The Sublime and the Odious: On Joseph Luzzi’s My Two Italies

August 13, 2014 | 2 books mentioned 1 5 min read


Joseph Luzzi’s memoir begins with the slaughter of his pet rabbit:

I don’t know what it took — my mother’s usual two brisk whacks with a stick to the back of the skull or my father’s preferred twist of the neck in his thick fingers — but by five p.m. my pet had become an entrée. I came into the kitchen to find him splayed out, his glycerine blue eyes lifeless and coated in oil, over a bed of roasted potatoes.

The rabbit, an Easter present intended for the table, had never really been a pet, but to a young Joseph Luzzi, the bunny’s demise was just another example of the way his Italian immigrant parents were out of place in their suburban Rhode Island surroundings. While the parents of Luzzi’s friends bought frozen and pre-prepared foods from the grocery store, his parents grew their own vegetables in their backyard, where they also raised chickens, pigeons, rabbits, and a goat. They preserved much of their harvest, too: “from tomatoes and beans to peaches and pears in rows of mason jars that filled the cellar alongside the hanging shanks of prosciutto and soppressata.”

Today, the Luzzi basement would be the pride of any urban homesteader, but in the 1970s, it was something Luzzi wanted to hide: “As a kid, I had scorned all that homemade freshness, desperate for the packaged and processed, the fructose and trans fat that would help me fit in.” It was only as an adult that he realized that his parents were producing “boutique food at a bargain rate.” Now, Luzzi emulates his father’s thrift, using leftover vegetables to make ribolitta, a peasant stew. It’s a dish that his father never made or even knew, because he was from southern Italy, and ribolitta is from Tuscany, a northern region. Luzzi’s embrace of the dish is one of the many ways he has learned to marry his “Two Italies” — the rustic southern traditions he grew up with and the cultured, northern traditions he studied in graduate school and now teaches as a professor and critic.

My Two Italies is a hybrid memoir, both a recollection of personal experience and growth and a scholarly look at the long-standing divide between Italy’s north and south — the north characterized by wealth and culture, and the south by poverty and crime. For Luzzi, the divide is personally felt. As the child of parents from the Calabria region of Italy, his blood is rooted in the south, but as a scholar of Italian culture, his intellect is drawn to the north. There is also an important linguistic divide between north and south, which is complicated, but boils down to the fact that a northern dialect, Tuscan, was designated “Italian” even though, at the time of Italy’s unification in 1861, a majority of Italians spoke a variety of other dialects. These other dialects flourished well into the 20th century, and put Luzzi in the peculiar position of speaking “better” Italian than his parents, whose southern Calabrian dialect was at odds with the literary Italian he learned in school. Luzzi’s parents ended up speaking their own peculiar mix of Calabrian and Amrican English, resulting in words like uascina mascina for “washing machine,” ʼnu carru for “a car,” and u porciu for “the porch.” It was a language so unique that Luzzi had trouble remembering it after his father’s death:

After he died, I heard my father’s voice but I couldn’t fill it with words. When I forced him to speak to me in English, it sounded pedantic and prissy. His Italian, though, was no less stilted, either when I tried to revive my Calabrian or when I used the textbook grammar that was unnatural to both of us. I had so much to say but no way to say it, a reflection of our relationship during his lifetime. Without his words I lost a way of describing a world.

Luzzi’s memoir is in part a tribute to his parents. His father was a war hero who survived capture by the Nazis; his mother immigrated to the U.S. alone in order to gain citizenship for her husband and four children, and to escape the crushing poverty of Calabria. The youngest of five children, Luzzi is the only one of his siblings born in America. His decision to study Italian came out of a desire to understand where his parents and siblings had come from. At the same time, Luzzi wanted to suppress his southern heritage and to remake himself as a wealthy, cultured northern Italian. As an undergrad studying abroad for the first time, he chooses Florence, the city of Dante and Botticelli: “Florence, I believed, would enable me to upgrade from my parents’ Calabria to a calzone-free Italian lineage.”

