Book Review: The Irish and English in Italy’s Risorgimento by Mary Jane Cryan

cryan bookIn 2011, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy–the Risorgimento–author Mary Jane Cryan ¬†produced a book about the Irish and English who participated in the process.

Yes, this is one of those niche interest books–and perhaps a very small niche. Only 200 copies of the book were produced, and they can be ordered from the author. But the book is ideal for uncovering the fine detail desired by, for example, a historical novelist or writer of narrative history.

Perhaps you, like me, were unaware that any Irish or English participated in the unification effort in Italy. The Irish mostly joined forces behind the Roman Catholic church and the pope, whose control of central Italy was threatened, though a few supported Garibaldi. For the English, who for more than a decade had hosted a number of well-known Italian exiles, Garibaldi was a hero.

Cryan describes the experiences of both groups, as documented in personal and official correspondence, news reports and editorials, and other contemporary sources. In addition to key players, Cryan includes the experiences of a wide variety of people who participated in various ways–soldiers, journalists, wives, fund-raisers. The views of these participants, mostly outsiders but actively involved, add color and interest to the book.

Did I say color? There are great color illustrations too!

Cryan’s sources include material brought to light in recent years, and the book has end-notes, appendices, and bibliography.

Mary Jane Cryan

Mary Jane Cryan

Mary Jane Cryan has lived in Italy since 1965. From “About the Author”, Cryan “has been an international educator, journalist, and guidebook writer. She is the recipient of numerous awards for her contributions to historical research and cultural promotion…” Study of the Risorgimento is not new to her; it was the subject of her own doctoral thesis in 1985.

The book is for sale through Cryan’s website, Elegant Etruria, which includes articles on travel, history, and antiquing. She also offers services in travel consultancy and excursions.


Book Week: The Pope Who Quit by Jon M. Sweeney

PopeWhoQuitThose of you who know my interests in history won’t be surprised at all that I was eager to read a book about Pope Celestine V, elected in 1294. And with the recent resignation of Pope Benedict, Celestine’s abdication has been mentioned in news stories, editorials, and blogs around the world.

From the time I first heard of this book, a year or more before its 2012 publication, I felt an affinity with Sweeney. I spent years researching the events surrounding Celestine’s election and resignation, as I’m sure Sweeney did. And considering the wide-ranging sources and research on the subject, it’s not too surprising that we came to slightly different conclusions about some of the characters involved.

The book is essentially a biography of Peter of Morrone, who took the name Celestine as pope. Thorough, well-written, and not too densely academic, I enjoyed reading it very much–burning my Nook late into a few nights to finish it. Little is known about Celestine’s early life, and even up to middle age he was a man of obscurity, seeking a life of isolation. Sweeney presents this unusual life in a well-0rganized yet lively way.

My disappointments came with his presentation of corollary characters: namely, the succeeding pope, Boniface VIII, and the King most directly involved with Celestine, King Charles II of Naples. I admit, I have a bias against Boniface. (I am certainly not alone in this.)

My fists went up in the prologue when Sweeney describes Boniface (Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, prior to becoming pope) as Celestine’s “trusted adviser”. I suppose, technically, this is true. Celestine trusted his advice on various things, and depended on his help in carrying out his desire to resign. But in light of the subsequent betrayal–imprisoning Celestine for the rest of his life–the term “trusted adviser” stuck in my craw.

Then there is the negative portrayal of the king of Naples, Charles II. Here is a weak king, and a man at the mercy of the papacy. An earlier pope had established Charles’ father as “King of Naples” in exchange for fighting some of the papacy’s worldly battles, and his kingdom (which initially included the island of Sicily) was subject to the pope as overlord. Charles II himself spent years as a prisoner of war in those battles. While Sweeney presents Charles as manipulating Celestine, he omits entirely the fact that Charles’s three sons, including his heir, were prisoners in Aragon for the previous five years. Only the pope could confirm a treaty to free them, and by the time Celestine was elected, there had been a vacancy for more than two years in the papacy. The previous pope flatly refused to approve the treaty that both kings involved had agreed to. I view Charles as a man desperate to free his sons, and doing all he can to gain influence with the one man who can help him.

Yes, I know. I’ve slipped from book review to historical rant. As you can see, what happened in history is far from settled, even though the events are long past. The true motivations of those involved are rarely known with certainty, and always subject to nuances of interpretation.

