A (Silent) Window into the Past

Genoa 1916

Note: after a hiatus in which I was buckling down to finish my new book, I am back at my blog and hope to be more consistent from here on out. Today’s story is a good one to start back on, I think.

Something truly amazing happened in my Italian literature workshop last week. I’ve designed it in the format of a survey course, so after a long sojourn with Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, Pico della Mirandella and Machiavelli and the Renaissance writers, we’ve slowly made our way up to 19th century romanticism. After a couple of sessions spent soaking in the lyrical pessimism of Giacomo Leopardi, we took a breather and turned to some of the stories Edmondo De Amicis included in his children’s novel Heart: Diary of a Child.

Mind you, I am no fan of De Amicis. I tried to read Heart several years ago and the sheer weight of so much moralizing forced me to put it down. But I was keen to include an example of children’s literature in the course, and one of the stories I chose, “From the Apennines to the Andes,” was ideal for introducing the topic of the Italian diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which saw the emigration of some 16 million Italians to countries such as the US and Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Australia.

My grandmother, Giuseppina Veronesi née Cosmini, was among those 16 million. Born in the village of Roncaglia in the Italian Alps, she emigrated together with her grandmother in 1916 to join her parents, who had sailed on ahead to an uncertain future in Connecticut. I have copies of their exit documents, which showed that they were given permission by the government to emigrate due to their comprovata poverta’, that is, demonstrated poverty. The story she told me as a child was gripping: when she and her grandmother made their way to Genoa to board the ship to New York, the shipping company representative asked if they would be willing to give up their berths to a young couple that had to reach New York by a certain date in order to board a connecting ship bound for California.

“But we don’t have any money,” my great-great-grandmother said.

“We’ll pay for your room and board. There’s another ship leaving in just three days,” said the company representative.

My great-great-grandmother agreed. What they did not know, during their short hiatus, was that the ship they were to have traveled on was sunk by a U-boat. This was World War I, recall, and the Atlantic Ocean was yet another battlefield. The two boarded their new ship three days later and traveled without incident to New York, only to find nobody waiting for them: my distraught great-grandfather had received news of the sinking of the original ship but, when he did not find his daughter and mother-in-law’s names on the list of the ship’s manifest, did not know what to think or where to turn. After several days spent on Ellis Island, the situation was resolved, happily in the case of my grandmother, tragically in the case of that young couple. History’s wheel of fortune. I had meditated for years on that story, told it many times and made the obligatory visit to Ellis Island, all the while wondering what it would have been like for a girl of seven, who spoke only the dialect of the village she had almost certainly never left, to have experienced such a dramatic uprooting.

In the De Amicis story, a boy of 13 sets off on his own to Argentina to search for his mother, who had traveled to Buenos Aires to work as a domestic but whose letters to her family back home had abruptly ceased arriving. When he arrives, he finds that the family his mother was working for is no longer there. This sets off an odyssey which takes the penniless boy from the capital to the cities of Rosario and Cordoba, all the way to a villa outside of the remote city of San Miguel de Tucumán, where his mother is gravely ill. The surprise arrival of her son convinces her to undergo the operation she has been resisting and – children’s story, after all – she is saved. As I read on, I began to see several parallels between this story and my grandmother’s: the departure from Genoa as a child, the hoped-for reunion with her mother, the unforseen difficulties along the way that hold up the reencounter. But the most startling parallel of all was yet to come.

While researching the story in order to present it to the class, I discovered that a silent movie version of the story existed. The title was the same, Dagli Appennini alle Ande, and when I looked at the year it was made, I was astonished to find that it was 1916! The same year as my grandmother’s emigration. And, what is more, the first scene of the movie takes place in the same port of Genoa she departed from (I can only hope that it was filmed on site)! I found myself looking at the most unexpected window into history: same year, same port, the same view young Giuseppina would have had upon boarding the ship, the same view of the port of Genova receding into the distance. For all I know, my grandmother and her grandmother could have strolled by as extras during their three-day layover. And, thanks to the good graces of the Bologna Cineteca’s film archive, the movie can be seen right here. Even if you don’t have a relative that traveled from Genoa in 1916, it’s a valuable piece of cinema history that’s well worth a viewing.


