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Italo Scanga – UCSD's lover of contradiction and vulgarity

Hunger sculptor

Italo Scanga. Do the people at UCSD really understand what they have on their hands in his knotted, intense, diminutive frame? - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Italo Scanga. Do the people at UCSD really understand what they have on their hands in his knotted, intense, diminutive frame?

The interior that Italo Scanga has created around himself in his studio compound, in Pacific Beach, is basically hive-like or agglutinative in that everything keeps on sticking itself onto everything else. The pileup grows bigger and bigger, like a florid sentence spun out by an orator who’s forgotten what he wanted to say. In one vast, airy chamber there are, aside from Italo’s art, 30 crummy birdhouses, a row of cheap busts of composers, herds of sculpted elephants in diverse media, sinuous Southeast Asian puppets, a life-size gilded folk angel carved in wood, a nacreous concertina, rows of teensy Fred Flintstones marching alongside ranks of plaster Blessed Virgins in Necco Wafer colors. There are several huge tables pullulating with glass animals, snarling china dogs, crippled machines. There are trace artifacts from a dozen parallel universes.

Italo with his sculpture. “My mother pulled us away into the country in the middle of the night. We slept on piles of chestnuts."

Every object is a conduit to Italo’s past, so the mess is an agglomeration of flashbacks, an assemblage created largely to memorialize an earlier assemblage — the totality of one man’s reveries.

It’s a little like a 19th-century Italian villa, neo-Gothic, crawling with lobsterish ornament. With its many duplicates (there’s a whole troupe of plaster mariachi singers, each with its identically upturned, exalted, pencil-mustached face), halo’s gaudy inventory is also a sort of catalog realized in the round. It has the catalog’s jaunty optimism, its confidence that everything can be replaced from an eternal, inexhaustible stock.

Italo with assistants. Sometimes people criticize him for diluvial “overproduction."

Italo the artist starts out as Italo the shopper. One summer morning I run into him at the swap meet outside the Sports Arena, a market he compulsively haunts. I hang with him awhile as he paws his way through the middens of earlier, worthless civilizations. “Isn’t this interesting, isn’t that weird?” he asks again and again, and when I answer, “Yes, Italo, this is truly interesting, and that is truly weird,” more often than not he buys the stuff for me — or for my wife or little son, who are wandering nearby, scrutinizing other junk piles. Thanks to Italo’s cataractlike generosity we own not only several of his beautiful drawings but also a vicious-looking cuckoo from a cuckoo clock, two elderly tablecloths, a set of 50-year-old guidebooks to knitting technique, a physician’s electric light for peering at your adenoids, and an assortment of minute, toy-like objects, most of which we’ve by now misplaced (if the term suits such inherently unplaceable doodads). Several days a week Italo carries his treasures back to his studio, where they may find a perch in one of his sculptures.

Italo sketching. Interspersed among the marooned oddities at Italo’s place are his sculptures of saints.

Italo’s nose, head, and body are all squarish and blocky: modeled, as it might be, by the same designer, a no-nonsense guy with a job to do. Only the ears are different — Baroque, outsized, raffishly appliqued. Italo is short, a southern Italian. He has tightly curled brown-and-gray hair. He has a paunch, which fits neatly over a wide leather belt — a macho effect. He wears shorts and hiking boots. He used to drink like crazy but quit cold. He has been married twice, with five kids, but Isn’t now. He speaks very literate English with a heavy Italian accent that he might almost have copied from Chico Marx but didn’t. He is simpatico like Chico Marx. His life is an acrobat balanced on the airplane wing of humor and always about to fall into the void of terror.

“Oh, I don’t know, cypresses or maybe poplars. They’re — trees, you know. Just trees.”

Like all adults who live surrounded by toys, Italo appeals to children, to the infantine in anyone. With those walking boots of his he seems to hike perpetually through his domain, pausing now and then for a chat about classic art or a discussion of some novel Italian recipe. (His girlfriend, Su-Mei Yu, who runs Saffron, the Thai restaurant on India Street, often turns up for lunch with a sampling of her daily specials, and this attracts a high-spirited, babbling crowd of friends, assistants, buyers, and sycophants.) Italo started to acquire a national and even international reputation about 15 years ago, when he was already approaching 50. He came to this country from Calabria after World War II, as a teenager, and developed slowly. He has made his living largely as an art teacher — a job he likes and takes seriously — first at the University of Wisconsin and then, successively, at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia, and finally the UCSD art department, where he has been since 1976. But with the exception of UCSD he is barely involved in the life of San Diego, except for the Taylor branch of the public library, in Pacific Beach, an institution he supports and which has acquired a small collection of his sculptures. He lives a few blocks from the beach and has emphatically never been there — “No, not even once.” Italo is half rustic simplicity, half cosmopolitan sophistication. He is by now rather learned in art lore and history, and you sense that teaching has taught him a lot. With the rustic’s annoyance and the cosmopolitan’s amusement, he tells stories about the northern Italian snobs who’ve stuck up their noses at his modest southern origins. To their question, “How many years of schooling do you have?” he is pleased to respond, “Three, of elementare”; and to the inevitable succeeding query, “What job do you have now?” he tosses out, “Professore. ” He watches their eyes widen.

The ’60s and ’70s were somewhat uncomfortable years for Italo. His art wasn’t mature yet, but it was decidedly figurative, full of people and animals, and figurative art wasn't voguish then. Italo admired the best minimal and conceptual art, but he stubbornly clung to his own interests and obsessions; he was encouraged to per severe by friends like Dan Flavin, the minimalist sculptor, who liked what he was doing. In the early ’80s, as his ideas began to cohere more forcefully, his work found commercial acceptance as a sort of sculptural counterpart of neo-expressionism, though actually it had little in common with that movement. He was able, however, to show quite widely, both here and abroad, which has not prevented him from maintaining a position of striking independence vis-à-vis the art market.

Italo is fantastically productive. His domain contains forests and moraines of everything he does: paintings and colored drawings majolica relief plaques semiabstract sculptures, which are generally tall, totemic, and brightly painted; strange, desanctified religious statues; fountains made of welded-steel shapes glass flames like parodies of mortuary -chapel props 2-foot-tall trees made of glass and 20-foot-tall trees made of welded drive chain; and large, silly-looking glass funnels that seem possessed of some obscure allegorical meaning and that usually find their way into the assemblages. Here and there you see sculptures from his “Fear" series pieces exploring man’s terrors, or his “Troubled World" series, in which painted or graffiti-scrawled globes (“Hunger,” says one) are balanced upon other objects, like tools and tree stumps. Within the same assemblage some objects retain their usual size, others are shown at an inflated or toy-like scale, and still others partake simultaneously of two scale systems, like the globes, which are desk-globe-sized and yet also depictions of Earth and her sorrows. These sculptures are invigorating to be near, because you begin to feel that you yourself are several sizes at once. While being nudged into worrying about global pollution you may also be examining a tiny blue elephant parading about in thin air.

Interspersed among the marooned oddities at Italo’s place are his sculptures of saints, a form of appropriated and reworked art that he invented in the late 1970s. They consist of commercially produced devotional images—religious kitsch, if you will — that began life as chromolithographs or large wooden statues or ceramic Madonna plaques of the sort that Italians stick in garden walls or in niches at traffic crossings: in Italo’s hands they’ve been overpainted, or turned upside down, or perforated, or married to other objects, or all of the above. If you scrutinize one of these plaques you get a quick lesson in his way of thinking. Imagine a stubby, superenergetic man darting into a commercial pottery in Deruta or Ravenna, picking out old iconic bas-reliefs that Italian consumers won’t buy anymore, dabbing abstract designs all over them with glaze, and then refiring them. The plaques start out white—they’re maybe 18 inches high — and end up with their original reliefs cleverly counterpointed or emphasized with decisive but also rather nervous brushstrokes. The result suggests an innocent’s awestruck pseudo-piety overlaid by an adult’s chastened meditations: a sort of frozen contradiction. “I like contradictions,” Italo often confesses.

In a converted garage at his studio compound, there’s a row of carved wooden saints housed in cages — elevator-type cages, not the prison variety — and in this room one afternoon, beside the brilliantly repainted bric-a-brac, I find Italo bending over a greenish painting that lies face up on a worktable. Characteristically, the painting has two insipid old prints (one of a bird and one of an Andean peasant) glued at opposite corners. It occurs to me that in Italo’s art a population of visual clichés seeks salvation from itself.

“Italo,” I say, sitting down in a chair, “you seem so very happy with vulgarity.”

He says, “Yes, I am happy with vulgarity," and goes on painting. Italo, it must be said, has a mild but noticeable case of echolalia. People with this habit answer you with the last words of your own sentence, as though playing verbal Ping-Pong. At its most extreme, the behavior is pathological, but that’s not true with Italo. In fact, I suspect that his slight echolalia is merely a product of the immigrant experience. Many people find it easiest to speak a foreign language when conversing with a talkative native speaker, like a child learning his first words, they pick up the native’s sounds, his rhythms, and then improvise their own phrases with the purloined material. That, I imagine, is how Italo contracted this habit: trying to be an American. He is, as he concedes, no linguist; but he often steers your words in unexpected directions.

“We are all of us,” he says on this afternoon, resuming his thought, “very vulgar. We try to protect our vulgarity with a shield, the way we protect our organs — our liver, our kidneys. A lot of the greatest Renaissance painting is actually very vulgar.”

“I think that Beccafumi was vulgar,” I admit.

“Vulgar but unpredictable —he was a genius hack."

Walking around his painting table to get a better reach, Italo feathers a held of green into a lighter field of the same hue, creating a soft transition. “El Greco was another hack,” he says. “Terrible artist — the terrible apostles in Toledo! He came off with some incredible, incredible paintings but basically he was vulgar. Annibale Carracci was extremely vulgar.”

“And viewers can’t see this anymore?”

“They can’t see it. Maybe they’re too used to it. Giotto was vulgar. All those angels, and he didn’t understand drapery. He had an over-repetitive way of doing it, he invented a silly sort of toga for his figures. But it’s hard to do this, to be vulgar, it takes nerve — most of us don’t want to touch on it. It takes courage to confess one’s vulgarity.”

Italo walks around his painting again and starts working on it from another angle. Suddenly gold dots appear all over the green field. The effect is impeccably vulgar.

