The best way to know the true character of a place is through its literature and history.
One of the most surprising discoveries on my journey to know and understand Sicily better has been Anthony Di Renzo’s book Trinàcria (Guernica, Toronto 2013) which evokes the spirit of Sicily as eloquently as a Quasimodo poem or as apt as a scene from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Sicilian masterpiece The Leopard.
Di Renzo gathers the threads of the history of Bourbon Sicily and its most vibrant characters to bring their energy back to life for us. With the voice of the Marchesa of Scalea he creates an eccentric aristocrat character filled with sarcasm, arrogance and shrewd observation.
Trinàcria begins as a Hollywood director is set to film a big budget historical film in Sicily (akin to Visconti’s cinematic version of the Leopard) reawakening the spirit of the cantankerous Marchesa who is quite peeved she is being used as the inspiration for cinema and consequently tells us her life’s story, revealing herself to be the Trinàcria of the title.
This tale from nineteenth century Sicily is intriguingly dark, gothic and morbid the director directly addressing the mummified remains of the long dead Sicilian noble deep in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo while the Marchesa’s eternal soul irreverently comments on the ironies of life.
Following the memoir of Trinàcria we meet other key figures from this period including: Garibaldi, the Neapolitan poet Leopardi and opera composer Giuseppe Verdi.
Di Renzo’s novella is an amazing work dominated by the vivid energy of Sicilian history and is a must read for anyone who wants to viscerally experience the spirit of Marchesa Zita Valanguerra Spinelli, a haunting literary experience.
Not contented in simply reviewing this wonderful book I pestered Anthony Di Renzo for an email interview, which I am happy to share with you, where he answered my questions about the background to this beautiful book, publishing and a little bit about the fascinating Sicilian American academic author who created it.
Tell us about your book Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily.
In one sense, Trinàcria is a ghost story. Zita Valanguerra Spinelli, the Marchesa of Scalea, posthumously narrates the events of her life from the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. The book is literally a tale from the crypt, a bit of Sicilian Gothic fit for November, the Month of the Dead. In another sense, Trinàcria is a meditation on Sicilian history and politics. Most English and American readers think the book is only about the past. Most Sicilian readers, however, claim it is also about the present. The novel has much to say about globalization and neoliberal economic reform.
How on earth did you come across the Marchesa of Scalea?
The Marchesa is based on Alessandra Spadafora (1778-1851), the Duchess of Santa Rosalia, who was the mistress and eventually the wife of Benjamin Ingham, the Anglo Sicilian wine merchant. I first read about her in Princes Under the Volcano, Raleigh Treveylan’s history of Sicily’s Marsala dynasties. A daguerreotype, taken when Donna Alessandra was a shrunken old gargoyle in bombazine, captivated me.
As I stared at the portrait, the old woman’s lips seemed to move. A hollow voice in my head whispered the opening to Giacomo Leopardi’s Chorus of the Dead: “Sola nel mondo eterna, a cui si volve/ Ogni creata cosa . . .” O Death, alone immortal on earth, unto whom every created thing must come, our disembodied natures now come. The rest of the novel followed from there.
But there is a more sinister back story to your relationship with the Marchesa. Fill us in on what happened when your ignored her?
The Marchesa originally was a supporting character and an alternate narrator in a multigenerational novel called After the Fair is Over. She played Juno to the Aeneas of that book’s protagonist: her immigrant great-grandson, Attilio Tumeo, A powerful literary agent advised me to cut her story to make the manuscript more marketable. My wife, a student of Jungian psychology, warned against this. The Marchesa, she reminded me, represented the chthonic female energy of pagan Sicily. Did I really want to mess with that? I told her not to be so superstitious. I was the Sicilian, not she. Unless I played ball, I would never get a book contract.
Shortly after cutting the Marchesa, I was stricken with viral meningitis. For three months, my brain was on fire. I dreamt a jellyfish swam in my skull and stung me. When I described this to my mother, she exclaimed, “‘A medusa!” Medusa is the Sicilian word for jellyfish. Clearly, I had pissed off the Furies and vowed to make amends. After a long convalescence, marked by chronic migraines, I restored, revised, and expanded the Marchesa’s story until it became Trinàcria. This process took seven years. I hope the results please her as much as they please me.
But you still had problems finding a publisher for Trinàcria. Tell us about that.
Dozens of American editors rejected Trinàcria. Nobody, they declared, wanted to read about a Sicilian marchesa, especially a dead one, unless she had written a cookbook. Granted, Donna Zita made a mean pasta Bellini, but she was no Anna Tasca Lanza. Unlike that other culinary marchesa, she had never started a cooking school at Regaleali or served as a consultant for Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.’s Italian Classics line.
Do you think perhaps one of the problems for publishers was the subject of death and the afterlife? Was it too confronting? Why did publishers have such a problem with her?
Actually, novels with posthumous narrators, such as Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, are quite popular in America. Vampire and zombie fiction also sells well. But the Marchesa, a more frightening harpy, is a foreigner from an alien time. She represents the unappeasable and irredeemable past, everything secular commercial democracies had to demonize and destroy to justify their existence. Nobody wanted to stare that gorgon in the face for fear of turning into stone.
Have you ever visited the Catacombs at Palermo? What are they really like? Did the dead really speak to you?
My mother claims to have taken me to Palermo’s Catacombe dei Cappuccini, but mercifully, I have no memory of this early childhood trauma. Sicilian friends and relatives, however, have described the experience in gloating detail. All cultures enjoy haunted houses as a carnival attraction, but the Capuchin crypt surpasses anything in Disney World. The dioramas are more astonishing, not to mention more political. Individually, the mummies represent the vanity of a specific social class or profession; collectively, they symbolize jaded humanity’s awakening at the Last Judgment.