The end notes are thorough and interesting, mentioning numerous of Sweeney’s sources. There is no bibliography or index, but that’s not unusual in a book presented for public rather than scholarly interest. I most appreciate Sweeney bringing Celestine into the public view, more than he has been in a while. And I suppose I should thank the former Pope, Benedict, for his recent resignation which revived the interest in Celestine even more.

The Pope Who Quit is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the thirteenth century, church history, or the medieval Kingdom of Sicily/Kingdom of Naples.

Book Review: The Generosity of Strangers

Thomas Antonaccio heard stories all his life about his mother’s childhood experiences in the village of Fornelli in central Italy. A few weeks ago, he published “The Generosity of Strangers: When War came to Fornelli” which retells many of those stories in the first person, through the voice of Lucia, the little girl who lived them.

Lucia is introduced as a young child with a fascination for the simple life in her rural village. She loved catching butterflies, and loved to hear her father play the concertina and sing. When World War II breaks out, taking many people away from the village and bringing others in, life changes dramatically. Lucia’s story let’s us see the historical events from a new perspective.

The storytelling is simple and suits the character of Lucia. The book is described as a children’s non-fiction history book. It would be a good way to introduce children to significant events of 20th century history in Italy. It is a fairly quick read, available on Amazon for Kindle.

Book Review: Strega Nona’s Gift

The most recent in Tomie dePaola’s long series of Strega Nona books, Strega Nona’s Gift (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2011) describes the many festivals connected to Christmas celebration in Italy. In her Calabrian village, Strega Nona cooks her way through the season, cheering up the townspeople when they need it with her own happy magic. Big Anthony wants to help, but can’t seem to stay out of trouble. By the end of the celebration, though, he sets thing right.

This beautiful picture book is a great way to share Italian Christmas traditions with young children. The colorful and varied illustrations are in classic dePaola style, as charming to adults as to children.

Tomie dePaola has written and/or illustrated nearly 250 books during a career of more than 40 years. He is likely the best known Italian-American writer for children, and in 2011 was honored with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contribution to children’s literature. Strega Nona: An Old Tale Retold, published in 1975, won the Caldecott Award in 1976, and several other Strega Nona books round out the story of the old lady who uses her magic to take away warts, give people good dreams, and many other kindnesses.

So early bird Christmas shoppers, this is your heads-up. If you know young children you want to share Italian traditions with, this book may be the perfect opportunity.

Book Review: Stumbling Through Italy

Niall Allsop and his wife Kay of Bath, England, began vacationing in Italy after making friends with Vittorio and Ivano Capetti, owners of an Italian restaurant in Bath. Their initial forays took them to Tuscany, but they came to their senses soon enough, and began to explore the Italian south.

I like the way these people travel: Not rushing from monument to museum, but making friends, meeting people. Many of these people happen to own or work in restaurants, because like most of us headed for Italy, they love the food. But their secret to successful travel in Italy is not just making friends with the waiters. It is also adapting to the rhythm of Italian life–which means taking the early afternoon ‘siesta’ along with the rest of the country. It’s learning to speak a bit of the language, at least. It’s driving like an Italian when driving in Italy.

I enjoyed wandering through Sicily, Sardinia, Naples, Apulia, and Calabria with them, and previewing some travel experiences I’d like to have myself. They found the trulli houses of Alberobello trulli disappointing, and delighted in the performance of Euripides’ play Ecuba in the classical Greek theatre in Siracusa. They discovered, from one of their hosts, a recipe for orange-coffee liquor, which they kindly included in the book. They were willing to be sidetracked from the usual travel highlights by people and places not found in the tourist guidebooks.

Especially helpful–a chapter on Italian language tips for the novice, and a chapter on driving in Italy for the brave, though some might say foolhardy.

Niall Allsop’s writing is more serviceable than brilliant, but he leads us on an enjoyable stroll, a passeggiata through southern Italy, which you might enjoy, as I did.

Book Review? It’s your turn!

The fourth Friday each month is when I usually post a book review of something related to southern Italy. But this week, it’s your turn!

What has been your favorite book dealing with or set in southern Italy? Please share in the comments section. Any genre is welcome–fact or fiction, memoir, children’s books, poetry…. do tell!

I’d love your recommendations for books I might review. And after you’ve shared, enjoy the summer weekend with a good book.

Book Review: Wrestling with the Devil

Tony Russo was ten when his family put him on a boat in Naples, Italy with a suitcase full of salami and cheese, headed to America. Leaving behind his parents, brother and sister, grandparents, and the village that was his world, he arrived in New York to stay with relatives–strangers to him, mostly–who didn’t have the means to take him in.

