August 17, 2014

‘My Two Italies’ captures the conflicts of life in contemporary Italy

“My Two Italies” by Joseph Luzzi (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 225 pages, $23)

“There are two Italies – one composed of the green earth and transparent sea, and the mighty ruins of ancient time, and aerial mountains, and the warm and radiant atmosphere which is interfused through all things. The other consists of the Italians of the present day, their works and ways. The one is the most sublime and lovely contemplation that can be conceived by the imagination of man; the other is the most degraded, disgusting, and odious.”

– Percy Bysshe Shelly, 1818

Anyone who has been to Italy knows that the country boasts some of the world’s finest culture and cuisine, antiquities and art. It showcases gorgeous landscapes in Tuscany and Umbria, along the Riviera and on bejeweled Alpine lakes. It lays claim to the great romantic cities of Venice, Florence and Rome. And it has bred the wonders of Botticelli, Leonardo and Galileo. Not to mention Dante, Michelangelo and Rossini.

Yet it can also be a filthy, dreary mess.

On a recent visit to southern Italy along the stunning Amalfi Coast, my wife and I contended with a weeklong trash strike reputedly caused by the Naples Mafia. Garbage mixed with the glistening sea: As a traveler, you learn to take the bad with the good and still wind up pronouncing Italy bella at the end of the day.

But as an Italian-American, you may find it impossible to separate the odious from the sublime. You are, in the words of Joseph Luzzi, a cultural schizophrenic, not really part of the Old World or the New. You carry two Italies inside you; such is the immigrant’s malaise, his unrelenting burden, his ethnic cross.

Thus, you stake your true homeland elsewhere, in some guarded fiefdom of the heart.

How Luzzi escaped the heartbreak of inheriting his parents’ Italy forms the core of “My Two Italies,” a brilliant tour de force that is part memoir, part cultural criticism and part paean to the magical city of Florence. A narrative at once elegant and elegiac, the book encapsulates the essence of contemporary Italy – sordid politics, organized crime, the bella figura – in a fast-paced prose that rushes by much too quickly.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson to emerge from “My Two Italies” is how expertly Luzzi, a professor of Italian at Bard College, delineates the difference between Italy as idea and reality.

Born to immigrants from southern Italy, he commands a lineage stretching back to the flinty, sun-baked toe of the country’s geographical boot, the region of Calabria.

There, in the “land of the Midday Sun,” people wish for one thing only: a “voluptuous immobility,” counterpart to the profound powerlessness they feel in life. Theirs is “a land with a blistering sun and an arid terrain, a ferocious ’Ndrangheta (the local Mafia), and an untranslatable worldview called la miseria, ‘the misery’ – a pervasive belief born of poverty that things will go worse than you expect them to and that fate is not your friend.”

His parents escaped that misery in the 1960s, but once they settled in Rhode Island, they never fully assimilated to the United States.

“My parents had neither America nor Italy,” Luzzi writes, “only each other. Too set in their ways and their language to remake themselves, they chose instead to live as if they were still in the Old Country. Hence the goat, the winepress, and the hand laid stone walls.”

But the Old Country could never become Luzzi’s country. In the suburb where he grew up, “everything I was learning in school, seeing on television, and picking up from my friends was pulling me away from my family’s world.”

Daily, his father would try to recreate the lost world of Calabria at the dinner table, serving plate after heaping plate of food from the past, all at once, peasant style. But the power of the plate turns grotesque in the book’s opening set piece, when Luzzi’s pet rabbit winds up as the main course for lunch.

As if killing his rabbit were not painful enough, Luzzi proved deeply ambivalent about the rest of his heritage, drifting as an adolescent and teenager until he decided to pursue a career in the language and culture of Italy – of northern Italy, that is, where he was “seduced by Florence.”

On his first visit there in 1987, he discovered a graceful “city of the Renaissance, of Dante and Michelangelo.” “Florence was like Italy itself to me: the embodiment of a high culture that I loved, but which always reminded me of its enormous difference from the world of my family.”

Thus, he “carried my own two Italies inside: the southern Italian immigrant world of my childhood and the northern Italian cultural realm I devoted my adult life to.” One world represented poverty, organized crime, economic crises; the other material wealth, sophistication and the language of Dante.

And it is language that forms the key to the Italian identity, according to Luzzi. More than 700 years ago, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio composed their literary works in Tuscan, helping create the official voice of a nation, which resonates today from the Senate floor to the public classroom.

“In the Italian language, it’s better to be beautiful than to be good,” Luzzi writes. And he beautifully shows how language can create an entire world. His parents foundered in the dialect of Dante, choosing instead the rough-hewn idioms of Calabria. But “the words reminded me that neither my family nor I were truly Italian.”

Luzzi keeps his own rhetoric thoroughly disciplined throughout “My Two Italies.” He sounds properly indignant about the scandals of Silvio Berlusconi, the country’s former prime minister; about the muddle that has become contemporary life in Italy, where whims masquerade as laws, where the absence of a civil culture transforms everyday life into an art of living – an art where again it is better to be beautiful than good.

But he remains remarkably restrained on the death of his pregnant wife and the birth of his daughter, sparing us the raw emotions of his personal agony. And when he eventually returns to Florence after his wife’s untimely passing, the city’s original beauty sustains him once again.

“After all, beauty was why I had chosen to spend so much of my life in Florence. And now I felt that this Florentine beauty – in Botticelli’s Venus, in the bowls of ribollita, in the starlings flocking to Santa Maria Novella – just might help me heal.”

Indeed, Florentine beauty would help him bridge another “two Italies” – “the Italy of the living and the dead.” And thanks to the power of his masterful memoir, at the end of the day we can pronounce them both bella.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or

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