“Murillo is one of my favorites,” Italo says. “His San Diego floating in space, 46 Immaculate Conceptions, Virgins in the sky — another vulgar artist. But wonderful. Vulgarity releases the energy, discloses a secret —it gets the self involved. Sometimes I tell my students: Be vulgar, make an ass of yourself.” Italo floats a few more gold dots onto the green painting, more strategically this time, more cagily. “Make an ass of yourself!” he laughs out. “But don’t make a habit of it.”

Religious kitsch isn’t the only kind of art that Italo appropriates and alters. Many of his pieces, especially the totemic sculptures, which consist partly of found objects, liberally quote from such styles as cubism or early-20th-century Italian “metaphysical" painting. This has been done before, of course, and done in many ways, but Italo’s way isn’t like any of them. Italo Isn’t particularly interested in the “problems” that Picasso or the early de Chirico encountered; he isn’t “extending their pictorial investigation.” Nor does he quote them in order to ram home some philosophical or social or art-historical point. What he does is fool around with the more decorative and superficial aspects of their styles, not ironically (“I would never say anything ironic about those great artists”) but out of sheer delight, like a poet making a fond pastiche of a work by an earlier poet. These pastiche-like elements become just another component in his goofy assemblages, which are like attempts to externalize the accretions in his mind; never belittled or ridiculed, the quotations from modernist classics figure always as honored guests. L’ospite è sacro, goes the Italian saying; “The guest is sacred.”

The origins of Italo’s peculiar obsession with religious statuary lie far in the past, well before World War II. This was the sort of imagery that dominated his Calabrian youth, forming his sole early contact with the idea of art. The truth is that a lot of the sculpture in southern Italian churches is not terribly old or beautiful and may even be made out of cast plaster or paper-mache — poor people’s materials; but memory ties these figures to the most painful experiences of Italo's hunger-haunted childhood.

He was born in 1932, in the village of Lago, not far from Cosenza, in the toe of the Italian boot. It was, he says, “a poverty-stricken, miserable place.” His father, Giuseppe, had left for America even before he was born, returning now and again for long sojourns; and his mother, Serafina, was already a grandmother. Italo was the latecomer, the “Benjamin,” of the family; at his birth, his two sisters were already both in their 20s, and his effective siblings — that is, his coevals and playmates — were actually his nephews, the children of his married sister Carolina. Italo recalls his early childhood as utterly destitute, barren of enjoyment: starvation always lurked around the corner.

It is hard for us today, living in this country, to imagine a situation like that of southern Italy in the 1930s, where entire villages of ordinary, hardworking people would start to worry every autumn — not as a consequence of some natural disaster, but strictly as a matter of course — about whether there would long be enough to eat. Shops would grow empty; rumors would fly about the streets. For Italo, this constant horror cast an oppressive pall over everyday life. The only interesting times were the holidays, the arrival of packages from America, and the concerts given by a brass band that played in a wooden gazebo in the town square. Sometimes Serafina would buy him candy at the store, and sometimes, in winter, a peasant would butcher a pig: he still vividly recalls the catching of the blood, the viscous juice being stirred over a fire, sausage meat being ground and stuffed into casings. He also remembers the lure of vegetable gardens in summer, ripe tomatoes being gathered in a crock, fish arriving from the nearby Tyrrhenian coast. But above all he remembers, almost physically, the brutal gnawing in the pit of his stomach, the constant longing for bread.

The Scangas’ manner of living was primitive, a few tiny rooms in a stone cottage leakily roofed with clay tiles. When a window broke, his mother put a piece of cardboard in it. Yet because of his father’s care packages from the United States, his family was actually a little better off than Carolina’s. One day Carolina told Italo that all she'd had in the house to eat when his nephew Alfredo was born was three green tomatoes in a basket under the bed.

During Italo’s christening, Serafina was graced with the sudden foreknowledge that her second son would become a woodcarver or otherwise work with his hands. At the age of four or five he was entrusted, along with several other boys, to the care of a local cabinetmaker named Salvatore, who slyly exploited these little helpers. Salvatore kept a casual eye on Italo and the other boys while they did chores or fetched water or gathered prickly pears and he insisted that they repay this service with cupfuls of sugar or noodles or oil. Then, when he got drunk, Salvatore would grow suddenly generous and ply them with whatever he was drinking.

For the poor to go to school in Lago was almost a physical impossibility. Italo and his nephews were duly enrolled in first grade, but soon they wore out their shoes. When it snowed, in midwinter, they' had no way to get around. Italo recalls explaining this to his teacher. “I said to her, ‘Donna Lucia, I can’t walk to school,’ and she said, ‘Bring the braciere,’ the foot warmer, in order that I could warm my feet when I arrived. But of course we had to bring our own coal to put in the braciere, and I had no coal.” So Italo set about carving pairs of zoccoli the antiquated wooden shoes of the Italian peasantry, for himself and his cousins. Much later, as an artist, he would sometimes incorporate a wooden clog — a piece of tourist kitsch fraught with secret personal associations — into one of his sculptures.

Because of his precocious manual dexterity, Italo was put to a trade after two years of school, in the shop of a local cabinetmaker named Orlando Turret. From Orlando he picked up the knack of cutting joints and working a lathe, though he never thought he was especially good at it. But Orlando also taught him the rudiments of wood carving, which interested him more, and sometimes, under Orlando’s direction, Italo modeled figurines of shepherds, donkeys, or goats to contribute to one of logo’s Christmas crèches. (Such crèches, or presepi, which may hold hundreds of exquisitely rendered — and, yes, rather vulgar — people and animals, are a major art form in Italy, especially in the south; in Naples there is a Museo dei Fresepi.) Orlando taught Italo to model figures in clay, and after a while the boy began to feel that the directness of this process released his energy so fluently that the act was becoming idolatrous; it was as though he were creating life itself. Flat pictures didn’t produce this effect. The paintings in the village churches, in the Chiesa di San Nicola di Bari and the Madonna dei Monti and San Giuseppe and Santissima Annunziata, were half-hidden, suspended high on the stone walls and darkened by candle soot and centuries of incense, whereas the sculpted saints in their niches seemed endowed with powers of thought and locomotion. They might at any moment cry out, or weep, or perhaps merely cough.

Among the more vulgar and celebrated of Italo’s sculptures is a Saint Joseph, of 1977, which he won’t sell and keeps in the faculty studio at UCSD. It’s an almost life-size plaster cast — a commercially produced statue—of Joseph holding the baby Jesus. In claiming this statue for himself, Italo carved off the more sharply projecting folds of the saint’s drapery. He painted the plaster in a complicated pattern. He repositioned the saint so that his head pointed downward at an angle and cradled him behind glass on a wooden chassis. And then, at intervals along Joseph’s body, facing the viewer, he also anchored seven white cubes of various sizes. The result is a queerly retrofitted ritual object, a votive figure that has lost its authority and which, no longer speaking to us of faith or prayer, evokes a puzzling range of superimposed associations.

A saint gone feral, a saint turned maverick... Italo was interested in remaking Joseph precisely because his saintliness lay in his being passed over, in his having to stand aside. Joseph’s marriage wasn’t consummated and his son wasn’t really his, but he loyally protected his wife and child, even spiriting the pair away into Egypt for a spell. Joseph was a carpenter whose work is never described for us by the Gospels, being presumably devoid of interest, and the Catholic Church has never paid him much heed. “He was really just a handyman,” says Italo, with appreciation. Italo respects carpenters and of course had some training as one; he values manual skill and has no higher praise for a group of students than “really good with their hands.” Saint Joseph is obviously influenced by conceptual art, but unlike a lot of conceptual art it has a candid aptness of design that is sensuously satisfying. Most of Italo’s inventions are based on arresting ideas, but they don’t stop at being ideas: they’re made with dexterity, aptness of touch.

As a child, Italo felt a daily renewed sense of loss over the absence of his father, Giuseppe. He saw the statues of the saints in church as paternal, magical presences and also as figures of frightening potency. Decades later, as an adult, he came to feel that by altering or remaking such hallowed images he could purge himself of the fear they’d inspired; and even today, whenever he recalls the devotional statuary of his childhood, he seems to slip back into a sepulchral, premodern world.

One day, over spaghetti at his place, Italo starts telling me about a statue in a church in Lago. “It showed San Rocca di Francia,” he says, twirling his fork, “who was really an imposing figure. San Rocca carried a staff and a gourd and he pointed toward his leg, toward the bubo, the boil from the bubonic plague, which was black and blue and terrifying, especially for a child. San Rocca had a dog who’d brought him food in his teeth and had licked his wound, and that’s how he’d survived — ”

“Italo, hold on,” I say, because I don’t know the story of San Rocca (our "Saint Roche,” as I later discover) and I’m getting a little confused. “Do you mean the dog helped San Rocca?”

“He helped him, yes. That’s the miracle.”

I stop eating. “Okay, so the dog was great, the dog was fantastic. But what miracles did San Rocca himself perform? I mean, what did he do to become a saint?”

Italo thinks for a moment; his fork is silent. “He traveled around, to cities, to Rome, and showed that he had survived.”

“That he had survived?”

“With the help of God, yes. I imagine.”

“That’s all? That’s all he did, survived, and for that they made him a saint?” I’m convinced that there has to be much more to it but Italo’s large, handsome head registers only puzzlement, his mind pedaling back into his boyhood as he tries to remember the real reason for San Rocca s canonization.

“I don't think San Rocca did much of anything, Italo says finally, his accent deepening, his wrinkled brow betraying dissatisfaction with his memory. “What I know is that that dog saved his ass. But the dog doesn’t play an important part. The moral is to travel, to go to a destination, to get somewhere far away, and on foot. San Rocca was a humble man.”

“Okay, he was humble. But why the gourd?" What I’m beginning to suspect is that Italo’s childhood dread of the statue erased all rational knowledge, so that whatever he was told about the real San Rocca was washed out at some point by physical terror.

The gourd maybe was for water or some other liquid,” he replies 'I don t know — San Rocca had a huge head, glass eyes, a funny hat like a Marine hat, a fisherman’s hat, and — and that's why he carried the shell!”

The shell? Or the gourd?”

Italo stares at me and puts down his fork. “Listen,” lie says, "the only things that really interested me were the dog, the eyes, and the wound, lie was standing inside a chapel, on the other side of a cancello, a metal screen, with a door that you could open or close, and he was inside a glassed in box, something like a niche. They took him out on his own day, San Rocca s Day, which was wonderful for me, a release, a deliverance, because then I could examine the details on him and he became less mysterious. Those saints’ days were always big moments.”

