“Of course, Shakespeare was Sicilian…”

13 12 2009

The Adventures of a Shakespearean in the Mediterranean

I hear it all the time: “Ah, you study Shakespeare and Italy? Well, then you know Shakespeare was Sicilian.” Others are more cautious: “my daughter’s teacher said Shakespeare was Sicilian, what do you think?” By now, the Sicilian authorship theory has been the subject of a documentary on RAI Due and, given the notorious power of television over the Italian mind, the frequency with which I encounter it should not be surprising. Its proponents claim young Sicilian nobleman Michelangelo Crollalanza (Italian for shake spear) emigrated from Messina, found his way into the emerging Elizabethan theatre, and secured an English outlet for his writing by marrying a brilliant translator by the name of Anne Hathaway. What makes it awkward for me is the palpable desire for this story to be true.

There’s no question that Shakespeare was aware of Sicily: Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale take place on the island. This does not mean, however, that the world’s most famous dramatist was a native of Messina, the setting for the romantic games of Beatrice and Benedick, anymore than the locale of Hamlet alludes to his Danish origins. What comes to the fore in Shakespeare’s Italianate plays, as I discuss in my new book Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: Intertextuality on the Jacobean Stage, is the reproduction and elaboration of textual material from previous books. Just like most of his contemporaries, who enjoyed the novelle of Boccaccio and worried about the power politics of Machiavelli, Shakespeare was a voracious consumer of Italian books and English books about Italy. In many ways, the importance of Italy in every aspect of early modern English culture reflects the provincialism of that island, watching the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance from afar.

As seen on RAI Due:

 





And now a word from our (confused) sponsor…

1 11 2009

1970s US Ad for the Alfa Romero [sic]

“Here’s a Man’s Car”

The beautiful thing is not only that the car’s name is mispronounced every time, but the voiceover gets it wrong even when the screen shows the Alfa Romeo badge. The near front-end collision in the finale also adds a touch of style.





Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: the new book

24 07 2009

Available from Ashgate in August,

just in time for your/my beach reading

Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy

Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy

They say that writing is a journey, not a destination, but everything has to come to an end. It’s an unique experience to be able to enjoy the pleasures of a Sicilian summer without the preoccupations of a book in progress. I have climbed temples, splashed in the Mediterranean, and ate an (over-)abundance of the local cucina, free from any guilt about neglecting text or family.

By now the picture of the cover has appeared on Ashgate’s website, along with the table of contents, index, and an extract from the introduction. All we need is the book itself.

In a shameless plug, here is the blurb from the inside cover of the volume:

 The use of Italian culture in the Jacobean theatre was never an isolated gesture. In considering the ideological repercussions of references to Italy in prominent works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Michael J. Redmond argues that early modern intertextuality was a dynamic process of allusion, quotation, and revision. Beyond any individual narrative source, Redmond foregrounds the fundamental role of Italian textual precedents in the staging of domestic anxieties about state crisis, nationalism, and court intrigue.

By focusing on the self-conscious, overt rehearsal of existing texts and genres, the book offers a new approach to the intertextual strategies of early modern English political drama. The pervasive circulation of Cinquecento political theorists like Machiavelli, Castiglione, and Guicciardini combined with recurrent English representations of Italy to ensure that the negotiation with previous writing formed an integral part of the dramatic agendas of period plays.





Cycling Deaths in Italy

11 05 2009

One fatality a day, according to latest statistics

I’d like to say the news is a surprise, but it isn’t.

The newspaper La Repubblica reports this morning that the risk of death for Italian cyclists is 2.18%, higher even than the 1.96% attributed to the notoriously foolhardy category of the nation’s scooter and motorcycle users.

Dont worry about the colour, just get one.

Don't worry about the colour, just get one.

I have had my own death defying experiences, such as when a motorist tried to drive through me in front of my house. I could recount lots of anecdotes about pointlessly dangerous maneuvers, serving only to feed the fragile ego of the driver of a second hand Mercedes or BMW, but the basic problem is that cars go too fast here.





