“Low Art” and the Southern Question

My main draw to circus and mask-making and Italy was a long-time interest in the tradition of Carnevale.  Growing up, I took Italian folklore classes which exposed me to basic Italian language, Italian poetry, music, and dance.  Events were held for these classes, including a Carnevale banquet in February, where those who dressed in mask were awarded prizes.

I loved it.  Dressing up in costume was always a favorite of mine (dress-up was a much honored game in my youth), and masks were beautiful and fun.  So when I began to delve into the origins of the clown and the beginnings of the commedia dell’arte, it was natural that I should reconnect with my love of the Venetian Carnevale.

During the spring semester of my first year at Hampshire, I took a Renaissance Venice course.  This class dealt very much with art history, but also with the day-to-day life of Venetians.  And how could you have a course about Venice without talking about Carnevale?  I wrote my final paper for that class about Carnevale and the commedia dell’arte, and I think that was when I first realized how important community activities of that caliber are for the common people.  It’s so important for a run-of-the-mill boat-builder to be able to put on a mask and become a man full of intrigue – a man in control of his own destiny instead of bending to the whims of the wealthy and those affiliated with the Church.

Running alongside all these ideas about community festivals and the common people, I had begun some serious research on one of my favorite people, Sir Charles Chaplin.  Talk about humble beginnings – Charlie was penniless and got his first gig at the age of seven, if memory serves me.  He would tap dance.

So there we have two “low” art forms – comedy and tap dancing.  I’ve soaked both of them in.  I’ve worked on clowning, incorporated the popular theatre form of the commedia which was intended only for the enjoyment of the commoners, becoming bastardized and diluted as it made its way into the French courts during the 18th century.  I took a tap course, have always been fascinated with tap dancing – a distinctly American dance form that has its heritage in the Caribbean islands and Ireland, whose people were looked down upon for a huge portion of American history.  Tap dance grew up around jazz music – something else I love and cherish, and which was initially seen as entertainment for the unsophisticated.

Typically, when people think of Italy, or they hear that I’ve studied in Italy, they think of Florence and Venice.  They think of da Vinci and Michelangelo and Vivaldi.  They think of Tuscan wine and gorgeous villas on hillsides covered in grapes and olives.  And this is not an inaccurate representation of Italy – but it’s only a partial representation.

South of Rome, there is an entirely different Italy, an Italy that has had a hard time catching up with the industrialization in the north, an Italy that is (unfairly) still considered ignorant, backwards, and uncultured.

South of Rome, there is the Italy that I’m interested in.  I’ve seen – and loved – the artwork and the high-class society associated with Tuscany.  But my heart and my heritage lie in the small villages where the old women wear black from their husbands’ funerals until their own, where the wine doesn’t need to age for thirteen years in order to be palatable, where the nature-inspired-semi-pagan superstition blends seamlessly with the faith in God, the Saints, and the Church.

It’s not entirely fair to say that my ancestry is from the South; my family is from Abruzzo, which is technically South-Central Italy.  But I think that fact, in some ways, gives me a little bit of perspective on both sides.  And when it comes right down to it, I know that my grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t have an easy life all the time in Abruzzo, especially not during the wars.  They weren’t rich, they worked hard.  My grandfather didn’t even ever finish grade school.

So when I say that I study studio art and performance art, I’m not looking to be a Titian or a Pavarotti.  I want to be a clown, I want to tell my family’s story to the world in a way that can be accessible and meaningful.  I don’t want my work to belong to only one class of people.  I want my work to spread understanding and acceptance, to bring hope and recognition.

All this feeling, all this need – this is what is at the basis of my Div III.  This is why I am motivated, and this is why I frighten myself with the unwarranted threat of failure.  This project is bigger than signaling my ability to complete an undergraduate education; this project is as big as the Southern Question.


4 responses to ““Low Art” and the Southern Question

  • Jane Hartman

    This is absolutely wonderful. I wish I could say something as eloquent and profound as your writing, but I can’t so I’ll just stop here.

    • lapiccolacoccinella

      Ah, thank you so much! I think about all this stuff a lot, so when I write it, well…it’s had a lot of time to evolve in my head. But I really appreciate you taking the time to read my writing (especially this one, since it’s so long). Thanks again!

  • thehouseofvines

    I just have to say that I am loving the hell out of this blog. I’ve recently become obsessed with South Italian folklore and religion so it’s nice to find a fellow-traveler along these strange paths.

    • lapiccolacoccinella

      Ah, thank you so much! I feel as though our numbers are few, so yes – it’s wonderful to know that there’s someone else out there who is interested in Southern Italy and its quirky ways. I hope that you’ll find lots of interesting things here. =]

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