This conversation convinced me that (Catholicism as a formal creed doesn’t enter into Italo’s art. When he first started buying statues of saints and, as it were, decommissioning them, he wasn’t objecting to the use of such simulacra in prayer, much less to their intercessory role; he wasn’t concerned with religion at all. Yet only a secularized sensibility could have invested art with the power to empty such objects of their ritual content — a devout person would always be puzzled by such desanctification, which might seem rather like using food as a toy. (Italo himself is similarly puzzled by the sort of standard American kindergarten collage that makes use of stuck-on pasta as a design element: “It isn’t cute, it’s a waste,” he says.)

When Italo first exhibited his remodeled saints in Italy, at the Tyler College Gallery, in Rome—the school runs a program there — many viewers were offended. Contrary to American perceptions, the Italians are not a very pious people, unless you want to include certain folklore and superstitious beliefs under the heading of faith, and the reused devotional imagery didn’t trouble them much. What did bother them, though —and, curiously enough, it bothered American viewers even more — was the blatant, unapologetic presence of the Mezzogiorno, the Italian south, in an exhibition space. Trying to capture the shock of emigration, Italo had traveled to Calabria to collect peasant objects — rakes, hoes, bakers’ paddles, carding and spinning equipment, baskets, religious figurines — and on his return he had filled the gallery not only with these artifacts and with his own creations but also with figs and coarse goat cheeses and lupini beans that conveyed the ripe, acrid odors of places like Lago. A naked lightbulb—that classic emblem of the Italian village kitchen — hung from a long, dangling cord, and the walls were scrawled with the texts of agitated letters that Italian peasants, immigrants to the United States, had written home. In mounting this show Italo wasn’t trying to be wildly original or provocative or, least of all, ironic; he just wanted to see how he and others would feel when confronted with the vestiges of a rapidly vanishing rural society. Actually the installation was so tender and melancholic, and in a way so altruistic, that it veered right out of the conventional art field and a little into the realm of ethnology. But many visitors to the gallery were outraged. The material wasn’t classical or cultivated, it wasn’t the sort of art that an American ought to be showing in the Eternal City, and there were daily pickets at the door. These demonstrations, which might have perversely gratified an avant-garde artist, dismayed the fretful Italo, who had merely been trying to make a simple if texturally rich social statement.

The idea that background can be a source of inspiration came rather late to Italo. Until his delayed maturation as an artist, he didn’t think of the peasants of southern Italy as having, for instance, a “wholesome Mediterranean cuisine,” but simply as not having much to eat. Nor did he recall the landscape as beautiful: that revelation, too, came later. Especially in winter, the shadows of the Calabrian hills and cliffs had always frightened him. Vast and lonely, forming a dark basin in which Lago and its sister villages helplessly sprawled, these uplands aroused in him no notion of the picturesque nor any metaphorical image of striving or ascension; and when as an adult he saw mountains again, in Austria and Switzerland, he felt his unease return. Later, Italo would discover that the great Italian Renaissance philosopher Tommaso Campanella, a colleague of Giordano Bruno, had come from the village of Pizzo, near Lago. Campanella believed — it was a belief that would cost him the Church’s opposition — in the existence of an infinite universe, filled with a plurality of populated worlds, and Italo wondered if there was anything in the place itself that had contributed to Campanella’s vision. Wishing to know what Campanella’s eyes had beheld, Italo journeyed to Pizzo; he found the savant’s childhood room, which was smaller even than his own had been, a cubbyhole with a single mean window in one wall. And looking through that peephole Italo did see more or less what Campanella had seen—a long gray river that meandered into the distance, among those melancholy hills that continued on and on until they merged in a miasmic haze. Italo was strangely moved by that unending landscape as framed by that tiny square. Before, he had hardly been able to believe that a genius like (Campanella could have come from a place like Pizzo — a place, as he puts it, where “people grew up almost like animals.”

Basically apolitical, the Scanga family felt that only ignorant people joined the Fascist Part). Italo’s elder brother Nicola liked to poke fun at Fascism, which he seemed to regard as one part theater, one part fashion show. There was, however, a certain social pressure to at least look like a Fascist, which led to a sort of mass imposture in the village, a general playacting. Shortly before the war, Nicola became a carabiniere and, out of convenience, a Fascist Avanguardista: when he put on the uniform, his appearance delighted the whole family, for purely aesthetic reasons. “That was the one positive thing about Fascism,” Italo recalls, with a smirk. “This was Italy, so the uniforms were great. Even under Fascism, even in wartime, there was elegance in Italy, everyone wanted to fare bella figura. Those girls in their uniforms! They wore splendid yellow bandannas with olive green blouses and bright green skirts. Once Mussolini himself came to visit us, not at Lago but at Belmonte, a nearby town, which maybe had something to do with the fact that a local boy, Michele Bianchi, was then his minister of culture. Well, everybody came to march for Mussolini, they marched proudly down the streets of Belmonte, and one of those who marched was a tall girl from Lago who had flaming red hair that went beautifully with her yellow bandanna and her green uniform. Red, yellow, green — she was perfect! Remember that we Calabresi are mostly dark, so red-haired girls are rare in that part of the world. Anyway, the Duce was staring at all the women going by—maybe that was the only thing in Calabria that actually interested him! — and of course he saw the beautiful red-haired girl. He invited her to visit him where he was staying, and she accepted, which was highly improper, absolutely taboo, and in that way she immediately ruined her reputation and was regarded as an absolute whore by everybody, though after a few years people didn’t care so much anymore and she married a very nice man who kept a store selling stationery and ice cream and other odds and ends and they had a lot of children. A few years ago, when I was back in Lago, I met her, and I said to her, ‘I think you can tell me now — what really happened with Mussolini?’ She burst out laughing and said, in Calabrese, ‘Nente! attcora parrano?’ which means ‘Nothing! Are people still talking about it?’ “

When the Americans invaded Italy, in 1943, they clashed with the Germans, who had recently occupied the country. Terrorized, Italo watched the German tanks roll in and then out of his neighborhood. Both German and American planes made strafing runs over the roads in and around Lago, and the villagers abandoned their homes. “My mother pulled us away into the country in the middle of the night," Italo tells me. “We slept on piles of chestnuts smelling of mildew, and there was never anything to eat except moldy chestnut bread and a few figs. Every shop, every business in the area was boarded up on account of the war. There was no bread, no flour, no oil. Sometimes, before, we’d had a little pasta with a bit of fish, which was not so hard to get since the sea was nearby. But I clearly remember that on Christmas Day of 1944 we had absolutely nothing to eat — not one single thing. We went out into the fields to pick greens and herbs and whatever else we could find.”

Toward the end of the war Italo contracted diphtheria. Serafina knew of no cure for the fever, and she expected her son to die. She told him, sometime later, that she’d even had a carpenter come by to take his measure for a coffin. Before he’d had time to expire, however, his brother obtained penicillin from some American troops encamped nearby. The medication, the American doctor said, was to be taken orally, and he told Italo to coat his stomach lining with starch. After a long search, Serafina obtained one meager handful of rice, and to this day Italo remembers the individual grains lying in her cupped hands and then dancing in a pot of boiling water. He took the rice and the penicillin as directed, and when he saw no more blood in his chamber pot, he knew that he would not die.

By the time the Allies had driven the Germans from Italy, poverty and war had dispersed— in a sense, destroyed — the Scanga family. It was never to reunite. His mother was already in her late 50s, and all the family’s male protectors—not only Italo’s father but also his grownup brother—were gone. Nicola (or Nick, as Italo came to call him after the pair joined their father in America) had dropped out of the Fascist Avanguardia and vanished, only to reemerge as an anti-Fascist partisan up north, where a lot of the stiffest resistance to the Nazis developed toward the end of the war. “At heart he was a Communist,” Italo says with a wry smile, “but believe me, he didn’t say so when he applied tor a visa to the United States.”


The biggest wrench in the life of the Scangas was unquestionably immigration. While the two grown-up daughters stayed behind in Lago, Serafima and Italo joined Giuseppe, who was now working as a railway trackman, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania; Nick found a job of his own, in Detroit. Italo feels that Nick never really got over this uprooting, never overcame his unhappiness. Italo himself, being younger when he arrived here and perhaps simpler emotionally, was far less pained by the experience; still, he was deeply disoriented He didn’t feel homesick for the place where he’d been hungry all the time, but he was plagued by a “frustrating duality” that never allowed him to know who he was or where he belonged. In America, as he knew, nothing would be handed down to him — no stone cottage, no parched half-acre, not even an earthenware crock with a tomato in it.

Italo’s parents remained very poor, but Giuseppe refused to accept any form of social assistance or charity, and together father and son walked the railroad tracks looking for nuggets of coal to burn. The idea of educating Italo never occurred to Giuseppe, who advised him to find work in a grocery store. In this suggestion there was perhaps an element of sympathetic magic: the idea, it seems, was to slip stealthily inside the halo or aura given off by food. “Try to work in the produce section,” his father repeatedly urged him. “ And don’t forget to bring home lots of vegetables."

Giuseppe was so confused by life in the United States that he sent Italo to Sunday school at the local Lutheran church under the illusion that it was Catholic — perhaps neither of the two immigrants was aware that there was any other kind of church. Only later, looking in his copy of the Bible, did Italo realize that the volume had been given him by a Protestant institution. In public school, at age 15, he was placed in second grade, where he sat politely among the little children; year after year he did as he was told and was not unhappy. He graduated from high school at 21, then went immediately into the Army.

Stationed with the American occupation forces in Linz, in Austria, Italo met an Austrian painter named Fritz Agner who introduced him to the world of culture—an art school, concerts, Bruckner’s house in St. Florian, and the Baroque church where he had served as organist and sacristan. In Vienna, Agner showed Italo Klimt’s and Schiele’s work and introduced him to Kokoschka. By the time Italo returned to the United States he felt ready to train as an artist.

Nick, meanwhile, had remained in Michigan, where Italo joined him. "Nick was a very nice guy, a good man, really courageous,” Italo recalls. “When he came to America he worked first in a glass factory in West Virginia and then in auto plants in Detroit, and gradually he became a reactionary. I followed him to Detroit, I worked there for several years, mostly on the night shift, working on those big old automatic clutches at GM’s Detroit Transmission Division.”

