Articles by: Stanislao Pugliese

  • Art & Culture

    A Wonderful Message for Today’s Divisive World

    You are the author of several non-fiction books. What prompted you to write a novel?

     I’ve always been a big reader, which is the main reason I eventually went to graduate school to study English literature. But fiction has always moved me on more of a visceral level than academic and non-fiction writing, and so I’ve always dreamed of creating a novel of my own. Now after over 10 years of trying, I’ve finally published one, which makes me incredibly happy!


    How did your medical background help your research for this book?

    There are scenes in the novel that take place in the hospital and two major characters are a nurse and a doctor, so I was definitely able to draw on my medical background when writing the novel. Also important to me was being able to convey some of the beauty surrounding the human body and its workings. When Dr. Crespi looks at the bone marrow under the microscope, he sees “a magnificent dappled sea” – blood cells of all different colors and shapes that make life possible – white cells that fight infection, red cells that carry oxygen, and platelets that prevent us from bleeding. It truly is a magnificent sight.

    Also quite remarkable is the fact that you can replace a person’s bone marrow with someone else’s (once just an fanciful idea in a doctor’s mind) – and that you could do so in a way that the recipient’s immune system won’t reject that foreign marrow or that the donor marrow (which itself is made up of immunocompetent cells) doesn’t attack the recipient’s body.

    Still another example is the remarkable phenomenon of homing, whereby cells in the body migrate to the organ of origin. In the case of Luca’s bone marrow transplant, those migrating cells belong to a stranger. And when the rabbi’s foreign cells are injected into Luca’s body, they must find their way to his marrow and make it their new home. 


     You yourself had a bone marrow transplant, isn’t that right?

    Yes. Shortly after finishing my medical residency, I developed a rare blood disease and needed a bone marrow transplant. So, I am very familiar with what that entails, how Luca would have felt going through it. 

    Being a patient as well as a doctor also had a huge impact on my professional life. Since my journey to the land of the ill, I can better understand patients when they feel anxious and angry about what is happening to them, ashamed and isolated. Being sick is never easy and many times doctors, who don’t understand what patients go through and don’t always listen, can make the experience even worse.


    The novel centers around a sick Italian boy Luca, and a rabbi from Brooklyn, who is suffering from a crisis of conscience. Are either of these characters autobiographical or are they completely imagined?

    Actually, I read about just a such a real-life story in the New York Times 20 years ago, shortly after my own transplant, where a Brooklyn rabbi donates his marrow to save a young boy in Italy. I was so moved by the story – a stranger from a different country, from a completely different culture and background, willing to save this young boy – that I wanted to write about it, to fill in this basic framework with my own imagined characters and details. 

    I’m sure my own mixed background made the story particularly appealing to me – my mother was Italian and my father Jewish. And also, the fact that the story subverts the typical illness narrative -- Illness usually drives people apart, making patients feel alone and isolated – and yet in this instance, it brings people together. What a wonderful message for today’s divisive world!


    You flash back to World War II Europe and the fate of Italian Jews. Why did you want to write about this aspect of history?

    My father and his family lived in Hungary during the war and were fortunate to have survived, as almost the entire Hungarian Jewish population was killed. Italy was a very different story. There, 85% of the Jews survived, even though Mussolini’s Italy was an ally of Hitler and enacted racial laws like the Germans. How was that possible? The question fascinated me and led me to books on the subject, like Alexander Stille’s Benevolence and Betrayal and Susan Zucotti’s The Italians and the Holocaust. There I found stories of great treachery and great courage, in which the latter ultimately prevailed. When the German roundups took place in cities across Italy, the majority of Jews were able to escape, thanks in large measure to the courage of Italian authorities, clergy, and ordinary citizens. If only the same were true in the rest of Europe.




    David Biro graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Medical School. He earned his PhD in English Literature from Oxford University. He currently teaches at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and practices dermatology in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. David is the author of two non-fiction books: One Hundred Days: My Unexpected Journey from Doctor to Patient and The Language of Pain: Finding Words, Compassion, and Relief.  He has also published pieces in The New York Times, Slate, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and various medical journals. David lives in New York City with his wife, Daniella, and twin boys, Daniel and Luca. For more information, visit

    Stanislao Pugliese is Professor of History and the Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies at Hofstra University. 


  • Op-Eds

    What Does The Triumph of Biden-Harris Represent Historically?

    As spontaneous outbursts of joy and jubilation broke out across the country Saturday morning at the announcement that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had defeated Donald Trump, I was reminded of another period when democracy returned from exile. Church bells were ringing in Paris, as though a war had just ended. And in many ways, those church bells were right: this election America found itself in a low-grade but existential civil war which would determine the fate and character of the country. Would we have four more years of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, white nationalism, and anti-Semitism emanating from the White House? Or might we return to a different vision of what America could be? But there is a flaw to this interpretation. 


    “This is not who we are,” Biden, Harris, and many others insisted during the campaign. Yet we must acknowledge the fact that 70,000,000 Americans voted for Trump. The candidate and President understood his supporters all too well. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot some people and I wouldn’t lose voters.” We can only conclude that this is indeed – partially – who we are. Americans must again grapple with the fact that millions of our fellow citizens have no problem renouncing liberty and morality in turn for a regime that promises “law and order” (which really means the suppression of minorities as they become a majority) along with a rising stock market. In 1939, Carlo Levi had examined this phenomenon of renouncing the burden of freedom in his book Paura della libertà.  


    What was different this time was that Trump said aloud what had previously been thought in private or said only in whispers among like-minded reactionaries. “You know what I am?” Trump asked rhetorically at a rally in October 2018.  “I’m a nationalist!” His defenders claim Trump is not a racist.  Yet the support of the Proud Boys, the Aryan Nation, the Ku Klux Klan, white nationalist and militia groups all support him because they think he’s a racist. It’s quite simple really: if racists embrace you as a racist, you are most certainly a racist.  


    Americans should not make the same mistake committed in Italy after World War II in thinking that fascism was merely a “parenthesis” in Italian history. The most eminent Italian philosopher of the time, Benedetto Croce, transplanted from Abruzzo to Naples, argued that the Ventennio was merely a parenthesis in the unfolding of liberty in History. Mussolini and his regime were a “temporary” (20 years!) detour or deviation on the road of History.

