An Italian in old Seattle: Joe Desimone

From vegetable farm to international airport!

You never know where the Italian South will crop up! I made my first visit to Seattle’s Museum of Flight last weekend, with some friends from out of town. It’s a beautiful facility directly adjacent to Boeing Field, Seattle’s first international airport. In the photo, the museum buildings are nearest to the airfield, and some of Boeing’s buildings are in the foreground.

Turns out, in the late 1920s when the Boeing company was in its early stages, William Boeing was looking around the country for another location because Seattle did not have a suitable airport to meet the company’s needs. When news of the search got around, immigrant farmer Giuseppe “Joe” Desimone made Boeing an offer he couldn’t refuse–a big tract of land south of downtown Seattle, for one dollar, to keep the company in Seattle. Today the airport is bordered by dozens of Boeing facilities, and both the company and the airport continue to play significant roles in the life of Seattle.

Very cool!I thought, and made note of his name to learn more about him for a blog post. We finished our tour, and continued sightseeing, including lunch and a wander through Pike Place Market. And guess what!? Joe Desimone was one of the earliest participants in the Market, gradually buying shares until he owned the place. His family remained in ownership after Joe’s death in 1946, until the Market became publicly owned in the 1970s.

Joe Desimone taking vegetables to market.

Joe immigrated from the Naples area at the age of 18 in 1898, and by 1910 was a thriving farmer in King County. His stall features prominently in this historic video footage of Pike Place Market–you can see his name on the sign at about the one-minute point, and again at three minutes into it, but I don’t know which of the men in the movie is him.


A new (old) painting on my wall


I have to thank my daughter and son-in-law for an amazing gift they presented to me not long ago. They listened (ever-so-patiently) as I waxed lyrical about Simone Martini’s painting, St. Louis of Toulouse crowning Robert of Anjou, which hangs in the Museo di Capodimonte at Naples. They heard (again, I’m afraid) the story of those two brothers, my favorites of the Angevins of Naples, about their long imprisonment from youth to young adulthood, how Louis was called to the Franciscan order and defied his father to answer that call, how his charismatic brother Robert, a third son, became heir to the throne of Naples because of Louis’s decision, and how Martini’s painting contains many symbols of the brothers’ complex relationship and history.

It was a gift that they listened so attentively to the story that has fascinated me, and charged my imagination, for decades.

But a few weeks later, they showed up at my house… with the painting!! Of course, not the one from Naples–the original is not for sale. Mine is a reproduction, a knock-off from one of those websites that will make you a copy of any oil painting you like, in any size you want.

I have it framed, now, and hanging in my bedroom. The saint (Louis of Toulouse) and the king (Robert the Wise) watch over me as I sleep.

Christmas year-round: Nativities of Naples

Nativity scenes are part of the Christmas tradition for many of us, and they range from gilt-trimmed masterpieces to naked trolls. In the historic center of Naples, Via San Gregorio Armeno is home to workshops and storefronts selling an array of elaborate creches, or presepi in Italian.

The narrow pedestrian street is Nativity Central in Italy, carrying on a tradition established some four hundred years ago, in the Baroque era. From individual figurines and furnishings to elaborate full-village scenes, from finely crafted and expensive pieces to the very inexpensive–the array is fascinating. They go far beyond the typical scene of the holy family with wise men and shepherds. These scenes include the whole town–the innkeeper, the greengrocer, the mayor, homemakers and housekeepers, in lively scenes where you can imagine them sharing the story they’ve heard from the shepherds. “Did you hear about the baby? Did you hear about the angels? Can you believe it? Let’s go take a look!”

Christmas is a year-round affair on Via San Gregorio Armeno, so enjoy it whenever your visit to Naples comes along. At the end of the street is San Lorenzo Maggiore, a historic church that contains a museum focusing on the historic center of Naples. This neighborhood oozes history from every seam, so plan to spend some time exploring.

A selection of nativity scene characters for sale.

