The Carnival of Viareggio: Italy’s Annual Floating Theater

A special, featured blog by NIAF’s Board of Directors Member and Executive Vice President of Scholarships, Grants and Youth Activities, Robert V. Allegrini.

It’s cold and dark, but – fortunately – hairless inside the left nostril of Hillary Clinton as I pop my head in it while examining a giant paper-mâché replica of her head, which is seemingly discarded outside one of the enormous hangers at the Cittadella del Carnevale.  The “Citadel of the Carnival” serves as a workshop where magnificent floats are assembled for Italy’s best-loved carnival, the Carnival of Viareggio – a lovely seaside town in Tuscany that is less than an hour from Lucca.

The Italians have always known how to throw a good party. After all, the very term bacchanalian comes from the debauchery of Roman “bacchanalia.” So when it comes to Carnival, it is no surprise that Italy need not take a backseat to Rio De Janiero nor New Orleans. In fact, the Italians boast numerous noteworthy Carnival celebrations, from the elegant masked parties in Venice, to the raucous Carnival of the Oranges in Ivrea. But it’s the Carnival in Viareggio which truly captures the Italian spirit.

That’s because the main event of the Carnival of Viareggio is its parades showcasing huge paper-mâché floats that are marvelously unique in terms of their size, movement, choreography and sensational subject matter. Each float, which can be 5 or 6 stories tall, portrays a satiric vignette featuring caricatures of Italy’s, and indeed the world’s, most newsworthy personalities and events. These floats play on many Italian sensibilities – an affinity for irreverence and Fellini-esque absurdity as well as an admiration for great creativity, artistry and design. There is also an appreciation for the liberating sense that comes from mocking the rich and famous – literally in effigy. The effect is breathtaking travelling theater set amidst the backdrop of a seaside promenade, flanked by gorgeous liberty-style buildings and extraordinary squares overlooking the beach.

Many elements of this theater were on display as I toured the Citadella del Carnevale and its unique museum, which is open to the public. Simultaneously whimsical, creepy and informative, the museum gives one the sensation of being in the midst of a dream world of giant Jack-In-The-Boxes, where paper-mâché heads all littered around each turn. Amidst the heads, the story of this unique carnival unfolds.

I learned that the Carnival dates back to 1873 and that the addition of paper-mâché floats dates back to 1925, when the Viareggio-born painter and builder Antonio D’Arliano perfected the technique of casted and molded paper. Since that time, the parades have evolved into highly organized affairs governed by the Fondazione Carnevale, or Carnival Foundation, which each year provides grants for the top float designs to be built and provides prizes for the winner. Funding comes largely from a modest spectator admission fee for the parades. The floats are built by different teams in strict secrecy in the various hangers of the Cittadella del Carnevale. They are unveiled over the course of five carnival parades leading up to Fat Tuesday that take place over several weekends.

Spread among the heads and the history at the museum are the beautiful, original artists sketches of some of the more famous floats along with photos of the finished products. I laughed aloud at a photo of the clever and witty float entitled “Mad Donald Trump” which played off the similar sounding “McDonald Trump” and featured a menacing President Trump dressed as Ronald McDonald.

 

President Trump also featured into one of the principle floats of last year’s parades entitled “Bang Bang,” which showcased a typically European perspective on the defense of firearms in Trump’s America by hearkening back to the lawless days of a western saloon. Italian politicians are certainly not spared either. In one of last year’s floats entitled “Such a Great Love,” Italy was portrayed as a beautiful woman sitting atop a pile of silver framed pictures of her past suitors, such as prime ministers Giulio Andreotti and Bettino Craxi. The implication was that some of her suitors have exploited the beautiful woman for their own interests.

From the museum, visitors can go to a special area at the Cittadella del Carnevale to see how the paper-mâché process works and to test out your own skills in the technique. The area resembles a graveyard of skeletal parts with frames and casts for fabricating everything from hands and feet to eyes and ears. Here, you can see how some old newspaper and a simple paste of flower and water can be transformed into a work of art that inspires and entertains.

