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A Novel Approach to Two Sicilies
Discover Anthony Di Renzo's new book and decide whether you think unification of Italy was a smart move
by Francesca Di Meglio
Anthony Di Renzo, who teaches writing and Italian American history at Ithaca College, has taken on a new project that intends to illustrate the destruction of the two Sicilies during Italy's Revolution. While this topic has been covered by others before, this novel, Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily, has great ambition. Its author Di Renzo intends to use it to get readers to think about whether unification in Italy improved matters or made them worse for southern Italy. This is a question as old as time and one that Italians in Italy constantly debate. Few countries, in fact, are as divided as Italy. Each region has its own dialect, traditions, culture, and personality. Anyone who has met one person from Milan and another from Napoli knows this to be true. Still, the country remains one. Di Renzo's book might make you wonder if that's a good idea. Recently, Di Renzo responded to questions about the project in an e-mail. Here are his responses:
- What motivated you to pursue this project?
Because of family history, I have always been fascinated by the Italian Revolution's impact on Sicily, but two specific childhood incidents inspired this novel's theme and content. The first occurred when I visited Villabate, my mother's home town, now a suburb of Palermo. The previous summer, Luchino Visconti had come to Sicily to film The Leopard. Many of Mamma's former neighbors had attended the shoot. Some had even worked as extras. All, however, told stories. The most amusing concerned Ciminna, a mountaintop commune 30 miles southeast of Palermo. Visconti had used this town as Donnafugata, Prince Fabrizio's ancestral fief. After the wrap, the mayor and the council had petitioned 20th Century Fox to rebuild the sets because American tourists no longer wanted to see Ciminna's authentic Greek ruins, a three-thousand-year-old temple to Demeter. Instead, they wanted to pose in front of Burt Lancaster's fake palazzo and collect autographs.
The second incident took place one rainy afternoon in Rome, spent among my Uncle Tonino's memorabilia. A copywriter and business journalist, Tonino collected Armando Testa posters. One series for Cinzano was called Brindisi Storico con Punt e Mes. It showed King Carpano, the company icon, drinking vermouth—paunch to paunch—with Cavour, Garibaldi, and Victor Emmanuel. I was shocked to see the political campaign for Italian Unification turned into an advertising campaign for Italian bitters. But when I objected, Tonino smiled and said: "Both are bottled in Turin.”
These early memories never left me, and their lessons were reinforced when I followed Tonino's footsteps and worked in advertising. I learned firsthand how history and politics have become merely grist for the mills of public relations. After I left the industry to get a doctorate, I read John Dos Passos' USA trilogy and decided to write a novel on this theme, only with an Italian and Italian American focus. Trinàcria was originally part of that project, but its story and characters demanded their own book.
- What's the status of the project now?
Guerinica Editions, an independent press in Toronto, has wanted to publish Trinàcria for over a year, but its government funding does not extend to non-Canadian authors. Fortunately, the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere, a Staten Island institute that promotes Italian art, history, and commerce, is sponsoring an online campaign on Indiegogo.
So far, the campaign has raised $5,725. If we raise another $1,275 by December 13, we can pay for the book's editing, design, production, and distribution, plus all operating expenses. With luck, Trinàcria will be released on November 2, 2013, All Souls Day: an appropriate date since this novel wrestles with ghosts.
- Why should our readers pick up your book? What will they get out of it?
Like Federico De Roberto's The Viceroys and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Trinàcria chronicles the destruction of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies during the Italian Revolution. But the book is also an inquiry about the origins of Italian national identity at a time when that identity is threatened by division at home and derision abroad. As Lega Nord threatens to secede because of southern Italy's social and economic problems in Mezzogiorno, the U.S. media pollutes the global airwaves with recycled stereotypes about southern Italians that remain perversely popular. This cultural crisis, at once tragic and grotesque, has root causes.
The novel attempts to answer a fundamental question: Did the Risorgimento (the War of Italian Unification) benefit or ruin the Mezzogiorno, the ancestral region of most Italian immigrants? Last year, Casa Belvedere capped its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Risorgimento with a public debate between Pino Aprile, author of Terroni (Piemme 2010), and Lorenzo del Boca, author of Polentoni (Piemme 2011). Trinàcria continues this lively but often painful discussion of complex historical problems. In many ways, it is a story about story-telling, about the myths we create individually and collectively to make sense of our lives. But this is a political as well as a philosophical issue. As George Orwell noted: “Who controls the present, controls the past; who controls the past, controls the future."
Accordingly, the novel begins during the centennial of Garibaldi's Sicilian campaign, when a Hollywood film crew invades Palermo to shoot an epic about the Italian Revolution. Researching the past, the northern Italian director visits the city's Capuchin catacombs. Preserved in the catacombs among over 80,000 mummies is Zita Valanguerra Spinelli, Marchesa of Scalea: notorious beauty, ferocious wit, and reluctant business woman. Dead for 80 years, Donna Zita remains haunted by memories, and her spirit posthumously recalls her complicated relationships with her scientist father, a British wine merchant, whom the Marchesa failed to marry; her patriotic and rebellious granddaughter; and Giacomo Leopardi, the doomed Romantic poet. Through these characters, readers can participate in southern Italy's rocky transition from feudalism to capitalism.
- Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know? If so, what?
Trinàcria invites Italian readers, particularly Southern Italian readers, to reflect on their history. Perhaps the novel's most important setting is Villa Palagonia, Bagheria's notorious Villa of the Monsters, whose funhouse hall of mirrors symbolizes Sicily's distorted past. Postmodern society has turned history into an amusement park or, worse, a cable channel with mediocre ratings. History, however, is not passive entertainment. It is the paradoxical ground of human action, at once freedom and necessity.
Almost 90 years ago, Antonio Gramisci broached this subject in "Some Aspects of the Southern Questions.” Gramisci had been imprisoned on the island of Ustica, then a penal colony off the coast of Palermo, so he had plenty of time to think. Wondering how the Mezzogiorno could overcome its tragic legacy, he asked a larger question: Are human beings doomed by their collective mistakes, or can we learn from the past, act in the present, and hope for the future? Gramisci had no answers, unlike the talking heads on Fox News or MSNBC, but his judgment of his own age could apply to ours: "An old world is dying, while a new world is struggling to be born. Now is the time of monsters."
Readers can support this project in two ways:
a) Visit and contribute to the following campaign Web site between now and December 13:
b) Attend the following fundraising reception:
Date: Thursday, November 29, 2013
Time: 6:00 PM to 11:00 PM
Place: Umberto's Clam House
132 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10013
They may also reach me below:
Anthony Di Renzo
Department of Writing
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012), which is available on Amazon.com, and you can follow her life and work at the Two Worlds Web site.
Article Published 11/26/2012
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