    Croce later amended his theory and argued that fascism was a “moral sickness,” a virus that had infected the Italian body politic. The war, continuing the metaphor, could be seen as the “fever” that broke the infection and supposedly restored Italy to “health.” When historian Gaetano Salvemini returned to his chair at the Università di Firenze in 1949, he began his first lecture with a wry reference to his more than 25 years in exile: “As we were saying in the last lecture . . .” But Salvemini feared a return to a pre-fascist past. It was Piero Gobetti, the brilliant young intellectual from Torino who better understood and offered a more biting critique: “Fascism has in some sense been the autobiography of a nation,” Gobetti wrote in 1922, merely a month after Mussolini came to power.  It was embraced by “a nation that rejects the political contest, that worships unanimity, and shrinks from heresy.” We cannot think of Trumpism as a parenthesis in American history, an aberration, or a fevered infection that has now passed out of our body politic. Trumpism is a chronic condition that with the right circumstances, will return. It is a latent virus, ready to destroy us when the immune system is weakened. 70,000,000 voters cannot be dismissed so easily with wishful thinking. Trumpism represents deep and still vital forces in the collective psyche of America. 


    Even before Trump took office, a debate raged in America, Italy, and elsewhere as to the relationship between Trumpism and fascism.  The early signs were ominous. The day after Trump’s inauguration, press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the crowd was the largest in American history, when it most obviously was not. As the public grappled with “alternative facts” and gaslighting, less attention was given to Spicer’s chilling declaration: “We’re going to hold the press accountable.” In a democracy, the press holds the government accountable; it’s only in dictatorships that the government holds the press accountable. The press and most people were so consumed with the ridiculous spectacle of arguing about crowd size that they missed this far more dangerous claim.  


    “Every age has its own fascism,” wrote Holocaust survivor Primo Levi in 1974. And Trump has been “our” fascism. “We see the warning signs,” Levi warned, “wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.”


    Ogni tempo ha il suo fascismo: se ne notano i segni premonitori dovunque la concentrazione di potere nega al cittadino la possibilità e la capacità di esprimersi ed attuare la sua volontà. A questo si arriva in molti modi, non necessariamente col terrore dell’intimidazione poliziesca, ma anche negando o distorcendo l’informazione, inquinando la giustizia, paralizzando la scuola, diffondendo in molti modi sottili la nostalgia per un mondo in cui regnava sovrano l’ordine, ed in cui la sicurezza dei pochi privilegiati riposava sul lavoro forzato e sul silenzio dei molti.


    The work of  scholars such as Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Federico Finchelstein, and Jason Stanley, clearly demonstrate the relationship between authoritarianism, populism, fascism and Trump. We had already been warned by Sinclair Lewis in 1935 It Can’t Happen Here and Philip Roth The Plot Against America (2004). The Italian writer Ignazio Silone had foreseen the Trump phenomenon in 1937 with La scuola dei dittatori in which an American millionaire travels to Europe to study fascism first-hand for a coup in America. Beneath the sunny disposition of Uncle Sam, Fourth of July parades and Norman Rockwell paintings lies a fervent and fetid stream of racism and hatred that has shaped our country since its inception. 


    So what does the triumph of Biden-Harris represent for us historically? It’s been a standard line of interpretation that Biden represents a desire to “return to normal.” The reasoning in electing him the Democratic nominee was that America was exhausted by Trump – by his corruption, by his incompetence, by his racism – and that most Americans simply want a country where we aren’t obsessively checking our phones to see the latest political or moral outrage perpetrated by the Trump administration. A country where we are not sickened and ashamed of our president and the criminals he has placed in positions of power to dismantle the very organs of government they are supposed to lead.  But, just as a return to a pre-fascist past in Italy had to be resisted, so too a Biden presidency cannot return to a pre-Trump politics.

    The problem is that the Republicans in Congress will surely refuse to work and collaborate with the new administration in solving the nation’s many problems. Just as Mitch McConnell obstructed much of President Obama’s agenda starting in 2010 with the collaboration of the Tea Party caucus, the Senator from Kentucky will do the same with Biden in the hope that conditions will be so bad that a new Republican president will return to the White House in 2024.  It would take a political miracle for the two run-off races in Georgia to give the Democrats a majority in the Senate. Precisely for that reason, Biden, Harris, and Obama should join the indefatigable Stacey Abrams in Georgia and continue campaigning. 


    In postwar Italy, the Italians and the political class failed to rise to the occasion. The “vento dal Nord,” the ideals of the anti-fascist and anti-Nazi Resistance, was snuffed out by the Christian Democrats with assistance from the British, the Americans, the CIA and the Catholic Church. (“Communist eat babies!” priests shrieked hysterically from Italian churches before the 1948 election, echoed today by the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory that Washington, D.C. is controlled by a “deep state” of pedophile Democrats who eat babies.)    


    But there is reason for hope. It can’t be emphasized enough how important the selection of Kamala Harris as vice president will be in the coming struggle. The daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, the first female and Black vice president, Harris represents what America can be: more than just “tolerant” but accepting of difference and change. She is a symbol that Italian Americans can and should embrace if we remember Geraldine Ferraro. A record number of people voted in this election, yet fully one third did not. Harris, along with the composition of a Biden Cabinet,  should demonstrate that we now have and want representation of all Americans in the halls of power.


    In the course of the campaign for the Democratic nomination and the general election, Biden had already signaled he is conscious of the singular moment in history. In recalling the ideals of Franklin Roosevelt and casting himself as having goals just as large in reshaping American society, he has to judiciously balance a desperate desire to return to normal with a bold political agenda on climate change, infrastructure, education, and social justice. Only in radically remaking the lives of millions of Americans will the poison of Trumpism be buried once and for all.  


    It would be a political and moral tragedy if America, finding itself at a crossroads, takes the wrong path.   


    Stanislao Pugliese
    Professor of History and Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies
    Hofstra University 

  • Op-Eds

    Farewell to Durante, the Man Who Promoted Italian-American Culture... in Italy

    Francesco Durante was born in Anacapri in September 1952, the last person to born on the island of Capri before births were scheduled at hospitals in Naples. On a passeggiata with him some years ago, he nonchalantly pointed out the impressive palazzo as we strolled by, evidently free of any nostalgia or sentimentality.  Perhaps it was his childhood spent in Friuli and his college years at the Università di Padova where he studied Italian literature, and his early career in the northeast of Italy that granted him a certain psychological dist ance and detachment with which to view his native city. His journalism began with the Messagero Veneto in Udine, followed by a stint at Il Piccolo in Trieste, both cities – like Naples – a border town.      

    In 1980 he returned to Naples and was editor of the city’s daily newspaper, Il Mattino. Between 1988 and 1992 he was editorial director of Casa Editrice Leonardo, an imprint of Mondadori. Returning to Naples – for the second time – he was named editor and writer for Il Corriere del Mezzogiorno.

