Posts Tagged ‘italians’

Last Supper, the Last Day of the Year

January 4, 2011


The day of  New Year’s Eve, to celebrate the holiday, we visited the Park Ave. Armory in Manhattan to take in filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s mind-blowing multimedia presentation of Leonardo’s “Last Supper.”

(Thank you, Barbara, for urging me to see this show before it closes on January 6th).

Part audio-visual extravaganza, part backstory, part guided meditation on how to really look at art (specifically, this work, Leonardo’s masterpiece), Greenaway  envelopes, enchants, and absorbs you into the moving images and stunning visual effects by wallpapering the surfaces inside that cavernous space (including the floor) — with projected film.

Recreated for the exhibition was the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie convent, a replication of the actual site where the famous fresco resides in Milan. On the far wall “hung” Greenaway’s digitized, continually-morphing “Last Supper.”

A voice in the crowd remarked: “I didn’t expect the painting to be this big.”

In the late 1980s, when I stood before the real “Last Supper” in Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan (it had actually once been a convent), my initial thought was, “I thought it would be bigger.”

Additionally (and, since I did study art history, embarrassingly), I hadn’t realized the painting would be a fresco. I was expecting a canvas. And although the fresco is about 15 x 29 feet, it still felt small, dwarfed as it was by the towering, vaulted ceiling and peeling walls of the refectory.

That was twenty-two years ago. After spending one glorious week in art-soaked, beautiful Florence, I took a train to Milan, ready, but not willing, to fly back to New York the following day.

Milan was my last day in Bella Italia. Around 12:00 p.m., I checked into my hotel for an overnight stay, ordered an Insalata Caprese and glass of wine from room service and had to decide whether to visit one of two “must-sees” on my list: Teatro La Scala or DaVinci’s “Last Supper,” in the limited time that remained in the day.

I knew at 2:00 p.m. everything would close down for the customary afternoon “pausa pranzo” — an extension of the lunch break the Italians set aside for relaxation (what a country). So I made my decision and dashed out of the hotel. From a kiosk on the street, I purchased una carta geografica of Milan.

The scale of the map of Milan, I would discover, differed from the scale of maps in Florence (never assume) — a unwelcome fact that became all too clear in the middle of my long trek in uncomfortable shoes across the city toward  Santa Maria delle Grazie.

At 1:50 p.m., the rear of the church came into view. Two American tourists, man and woman, were struggling to communicate with a caretaker, in English, about the painting. He gestured wildly, speaking in rapid Italian, which they didn’t understand.

In my limited Italian — my father and relatives spoke it during my childhood, so the language wasn’t exactly foreign to me — (and prior to my trip, I’d listened to How-To-Speak-Italian cassette tapes in my car), I understood that he was telling them to go around to the front.

So I went around to the front. When I got there, the same tourists I saw in the back, plus small crowd of people, were being turned away — by the same Italian man! He must have sprinted through interior of the church. Pausa pranzo, apparently, had started 10 minutes early.

With what had to be a pained expression (my feet, by this time, were killing me), I asked in a weakened voice: “E chiuso?” (“Are you closed?) to this same Italian man.

His eyes darted from side to side (the small crowd had since dispersed) and then waved me over. He escorted me inside. (N.B.: It pays to know a little bit of the language, wherever you go. Looking like an Italian probably didn’t hurt, either).

An elderly Italian woman was sitting behind a small podium, a sort of box office where tickets were sold to view the fresco. The Italian man proceeded to tell her, in Italian, that I had walked for miles (true) on a religious pilgrimage (well, not really…). Anyway, he convinced her to let me in.

I couldn’t believe it. The woman looked me over, then smiled, and said, “Bene.” I paid the nominal fee and walked into the refectory, nice as you please.

All by myself.

I was alone with the “Last Supper.” It was dark and dank and crumbling and full of echoes and ghosts. Restoration on the fresco was underway and about 1/3 of the way through.

I just love viewing “process.” It was marvelous.

Overcome by a feeling of awe and privilege and sacredness that afternoon in Milan, I never thought I’d feel that way again, all at one time.

But standing in front of Greenaway’s creation, it happened.

What an unexpected way to end the year. A gift.

Nine Years Later

July 30, 2009


July 24th was the nine-year anniversary of my father’s death.

Where did the time go?

The photo above (I’m on the left, my younger sister is on the right) was taken, possibly by my mother, at the beach in Coney Island, Brooklyn:


Some of our best times as kids were spent at the beach.