And whether you call it a creche, crib, presepi, or nativity, browse the workshops and enjoy the tradition of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Christ in a thousand variations on the theme.

(Remember those naked trolls I mentioned? Check out Nativity Scenes Gone Horribly Awry at a blog called “List of the Day”.)

Book Review: The Stones of Naples

Sometimes I think that only a nerd like me would be fascinated by a book subtitled “Church Building in Angevin Italy, 1266-1343”. But I’m glad to know there are enough nerds like me around that the author, Caroline Bruzelius, and the publisher, Yale University Press, decided to produce it.

The Stones of Naples is filled with stories of why and how various churches were built in Naples during the first three generations of Angevin rule there, 1266 to 1343. The social history is tied to the architectural history to answer questions I didn’t even know I had! And I have plenty of questions about these Angevins–for some reason their story resonates with me.

The book is academic, filled with minutiae about builders and stone, about bishops and their political persuasions, about monastic influences on the royal family members, and their influence on one another. There are several appendices, and pages of end notes, a lengthy bibliography, and detailed index.

But the academic burden (which it might seem to some readers) is lightened by a few other inclusions. Right up front there are maps, a city plan of Naples, and a genealogical chart of the Angevins. The large-format book contains many photos (too few in color, but there are many) and illustrations of church floor plans, construction elements, and decor. And the cover is beautiful, featuring detail from the Tavola Strozzi, showing a view of Naples in 1465 commemorating the Aragonese victory.

Although Naples itself figures heavily in the Angevin church construction, locations throughout southern Italy are mentioned or discussed.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in southern Italy of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It helps me understand the events and the atmosphere of the period, and develop a clearer picture of medieval Naples.

Naples from another perspective

Here’s a view of the Gulf of Naples that most visitors will never see, a view that takes in thousands of years. See what the eels and seahorses enjoy every day. I love the way this video combines past and present. It leaves me even more curious about the history of southern Italy.

Thanks to my friend Laura Vinti, who made me aware of Another Naples!

New View of Italian Roots

For this month’s travel post, I welcome guest blogger Vienna Lionberger, my daughter, with some thoughts from her recent trip to Italy:

Vienna Lionberger stands guard in Pompeii

All my life I have heard about Italy. My mother has studied Italian history and language, visited Italy for a few months, and taught me to make torcetti, an Italian pastry, from her grandma’s recipe. Though I am only 1/8 Italian, it has been the predominant culture (or at least the loudest one) in my life so I have always felt more Italian than anything else.

Despite my blue eyes and blonde hair (thanks to my dad), I take great pride in telling people I’m part southern Italian, from near Cosenza. Because I have felt so Italian, I was very excited to go there for part of my honeymoon.

Our first Italian stop was at Palermo in Sicily. I have to admit, I thought I would step off that boat onto Italian land, tear up with an upwelling of emotions and start hugging people simply because they were Italians too, and they, of course, would understand and hug me back. I actually stepped off the boat into horse manure. And I definitely wasn’t going to hug the first people we saw because they were the Italian authorities and they had guns and looked like they had had just about enough of tourists for the summer. Although the feeling of belonging I had expected wasn’t there, we enjoyed taking a horse-drawn buggy tour, eating sweet pastries, then savory ones, walking through the market, and touring some Spanish ruins. Back on the boat I thought, “The other ports will be where I feel at home, since, alas I am not Sicilian but southern Italian.”

A week later we stopped at Naples. Again I stepped from the boat, certain this time

Vienna Lionberger, center, with Filippo and Julia in Naples

there would be tears and hugging. Our Italian friend Filippo met us at the dock. There were hugs, and tears came to my eyes—tears caused by the sweet, vinegary stench from piles of garbage all over the city—piles the size of a semi-truck load every couple of blocks. Filippo told us the garbage pickup was run by the “criminali” in Napoli. They let the garbage sit there for weeks until it became so unbearable that people would pay more to have it removed, basically extorting a whole city. Every couple of months the army was called in to get rid of the garbage because, oddly enough, no other garbage pickup company wanted to take over the contract.