At the same time, while availing himself of the GI Bill to enroll in daytime courses at Michigan State University, in East leasing, Italo met Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the Florentine composer. A Jew who had sought refuge in the United States after Mussolini’s Racial Laws of 1938, Castelnuovo-Tedesco had yet to write his popular guitar concerto and was still relatively unknown, but Italo took to him at once. He found the elderly musician “gentle, fragile, beautiful,” the essence of a cultivated Tuscan gentleman. For his part, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who had the Italian patrician’s attraction to all that comes from the earth, was charmed by halo’s peasant manner and fresh ideas about art and music. He encouraged Italo to pursue his aesthetic interests, and before he left East Lansing he presented the young Calabrese-American with a little bottle of good olive oil, a precious commodity in the Michigan of the ’50s.

L’ospite è sacro... The relation between host and guest, the idea of welcoming and being welcomed, of feeling at home and making others feel so, runs through everything Italo does. His slight echolalia is probably, as I have suggested, an aural encapsulation of the experience of making one’s home inside a new language; his reconditioning of religious statuary, which is like cooking a new dish with an old staple, is a final ingestion, a belated welcoming, of the daunting culture of his childhood; and his quoting of Picasso and others expresses his candid enjoyment of the fact that art is a house filled with other people.

Dale Chihuly, a notable figure in contemporary glassmaking, has made Italo feel particularly at home in the world of American art. A leprechaun-looking man who is the guiding spirit of Pilchuk, the glassmaking center in Washington State, Chihuly produces a steady avalanche of vitreous sculptures and objects, and at least once a year Italo joins him for several frenetic weeks of designing his own works in glass, which are realized on the spot by the Pilchuk craftsmen. Chihuly’s insistence on fulfilling his every artistic urge, from the most lyrical to the most grotesque, has reinforced Italo’s own belief that an artist has to be generous with his impulses and not waste time judging or belittling his creations. Such negativity, Italo feels, is to be grudging of one’s gifts; and when working with glass he himself must wrestle with a medium that is all metamorphic energy, a medium that starts off as a fiery liquid and ends up as a cool, smooth solid. “At Pilchuk,” Italo says, “I become a different person, less intellectual, all physicality, fire, water, and air. The shop is like a big building with furnaces in the middle, and I draw on the wall, on the floor, I mix color on the marver, the steel table, and then the blower picks it up and makes one of my glass trees or flames — the whole thing’s very technical, very craft-y, there’s no time to think things over.”

Sometimes people criticize Italo for his diluvial “overproduction," his endless series of works in various media. They complain of a lack of quality control and of a certain repetitiveness. Italo, they point out, will blithely make 20 paintings of the same type and size, some gorgeous and some perfectly humdrum, and accord them all equal rights; and actually Italo admits as much. In a way, the criticism is accurate, but like so much criticism it has no real use — it’s pointless. To make all sorts of fussy, judgmental distinctions between pieces would only impede Italo’s élan and cramp his temperament- he’s better off as he is. After all, if he does something to which you don’t respond, you don’t have to look at it or put it on your wall. Chances are you’ll find something else you admire.

I’ve never studied with Italo, so I don’t know what his teaching is like; I do know that it’s terribly important for him, that it’s part of his belief in generosity. But does he know what a big American university really is, and do the people at UCSD really understand what they have on their hands in his knotted, intense, diminutive frame? I feel that they must know; how could they not? But the conjunction Italo/university remains for me surreal, much more so than that of a sewing machine and an operating table.

One afternoon Italo tries to drag me over to UCSD. It starts in the courtyard of his compound in Pacific Beach, amid the blue fountains covered with wandering animals and the tables full of wrought-iron vases. I am half blinded by the sun blinking rapidly through the rotating whirligig on one of his sculptures when he grabs my arm and starts yanking.

“Come on, we’re going to the Faculty Club,” he announces.

“You’re going," I say. “I’m staying.”

I shield my eves, staring at him: a chubby peasant cut out against a vast, motionless cortege of metal dinosaurs and glass pigs and brass stags and horrid statuettes of kissing couples.

He pulls harder, laughing at me. “What’s the matter, you afraid of professors, afraid of college?”

He is right, of course — as a student, I hated college—but eventually, sometime later, through sheer persistence, he succeeds in dragging me to the Faculty Club. And it Isn’t bad, actually, watching Italo trudge through the refectory, listening to him talk about covering it with murals, listening to him gossip about academic politics; but what really impresses me is his genuine sense of belonging to this variant of American domesticity. It’s touching in its naiveté and in its sheer oddness, like hearing an old soldier explain to you why he is so completely at home now in a greenhouse or a potting shed.

Italo likes to think of himself as someone who avoids the backbiting and petty envies of the university art department, and maybe this self-conception is valid; I really have no idea. He doesn’t seem envious of his students — and some of them, like Bruce Nauman, have gone on to become more famous than he is — but then again, he has probably always needed his students more than most artists do. Italo’s world is one of hangers-on, of acolytes and helpers and favor seekers, and one of their principal functions, I suspect, is just to provide him with company, to placate his inner sense of peril. Only rarely does his impatience with his colleagues poke through. “I can’t help making fun of people who use the word ‘postmodernism,’ ’’ he tells me in a seditious tone as we leave the Faculty Club. “The teachers or the students insist, ‘ We have to address this issue,’ but I answer, ‘What issue, what’s “an issue,” why address it? “Time does not just flow along like a row of problems to be solved one after the other — time isn’t Cartesian, at least not in art. Picasso’s work of 1918 — it’s as contemporary now as when it was made. If art looks good, if it makes you happy or improves your life, that’s important. And maybe that’s all that’s important.’’


Italo tells me that he has no regrets except one. “It’s that I can’t prove to anybody — to anybody, I mean, who would care — that I’m successful. This is the sort of thing we want to prose to our parents, to our families — we want to thank them and to show them we’ve done well. I adored my two sisters, Carolina and Mafalda, who were really like mothers to me — they were so much older than I was — but they were always ill at ease with my art. I wasn’t Michelangelo, which is what an Italian thinks of when he or she thinks of an artist. My sisters could relate, though, to my being a professore. That they were proud of! I was so close to them — ‘hey were very, very naive, with no more than one or two grades of school, no education, but so brilliant about some things, with a brilliant feel for music. One day when I’d made plenty of money and was back visiting, I said, 'Mafà, what do you need?’ and she answered. 'A fridge, Italuzzo, a fridge!’ That was all she could think of — oh yes, that and a few more flowerpots. Carolì on the other hand — I called them Carolì and Mafà, and they called me Italuzzo—Carolì was keen on money Of course old people like money they’re frightened and lonely but basically Carolì wanted coins, she wanted change. She just loved the feel and jingle of change — and also shoes, I now remember, she loved especially American shoes, their wideness."

It occurs to me that Italo has just drifted into his own variant of one of the great themes of Italian folk and popular music: the lament of the son who wanders far from home in search of work and who thinks back remorsefully to his aging mother, his beloved little black-clad mother whom he has abandoned and who has only a short time left to live. I sing a few lines of one of these songs, a well-known canzonetta, and then Italo responds with another song, “Luna Pensosa.”

Luna, luna pensosa,

Dov’è andata la mia sposa,

Dov’è andata la mia casa?

Moon, pensive moon, where is my wife, and where is my house...

“You can feel what the song means — it’s during the war, it’s after a bombardment, and the man comes home and finds that his wife and his house have both been completely destroyed. And that’s what happened in Calabria, only the thing is, it happened to the whole culture. It’s all gone now, it’s really completely gone."


Often when I peer into Italo’s world of reminiscence, I feel his anxiety rising. As we talk he warns, “I don’t want people to think that my memories have made me, that the past has made me what I am.” And I have to reassure him (one is always reassuring Italo of something or other) that such a thought would never occur to me. Our memories do not create us, of course, it is we who create them. It may be true that many of them recur to us unbidden and inalterable, but we cannot express them to anyone else, in language or in art, without some slippage into coquetry, into self-promotion. In that respect we are all false advertisers.

Likewise, Italo’s art is not reminiscence but its metaphorical fabrication. In him, as in all of us, such fabrication shields an inner sanctum of secrecy. How would my picture of Italo be changed by all that he has not told me about himself? About his divorces, his children, his wrangles with dealers and college administrators? I cannot say, but in a way the question is irrelevant. In certain friendships one sees the other only through a prism, and with Italo that prism is art.

Up at Pilchuk these last few years Italo has been making a lot of glass trees and glass flames — the two are cognate forms really, because Italo’s trees are of that tall, slender variety that you see along lanes in the Italian countryside. The trees are like flames and the flames are like pigs’ hooves, like plastic purses, like candy corn. They are redeemed clichés, clichés that have received salvation.

One morning, passing by a table loaded with glasswork, I say to him, “Your trees, Italo — are they supposed to be cypresses or Lombardy poplars?”

“Oh, I don’t know, cypresses or maybe poplars,” he says. “They’re — trees, you know. Just trees.”

“But do they really have trees like that in Calabria?” I ask. “I’ve never been in Calabria but I’ve been in Puglia, and there are very few trees like that in Puglia. Your trees don’t even seem like common southern trees, they seem more Lombard or Emilian.”

Italo heaves a sigh of exasperation. “Yes, maybe Lombard or Emilian. They’re northern trees, but I think of them simply as Italian.”

So these slender trees aren’t a memory at all, they’re just standing in for a memory, like understudies, like impostors: they’re part of a consciously, even ruthlessly fictional world, a world that is as much mask as it is disclosure. And I can only suppose that their purpose must be, as it was in the ancient Roman and then in the Renaissance landscape, to lead the mind toward thoughts of streams and winding roads and farmhouses, but also toward temples and burial grounds.

Near the glass trees is a row of big glass funnels, a frequent element in Italo’s art; and it occurs to me suddenly, as I pick one up, that the funnel, like the tall ornamental tree, is a distinctly two-sided emblem. It’s an emblem of waste, because what you pour in one end comes right out the other; but it’s also an emblem of plenty, because it assumes that you have lots of something to pour in the wide end and divide among smaller containers. The funnel is a reminder — though not necessarily a conscious one— of the abundance of feeling in the artist and perhaps in each one of us; an abundance which, to be useful, must be carefully stored in the appropriate collection of vessels.

