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Signs of Italian - Verso Gardaphe

Signs of Italian - Verso Gardaphe

Jerry Krase (April 7, 2008)

i-italy provides a great opportunity for intelligent discourse about the meaning(s) of Italian and Italian American. I hope to contribute to one created by Tom Verso and Fred Gardaphe about Italian Signs.




Tom Verso and Fred Gardaphe's excellent, but contrasting, observations on "Italian Signs" here on i-italy  are not necessarily at odds with one another if one considers the visual and spatial semiotic issues with which I have been concerned over the decades. In fact I had employed Gardaphe's "Signs of italianita " in several published articles as a segue from words about to images of Italians and Italian Americans.  Example: “For Italian neighborhoods some widely shared ethnic markers of Italianita (“Italianess”) have been sidewalk religious shrines, barber shops, bakeries, and pizza parlors. The essential semiotic/symbolic character of Italianita , according to Gardaphe, are signs indicating omerta (secrecy) and bella figura (good appearance).My own work showed how these cultural traits are visually available as social performances and in vernacular architecture.”*
I think that when we speak of "Italian" or other signs, we have to consider what it is about them that appears to us to make the claim they are in fact "Italian." What is taken as really, truly, authentically, etc... "Italian" is quite variable even if we simply use historical referents (when was there an "Italy" so that things could be "Italian" , not to mention literary ones (Is there an "Italian" literature when people are not "Italian" or don't write in "Italian"?). Much fuss has been made about the alleged "twilight" (as in diminishing) of Italian American ethnicity. But, when the eminent sociologist Richard Alba wrote of the "Twilight of Ethnicity" for European Americans, he was not especially focused on more and less subtle cultural practices (such as penchants for “Italian” pasta as opposed to “Irish” potatoes) as on hard (demographic) socioeconomic and other structural realities such as levels of education, occupation, and income, as well as residence. Just as Italians who come to the US today find it hard to see the connection between themselves as those claiming Italian roots, Italian Americans traveling in the reverse direction are hard pressed to find the Italy their grandparents left behind. Looking at myself in a mirror, it is hard to see what I once looked like, but if I be allowed a literary reference; we might learn a great deal by a re-reading of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891) . PS: I actually look a great deal like my Sicilian grandfather Geralomo Cangelosi but he of course "looked Italian" as opposed to me who doesn't.  When I get a chance I'll scan a photo of him and you can check for yourself here on i-italy whether my grandfather looked Italian.
*See especially my: "Italian American Urban Landscapes: Images of Social and Cultural Capital." Italian Americana, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter 2004: 17-44. and "Traces of Home," Places: A Quarterly Journal of Environmental Design. 8,4, 1993: 46-55.
From: Fred L.Gardaphe, Italian Signs, American Streets: the Evolution of Italian American Narrative, Durham, Duke University Press, 1996, p. 20.

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