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Joseph Luzzi (PhD, Yale) is Associate Professor of Italian and Director of Italian Studies at Bard. He is currently writing a book on Italy and Italian culture, from Roman times[…]

Why have representations of Italian American culture been so far removed from Italy?

Joseph Luzzi:  What is the relationship between Italy and Italian America?  Now there are some—I don’t know what the exact figure is—I think it’s almost 30 million Americans of Italian descent, an extraordinary number, and yet if you think about it, what is the great myth of Italian American culture?  We had The Godfather shows.  Then we had The Sopranos.  Now we have Jersey Shore.  We have these representations of Italian American culture that are so far removed from Italy.  Why aren’t there other representations of Italian American culture?  You know, there is a great literary tradition. . . .  

I think the answer is this, and this is something I can relate to very personally: most Italian Americans of Italian descent are of southern Italian descent, my family included.  We’re from Calabria.  The north has really been the place where we associated more with things like the Renaissance of Dante, Michelangelo, Machiavelli.  Florence, Milan, all these, Venice, they’re all northern cities.  The south is really—has traditionally been considered behind.

So high Italian culture was elusive to many families in the south, and many of those families would subsequently immigrate to the United States, so when they came to America I think that we kind of brought this rift between north and south with us, and so the subsequent manifestations of southern Italian identity, which became Italian American identity, tend to be on the popular side, tend to be on the side that really you feel quite an enormous distance from the high Italian culture that is associated with—that’s made Italy famous.

That rift is born in the so-called “southern question.”  There is even a special name for it.  They call southern Italy "il Mezzogiorno" because of where it lays on the map.  I like to translate that as the land of the midday sun.  It’s kind of a very loose translation, but it gives a sense of the south as this place which is much further, much more intense climate, a much different geography, much more removed from the north. 

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd