Monday, October 22, 2012

The Italians

I recently attended a lecture at the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum given by Professor Louis Leonini. The talk was to be about Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer for whom America is named. Professor Leonini spent some time discussing this remarkable man along with other Italian explorers like Christopher Columbus  Giovanni Cabotto (known to us as John Cabot) and Giovanni da Verrazano for whom our  Staten Island bridge is named. Soon our speaker  warmed up and began to point out how history has not always been kind to Italians. Our heroes were either ignored or their heritage disguised so that other ethnic groups could lay claim to their deeds. As Professor Leonini put it: "Success has many mothers, but failure is an orphan."


He mentioned how the French try to claim Verrazano as a Frenchman because in 1506, he settled in the port of Dieppe, in France, where he began his career as a navigator. In fact, Verrazano was born in Greve, a tiny town south of Florence in the Tuscan wine region. When we visited there a few years ago, we saw Verrazano's statue proudly looking out on the town square. John Cabot was an Italian navigator and explorer whose 1497 discovery of parts of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England is commonly held to have been the first European encounter with the mainland of North America since the Vikings visited. I grew up believing him to be English, but in fact he was born in southern Italy in Gaeta (my wife's grandmother's home town) and raised in the great port city of Venice.  

Perhaps the greatest slur on Italian culture has been the attacks on Christopher Columbus, an Italian from Genoa who sailed under the flag of Spain. Revisionist historians, with little or no proof, have characterized Columbus as a murderer and rapist, interested only in acquiring wealth for his European masters. The great courage, intelligence and bravery displayed by Columbus is written off by people with agendas who do their best to minimize the contributions of not just Italians, but all Western Europeans. They fabricate out of whole cloth, great (but imaginary) accomplishments for their own ethnic constituencies, while denigrating the real achievements of others. This is sad and pathetic; these half truths and outright lies must not be accepted unchallenged as history.

Italy spawned one of the most advanced and admired civilizations in the history of man. The modern renaissance in art, writing, architecture, philosophy and science was begun in Italy and its greatness is acknowledged to this day. Italian immigrants contributed mightily to the building of America, and their descendants continue to earn recognition in every field of endeavor. It was not always so; during the great wave of Italian immigration (1880-1925) many children of Italian parents were told by their school teachers that they were little more than savages who had to be subdued and acculturated to all things American if they were to be worth anything as citizens. Italian culture was denigrated, the Italian language was abandoned, and children were told to become Americans at all costs. 

It is supremely ironic that today in America, all  things Italian (clothes, jewelry, films, cars and cuisine) are considered to be the height of cool. Not that people still aren't taking shots at us with TV shows and movies that often portray Italians as gangsters, but Italians have largely outgrown this false characterization and emerged as the true (sometimes flawed) individualists they are. Talented, intelligent, family-oriented, temperamental, emotional, fun-loving and passionate, Italians have assimilated with a vengeance here in the United States. Grandma's black dresses and Grandpa's DiNobili cigars were put away while we all donned the mantle of "Americans." The time has come for our generation to reclaim its Italian roots.


Talk to your children and grandchildren about the great men and women Italy gave to the world. Show them the work of DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Brunelleschi; read to them from Dante, Pirandello, and Carlo Collodi, play for them the music of Caruso, Mario Lanza, Pavorotti, Renata Tebaldi and even Frank Sinatra; talk to them about the Italian explorers who defied existing beliefs and stretched the boundaries of the world, and most of all, take them to Ellis Island to see and hear about the sacrifices made by their great grandparents so that they could enjoy life in America. 

As Italians, we should not let our culture be defined by revisionist historians who tear us down with lies. We should speak up when ignorant people make statements about Italians that are biased and misinformed. In the last 100 years we have put great emphasis on the American part of Italian-American; its time to be proud the Italian in us.


SEE DATES ABOVE RIGHT FOR OTHER POSTS FROM "BRAINDROPS". ALSO, READ MY OTHER BLOG: SPALDEEN DREAMS  


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

6 comments:

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I remember when Italian food was scorned back in the 60's by friends of mine. But these were passionless people, I remember Italians being made to feel less than acceptable, but they didn't realize Italians have emotion, will make life better and it is in this country because of us, and as I look out across the landscape, I see more Italian restaurants, more and more popularity as you mentioned for Italian goods, and the language seeping into this culture, becoming more and more Italianate. Great blog!

Jim Pantaleno said...

WE have made our mark Joe, and proved our worth.

Anthony Gargiulo said...

I'am very proud of who I am an Italian American, and like so many others, we have notched a little piece of history to become the proud Americans among Americans simply because our roots are dictated by all the various inventors, a multitude of artist, movie stars , singers, not only the professionals the ordinary Italians , that made a difference in our Amricarican culture the diligence that they have displayed in their work ethic in the trades that formulated our our nation into an industrial power. I can go on n on , but Jim as always you have outdone yourself.just yesterday I was talking to some friends about the same famous people that you mentioned, it's ironic how we all are on the same wave length like Antonio MEUCCI whose invention evolved to what we presently use as a means of communication..I'm proud to be associated as part of our wonderful Italian heritage.......

Anthony Gargiulo said...

Jim Pantaleno, I wish you would post more frequently, you have inspired my thirst along with many others in the Interesting articles that you provide .you are interesting in your posts and without a doubt informative and delightful and for that I personally thank you....

G. Colavecchio said...

Wonderful history. My father came to this country in 1925 at age 5 with his mother to join my grandfather who had preceded them to make a home. They are all deceased now. I was born in 1948 and have always loved the Italian culture and have many fond memories of my grandmother's cooking and stories of "the old country."

Jim Pantaleno said...

We are blessed to have been born into such a rich culture. Glad you enjoyed the piece.