    Parallel to his distinguished career as a journalist, Durante was also a scholar and translator of extraordinary accomplishments. Like Cesare Pavese, he was enamored with American literature. The romance of the open road, infinite vistas, and the music of America struck a profound chord in him. His taste was eclectic, translating the seven novels of John Fante, the novels of Bret Easton Ellis, and the poetry of Raymond Carver. He was the editor of two “Meridiani” series for Mondadori (the series is usually considered the “pantheon” of great writers in Italy) on John Fante and Domenico Rea.   

    First as professor of comparative literature at the Università di Salerno, then as Professor of Italian American literature and culture at the Università Suor Orsola Benincasa, Durante introduced two generations of students to a literary and cultural tradition that had previously been scorned in Italy.  It is not too much to say that he was instrumental in challenging and changing the view of Italian America in Italy.

    Durante was the Artistic Director and driving force behind the Festival Salerno Letteratura and last year organized the Napoli Città Libro fair. These brought the most diverse groups of writers from all over the world.

    He was delighted to have poets Peter Covino and Annie Lanzillotto reading their work in the cortile of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples last year. His two works on the city, Scuorno (Mondadori 2008) and I napoletani (Neri Pozza 2011), are remarkable for the combination of erudition and humanity. Even shorter works, such as Scorciatoie. Pedamentine di Napoli (with photographs by Simone Florena) and Il richiamo azzuro (about the literary history of his beloved Capri), two subjects that might easily lend themselves hyperbole, shine with restraint and refinement.  His magnum opus is Italoamericana  published by Moindadori in two volumes: Storia e letteratura degli italiani negli Stati Uniti, 1776-1880 (2001) and 1880-1943 (2005); the second volume was translated into English and published by Fordham University Press (2014) as Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880-1943 which Durante himself edited with Robert Viscusi, Anthony Julian Tamburri, and James Periconi. The culmination of three decades travelling through 70 archives and libraries in Italy and America, it reveals the intersection, “contamination” and cross-fertilization of what Durante called “an unforeseeably new universe.” In one of his last publications, “A Diary in America and a Death in Rome,” Durante traced the career of journalist Luigi Cianfarra from the province of Abruzzo to the hard-scrabble, working-class emigrant towns of New Jersey, the setting for his autobiographical novel Il diario di un emigrante (1904). At the time of his death, Durante had just completed an essay on the poems of Simplicio Righi, author of the famous sonnet “Vennero i bricchellieri a cento a cento.”  

    At Hofstra University, he was the “Distinguished Conference Scholar” at the “Delirious Naples” conference in 2011. It was marvelous to see him slip effortlessly from “proper” Italian to American slang to Neapolitan.   On our last encounter, last year at the conclusion of the Napoli Città Libro festival, eating broiled fish with a bottle of falanghina on the street where he lived, Durante casually mentioned that he might leave Naples. A passage from Scuorno came immediately to mind: In the midst of that “ridiculous tragedy” that was la crisi mundizia/munezza, several of his northern colleagues asked why he didn’t just leave Naples. Durante fantasized about leaving for the third time and taking off for Omaha, Nebraska or Flagstaff, Arizona. He had seen – and understood -- more of America than most Americans. But then he reconsidered: 

    Poi mi sveglio e, fanculo, me ne resto qui: voglio abbrutirmi tra i miei simili, incarognirmi anch’io su quell’ unico osso e stento intorno al quale tutti si assiepa; voglio far finta di niente ogni volta che mi gira, e andarmene a Capri invece che ai laghi; voglio riempire gli occhi di un blu abbacinante, e bere il mio gin e tonic nel sole del tramonto. Sono lussi modeste, lo so, ma intanto me li posso concedere. E poi voglio anche vedere come va a finire, e se del caso dare una mano (p. 21).


    Then I wake up and, fuck it, I'm staying here: I want to get bruised among my neighbors, to gnaw and over the one bone that everyone fights over; I want to pretend like nothing’s wrong every time I turn around, and go to Capri instead of the lakes; I want to fill my eyes with a dazzling blue, and drink my gin and tonic at sunset. They're modest luxuries, I know, but ones I can afford. And then I also want to see how it ends, and maybe lend a hand. 

     It seems impossible to imagine the city without him. How we will miss that “lending hand.”


    *Stanislao G. Pugliese is Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian & Italian American Studies at Hofstra University.


     1 - in The Routledge History of Italian Americans, William J. Connell and Stanislao G. Pugliese, eds. New York: Routledge, 2018, pp. 305-316.


  • Op-Eds

    The Acquarius and The Recurrent Cycles of Human History

    For the past 25 years, on my first day of an introductory history course, I ask students why they hate history. At first, they are surprised and even astonished by my question. But they soon lose their reticence and offer all the usual answers: “history keeps repeating itself;” “we never learn from history;" “history has no importance in our contemporary world or my life.” As professional historians, we have perhaps failed in our duty to fully engage the public with the past. I can’t help thinking of this failure as we witness hour-by-hour the fate of 630 human beings literally adrift at sea in the Mediterranean. Their lives hang in the balance because of the political choices and poisoned culture of contemporary Italy.

    "Italiani brava gente:" That era has come to an end

    Once upon a time Italians still enjoyed their (undeserved) reputation as “italiani brava gente.” That era has definitively come to an end. Italians are demonstrating that given the right (that is, wrong) conditions, they can be just as prejudiced and racist as anyone else. 

    The Aquarius and the incendiary hashtag on Twitter

    The Aquarius rescued 630 people adrift off the Libyan coast over the weekend according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée, who jointly operate the ship. They reported 120 minors and six pregnant women on board. According to EU protocol, the ship should call into the nearest port to permit humanitarian aid and assistance. But both Malta and Italy refused, with Italian Minister of the Interior, leader of the anti-immigrant Lega party Matteo Salvini, provocatively tweeting the hashtag #chiudiamoiporti. Amnesty International condemned both Malta and Italy for abandoning the age-old custom of rescue at sea. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea stipulates that any ship learning of distress at sea must assist, no matter the circumstances.

    Once upon a time the Italian immigrants in the US

    There was a time—just one generation after the unification of Italy—that millions of desperate Italians fled the new country, seeking a better life in the Americas, Australia, Belgium and elsewhere. Until 1924, immigration to the US was almost limitless, with few actual controls in place. And we all know the discrimination and prejudice suffered by our ancestors in foreign lands. 

    The position of Spain 

    A change in government in Spain, though, has delivered some measure of hope. Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was recently forced to step down, permitting a center-left government to form there under Pedro Sanchez. Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said Spain would offer refuge – in pointed contrast to Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Salvini. Calvo said Spain could simply not remain impassive in the face of a humanitarian crisis. The refugees are expecting in Valencia by the week’s end. It would seem the story has a happy – or at least a not tragic – ending. But authorities warn that the precedent established by Italy will result in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the near future.  We have arrived at a situation where the internal, domestic policies of countries in Europe will determine whether innocent people live or die. 