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No Time to Die indeed
Italo Scanga. Do the people at UCSD really understand what they have on their hands in his knotted, intense, diminutive frame? - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Italo Scanga. Do the people at UCSD really understand what they have on their hands in his knotted, intense, diminutive frame?

The interior that Italo Scanga has created around himself in his studio compound, in Pacific Beach, is basically hive-like or agglutinative in that everything keeps on sticking itself onto everything else. The pileup grows bigger and bigger, like a florid sentence spun out by an orator who’s forgotten what he wanted to say. In one vast, airy chamber there are, aside from Italo’s art, 30 crummy birdhouses, a row of cheap busts of composers, herds of sculpted elephants in diverse media, sinuous Southeast Asian puppets, a life-size gilded folk angel carved in wood, a nacreous concertina, rows of teensy Fred Flintstones marching alongside ranks of plaster Blessed Virgins in Necco Wafer colors. There are several huge tables pullulating with glass animals, snarling china dogs, crippled machines. There are trace artifacts from a dozen parallel universes.

Italo with his sculpture. “My mother pulled us away into the country in the middle of the night. We slept on piles of chestnuts."

Every object is a conduit to Italo’s past, so the mess is an agglomeration of flashbacks, an assemblage created largely to memorialize an earlier assemblage — the totality of one man’s reveries.

It’s a little like a 19th-century Italian villa, neo-Gothic, crawling with lobsterish ornament. With its many duplicates (there’s a whole troupe of plaster mariachi singers, each with its identically upturned, exalted, pencil-mustached face), halo’s gaudy inventory is also a sort of catalog realized in the round. It has the catalog’s jaunty optimism, its confidence that everything can be replaced from an eternal, inexhaustible stock.

Italo with assistants. Sometimes people criticize him for diluvial “overproduction."

Italo the artist starts out as Italo the shopper. One summer morning I run into him at the swap meet outside the Sports Arena, a market he compulsively haunts. I hang with him awhile as he paws his way through the middens of earlier, worthless civilizations. “Isn’t this interesting, isn’t that weird?” he asks again and again, and when I answer, “Yes, Italo, this is truly interesting, and that is truly weird,” more often than not he buys the stuff for me — or for my wife or little son, who are wandering nearby, scrutinizing other junk piles. Thanks to Italo’s cataractlike generosity we own not only several of his beautiful drawings but also a vicious-looking cuckoo from a cuckoo clock, two elderly tablecloths, a set of 50-year-old guidebooks to knitting technique, a physician’s electric light for peering at your adenoids, and an assortment of minute, toy-like objects, most of which we’ve by now misplaced (if the term suits such inherently unplaceable doodads). Several days a week Italo carries his treasures back to his studio, where they may find a perch in one of his sculptures.

Italo sketching. Interspersed among the marooned oddities at Italo’s place are his sculptures of saints.

Italo’s nose, head, and body are all squarish and blocky: modeled, as it might be, by the same designer, a no-nonsense guy with a job to do. Only the ears are different — Baroque, outsized, raffishly appliqued. Italo is short, a southern Italian. He has tightly curled brown-and-gray hair. He has a paunch, which fits neatly over a wide leather belt — a macho effect. He wears shorts and hiking boots. He used to drink like crazy but quit cold. He has been married twice, with five kids, but Isn’t now. He speaks very literate English with a heavy Italian accent that he might almost have copied from Chico Marx but didn’t. He is simpatico like Chico Marx. His life is an acrobat balanced on the airplane wing of humor and always about to fall into the void of terror.

“Oh, I don’t know, cypresses or maybe poplars. They’re — trees, you know. Just trees.”

Like all adults who live surrounded by toys, Italo appeals to children, to the infantine in anyone. With those walking boots of his he seems to hike perpetually through his domain, pausing now and then for a chat about classic art or a discussion of some novel Italian recipe. (His girlfriend, Su-Mei Yu, who runs Saffron, the Thai restaurant on India Street, often turns up for lunch with a sampling of her daily specials, and this attracts a high-spirited, babbling crowd of friends, assistants, buyers, and sycophants.) Italo started to acquire a national and even international reputation about 15 years ago, when he was already approaching 50. He came to this country from Calabria after World War II, as a teenager, and developed slowly. He has made his living largely as an art teacher — a job he likes and takes seriously — first at the University of Wisconsin and then, successively, at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia, and finally the UCSD art department, where he has been since 1976. But with the exception of UCSD he is barely involved in the life of San Diego, except for the Taylor branch of the public library, in Pacific Beach, an institution he supports and which has acquired a small collection of his sculptures. He lives a few blocks from the beach and has emphatically never been there — “No, not even once.” Italo is half rustic simplicity, half cosmopolitan sophistication. He is by now rather learned in art lore and history, and you sense that teaching has taught him a lot. With the rustic’s annoyance and the cosmopolitan’s amusement, he tells stories about the northern Italian snobs who’ve stuck up their noses at his modest southern origins. To their question, “How many years of schooling do you have?” he is pleased to respond, “Three, of elementare”; and to the inevitable succeeding query, “What job do you have now?” he tosses out, “Professore. ” He watches their eyes widen.

The ’60s and ’70s were somewhat uncomfortable years for Italo. His art wasn’t mature yet, but it was decidedly figurative, full of people and animals, and figurative art wasn't voguish then. Italo admired the best minimal and conceptual art, but he stubbornly clung to his own interests and obsessions; he was encouraged to per severe by friends like Dan Flavin, the minimalist sculptor, who liked what he was doing. In the early ’80s, as his ideas began to cohere more forcefully, his work found commercial acceptance as a sort of sculptural counterpart of neo-expressionism, though actually it had little in common with that movement. He was able, however, to show quite widely, both here and abroad, which has not prevented him from maintaining a position of striking independence vis-à-vis the art market.

Italo is fantastically productive. His domain contains forests and moraines of everything he does: paintings and colored drawings majolica relief plaques semiabstract sculptures, which are generally tall, totemic, and brightly painted; strange, desanctified religious statues; fountains made of welded-steel shapes glass flames like parodies of mortuary -chapel props 2-foot-tall trees made of glass and 20-foot-tall trees made of welded drive chain; and large, silly-looking glass funnels that seem possessed of some obscure allegorical meaning and that usually find their way into the assemblages. Here and there you see sculptures from his “Fear" series pieces exploring man’s terrors, or his “Troubled World" series, in which painted or graffiti-scrawled globes (“Hunger,” says one) are balanced upon other objects, like tools and tree stumps. Within the same assemblage some objects retain their usual size, others are shown at an inflated or toy-like scale, and still others partake simultaneously of two scale systems, like the globes, which are desk-globe-sized and yet also depictions of Earth and her sorrows. These sculptures are invigorating to be near, because you begin to feel that you yourself are several sizes at once. While being nudged into worrying about global pollution you may also be examining a tiny blue elephant parading about in thin air.

Interspersed among the marooned oddities at Italo’s place are his sculptures of saints, a form of appropriated and reworked art that he invented in the late 1970s. They consist of commercially produced devotional images—religious kitsch, if you will — that began life as chromolithographs or large wooden statues or ceramic Madonna plaques of the sort that Italians stick in garden walls or in niches at traffic crossings: in Italo’s hands they’ve been overpainted, or turned upside down, or perforated, or married to other objects, or all of the above. If you scrutinize one of these plaques you get a quick lesson in his way of thinking. Imagine a stubby, superenergetic man darting into a commercial pottery in Deruta or Ravenna, picking out old iconic bas-reliefs that Italian consumers won’t buy anymore, dabbing abstract designs all over them with glaze, and then refiring them. The plaques start out white—they’re maybe 18 inches high — and end up with their original reliefs cleverly counterpointed or emphasized with decisive but also rather nervous brushstrokes. The result suggests an innocent’s awestruck pseudo-piety overlaid by an adult’s chastened meditations: a sort of frozen contradiction. “I like contradictions,” Italo often confesses.

In a converted garage at his studio compound, there’s a row of carved wooden saints housed in cages — elevator-type cages, not the prison variety — and in this room one afternoon, beside the brilliantly repainted bric-a-brac, I find Italo bending over a greenish painting that lies face up on a worktable. Characteristically, the painting has two insipid old prints (one of a bird and one of an Andean peasant) glued at opposite corners. It occurs to me that in Italo’s art a population of visual clichés seeks salvation from itself.

“Italo,” I say, sitting down in a chair, “you seem so very happy with vulgarity.”

He says, “Yes, I am happy with vulgarity," and goes on painting. Italo, it must be said, has a mild but noticeable case of echolalia. People with this habit answer you with the last words of your own sentence, as though playing verbal Ping-Pong. At its most extreme, the behavior is pathological, but that’s not true with Italo. In fact, I suspect that his slight echolalia is merely a product of the immigrant experience. Many people find it easiest to speak a foreign language when conversing with a talkative native speaker, like a child learning his first words, they pick up the native’s sounds, his rhythms, and then improvise their own phrases with the purloined material. That, I imagine, is how Italo contracted this habit: trying to be an American. He is, as he concedes, no linguist; but he often steers your words in unexpected directions.

“We are all of us,” he says on this afternoon, resuming his thought, “very vulgar. We try to protect our vulgarity with a shield, the way we protect our organs — our liver, our kidneys. A lot of the greatest Renaissance painting is actually very vulgar.”

“I think that Beccafumi was vulgar,” I admit.

“Vulgar but unpredictable —he was a genius hack."

Walking around his painting table to get a better reach, Italo feathers a held of green into a lighter field of the same hue, creating a soft transition. “El Greco was another hack,” he says. “Terrible artist — the terrible apostles in Toledo! He came off with some incredible, incredible paintings but basically he was vulgar. Annibale Carracci was extremely vulgar.”

“And viewers can’t see this anymore?”

“They can’t see it. Maybe they’re too used to it. Giotto was vulgar. All those angels, and he didn’t understand drapery. He had an over-repetitive way of doing it, he invented a silly sort of toga for his figures. But it’s hard to do this, to be vulgar, it takes nerve — most of us don’t want to touch on it. It takes courage to confess one’s vulgarity.”

Italo walks around his painting again and starts working on it from another angle. Suddenly gold dots appear all over the green field. The effect is impeccably vulgar.