Each year, the Carnival of Viareggio draws over 600,000 attendees, making it one of the most important carnival celebrations in the world. For the forty days and nights of Lent, Viareggio becomes, as the local tourist authorities put it, “the Italian factory of merriment and fun.” For the entire month of February, Viareggio offers visitors an extraordinary program of events, which includes an array of concerts and jam sessions in the city’s different districts, masked dancing balls, fireworks, theatrical performances, cultural events and sporting competitions.

But the most longed-for and anxiously-awaited moments are those of the parades of gargantuan floats – the Corsi Mascherati. Here, you have five extraordinary opportunities to admire the outstanding allegorical machines created and built by artists from Viareggio up close while allowing yourself to be swept up in the vibrancy of the masks, of the music, and by the beauty of the largest show of its kind in the world.

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Encounters: Learning Italian in Molise, a Hidden Gem

In this week’s #NIAFblog, our guest blogger, Jenifer Landor – founder of Live and Learn Italian  offers an inside look into a typical day on her company’s travel program, which focus on learning about Italian language and culture. 

First things first: learn how to order coffee. We get down to basics in Caffè Letterario where the owner, Pasquale, greets our new arrivals, putting them at ease.  It’s caffè (never espresso!), cappuccino – just like English, but say latte and you’ll get milk, so ask for caffè latte, or even, latte macchiato – milk with a dash of coffee, or un macchiato – coffee with a dash of milk. And on it goes…

Caffeinated- up, we cross to Palazzo Bonanni for a morning of Italian with Alessandro and Giovanna, both fully qualified to teach Italian to stranieri. Lessons in very small groups allow them to structure learning pretty individually.

At break, in the piazza, Francesco the butcher is interested to know where we have come from, and why? He interrupts his sausage making to sell us a picnic lunch to have on the terrace after class with un bicchiere di vino – the softest prosciutto and local cheeses, and it’s easy to engage in conversation.  After lunch, a refreshing siesta is followed by some pronomi revision and, when the town wakes up again, half of the group walks over to the bell foundry to find Ivo, well-versed in talking piano, piano, and getting us to speak by prompting questions.

The foundry really hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages, each unique bell hand crafted over three months. The casting is a dramatic and emotional event, attended by a priest or bishop, who recites prayers. It’s quite an experience to be in the oldest bell foundry in the world – making the bells for the Pope!

Maria then invites the rest of us into her home to cook simple, seasonal food. We start by making pasta from scratch, and there’s always someone who takes to the kneading like a pro. While the dough rests, a quick batter is made – we stuff zucchini flowers with mozzarella and anchovies, dip them in the batter, and then fry them.  How much flour? Quanto basta, Maria says – as much as you need.

Creating fresh ravioli with ricotta and spinach turns out to be a breeze with Maria at the helm, and the tomatoes we stuff them with were picked today. Later, we admire the tablecloth she’s embroidering and watch as she makes lace on the tombolo. There is no end to her skills – le mani di Maria non hanno prezzoMaria’s hands are priceless, her daughter-in-law says.

Cooking together helps loosen inhibitions, and Maria and her family don’t speak English anyway, so we all have a glass of wine and join in on the conversation. We share dinner around a big table in the garden, joined now by the bell foundry visitors, and it is simply delicious. Just when you can’t eat another thing, out comes a crostata Maria made earlier with home-made apricot jam. Although we are all full, we are offered different digestivi (laurel, amarena, mint….), and we all manage to eat a piece of the crostata.

No two weeks are the same at Live and Learn Italian – the program is structured, but there’s plenty of flexibility to explore. Events depend to an extent on what’s going on at the time. We meet whoever’s interesting, do whatever helps us learn and practice Italian, and go wherever engaging people draw us in for a stimulating and sociable convivial program.

I first visited the historic town of Agnone to trace my family’s roots and learn the language. Inspired to share this unique experience, I founded Live and Learn Italian; with a rich cultural history, world-class artisans, and exceptional local produce – Agnone is the perfect place to learn Italian!

