On Looking (at Old Photos)

I spent a lot of time the past few years looking at old family photos – a family I never knew (it would be more accurate to call them by the antiseptic term “ancestors”). While writing my memoir My Two Italies, I researched my family’s history through the material evidence of their lives in southern Italy, before they immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. All of it was deeply affecting – my grandfather Carmine Crocce’s naturalization papers, my father’s war citation, my siblings’ Italian birth certificates, and my mom’s Italian identity card, which listed her profession as casalinga,” “housewife.” But nothing moved me like the photographs. The negatives have long since been lost, and I had to rely on multigenerational prints, some deeply faded. Yet the chance to look into the eyes of the people I was writing about brought them to life.

Before the book, my grandparents were only names. My maternal grandmother, Rosaria Crocco, had helped raise me as a child, but my father sent her back to Italy in a rage, claiming she was meddlesome, when I was too young to remember her. By the time I finished My Two Italies, I understood that my mother was truly her father Carmine’s child: the same warm expression, the same hint of nerves and anxiety in eyes that have seen too much suffering. I felt like I was meeting my grandfather – and my mother – for the first time.

There’s a picture from the “Old Country” that never made it into the book, a group portrait of some Calabrian villagers:


Before seeing this photo, I had never heard of any of the people in it. Yet nothing reminds me more of the lost world of my parents – the one they abandoned for good so that we, their children, would have a better life in America – than this once-anonymous picture. It’s all there: the dirt roads, the roughhewn clothing, the choral nature of village life. Although the photo was from the 1950s, it may as well have been from the 1800s or even 1700s. My parents fled Calabria because they did not want to raise their children in an world they knew would change as little as this frozen snapshot.

I’ve since learned who the people are: on the far right, the shepherd Vincenzo Crocco, my grandfather Carmine’s brother; beside him, the giant Luigi, Carmine’s brother-in-law; in the center, his wife, Bomina, a housewife like all Calabrian matrons at the time; to her right, my grandfather’s friend the dapper Federico Olfello, a laborer; next to him, his wife, Anna. I asked my mother why the picture was taken, and she didn’t recall – perhaps they had just slaughtered a pig, she guessed, and all had joined for a celebratory feast. I knew none of them – but the faces of this group helped me write my book. I see my grandfather Carmine in his brother Vincenzo: the same small and delicate frame, proud bearing, and thoughtful look. Most of all, I see my parents in their first home, the friends and family they left behind and never returned to.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Walter Benjamin claimed that photographs lack “aura”: they are created by a mechanical process (the imprinting of light on a negative), rather than by an artist’s hand, making them infinitely reproducible. But he also claimed that a photo can provide something that a painting or sculpture never can: an index or record of the moment in space and time when the picture was taken. I felt the power of Benjamin’s observation as I stared at my long-lost relatives: they were indeed fixed at a point in the past, preserved forever in this now-vanished Calabrian universe.

But perhaps a photo can have an aura of its own. Though it was a mechanical process that recorded these Calabrian villagers – and though I only knew them in digital form – I could still smell the past, private and public. And I could only hear my people’s stories when I could look them in the eyes.

My Two Italies: available for preorder

My memoir My Two Italies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) is now available!
You can PREORDER at AmazonBarnes and NobleFSG, and your local bookstore.
Watch a VIDEO interview on My Two Italies here:
Description of My Two Italies
The child of Italian immigrants and an award-winning scholar of Italian literature, in My Two Italies Joseph Luzzi straddles these two perspectives to link his family’s dramatic story to Italy’s north-south divide, its quest for a unifying language, and its passion for art, food, and family.
From his Calabrian father’s time as a military internee in Nazi Germany-where he had a love affair with a local Bavarian woman-to his adventures amid the Renaissance splendor of Florence, Luzzi creates a deeply personal portrait of Italy that leaps past facile clichés about Mafia madness and Tuscan sun therapy.
With topics ranging from the pervasive force of Dante’s poetry to the meteoric rise of Silvio Berlusconi, Luzzi presents the Italians in all their glory and squalor, relating the problems that plague Italy today to the country’s ancient roots. He shares how his “two Italies”-the earthy southern Italian world of his immigrant childhood and the refined “northern” Italian realm of his professional life-join and clash in unexpected ways that continue to enchant the many millions who are either connected to Italy by ancestry or bound to it by love.

My Two Italies deals with the enduring disconnect between the ideal Italy that is admired as a center of civilization, and the hardship and hardness of the emigrant experience. Both come vividly alive in Luzzi’s heartfelt and illuminating book.”
Gay Talese, author of Unto the Sons

“Joseph Luzzi has written a funny and often moving family history that opens onto wider vistas that he knows and loves equally well-the Italian cultural and political landscape from Dante to Silvio Berlusconi. Full of charm and insight, but admirably frank and unsentimental, My Two Italies should be required reading on all flights to Italy.”
Ross King, author of Leonardo and the Last Supper

About Joseph Luzzi


Joseph Luzzi is a writer and professor of Italian at Bard College. The first child in his Calabrian family born in the U.S., he is the author of the forthcoming memoir, My Two Italies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2014), the dramatic story of his Italian family’s immigration and an insider’s look at the turbulence of life in Italy today, especially during the Berlusconi years.

He is a frequent contributor of essays and reviews to publications including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, the London Times Literary Supplement, and many others. His first book, Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy(Yale Univ. Press 2008), received the Scaglione Prize for Italian Studies from the Modern Language Association, and he is the author of A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2014). His work has been translated into Italian and Portuguese, and he has lectured throughout the world on art, film, literature, and Italian culture.

My Two Italies: an interview


I discuss why I wrote my new book, My Two Italies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2014), and how it brought me back inside the lost Italian world of my family.