Filippo took us to Pompeii in the morning – which was completely and totally awe inspiring. In the afternoon we went to the best Napolitano pizza place: L’Antica Pizzaria da Michele. They served only two kinds of pizza: Marinara and Margherita. I had a Margharita and never want to eat anything other than that again. We stopped for dessert and espresso, and I rolled onto the boat with a full and happy stomach, and a full camera card. But other than my stomach, I had no feeling of national pride or belonging.

At the end of the cruise, we returned to Rome to meet Filippo and his girlfriend Julia, and travel south with them to his family’s home in Benevento. We arrived late one evening. Filippo’s mother, Angela, knowing I loved mozzarella di bufala, had made fourteen pizzas mostly topped with mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes and basil from their garden. They pulled the pizzas from their brick pizza oven as we arrived. Beside the house where Angela and Dario, Filippo’s dad, live, six houses are clustered together. In these houses live aunts, uncles, brothers, cousins, grandparents, great aunts and great uncles. They all came to greet us, bring more food, sing some “country” songs with Jack, put on a magic show (seriously, a cousin did card tricks for us), drink some wine and simply just be with the family for the evening. Perhaps it was a bit livelier because there were guests, but the sense of family community coming together for the evening seemed a regular occurrence. It was a beautiful night and we went to bed satiated in every way.

The next day, a Sunday, we went to explore Filippo’s home town. The main boulevard was blockaded to cars. It looked as if everyone in town was there walking up and down the street chatting with friends, family and neighbors. No one rushed away to watch a football game or get back to work. Kids played in the fountains and ate gelato. Men congratulated one another on the big soccer win the night before. Women chatted on benches while watching their kids. The scene was an Italian version of a Norman Rockwell print.

We tore ourselves away from this slice of perfection and went back to the house, where Angela had prepared a delicious lunch. Afterward we enjoyed splashing in the full-size pool as the day got warmer. I toured the garden with Angela, who doesn’t speak English. My horrible Italian and her hand gestures allowed a little bit of communication. She showed me her chickens, the fig trees and how they got the figs from the high branches, the olive trees (not quite ready for harvest), the garden with
tomatoes, peppers, basil, carrots, broccoli, arugula, squash, strawberries, and the orchard with lemon, grapefruit, pomegranate, orange, and kumquat trees. (I have a new-found love for kumquats straight off the tree.) Kiwi vines shaded the picnic area.

As we walked she asked about my family. I told her that my mother’s family was from Scigliano near Cosenza. She grabbed my face with both hands, a big smile on her face, kissed my cheeks and said, “You Italian!” She released my face with a force that almost knocked me back, and went down the path to the kitchen to prepare us yet another meal.

Finally, the recognition I had been waiting for, but my feelings had changed. I felt less and less Italian every day as I struggled with the language and saw how different my life was from theirs. I ate my kumquats under the kiwi vines looking over the beautiful countryside thinking back on all of our Italian experiences. The thing I loved most was the feeling of family on that little farm, of being close to the land and people I love.

I am part southern Italian and I’m proud of that. I hope to go back and maybe one day even show my kids a little part of Italy, but until then I will focus on my family and being closer to them. I concluded that I shouldn’t label myself, no matter how fanciful it seems in my mind. I am a mix of many backgrounds with a flavor all my own, and that is ok.

BOOKS: Must have this book!

For people like me, with a freakish interest in the medieval Angevin Kingdom of Naples, there are some books we must have. Only recently I learned that a Bible has surfaced, after mouldering for half a millennium in the Low Countries somewhere, a Bible which was created at the court of Robert the Wise in Naples, and presented to his granddaughter Joanna, who would succeed him to the throne of Naples and rule for more than forty years.

The Anjou Bible: A Royal Manuscript Revealed was published last year by Peeters Publishers. At 350 pages, it weighs 4-1/2 pounds and costs about $100.