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  LIVE AND LEARN ITALIAN offers language and culture holidays in the small historic town of Agnone, Alto Molise, far from tourism. Mature students of Italian come to live among a friendly community to practice, improve, listen and engage.  Cook with the locals, visit family businesses, and discover the culture and history of a beautiful region.

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A Traditional Grape Harvest: La Vendemmia

In this week’s #NIAFblog, our guest blogger, Jenifer Landor – founder of Live and Learn Italian  offers a fascinating look into the culture and traditions of small Italian towns in the Apennine hills.

Adapted from a post by Marco Cacciavillani, owner of Azienda Agricola, A.M.A. Green

The origins of today’s wine harvest date from the early 1900’s, but a lot of the traditions go even farther back. Well before the birth of Christ, the Romans used rudimentary techniques to ferment the juice of grapes, which even then were a much-prized fruit on every banquet table.

Every casa has its own particular methods for making wine, but the basic process is pretty much the same. We start pressing as soon as the grapes are harvested, which in our vineyard takes all day.

To discover and re-live these traditions is a fundamental part of l’Azienda A.M.A. Green and this year, thanks to the Angelo Marinelli family, it was an incredible experience. We lived a traditional Agnonese Vendemmia, using the 18th century stone vat, preserved in the cantina for all these years, and pressing the grapes by hand – or rather, by foot! This is how it was done before mechanization and has its advantages – the stalks remain intact, keeping the slightly bitter, woody taste out of the wine.

Keeping a vineyard is a serious business. Regular pruning, weekly application of copper oxy-chloride to prevent fungus, and constant weeding are all required to protect the fruit from parasites. Then, in preparation of the harvest, we scrub the boxes and crates, as well as the copper tubs and wine presses, completely clean for storage. This is fundamental for preventing any parasites or mold that could destroy the must during fermentation.

La vendemmia is a ritual and a festival; it is hard work, but a lot of fun. In the last 10 years in our region, the harvest has grown in importance. Friends, relatives and neighbors all come to help. Early in the morning, we share breakfast together, and once fortified, we head for the vines.

There’s great excitement and emotion when the first bunch of grapes is harvested, and the smell of the ripened fruit gets everyone going. Harvest stories and folklore are passed down through the generations: types of agricultural methods used, changing religious rituals, and the culinary and contadine traditions. Besides being of cultural significance, the annual vendemmia is an important social cohesion for the community.
Later in the morning we share produce from our land – homemade breads, different types of salami, frittata, and, of course, a good wine.

In the evening, we gathered for the harvest feast to celebrate, starting with a selection of antipasti, then the traditional Agnonese pasta, sagne a tacconi. A baked pork dish followed, accompanied by grilled peppers and green beans from the garden. Over the long evening with song and stories, we got through various dolci and amari.

Life today gets busier and busier, and time is precious. Yet it’s an enormous thrill to rediscover these activities, and to capture flavors that we’re in danger of loosing and forgetting. La Vendemmia 2017 was a great pleasure for us all.

You can live this, and all kinds of experiences, at our farm near Agnone. For more information, click below.

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  LIVE AND LEARN ITALIAN offers language and culture holidays in the small historic town of Agnone, Alto Molise, far from tourism. Mature students of Italian come to live among a friendly community to practice, improve, listen and engage.  Cook with the locals, visit family businesses, and discover the culture and history of a beautiful region.

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Slow life, slow food, and heavenly pleasures

In this week’s #NIAFblog, our guest blogger, Jenifer Landor – founder of Live and Learn Italian  offers a fascinating look into the culture and traditions of small Italian towns in the Apennine hills.

 

A large rotating vat  – which looks almost like a cement mixer – slowly turns in the back room of the little shop, the oldest dolciaria in Molise. Here, confetti ricci are being produced from a recipe unique to the Carosella family. They have been making dolce here since 1839.

Photo Credit: Gabriella Ricci

Photo Credit: Gabriella Ricci

Fire is still at the heart of most of the town’s artisan work, and creating confetti ricci is no different. It takes 7-8 hours of slow rotation over the flame to fully coat Sicilian almonds in the special syrup, one ladle at a time. Although high in the Apennine hills, where temperatures usually remain very pleasant, this summer was hotter than usual, so Roberta began working through the night. The basin holds about 15 kilos of almonds, and with all those summer weddings, work is pretty constant.