On Workshops, Italian Literature and the Birth of the Short Story

Amongst the most pleasurable aspects of the life I’ve created for myself here in Oaxaca are the literature workshops I get to give in this venerable building, the Biblioteca Henestrosa, so named because it houses the book collection of Oaxaca’s centenarian writer Andrés Henestrosa, chronicler of indigenous legends and transcriber of the Zapotec language to the Latin alphabet. Here are a pair of photos, one of the exterior and the other of the room where I give my workshops:

Biblioteca_Andres_Henestrosa-300x199  biblio henestrosa interior

The workshop I’m kicking off this year with is called “A Tour of Italian literature”, what in the States would be known as a survey course. And at four hours a week over four months, 64 hours of class time in total, it really is more of a course than a workshop. But without the bureaucracy, the grading and the diplomas. The students are there because they want to be and for the love of learning, not because they expect to get something else out of it, be it course credits or a certificate: such a salutary difference from my days at the University. And the mixture of ages and experience – from college students to retirees, breaking up the artificial and isolating segregation by age our schools are so proficient at – adds a spirit of camaraderie and generational exchange to the educational mix. I love it.

Besides paying me to give the workshops (thus making it free for the students), the Biblioteca also has a great team of graphic designers making up the posters that go up around town promoting their events. Here, incidentally, is the poster for my workshop:

CARTEL The first question that confronts anyone when designing a course that purports to cover so much ground is, simply, where to start? With Dante’s dolce stil nuovo, with Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura? I did, in fact, start with a sonnet, but one with quite a distinct tone: “S’i fosse foco” by Cecco Angioleri. Here it is, with English translation, commentary and as set to music by Fabrizio de André, whose song “Fiume Sand Creek” song I referenced in my earlier post, A Sand Creek Moment.  This English translation of it admirably attempts to reproduce both the rhyme scheme and a consistent 10-syllable meter:

If I were fire, I would consume the world;
If I were wind, then I would blow it down;
If I were water, I would make it drown;
If I were God, t’would to the depths be hurled.

If I were Pope, I’d have a lot of fun
with how I’d make all Christians work for me;
If I were emperor, then you’d really see –
I’d have the head cut off of everyone.

If I were death, then I’d go to my father;
If I were life, I’d not abide with him;
And so, and so, would I do to my mother.

If I were Cecco – as in fact I am –
I’d chase the young and pretty girls; to others
Would I leave the lame or wrinkled dam.

If I were fire, I would consume the world;
If I were wind, then I would blow it down;
If I were water, I would make it drown;
If I were God, t’would to the depths be hurled.

My choice for starting with Angioleri’s famous sonnet was hardly a disinterested one: like De André, I love the irreverence and iconoclasm of it. Such a far cry from our standard notions of the Medieval era as a time of piety, plainsong and popes burning heretics at the stake. It was effective in catching the attention of my students right out of the starting gate, as well (and, to be fair, plenty of Italian lit anthologies start with it, so my choice was hardly original). From there, continuing in a straight line of irreverence, Boccaccio’s Decameron – that racy, bawdy treasure trove of tales that became an instant bestseller amongst the rising Florentine merchant class – presented itself as the next logical choice. Here are nuns organizing a schedule to make love with their gardener; an overprotected young girl persuading her parents to let her sleep out on the roof in order to rendez-vous with her lover; a sinner convincing a friar on his deathbed that he was a saint and becoming posthumously venerated as such; a man returning from the afterlife to visit his best friend in order to inform him that sleeping with your comadre doesn’t count as a sin; a lascivious priest attempting to transform a credulous peasant’s wife into a mare by fondling her and ultimately, “pinning a tail on her”… You get the idea. In choosing which of the hundred stories to assign, I was guided by the ones Pier Paolo Pasolini chose when making his film version of The Decameron, which we subsequently watched.

As Mario Vargas Llosa says in his account of the literary pilgrimage he made to Boccaccio’s hometown of Certaldo, it was the Black Death that got this bookish intellectual, Latinist, Hellenist, and yes, even theologian, to put down his books and not only to get out into the street to learn the stories of the people, but to write them down in their language: the Tuscan of Florence, later to become known to us as “Italian”. Thus, classical learning and a thorough understanding of medieval verse became wedded to a corpus of popular storytelling stretching back through the Arab world to ancient India. And the back of Latin had been broken to allow literature in “vulgar” languages to flourish. The Western short story had been born.

Let others begin with Heaven and Hell, divine allegory and lyric yearning. I’m following Boccaccio’s lead, out the door and into the street; see what kind of trouble I can get into.