“Murillo is one of my favorites,” Italo says. “His San Diego floating in space, 46 Immaculate Conceptions, Virgins in the sky — another vulgar artist. But wonderful. Vulgarity releases the energy, discloses a secret —it gets the self involved. Sometimes I tell my students: Be vulgar, make an ass of yourself.” Italo floats a few more gold dots onto the green painting, more strategically this time, more cagily. “Make an ass of yourself!” he laughs out. “But don’t make a habit of it.”

Religious kitsch isn’t the only kind of art that Italo appropriates and alters. Many of his pieces, especially the totemic sculptures, which consist partly of found objects, liberally quote from such styles as cubism or early-20th-century Italian “metaphysical" painting. This has been done before, of course, and done in many ways, but Italo’s way isn’t like any of them. Italo Isn’t particularly interested in the “problems” that Picasso or the early de Chirico encountered; he isn’t “extending their pictorial investigation.” Nor does he quote them in order to ram home some philosophical or social or art-historical point. What he does is fool around with the more decorative and superficial aspects of their styles, not ironically (“I would never say anything ironic about those great artists”) but out of sheer delight, like a poet making a fond pastiche of a work by an earlier poet. These pastiche-like elements become just another component in his goofy assemblages, which are like attempts to externalize the accretions in his mind; never belittled or ridiculed, the quotations from modernist classics figure always as honored guests. L’ospite è sacro, goes the Italian saying; “The guest is sacred.”

The origins of Italo’s peculiar obsession with religious statuary lie far in the past, well before World War II. This was the sort of imagery that dominated his Calabrian youth, forming his sole early contact with the idea of art. The truth is that a lot of the sculpture in southern Italian churches is not terribly old or beautiful and may even be made out of cast plaster or paper-mache — poor people’s materials; but memory ties these figures to the most painful experiences of Italo's hunger-haunted childhood.

He was born in 1932, in the village of Lago, not far from Cosenza, in the toe of the Italian boot. It was, he says, “a poverty-stricken, miserable place.” His father, Giuseppe, had left for America even before he was born, returning now and again for long sojourns; and his mother, Serafina, was already a grandmother. Italo was the latecomer, the “Benjamin,” of the family; at his birth, his two sisters were already both in their 20s, and his effective siblings — that is, his coevals and playmates — were actually his nephews, the children of his married sister Carolina. Italo recalls his early childhood as utterly destitute, barren of enjoyment: starvation always lurked around the corner.

It is hard for us today, living in this country, to imagine a situation like that of southern Italy in the 1930s, where entire villages of ordinary, hardworking people would start to worry every autumn — not as a consequence of some natural disaster, but strictly as a matter of course — about whether there would long be enough to eat. Shops would grow empty; rumors would fly about the streets. For Italo, this constant horror cast an oppressive pall over everyday life. The only interesting times were the holidays, the arrival of packages from America, and the concerts given by a brass band that played in a wooden gazebo in the town square. Sometimes Serafina would buy him candy at the store, and sometimes, in winter, a peasant would butcher a pig: he still vividly recalls the catching of the blood, the viscous juice being stirred over a fire, sausage meat being ground and stuffed into casings. He also remembers the lure of vegetable gardens in summer, ripe tomatoes being gathered in a crock, fish arriving from the nearby Tyrrhenian coast. But above all he remembers, almost physically, the brutal gnawing in the pit of his stomach, the constant longing for bread.

The Scangas’ manner of living was primitive, a few tiny rooms in a stone cottage leakily roofed with clay tiles. When a window broke, his mother put a piece of cardboard in it. Yet because of his father’s care packages from the United States, his family was actually a little better off than Carolina’s. One day Carolina told Italo that all she'd had in the house to eat when his nephew Alfredo was born was three green tomatoes in a basket under the bed.

During Italo’s christening, Serafina was graced with the sudden foreknowledge that her second son would become a woodcarver or otherwise work with his hands. At the age of four or five he was entrusted, along with several other boys, to the care of a local cabinetmaker named Salvatore, who slyly exploited these little helpers. Salvatore kept a casual eye on Italo and the other boys while they did chores or fetched water or gathered prickly pears and he insisted that they repay this service with cupfuls of sugar or noodles or oil. Then, when he got drunk, Salvatore would grow suddenly generous and ply them with whatever he was drinking.

For the poor to go to school in Lago was almost a physical impossibility. Italo and his nephews were duly enrolled in first grade, but soon they wore out their shoes. When it snowed, in midwinter, they' had no way to get around. Italo recalls explaining this to his teacher. “I said to her, ‘Donna Lucia, I can’t walk to school,’ and she said, ‘Bring the braciere,’ the foot warmer, in order that I could warm my feet when I arrived. But of course we had to bring our own coal to put in the braciere, and I had no coal.” So Italo set about carving pairs of zoccoli the antiquated wooden shoes of the Italian peasantry, for himself and his cousins. Much later, as an artist, he would sometimes incorporate a wooden clog — a piece of tourist kitsch fraught with secret personal associations — into one of his sculptures.

Because of his precocious manual dexterity, Italo was put to a trade after two years of school, in the shop of a local cabinetmaker named Orlando Turret. From Orlando he picked up the knack of cutting joints and working a lathe, though he never thought he was especially good at it. But Orlando also taught him the rudiments of wood carving, which interested him more, and sometimes, under Orlando’s direction, Italo modeled figurines of shepherds, donkeys, or goats to contribute to one of logo’s Christmas crèches. (Such crèches, or presepi, which may hold hundreds of exquisitely rendered — and, yes, rather vulgar — people and animals, are a major art form in Italy, especially in the south; in Naples there is a Museo dei Fresepi.) Orlando taught Italo to model figures in clay, and after a while the boy began to feel that the directness of this process released his energy so fluently that the act was becoming idolatrous; it was as though he were creating life itself. Flat pictures didn’t produce this effect. The paintings in the village churches, in the Chiesa di San Nicola di Bari and the Madonna dei Monti and San Giuseppe and Santissima Annunziata, were half-hidden, suspended high on the stone walls and darkened by candle soot and centuries of incense, whereas the sculpted saints in their niches seemed endowed with powers of thought and locomotion. They might at any moment cry out, or weep, or perhaps merely cough.

Among the more vulgar and celebrated of Italo’s sculptures is a Saint Joseph, of 1977, which he won’t sell and keeps in the faculty studio at UCSD. It’s an almost life-size plaster cast — a commercially produced statue—of Joseph holding the baby Jesus. In claiming this statue for himself, Italo carved off the more sharply projecting folds of the saint’s drapery. He painted the plaster in a complicated pattern. He repositioned the saint so that his head pointed downward at an angle and cradled him behind glass on a wooden chassis. And then, at intervals along Joseph’s body, facing the viewer, he also anchored seven white cubes of various sizes. The result is a queerly retrofitted ritual object, a votive figure that has lost its authority and which, no longer speaking to us of faith or prayer, evokes a puzzling range of superimposed associations.

A saint gone feral, a saint turned maverick... Italo was interested in remaking Joseph precisely because his saintliness lay in his being passed over, in his having to stand aside. Joseph’s marriage wasn’t consummated and his son wasn’t really his, but he loyally protected his wife and child, even spiriting the pair away into Egypt for a spell. Joseph was a carpenter whose work is never described for us by the Gospels, being presumably devoid of interest, and the Catholic Church has never paid him much heed. “He was really just a handyman,” says Italo, with appreciation. Italo respects carpenters and of course had some training as one; he values manual skill and has no higher praise for a group of students than “really good with their hands.” Saint Joseph is obviously influenced by conceptual art, but unlike a lot of conceptual art it has a candid aptness of design that is sensuously satisfying. Most of Italo’s inventions are based on arresting ideas, but they don’t stop at being ideas: they’re made with dexterity, aptness of touch.

As a child, Italo felt a daily renewed sense of loss over the absence of his father, Giuseppe. He saw the statues of the saints in church as paternal, magical presences and also as figures of frightening potency. Decades later, as an adult, he came to feel that by altering or remaking such hallowed images he could purge himself of the fear they’d inspired; and even today, whenever he recalls the devotional statuary of his childhood, he seems to slip back into a sepulchral, premodern world.

One day, over spaghetti at his place, Italo starts telling me about a statue in a church in Lago. “It showed San Rocca di Francia,” he says, twirling his fork, “who was really an imposing figure. San Rocca carried a staff and a gourd and he pointed toward his leg, toward the bubo, the boil from the bubonic plague, which was black and blue and terrifying, especially for a child. San Rocca had a dog who’d brought him food in his teeth and had licked his wound, and that’s how he’d survived — ”

“Italo, hold on,” I say, because I don’t know the story of San Rocca (our "Saint Roche,” as I later discover) and I’m getting a little confused. “Do you mean the dog helped San Rocca?”

“He helped him, yes. That’s the miracle.”

I stop eating. “Okay, so the dog was great, the dog was fantastic. But what miracles did San Rocca himself perform? I mean, what did he do to become a saint?”

Italo thinks for a moment; his fork is silent. “He traveled around, to cities, to Rome, and showed that he had survived.”

“That he had survived?”

“With the help of God, yes. I imagine.”

“That’s all? That’s all he did, survived, and for that they made him a saint?” I’m convinced that there has to be much more to it but Italo’s large, handsome head registers only puzzlement, his mind pedaling back into his boyhood as he tries to remember the real reason for San Rocca s canonization.

“I don't think San Rocca did much of anything, Italo says finally, his accent deepening, his wrinkled brow betraying dissatisfaction with his memory. “What I know is that that dog saved his ass. But the dog doesn’t play an important part. The moral is to travel, to go to a destination, to get somewhere far away, and on foot. San Rocca was a humble man.”

“Okay, he was humble. But why the gourd?" What I’m beginning to suspect is that Italo’s childhood dread of the statue erased all rational knowledge, so that whatever he was told about the real San Rocca was washed out at some point by physical terror.

The gourd maybe was for water or some other liquid,” he replies 'I don t know — San Rocca had a huge head, glass eyes, a funny hat like a Marine hat, a fisherman’s hat, and — and that's why he carried the shell!”

The shell? Or the gourd?”

Italo stares at me and puts down his fork. “Listen,” lie says, "the only things that really interested me were the dog, the eyes, and the wound, lie was standing inside a chapel, on the other side of a cancello, a metal screen, with a door that you could open or close, and he was inside a glassed in box, something like a niche. They took him out on his own day, San Rocca s Day, which was wonderful for me, a release, a deliverance, because then I could examine the details on him and he became less mysterious. Those saints’ days were always big moments.”

