Maria Giuseppa Robucci, better known as Nonna Peppa in Italy, is currently the oldest living person in Europe. Nonna Peppa has yet another birthday coming up... on March 20th she will turn 116!
This centenarian lives today in Apricena, Puglia with her daughter Filomena and her family. She was born in 1903 in nearby Poggio Imperiale where she married farmer Nicola Nargiso and bore five children, nine grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. She managed a local bar along with her husband for many years, is very religious and claims to have known Saint Padre Pio personally. For the last few years she holds the title of honorary mayor of Poggio Imperiale, making her the oldest mayor in Italy.
Her secret to longevity? Nonna Peppa doesn't drink or smoke.
Today, March 8th, is International Women's Day and in Italy it's the time when mimosas are blossoming with their golden color. All across Italy women are presented lovingly with a bouquet of mimosa flowers to say "Thank you"... thank you for being Mama, that you for being my sister, thank you for being a great daughter, thank you for being a fantastic co-worker, or thank you for being a wonderful wife. March 8th is called La Festa delle Donne in Italy.
While in Italy the day has become almost like Mother's Day here in the States, the observance started in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America, and was held in New York City after a sweat shop factory burned to the ground, killing 145 workers--mostly young women who were underpaid and had to work in unsafe conditions. This event and the observance was the de facto birth of the modern Women's Movement. Sadly, in Italy and around the world, women are still struggling to achieve equal pay for equal work, among many other issues.
The tradition of a gift of mimosas dates back to 1946 when the feminists, Rita Montagnana and Teresa Mattei, came up with the idea of women offering the bouquets as a symbol of mutual respect, sisterhood and support. Mimosa was one of the few flowers in bloom on the date. The Mimosa also represents strength and endurance, being a tough plant that can survive adverse conditions in Italy.
Oddly, being originally a Socialist observance, it seems that in Italy, the Festa delle Donne has been commercialized... another day where bouquets of Mimosa tied with yellow ribbons are sold in supermarkets, bars and tobacconists all over Italy. It's become expected that fathers, sons and husbands also give the flowers to the women in their lives. The commercialization of La Festa delle Donne has made it more like Mothers Day and might be losing some of its original meaning based on solidarity of women's issues. Even chocolate companies offer their dolci in yellow packaging. In some parts of Italy the Festa is celebrated on the closest Sunday to March 8th, and special events are held, such as a procession of mimosa decorated gondolas in Venice and a regatta for female rowers. .
The commercialization of the Women's Movement in Italy
From Grand Voyage Italy to all Women... Auguri!
Support each other and keep up the fight for equality!
If you look in my cellar during mid-May of any year, you will find a couple of dozen young tomato plants under my grow light, nearly ready to be planted out in my raised vegetable beds (after fear of frost is gone). My mind always fills with thoughts of tomatoes in this time of year, with hope that there will be a good yield for our little famiglia.
If I say, "tomato sauce" you think of Italian food, right? If I say "home grown tomatoes" you might think of Vito Corleone playing with his grandson in his garden in that final scene in his life. If I say "pizza" you picture a round crust with cheese and tomato sauce.
That red color emblazoned in the minds and hearts of Italians everywhere (even though heirloom tomatoes come in many colors). Some say that Il Tricolore (the tricolor flag of Italy) represents the hills of Italy with green, the snow capped mountains with white, and the blood spilled from the wars of independence by red. But others in la Cucina Italiana would argue that the green is for pesto, the white for besciamella and the red for salsa pomodoro found in tri-color lasagna... or that the flag represents the simple but wonderful insalata caprese: green for basil, white for mozzarella, and the red for ripe tomatoes. In any case, you might say the red in Il Tricolore represents the true blood of Italy--the tomato.
But how did the tomato become such a strong part of Italian culture? It is not indigenous to Italy, or Europe for that matter. The tomato was first "discovered" by the Spanish Conquistadors while exploring and then conquering the Americas. The Spaniard, Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico in 1519, returned home and brought with him a cargo of Aztec tomatoes.
The tomato most likely originated in the Andes mountains of Peru and spread sometime in the distant past to most parts of South and Central America and eventually on up to Mexico. In fact, it was the Incas who first cultivated tomatoes about 1000 years ago, eventually trading seeds to Aztecs and Mayans to the North. Most botanists consider the tiny, scraggly bush Solanum Pimpinellifolium (or "Pimp") as the ancestor of all modern tomatoes, itself becoming an endangered species.
