benigno’s “La mala setta: alle origini di mafia e camorra, 1859-1878” (2015). Benigno’s well-written and documented study takes us deep into Italian history to see the intricate and intimate connections between what most see as the a simple battle of the “good guys” vs. the “bad guys.” It’s not that simple, and that’s what Sollima shows us, not only through Saviano’s content, but also through the director’s form and style.


    While it might be full of clichés and stereotypes, the television series “Gomorrah” (Sundance TV, Wednesday nights 10 p.m. EST) is a long way from the first gangster films from the silent era like “The Black Hand” (1906) and D.W. Griffith’s “The Musketeer of Pig Alley” (1912). And while you’ll see allusions to “The Godfather” (1972), “Goodfellas” (1986), and HBO’s “The Sopranos” (1999-2007), the new series is unique in many ways.


    Unlike its U.S. antecedents, “Gomorrah” focuses not on the attempt to deal justice and maintain honor and order, but on the dirty reality of a life of crime in the real world where the settings are not always pretty and the lighting not always flattering to actors. It’s no wonder that Matteo Garrone’s 2008 film adaptation, despite winning major European awards such as the Cannes Grand Prix, had no chance for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It was simply, just too real for a Hollywood that falls for fantasies such as “Slum Dog Millionaire” and “Life is Beautiful.”


    The same might be said for the newest incarnation of Saviano’s story, where what you see are longer versions of what might have been shown on Italian television news. Will U.S. audiences take to the story of the Savastano crime family like they did to the Sopranos? They will if they’ve grown up since Tony and Carmela left their homes, but they won’t if they fail to see that Sollima’s take is as real as anything can be in today’s mixed-up world of the reality television fetish.


    If you want to know the differences between the Italian and the Italian American, then pay close attention to the differences between the Savastanos and the Sopranos. While there are many allusions to the earlier U.S. versions and visions of the gangster—such as the opening when two Savastano soldiers Attilo (Antonio Milo) and Ciro (Marco D’Amore) are driving through a Naples tunnel on their way home from work— and while you’ll find many of the old gangster staples that we’ve come to know from all those earlier depictions, what “Gomorrah” gives you is slow development of the long story, done through superb acting that rarely breaks the dramatic spell of Sollima’s storytelling (unlike the irksome commercials that the Sundance channel needs to insert: where’s HBO when you need them?). From the friction of disgust to the blaze of flames from a burning car to the almost washed-out whiteness of daylight in the project, scenes in “Gomorrah” are more artistically constructed and more effectively realized. Even daylight is chiaro/scuro, and the contrast of the under lit night scenes results in powerful images that rarely reveal shadows.


    The visual tension highlights the social conflicts created by characters that rarely gets relieved. When Don Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Celino) is imprisoned, you think it will be business as usual for the Savastano family, but a wily prison warden proves to be a formidable force for the anti-Camorristi. From the prisoners’ meals to their prayers, we see a quotidian side of the gangster that is rarely shown in the U.S., and you get the feeling that perhaps a human being can really serve two masters and maintain, if not his sanity, then certainly his ability to find a way to live with it all.


    Like the Soprano family, the Savastanos have troubles, but whether it’s father/son or mother/son, Gennaro (Salvatore Esposito) exceeds the bounds of A.J. Soprano, his American counterpart. Gennaro takes to excesses such as speeding with his motorcycle when his father’s rule takes him to places his stomach can’t handle. And it seems one of the normal reactions to witnessing death, whether committing it or watching it, is stomach purge that many characters experience.


    The humor is sparse, in this gritty story of dirty lives filled with uncertainties. There is little to laugh at, and little time to even think of it as the pace of the show takes us from one crisis to another. There are no backyard barbecues in Naples, though scenes of food and its preparation are plentiful, you don’t see Imma Savastano (Maria Pia Calzone) baking a cheese cake or dishing out the baked ziti like Carmela Soprano. Certainly the women stay in the background more than their American cugine.


    Scenes are punctuated or underscored by the presence of television news accounts of the crimes, and these serve as a Greek chorus, calling our attention (as well as the characters’) to society’s reactions to the ongoing disruptions of normal life. As of this writing, I’ve only seen four hours of the first season, and with a second season ready, and the third soon to be released, (and a fourth contracted) we should be in for some interesting viewing in the coming years that just might give us a better understanding of this underworld and maybe even ourselves.





  • Art & Culture

    BOOKS. Riding the Streets of Utica

    The third installment of Frank Lentricchia’s Eliot Conte mystery series, following The Accidental Pallbearer and The Dog Killers, finds the ex-professor turned private eye a stay-at-home father to a newborn daughter. Baby Ann, the result of his cohabitation with Catherine Cruz, is in his care and keeps him at his wit’s end.

    Without much of a track record in the father business, Eliot struggles to keep the kid fed, in clean diapers, and not crying as he muddles around his Utica home, waiting for Catherine to return from a visit to her older daughter.

    When he gets a call from Caruso’s Café telling him the news, he begins to sizzle. Victor Bocca, a local lout and angry old man smashed the guitarofone Angel Moreno, after the seventeen year old uses this new gift from his adopted father Eliotto amuse Utica’s Golden Boys, local retirees, as they debate the most famous unsolved crime in Utica history, the 1947 murder of Fred Morelli. 

    Assumed all along to be a mob hit, Angel ruins the old men’s theories as he presents evidence
    he’s managed to get through use of his superhuman skills as a computer hacker that links Morelli to none other than Thomas E. Dewey, the famous New York crime fighter turned politician. Angel, home from college, must have struck a wrong chord for Bocca to have behaved so violently, and leaves the café to sulk in his room.

    Eliot seeks vengeance for the wrong done to his son, but before he can enact whatever physical response his twisted mind can conceive, he finds Victor’s body sprawled over his front stoop; someone more professionally prepared than Eliot, got there first, yet Eliot will be suspected of the crime until he can prove he had nothing to do with it.

    With this plot, Lentricchia takes us on another wild ride through the streets of Utica, New York, as wild man Eliot, part Sherlock Holmes, more Dirty Harry, flits about town in an effort to keep his family alive and together. Angel, whose family was murdered in the last novel, nowis Eliot’scharge.

    Takingcare of a newborn, and this genius computer whiz home from the Ivy League school that awarded him a major in computer science before he even takes a class, is more than Eliot can handle. Under the stress, he drifts toward the old habits that got the best of him in the past, and keeps him from finding normal work.

    Lentricchia has centered this novel around an actual unsolved murder of one Fred Morelli, whose immigrant father had his cigar business busted by the state for withholding sales tax, an act that drives Fred to the dark side of Italian power. With punchy dialogue and fast-paced action, Lentricchia keeps the story moving and the plot from giving itself away. His sleuth is someone you love to hate and are afraid to love, and yet, you can’t help but wonder just how will Eliot get out of this one. While the solution is ingenious, the action makes us think, could this be the end of Lentricchia’s detective work?

    What could Eliot Conte possibly do next if he must stay in Utica as he reaches the age when health problems arrive unexpectedly to normal seniors, not to mention those who are trouble magnets. And just how much mystery can even a powerful writer such as Lentricchia draw from one small American city?