Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

California Italian Studies

California Italian Studies banner

Open Theme Issue

Issue cover
Cover Caption: The Watts Towers, Los Angeles (photo T. Harrison)

Claudio Fogu and Lucia Re, Editors

Regina Longo, Managing Editor

Editors' Note

Food for Thought

Editors' Note for Volume 1, Issue 2.

Critical Essays and Articles

"As Men Do with Their Wives": Domestic Violence in Fourteenth-Century Lucca

Marriage disputes, such as those contained in the records of the episcopal court of Lucca, offer a glimpse into the meanings and effects of domestic violence in the fourteenth century. In one case in particular, the case of Guilielino and his wife Sitella, violence is the centerpiece of the marriage dispute. In this conflict, Guilielino, complaining that Sitella had left his household against the law of marriage, petitioned the court to force the restitution of his wife and marital rights under penalty of excommunication. Guilielino and Sitella’s testimonies indicate that both parties sought to exploit social and legal preconceptions of gender. Guilielino insisted that the violence in question was not excessive, but moderate and appropriate for a husband who must correct his wife, while Sitella described Guilielino as inhuman and depraved, impugning his ability to provide for her or to control himself. To Guilielino, violence was a tool for correction and a means of confirming his masculinity. Sitella used language that indicated her own helplessness, describing occasions on which Guilielino threatened her, beat her, deprived her of food and drink, and tried to kill her, all while emphasizing her obedience. The episcopal court, torn between preserving the indissolubility of marriage and protecting a member of its diocese, granted Sitella a separation a mensa et throro, from table and bed, freeing her from her marital obligations, but also preventing her from remarrying. Violence thus served several functions in this case: as a tool for reinforcing gender relations, as a means of legally justifying abandonment, and as the impetus for creative legal solutions within the episcopal court.

La crisi dell’Autore nel Rinascimento

Departing from Roland Barthes’ observations in his renown article “Death of the Author” (1968), the author of this essay goes back to the historical origins of the modern author in the late Middle Ages to argue that we should speak of a prolonged “crisis,” rather than “death” of author-ship in modernity. The direct relationship between author-ship and individuality was conceptualized by Dante in a famous passage of the Convivio on the etymology of auctor. During the Renaissance, however, this vertical relation was transformed in horizontal fashion by the twin revolutions of humanism and the printing press. In particular, the critical and philological method contributed to detach authors from their texts as testified by the examples of Poliziano’s Orfeo, Il libro del pergrino by Iacopo Caviceo, Sannazzaro’s Arcadia, and the writings of Leonardo Da Vinci. The essay focuses in particular on the latter, because of Leonardo’s repeated claim to be an ‘omo senza lettere’ (non-literary man), and his prolonged war against the principle of author-ship. Leonardo, who did not publish any of his writings, elaborated a form of infinite writing in which the Author is never separated from his Opus.

Italian Renaissance Food-Fashioning or The Triumph of Greens

Along with clothes, manners, and ways of speaking, alimentary habits and food choices in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were relevant indicators of social standing, economic status, and more broadly cultural identity. Conceptions of food in the Renaissance were also still influenced by the humoral-Galenic theory, which said that to keep the different “humors” of the body in balance, a good diet had to be the result of foods balancing the moist/water and the dry/air, the warm/fire and the cold/earth, recalling again the four Aristotelian elements. These prescriptions were tirelessly repeated by authors in Italy, the Mediterranean, and Europe in general, from the fifteen well into the sixteenth century, with only minimal variations. Most of them also insisted on the dangers of eating vegetables and fruit, as they were thought to be responsible for creating putrefaction in the stomach. It seems probable that this negative judgment derived mainly from the association of vegetables with peasant’s food or with the “lowest” form of nutrition. By the end of the Renaissance, however, greens or salad had gained a significant status as a trope in the literary imagination of the Italian Renaissance, alluding to poetical play, the display of refined manners, good taste, and Italian botanical, agricultural, national, and cultural identity. The discourse of salad was not univocal, as it could be used in defense of delicate and upper-class tastes or of more earthy gusto; it could serve bernesque poets and cutting anti-bernians like Aretino as well. But the traditional link – established in Galenic medicine – between ideal social hierarchy and the consumption of vegetables and greens had been significantly broken by the end of the sixteenth century, and a new food fashion had emerged that was truly a matter of taste in all senses.

