From Italy to the North End: Photographs, 1972–1982 by Anthony V. Riccio, published by State University of New York Press, Albany, 2017.
Review by Mark Spano.
Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader
of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical
instrument he provides the reader so he can discern
what he might never have seen in himself without
this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what
the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.
― Marcel Proust
Anthony V. Riccio’s recently published photo essay, From Italy to the North End: Photographs, 1972–1982, traverses the old and the new worlds in the late twentieth century. This time period is a break from what one generally expects in chronicles of the southern Italian and Sicilian diaspora in the United States as the images that we most frequently see are those from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Riccio’s work, the old word is not nearly so old and the new world not nearly so new.
In the book’s foreword, James Pasto reminds us, “the Italian American neighborhoods that made their mark on the American landscape and mind, either as fact, fiction, or myth, are most certainly in that deepest moment just before the end of twilight—their dusk.” Before the neighborhood is handed over completely to the realm of memory, Riccio has offered us one last chance to see Boston’s North End as it was and images of the Italy from whence it came.
There is much to love in this book, and what stands out particularly are the faces, which are markers along a road not easily traveled, a road that will not ever be traveled again. These are images of lost times.
The North End of Boston is the quintessential Italian-American neighborhood, and Riccio captures the human condition in such intimate detail that I am simultaneously overjoyed and saddened with the turn of each page. The photos in Italy, not surprisingly, evoke so many of the moods of hope, connectedness, abundance, and our natural affection for the young and the old.
These are faces of total strangers who are as familiar as uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. They are the tradesmen and cooks. They are the brides and the guy down the street. They live, work, and walk in the humblest of surroundings, possessing a dignity and presence that transcends any particular station in life.
What is this fascination with these faces and especially the faces of the very young and the very old? What do I as a reader of words and a reader of pictures seek in these images? There is no doubt that I found myself as other readers will likely find themselves searching these faces for something. What is lost that we are seeking in these faces?
So many of us are the children, grandchildren, and now the great-grandchildren of the old country and the old neighborhood. So many of us are now educated, prosperous, and have matriculated into the American mainstream. This was our destiny. This was the promise. This is what we were told all our lives that we must do.
Yet, we look at pictures of people who are now dead and places that have changed irretrievably, and our feelings are mixed with joy and sorrow. These people have passed on. These places have so often been handed over to other groups of new arrivals to America. But just as the moon turning in space pulls the tides on our planet, so, too, these lost people and places pull on the lives of the living in ways we do not fully comprehend. In something so commonplace as flipping through the pages of a book of images and words, we feel this undeniable pull.
Those of us who remain live now only in the light of memories. We feel the pull of memory. We encounter past shadows of lives lived in struggle and struggles endured by dint of great love. Yet, something has ended, and that is sad. I am saddened because my Italian-Americanness is ending if it has not by now ended altogether. I’m now a “Meddah-gahn.” I/we have graduated fully into Americanness.
The African-American and gay author James Baldwin once said, “The American idea of racial progress is measured by how fast I become white.” By Baldwin’s definition, we Italian/Sicilian-Americans had assimilated quickly. Our diplomas, our business ownerships, our celebrities remind us that we have “made it.” And, maybe we are sad because those lives lived in struggles and great love have ended.
Our struggles are no longer so great, and maybe the love is not either.
So for these awakenings from the past, I believe Riccio has offered us images that must be cherished because they are fading from reality, a reality that belonged to so many of us, a reality with all its pain and adversity held deep and sustaining virtues that may well have faded from the prosperity we so ardently sought to gain.