This conversation convinced me that (Catholicism as a formal creed doesn’t enter into Italo’s art. When he first started buying statues of saints and, as it were, decommissioning them, he wasn’t objecting to the use of such simulacra in prayer, much less to their intercessory role; he wasn’t concerned with religion at all. Yet only a secularized sensibility could have invested art with the power to empty such objects of their ritual content — a devout person would always be puzzled by such desanctification, which might seem rather like using food as a toy. (Italo himself is similarly puzzled by the sort of standard American kindergarten collage that makes use of stuck-on pasta as a design element: “It isn’t cute, it’s a waste,” he says.)

When Italo first exhibited his remodeled saints in Italy, at the Tyler College Gallery, in Rome—the school runs a program there — many viewers were offended. Contrary to American perceptions, the Italians are not a very pious people, unless you want to include certain folklore and superstitious beliefs under the heading of faith, and the reused devotional imagery didn’t trouble them much. What did bother them, though —and, curiously enough, it bothered American viewers even more — was the blatant, unapologetic presence of the Mezzogiorno, the Italian south, in an exhibition space. Trying to capture the shock of emigration, Italo had traveled to Calabria to collect peasant objects — rakes, hoes, bakers’ paddles, carding and spinning equipment, baskets, religious figurines — and on his return he had filled the gallery not only with these artifacts and with his own creations but also with figs and coarse goat cheeses and lupini beans that conveyed the ripe, acrid odors of places like Lago. A naked lightbulb—that classic emblem of the Italian village kitchen — hung from a long, dangling cord, and the walls were scrawled with the texts of agitated letters that Italian peasants, immigrants to the United States, had written home. In mounting this show Italo wasn’t trying to be wildly original or provocative or, least of all, ironic; he just wanted to see how he and others would feel when confronted with the vestiges of a rapidly vanishing rural society. Actually the installation was so tender and melancholic, and in a way so altruistic, that it veered right out of the conventional art field and a little into the realm of ethnology. But many visitors to the gallery were outraged. The material wasn’t classical or cultivated, it wasn’t the sort of art that an American ought to be showing in the Eternal City, and there were daily pickets at the door. These demonstrations, which might have perversely gratified an avant-garde artist, dismayed the fretful Italo, who had merely been trying to make a simple if texturally rich social statement.

The idea that background can be a source of inspiration came rather late to Italo. Until his delayed maturation as an artist, he didn’t think of the peasants of southern Italy as having, for instance, a “wholesome Mediterranean cuisine,” but simply as not having much to eat. Nor did he recall the landscape as beautiful: that revelation, too, came later. Especially in winter, the shadows of the Calabrian hills and cliffs had always frightened him. Vast and lonely, forming a dark basin in which Lago and its sister villages helplessly sprawled, these uplands aroused in him no notion of the picturesque nor any metaphorical image of striving or ascension; and when as an adult he saw mountains again, in Austria and Switzerland, he felt his unease return. Later, Italo would discover that the great Italian Renaissance philosopher Tommaso Campanella, a colleague of Giordano Bruno, had come from the village of Pizzo, near Lago. Campanella believed — it was a belief that would cost him the Church’s opposition — in the existence of an infinite universe, filled with a plurality of populated worlds, and Italo wondered if there was anything in the place itself that had contributed to Campanella’s vision. Wishing to know what Campanella’s eyes had beheld, Italo journeyed to Pizzo; he found the savant’s childhood room, which was smaller even than his own had been, a cubbyhole with a single mean window in one wall. And looking through that peephole Italo did see more or less what Campanella had seen—a long gray river that meandered into the distance, among those melancholy hills that continued on and on until they merged in a miasmic haze. Italo was strangely moved by that unending landscape as framed by that tiny square. Before, he had hardly been able to believe that a genius like (Campanella could have come from a place like Pizzo — a place, as he puts it, where “people grew up almost like animals.”

Basically apolitical, the Scanga family felt that only ignorant people joined the Fascist Part). Italo’s elder brother Nicola liked to poke fun at Fascism, which he seemed to regard as one part theater, one part fashion show. There was, however, a certain social pressure to at least look like a Fascist, which led to a sort of mass imposture in the village, a general playacting. Shortly before the war, Nicola became a carabiniere and, out of convenience, a Fascist Avanguardista: when he put on the uniform, his appearance delighted the whole family, for purely aesthetic reasons. “That was the one positive thing about Fascism,” Italo recalls, with a smirk. “This was Italy, so the uniforms were great. Even under Fascism, even in wartime, there was elegance in Italy, everyone wanted to fare bella figura. Those girls in their uniforms! They wore splendid yellow bandannas with olive green blouses and bright green skirts. Once Mussolini himself came to visit us, not at Lago but at Belmonte, a nearby town, which maybe had something to do with the fact that a local boy, Michele Bianchi, was then his minister of culture. Well, everybody came to march for Mussolini, they marched proudly down the streets of Belmonte, and one of those who marched was a tall girl from Lago who had flaming red hair that went beautifully with her yellow bandanna and her green uniform. Red, yellow, green — she was perfect! Remember that we Calabresi are mostly dark, so red-haired girls are rare in that part of the world. Anyway, the Duce was staring at all the women going by—maybe that was the only thing in Calabria that actually interested him! — and of course he saw the beautiful red-haired girl. He invited her to visit him where he was staying, and she accepted, which was highly improper, absolutely taboo, and in that way she immediately ruined her reputation and was regarded as an absolute whore by everybody, though after a few years people didn’t care so much anymore and she married a very nice man who kept a store selling stationery and ice cream and other odds and ends and they had a lot of children. A few years ago, when I was back in Lago, I met her, and I said to her, ‘I think you can tell me now — what really happened with Mussolini?’ She burst out laughing and said, in Calabrese, ‘Nente! attcora parrano?’ which means ‘Nothing! Are people still talking about it?’ “

When the Americans invaded Italy, in 1943, they clashed with the Germans, who had recently occupied the country. Terrorized, Italo watched the German tanks roll in and then out of his neighborhood. Both German and American planes made strafing runs over the roads in and around Lago, and the villagers abandoned their homes. “My mother pulled us away into the country in the middle of the night," Italo tells me. “We slept on piles of chestnuts smelling of mildew, and there was never anything to eat except moldy chestnut bread and a few figs. Every shop, every business in the area was boarded up on account of the war. There was no bread, no flour, no oil. Sometimes, before, we’d had a little pasta with a bit of fish, which was not so hard to get since the sea was nearby. But I clearly remember that on Christmas Day of 1944 we had absolutely nothing to eat — not one single thing. We went out into the fields to pick greens and herbs and whatever else we could find.”

Toward the end of the war Italo contracted diphtheria. Serafina knew of no cure for the fever, and she expected her son to die. She told him, sometime later, that she’d even had a carpenter come by to take his measure for a coffin. Before he’d had time to expire, however, his brother obtained penicillin from some American troops encamped nearby. The medication, the American doctor said, was to be taken orally, and he told Italo to coat his stomach lining with starch. After a long search, Serafina obtained one meager handful of rice, and to this day Italo remembers the individual grains lying in her cupped hands and then dancing in a pot of boiling water. He took the rice and the penicillin as directed, and when he saw no more blood in his chamber pot, he knew that he would not die.

By the time the Allies had driven the Germans from Italy, poverty and war had dispersed— in a sense, destroyed — the Scanga family. It was never to reunite. His mother was already in her late 50s, and all the family’s male protectors—not only Italo’s father but also his grownup brother—were gone. Nicola (or Nick, as Italo came to call him after the pair joined their father in America) had dropped out of the Fascist Avanguardia and vanished, only to reemerge as an anti-Fascist partisan up north, where a lot of the stiffest resistance to the Nazis developed toward the end of the war. “At heart he was a Communist,” Italo says with a wry smile, “but believe me, he didn’t say so when he applied tor a visa to the United States.”


The biggest wrench in the life of the Scangas was unquestionably immigration. While the two grown-up daughters stayed behind in Lago, Serafima and Italo joined Giuseppe, who was now working as a railway trackman, in Somerset County, Pennsylvania; Nick found a job of his own, in Detroit. Italo feels that Nick never really got over this uprooting, never overcame his unhappiness. Italo himself, being younger when he arrived here and perhaps simpler emotionally, was far less pained by the experience; still, he was deeply disoriented He didn’t feel homesick for the place where he’d been hungry all the time, but he was plagued by a “frustrating duality” that never allowed him to know who he was or where he belonged. In America, as he knew, nothing would be handed down to him — no stone cottage, no parched half-acre, not even an earthenware crock with a tomato in it.

Italo’s parents remained very poor, but Giuseppe refused to accept any form of social assistance or charity, and together father and son walked the railroad tracks looking for nuggets of coal to burn. The idea of educating Italo never occurred to Giuseppe, who advised him to find work in a grocery store. In this suggestion there was perhaps an element of sympathetic magic: the idea, it seems, was to slip stealthily inside the halo or aura given off by food. “Try to work in the produce section,” his father repeatedly urged him. “ And don’t forget to bring home lots of vegetables."

Giuseppe was so confused by life in the United States that he sent Italo to Sunday school at the local Lutheran church under the illusion that it was Catholic — perhaps neither of the two immigrants was aware that there was any other kind of church. Only later, looking in his copy of the Bible, did Italo realize that the volume had been given him by a Protestant institution. In public school, at age 15, he was placed in second grade, where he sat politely among the little children; year after year he did as he was told and was not unhappy. He graduated from high school at 21, then went immediately into the Army.

Stationed with the American occupation forces in Linz, in Austria, Italo met an Austrian painter named Fritz Agner who introduced him to the world of culture—an art school, concerts, Bruckner’s house in St. Florian, and the Baroque church where he had served as organist and sacristan. In Vienna, Agner showed Italo Klimt’s and Schiele’s work and introduced him to Kokoschka. By the time Italo returned to the United States he felt ready to train as an artist.

Nick, meanwhile, had remained in Michigan, where Italo joined him. "Nick was a very nice guy, a good man, really courageous,” Italo recalls. “When he came to America he worked first in a glass factory in West Virginia and then in auto plants in Detroit, and gradually he became a reactionary. I followed him to Detroit, I worked there for several years, mostly on the night shift, working on those big old automatic clutches at GM’s Detroit Transmission Division.”