Most small businesses in Molise are passed down from father to son; in this case, it was from grandfather to granddaughter. Roberta grew up seeing her grandparents hand-make all the confectionery. She would come to watch, and play, and – of course – to taste, and in time, she knew she couldn’t see the business pass into the hands of an outsider, so she took it on herself.

Photo Credit: Gabriella Ricci

Confetti, sugared almonds, are famous all over Italy, but the Carosella version are soft and chewable (and, I think, much more delicious then traditional ones). Roberta told us that during the war, confetti were impossible to get hold of, and because of the longstanding tradition – you have to have confetti to bring luck to the bride and groom – the townsfolk would bring her grandfather whatever they had; hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds – imploring him to make them into confetti.

So his grandfather devised a method to sugarcoat the nuts, and the result was not a hard coating, but a soft one – confetti ricci. These are now the most famous product of the Dolciaria Carosella, today sent all over the world. Unlike confetti, confetti ricci are fresh, and need to be consumed within 10 days, so orders have to be carefully scheduled. Anna, Roberta’s assistant, deftly makes up beautiful little bags, 10 in each– white for weddings, blue or pink for a christening, and red for a graduation!

Photo Credit: Gabriella Ricci

Photo Credit: Gabriella Ricci

Photo Credit: Gabriella Ricci

Photo Credit: Gabriella Ricci

Other specialties of the house are mostaccioli – little chocolate biscuits filled with sour cherry, Le Paste Imperiali – created for a visit to the shop from Vittorio Emanuele himself, Le Ostie di Agnone – wafers filled with chopped nuts, chocolate, orange peel and honey (allegedly created by a nun who, when she spilled her cake ingredients, scooped it up with a communion wafer), and a hot favorite of mine, tegole – in the shape of terracotta roof tiles; almonds, miraculously woven into a light, crunchy biscuit! All the fruit is from the family orchards, recipes have been passed down the generations, and presentation and packaging is sublime.

On a tour of the local shops, our guests meet craftsmen, shopkeepers and food producers, getting to know some of the town’s stories and history. Carosella has it all – a beautiful old shop, a family story, long traditions, and excellent quality products, generously offered to us for tasting.

You can visit their website here.

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  LIVE AND LEARN ITALIAN offers language and culture holidays in the small historic town of Agnone, Alto Molise, far from tourism. Mature students of Italian come to live among a friendly community to practice, improve, listen and engage.  Cook with the locals, visit family businesses, and discover the culture and history of a beautiful region.

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La Madonna di Loreto

In this week’s #NIAFblog, our guest blogger, Jenifer Landor – founder of Live and Learn Italian  offers a fascinating look into the culture and traditions of small Italian towns in the Apennine hills.

We go up the mountain road, to 1421 meters, putting on an extra layer of clothing as the car climbs. Every three years, hundreds from around the world are welcomed back to honor the Madonna di Loreto over three days of festa, in the little Apennine paese of Capracotta. Following World War II, they suffered massive immigration that decreased the population, but the Capracottesi remain profoundly attached to their town.

Although once a prosperous place of shepherds and sheep, it was still a very hard life. Since ancient times, each autumn, thousands of sheep were herded down the tratturi (the wide mountain paths) to the plains of Puglia for winter. This was called la Transumanza.

Families in Capracotta, without their menfolk during the freezing winter months, were drawn together; the shepherds supported each other far from home. Those ties remain strong today across generations and continents, the passionate connection to their land, is moving to witness.

At dusk on September 7th, the statue of the Madonna is taken in a solemn procession from its sanctuary, at the entrance of the town, to the chiesa madre, Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo. Escorted by 30 horses and 10 donkeys, she is carried by the townsfolk, men and women. Names are drawn to select 466 people, who are then divided into 79 “porter teams,”  throughout the 3 days. Alongside daily processions and mass, the streets are full of market stalls, food, games, band music, and dancing.