Obsolete Products, Up to date Prices

8 05 2009

 

Be careful with those sharp curves
Be careful with those sharp curves

In Italy, shopkeepers still hope to sell you a Betamax at a profit

One of the most surreal sights I’ve seen in Italy was a girl feeding a boy lasagna with a fork from the back of the Vespa he was driving. Yet weird Vespa experiences are not all that unusual here: I’ve seen a three wheeled Vespa pickup (the in-famous Ape) flip over at an intersection under the weight of a load of boxes piled more than three times its height. Yesterday I followed a red Vespa through crowded cobblestone streets, amazed at the driver’s ability to control his scooter while carrying a large gate for a picket fence. Alas, the suicidal maneuvers of helmetless teenagers upon speeding two wheelers have long lost their novelty value.

Another surreal but common sight in Italy is the obsolete product at an absurd price in the front window of a Mom and Pop shop. The absurdity comes not just from the fact that the shopkeepers continue to proudly display a slide projector to passersby, as in the case of a photo shop I marvel at every morning, but that they persist in attaching a widely optimistic price tag to something which by now has little, if any, value. Indeed, unable to shift traditional cameras in the wake of the digital revolution, photo shops are a prime example of this extortionate optimism. The hope seems to be that some gullible antiquarian will pop in and make up for their years of patience.

I had a keen insight into to the logic of the Italian shopkeeper upon visiting a negozio di casalinghi(housewares store) which was filled with decades old products. My wife, an enthusiast of Italian designer housewares like Alessi and Guzzini, was stunned to see products she remembered from her childhood. “It looks like a museum of the 1980s”, she whispered as she picked up a faded box containing an old Guzzini breadbox, “my mother threw this away years ago”. The products were so old that none of them were made in China. The toy section was even more historic. As a Canadian I was amazed to see a ye olde knockoff tabletop hockey game in the Italian provinces. If it had been a Coleco model, rather than an unknown brand, I might have even paid the €30 price. For girls, the selection was even better, they had a complete set of louche Barbie furniture from the late 70s and an aged Barbie Ferrari for only around €30. The box of the car was battered and it was clear the price had been “adjusted” several times. If it had cost €30 (60,000 lire) in 1980, the price would have amounted to about a fifth of the average monthly wage. The owner’s prompt refusal of our request for a discount as we left confirmed our hypothesis. “These are classic products”, she said, “we do not know their real value anymore”.

Solo €950!
Solo €950!

The concept of opportunity cost does not seem to guide Italian shopkeepers, who prefer to adjust the prices of aging merchandise for inflation rather than reduce their losses by moving it out. My all time favourite example is the electronics store that filled its display window with a collection of first generation video recorders priced to stay there for another 25 years. It looked like a joke: a stack of historic VCRs like the Sony Betamax for prices close to €1,000! Sure they may have cost that in the 1970s, as early adopters paid a premium to get the latest technology, but it seems unrealistic to maintain such prices in the new millennium. The VCR history remained in the window for about a year – I like to think a collector found his treasure trove and, in the process, allowed the shop to bring in new products like the Commodore 64 personal computer. 





Our Week of Culture: McDonalds and Shopping Malls

30 04 2009

 

McItaly

McItaly

Ever since we took our young daughter to North America last summer, she has come to associate long car trips with two things: shopping malls and McDonalds.At this point, of course, your typical European culture snob would start to talk about barren lands devoid of history and culture. Everyone over here, from any part of the old continent, is always prepared to pontificate on how much more sophisticated Europeans (ie. the speaker) are than Americans and Canadians (ie. me). What a surprise then, as we took advantage of last week’s Italian Culture Week, to discover that even Southern Italy was now dominated by megamalls and the wondrous cuisine found under the golden arches.

