12 Essays about the real Italian American experience originally published in the online journal Suite101.com. Includes an appendix with a narrative poem about Sacco and Vanzetti.
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THE BODY IN ITALIAN AMERICAN CULTURE
by Anthony Maulucci
Italian Americans have a great love for the human body. This love has its roots in ancient Rome and is reinforced by the classical and sacred images that haunt our consciousness. We have a strong physical presence and are intensely aware of the body, which is one of the reasons, along with being naturally emotive, why we make such good actors. Moreover, Italian Americans believe strongly in mens sana in corpore sano -- a sound body is the foundation of a healthy mind. It is no accident in Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, one of the defining works of modern Italian culture, that when Pinocchio learns how to love and begins to act rationally he is rewarded with the gift of human flesh.
The gods of Roman mythology were often depicted in their naked grandeur -- and most Romans aspired to look like them. From public baths to formal banquets, the Romans’ love of the human body prompted them to maintain good health and an attractive physique. The Roman baths were more like spas offering an elaborate system for the care and maintenance of the body. The Roman diet was well balanced, including many fruits and grains, which were some of their favorite foods. As a wealthy superpower with the highest standard of living, Romans had their culinary luxuries such as roast parrot and boiled flamingo, but they believed in moderation -- “nothing in excess” was the motto of many -- and this philosophy helped them remain devoted to their physical well being.
During the long twilight of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, Roman Catholicism evolved and established the belief in the actual resurrection of the human body in a more perfect form. While discussing their physical needs, Christ exhorts the disciples not to worry about what they will wear, saying, “Is not the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25). In other words, the naked human form is a divine creation which has great dignity, beauty and meaning in itself and has no need for adornment.
Italians understand that the nude human form is both gloriously beautiful and inherently powerful. When it comes to depicting the human body in art, no one has surpassed the supreme masters of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo, DaVinci, Raphael, Botticelli, Titan . . . the list of Italian artists who excelled at creating great works of art extolling the beauty of the human form is a lengthy one. These various masters depict the human body in a wide range of forms: muscular, sensuous, graceful, plump, tender, elongated, angelic, maternal, earthy, mysterious, powerful, dignified, and heroic. After the tortured pictures of Christ painted during the medieval period, the Italian Renaissance artists idealized his form and turned to the Virgin Mary as a central figure for their religious paintings, portraying her as the Madonna, a symbol of holiness who is also a woman of breathtaking beauty. Whether secular or sacred, the images from that extraordinary epoch speak for themselves, but one message comes through clearly across the entire spectrum of Renaissance art: the human body is divinely inspired and worthy of our reverence.
The average Italian American has an imposing physical presence. This is true not only for those of us who do physical work or have developed our bodies at the gym, but for rest of us as well. Even those with the slender build of Frank Sinatra or the diminutive size of Danny DeVito carry themselves with dignity and a confident sense of their physical prowess. Performers from Valentino to Pacino and DeNiro, and from Ida Lupino (also a director-screenwriter, b. 1918) to Anne Bancroft (nee Anna Maria Italiano) and Madonna have come to symbolize classic beauty and earthiness or a powerful blending of sexuality and violence that is so much in the grain of contemporary American culture. Regardless of the characters they are portraying, Italian American actors always seem to radiate a physical magnetism and a sexual energy that rivets an audience’s attention. They have an alluring mystique. Both men and women crackle with an onstage electricity that is fascinating, dangerous, and very exciting. They project an inner tension, a potential explosiveness that keeps others at wary distance, but they are nonetheless admired for their self-possession. The same may be said of Italian American athletes, and none of them exemplifies this combination of grace and strength more than the legendary Joe DiMaggio and the great featherweight boxing champion Willie Pep, whose dancer-like elusiveness made some opponents so angry they were swinging at him from the floor.
Awareness of our physical bodies has made us also highly sensitive to the issues of aging and the realization of our mortality. Nevertheless, we tend to age well because we take care of our health, and we accept the inevitability of our physical decline and death with the traditional fatalism of our culture. However, our focus is on the pleasures of life while they are ours to enjoy: love, art, good food, and our families. And we always take special joy in the stories of family members who lived long and healthy lives, especially the ones that begin, “And even at the age of ninety he was still . . .” for it is our secret wish to live to be a robust 100 years old, which is why we always say, a salute! and cent’ann’!
Anthony S. Maulucci is the author, most recently, of THE ROSSELLI CANTATA (2001, Lorenzo Press, www.lorenzopress.com), a novel based on a true story of an Italian immigrant who forgives the unforgivable and breaks a cycle of vengeance. It is available from Amazon.com. Read excerpts at www.anthonymaulucci.com. He has taught writing and literature at UCONN/Hartford and the University of Hartford and is the founder-director of The Writers Workshop.