We went on the final day, to see the Madonna carried down the hill, back to the sanctuary. The accompanying horses and donkeys were in what can only be described as “fancy dress!” Elaborate, hand-embroidered blankets, lace coverlets, headdresses and harnesses, created each year by family teams. It’s a long-standing tradition to embellish the horses with the finest mantels and fabrics possible, as an offering to the Madonna.

 

 

 

It is sobering to note that in times gone by, the end of the festa meant the shepherds would start their trek down the mountains, leaving families through the long winter. Today, Capracotta still produces fine cheeses, but the small remaining herds are kept warm inside throughout the cold months. A stunning, dramatic, unspoiled landscape; winter offers cross-country and downhill skiing and trekking, in summer, rock climbing, hiking and horseback riding. A simple life – ancient traditions, hard work and beautiful nature bind this unique community.

The proceedings were humble, and in some way unsophisticated – rough almost. Shiny little blue capes, worn by the porters, covered simple attire, but lent a dignity and gravitas. The pride of the citizens and love for their Madonna was extraordinary to witness. Another incredible event of the summer, in a region full of tradition and history.

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LIVE AND LEARN ITALIAN invites you to combine Italian study with exploring the traditions and everyday life of the region, mixing with the community and engaging in local activities. 

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Finding Family

The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) is proud to have the Sant’Anna Institute – a study abroad and language course program in Sorrento, Italy – as a corporate sponsor of our foundation. Read on for a story from one of Sant’Anna’s Italian American students, Torri Dupuis from Worcester State University, who attended their summer 2017 program. 

On June 25, 2017, I embarked on my journey to Spain and Sorrento, Italy. Just a day before my trip, my uncle mentioned that I might have possible family members in Artena, which is just a short train ride from Rome. After my uncle made a few calls, I was messaging with my new cousin, who happens to be my age, via Facebook Messenger.

While in Spain, I communicated back and forth with my cousin, Danny, who is the only one out of the LARGE side of my Italian family that speaks any English. We instantly made plans to meet once I arrived in Italy, and counted down the days until we would be able to communicate face-to-face.  Finally, the weekend arrived. I hopped on a train from Sorrento to Naples, and then another from Naples to Rome, and got off along the way.

It was crazy – these people had no idea who I was, but only cared about one word: family. I was welcomed as if I had known them my whole life. Upon arriving I met Danny, his friend (who is now also my friend), Elisa (his sister), my cousin (also named Elisa), his brother, my cousin Cristian, their mother, my aunt, Cristina, and their father, Daniele (my uncle).

We spent the first few hours trying to communicate and understand each other. Although Google Translator was used a few times, we enjoyed every minute and laughed nearly the entire time. Later on that night, I met even more family members. My great-uncle cried as we were introduced. Unfortunately, there were too many of them to remember all their names. They were just as happy to meet me as I was to meet them. We hugged, laughed, and took all the pictures of this memorable evening.

Afterwards, a few of us went to the beautiful village of Artena; it was late, but they didn’t seem to care. they were content and I was too. They were excited to show me parts of their lives even if we had just the one weekend. I couldn’t believe the love that filled the entire house.

The next day, after visiting the beach with my cousins, we returned to the house to cook. It was so much fun, and I did as much I could without them having to help, so that I could engrave the recipe into my mind. Danny gave me directions and Aunt Cristina overlooked with a helping eye.

Our final result: Spaghetti Carbonara, which I MADE! It was better than any carbonara I have ever had. Of course, we went out for gelato afterwards (I’m pretty sure my family eats gelato AT LEAST twice a day).

Afterwards, Aunt Cristina showed me photo albums of times that meant so much to the family. They were inviting me into their life, and I was so grateful.

The final day eventually arrived. As we prepared for my departure, there were as many tears as there were hugs. I kissed Aunt Cristina, cousin Elisa, and Uncle Daniele goodbye. Then Cristian, Danny, Matteo (their friend) and Elisa, made our way to Sorrento. We spent the day together. My friends and I showed them the beautiful Regina Giovanna before making our way to the festival that was taking place in Sorrento that night, and later enjoyed a delicious dinner. We parted ways afterwards, which had us crying again.

