It seems impossible to talk about the Italian or Italian-American image in pop culture without evoking one stereotype or another. You’ve got the mobster; the sweet, short, and round Italian mother cooking with her black, wiry hair tied up in a bun; the grocer or cook with the big white apron (perhaps splattered with tomato sauce); the gondolier; the cop or detective; and, finally, the old-world contadini and contadine, dirty from working outside all day. These are some of the images that have been propagated by the media. Granted, some of them are central to—or at least a part of—our greatest and favorite stories (I wonder how many times I can mention The Godfather in my articles for La Voce). However, like all stereotypes, these images that we consume are not particularly capable of representing the whole picture of what it means to be Italian or Italian-American; there is no nuance, no room for negotiation.
So what else is there to see? Who establishes these images? Are the 2-D portrayals of Italians really the only ones that could resonate with other ethnicities and nationalities, specifically Americans? On Friday, April 26th and Saturday, April 27th, the CUNY’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute held their annual international conference, with this year’s theme being Eye-Centricity and the Visual Cultures of Italy and Its Diaspora, to explore and attempt to answer these questions. More precisely, “this interdisciplinary conference proposes to explore the visual cultures Italians have created, consumed, and been the subject of from early modernity to the contemporary ‘post-text’ era,” according to the Calandra Institute’s summary page. As it turns out, there are many more sides to the stereotyping story than what you might think of off the top of your head.
Of course, in exploring the images that have been evocative of Italy for decades, the Renaissance, with all its art and poetry, could not be ignored. Neither could the very specific imagery of the Italian woman (of the Middle Ages, turn of the century, and modernity). During the “Depictions on Canvas” section of the program, Prof. JoAnn Delmonico Luhrs of Brooklyn College, CUNY broke down representations of women in paintings for her presentation entitled “The Male Gaze and Women’s Portraits in Renaissance Italy.” In these portraits, the specific stereotypes enumerated above were absent, but there were plenty of ‘Madonna and Child’ depictions or motifs. Not to mention the portrayal of Italian women as pretty objects to look at (and nothing more).
A quick glance at contemporary pop culture might demonstrate that these portrayals have prevailed. When Prof. Luhrs quoted John Berger, reading, “women are depicted in quite a different way from men, not because the feminine is different from the masculine but because the spectator is always assumed to be male, and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him,” I couldn’t help but think of the actress and sex symbol Sophia Loren. History.com labels her as “Italy’s most famous film star and an international icon of beauty and glamour.” So, we find another stereotype: the modern Italian woman is chic, beautiful, thin, wears makeup, and still exists to please the male eye. Prof. Luhrs stated that “portraits may tell us more about their artists, owners, or viewers than about their sitters.” Today, that remark definitely encapsulates imagery in film, TV (e.g. the VH1 series Mob Wives), and fashion magazines (what rich American woman wouldn’t love to own and embody some of that feminine glamour from Gucci, Prada, or Versace lines?).
The perception of the Italian woman was further expounded upon in the following talk under the “Depictions on Canvas” portion of the conference. Prof. Francesca Canadé Sautman of Hunter College, CUNY explained how this image of the Italian woman was brought from the Old World to the New one in her presentation, “Beyond the Mirror: Constructing the ‘Italian Woman’ in Late Nineteenth-Century Transnational Painting.” William Adolphe Bouguereau’s paintings, which were growing in popularity in the U.S. at that time, were shipped over from Europe to the houses of wealthy Americans. Prof. Sautman made it clear that “the uniformity of his vision bolstered already affirmed sentimental tradition of the Italian woman as a mother,” which, of course, is an aspect of one of the stereotypes I listed above. There’s a direct connection there to the Madonna and Child depictions in the Renaissance era.
Though the conference dug into the minutiae of the Italian female image and how it shapes American perceptions—as well as dealt with a vast array of other topics, including architecture, the connection between fascism and tourism, the way fashion was used to modernize Italy’s image for Americans in the 1970s and 80s, etc.—the message was clear from the few snippets I’ve written about here: images are powerful and lasting. When I think of Italians (as an Italian-American myself), I think of all those stereotypes even though I have family members that categorically defy them. We’ve got musicians, real estate agents, language learners, and veterinarians.
But I still get pizza, pasta, rural Italy, and the mafia stuck in my mind when I ask myself what ‘Italianness’ is. As Prof. Donna Chirico of York College, CUNY stated in the very title of her presentation, “Seeing Influences Believing.” The more we see these stereotypes depicted, the more we confirm that they must be true. To counter this, there should be a more realistic and balanced demonstration of Italianness—like a grandma who’s a real estate agent and can also make a mean lasagna.