    The recurrent cycles of human history

    As a historian of twentieth-century Europe, my mind goes back to the fate of the SM St. Louisin 1939, when the internal, domestic policies of far-off countries sealed the fate of over 900 German Jews. On 13 May 1939, the ship left Hamburg for Cuba. There, they were denied docking at port, either on tourist visa or as refugees. (After five days anchored in harbor, only 30 passengers were eventually allowed to disembark.) The US Coast Guard, acting on instructions from the vehemently anti-Semitic US State Department, refused the ship entry to American ports. Canadian officials acted similarly. The ship returned to Europe and docked at Antwerp on 17 June 1939 and passengers were distributed to Belgium, Holland, France and the UK. World War II began 11 weeks later. Roughly one quarter of the passengers would subsequently perish in the Nazi extermination camps. 

    A widespread underlying fear

    Somehow, a narrative has taken hold in Italy, Hungary, Britain, Poland and the United States that these countries are under “assault” by others. Rising economic uncertainty is part of the reason for this but surely there is an underlying fear and ugliness that infects even those whose economic interests are not threatened. A deadly brew of xenophobia, nationalism, and racism threatens the European project as well as the lives of thousands of innocent people. 

    Napoli and Palermo: Where refugees are welcome

    To their credit, the mayors of Palermo and Naples have issued a call for their cities to welcome the refugees. Some years ago, Napoli mayor Luigi De Magistris was in NYC and spoke eloquently at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in midtown. As a port city, De Magistris insisted that Napoli was open to the world and understood the ancient custom of welcoming the stranger. He poignantly asked why it is possible that money could travel around the world in seconds without restriction but people – living men, women and children with hopes and dreams – were not granted the same right. Italy may one day return collectively to this more humane and compassionate vision of the world. For now, we are dependent on individuals, civic associations, religious organizations and spontaneous groups to remind us of our civil and human responsibility. 


    Stanislao Pugliese
    Professor of History
    Queensboro UNICO Distinguished Professor of Italian & Italian American Studies
    Hofstra University


  • Frank Serpico behind the scenes with Antonino D’Ambrosio. Photo: Trevor Tweeten
    Art & Culture

    The Past is Never Dead. It's Not Even Past

    A new film on the life and legacy of Frank Serpico premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23, and will soon be seen in national distribution. With the participation of Al Pacino and John Turturro (among many others), Antonino D’Ambrosio’s work is a brooding reminder of the extraordinary power of individual courage combined with the moral and ethical imperatives of Italian American culture. 

    For the first part of his life, Frank Serpico had to deal with the corruption of the NYC Police Department. Once he agreed to testify at the Knapp Commission in 1971, and then after the Peter Maas book and Sidney Lumet film (1973) starring Al Pacino, he had to deal with the mythical figure of “Serpico.”  “People don’t know who Serpico was,” he says on camera. “For a long time I didn’t, either.” This interplay of history and memory is the red thread running through the film. “The past is always present for him,” remarked director D’Ambrosio. 

    Stanislao Pugliese, who discusses the historical and cultural context of Serpico’s story in the film, here interviews D’Ambrosio.


    [Stanislao Pugliese:] What inspired you to make the documentary?

    [Antonino D’Ambrosio:] In essence, Frank Serpico is an American archetype and the fact that he is an Italian-American (from an immigrant, working-class background) resonated with me deeply.  It connected with my own personal story, which is very similar.  It is an enduring story of survival propelled by compassion and unbendable purpose, one that amplifies how one rises after they’ve been knocked down, exposing the moments when darkness settles and one needs a light that shines a path forward. Another way to describe this is as creative-response or our striving capacity as human beings to transform our obstacles into opportunities to make the world work better for everyone. Serpico demonstrates this ability most profoundly by how he has lived following the birth of the “Serpico” legend in the early 1970s. Frank Serpico is often thought of in two ways: one, the hero cop who “ended police corruption forever” by nearly trading his life do so; and two, as a basis for “the Pacino film.” These calcified pop-culture myths obscure the larger and indispensable story of a person who never relented in pursuit of telling the truth. Some describe this as the core element of the American Dream: you work hard, live with honesty, humility, and honor and all the rewards of America are then made available to you. The reality is quite different and can often be brutal and harsh. The story of Frank Serpico is then so much more than an honest cop who did the right thing: it uncovers the unrealized possibility of the American democratic experiment and the unlimited potential of the human spirit.


    What was it like working with Frank?

    It was ultimately humbling and life-changing.  There were many moments that were quite challenging because  anytime you shine both a spotlight on and place someone under the microscope it can be unsettling.  You have to develop trust and give yourself over to the process.  But the challenge of telling the story of someone who encountered so much betrayal in his life led me to find many different creative openings to realize the vision I had in mind for this film.  In some ways, I had to keep tapping reservoirs of courage and resoluteness to keep pushing this project to completion. The film itself and the process of making it and sharing it with the world is a reminder that true commitment is to act—and that’s what Frank’s story is about, this film is about and being alive on this planet is about.


    In what ways were your backgrounds influential in making the film?

    Our shared common backgrounds—as Italian immigrants from a working class family/neighborhoods (Brooklyn and Philadelphia)—was fundamental in getting this film done.  There, speaking a common language (Italian) and discussing key things we learned from our parents—honor, integrity, hard work, being skeptical of power—were all things that connected us.  There are things that both our families did—passing down mantras, ethical codes if you will.  Things that Serpico adhered to, included “Never Run When You’re Right,” “Only Actions Count,” “There is not us v. them—there’s only us.”   These are things I deeply believe—I describe this as “creative-response” and these are the stories I like to tell via my writing, filmmaking, visual arts.  Serpico’s whole approach to being a cop and to living life is a creative-response—another key intersection of our backgrounds.


    Was the 1973 Lumet/Pacino film a help or a burden in making your own film?