I found a family and a home here in Italy, and a part of my heart will reside here as I head back home to the United States later this week. Saying goodbye was so very hard, but we have each other for the rest of our lives now. What happened to me and what I experienced is usually something you only ever hear about, and being able to live it myself was incredible. They taught me so much in such a short matter of time, and without having met my Italian family, my experience studying abroad in Italy just wouldn’t have been the same.

Torri Dupuis

To learn more about the Sant’Anna Institute and its study abroad programs, click here. NIAF student members receive a 20 percent discount on spring or fall semester study abroad programs, as well as a 20 percent discount on five-week long study abroad programs. Also, five NIAF Student Members will receive 50 percent off on Sant’Anna Institute’s two- or four-week long language course and a 10 percent discount on their accommodations during the program. You can learn all about NIAF Student Memberships here!

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Meet NIAF: John Della Fave

We want you to know the staff working behind-the-scenes here at the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), so we are taking the opportunity to introduce you to one of our staff members! This week, we introduce you to John Della Fave, our Chief Financial Officer:

 

How long have you worked at NIAF?

I’ve been working for NIAF since this past December 2016.

Why do you like working at NIAF?

NIAF gives me the opportunity to add value to the Italian American people within the United States. This role allows me benefit the organization as a whole, and ensures that our work directly supports the stakeholders within the community.

What is your favorite Italian dish?

I’m a total sucker for a short rib bolognese pappardelle.

Can you give us a random fact/event/skill thousands can know?

I hitch-hiked from London to Barcelona in 49 hours, I’ve been to 46 countries and counting, and I won a burrito eating contest at Baja Fresh two years ago.

What is your favorite Italian tradition and why?

[Photo Credit: Vito Zarrillo via HMag.com]

I appreciate being able to attend and participate in the Saint Ann’s Feast in Hoboken, New Jersey. Feast days anywhere give us all a great opportunity to come alive as a community and share the values we all love. In Hoboken, as in other places, this is when family, food, and the true local nature of the city really shines.

 

What is your favorite Italian piece of art/music/literature?

Machiavelli’s The Prince. Not only was this piece relevant in the time in which it was written, but still has vast implications on the modern landscape. We can easily see how leaders and influential people over time have adopted the principles described in this book.

Why is being Italian American important to you?

Our culture is a great one. Out art, music, food, drink and history permeate societies in western culture and around the world. I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this great network of people; both reflective of our past, and forward looking towards our future. The small and large traditions of the Italian American people are innate parts of my family and my life.

 

Stay tuned for more Meet the Staff blog posts, coming your way soon!

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The (Italian) Declaration of Independence

On the 4th of July, it’s important to remember that a key stone in the foundation of our country’s understanding of democracy was put in place by none other than an Italian by the name of Filippo Mazzei.

Born just outside of Florence in 1730, Mazzei practiced medicine in Italy and the Middle East for several years, before moving to London to take up a new career as a wine merchant. While in London, he befriended Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Adams, who would eventually persuade Mazzei to travel to the British colonies of the New World. Mazzei settled in the Virginia countryside, where he introduced the cultivation of vineyards, olive groves, and other Mediterranean fruits. He soon became close friends with Thomas Jefferson (who lived nearby) and the two would actually go on to open the first commercial vineyard in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

These two Renaissance men spoke often on the state of society and government. Jefferson was an educated man with a great deal of interest in Italy, Italian culture, and – as seen at Monticello – Italian architecture. He and Mazzei discussed the idea of democracy, and how one’s government should uphold it. Mazzei frimly believed that “Tutti gli uomini sono ugualmente liberi e indipendenti.” Jefferson admired his friend’s philosophical beliefs so much, that they would go on to be incorporated in the Declaration of Independence itself: “all men are created equal.”

In 1779, in the midst of the American Revolution, Mazzei returned to Italy as a secret diplomatic agent for the State of Virginia, working on behalf of the Revolution by purchasing arms and seeking to borrow money for Virginia from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, as well as gather any useful political or military information for the state. He also spread and publicized the Declaration of Independence and newly-founded Constitution throughout Europe via translations and public presentations. Later, Mazzei would write a full, political account of the American Revolutionary War, and he became widely known as one of the greatest Italian American patriots of his time. Later on in years, Mazzei returned to his beloved Tuscany, where he cultivated a farm and wrote until his death.

