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Honoring Giuseppe Garibaldi. A summer evening in the underworld

Honoring Giuseppe Garibaldi. A summer evening in the underworld

Robert Viscusi (October 2, 2007)

Giuseppe Garibaldi will be the theme of the October 2007 Italian Heritage and Culture.


Now perhaps we can begin to talk about the history of hopes and delusions that have surrounded us and our forebears, ever since that day early two hundred years ago, that young Giuseppe Garibaldi first announced to his mother that no, he was not going to be a priest.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, the revolutionary hero of the Italian Risorgimento, was born in Nice on  American Independence Day, the Fourth of July, 1807. This coincidence of dates later came to seem important to both Italians and Americans. Italian progressives and radicals in the late nineteenth century always made a great show of admiration for this preternaturally-gifted guerilla, the invincible hero of innumerable battles in Brazil and Uruguay and Rome and Sicily and in many parts of Italy, including Mentana where he fought against the French soldiers defending the Pope in 1867. Many Americans admired him for his courage, his skill, his unshakable allegiance to the cause of the people and the nation.

Radicals everywhere loved him for his indomitable hatred of cardinals and popes – for him the immortal villains of Italian history.  In 1888, six years after his death, Italian Americans commemorated him with a bronze statue by Giovanni Turini, erecting it in the New York City park dedicated to the great American revolutionary George Washington.

On the evening of July 3, 2007, before that very statue, the Italian Heritage and Culture Month Committee sponsored a concert in honor of the condottiere's 200th birthday -- and, at the same time, in recognition of US Independence Day.  The statue glowed in the long summer sunset, and the conductor raised his baton.

The Garibaldi part of the concert came first. It was quite stirring, including two compositions of Giuseppe Verdi, things Garibaldi would himself have heard– "Libiamo" from La Traviata and the triumphal march from Aida (with its main theme reminiscent of "La Marseillaise"). We heard two others Garibaldi would have known quite well – "The Star Spangled Banner," and "Fratelli d'Italia," the marching song of the Risorgimento, sung here very effectively by Michael Castaldo.  There were also two arias of Puccini ("O mio babbino caro" from La Boheme  and "Un bel di" from Madama Butterfly) and two fin-de-siecle canzoni napoletane ("O Sole Mio" and "Torna a Surriento") – all of them pieces Garibaldi, having passed away in 1882 before any of them was written, can only have heard in heaven – or wherever it is that violent anticlerical revolutionaries listen to music after they die.  The orchestra struggled with the marches, but it didn't matter. The soprano Deborah Longino and the tenor Salvatore Motisi were entirely up to the music, and they tore the audience's heart in two.

But audience was not weeping for Garibaldi. Garibaldi, indeed, was only discussed when the committee presented his face on the poster for the October 2007 Italian Heritage and Culture. Of course, Italian Americans of a certain age all remember seeing that face framed on the wall.  And many remember his name from the litany of national heroes -- Cavour, Mameli, Crispi, Palma di Cesnola -- old names, nineteenth-century names, that still used to be heard around the barber shops of la colonia sixty and seventy years ago, before Mussolini declared war on the United States and people stopped speaking Italian in Astoria Square and on Williamsbridge Road, and pretty soon moved to Massapequa and Tuckahoe, where they learned to cultivate their roots by going to the mall and buying San Pellegrino water.   There was little said about the Eroe di due mondi on the night before his birthday, and what did get said might have surprised him. Someone praised Garibaldi for his love for God and Family, as if he had founded the Knights of Columbus instead of driving the Pope out of Rome in 1848.   People's hearts broke that evening, but not for the guerilla Garibaldi.

They broke, as happens every now and again in Italian America, because the singers brought to life a lost world, a world that this audience remembered, a world where one heard these songs every night. I knew so many old Italians who drank this music as if it were their daily wine. They were addicted to impossible romance and unappeasable nostalgia. They listened to these songs and they heard their abandoned mothers and fathers in Italy calling out to them from the caverns of the underworld, "Da la terra de l'ammore /Tiene 'o core 'e nun turna'?"  The songs spoke of a sadness so inexhaustible that it was a kind of triumph. In the same way, the marches made postures so heroic that they were plain signs of eternal defeat.

The American part of the show seemed like an afterthought. The singers (Giada Valenti, JoAnn Robertozzi, Lorraine Ferro) were imaginative and effective, but the material did not seem to have any special coherence or speak to any deep well of collective memory.  It was pleasant enough, but we were still reeling from our descent into the underworld.

This trip to the ends of reminiscence was a good advance notice for Italian Heritage and Culture Month, which this coming October will take Giuseppe Garibaldi as its theme.  Now that we have evoked the old family feelings that so often bind us, perhaps we can begin to talk about the history of hopes and delusions that have surrounded us and our forebears, ever since that day early two hundred years ago, that young Giuseppe Garibaldi first announced to his mother that no, he was not going to be a priest.

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Great starting piece, Prof. Viscusi. I think it would be a good idea, in light of the fact that not only Italian Americans but Americans in general know little history, if you or some other historian would start a column on this site dedicated to Garibaldi and the other Founding Fathers, a combination of information and interpretation which would fill in the huge lacunae of our younger peers. We know there are plenty of books out there about Garibaldi and Cavour and so on, but in the age of the Internet, I feel we must repackage this knowledge and send it out in virtual spacetime, link it to Wikipedia and other major sites. For there is where education in the future will take place.

Paul J. Carvet

Singing Songs Are Wine

Excellent literary usage of the language to evoke a pictorial meaning. Popular American radio shows do the same with current cultural music.

None of them have ever heard however, play any Italian music, unless for some reason the classical stations present Pavaratti or Caruso. Ciao Wyatt Reader