The odd thing is that the tomato became popular in Europe long before it came to be used in North America. Colonial Americans thought of the tomato as a poisonous plant, after all, it's a close cousin or Nightshade, a well know toxic vine, and in fact, the leaves and vines of the tomato plant are fairly toxic.
It was during the 1500s that Columbus and other explorers introduced the tomato to Europe, but 200 years of skepticism had to pass before the tomato gained acceptance there. It was feared that one touch of a tomato on the lips would kill you. One likely catalyst for its popularity in Europe, especially with the wealthy and elite, was the rumor that it was an aphrodisiac.
The general population more than likely heard about this new fruit and saw that the Barons and Dukes behind the castle walls were flourishing, not falling down dead. One can imagine that the trash middens where refuse from the castles, chateaus and villas were thrown, became a great source of distribution for the tomato plant. As anyone who grows tomatoes knows, tomatoes are prolific and seeds can spring up anywhere. Leave a fruit on the ground and chances are good you'll have more tomatoes next year. Leave a tomato on the kitchen counter and the seeds might eventually sprout right out of its own skin.
Little by little, the peasants discovered gnarly vines growing wild with attractive red or yellow fruits that were attracting wild life. (Chipmunks love them in my garden!) "Why not give them a try? The birds, squirrels and rabbits aren't dying, after all." Presto... a free, easily grown source of vitamins and amazing flavor. It was easy to save seeds and cultivate a very large harvest from even a modest number of plants.
The word tomato is derived from the Aztec word xitomatl, shortened in Europe to tomatl. The French originally called the tomato, pomme d’amour (love apple) before calling simply la tomate. Perhaps they changed the name when the aphrodisiac claims failed to yield any effect. In Italy it was pomi d’oro (golden apple) which today becomes il pomodoro. Tomatoes do come in a wide variety of colors, including golden yellow, but along with tomatoes, the tomatillo also came from the Americas--many of which are also yellow. In Italy, the tomato more than likely prospered because of its near-tropical climate. The tomato can be grown all year long in tropical temperatures.
It makes sense the Spanish had tomatoes first, after all, they sponsored the Columbus and Cortes explorations. In this way, Spaniards actually led the way, "teaching" Italians to fry tomatoes up with eggplant, squash and onions, and used the dish as a condiment on bread and with meats. The cuisine of Southern Italian peasants, who often lacked meats and other proteins on a regular basis, developed into a mostly vegetarian diet in which tomatoes and olive oil, spices and vegetables were and eaten with bread, rice or polenta.
The first time the pomi d'oro is mentioned by name in Italy was in 1548 in the household records of Cosimo de’Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany. His house steward presented a basket to “their excellencies”. The Duke had no idea what was inside, only that it came from his Florentine estate at Torre del Gallo. The records describe the scene, “And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.” After the event, the house steward wrote to the Medici private secretary to tell him that the basket "arrived safely".
But as far back as 1692, tomatoes were used as ingredients in a cookbook from Naples, Lo scalco alla moderna. The author obviously copied details from Spanish tomato sauce recipes ("alla spagnuola"), including simple ingredients like minced tomatoes and chili peppers. Curiously, he did not recommend using the sauce specifically with pasta:
"Take a half a dozen tomatoes that are ripe,
put them to roast in the embers,
when they are scorched, remove the skin diligently,
then mince them finely with a knife.
Add onions, minced finely, to discretion.
Hot chili peppers, also minced finely.
Add thyme, in a small amount.
After mixing everything together,
adjust it with a little salt, oil, and vinegar.
It is a very tasty sauce, both for boiled dishes or anything else."
Italian nobility at first used this new, jewel-like fruit merely as a tabletop decoration, gradually incorporating it into their cuisine by the late 17th and early 18th century. They cherished their beauty, and experimented with selective breeding, managing to create tomatoes of many colors and shapes
It took another 200 years for the tomato to become the national treasure is it today, but by the late 1700s, the peasants of Naples began to put tomatoes on top of their flat breads, creating something very close to the modern pizza--essentially turning pizzas from white to red.
Tomatoes gained popularity, especially with the elite of Europe and Americans taking the Grand Tour, and soon pizza attracted tourists to Naples, tempting them into the poor areas of the city to sample the new treat. Pizza was born.