But one needn’t take a dark ride or a ghost train at an amusement park to contact the dead. One simply needs to be tuned to their frequency. When I was a boy, I was like Haley Joel in The Sixth Sense: I saw dead people all the time. My nickname was Antonio degli Spiriti. Now these visitations rarely happen, which is for the best. Anglo-American culture tends to classify this phenomenon as schizophrenia. I just think of it as an alternative cell-phone plan.
Do the dead frighten you?
Not at all. All Souls Day, il Giorno dei Morti, is one of my favorite Catholic feasts. It’s the living who scare the shit out of me. If you’ve ever washed C-Span or the Republican Presidential Primary Debates on Fox News, you know exactly what I mean.
Speaking of ghosts, Sicily has so much fascinating history. How did you settle on the Bourbon period? Tell us a little about this phase in Sicily’s history.
The Bourbon period marked the transition from feudal to modern Sicily. Death throes and birth pangs simultaneously convulsed the region. It was a period of repressive reaction and violent revolution. Its paradoxes and contradictions have attracted such diverse Sicilian writers as Frederico de Roberto, Luigi Pirandello, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and Leonardo Sciascia. As a Sicilian American, however, I am more fascinated by the political oppression and economic corruption that eventually caused the Sicilian Diaspora.
How did you manage to balance the history and fictional elements in Trinàcria?
The novel’s theme provided the balance. Trinàcria confronts the problems of representation and the perils and seductions of memory. I’m reminded of that wonderful line in John Ford’s elegiac Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That is why the novel’s frame deals with a movie director’s attempt to shoot an epic about the Risorgimento in Palermo during the centennial of Garibaldi’s invasion. That director, of course, is based on Luchino Visconti.
Apart from the larger-than-life character of the Marchesa you also used some very significant historical characters. Tell us about your interpretations of Leopardi, Verdi, Garibaldi, Bellini, Benjamin Ingham and Joseph Whitaker. How much poetic license did you use?
Except for stage-managing encounters with fictional characters, I used little poetic license with the novel’s historical figures. Most of their dialogue is based on their own letters and journals or on contemporary newspapers and eyewitness accounts. Even the book’s most fantastic sequences—the sudden disappearance of the volcanic island of Ferdinandea, the grandiose speeches and surreal displays at the Great Exhibition—are historically accurate.
What’s your own personal link to Sicily?
My maternal ancestors were petty Spanish aristocrats who settled in Bagheria in the early 18th century. My great grandfather, Antonino Coffaro, moved to Villabate in the mid-19th century and studied horticulture at the University of Palermo. He supplied Garibaldi with food and ammo before the siege of Palermo and sold citrus to Ingham & Whitaker.
Do you visit Sicily often? What is your favorite Sicilian memory or experience?
I have not visited Sicily since I was a small boy. It would be too painful. All my relatives are dead or dispersed. Worse, Villabate, once the center of the Conca d’Oro’s citrus industry, is now an industrial zone. But I have two vivid memories from those early years. The first is sitting in a tangerine orchard at dawn and luxuriating in the healing fragrance. At the time, I was quite sickly, and my mother practiced this Sicilian form of aromatherapy to restore health. The second is eavesdropping on relatives and neighbors who had participated as extras in Visconti’s film adaptation of The Leopard. Some of their anecdotes appear in Trinàcria.
Tell us about any other books you are working on.
I am still working on After the Fair is Over, the story of Donna Zita’s great-grandson in America and am currently correcting the galleys for Dead Reckoning: Transatlantic Passages on Europe and America, a collection of lyric essays and prose poems about postmodernity and globalization co-written with Andrei Guruinau. State University of New York Press will publish next spring.
You are also an academic. Tell us a little about your professional life.
I primarily teach business and technical writing at Ithaca College in Upstate New York. This is fitting for two reasons. First, I worked for several years as a publicist, copywriter, and medical writing before attending graduate school. Despite earning a masters and a doctorate respectively in British and American Literature, I still experience English as the language of public and private institutions and the marketplace. Sicilian remains my mother tongue, and my literary models tend to be Southern Italian and Latin American writers.
How difficult is it to publish literary fiction these days? Tell us about your experiences and strategies.
Commercial publishing rarely values literary fiction, particularly literary fiction that challenges readers and deviates from the conventions of Anglo-American realism. As Nat Sobel once told me, it would be almost impossible for a Gabriel Garcia Marquez to publish A Hundred Years of Solitude today. Ethnic writers are forced to network. Frank Polizzi, editor of Feile-Feste: The Literary Arts Journal of the Mediterranean Celtic Association, and Michael Mirolla, editor-in-chief of Guernica Editions, believed in Trinàcria, but the book never would have been published without help from Debra Santangelo, founder and president of Sicilian Connections, and Roberto Ragone, a consultant and fundraiser, or without the sponsorship of the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere
You contribute to and help sustain such online publications as The Times of Sicily and L’Italo Americano. Tell us about these projects and how important they are to you.
As Ignazio Buttitta observes in Lingua e dialettu, Southern Italians and their descendants are playing for their lives on a disintegrating mandolin. Every day, another string breaks in the middle of a song. For all its rhetoric about diversity and multiculturalism, global capitalism systematically destroys local cultures and languages to facilitate universal consumption. If we don’t fight to preserve our heritage, nobody else will.
Are there any other interesting projects you are currently working on that you want to tell us about?
When I’m not writing or teaching, I sing English and Italian comic opera in regional music companies. This probably explains my work’s Rossinian brio and sarcasm. Trinàcria treats history and politics as an opera buffa. Unfortunately, the joke is on us.
Thanks so much to Anthony Di Renzo for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf do all of your readers thank you for writing it as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily’s history and character.
Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily is available on Amazon .