Today, Mazzei is remembered as a major influence on the Declaration of Independence, and American ideals of freedom and diversity. So today, on the 4th of July, be sure to also celebrate Filippo Mazzei – the Italian who helped build some of the United States’ most important beliefs!

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The Legacy of Falcone and Borsellino

Yesterday, NIAF’s 2017 Voyage of Discovery (VOD) program – a group of Italian American college students brought to Italy by NIAF on an all-expenses-paid, two-week trip to rediscover their heritage – visited the Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, as well as law students from the University of Palermo and the Fulbright-Fondazione Falcone-NIAF scholars in the Sicilian city of Palermo.

Our VOD students learned about the legacies of Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino and their impact on Sicily’s judicial system, which was especially poignant, as yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Paolo Borsellino’s death at the hands of the Mafia.

 

At the University of Palermo Law School there is a special plaque dedicated to all the people who graduated from the Law School and who were eventually killed by the mafia. Giovanni Falcone, Paolo Borsellino and Francesca Morvillo are among the names.

The Fondazione Falcone was founded in December 1992 after the assassination of Judge Giovanni Falcone, who was killed by the mafia in May 23, 1992 alongside his wife, Judge Francesca Morvillo, and three escort guards. The principal aim of the Fondazione is to promote the values of the rule of law and legality among young people, and to combat the presence of the Mafia culture in today’s society. NIAF and the Fulbright Program have partnered with the Fondazione Falcone to create the Fulbright-Fondazione Falcone-NIAF Program, which allows one Italian student and one American student to study law and criminology in each other’s countries for a full year.

Our VOD students had the opportunity to meet with one of our award recipients, as well as hear both Judge Giuseppe Ayala – a magistrate who worked alongside Judge Giovanni Falcone – and Mayor Orlando speak.  In their speeches, both men expressed the sentiment that “Palermo was once the Italian capital of the Mafia. But in 2018, Palermo will be declared the Italian capital of culture.” 

Judge Ayala spoke on the importance of collaboration with public prosecutors Rudy Giuliani, Charles Rose, and Louis Freeh back in the 1980’s and 90’s. It was with this international partnership and open line of communication that the city of Palermo – and other parts of Sicily – was able to begin deconstructing the Mafia network.  That connection was fundamental in the fight against the Mafia.  And while Sicily has not defeated the Mafia completely, they have at least given it “quattro schiaffi in faccia;” that is, they are slowly breaking the organization down.

For our VOD students, hearing the words of these incredibly brave and important local leaders in Sicily was especially important, as the purpose of the Voyage of Discovery program is to reconnect our young Italian American students with their heritage. Much of the discrimination against Italians and Italian Americans that our community struggled with (and continues to struggle with) stems from the history of the Italian Mafia. We are both vilified for its connections to our culture, but also placed on the silver screen and celebrated, in television shows like The Sopranos. Understanding the damage that the Mafia has inflicted on local communities in Sicily showed our VOD students the realities of what the Mafia is, as well as the efforts that Italians and Sicilians make in their continued fight against the organization.

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A Celebration of Shared Democracy

Italy and the United States share a long history mutual influence and support. From Filippo Mazzei, who influenced Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on liberty and democracy, to the vast influx of Italian immigrants who contributed to American culture, to modern Italy’s role as one of the U.S.’s most important allies, Italy and the U.S. have a longstanding friendship.

This month, Italy celebrated its 71st Italian National Day, also known as Republic Day, or la Festa della Repubblica, and the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) was honored to join in its celebration at the Embassy of Italy on May 30th as well as at an event at the White House on June 2nd.  This national holiday commemorates results of an institutional referendum which was held in 1946. After years of struggle with the Second World War, as well as the fall of fascism and the monarchy, the Italian people came together after the end of the war to decide on what form of government they wanted from that day forward.