Soon after taking a Grand Tour himself, Thomas Jefferson, being an expert farmer and a culinary expert, brought tomato seeds back from Europe. Jefferson grew tomatoes in his expansive Monticello garden, with his daughters and granddaughters using them in numerous recipes including gumbo, soups, pickling and especially for ketchup (the common use for tomatoes in the 19th century). In an 1824 speech to the Albemarle Agricultural Society, Jefferson’s son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, claimed that ten years before, the tomato was barely known, but by 1824 "everyone was growing and eating them". Slow but sure, people were taking notice of this special fruit.
In the same time period we find the first recorded evidence of tomatoes used in sauces and preserved condiments and pastes. In the 1800s, in Naples a recipe was written about pasta al pomodoro, the very first mention of tomatoes being married to pasta.
In 1889, after Italy became one nation, the King and Queen of Italy found it necessary to visit the former kingdom of Naples to appease the citizenry who disliked their loss of independence. Queen Margherita was bored with the same old French cuisine that they were eating everywhere they went--as was the custom in all of Europe.
She called for the most famous pizza-maker in Naples, Raffaele Esposito, and commanded that he make pizza for her. He brought three types: pizza marinara with garlic, pizza Napoli with anchovies and a third with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil leaves. She fell in love with the third one and Esposito named it after her--Pizza Margherita.
A short time later, the Queen sent her emissary with a thank you note, which still today hangs on the wall of Pizzeria Brandi, still run by his descendants. Pizza--with tomato sauce--was to become more popular than ever after the Queen's royal recommendation--the equivalent to Royal Yelp nowadays.
Emigration to the United States did more to increase the popularity of the tomato than anything else in history. Because of the climate in Italy, tomatoes became a big crop, even small farmers produced an excess of the sweet fruits. A need developed to preserve them, and to create new markets. The only foods that may be safely canned in an ordinary boiling water bath are highly acidic ones--coincidentally, tomatoes are naturally high in acid. Sun drying tomatoes and storing them in olive oil was also a proven way to preserve large stores of tomatoes, as long as no fresh herbs or garlic were added, the method a safe with a long shelf life.
During the mid-1800s the science of canning started to develop and improve, allowing this new cash crop to find its way to distant markets. By the end of the 19th century Italians were already using tomatoes in their recipes and as a condiment. When Italians emigrated to America, they wanted to have products that reminded them of home... canned tomatoes filled that need, along with olive oil and other specialty imports.
Italians at home and expats in American developed import-export businesses to give relatives and other their compagni jobs based on their new found wealth in America. In Italy, exporting companies were popping up, especially in the Naples area. By the time World War I rolled around, even the Italian Army experimented with canned ravioli, spaghetti alla bolognese and Pasta e fagioli, the inclusion of acidic tomatoes in the recipes aided in the cans' shelf life. Italian grocery stores stocked these products in Little Italy neighborhoods in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans.
Being a second-generation Italian-American, I wasn't affected by the Italian naming conventions. I once asked my mother why we never spoke Italian and she answered, "When we got married, I wanted an 'All-American" household, so we only spoke English around you kids." I'm certain one reason for this was to lessen the impact of racial bias against her kids at the time.
This might also be the reason why I was named "Jerry"--as my mother told me, "I thought of 'Jerry' after watching a Jerry Lewis movie while I was expecting you. It sounded very American." While my birth certificate says "Jerry", I had no idea my legal name was "Jerry" until at age 13, I got a copy of my birth certificate to get my working papers. "Jerry"? Well, that was a lot better than "Gerald", my baptism name, which I could barely pronounce properly when I was little. Even so, everyone in my family knew me as "Gerald" until I ordered them to stop calling me that. Still today, many won't call me "Jerry". (To add to my confusion, Saint Gerald was French!).
Being the second born son, I should have been named after my mother's father, Salvatore Vetri. That would have been nice, since my Dad's lifelong nickname was Sal, even though he was born Saverio. Since I was born 11 years after Salvatore's passing, perhaps my mother felt less obliged to name me after him.
My sisters and brother who came before me met the same fate with their names. The oldest of us--the twin sisters--Barbara and Joan should have been named Caterina and Mariantonia, Caterina being my paternal grandmother's name, and my maternal grandmother being Caterina. (Barbara was the oldest by three days... YES, they were born three days apart, but that's another story.) Kenneth, my older brother, should have been named Sergio, after my paternal grandfather. My sister Joyce should have been named after one of my aunts, perhaps Antonia or Rosa. Although I know that Barbara, Joan, Kenneth and Joyce are my siblings, I have no idea who they were named after since those names are unknown in our family tree. Only their middle, confirmation names reflect names of uncles or aunts.
