Italian Americans

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 to the turbulence of life under Silvio Berlusconi, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. An active literary and film critic, his most recent reviews have appeared in the American Scholar, Bookforum, Cineaste, and TLS.

Luzzi’s first book, Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy (Yale Univ. Press, 2008) received the Scaglione Prize for Italian Studies from the Modern Language Association of America and was named an Outstanding Academic Title by Choice. He has published articles in numerous academic journals, including Comparative Literature, Dante Studies, Italica, Modern Language Notes, Modern Language Quarterly, and PMLA. He has also recorded three audio courses for the Modern Scholar series of Recorded Books: In Michelangelo’s Shadow: The Mystery of Modern Italy, The Blessed Lens: A History of Italian Cinema, and most recently The Art of Reading.

Luzzi’s honors include fellowships from the National Humanities Center and Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center, an essay prize from the Dante Society of America, a Yale College Teaching Prize, and a grant from the Keats-Shelley Association. His lectures in 2012 will include appearances at Cambridge University and the Penn Center for Italian Studies, and he was chosen to give the annual Mini-Seminar in Italian literature at Yale in 2010. He is currently Co-Director of the First-Year Seminar Program at Bard, a yearlong course dedicated to the study of major texts and intellectual traditions from antiquity to the present, with a focus on such authors as Plato, Virgil, Dante, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Woolf.

Luzzi is the first American-born child in his native Italian family, which immigrated to the U.S. from Calabria in the 1950s.

  • Transcript


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