Russo’s struggle to survive in this alien world, his longing for his family, and his determination to be reunited with them, all draw the reader into his story. As Russo fought his way through his junior high years, a coach saw his potential as a wrestler, and changed the direction of his life. How did this boy go from the hills near Naples to a Hall of Fame? Read his story!

Russo’s memoir, capably co-written with his daughter, Tonya Russo Hamilton, will engage those who love stories of overcoming adversity, as well as those who value athletics and the character-building influence of good coaching. You might enjoy the publisher’s story about the book signing at the book release party in Russo’s hometown of Newberg, Oregon.

I’ve written in previous blog posts about Italian-Americans and their contributions to American life. This book continues that theme, and I recommend it to you!

Book Review: The Espresso Break by Barbara Zaragoza

First off, I wish I’d had this book the first time I visited Naples! I will definitely be using it the next time. I’ve looked in at Barbara Zaragoza’s blogs now and then: The Espresso Break and Naples (Napoli) Guide, and I’m glad to have her info about Naples compiled in book form.

The subtitle promises “Tours and Nooks of Naples, Italy and Beyond”, and I would say the book delivers. The major highlights are covered, in greater detail than many books offer, and then come the hidden corners of Naples that you would never find on your own, like Mauro the glove-maker’s factory, and Japanese restaurant recommendations.

Barbara has also included some practical travel information about safety, driving, staying healthy, and using public transportation. Her advice on greeting Italians is spot on: A little Buon giorno will take you a long way in Italy!

The great detail and variety of information make up for the lack of color photos, as I always appreciate color in a guidebook.

After seeing nearly three pages devoted to the subject of trash in Naples, I laughed out loud at Barbara’s defense of the city’s dirtiness. Why is the city so dirty? “Neapolitans have preserved so much of their past that the buildings almost by necessity tend to blend into the natural look and feel of the ancient ruins.” Naples is just natural, and she suggests that other cities seem un-naturally clean. Well, my mom and I had a good chuckle over this, but I must say, please don’t let the city’s reputation for dirt and grittiness stop you from making a visit! I compare it to the gritty vibrancy of lower Manhattan–a sign of life!

The book includes lots of detail on the ancient sites around Naples and legends connected to them. She also includes a section called the “Odious Women Tour” which includes goddesses, queens, prostitutes, and revolutionaries.

Considering that many travel guides offer just a few pages to the entire south of Italy, this book is a treasure for visitors to the Naples region. If you have a day, or several, to spend in Naples, this book will help you fill your time well.

The Grand Tour: An Italy of the past

File:South west prospet of mount Vesuvius - September 1747 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine.jpg

[Illustration from the September 1747 issue of “The Gentleman’s Magazine]

“A man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority, from not having seen what it is expected a man should see.” ¬†Samuel Johnson said it, and Joseph Spence, at the age of 31 in 1730, set off from Oxford to see what a man should see. Spence was a commoner with little money, but through the connections of friends, arranged to travel with Lord Middlesex, the 19-year-old son of a duke. The rakish lord drank his way through Europe for a couple of years, while the Oxford don spent his time developing a passion for Italian opera.

In 1737, Spence accompanied John Morley Trevor to the continent, eager to return to Italy. However, Trevor turned out to be a dull companion, and they did not make it to Italy, because Trevor was recalled to England before the end of the year.

In 1740, Spence was asked to accompany another young nobleman, Lord Lincoln, to Italy, where Lincoln was to attend the Royal Academy at Turin. As his governor, Spence oversaw the improvement of Lincoln’s fragile health and guided him out of an affair with an unsuitable partner, returning him to England better prepared for his future.

Spence kept a journal, and wrote numerous letters to his mother while traveling. Here are excerpts from letters to his mother describing his first visit to Naples:

In going to Naples we often passed old Roman roads, in many places all laid with large smooth stone and as entire still as the pavement of a great hall, though near two thousand years old. ‘Tis to me the most surprising thing of art which we have seen abroad. This noble pavement, sometimes for miles together, is bordered with myrtles and a hundred other evergreens, and on each side of it you see perpetually the ruins of old tombs and monuments, for the Romans always buried by great roads (perhaps to put people in mind that this life is but a journey, and that in this world we are not properly at home).