    The Lumet/Pacino film was a help—as a matter of fact I saw it as a key device in presenting my own unique vision of this story.    Since my film is a deep character study of an American archetype and a psychological study of a whistleblower (or as Frank describes himself a “lamplighter”)—I saw the original film, particularly as a “home movie” allowing me to reflect back on Frank’s memory—the past and present colliding constantly in my film.  This became important as Frank himself performs his life throughout my film and the film is very much about memory, representation and reality.   Also, the Lumet film and Peter Maas book helped me frame more of the story of Frank’s ongoing challenge with becoming an icon and hero in popular culture both of those things he rejects—these labels end-up undermining both Frank’s life and the people he inspires—making it seem that you have to be an extraordinary person to rise-up to serious challenges and obstacles in life.  But Serpico’s story is the opposite of that—it’s about the everyday citizen who in the face of frightening odds, embraces his fear—which is the true essence of courage—and rises-up to do the extraordinary.  So highlighting the negative effects of celebrity and fame also allowed the film to present a more nuanced, empathetic portrayal.  It’s also important to remember that the book and the Lumet film only looked at a certain period of time of Frank’s life (his early 30s).  He’s lived more than 40 years of an interesting and intense life since then. 



    * Stanislao Pugliese is Professor of History and the Queensboro Unico Distinguished  Professor of Italian & Italian American Studies at Hofstra University.



  • Art & Culture

    Remembering Pino Daniele

    When Pino Daniele died of a heart attack two years ago, several precious links of cultural history were snapped.

    There was the link between contemporary music in Italy and the tradition of the canzone napoletana; the link between that tradition and the world- wide Neapolitan diaspora; the link between Neapolitan music and the Mediterranean shore; the link between that tradition and world music generally.

    In 1977, at age 22, he released Terra mia. Critics and the public both recognized a new talent, one skillful at seamlessly and fruitfully synthesizing various genres of music. Just three years later the album Nero a metà combined African-American blues, rock, and Neapolitan music to great effect.

    The album (“Half-Black”) was dedicated to musician Mario Musella whose mother was Neapolitan and whose father was a Native American GI soldier stationed in Naples during WWII.

    Playing saxophone on the album was James Senese, himself the son of a Neapolitan mother and African American GI. In an interview on RAI, Pino described the album as “alla ricerca di un’identità quasi svanita” (In search of an almost vanished identity). Accompanied by extraordinary musicians, he resurrected that glorious tradition.

    In 2012 Pino Daniele released his last album La Grande Madre. When in June of that year Daniele spoke at NYU’s Casa Italiana with Director Stefano Albertini, Letizia Airos and John Turturro, the audience marveled at the creative sparks—almost like static electricity— that crackled between the two artists.

    They had never met until then but Turturro had closed his paean to the canzone Napoletana with Daniele’s extraordinarily poignant and poetic “Napul’è” from his rst album in 1977 (see the box below). The song has been adopted and embraced by many as an unof cial anthem of a wounded but resilient city.  

    After Pino’s death, president of Napoli soccer team Aurelio De Laurentiis, decreed that “Napule è” would be played at the end of all home games.

    Watching from New York, the sounds and sights from the San Paolo stadium were moving and emotional. Watching a game at Ribalta on East 12th Street or Luzzo’s on First Ave.

    In those first weeks after his death, one noticed tears streaming down the faces of patrons as Pino’s voice came to us from far-off Naples. That lament, full of longing and loss, but with a icker of hope, echoes with us still. 

  • "Americordo": The Italian Jewish Exiles in America

    A lesser-known aspect of the history of fascism in Italy and the larger tragedy of the Shoah is the exile of Italian Jews to America. Yes, some Americans of a certain age are enamored of Vittorio De Sica’s 1971 Academy-Award-winning film “The Garden of the Finzi-Contini” (often not aware that it is based on a 1962 novel of the same name by Giorgio Bassani.) 

    Some Americans are readers of Primo Levi, especially after his extraordinary Periodic Table wastranslated into English and praised by such writers as Susan Sontag, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. And some Americans are conscious of the long-running debate on the role of the Vatican and Pius XII during the Nazi occupation of Italy. But few Americans—or Italian-Americans for that matter—are familiar with the plight and influence of 2,000 Italian Jews who fled fascist Italy under the most difficult circumstances after the appearance of the “Manifesto of the Racial Scientists” in the summer of 1938 and the subsequent promulgation of anti-Semitic legislation—based on the notorious Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany—several months later.
    Now, Centro Primo Levi Editions has published an English translation of Gianna Pontecorboli’s Americordo, and the story should be better known.

    When asked to explain the generis and project of CPL Editions, Alessandro Cassin, Director of Publishing for Primo Levi Editions, recalled “For about 10 years, the activities of Primo Levi Center, were tied to our public programing, to our online activities, and to the synergies between the two. As our web presence grew through the online monthly Printed Matter, we realized that the more content we provided the more interest we stimulated. In other words, publishing books is a natural extension of our website.”

    (The Centro Primo Levi is on West 16th Street while CPL Editions last year renovated the old S. F. Vanni Bookstore on West 12th Street, steps from the Casa Italiana of NYU.)  “One of our objectives,” Cassin continued, “is to present the history, culture and traditions of the Jews of Italy, as to stimulate further study in this field. One of the main problems is that few of the texts —both classics and new— are available in English, so we began translating a selection of books we believe are important.”
    Pontecorboli’s writing—admirably translated by Marion Lignana Rosenberg (who died tragically during the project) and Steve Baker of Columbia University—is clear and direct, thankfully fee of the rhetorical excess that sometimes accompanies the subject.

    This book is a humble homage to the history of some 2,000 Italian Jews who crossed the ocean to flee the Fascist regime’s unjust racial laws, having understood early on the tragedy in which those laws would culminate only a few years later. This story has never been told in its entirety, though many of the exiles have written books and personal memoirs.

    When fascism came to power in 1922, some Italian Jewish families welcomed the new regime, an indication of how assimilated into the communities had become. With no anti-Semitic platform to speak of (but numerous anti-Semites in their ranks), the fascists didn’t appear at first to be as dangerous as their German counterparts. Italy had Jewish prime ministers and Rome had a Jewish mayor when France—home of the Enlightenment—was convulsed by the Dreyfuss Affair. Were not the Jews of Rome the “Pope’s Jews”? Had not Mussolini promised to protect Italian Jews since “they had wept at Caesar’s tomb”?   
    But by the mid-1930s all had changed and the first Italian translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while little noticed at the time, was an ominous shot across the bow. By the fall of 1938, thousands were faced with a wrenching decision: to stay or go into exile?

    It was a disparate group. In addition to architects, musicians, artists, journalists, designers, mathematicians, and no less than three later Nobel Prize winners, there was a seamstress, a door-to-door salesman . . . This is a collective portrait of ordinary and extraordinary people; a polyphonic biography. Appropriately enough, the story begins with Pontecorboli recalling the arrival back in Italy of an aunt and uncle who had fled in 1938.  

