di EMANUELE PETTENER
Christine Palamidessi is a Boston-based sculptor and printmaker, an artist whose works have been exhibited and collected around the world. She is also a writer. Palamidessi taught Creative Writing for 13 years at Boston University and has authored two novels, The Virgin Knows (St. Martin’s Press 1995/Gate Press 2007) and The Fiddle Case (Gate Press 2008); she co-edited American Women, Italian Style (Fordham Press 2010) and has been the fiction editor of the academic journal Italian Americana for over a decade. Her debt to Italy is not only in her last name: she studied cartapesta and mask-making techniques in Venice, Rome, and Lecce, and in 2020 she produced Bridge of Love. Bridge of Love is a gem of a book–a small and beautiful object of art. The book contains pictures, collages, photographs, and old letters (between Pia and Angiolino, the author’s grandparents who emigrated from rural Tuscany to United States in 1920). It’s a story of immigration and a very adventurous love story between two strong, determined, and poetic human beings (and like all the true love stories, there were many obstacles, families included).
Christine, you gathered the letters from1919-1920 that Pia and Angiolino wrote to each other when they were still separated by an ocean, craving to be reunited and to get married. You began to develop a book that is not only a book but also a social history, with art, documents and generational impact. It took a long time and I suppose it was not easy. Could you tell us the steps of this project, how it was born, the most difficult aspects and the most satisfying ones?
My Aunt Orestina, Pia’s eldest child, mailed me a packet of letters back in 1999, a few years after I had published my first novel. I remember opening the big padded envelope and experiencing a vague childhood memory having seen the letters, but recognizing a stronger memory of the grey box in which my grandmother had stored them.
Handling those letters…well, I was flabbergasted and somewhat overwhelmed with the possible messages inside and, maybe, the ancestral dust and duty they contained. Each thin-as-onion skin 18 x 22 cm letter was scrolled with brown fountain pen ink and bore the crease of having been folded in half, like a booklet, and then folded in half again; they were beautiful, distinct, touchable vessels of words that embodied a precise moment in time in the life of my spunky grandmother and her first love, the grandfather I never knew.
I couldn’t read the letters. The handwriting came from a different era and my Italian language skills were rusty, but I knew the letters were important. Important not only because my grandmother had chosen to keep the love letters for 58 years, and my aunt had kept them for 20 years, and that all my cousins and their children would want to know about them but also because I am a storyteller. I had a hunch my Aunt Orestina had forwarded a good story to me. So, the packet of letters became inspiration. They also carried responsibility–artistic, familial, historical, social and to the larger community that studies immigration and the history of immigrant women.
Fueled by excitement, a year later the letters made their ‘coming-out’ party at the Boston Immigration Museum on Milk Street. I presented the letters, an outline of the young Tuscan lovers’ story, and a multi-media slide-show that contained images of the letters interacting with collages of art that had been created by World War I era Italian artists–de Chirico, Boccioni, Carra, Severini, Modigliani. After that initial exhibition, I worked on other unrelated projects, bringing the letters out of a box every year or two, piecing together details of my grandparents love story.
For sure, the most difficult step in creating the book Bridge of Love was translating the letters. During the next 18 years, translators crossed my path now and then–an Italian-born friend from California; very, very busy Italian academics from Verona who had the desire but didn’t have the extra time needed to do the work; a Boston guy who was studying Italian and who thought the project would be a breeze. Each interpreted one or two letters, but a complete translation of the Tuscan Italian was bigger and more difficult than everyone first thought it would be.
Then, in 2018, I visited an artist friend, Roberta Sutherland, in Victoria, British Colombia. (BTW I met the Roberta in Puglia.) One afternoon Roberta and I went swimming and afterwards sat in a sauna. A third woman entered the sauna and seated herself next to me. We chatted. I noticed her Italian accent. Her name was also Roberta, and she was an Italian anthropologist who had recently married a Canadian man whom she had met on a dig in Africa. Considering her citizenship and marital status, she could not work in Canada for two years but, “Yes,” she said, she could translate my grandmother’s love letters. Her last name was ‘Romeo.’ She did a wonderful job.
It was extremely satisfying, and even magical, to bump into Roberta Romeo. We were naked, vulnerable and sweaty and lived on opposite sides of North America; each of us had something to give to each other, at the perfectly right time. Our encounter captured the randomness, wildness and improbable yet possible miracles that come to us through life and love.
Finding the translator was very much like my grandparents meeting each other. If they had not decided to go to a Friday night dance near the main piazza of Chiesina Uzzanese, a small Tuscan village, in September 1919 they would not have fallen in love, I would not have been born and would not be here doing this interview with you. This is exactly the feeling that readers of Bridge of Love will appreciate: all the random gates and portals our ancestors and we pass through in order to fabricate and continue life.
What impressed me is how from these letters Pia’s and Angiolino’s personalities emerge in a vivid and clear way. They are different, but both truly intelligent, and gifted with sense of humor. What did strike you or surprise you about these letters and specifically about Pia (whom you had the opportunity to know well) and Angiolino (whom you never met)?
Well…this is what I whispered to my cousin Dan at a family gathering in Pennsylvania in 2019, when I was managing the organization of the letters for Bridge of Love: “I think our grandmother and grandfather probably had pre-marital sex.”
We might like to think that our Italian Catholic ancestors lived in a sepia-toned era and that they might have been less tempted by pleasures of the flesh than we were when we were 18. After all, in Chiesina Uzzanese in 1919 there was no internet and no racy newsstand magazines; no birth control; sexual encounters, we might assume, were very serious acts. Did rural families watch over their daughters? I know, from the letters, that my grandmother was very close to her family and that they were very possessive and wanted her to be happy but not move to America and marry Angiolino. We know from photos, too, that the rural men and women in 1919 showed much less flesh, publicly, after haven gotten dressed in the morning–in fact their clothing seemed not to be at all seductive; for sure not compared to what teens are wearing a century later.