There are sometimes orange-trees in the road, and at Mola, a little seaport on the way to Naples, all the orchards were full of them just like apple-trees with us. Within about thirty miles of Naples we came into a vast plain, the richest soil and the best cultivated in Italy: whence the Italians call it ‘Campagna Felice’ or ‘the happy country’. It was soon after that we discerned the top of the famous Mount Vesuvius, and the smoke which it perpetually flings out looked at that distance like a cloud gilded with the sun.

Naples is one of the most delicious sea-ports in the world: it lies down a sloping ground, all in a large half moon to the sea. The shore on for a great way humours the same shape of a half moon. In one side of it, about six miles on the left hand from Naples, is Vesuvius, and on the right the grotto of Pausilippo and the tomb of Virgil…

It was with a great deal of impatience that I waited for the morning when we were to go up Mount Vesuvius, which was heightened by my seeing it every morning. The tops of the houses are all flat at Naples and as smooth as a floor; they often set them out with flower-pots and orange-trees, and ’tis their usual place for diversion on summer evenings. From the top of our house we had a most distinct view of Vesuvius, and I used to run up there every morning the first thing I did, to see whether he increased in his smoking or not.

At last the morning came: four mile we went along the beautiful shore of Naples in chaises, which were then quit from the rising and badness of the way, for horses. These carried us two mile more, and then the way is so steep and bad that you are forced to quit even them and be dragged up the two last mile by men who make a trade of it…. Two of these honest men get just before you, with strong girdles on; you take hold of the girdles, and then they draw, and you climb up as fast as you can. Both they and we are forced to rest very often, and then tug and trudge again…. In some of the resting places here we felt the earth hot under us as we sat down…. The last stage is infinitely the worst. ‘Tis all loose crumbling earth in which your two draggers and you sink every step almost up to the knees, beside which it often yields under you, and ’tis often impossible not to slip back half a yard…but eagerness to get to the top when so near makes it the less troublesome. When there, you have a ragged rocky edge all round a vast cauldron of perhaps half a mile deep and a mile round, all full of smoke. The wind every three or four minutes clears away the smoke, and then you have a view of it. It sinks irregularly and raggedly all down on the inside. There are several places in it that look of a fire-colour, blueish, greenish and principally yellow…

One of my guides was an extraordinary honest fellow; I was got very intimately acquainted with him in our journey uup. He told me that ‘to be sure the devil lived in that hill’, and wished very heartily that all the Frenchmen were in there with him. Upon my telling him that we are all Frenchmen, he said he was sorry for it, but it could not be helped….

When the wind blew away the smoke from between the crags of the opposite side of the cauldron, we had a veiw of a beautiful piece of country, green fields, meadow-grounds, etc. thick set with houses; on the right hand appeared a part of the delicious bay of Naples: ’twas but turning the head, and we had a full view of all the city and bay.

Spence’s writings are collected in a book edited by Slava Klima entitled Joseph Spence: Letters from the Grand Tour published in 1975.

Watch for a BONUS re-blog of a modern day view of Vesuvius.

Book Review: That Summer in Sicily

In this atmospheric, evocative memoir, Marlena de Blasi draws us into a mysterious Sicilian villa, a world apart and a world with its own secrets. Ultimately, its own love story.

De Blasi went to Sicily with an assignment in the summer of 1995: Write an article about Sicily’s interior, for a scholarly magazine. She and her Italian husband venture forth, with appointments and plans in place, for several weeks in the south. There, they hit a wall of silence. She was stood up for every appointment. In the heat of summer, baking in the Sicilian highlands, the assignment was abandoned. They decided to seek a couple of days’ refuge, an inn or pensione, and rest befor returning to Venice.

A policeman directs them to Tosca, the owner of the Villa Donnafugata, the house of the fleeing women. A world apart, where black-garbed women chant while washing their laundry against stones. Where crenillated towers and juliet balconies stand guard over wheatfields and goatpens that would have looked the same a hundred or a thousand years ago.

And there, intending to leave nearly every day, but drawn or induced or wooed to stay for weeks, de Blasi hears Tosca’s story. You should hear it too, and I can only urge you to read this book.

I read it during the first couple of days of a vacation to the tropics, and I’m glad I did not have a work schedule to maintain, as it would have gone by the wayside for the higher priority of Tosca’s story. Her transformation from nine-year-old starving peasant girl to mistress of a villa supporting dozens of laborers who are her closest friends is a journey worth taking.