Joseph Luzzi, author of 'My Two Italies,' talks about Italy's profound north-south divide

Joseph Luzzi came from a family steeped in the Italy of the south, but found himself drawn toward the cultural riches of the north.

By , Books editor

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    'While some of that ancient cultural divide between the north and south [of Italy] has been bridged,' says Luzzi, 'many of the intense political and economic divisions linger.'
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Joseph Luzzi learned young about the fractured nature of Italy. He grew up the son of Calabrian immigrants, who fled from southern Italy – a world of "stillborn babies, barefoot children, and no meat on the Sunday table." But as a young college student spending his junior year in Florence, Luzzi discovered northern Italy – the land of Dante and Michelangelo. 

Today, as a professor of Italian at Bard College, Luzzi finds that his degree has rooted him firmly in northern Italy. "My Ph.D. in Italian would be the passport to a cultural homeland that class, history, and society had all conspired to deny me and my family," he writes in his memoir My Two Italies

But nothing in life is simple and neither are Luzzi's feelings about the land of his ancestors. Luzzi recently answered answered questions from Monitor Books editor Marjorie Kehe about Italy, its divided heritage, and his own complicated ties to his ancestral homeland.

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Q. There is some evidence that the world is becoming more homogenized in this digital era. Can you ever foresee a time when the split between the two Italies will become less pronounced?

The Calabria of my parents is not the Calabria of today. When I visited for the first time in 1987, there were still some vestiges of the poor, ferocious land that my parents had left behind – especially in u voscu, “the woods,” a forested area outside of my parents’ hometown of Acri filled with toothless men and women in sackcloth. Yet even amid this poverty I could see that Calabria had changed. My cousins owned thriving gas stations in the center of Cosenza and homes with all the latest perks – one was even building what he called his “villa,” a private palace that certainly dwarfs anything I’ve ever lived in! Today that split between north and south is less dramatic in some respects, worse in others. Now young people in the south know all about northern Italy and beyond because of social media and the opportunities for cultural exchange that have come with rising standards of living. But the Italian south is still plagued by high unemployment, especially among its youth (as high as fifty percent in some places), and there are considerable tensions between the locals and immigrants from Asia, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. So while some of that ancient cultural divide between the north and south has been bridged, many of the intense political and economic divisions linger.

Q. If you had to choose, with which group do you feel the greatest affinity and most comfort: northern Italians or southern Italians?

It depends…. If we’re talking about a professional context – the subjects I teach, the cities I visit, the topics I write on – then most of my world remains “northern Italian.” It has been this way since I was an undergraduate, when I spent a year in Florence surrounded by the works of art and architecture that I had previously only dreamed about: Brunelleschi’s Duomo, the outdoor market of San Lorenzo, the covered stalls of the Ponte Vecchio. But on a more visceral level, I have never left my parents’ southern Italian culture. The dialect of my parents – especially my father’s genius for curses (for instance, “ti vo’ brusciare l’erba,” “may the ground beneath you combust,” when you annoyed him) – are connected to my earliest memories, as are Calabrian foods and customs. For a long time, I wanted nothing to do with this immigrant world and was desperate to fit in – to become a “real” American. As I’ve grown older, and especially since I became a father, I realize that this primal link to Italy is my parents’ greatest gift to me.

Q. What do Americans most misunderstand about Italy?

I think the biggest misunderstanding is the desire – in America and elsewhere – to separate the Italian past and present. So many people have heard of Dante and Michelangelo, and have visited Italy and marveled at its ancient splendors and Renaissance art. But very few know that Italy as an official nation (it was unified in 1861) is younger than the United States. And few realize that the Italian language is a relatively recent phenomenon that was derived from Tuscan and created after unification, before which time each region spoke a dialect of its own. As a writer, teacher, and speaker, I try to get people excited about those works of art and literature that were produced after the epoch of da Vinci and company.

Q. Do you worry about the future of Italy?

Yes and no. As I wrote in "My Two Italies," when I arrived in Rome in 2012, just months after Silvio Berlusconi’s controversial resignation, I expected to find, if not blood in streets, at least fear and chaos. Instead, I found the same withering skepticism toward government – the same resigned sense that things would not improve and that, if anything, they would get worse. Yet I soon realized that this supposed Italian “non-reaction” to the surrounding crises had to do with their peculiar relation to history. Denied a country for centuries, Italians learned to handle with remarkable resilience and dexterity botched laws, failed governments, and foreign occupation. The Berlusconi scandals, the “Bribe City” era of the 1990s, the terrorism of the anni di piombo (“years of lead”) in the 1970s and 1980s, and before that the world and civil wars associated with Mussolini – Italians have faced them all and always emerged intact, even when they appeared to be buckling under the weight of their own cynicism.

Q. If you could spend (or recommend) just one magic day in Italy, what and where would it be?

I would start with a cappuccino and brioche alla marmellata in Caffè Gilli, an ornate bar in Florence’s Piazza Repubblica, then head south to the Uffizi and spend a few blessed hours among some of my favorite paintings: Piero della Francesca’s "Duke and Duchess of Urbino," the Botticelli Room, Caravaggio’s "Bacchus." Afterward I would casually loop northeast, making sure to pass by the massive cobblestone expanse of the Piazza della Signoria, for lunch in the university district of Piazza Sant’Ambrogio. In the covered market there I would visit the salumeria of my friend Umberto, who would probably be singing the praises of his food while handing out samples to worshipful tourists. I’ll order a panino of prosciutto and mozzarella di bufala with mayonnaise, pick up a copy of la Repubblica, and then head over to the stately Piazza Beccaria and its quiet park. Then I’ll spread out my treasure and sit, feast, and read for an hour or so…. then time for an espresso at ChiaroScuro on the Via del Corso – which leads back to where we started, the Piazza della Repubblica!

Q. What relationship do you hope your daughter will have with Italy?

I hope my daughter will be able to feel the force of her southern Italian ancestry. With each member of my parents’ generation that dies, with each turn of Calabrian dialect that disappears from usage, that world of la miseria – the Calabrian “misery” caused by economic privation – with its fabulous curses and ancient dishes (like pig-blood pudding) fades from memory. I wish that the resourcefulness, courage, and iron will of my parents – the heroism they showed in abandoning all they knew and loved for the great American unknown – can somehow inform my daughter’s character as she looks back on what she calls “the olden days” – the time connected to those strange stories about her nonna and nanuzzo, grandmother and grandfather, from planet Calabria.

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