The influence of Italian Americans on the culture of the United States is significant and rightfully celebrated during the Italian American Heritage and Culture Month.
This edition pays special attention to the Italian language, starting from its title: Dante, l’italiano. 2021 marks, indeed, 700 years since the death of Dante Alighieri, AKA Il Sommo Poeta (the greatest poet).
Author of La Divina Commedia, Dante is unanimously considered as the father of the Italian language. At that time (1300 AD) Latin was considered the only worthy language to learn, while the idioms originated from Latin were called “vulgar” since they were used by il volgo (common people).
Dante wrote La Commedia in the dialect from his area – il fiorentino, from Florence –lifting it up to a literary language, the language that today we call l’italiano. He also invented around 2,000 words, the so-called dantismi, and at least 260 of them are commonly used even today.
Immigration stories: From rags-to-riches, at least for some
Language was one of the barriers newly Americans had to face when arriving in their new world, especially during the greatest wave of immigration from Italy to the US (1880-1914), where immigrants were mainly extremely poor, and with little to no education.
The first generation of immigrants had to endure brutal socioeconomic conditions, but many eventually succeeded and one of the most celebrated happy-ending stories is probably Sinatra’s one.
Frank Sinatra, one of the greatest artists from the 1900s, was born from Italian immigrants in 1915.
His father emigrated from Sicily and settled in New Jersey, made ends meet with several odd jobs (and faking an Irish name for boxing, since Italians were not allowed on the ring), and eventually found a job as a firefighter.
In the meanwhile, he and his wife opened a bar, where the young Frank started to sing… and the rest is history.
Italian Americans in movies and filmmaking
Another rags-to-riches story involves another Frank, Capra this time. Capra has been defined as the “American Dream personified”, and for good reasons.
Born in Sicily, the youngest of 7 children, he emigrated with his family at age 5. Pushed by his family, he made it through college, served in the US Army, had a few turbulent years struggling with unemployment and depression, and finally entered Hollywood thanks to his boldness.
His career progressed quickly, and he became one of the most influential Hollywood film-makers of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Capra is followed by a long list of Italian American film directors: their success, and influence over the filmmaking and the culture at large, has been and still is extremely relevant: Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola – and now his daughter, Sofia, just to name a few.
As for the Italian Americans portrayed in the movies, at first, they were mostly immigrants, but from the 1930s the gangster character took over: Italian Americans were inevitably related to the organized crime.
The new generation of filmmakers of Italian descent seems to be looking for other topics.
Quentin Tarantino, probably the most celebrated one, found an original link to his ancestry drawing inspiration from one of his legends: Sergio Leone and his incomparable spaghetti western.
By Claudia Quesito
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