Memoir from Luzzi (Italian/Bard Coll.; Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy, 2008, etc.), who, as the first American-born child of Italian immigrants, felt alienated from his parents’ roots.
Raised in suburban Rhode Island, educated at Tufts University and Yale, he felt closer to the aesthetically rarefied Italy of Dante and Michelangelo than to the poverty and superstition of his family’s native Calabria. There were two Italies, the poet Shelley had taught him, “one sublime and the other odious.” Popular media further fueled his “cultural schizophrenia,” with Italian-Americans portrayed as thugs in The Sopranos and The Godfather. Italian-American identity remains enigmatic, Luzzi believes, since “our pride in our ancestors grows with the distance we set between them and ourselves.” Attempting to bridge that distance, Luzzi embarked on a journey of discovery, examining the social, political and cultural differences between the wealthy, Europeanized north and the “carnal violence” of the south, his parents’ background, and his own fraught relationship with Florence, where he has lived. Family, he discovered, is central to Italian life. Mothers, for example, selflessly fulfill the needs of their sons well into adulthood. “In Italy,” Luzzi found, “unmarried men don’t cut the umbilical cord and apron strings; they stretch them out.” Family loyalty, though, prevents the formation of “informal civic traditions” that foster a sense of “national community.” Cynicism, coupled with a celebration of “the art of living rather than…the ties that bind” has resulted, Luzzi concludes, in “an unhealthy Italian body politic.” Italy today, writes the author, is mired in crisis: an aging population, deadening bureaucracy, rising unemployment and endless corruption.
Luzzi’s evocative personal history and incisive cultural critique illuminates the complex forces that have shaped his own identity. Being Italian and American, he comes to realize, has been both a bountiful gift and “an ethnic cross I had to bear.”