Transnational Multimedia: Fortunato Depero’s Impressions of New York City (1928-1930)

This essay looks at the experimentation done by the Italian futurist Fortunato Depero during his short stay in New York City (1928-1930) and shows how Depero, as a foreigner, experienced the capital of the twentieth century during its making, capturing crucial elements – immigration and plurilingualism, fashion and transnational commerce, the incessant construction of skyscrapers, billboard advertising and cinema, the music hall and its theatrical and delirious scenography. A close, selective reading of Depero’s unfinished project New York–Film Vissuto, shows Depero’s avant-gardist take on this experience and fosters connections and comparisons with other international modernist actors who experienced or lived in the city (Le Corbusier, Frederich Kiesler, Léonide Massine, and Katherine Drier). Depero was in New York during the Great Depression as well as a time when an incredible energy was just starting to crystallize in art, architecture, film, music, and literature. Depero translates bits of experience into different media, creating a maze of artifacts (painting, advertising, poetry, and prose) that, on one hand, communicate among themselves and, on the other hand, show the Babel-like confusion among the different media. Once back in Italy, Depero announced his intention to produce the book New York–Film Vissuto to be accompanied by a phonograph disc. It wasn’t produced; instead Depero, in tune with Futurist radio poetry, edited Liriche Radiofoniche: spare lyrics blending with fleeting and cosmopolitan aspects of the New York cityscape, others apparently glorifying Fascism, and some embedded with sounds and visions of nature. This last group of lyrics bears traces of the natural mountainscape, close to Rovereto, to which Depero returned to live and work. A reading of Depero’s artifacts shows the shock effect at play between earlier avant-garde gestures and the political and capitalistic complex with which he was confronted. Between these poles, and in a very specific moment, Depero plays with wit, capturing, yet displacing and interrupting, the spectacle of the city.

  • 11 supplemental images

Gothic Negotiations of History and Power in Landolfi’s Racconto d’autunno

This article develops new models for the study of Italian Gothic prose in an international context. Poststructuralist paradigms that consider the intersections of subjectivity, identifications, and power structures (knowledge practices and spatial dispositions pertinent to the Gothic castle in particular) are applied for the purpose of explaining how Tommaso Landolfi generates two conflicting narrations in his 1947 novel Racconto d’autunno and puts one of them on top.

Without Precedent: The Watts Towers

This article begins by addressing the oft-asked but never answered question of why Sam Rodia built his Watts Towers — one of the most perplexing architectural structures of the twentieth century. It ends with the conclusion that the finality of such a work is a complex combination of factors that could not have been foreseen when the Italian immigrant set out on his thirty-three year endeavor in 1921: (a) the physical form of the towers themselves, with their agglutinative, rung-upon-rung structure, which were largely improvised, (b) the implicit hermeneutics of such a structure, considering the fact that its towering verticality stands ten meters away from railroad tracks upon which 100,000 commuters passed each week, watching this artist “perform” his work and questioning by proxy their own horizontal projects, (c) the almost fortuitous “discovery” of these towers after Rodia abandoned them in 1954 by intellectually motivated members of the University of Southern California community, who proceeded to save them from destruction at the hands of the city, (d) their close association with Watts and the sociopolitical impoverishment the neighborhood symbolized, even though this Watts was no longer the one Rodia inhabited, and (e) the analogy thus established between the art brut nature of this work by an indigent immigrant and the cultural space it occupied. The fortuitousness of so much of this is not only appropriate to the imponderable towers; it is fully what they are, at this point in time, and a great source of their fascination.