Perhaps other movies my mother watched while she was pregnant for each of them influenced her... The twins? Barbara Hutton and Joan Crawford were famous during the 1940s when the Twins were born, Joyce Reynolds was a well-known, All-American looking actress when my sister Joyce was born. But Kenneth? There really were no famous actors or performers named Kenneth when my brother was born--and it's a very British name, at that. Mom probably just liked the sound of it.
As for me, I really think I would have preferred to be named Francesco, Giovanni, or even Anselmo after one of my my uncles. "Jerry" never really suited me.
And here's an interesting note about my father's name, Saverio... There is no Saverio in our family tree, and since my great-grandfather Anselmo was adopted, there was no maternal grandfather to name him after. It seems the name was given to my father (second son of Sergio) as a "votive name". Saverio means "second home" or "new home". My grandfather traveled to America 2 times before bringing over is wife and three children, 7 year-old Anselmo (named after my great-grandfather), 4 year-old Saverio and baby Antonia. Perhaps Saverio was born at the moment my grandfather decided to take the first steps on emigrating. Saverio. New Home. It suited Dad.
How to properly name an Italian child...
The basic convention goes like this:
Be aware that there are exceptions to this naming custom that preclude this assuming your ancestors adhered to these conventions. In the case of orphans, they would have no idea of parents' names. For someone estranges from his family, he might not want to use their names. It is also possible that the first born son might have died, so they might have also given the same name to a second born son who survived. Many children did not live to adulthood in the nineteenth century and earlier.
It is also very possible that your ancestors didn't keep to these conventions, for instance, many named their first sons after a hero. For example a hero in southern Italy (The Two Kingdoms of Sicily) in the early 1800s was Guglielmo Pepe, so an ancestor in this time period could be named after him.
A final example of exceptions to the naming custom can be seen in the nontraditional family of my great-great-grandparents, Pasquale and Rosa. They were great opera fans who named all of their children after characters from their favorite operas. Due to theses types of exceptions, you cannot use the Italian naming tradition to assume an ancestor's name.
When doing genealogical research another problem can arise when finding several people living in the same town at the same time, all with the same first and last name. Think about it a second. If someone named Giovanni had five sons, all of them could have named their first born sons Giovanni, resulting in confusion as to which one is your gr-gr-grandfather and which are merely distant uncles. The same would hold true when researching the maternal members... Nonna Rita might have several Ritas that were named after her. They might even have been born in the same year! Remember, families were often quite large, especially in the rural, agricultural south.
This shows that although it seems naming conventions might help you discover your ancestors, they might also confuse the issue. When in doubt, it might be a good idea to hire a genealogical research professional to make sure you find the right people in your family tree.
For help in researching your ancestors, the Facebook group
Italian Genealogy is highly recommended by GVI. There are several professional researchers who are members who freely offer their advice and who can be hired to help find your ancestors.
More often than not, I'm shocked at the blatant racism I see on Italian Facebook pages and felt compelled to leave a response to someone who claimed that most immigrants today offer nothing to American society and exist well below the poverty line... in other words, "we don't want to support them" or "we don't want them" or "they have no skills anyway"....
My response to these people:
Many would argue that when our grandparents and great-grandparents came here, they were also living below the poverty line--in fact, poverty was one of the main reasons for them coming to America. They also didn't speak English at all. Most Italians listed their profession as "Laborer" or "Farmer"... in other words, unskilled peasants. Often the father came first, working to earn enough to bring over his wife and children, as my Grandfather Sergio Finzi did. He sailed across the Atlantic, in steerage, in the middle of winter (when fares were cheaper) three times over the course of 5 years... the third time bringing his wife Caterina and three children (including my 4 year old father, Saverio).
My father's family came from Molfetta and had a very tough life at first in Hoboken... a large family living in a tenement. (They would have another 5 children born here making them a family of 10). Pretty much the same with my Mother's family. Luckily, my grandfather was skilled as a tailor and found employment in a coat factory.
As young children, my father and his brothers were tasked with walking the RR tracks to pick up chunks of coal that fell from the trains for the kitchen stove, which was the only source of heat in winter. They all had to leave elementary school early to help support their family.