At the same time, while availing himself of the GI Bill to enroll in daytime courses at Michigan State University, in East leasing, Italo met Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the Florentine composer. A Jew who had sought refuge in the United States after Mussolini’s Racial Laws of 1938, Castelnuovo-Tedesco had yet to write his popular guitar concerto and was still relatively unknown, but Italo took to him at once. He found the elderly musician “gentle, fragile, beautiful,” the essence of a cultivated Tuscan gentleman. For his part, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who had the Italian patrician’s attraction to all that comes from the earth, was charmed by halo’s peasant manner and fresh ideas about art and music. He encouraged Italo to pursue his aesthetic interests, and before he left East Lansing he presented the young Calabrese-American with a little bottle of good olive oil, a precious commodity in the Michigan of the ’50s.

L’ospite è sacro... The relation between host and guest, the idea of welcoming and being welcomed, of feeling at home and making others feel so, runs through everything Italo does. His slight echolalia is probably, as I have suggested, an aural encapsulation of the experience of making one’s home inside a new language; his reconditioning of religious statuary, which is like cooking a new dish with an old staple, is a final ingestion, a belated welcoming, of the daunting culture of his childhood; and his quoting of Picasso and others expresses his candid enjoyment of the fact that art is a house filled with other people.

Dale Chihuly, a notable figure in contemporary glassmaking, has made Italo feel particularly at home in the world of American art. A leprechaun-looking man who is the guiding spirit of Pilchuk, the glassmaking center in Washington State, Chihuly produces a steady avalanche of vitreous sculptures and objects, and at least once a year Italo joins him for several frenetic weeks of designing his own works in glass, which are realized on the spot by the Pilchuk craftsmen. Chihuly’s insistence on fulfilling his every artistic urge, from the most lyrical to the most grotesque, has reinforced Italo’s own belief that an artist has to be generous with his impulses and not waste time judging or belittling his creations. Such negativity, Italo feels, is to be grudging of one’s gifts; and when working with glass he himself must wrestle with a medium that is all metamorphic energy, a medium that starts off as a fiery liquid and ends up as a cool, smooth solid. “At Pilchuk,” Italo says, “I become a different person, less intellectual, all physicality, fire, water, and air. The shop is like a big building with furnaces in the middle, and I draw on the wall, on the floor, I mix color on the marver, the steel table, and then the blower picks it up and makes one of my glass trees or flames — the whole thing’s very technical, very craft-y, there’s no time to think things over.”

Sometimes people criticize Italo for his diluvial “overproduction," his endless series of works in various media. They complain of a lack of quality control and of a certain repetitiveness. Italo, they point out, will blithely make 20 paintings of the same type and size, some gorgeous and some perfectly humdrum, and accord them all equal rights; and actually Italo admits as much. In a way, the criticism is accurate, but like so much criticism it has no real use — it’s pointless. To make all sorts of fussy, judgmental distinctions between pieces would only impede Italo’s élan and cramp his temperament- he’s better off as he is. After all, if he does something to which you don’t respond, you don’t have to look at it or put it on your wall. Chances are you’ll find something else you admire.

I’ve never studied with Italo, so I don’t know what his teaching is like; I do know that it’s terribly important for him, that it’s part of his belief in generosity. But does he know what a big American university really is, and do the people at UCSD really understand what they have on their hands in his knotted, intense, diminutive frame? I feel that they must know; how could they not? But the conjunction Italo/university remains for me surreal, much more so than that of a sewing machine and an operating table.

One afternoon Italo tries to drag me over to UCSD. It starts in the courtyard of his compound in Pacific Beach, amid the blue fountains covered with wandering animals and the tables full of wrought-iron vases. I am half blinded by the sun blinking rapidly through the rotating whirligig on one of his sculptures when he grabs my arm and starts yanking.

“Come on, we’re going to the Faculty Club,” he announces.

“You’re going," I say. “I’m staying.”

I shield my eves, staring at him: a chubby peasant cut out against a vast, motionless cortege of metal dinosaurs and glass pigs and brass stags and horrid statuettes of kissing couples.

He pulls harder, laughing at me. “What’s the matter, you afraid of professors, afraid of college?”

He is right, of course — as a student, I hated college—but eventually, sometime later, through sheer persistence, he succeeds in dragging me to the Faculty Club. And it Isn’t bad, actually, watching Italo trudge through the refectory, listening to him talk about covering it with murals, listening to him gossip about academic politics; but what really impresses me is his genuine sense of belonging to this variant of American domesticity. It’s touching in its naiveté and in its sheer oddness, like hearing an old soldier explain to you why he is so completely at home now in a greenhouse or a potting shed.

Italo likes to think of himself as someone who avoids the backbiting and petty envies of the university art department, and maybe this self-conception is valid; I really have no idea. He doesn’t seem envious of his students — and some of them, like Bruce Nauman, have gone on to become more famous than he is — but then again, he has probably always needed his students more than most artists do. Italo’s world is one of hangers-on, of acolytes and helpers and favor seekers, and one of their principal functions, I suspect, is just to provide him with company, to placate his inner sense of peril. Only rarely does his impatience with his colleagues poke through. “I can’t help making fun of people who use the word ‘postmodernism,’ ’’ he tells me in a seditious tone as we leave the Faculty Club. “The teachers or the students insist, ‘ We have to address this issue,’ but I answer, ‘What issue, what’s “an issue,” why address it? “Time does not just flow along like a row of problems to be solved one after the other — time isn’t Cartesian, at least not in art. Picasso’s work of 1918 — it’s as contemporary now as when it was made. If art looks good, if it makes you happy or improves your life, that’s important. And maybe that’s all that’s important.’’


Italo tells me that he has no regrets except one. “It’s that I can’t prove to anybody — to anybody, I mean, who would care — that I’m successful. This is the sort of thing we want to prose to our parents, to our families — we want to thank them and to show them we’ve done well. I adored my two sisters, Carolina and Mafalda, who were really like mothers to me — they were so much older than I was — but they were always ill at ease with my art. I wasn’t Michelangelo, which is what an Italian thinks of when he or she thinks of an artist. My sisters could relate, though, to my being a professore. That they were proud of! I was so close to them — ‘hey were very, very naive, with no more than one or two grades of school, no education, but so brilliant about some things, with a brilliant feel for music. One day when I’d made plenty of money and was back visiting, I said, 'Mafà, what do you need?’ and she answered. 'A fridge, Italuzzo, a fridge!’ That was all she could think of — oh yes, that and a few more flowerpots. Carolì on the other hand — I called them Carolì and Mafà, and they called me Italuzzo—Carolì was keen on money Of course old people like money they’re frightened and lonely but basically Carolì wanted coins, she wanted change. She just loved the feel and jingle of change — and also shoes, I now remember, she loved especially American shoes, their wideness."

It occurs to me that Italo has just drifted into his own variant of one of the great themes of Italian folk and popular music: the lament of the son who wanders far from home in search of work and who thinks back remorsefully to his aging mother, his beloved little black-clad mother whom he has abandoned and who has only a short time left to live. I sing a few lines of one of these songs, a well-known canzonetta, and then Italo responds with another song, “Luna Pensosa.”

Luna, luna pensosa,

Dov’è andata la mia sposa,

Dov’è andata la mia casa?

Moon, pensive moon, where is my wife, and where is my house...

“You can feel what the song means — it’s during the war, it’s after a bombardment, and the man comes home and finds that his wife and his house have both been completely destroyed. And that’s what happened in Calabria, only the thing is, it happened to the whole culture. It’s all gone now, it’s really completely gone."


Often when I peer into Italo’s world of reminiscence, I feel his anxiety rising. As we talk he warns, “I don’t want people to think that my memories have made me, that the past has made me what I am.” And I have to reassure him (one is always reassuring Italo of something or other) that such a thought would never occur to me. Our memories do not create us, of course, it is we who create them. It may be true that many of them recur to us unbidden and inalterable, but we cannot express them to anyone else, in language or in art, without some slippage into coquetry, into self-promotion. In that respect we are all false advertisers.

Likewise, Italo’s art is not reminiscence but its metaphorical fabrication. In him, as in all of us, such fabrication shields an inner sanctum of secrecy. How would my picture of Italo be changed by all that he has not told me about himself? About his divorces, his children, his wrangles with dealers and college administrators? I cannot say, but in a way the question is irrelevant. In certain friendships one sees the other only through a prism, and with Italo that prism is art.

Up at Pilchuk these last few years Italo has been making a lot of glass trees and glass flames — the two are cognate forms really, because Italo’s trees are of that tall, slender variety that you see along lanes in the Italian countryside. The trees are like flames and the flames are like pigs’ hooves, like plastic purses, like candy corn. They are redeemed clichés, clichés that have received salvation.

One morning, passing by a table loaded with glasswork, I say to him, “Your trees, Italo — are they supposed to be cypresses or Lombardy poplars?”

“Oh, I don’t know, cypresses or maybe poplars,” he says. “They’re — trees, you know. Just trees.”

“But do they really have trees like that in Calabria?” I ask. “I’ve never been in Calabria but I’ve been in Puglia, and there are very few trees like that in Puglia. Your trees don’t even seem like common southern trees, they seem more Lombard or Emilian.”

Italo heaves a sigh of exasperation. “Yes, maybe Lombard or Emilian. They’re northern trees, but I think of them simply as Italian.”

So these slender trees aren’t a memory at all, they’re just standing in for a memory, like understudies, like impostors: they’re part of a consciously, even ruthlessly fictional world, a world that is as much mask as it is disclosure. And I can only suppose that their purpose must be, as it was in the ancient Roman and then in the Renaissance landscape, to lead the mind toward thoughts of streams and winding roads and farmhouses, but also toward temples and burial grounds.

Near the glass trees is a row of big glass funnels, a frequent element in Italo’s art; and it occurs to me suddenly, as I pick one up, that the funnel, like the tall ornamental tree, is a distinctly two-sided emblem. It’s an emblem of waste, because what you pour in one end comes right out the other; but it’s also an emblem of plenty, because it assumes that you have lots of something to pour in the wide end and divide among smaller containers. The funnel is a reminder — though not necessarily a conscious one— of the abundance of feeling in the artist and perhaps in each one of us; an abundance which, to be useful, must be carefully stored in the appropriate collection of vessels.

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