My dad was one of the few senior citizens who, when visiting the casinos in Atlantic City, brought along his swim trunks. He liked to take a restorative dip in the gray waters of the Atlantic before heading back home to Long Island. Beached hypodermic needles and used condoms notwithstanding, he swore by the magical healing properties he’d attributed to the sea.

One of his favorite poems was Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Maybe that’s part of the reason he revered salt water. On any given hot summer’s day during my childhood, or if he was particularly thirsty, he might spontaneously recite a few lines from it (which, long ago, he had memorized in grade school):

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,

We struck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

Those were the salad days for our family. Days of reciting poetry, of weekends at the beach, dancing in the kitchen or committing our imagination to a good book. Both of my parents were big readers back then. A few years after this picture was taken, I would also share in their passion.

Perhaps, to guide us through the troubled times that would eventually overtake our family, the bedtime stories he told us each night changed from tales of chocolate soda fountains and enchanted forests to poetry recitations. Invictus (Henley) was one of his favorite poems. These last two lines have stayed with me all my life:

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

In raising us, he did his best with what he had to work with, which wasn’t a lot. His own father was a brute. So, for that, I thank him.

Right before he died, he was diligently at work, emailing Italy and Canada and copying us kids, as he cobbled together his family tree. He never was able to finish it. Death would claim him rapidly and unexpectedly, in just three months’ time.

While wading through the things he left behind, I came across an essay he had written in his forties, around the time he’d returned to school to get his bachelors degree. He had saved the essay for thirty years.

It’s a wonderful glimpse into the past, particularly, as it relates to the Italian immigrant experience in Brooklyn, N.Y. For me, it’s another piece to the puzzle that was my father.

The Old Neighborhood

by Frank Ambrico


When I think of the old neighborhood, I feel as though I were raised in Italy.

Most of the people in our neighborhood were Italian either by birth of descent. When you heard two people speaking to each other, it was almost always in Italian. As a child, it was a wonder to me that they could understand each other’s rapid conversation. The dialects were so different. As I grew older, however, I too learned to understand most dialects, Northern Italian and Sicilian being the most difficult to learn. The other dialects that were spoken by most of the other neighbors were only slight variations form the Neapolitan my parents spoke.

The music that was heard in our neighborhood, as would be expected, was Italian, too. Radios were always turned to stations VOV, WLIB or WEVD. Tulio Carmanarde, Nino Martino and Carol Butti were the favorite singers.

In the summer, all the religious societies held “feasts” in honor of their patron saint. There, you would find all kinds of favorite foods sold at stands where they were cooked or baked.

The “feast” that was held in honor of Saint Rocco seemed to be everyone’s favorite. This celebration always included a grease pole. This pole was as tall and round as a lamppost. At the top of the pole was a crosspiece loaded with fine foods and a ten-dollar bill. The pole was then covered with a thick layer of grease. Whoever could reach the top would take all that was there. Long lines of young boys would form to get a chance to climb the pole, some, as two-man teams, some as singles using a rope with a slipknot. This sport would go on for hours attracting hundreds of people.

There were many summer evenings that I enjoyed in a neighbor’s front yard singing Italian folksongs or just listening to the conversation of the adults. The singing would usually begin when some of the musicians from our block brought their instruments over and played a few tunes. All of the would-be “Caruso’s” would immediately join in and so the sing-along began.

There never was a shortage of singers; the problem was to get some of them to stop singing. Absolute quiet and undivided attention was expected when someone performed individually, even if he was unpopular. The custom was to show enthusiastic applause, and a spokesman would beg the performer to honor the group with another song even if the first one was terrible. Sometimes when the music went on past midnight and the children were in their homes asleep, the celebration would take on a quieter air.

At this point, the enthusiasm for music would taper off and the neighborhood comedians would take center stage. An Italian, it seems, cannot tell a joke the way an American does, with just a few lines. A three-line American joke becomes no less than a fifteen-minute production. The gestures and pantomime intermingled with the story make for an incredibly funny performance.

The comedy would eventually give way to the more serious or sentimental talk by the old folks about Italy or their youth. Occasionally, I was able to escape my mother’s eye and sit there with my eyelids at half-mast trying to fight off sleep so that I could listen to the stories the old folks would tell. They always enchanted us youngsters.

Whenever I happen to overhear a familiar Italian dialect or detect an aroma of Italian cooking, I can’t help but think of the old neighborhood.