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Two Lives Through Italian Culture

Two Lives Through Italian Culture

Letizia Airos (June 13, 2008)

Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli Marimò founded the Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò at New York University in honor of her husband, industrialist and intellectual Guido Zerilli Marimò. She is a philanthropist who presides on the boards of many important cultural institutions


In her gorgeous apartment facing Central Park, in a warm and refined atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine that the Baroness Zerilli Marimò can find the time and the motivation to dedicate herself so fully to promoting Italian culture. Her life could certainly be calmer and at the same time full of her personal passions: her family, music, literature, and art.

But that is not how it turned out. In1987 Mariuccia Zerilli Marimò decided to purchase a brownstone in Greenwich Village and establish the “Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò,” a center for the promulgation of Italian Culture and headquarters for Italian Studies at New York University. She did this in memory of her husband, Guido, an industrialist, writer and diplomat.

“When I lost my husband I wanted to do something to continue the work I had always done with him: promote culture. I’ve been coming to the United States since 1950. And for the past 20 years I’ve been working here. I married a man that was a great industrialist but also a great intellectual. I always had the passion to create new cultural initiatives. That was my education, I married very young and I lived to work for this. After I lost him, I discovered that here in New York there wasn’t an Italian Center. And so I sold my large apartment in the center of Milan to create the Casa Italiana.”
I ask her how the Italian world in America has changed in all these years… “It’s been long time since the end of the phenomenon of segregation of Little Italies. Now Italian-Americans live everywhere, and have important jobs, even within the institutions. To do this they had to pay a high price, the loss of their mother tongue. Now finally there is talk of reclaiming Dante’s language here as well, and there are two main ‘schools of thought’.

One school says it is necessary to learn the language first because through language, culture is better absorbed. But since this represents a great difficulty for many people, others say: what if we put this effort towards learning the culture first? Not through first-hand experience, obviously, but through excellent translations. Both approaches are great if they can reach the goal…
I know the joy of reading a text in the original language is unparalleled, but for many people who grew up speaking English, it will take a long time before they are able to enjoy Dante in the original language. So we can start by learning the culture first to enjoy this amazing richness. We are all happy when more people get to know our literature, our poetry. Italian was for centuries the language of the elite; let’s not forget what Erasmus of Rotterdam said ... that all intellectuals we know are Italian…”
With the intention of encouraging the promulgation of contemporary Italian fiction in English-speaking countries the “Casa Italiana” and the Department of Italian at NYU instituted a literary prize that seeks to create constant and direct connections between Italian authors and publishers and the American audience. The winning work will be translated and published.
“There was a generation in America for which Italian was the language of the enemy. Now Italian is no longer ostracized. Publishers, however, want writers that are sure best sellers, and now there are translations of important Italian authors here, but we have to promote the new ones too…”
And what does the Baroness say to a parent that is unsure about having their child study Italian?
“Italian is a language that formed the culture of the Western World. It is a great pleasure to enjoy this culture first hand, getting closer to the spirit of the masters. And someone who learns Italian has the basis for all Latin languages, to approach the classics.”

But there is still little investment in Italian culture… usually there is more inclination to fund research and science…
“I know, that’s why I started the Casa Italiana. And that’s why the work that the oldest Italian-American club, ‘Tiro a segno’, does is also important: years ago they gave 500,000 dollars to NYU for the teaching of Italian American history and culture.

Italian Americans worked very hard to preserve their values, and it’s time for the third, fourth generations to demonstrate that, for example, great Italian-American literature exists. These things come from teaching those who will go on to teach. Italian Americans today more than ever are repositories of Italian culture in the United States. We need to teach them to be proud of this culture.”

Once again, as I look at her, always intent on defending culture, I ask her why she does it and continues to do it. And again, her answer leaves me speechless:
“It is a need that I have, a continuation of what I did with Guido. It is a tribute to an extraordinary man. My wish is that both he and I can continue to live on through the Italian culture in New York.”

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