On the two weekends with free admission to museums and archeological sites, our visit to  the ancient monuments was punctuated by the discovery of how much globalisation and big box stores had entered into the Italian mainstream.In both the ancient cities of Agrigento and Syracuse, famed for their archaeological treasures, the main focus of interest among the locals was faux North American shopping and fast food. In Agrigento, the McDonald’s in Villaggio Mosé was filled with small children inside and would-be Fast and Furious types outside, showing off their souped up Fiat Puntos. The real glamour, however, came from the new megamall Le Vigne which opened outside the city at the end of last year.

Dress up to shop

Dress up to shop

When we looked in on Sunday, the place was packed – making forward movement and, indeed, shopping almost impossible. It seemed as though the entire traditional Sunday evening stroll (la passeggiata) had transferred indoors. Not only was everyone who anyone in the province of Agrigento there, but everyone was wearing their best clothes. Since an Italian’s best clothes are always something special, it was surreal to see such glitz and glamour amidst the aisles of a supermarket.

The temples were much more peaceful. We were the only ones speaking Italian.





Settimana della Cultura 2009

22 03 2009

 

Che risparmio!

Che risparmio!

After all the confusion surrounding the Italian week of culture last year, when it appeared in March without any prior warning, it looks like things are a bit clearer for 2009. According to the official site of the Italian cultural ministry, the XI Settimana della cultura will take place from April 18 to 26.

Spring is the best time of the year to travel around the peninsula and, given the high cost of admission to public museums and monuments, it is the only opportunity to sight see extensively in a large group without breaking the bank. Instead of paying €6 to 8 each to see one site, we can cover all of the beni culturali (”cultural assets” in official translator English) in an area in one fell swoop. Consistent with the much lamented exponential increases in the cost of living here, the main topic of discussion in both the national media and anxious personal conversations, many culturally minded families have started to plan their vacations around the initiative.





Hardware shop theatre

18 02 2009

Home of the teatro stabile di ferramenta

Home of the teatro stabile di ferramenta

Or, how buying a door latch in Italy becomes a public spectacle when you’re foreign

 

 

 

One of the things I’ve realized after a number of years in Italy is that I have no anonymity. Even when I lived in the big city I was the object of the curiosity of apartment porters, local shopkeepers, and neighbours. They may not have responded to my greetings but they knew (or tried to know) everything about me. Now that we live in a small village, I have acquired a certain amount of local celebrity.

The extent of my visibility became clear when I made my first visit to the nearby negozio di ferramenta (hardware shop). On orders to purchase a new door latch mechanism, I entered stage right on to the set of a comedy:

Foreign man enters holding an antiquated door latch.

Foreigner: I need a replacement for this.

Hardware man turns to crowd of onlookers sitting around the counter, all grateful for a bit of excitement.

Hardware man (in dialect): This is the man from Canada who lives on the next street over. Ha, ha, ha!

Pause.

Hardware man (In standard Italian, very slowly and loudly as if talking to an obtuse small child): Meester – Meester – Meeesteer! THIS – IS – A – VERY – OLD – DOOR – LATCH – YOU – NEED – A – NEW – ONE! [In English] Veeeree Olde!

Chorus: heee, heee, heee. It’s old. It’s old. Poor guy has an old door latch.

Foreigner: Yes, I know. That’s why I’m here.

Hardware man (in dialect): He must want a new one. Poor guy!

Chorus: heee, heee, heee. He wants a new one. Poor guy.

Hardware man (In standard Italian, very slowly and loudly as if talking to an obtuse small child): They – Don’t – Make – These – Anymore – Meester! You – need – a – different – one!

Chorus: heee, heee, heee.

Hardware man rummages about storeroom and comes up with one exactly the same but with a slightly different latch shape.

Hardware man (triumphantly): This – is – a – NEW – ONE! They- Don’t – have – these – in – Hollywood – Meester!

Chorus: heee, heee, heee.