My father and one of his brothers bought a lame "Three-Legged Horse" and wagon and sold fruit and veggies to the people coming off the ships in the harbor. Another brother started his own grocery store in Hoboken. A couple of my uncles served in WWII and even my 65 year-old grandfather carried a U.S. Draft Card while my father worked in a military plant making springs for jeeps and tanks.
My father became a fruit and deli man his entire life, always working for other people. Even as a child, I remember my father working long hours, night shifts and often even on holidays. And there was no overtime pay!
My mother and her mother both worked in factories for "piece work"... paid by the piece. My mother bore the sweltering heat and airplane hum of industrial fans all day long as she worked at hot press machines making jewelry boxes... and crushed two fingers, bearing her crooked finger the rest of her life to show for it. She worked her way up to be a supervisor over 30 other workers.
Somehow my parents housed, clothed and fed their 5 children and saved enough to buy a small six-family apartment house where I grew up, the rents from the other five tenants helping to support us. After work I remember helping my father as he maintained the building: putting on a new roof, repairing the chimney, fixing the furnace, doing plumbing and electrical, painting--whatever was needed to keep the tenants happy. He taught me that working hard was a good thing.
My grandparents and parents definitely contributed to our society and created opportunities for their children... My parents were proud to have 5 children, lived to see 19 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren, all living as Americans today. Several of us owned our own businesses, hired employees, bought nice homes... and lived the American Dream. I remember the pride on my parent's face the first time they came into Manhattan to see my 5000 square foot photo studio. It took our family three generations to succeed in America--three generations to fully assimilate. America gave us that chance.
As Americans, we all have to remember that even people who are desperate enough to enter our country through unusual means for asylum (like the Cuban boat people or Central Americans trudging through the desert) in fact should have a chance at a new life. There are no laws against crawling or swimming out of desperation onto our shores. Not everyone wanting a better life comes to our country on a jumbo jet through airport Customs.
For those of you who have never read the entire text of the poem that is emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
My purpose in penning these words is not to let people forget that we are all immigrants and owe thanks to the struggles of those who went before us--AND who come after us. In my opinion, our country is stronger for their efforts and contributions. I've lived in another country and know for certain that we have something special here.
Never forget that WE were immigrants, too.
by David Dalessandro
from Sharon, Pennsylvania
Need some guidance here, so I thought coming to my paisans at Italian Gardeners on Facebook would be a good place to go...
While pulling my tomato plants today it hit me that I was alone. My knowledge of gardening, weak as it is, came most from my Father who got his knowledge from his Father who was an immigrant to the U.S. from Foggia. My grandfather worked for Carnegie Steel in Farrell, PA as a janitor for the office. Carnegie had provided a home for him at a cost of $2.200. Company homes without a bathroom were $2,000 so Pasquale went for the better model. Companies did that in those days...this was 1925. The company then deducted so much from his pay and he had a decent house where he could walk to work.
Another thing the company did for employees was to provide garden space. Carnegie owned extra land in Wheatland, PA and the company would plow the land--at no cost to workers--and let employees claim part of it to put in their own garden. My grandfather took great advantage of that and every year would plant tomatoes, potatoes, beans and other vegetables that would help to feed his family.
It was in this garden that he taught my Father, who then taught me. So, fast forward to today, about 80 years later. I am stuck on the Teaching Thing. My children are grown and not really interested. My daughter is in El Paso, Texas and my son, still living with us, is working to become a tennis professional. Neither are much interested in gardening.
But I love it. I enjoy starting the seeds, tilling the ground, fertilizing and watching the plants grow. Because of the abundance God has provided, I also can many jars of tomato, sauce and hot peppers. Again, not because I have to, like my Grandfather had to, but because I want to. But, I am afraid that I am the last of the line. My uncles are gone. My Father is gone.
My wife humors me and lets me do my thing in the garden. It bothers me that it is likely to end here. And, I fear I am not alone. No one at work talks about a garden. No one else in the neighborhood has one. Just me.
It is a shame, I think, that the accumulated knowledge of at least three generations will end. Do any of you have the same concerns? Do you have children or grandchildren who work with you and ask questions and help pull weeds and can tomatoes and wonder why something is growing or not? Let me know...and if you have answers for this situation, I would love to hear them. Thank you so much, my paisans.
And my Thoughts...
