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Italy in Early American Cinema: Race, Landscape, and the Picturesque

Giorgio Bertellini, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2010, pp. 464, $24,95

Italy in Early American Cinema, which won the 2009 American Association for Italian Studies Award in Film,is an ambitious and fascinating book that combines wonderful archival research with a sense of long-term development. The book crisscrosses centuries, disciplines, national borders, and different media in order to show how in the early twentieth century American cinema reproduced and expanded a particularly picturesque vision of Italy, borrowed from other media, which in turn shaped the ways in which Southern Italian immigrants in the United States were perceived.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the «picturesque», Bertellini persuasively shows in the first part of the book, codified the ways in which the Italian South was represented. «I no longer saw Nature, but pictures», Goethe confessed when looking out from the top of Mount Etna (quoted on p. 34). These pictures of the Italian South were «inventive characterization[s]», focusing on traces of Roman (rather than Arab or Spanish) civilization while emphasizing its decline and its exoticized effeminacy (p. 43). Subsequently, such a complex, and sometimes contradictory «visual vocabulary», such a «picturesque poetics» was popularized and disseminated more broadly through a variety of media, ultimately reaching the United States (pp. 56, 7).

Bertellini argues that the picturesque moved «anthropological inferiority into affirmative artistic forms» (p. 7). It produced a Southern «internal other», but it also bestowed value onto its subject, establishing reassuring connections with nature and with the past, and operating as an «aesthetic and ideological mediator» (p. 150). The Italian picturesque in the American cinema thus helped aestheticize and domesticate the masses of recent immigrants in the eyes of native-born Americans.

Given these political functions of the picturesque, it is not surprising that according to Bertellini «the picturesque consistently excluded non-white populations» (p. 162). The picturesque can thus become an index of the complicated, often contradictory and multi-directional process through which Italian immigrants were incorporated into U.S. culture, in the process becoming «white». «Whiteness», Bertellini is careful to argue, «was not a single, one-dimensional realm of privilege. Instead it exhibited a wide spectrum of internal, highly racialized taxonomies of individual racial types» (p. 10).

Codifying (white) racial types was a way of building the concept of cinematic character, and Bertellini does a good job of exhuming some of the typologies in the later chapters of the book where he focuses on Italian character types in early American cinema that borrowed from a broad range of Italian types already circulating in different media. Tracking the emergence of character typologies from early Black Hand films such as The Black Hand (American Mutoscope & Biograph, 1906) to the humanization of Italian character types in the teens through actors such as George Beban, Bertellini argues that the American film industry played both sides: «The moral distinction between corrupt and virtuous Italianness, whether in multiple figures or within a single character, was a profitable narrative compromise» (p. 211). Narrativization thus amounted to «the taming of an explosive force that, although domesticated, will maintain residues of its striking natural otherness» (p. 230). And conversely, racial typologies were constitutive of the ways in which early cinematic narrative developed.

The picturesque sheds not only new light on how Italian immigrants became «white», it also complicates ideas about national formation. Bertellini persuasively shows that a certain notion of «Italianness» was formed by often foreign observers visiting the Italian South, that this aesthetic form of «Italianness» then traveled across the ocean where it merged with local forms to represent «Italianness» to both native-born Americans and Italian immigrants. For Italian immigrants the «cinema could compensate for racist prejudice» by allowing them to immerse themselves into nationalism and «picturesque nostalgia» (p. 258). Thus, «cinema did not widen the gap between Italian immigrants’ older, vernacular culture and identity and their modern settlement» (p. 273). Rather than being a mode of assimilation, moviegoing in the United States could be a form of patriotism.

The most difficult and for me least persuasive moment in this argument comes when Bertellini turns his attention to an American version of the picturesque, notably picturesque representations of the American West. While it may well be the case that «a highly romanticized notion of an American environmental distinctiveness» was produced by American artists who imported and adapted aesthetic forms from Italy, Bertellini does not go over this process (a footnote refers the reader to works by other scholars) (p. 96). Likewise, it remains a bit unclear why the New York City photography of Alfred Stieglitz needs to appear in the book. To be sure Bertellini wants to give the trajectory of the picturesque in the United States, and he wants to use the opportunity to discuss the ways in which the American picturesque hierachizes different ethnic and racial groups. But in the end the excursion into the West and into urban photography does not quite give him enough space to unpack the complicated relationship between other racial groups and the picturesque; instead, he inadvertently seems to suggest that not all of the American picturesque tradition was connected to Italy.

But that difficulty should not detract from the achievement of Bertellini’s book. Instead, it points to the difficulty of delimiting the boundaries of a study that refuses to be contained by one medium. It is indeed one of the achievements of Italy in Early American Cinema that it takes an intermedial approach, tracking the picturesque across writing, painting, photography and the popular theater. As a form, Bertellini convincingly demonstrates, the picturesque wanders across these media, arguing against commonly accepted distinctions among and within them. Bertellini also persuasively argues that one medium does not simply replace another (for instance, photography painting), but that cinema was a vehicle for disseminating the picturesque to a mass audience. One of the questions that remains, but that may well be beyond the scope of the book, is how the picturesque changed and was adapted as it migrated across media platforms.

It is the distinction of Bertellini’s book that it calls for «an appreciation of long-term continuities», while being profoundly invested in archival research (p. 279). The book is beautifully illustrated and its sources are often spectacular: Bertellini finds historical evidence where previous researchers found none. Thus, he unearths writing by George Beban, the key actor portraying Italians in the teens, on the picturesque. He finds a film by Eduardo Migliaccio (also known as Farfariello), the most important comic performer in New York’s Little Italy, and he dives into the back issues of La follia di New York, a «literary and humorous weekly» that framed and guided Italian immigrants’ consumption of the picturesque in New York (p. 246). Unlike much of recent film historical research, which remains confined to a rather empirical presentation of previously unknown documents, Bertellini wants to insert these archives into a rich interdisciplinary, long-term historical development. In the process, he doesn’t answer all the questions, but he provides a new way of thinking about Italian Americans and about cinema, moving the discipline of film studies forward in methodological terms. The book will be useful for classes in Italian American history and in Italian or transnational cinema.

Sabine Haenni (Cornell University) 

 

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