To the people of physically and spiritually impoverished Gagliano in the Basilicata, it seemed that Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi wrote in his classic eponymous memoir, and it can feel the same for those seeking Italian culture outside of New York City. Italian-American social and cultural associations abound in the Tri-State area, to be sure, but to find actual institutions that teach the language and hold significant events featuring art, literature, and history, one must go to the commuter train station and head into the Big Apple.
All that changed last fall with the opening of the Pirandello Institute of Language and Culture in Poughkeepsie, New York, a multi-faceted school, cultural institute and social center founded by Sicilian native Vita Maria Giangrasso Mesnick, and located in a quaint mid-19th century house at 247 Hooker Avenue that was once the residence for the local Quaker preacher. In one short year, its diverse language classes, historical lectures, book presentations, film showings, and celebratory banquets have initiated a mini-Italian Renaissance on the banks of the Hudson River.
“When I first came to this area, and saw that there was no Italian school of any kind, I felt a desolation,” says Signora Vita, as she is universally known. “And I said to myself, ‘One day, I will have a school of my own.’ The Pirandello Institute is the realization of that dream.” Born in the town of Calatafimi in the province of Trapani, the site of the ancient city of Segesta with its famous Greek temple and of a great victory by Garibaldi in 1860, her father was a shoemaker who owned his own shop and a her mother a homemaker. Signora Vita’s pedagogical vocation emerged from her earliest conscious memories. “I was the youngest of nine children, she recalls. “As a toddler, I cried and cried because all of my siblings were in school and I was not, and I couldn’t wait for that day to come when I would follow them to classes. When they were home, instead of going out to play I stayed near them while they studied, gazing in wonder at the pictures in the books and asking endless questions – it was indeed una passione naturale. I was also inspired by my grandmother, who was illiterate yet a great storyteller in the venerable oral tradition.
‘One day I will tell stories too,’ I vowed, ‘But with a formal education to back me up.’’’
“Once I started going to school, my teacher Caterina Patti became my heroine,” Vita continues. “I not only received knowledge at her hands, I learned how to teach. Yet when I do so, I am also inspired by things that are in my blood. ’Don’t step on frogs, they have a right to live too,’ my grandmother would exhort me, and I passed this on the kids as along with the intricacies of grammar and the glories of high culture.” After receiving her teaching degree at the Istituto Magistrale Sacro Cuore, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Castellammare del Golfo, Vita followed her father and brothers to America in 1964 when his charitable ways made his business unsustainable. “My father made shoes for kids the same way a doctor treats them — whether the parents had money or not. He had a box full of IOUs which were rarely redeemed, and he could not support such a large family on that basis. So they came to America to find work, settling in Highland across the river from Poughkeepsie, which has had a large Sicilian population for more than a century, and I came to cook and clean for them.” “Of course I also had bigger plans,” she says with a laugh. “I earned a Bachelor of Science degree at Empire State College of SUNY Saratoga Springs, and even before I received it, I began teaching Italian locally. I have been teaching it at all levels at various schools for 52 years now, as well as in libraries, churches, and through private tutoring.” Poughkeepsie and Arlington High Schools, Dutchess Community and Marist Colleges have benefitted from her passione naturale, and she took it to the airways when she hosted an Italian language program on Radio WPDH, also in Poughkeepsie. She is also a recipient of the Who Is Who Among American Teachers Award.
The Pirandello Institute is first and foremost a school for teaching the Italian language; it is taught at 22 levels, of which Vita teaches 21, always in small, intimate classes, and the Children’s class is taught by an assistant. Yet German and Spanish are taught as well, and the school’s founder, president, and chief teacher has ambitions to expand further. “This building has the potential for accommodating six classes at a time,” she says, “and that need not be limited to grammar. When our students reach a certain level of proficiency, I plan to introduce literary classes in Italian ranging from Dante to Pirandello.” And why among the many fine Sicilian writers was he chosen for the name of the school? “As someone who has had to care in a special way for my family, I deeply relate to the fact that Pirandello sacrificed so much to care for his very ill wife for so many years,” Vita answers. “And he is a very fine writer, one of Italy’s best.” Among the noteworthy cultural events that the Pirandello Institute has hosted in its first year was the presentation of the book Memorie d’un cronista d’assalto by the late distinguished Italian-American foreign correspondent John Cappelli, which was published by l’Ornitorinco Editore of Milan in 2016.
The panel that accompanied the event included the book’s editor, Prof. Luigi Troiani of the Pontificial College of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Hon. Giorgio Benvenuto of the Pietro Nenni Foundation in Rome, and the author’s wife and son, Nives and Vanni Cappelli. Professors from nearby Vassar College have been regular visitors, with Prof. Nancy Bisaha, Director of Medieval and Renaissance Studies there lecturing on how the medieval Italian comuni contributed much to the rise of modern republicanism, and Professor John Ahern of the Italian Department delving into the life of the controversial writer and political polemicist Bruno Roselli, who founded the department in the 1920s. A regular film series was launched with Lina Wertmuller’s charming, sentimental, yet bleak comedy Ciao, Professore!, about a teacher from Liguria trying to instill discipline and an appreciation of learning among poor and troubled kids living in a desolate town near Naples. The Institute’s first anniversary will be celebrated at a special event at the Italian Center in Poughkeepsie on Sunday, October 15th which will feature poetry, music, food, and wine.
“We are at the very end of a generational change,” Vita concludes. “The wave of major immigration from Italy ended a long time ago, and the Italian language and cultural traditions will be lost unless we do the work of keeping them alive. This is the mission of the Pirandello Institute, and it extends beyond people of Italian descent to all those who love Italy and what it has given to the world. Columbus, for instance, had his tragic flaws, but cruelty was only one element in his story. It took great courage to head out into the unknown, and I have always had respect and devotion for people who assume immense projects, and pursue them to the end.”
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