Taking to the polls, 10,719,284 people voted for the monarchy, but 12,717923 people voted for a republic. As a result, the royal House of Savoy was sent into exile, and the Republic of Italy was officially established. Today, the holiday is celebrated by a grand military parade in Rome, where the President of Italy, the Prime Minister, the President of the council of Ministers, ambassadors, and military leaders are all in attendance to mark this example of democracy.

This year, in addition to the annual celebration at the Italian Embassy hosted by the Ambassador of the Italian Republic to the United States, the White House held an event in the historic Roosevelt Room in the West Wing to mark this holiday and honor the enduring relationship between our two countries.

Members of NIAF’s board and leadership council; Ambassador of the Italian Republic to the United States, Armando Varricchio; Italian embassy staff; members of the White House staff of Italian American descent; members of the Italian American Congressional Staff Association, as well as other special guests, came together in the West Wing to celebrate these deep bonds that define our two nations.

Several White House senior staff are of Italian descent including Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, who spoke about her memories of being raised by her Italian American mother and aunts and the example of hard work they instilled in her.

Assistant to the President and Director of Social Media Dan Scavino spoke about the President and First Lady’s recent trip to Italy for the G-7 Summit in Taormina and to the Vatican, and read President Trump’s statement recognizing Italian Republic Day, which highlighted how America’s founding fathers studied Italy’s earliest history when debating the form of government our new nation would take.

“We cherish the contributions of the more than 17 million Americans who claim Italian heritage,” stated President Trump. He acknowledged that our bonds “extend beyond sentimental and cultural,” but also to the protection of our two nations’ security through our military alliance and joint efforts to combat terrorism and make the world safer.

Also in attendance at the June 2nd event were Florida Attonry General Pam Bondi and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who spoke about his Italian American mother and the importance of family. Andrew Guiliani, also a member of the White House staff, introduced his father, former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who addressed the experience he had of meeting with President Ronald Reagan in the Roosevelt Room over 30 years ago as an attorney in the Justice Department.

NIAF’s Vice Chair of Cultural Affairs, the Hon. Anita Bevacqua McBride, who assisted White House Deputy Director of the Office of Public Liaison (and fellow Italian American) Stephen Munisteri in the planning and execution of the event, was one of NIAF’s representatives at the White House on June 2nd. She presented two gifts to Ms. Conway for the President, including the “Make Sunday Italian Again” ball cap designed by NIAF President John Viola, and a copy of the “Italy in the White House” book published by NIAF and the White House Historical Association.

“We are honored that NIAF was asked to help organize this memorable event in the White House to celebrate Italy’s national holiday and the special and historical relationship between our two countries,” stated the Hon. Anita Bevacqua McBride. “Along with our prior  invitation in April 2017 for our Board to attend the joint press conference between Prime Minster Gentiloni and President Trump in the White House East Room, we are confident that the dialogue and partnership between NIAF and the new Administration will continue to grow even stronger.”


For many there, celebrating Italy’s Republic Day in the United States – specifically, in the White House itself – was a momentous occasion. For decades, Italian Americans struggled after immigrating to the United States. Forced to fight discrimination and lack of representation in both American culture and government, it was not too long ago that the idea of an Italian American in a high-ranking public office was nearly inconceivable.

Today, Italian Americans make up a large portion of our nation’s leadership, as we see often at our NIAF-organized Italian American Congressional Delegation events. NIAF continues to encourage and help facilitate a positive relationship between Italy and the United States, creating a community that still holds strong to our Italian values and culture. As Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson stated on June 2nd, “This deep and enduring friendship, founded on mutual respect, trust, and affection is not one we take for granted,” and NIAF is proud to help build that bridge.

When discussing the Italian American community in the United States at the Embassy of Italy’s celebration of Republic Day, Ambassador Varricchio warmly addressed the Italian Americans in the audience, stating, “I do consider you to be fellow ambassadors of Italy, here in the United States.” NIAF is proud to be ambassadors of our culture not only on the grand, national holidays of Italy, but in our daily lives and communities, celebrating our heritage and Italy’s legacy in the United States every day.

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