“Who’s been drinking my cappuccino?”

14 01 2009
goldilocks and the three coffee drinkers

goldilocks and the three coffee drinkers

Goldilocks and the Three Bears for Italian students of English

English may be a world language but that does not mean that everyone understands it. In Italy, there is a local version of the language which has little to do with the original. You can find psuedo-English words like “footing” (a substitute for jogging) and “transfert” (a taxi or bus ride from the airport). There are also many recycled expressions which have taken on different meanings here, such as “fashion victim” for very stylish people, “ticket” for hospital user fees, “mobbing” for workplace harassment, and – my favourite – “pullman” for intercity buses.

Even the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is not immune. My 3 year old daughter has a locally produced version of the tale in English and there are significant differences with the tale we know and love. Many of the memorable phrases such as “Who’s been sitting in my chair?” are gone, replaced by expressions like “I’m sure there is somebody else here”. However, the most startling change is the total absence of porridge from the volume. Instead, like all Italians, these 3 bears enjoy a hot (but not too hot) cappuccino in the morning. Mamma Bear even has the typical shiny aluminum moka caffeteria.

There are fewer changes in the tale of the Three Little Pigs, since the construction techniques of the first two is similar to that used by local apartment developers.





Water – A precious resource in Southern Italy

4 01 2009

What do people do when water is scarce? They spend, spend, spend…

and meet lots of friendly plumbers.

Blue water tanks - an essential part of your home

Blue water tanks - an essential part of your Italian home

Everyone talks about how precious water is but, unless you’ve had to do without it, you don’t appreciate its significance. There’s nothing worse than having the taps run dry and not knowing when you will be able to flush the toilet, take a shower, wash the dishes, or even make a cup of tea again.

What I did over my Christmas holidays, or my brief visit to Gela

The province of Caltanissetta is not known for its plentiful choice of radio stations. On my infrequent trips to the area, most of my driving time has been spent listening to the broadcast recital of the rosary on the entertainment challenged frequencies of Radio Maria. I was pleased therefore to find more upbeat sounds as we passed through the petrochemical centre of Gela. Alas, taking advantage of the lack of competition, almost the entire output of the local radio station was devoted to annoying commercials for the standbys of Italian Christmas life: high fashion clothes and food. However, there was one business model that stood out from the more predictable concerns: private water suppliers. It seems as though there is a serious water crisis in Gela. A local news site is reporting that the erogation of water supplies has been blocked. In that case, as the advertising pointed out, the only possibility to get water is to pay for a tanker truck to come to your house and fill up the blue tank on your roof.

Dry, dry, dry

I know what they’re going through in Gela. During the first few years I lived in Palermo, there was a serious water shortage. The water would come at irregular intervals, at best providing the essential liquid two or three times a week. In such cases, you need to take care to preserve every drop of water when it does come. This meant that I ended up spending big money in the apartment I was renting for a water tank (placed over my hallway), a water pump at ground level (because the water pressure was so low it didn’t make it up to the 6th floor when it did come), and an autoclave to pump the water from my tank to the taps in the kitchen and bathroom. This was not a cost efficient solution. One pump or another constantly broke down – so that either the apartment was flooded with water or I missed the bi-weekly supply. Nonetheless, things have gotten better in recent years and we listened to the news from Gela with a certain amount of nostalgia.

Then we ran out of water yesterday afternoon.

A dry Saturday

It was our fault. We had become complacent. It was almost like living in Canada. As long we ran the pump a couple of times a week, we had all the water we wanted. However, we forgot to fill up the tank after we got back from our trip to Ragusa.

First the water started to spurt as we did the dishes, then the autoclave started to make knocking sounds, then the taps went dry. I ran to start up the pump to get more water – but, at the moment, our village does not supply water on Saturdays. We had to wait until Sunday morning.

Flushing your toilets with bottled mineral water is not a satisfactory solution.