    Giuseppe Prezzolini, one of the prominenti in his role as Director of the Casa Italiana at Columbia University, astutely observed that “These Italian Jews were . . . entirely different. They constituted a special emigration. Once arrived they never set about asking for assistance; instead, they actually gave assistance, each helping the others. They didn’t mingle with New York Jews or even with Italian-Americans. . . As far as Jews were concerned, they were Italians, and Italian-Americans considered them Jews. For Americans they were the subject of wonder and awe.”

    Author Gianna Pontecorboli was born in Camogli (Genova), earned a degree in Economics from the University of Genova in 1968 and has had a distinguished career as a journalist in Italy and the United States. She writes often about politics, culture and the economy. Currently, she is the UN and US correspondent for the Swiss newspaper Corriere del Ticino; she is also a writer and founding partner of the online paper Lettera 22.

    She kindly and graciously responded to several questions about the book.

    Obviously, this is a very personal work. Can you explain how the idea came to you and your own history? 

    “I think the most interesting thing may be to talk about how this book was born. I’d like to start with a small, personal story. A few years ago we organized a family dinner in Genova. We were five cousins who came from three different families. At a certain point the conversation came around to the “American uncle,” my mother’s brother who had decided to move to the US together with a cousin shortly after the passage of the Racial Laws. 

    At that moment we realized that all five of us had incredibly vivid memories of when he and his wife visited Italy. We were all children, but none of us forgot the excitement that enlivened the family and especially their fascinating stories. And, at the same time, we remembered the tension we perceived in our parents questions.”
    “When I came to NY at the end of the 1970s the environment in which my aunt and uncle had lived was still largely intact and so it was natural that it aroused my curiosity and the emotions of my childhood. I had the opportunity to meet many of the Italian Jews who had arrived after 1938 thanks to my work, and I was fascinated by-the fact that they were perfectly integrated with Americans, Jews, and Italians, while at the same time remaining ‘different.’ And I was impressed by the success that many of them had had, in spite of the difficulties they encountered.”

    “I immediately understood that their story deserved to be told. I still remember perfectly visiting one of them in his house in Larchmont, outside of NY. On the way back I told the person who was accompanying me, ‘this story deserves a book. I will have to write it.’However the time was not yet ripe, both because there was not yet the interest there is now in revisiting that period in time and because I realized immediately that the experience and suffering of the past still haunted many of them and it would be difficult to for them to tell an impartial and serene tale.”
     Do you discern a difference (ideological, psychological, political, cultural) between those who choose exile and those who remained behind? Was there any antagonism between the two groups? 
    “The exiles who chose America belonged primarily to the Jewish upper middle class, which had the money and the contact to take a real leap into the darkness. The majority were professionals or intellectuals who had lost their work because of the racial laws. Many--but not all of them--were antifascists. As far as I know, their decision to leave was received with sorrow but also with understanding by those who decided to stay and they were received with open arms when they went back after the war.”
    What personal and intellectual qualities did the exiles carry that helped them become successful in America?
    “Obviously cultural and intellectual qualities played a major role. One of the factors was the idea that they had lost their support system and they had to prove themselves in the new world. The friendship of the other exiles and the help of different organizations like the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue were crucial to reassure the weakest."
    How is this history of Italian Jewish exiles understood today in Italy?
    “I had a lot of interest when the book came out in Italy. It is a new story for the larger Italian public.”

    Alessandro Cassin promises that “CPL Editions will continue to expand our offering of books that relate to the Jewish presence in Italy, from ancient time to the present, from a variety of points of view.” They have also created a CPL Editions  APP—which can be downloaded for free at iTunes or google play—and “allows our readers to be updated on our new books and on read Printed Matter on their phones and electronic devices.”
    The nearly four-dozen black and white photographs evoke a world we forget at our peril.  From Rome, Milan, Fiume, Venice and dozens of other Italian towns and cities, to New Haven, CT, Cold Spring Harbor, NY, Princeton, NJ, it was another chapter in the millennial history of the Diaspora.  With a useful bibliography, 80 short biographies and a preface by Furio Colombo, this is a valuable and necessary book that will appeal to both scholars and general readers alike.        

    Stanislao Pugliese is the Queensboro UNICO Distinguished Professor of Italian & Italian American Studies at Hofstra University.


     AMERICORDO: The Italian Jewish Exiles in America, by Gianna Pontecorboli; translated by Marion Lignana Rosenberg and Steven Baker; Centro Primo Levi Editions 2015; 380 pp. paperback, $12.00; available as an ebook;

    Reading and Discussion with author and Judge Guido Calabresi, Monday, March 28, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò  NYU, 24 West 12th Street, 6:00 p.m.

  • Life & People

    Viva la libertà

    Viva la libertà—which won both the David di Donatello and the Nastro d’Argento— begins with a press conference held by Enrico Oliveri, leader of the left-wing opposition in contemporary Italy. (American viewers will recognize Oliveri as played by the great Neapolitan actor Toni Servillo, best known from Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo where he was the late Italian prime minister and powerbroker Giulio Andreotti and Academy-Award winner La grande bellezza where he played the tormented failed journalist Jep Gambardella).


    Oliveri, his handlers, and his constituents, all realize the party is trailing badly in the polls as national elections loom. Oliveri is the first to acknowledge that he is the outward manifestation of a more deep-rooted malaise in the party; one that he cannot address. His press conference is interrupted by an outburst from a member of the audience who rises to denounce his failed leadership that will drag the party into a devastating loss in the election.

    Curiously, as she is being led away, the protester cries out in Latin “in obscura nocte sidera micant” Which, as any classicist will tell you, is carved into the door jamb of the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco outside Rome: “the darker the night, the more brilliant shine the stars.”  While Oliveri’s trusted right-hand man, Andrea Bottini (Valerio Mastandrea) insists she was sent by the opposition to foment a revolt in the party, the phrase is ambiguous in this context. Is it a warning or a prophecy? 

    Oliveri, overwhelmed and teetering on the bring of a nervous breakdown, decides to leave Italy for a few days, seeking solace and comfort in the company of a former love, Danielle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) now living with her film director husband and young daughter in Paris. His sudden and unannounced disappearance throws the party and its functionaries into further crisis.

    In desperation, Andrea seizes upon the suggestion of Oliveri’s wife Anna (Michela Cescon) that they press his twin brother, recently-released from an insane asylum, and known by his pseudonym Giovanni Ernani as a philosopher, into Oliveri’s role as party leader. (Ernani is the author of the treatise tellingly titled The Illusion of Living). Since childhood, Ernani had the ability to uncannily mimic his brother; a skill his brother could not reciprocate. He faults his politician brother as one who has “never been able to be himself.” So begins a contemporary fable, a political farce, a Pirandellian play on identity, and a philosophical and ontological puzzle. 