And I totally agree with David, which is why I've asked his permission to post his words here on Grand Voyage Italy. After all, we are #AllAboutItaly here... and we're all about the Truths about our culture. I feel David is correct--too many young people today are detached from their cultural roots and have no idea where their food comes from, especially true with Italian-Americans. When one takes a Voyage around Italy, all you see is gardens--everywhere, in tiny front yards, hanging on walls, on balconies and terraces and in pot gardens surrounding people's front doors. It doesn't matter if they have lemons and pomegranates on their patio or just a pot of basil on their windowsill--it seems that everyone grows something edible.
We should all strive to teach our children the value of home grown, healthy food, like I've done for my own son, Lucas. Here's a photo of him with his tomato harvest at 4 years old...
He's 15 now and looks forward to each February when we go down into the cellar, sort out our seeds and start our heirloom seeds that we save each year from our garden. He now looks forward to the tomatoes we grow as if they are old friends... Eva Purple Ball, Olivette Juane, Giant Belgium, Jersey Devil and more. He also is learning to cook using the vegetables harvested from our garden, and even when we don't grow them ourselves, he now knows how to smack a cantaloupe, listening for the lowest pitched sound (a sign of ripeness), or check a peach's ripeness with his nose, as my Dad taught me.
Gardening is part of the Italian soul. Pass it on, people. Pass it on...
And for more on the subject of gardening...
Creating a Hanging Italian Wall Garden
Bicycles - Italian Garden Style
My New Favorite Tomato: Striped Roma
San Marzano Tomatoes: Accept No Imitations!
How the Tomato Became Part of Italian Culture
Only in Italy: Strange Veggies from La Belle Paese
To see how you can create an Italian Garden of your own,
check out the Grand Voyage Italy Shop on Amazon.
This painting, Portrait of a Young Boy Holding a Drawing by Giovanni Francesco Caroto (1480 – 1555) is perhaps one of the strangest portraits from the Renaissance period. Since carota in Italian means carrot, and the boy in the painting has "carrot-top" colored hair, many believe it's a self portrait of the artist as a boy. Others think it's a portrait of the artist's son. There are some who believe that to truly represent a child's drawing in the portrait, Carota asked a child to paint that part of the picture, which if true, would mean that it has dual authorship--Carota and an unknown child.
This is also the painting from which Dr Harry Angelman derived the now defunct name of Happy Puppet Syndrome for children (now referred to as Angelman’s syndrome). In the painting, the boy’s happy expression and the jerky movement of the puppet of which he holds a picture, reminded Angelman of the behaviors exhibited by three young patients who had the syndrome in his pediatric ward in Warrington, England. Angleman’s syndrome is a rare genetic disorder characterized by intellectual and developmental delay, sleep disturbance, seizures, jerky movements (especially hand-flapping), and frequent laughter or smiling. It affects approximately one in 20,000 children.
To add more interest to this odd painting, it was among others stolen from the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona in 2014. Little more than a year later, the paintings were recovered in in the area of Odessa, on an island of the Dniester river not far from the partially recognized state of Transnistria, just a few kilometres away from the border between Ukraine and Moldavia. According to the Ukrainian police commissioner Viktor Nazarenko, the paintings were buried wrapped in some black plastic drop cloths and hidden behind some shrubs. (Watch the discovery in the video below).
I suppose the first gift to my father, Sal, was his first two children... the "Twins", Joan and Barbara, born three days apart but healthy, nonetheless.
This was the start of my immigrant Dad's entry into fatherhood. Just when other men were being drafted into the U.S. army to fight in World War II, he suddenly was burdened not with one, but two children--this was in 1942 when twins were a mere 1% of all births. His nickname, Sally-Boy was coming to an end. Things had just gotten serious.
When he saw only one baby on that first day, the doctor casually told him, "The second one just isn't ready yet". He couldn't rest assured that everything was OK until the second was born three days later, an event that placed my mother's photo holding the two of them on the pages of New York City's Daily News. The war started and my Dad worked in a defense plant making springs for tanks.
As you can see from the photo above, my father was not only a proud father, but a rather goofy one. Always the joker... that was his first real gift to his children. John and Barbara were to be followed by Kenneth, Joyce-Ann and myself, the "baby" of the brood. Somehow, Dad provided. Before he was married, he and his brother had a "Three Legged Horse and Cart" and sold fruit and vegetables to the seamen down at Hoboken harbor. He had dreams of having his own Italian delicatessen or market someday, but he opted to have security for his family, always working for others for a steady salary. He clothed and fed us by being a grocery and deli man his entire life. This was another gift to us all.