I never met my grandfather. I did meet his friends–Tuscan men who immigrated to the States at about the same time. Most, like Angiolino, we’re World War One veterans. They repeatedly told me about his sharp blue eyes and his championship bocce skills. No one could beat him. Everyone mentioned his love for reading and literature. My Aunt Orestina remembered the plays he would put on, pretending he was other people.
We can consider that my grandparent’s eighth-grade rural Tuscan education was formidable. Their letters reveal a tremendous ability to flirt, to express vulnerability and request each other’s trust and goodwill, to philosophize, to bestow and receive, and to resolve conflicts with sophistication.
The sense of life quests and their importance, with which these two young lovers express in their letters, touched my heart deeply and, from reader feedback, others have been touched as well.
Another observation about language. Expressions of love said in Italian and those same literal translations said in English are very different. Italian is a Romance language, for sure.
No one can sing the same words in English as Andrea Bocelli sings in Italian. Italian opera, in English, does not feel sexy and romantic in direct translation, but perhaps ‘overwrought’ and ‘overdramatic’ and even ‘corny.’
One evening I followed an out-loud reading of Angiolino’s love letters to Pia to my husband with a question. “Why don’t American men say these sweet things to their wives and lovers: ‘Your sweet dark eyes follow me in my dreams every night’ and ‘You are the one I will love and I cannot wait to make you mine and hold you in my arms forever’ and ‘I send you a million kisses and a million more’.”
We know, thanks to the letters, their journey as “promessi sposi”, culminates in marriage; their wedding occurring the same day Pia arrives in New York City (December 21, 1920). At the end of the book you tell us something about what happens after, but since we can actually read this book as a novella, I don’t want to spoil the ending. Yet, I’d like to ask you: how was America for Pia and Angiolino? Did your nonna Pia tell you if they suffered any prejudice? What kind of feeling did they have for their native land?
Thank you Ema for not spoiling the ending!
My grandmother called Italy “the Old Country” and I believe she really did think of it as ‘old’ and that her ‘new’ life was with her children, family, property, and a flourishing economy and opportunity. When Mussolini came to power, my grandparents lost all interest in returning to Italy. Then, after the Second World War Italy did not recover quickly. During that time Pia was corresponding with her sister, Dina, and brothers and realized they were economically moving more slowly than Americans.
As far as prejudice, it is a very interesting question. We were all raised thinking everyone wanted to be Italian; that being Italian was as good as or better than being Polish or English or Jewish or whatever you could be because Italians lived life with gusto and refinement; and Italians tended to be very good looking. This is a weirdly similar version of a concept related to me by my Jewish therapist, who grew up in Massachusetts. He once said: “People come to therapy to be more Italian.” I really haven’t figured out the dynamics of that statement…but I’m putting it out there! Maybe he said this to make me feel good…or would he have rather grown up an Italian? (I think the later.)
When and where I grew up–in Western Pennsylvania during the late 50s and 60s–we were proud and happy to be Italians. We didn’t use the word combo ‘Italian-American.’ We were Americans who were also Italians. You see, I don’t come from a spoiled or privileged background. My grandparents and their ancestors did not sit on sofas and eat bonbons. When the going got rough, they worked. They worked to create stable lifestyles, homes and families and leisure time to hunt, sing, play music, and laugh together. We were happy to be Italians, and so am I, even when I am in Italy and am considered to be ‘straniera.’
My grandmother had a great sense of style. She subscribed to an Italian fashion magazine, Arianna, and made us clothes. Presenting a bella figura and being well-groomed was important–at least up until the late 60s when, after that, everything in American society began loosening and unravelling in many directions.
Do you consider yourself an Italian American – and, if so – what does it mean, today, being an Italian American?
I have an Italian last name and when I call Alitalia no one ever mispronounces it or stumbles over the syllabication. That feels so good!
As far as my ethnic identity? It’s the same as when I was growing up. I consider myself an American who is also an Italian. I’ve participated in Italian-America events…and that sometimes feels okay and sometimes not. It depends on the sponsoring organization.
I have dual citizenship, which was hugely difficult to accomplish. Each immigration and naturalization document in my possession misspelled my grandparents’ names and even on Aldo, my father’s, birth certificate there was a misspelled name.
As an artist, as an intellectual, as a woman, what is the most important contribution to your personality that Italy has transmitted to you? And what – if there is something – you reject, or simply don’t like, about your Italian roots?
In the United States there are more advanced degree professional Italian American women—doctors, lawyers, accountants, writers, therapists, professors, artists, MBAs, politicians—than any other female ethnic group in the United States. I stand with these women and the long tradition of hard-working, goal accomplishing, no-nonsense Italian women who have stayed in Italy or find themselves born elsewhere: it is in our blood to roll up our sleeves and survive hard-times and keep on going-on. That’s how my grandmother Pia lived.
Adding to that applause for Italian-American women…I have read stats indicating that Italian women in Italy work more hours per day than any other women in the world. More than the Afghan woman. More than women in India or China. Yes, Italian women work in the home and they work outside the home–and they are expected take care of the family and domestic chores in such a way so that the men in their families do not feel ‘feminin-ized.’
What do I not like about my Italian roots? The Italian male privilege thing often fluffs me the wrong way. Of course, the Italian version of male privilege may or may not be similar to ethnic male privilege practices in other ethnic groups but I have not participated in the other systems as a daughter, cousin, lover, niece, wife, etc.
On the cover: illustration by Massimo Carulli
You can read it in italian by clicking here