    While Andrea had thought of Ernani as merely a stop-gap measure, at most for a few days, events escape his well-laid plans. Ernani is (mis)recognized as Oliveri at a restaurant and an intrepid journalist from the Corriere della Sera manages to sneak a brief interview while Andrea is away from the table. Ernani/Oliveri speaks truthfully and bluntly: “If the electorate is disappointed in the poor quality of the politicians, they are to blame.”  And Zen-like koans: “Fear is the music of democracy.” Ernani’s words are headline news the next day (“Mai parole piú chiare”) and shock the country. He continues to unabashedly “speak truth to power.” In the process, he rejuvenates and electrifies the party faithful. At a mass rally just before the election, he improvises a stirring speech on “passion” and a polling/electoral earthquake is underway. 

    Meanwhile in Paris, Oliveri rekindles romance with Daniella, whose husband, Mung, is an internationally known film director. He confides to Oliveri that cinema and politics have a lot in common in that both harbor geniuses and charlatans. Not said, but understood between the film director and the politician is the idea that both mestieri depend on illusion to move their respective audiences. Oliveri also develops a tender relationship with Daniella’s young daughter who serves to ground the weary politician to quotidian pleasures.   

    Ernani the madman—saner than everyone else around him—revels in life. He returns to his asylum to dance with friends; he seduces the German Chancellor (Merkel) into a bare-footed tango; he is the shot of adrenaline into the weary corpse of the political party. His impassioned speech to the party faithful on the eve of the election reminds audience of the importance of rhetoric—understood in the classical sense—in moving men and women for the public good. 

    Which raises a few questions: who, in the film, is the real madman? Who determines the boundaries between illness and mental health? Ernani is the court fool who speaks truth to power, but does this mean that Italian politics needs a madman to emerge from its current crisis? Or that only a fool would consider trying to solve Italy’s myriad political problems? As Andrea dryly remarks to Anna: “There a method to his madness. And he’s funny too.” 

    In the wake of the electoral debacle suffered by American Democrats in the recent elections, is there a message here for Obama? Be fearless, don’t be afraid to win (as Ernani chastises Andrea), free yourself from the constraints of “normal” politics, shed your shoes and your inhibitions and govern in bare feet. 

    After a few idyllic days, Oliveri returns to Rome from Paris. As he is driven through the Eternal City at night, images of past political glory lay in ruins. He does not seem renewed and willing to take up the reigns of power and responsibility. When Andrea visits the leader’s office early the next morning, he can’t tell if it’s Oliveri or Ernani sitting on the “throne.” Andrea casts an apprehensive peek at the shoes, half expecting the person sitting there to be barefoot (and therefore Ernani). But the politician, whoever he might be, is wearing his expensive loafers. And in a stunning final shot, as the camera closes in on Servillo’s extraordinarily expressive face, the character changes before our eyes from Oliveri to Ernani’s warm and exuberant smile. Hope? Illusion? Pathos? Or inescapable tragedy?   

    Viva la libertà, directed by Roberto Andó; story and screenplay by Roberto Andó and Angelo Pasquini; produced by Angelo Barbagallo. Director of photography Maurizio Calvesi; edited by Clelio Benevento; music by Marco Betta, costumes by Lina Nerli Taviani. A Bibi Film production with RAI Cinema. Opens in New York on November 7 at Lincoln Plaza and the Quad Cinema and November 28 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, followed by national release to select cities.

    More info:

    Stanislao Pugliese, Professor of History and Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian Studies

  • Life & People

    Matera. Candidate for European "Capitale of Culture" 2019

    In 1985 former actress and Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercuri and her French counterpart Jack Lang created the idea of selecting a “city of culture.” Athens was, unsurprisingly, the first, followed by Florence in 1986. Since then the honor has gone to two other Italian cities: Bologna in 2000 and Genoa in 2004. Starting in 2000, the European Union decided to award the honor to two or more cities in a single year. Hence 2019 will be devoted to one Italian city and one in Bulgaria (most likely Sofia).

    The city of Matera and the region of Basilicata have thrown their hat into the ring, seeing this as an opportunity to showcase their city to the world.  Not that the world hasn’t already been seduced by Matera. In 1993, the UN and UNESCO added Matera to its  list of “World Heritage” sites. Panoramas of the city are extraordinary: with the houses of white tufo and roofs of weathered grey tile rather than the tradition red terracotta, the city seems to be both part of Italy and strikingly different, something from another time and place.

    Matera is perhaps best known for its “sassi”; the pre-historic stone formations and caves which were inhabited by the peasants. In the centro storico, there are two neighborhoods: the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso. These simple dwellings were used as late as 1954, when the national government of Alcide De Gasperi decided the sassi were an affront to the image of a modern Italy and forced the peasants to abandon their sassi and live in modern houses built higher on the hill of the town. One such habitation, the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, restored to its former rustic condition, displays the contract between the owner and the government, which paid the peasant and his family the princely sum of 42,000 lire (about US $30). (Another can be visited online at

    Americans though, are probably not familiar with Matera and the region of Basilicata, which sent relatively few emigrants to America compared to nearby Campania and Calabria. They may recall that the Jewish anti-fascist intellectual and member of Giustizia e Liberta’, Carlo Levi, was sent to confino there by Mussolini’s regime in 1935. Out of that experience, Levi wrote “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, first published in 1945 and then made into a film by Francesco Rosi in 1979. (At the time, the fascist regime had re-named Basilicata by its ancient Roman name “Lucania.”) Levi, who was born in Turin and lived most of his life in Rome, is buried in Aliano, not far from Matera, a sign of his love and esteem for the very different civilization he came to know. The cover of the latest edition of “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has a photo by Mario Carbone of Matera.

    Carbone had accompanied Carlo Levi to Basilicata and Matera in 1960. For a variety of striking photos of Matera, including a few by Carbone and others from the vanishing world of the 1950s and 1960s, visit >>>

    In 1964 the poet, writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini travelled to Jerusalem to scout locations for his next film, “Il Vangelo secondo Matteo”. He returned from the Holy Land dismayed: Jerusalem was “too modern” for his film. A friend told him to visit Matera and there he found the inspiration for what I would consider the greatest religious film of all time. (Directly, ironically enough, by a gay, atheist Communist.) “Matera is where the sun shines,” Pasolini later wrote, “the real sun, the fiercely ancient sun.” In Pasolini’s film, the streets, alleys, houses, sassi and tufo of Matera become living protagonists, just as much as the charismatic (from the Greek “kharisma” or gift of the gods) Barcelona actor Enrique Irazoqui (Christ) or the director’s own mother, Sussana Paolini as the elder Mary. (In 2011, Irazoqui was named an honorary citizen of Matera.) Domenico Notarangelo, a “Roman centurion” extra in Pasolini’s film recalls the director and offers his photos from the set of Matera in 1964 at 

    Forty years later, the actor and director Mel Gibson filmed his controversial “The Passion of the Christ” in Matera.