Dad always played the fool, constantly at the ready to play a joke on us, to get us to laugh, putting us close to sheer embarrassment. At the beach he always insisted that we bury him under the sand, head exposed with his shoes stuck out 12' away from his head under a ridiculously long body of sand. Everyone passing by loved it. After a while (and his nap) we'd mockingly wind up stomping on his sandy "stomach" (safely clear of his real one) to the amusement of others around us, aside from my mother, who always made like she didn't know him.
When we were the only Italian family going to a New Jersey mountain lake previously only frequented by Germans, my father offered them meatballs, sausage and spaghetti and became the biggest clown in the middle of the lake, making his infamous sea monster growl that echoed from the mountainside. He taught us to put small, rounded stream stones into the barbecue so they would explode and scare the heck out of Mom when she was grilling burgers and hot dogs. He came up with the idea to put the watermelon in the stream to keep it cool all afternoon--which worked great except for one day when my sister and I had to run, splashing down the stream to recapture it after it got loose. These were also gifts from Dad.
Dad always took me fishing and crabbing down the abandoned docks and piers along the Hudson River. He taught me how to get past chain link fences and avoid guard houses to find the best fishing spot. I remember long, hot afternoons, the smell of fish and tar, and the pinching of the crabs we'd catch in our box crab nets. Some days we'd be there so long until the tide shifted on the Hudson... in the morning the river would be flowing out to sea, and in the afternoon it the river would actually flow upstream.
He'd also drop some bait lines from the wooden pilings using little screw-in springs with bells on them. A big "Mama eel" would latch on to a hook, the bell would ring and Dad would have dinner for him and Mom. One day we caught a big eel in the crab net and a big Jersey blue crab on the drop line. At the end of a long day, we'd head home with a bucket full of beautiful blue crabs and perhaps a few eels to fry up.
Again, more gifts from Dad.
Of course, we all bought Dad gifts for Father's Day. I remember saving the deposit money I earned from collecting empty soda bottles and buying him a bottle of shaving lotion or a pair of socks. A I got older, my gifts were many and varied: bottles of Amaretto, a fishing rod, a lop-eared rabbit, a 3 foot tall basket woven bottle of Chianti, a turquoise pocket knife, a trip to Caesar's Palace in Atlantic City, and odd assortments of power and garden tools.
But looking back, my gifts never matched the gifts he gave to me. He gave rock-solid, undeniable love and pride toward me. He gave simple, sound advice when I most needed it. He even gave me the gift of my wife and son when one day challenging me, "So, when are you going to marry that girl? You spend all your time with her anyway!"
Thanks Dad... for everything.
The cimaruta is a very old Italian portafortuna (good luck charm) rooted in the lore of the ancient Pagan religions of Italy. It can be worn around the neck or hung above an infant's bed to ward off any evil. Like many of the lasting ancient symbols and beliefs, the cimaruta design eventually took on certain symbols of Catholicism. One example of a Christian addition to the design is the appearance of "the sacred heart" of Jesus. However, ancient Roman charms did include a heart symbol, which may indicate that the heart on the cimaruta isn't an entirely new addition.
The traditional cimaruta is fashioned after the leafy sprig of rue, which is an herb that is highly featured in Italian magic and lore. The branch of the rue is divided into three stems symbolizing the three forms of the goddess Diana. Rue was a sacred herb for Diana.
Various charms appear on the rue design, each having its own meaning. The main symbols are the moon, serpent, and key. These represent the goddess as Hecate (the key), Diana (the moon) and Proserpina (the serpent). There may also be a rose; a hand holding either a wand or a sword; a flaming heart; a fish or dolphin (a nod to Diana); an owl (to flirt with the Devil); a plumed medieval helmet; a vervain blossom (a flower from Italian fairy ore); a cherub; a rooster (watchful guardian); and an eagle (able to see evil coming from far away). One cimaruta, for example, might bear the collective imagery of a key, dagger, blossom and moon. The cimaruta is worn nowadays more by women than men.