My Two Italies helped to complicate my view of Italy. I know Italy as a tourist, and many years ago, as an undergrad studying abroad in Rome. I fell in love with the country for its beauty, as everyone does, and knew of its crimes mainly through movies and TV shows. I never bothered to ask why Italy was beautiful or corrupt, or how those two qualities might be linked. I also never peered too deeply into Italy’s contemporary history, preferring, instead, to dwell on the glories of ancient Rome and the masterpieces of the Renaissance.

Luzzi addresses these common blind spots, delving into Italy’s contemporary problems, which include economic stagnation, a low birth rate, “brain drain,” and a level of corruption second only to Greece. In a chapter on the career of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s staggeringly sleazy Prime Minister, Luzzi looks to a 19th-century poet and philospher, Giacomo Leopardi, to explain Berlusconi’s success:

Leopardi wrote that Italy’s fundamental problem was a lack of “society”: it had no sense of national community to unite its people, no public sphere that regulated conduct and taste and gave rise to sentiments of honor and shame…In Leopardi’s view, this resistance to collective thinking made Italians the most cynical of peoples…

coverLuzzi sees this cynicism in modern Italian voters, who “stood by idly as Berlusconi wreaked political havoc.” Luzzi also attributes Berlusconi’s rise to the very spectacle of his excess: “With his face-lifts, seaside villas, Marinella ties, sprawling estates, and near-naked showgirls, Berlusconi embodies the Italian love of surfaces.” Again, turning to literature, Luzzi quotes froma classic Italian novel, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, in which the title character observes that Italy’s great beauty is derived from “the squalor and filth of the streets around.” That is, the extravagance that we associate with la dolce vita comes at a price. Interpreting Lampedusa, Luzzi writes, “you cannot have a nation obsessed with beautiful forms without the devotion to seductive appearances devoid of moral substance.” Finally, Luzzi quotes the English poet Percy Bysse Shelley, who observed that there are “two Italies”, one “sublime” and the other “odious.”

In a discussion of the untranslatable Italian phrase, bella figura — literally, ‘beautiful figure,’ but better understood as a theatrical gesture, a “beautiful act’ — Luzzi evokes the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in shallow waters, a disaster that was the result of the captain wanting to show off his ship and sailing too close to a small island. It was a theatrical gesture gone terribly wrong. Photographs of the half-submerged ship captured the world’s imagination: it was somehow both sublime and odious. The Italian filmmaker, Paolo Sorrentino, used the image to great effect in his Academy Award-winning film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). In his film, Sorrentino’s protagonist, Jep Gambardella, a washed-up writer who nevertheless lives in great style and comfort, visits the wreck. From a nearby cliff, he gazes down at the ship as if looking at his own wrecked life in need of salvage. Or, maybe it is Italy that Sorrentino’s Gambardella sees: a beautiful country run aground.

Luzzi closes his memoir with an image of his daughter, climbing the steps of Santa Croce in Florence. As eager as he is to show her the beauties of his adopted city, Luzzi is aware that she will always see Italy in a nostalgic way, that she will never understand the immigrant struggles of her grandparents, or even her own father’s struggle to reconcile his multiple heritages: “Free from the reservoirs of la miseria I had inherited from my parents, my daughter would likely stare one day at black-and-white photographs of a lost Calabrian world and wonder how on earth she was related to it.”

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and Read more at or sign up for her newsletter here.

One comment:

  1. Currently I’m reading Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped in Eboli, a jolting account of Italy, first for the Fascist government that sent Levi into exile in the south but also for the south itself, so different from the north in the 1930s. I would love to read Luzzi’s book as it sounds similar in a way—so thanks for this!

    On another note, I have been living in Italy for 7 years now and have certainly had time to let the dolce vita glasses wear down. Yet I didn’t realize how much I had still believed in Italy as a care-free country until my husband was arrested on false charges after taking a photograph of police in front of the Colosseum a few weeks ago. Corruption like this exists everywhere, but maybe it’s the contrast of being here among these beautiful ruins and palazzi that makes it feel more ugly.

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