Rituals of Charity and Abundance: Sicilian St. Joseph's Tables and Feeding the Poor in Los Angeles

This essay explores the mid-Lenten Tavola di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Table) in Los Angeles, situates this tradition within its historical and geographic cultural contexts, and seeks to interpret its various meanings. The custom of preparing food altars or tables in honor of St. Joseph is an expression of Southern Italian (conspicuously Sicilian) folk religion, which had at its core, on the one hand, a propitiatory sharing of abundance (as a rite of spring), the cultural exorcism of hunger, and on the other, within its Italian Christian matrix, an affirmation of the patriarchal family and an intertwining practice of hospitality and caritas. In its diaspora manifestations, the tables are a symbolic representation of the migration narrative itself (transposed in the Josephine dramatization of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt), along with an immigrant success codicil. This essay reconstructs the cartographies and stratified meanings of this food ritual in Los Angeles, largely employing the methodologies of oral historical and ethnographic research, but, as this narrative moves into the twenty-first century, it also considers the Sicilian-American tradition as it confronts further demographic shifts, diverse recontextualizations, and extends the analysis to encompass contemporary initiatives of inter-ethnic understanding and social advocacy. While building on previous writings and their analysis of abundance and gastronomic utopias, food practices among Italian immigrants, and the capital role played by food in Italian cultural identity, this essay on food altars and communal rituals of charity also seeks to integrate a newly embraced “ethnography of compassion” that bridges academic discourse and social engagement.

  • 5 supplemental files


Arrigo Boito's Short Stories

Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) is the author of the four tales presented here for the first time in English translation: The Black Ensign, Clenched Fist, Iberia, and Trapeze. Outside of Italy, he is known almost exclusively as the composer of Mefistotele, an opera for which he himself wrote the libretto. He is in fact equally esteemed as a consummate librettist, above all for the remarkable texts he created for Giuseppe Verdi’s last two masterpieces, Otello, and Falstaff. But in his homeland, he ranks rather high among the literati as a significant poet in the period when Italian political unification (1860-1870) was at long last realized, and he and a number of other young literary rebels generally referred to as the "Scapigliati" (the disheveled or disorderly ones) wrote works meant to shock the complacent insular culture of the Italian bourgeoisie into a broader European context. The chief targets of their polemic were religion – more specifically Roman Catholicism – and the prevailing maudlin romanticism of the time, so unlike the writings of Manzoni, Foscolo, and Leopardi in the earlier decades of the century.

Texts and Previews

L'ombra del padre. Il caso Calvino

The life and experiences of Italo Calvino's family in exotic places -first in Mexico, then in Cuba - has been widely discussed among Calvino scholars, and the general public. Calvino - who was born in Cuba, and lived on the island the first six years of his life, considered with care his roots in such places, and decided to celebrate his wedding with Esther Singer in Cuba. He also set some important short stories in Mexico.

The general notion about Calvino's father Mario's plan of moving from Italy to South America, has also been discussed by scholars - and by Italo Calvino himself, who when writing about his father wrote of Mario's strong desire for a new life, and his desire to know more of the world and its different cultures. He attributed these desires to his strong socialist beliefs.

In fact, a very singular event caused Mario Calvino's sudden departure from Italy. He had been framed in a complicated, unclear plot to kill the Russian Czar Nicolas II. It is a story that has never been explained in full detail; a story that Italo Calvino himself chose to forget.

This short article and attached documentation recount step by step the plot and its consequences (especially on Calvino's family), presenting and analyzing the official documents prepared on the case by the Italian Police, the Diplomatic Body, and other agencies.

A letter Italo Calvino sent in 1973 to an Italian scholar shows that he was aware of the obscure plot involving his father. This article seeks to understand when, and how Italo Calvino had been informed of the story, how the story affected the image he had of his father, the representation of father figures in his own creative works ( Il Barone rampante), and his writing about his father (La Strada di San Giovanni).