Mano in Fica
The clenched fist with a trusting thumb is known as mano in fica or simply, mano figa ("fig-hand"), or far le fiche ("c*nt gesture", pardon the profanity), for the resemblance to female genitalia. The word figa itself is a very vulgar word to describe a vagina in Italy. Such a rude hand gesture was common in past centuries, similar to "giving the finger" or "flipping the bird", but has fallen out of use. Dante's Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto XXV) mentions the mano in fica. Supposedly, this charm is used to insult the devil and others casting evil spells.
The cornetto, shaped like a horn or chili pepper, is still popular in Southern Italy around Naples, Calabria and in the rest of Mezzogiorno (southern Italy). In Calabria and Naples this charm is worn as jewelry, hung on rear view mirrors, hung in shop windows, on key rings, and on t-shirts. It is more effective if it is red (representing an enemy's blood) and topped with a crown (representing wealth). The cornetto is a symbol of virility (obvious with its phallic shape), but it also brings luck, wealth, success and can also used by women. A similar magical horn of plenty was carried by the Roman Goddess Abundantia to represent abundance, and many think the cornetto has its roots in ancient Roman times.
An alternative to the cornetto, some claim the Mano Corno can ward off the malocchio (evil eye). However, in Italy, the Mano Corno can be seen as offensive... this hand gesture is called cornuto, or a cuckolded man. Give this hand sign to an Italian man and you are basically calling him weak, pathetic and unmanly. This sign--along with sticking up a middle finger--are the most insulting signs you can insult an Italian man with. This charm directly insults the devils and his demons himself.
The Coccinella, or ladybug (ladybird) charm brings luck in the arena of love and romance. it's a very common charm in Italy, especially with women. The red color has multiple meanings... red represents victory over one's enemies (spilling their blood); red helps ward off malocchio; and red also is the color of passion and romance. Another fact about the ladybug is they eat the bad bugs who would eat a farmer's crops, so of course they came to be thought of as a sign of good luck, helping prevent crop failure.
When I was a kid, we would occasionally find a garter snake living in our small urban garden along with our collection of 15 box turtles. I always loved snakes... smooth, silky, muscular and graceful. On our country property today, I've often seen several species of snakes: garter, ribbon, black rat. The hill behind our home is called Rattlesnake Hill, but I've never seen one. I still find it interesting when I come across snakes... but I don't honor them in any way and couldn't dream of anyone holding a festival for them!
Yet, each year in the beginning of May, in the small towns of Cocullo and Villalag0, La Festa dei Serpari is held. The festival is held in honor of Saint Dominic, protector of toothache, reptile bites and rage. But the festival also has ancient pagan roots in honor of the Oscan healer and snake goddess, Angizia. Also known as Angitia to the ancient Romans, she was revered by the Marsi, a warlike tribe of people who lived to the east of Rome in the Apennine Mountains.
Angizia possessed an ability to heal those who had been poisoned--especially by snakes--and had the power to kill serpents by casting verbal spells. First century Romans knew the Marsi region contained many healers, magicians, and snake-charmers was infamous as a hotbed of witchcraft. The Festa dei Separi honors the modern-day separi (snake wranglers), with many of them catching and contributing snakes to the festivities.
In preparation for the Festival, during the last half of March, the separi spread out across the countryside in their hunt for snakes. Once captured, they are carefully stored in wooden boxes, or as in ancient times, inside terracotta containers for 15-20 days. The snakes are fed a healthy diet of live mice and hard-boiled eggs.
On the day of the festival, pilgrims gather in the church of San Domenico to be healed. After Mass, the statue of the Saint is draped with live snakes and carried into the piazza where believers gather to touch both the Saint and the snakes for their healing powers. The local separi also drape themselves with snakes and follow the procession.
In years past, the snakes were killed afterwards and eaten in a feast, but now the bread is substituted, formed into various snake shapes... interlocking rings of snakes, biting their tails, or as serpents with sliced almond scales and coffee bean eyes. The snakes are no longer killed, but released back into the wild when the festival is over.
Some other scholars argue that the festival dates back even further to the Greek hero and god, Hercules. Supposedly, jealous Hera sent two snakes to kill him in his crib. The infant Hercules was unusually strong and fearless and strangled the snakes before they could strangle him. In the nearby hamlet of Casale votive bronzes representing Hercules have been found.
Saint Domenico himself is particularly revered in Cocullo because some personal relics are kept in the church there: a molar and a horseshoe from his mule. Villalag0 also has one of his molars. There is no telling who has the rest of his teeth. Perhaps they were eaten--by snakes.