     * Stanislao G. Pugliese is professor of history at Hofstra University and the author of the forthcoming biography Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone.  

  • Art & Culture

    Being Jew in Italy: The Ghetto of Venice

    In March 1516, the Council of Ten of the Venetian Republic decreed the formation of the first ghetto in western world.

    “The Jews must live together in the houses that stand near San Girolamo. And so that they donot go about at night, let two gates be made, one on each side of the Old Ghetto where there is a small bridge, and one on the other side of the bridge—that is, one gate for each place. And let these gates be opened in the morning at the ringing of the Marangona [the main bell of St. Mark’s Basilica] and locked at midnight by four Christian gatekeepers, appointed and paid by the Jews themselves at a rate that our Council decides fair . . .”

    So began the history of one of Europe’s most melancholy and tragic institutions.  Many people today know that the ghetto of Venice to be the first of its kind; they may not know that the history of the Jews in Venice predates the ghetto.

    Documents prove that Jews were trading in Venice as early as the 10th century.  There is some evidence that Jews had lived in the Giudecca quarter (formerly called the Spinalonga) between the 11th and 13th centuries.  Oral tradition in the Venetian Jewish community holds that there were two synagogues in the Giudecca (demolished as late as the 18th century), and a plaque with Hebrew inscription was found in the Giudecca near the church of the Zitelle in the 19th century. Despite common prejudice and anti-Semitism, medieval political authorities soon came to recognize that the Jews could bring invaluable commercial ties with the near east and important revenue into the city-state.
    In 1385, the Venetian Senate invited German Jewish moneylenders to the city. This was soon followed a year later by a

    concession of land on the Lido for a Jewish cemetery.

    But the relationship, even if mutually beneficial, was fraught with obstacles.  
    Jews were permitted in the city only for fixed lengths of time and obligated to wear a yellow circle sewn onto their coats. Increasing numbers of Jews arrived in the first decade of the 16th century, stimulating an increase in bigotry flamed by the certain orders of the Catholic Church. Hence the formation of the ghetto in 1516. (The Papal State, not to be outdone, instituted its version of the ghetto in 1555.)

    There is still philological debate over the origins of the word itself. Many hold that the word derives from the Venetian word “getar” (to throw or smelt) because of the old foundry that had been on the site. Others hold that the word comes from the German “gitter” (iron grill) or the Hebrew “get” (divorce).  All agree that the area was far from ideal: there were prisons nearby as well as the monastery of San Girolamo (whose monks were responsible for the burial of executed criminals).

    The ghetto was created not just to separate Jews from Christians while permitting the Venetian Republic to enjoy their financial contributions, but also for a theological reason. According to certain currents of Christian theology, the Messiah’s promised second coming would not transpire before the mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity. Hence, the ghetto also saw the practice of the “predica forzata” where Jews were forced to attend sermons – often given by converts – that demanded their conversion to Christianity.

    Venetian Jews not working in the financial sector, printing or medicine (Jewish doctors were permitted to leave the ghetto in the evening under escort) were reduced to the “strazzaria,” hence the stereotype of the Jewish rag-pickers dealing in used textiles and clothing.  
    An influx of Levantine Jews in the mid 16th century, bringing different customs of worship and dress, created a contrast with their more modest Ashkenazi brethren. They were followed by Roman Jews in 1575 and Sephardic Jews in 1589. Soon the ghetto was so crowded that authorities and scholars estimate there was only two square meters per inhabitant. Denied permission to build outward beyond the ghetto, the Jews built vertically, with the result of eight- and nine-story buildings, most of which were not structurally sound. The Ghetto Vecchio was expanded into a Ghetto Novo and eventually a Ghetto Novissimo (1633). In such a small space, there are actually no less than 5 distinct schools or shuls: the Scuola Tedesca (1528), the Scuola Canton (1531), the Scuola Levantina (1541), the Scuola Italiana (1575), and the Scuola Spagnola (1580). Today, a visitor is struck by the presence of Lubavitcher Jews and images of Brooklyn’s Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994.

    Although rather small compared to other centers of Jewish life in Europe, the Jewish community of Venice was intellectually and culturally distinguished for centuries. Among the luminaries are Elia Levita (grammarian), poetess Sara Copio Sullam, and the rabbis Leone da Modena and Simone Luzzato. Venetian Jews were permitted to study at the prestigious Università di Padova and Venice became a center of Jewish scholarship and, with the arrival of Daniel Bomberg from Antwerp, the printing trade. Meir Magino was a famous glassmaker from the ghetto while Margherita Grassini Sarfatti was a noted journalist, critic, patroness of the avant-garde (and Mussolini’s mistress).

    Setbacks were common: bubonic plague passed through several times (a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery on the Lido says simply: “EBREI 1631.” The Counter-Reformation proved particularly difficult, as when Pope Julius II ordered the destruction of the Talmud in 1553 and Venetian authorities responded with a mass bonfire in Piazza San Marco. The messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi in the mid-17th century divided Venetian Jews and by 1737 the community was forced to file for bankruptcy.   

    The Enlightenment and Risorgimento improved conditions within and outside the ghetto. Napoleon’s soldiers literally pulled down the gates of the ghetto (1797) and emancipation permitted the Jews to participate fully in the Risorgimento, especially the Pincherle, Treves and Pesaro families (whose monumental tombs are easy to find in the Cimitero Ebreo.)

    The first decade of fascism saw an uneasy truce between the new regime and the community; this was shattered in 1938 with the passage of the Racial Laws. By that time, the population of the ghetto had dwindled to a mere 1200. World War II was to bring tragedy. When, in September 1943, Italy switched sides and the Germans occupied Venice, almost all Jews, including the elderly and almost blind chief rabbi, Adolfo Ottolenghi, were deported to concentration camps and murdered.  

    Today, the community numbers some 500 and the ghetto’s most striking features are the two monuments to the Holocaust by Arbit Blatas and the omnipresent Carabinieri. But with a vibrant intellectual and cultural life, a kindergarten, a retirement home (casa di riposo), a bakery, a library, a museum established in 1954, and numerous thriving shops, the ghetto of Venice is a living monument to over 500 years of history.

    Information for this essay was derived from the website of the Comunità Ebraica di Venezia at www. and the Museo Ebraico di Venezia at

    Stanislao G. Pugliese
    Professor of History
    Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies
    Hofstra University