I don’t care. I want it.

All the illuminated folios are reproduced in the book, as well as information about the illuminator who signed the work in the early 1300s. Historical information about the Angevin dynasty in Naples–a family I have researched for more than 25 years–sounds as beautiful to me as the illuminations.

The fourteenth century Bible is now owned by the University of Leuven in Belgium, the oldest existing Catholic university in the world. The manuscript was disassembled, cleaned, digitized, and displayed for twelve weeks  in 2010 before being rebound and returned to the vaults for long-term storage.

This book is definitely on my Christmas list!!

Pompeii: Just do it!

Frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii

Ancient history doesn’t turn my crank like medieval history does, but Pompeii is not to be missed regardless of your historical interests. Buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii disappeared until its rediscovery in 1748.

Large sections of the city have since been unearthed–and I do mean large! The size of the city shocked me. Public buildings, retail shops, bakeries, a large theatre, public baths, even a brothel, and many homes now give mute testimony to the vibrant city that once was.

Bird mosaic at PompeiiA first-hand account of the eruption was written by Pliny the Younger, twenty-five years after the eruption in which his beloved uncle, Pliny the Elder perished attempting to rescue survivors. In two brief letters, he describes the earthquakes and ash, shooting flames and raining cinders, which brought terror to the entire Bay of Naples.

While Pompeii provides a fascinating view of life in a Roman era city, I was intrigued by the unexcavated areas. Ten or twelve feet above the level of the Roman streets, grassy fields bloom with daffodils in the spring, intrusions into the outline of the greater city. When I asked the staff about these areas, I was assured that they were excavating all the “important” areas, implying that nothing of significance lay in those intrusions.

How could they know?

If I were in Italy today…

An Adriatic beach in late summer, Abruzzo.

Crowds have thinned out at the beaches, but it’s still warm enough to enjoy! Grapes are beginning to ripen, and the market is filled with produce–tomatoes, lemons, tasty greens, eggplant, and the fragrance of basil. Blooming flowers cascade over walls and burst from their pots. A delightful season to enjoy the Italian south!

Even the calendar becomes a garden in Naples!

Giuseppe Garibaldi, Hero of the Two Worlds

Giuseppe Garibaldi

His name is everywhere in Italy, found on streets, piazzas, and monuments throughout the country. He is also renowned in the western hemisphere for his military successes in Brazil and Uruguay.

Between May and September of 1860, Garibaldi captured the island of Sicily for Victor Emmanuel II, and marched up the Italian peninsula toward Rome. Along the way volunteers swelled his forces from an initial 800 to about 24,000. He played a crucial role in uniting Italy, and is considered a national hero.

But after this famous march, at the outbreak of the American civil war, Garibaldi offered his services to President Abraham Lincoln. Here is how Wikipedia summarizes his offer: Garibaldi was offered a Major General’s commission in the U.S. Army through the letter from Secretary of State William H. Seward to H. S. Sanford, the U.S. Minister at Brussels, July 17, 1861. On September 18, 1861, Sanford sent the following reply to Seward:

He [Garibaldi] said that the only way in which he could render service, as he ardently desired to do, to the cause of the United States, was as Commander-in-chief of its forces, that he would only go as such, and with the additional contingent power—to be governed by events—of declaring the abolition of slavery; that he would be of little use without the first, and without the second it would appear like a civil war in which the world at large could have little interest or sympathy.

According to Italian historian Petacco, “Garibaldi was ready to accept Lincoln’s 1862 offer but on one condition: that the war’s objective be declared as the abolition of slavery. But at that stage Lincoln was unwilling to make such a statement lest he worsen
an agricultural crisis.” On August 6, 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, Garibaldi wrote to Lincoln: “Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be, and greater than any merely mundane treasure.”

Had Lincoln and Garibaldi come to agreeable terms, we Americans would no doubt be more familiar with his name.