Little Italy, Un Cuore Grande.

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Little Italy, Un Cuore Grande.
80 • Italian American Review 4.1 • Winter 2014
Seeing them looking at photographs and mingling with partygoers added yet another,
enchanting dimension to the immersive installation experience. For the few hours of
the reception the installation moved into the realm of what was a very magical and
successful performance-art piece. The women’s presence, real and three-dimensional,
added to the sensation of being immersed in a very tangible world, a world in which
the last of the Italians prove that they are the Italians who last.
Those who want to revisit the installation or who missed its short run should take
a look at Kristoff’s website (www.annekristoff.com/), where she has posted selections
from The Last of the Italians series along with digital images from other equally impressive photographic series. Although it’s preferable to see Kristoff’s work displayed on
large digital screens, the website is a great resource that could be made even better
by the addition of more images. While selection is a key component of exhibitions,
websites are apt venues for a comprehensive approach. Those interested in photography, urban and ethnic history, and the specific Italian-American community of South
Greenwich Village will appreciate the opportunity to view Kristoff’s striking images
not just for five days but as frequently as they like. The website could easily become the
place where the images of The Last of the Italians truly last.
—NINA NAZIONALE
Independent Scholar
Little Italy, Un Cuore Grande.
Curated by Harry Connolly.
Stevenson University, Stevenson, Maryland.
August 26 – November 23, 2013.
During the fall 2013 semester, Stevenson University, located just outside of Baltimore,
celebrated the Italian government’s initiative 2013: Year of Italian Culture in the United
States with a series of public events that included screenings of Italian and ItalianAmerican films, a concert of selections from Italian opera and popular songs, and a
book talk focusing on Giuseppe Garibaldi. The university’s semester-long programming would have lacked a certain homegrown flavor if not for its premier program:
Little Italy, Un Cuore Grande, an exhibition of the work of local photographer Harry
Connolly. For sixteen years, Connolly has visually documented the people, places,
and traditions of Baltimore’s Little Italy, a neighborhood roughly ten square blocks in
size and a short walk northeast of the city’s touristic Inner Harbor. It is a distinctive
neighborhood to this day, one whose history stretches back into the nineteenth century,
when immigrants from a range of Italian cities, including Turin and Cefalù, settled
there. Little Italy, Un Cuore Grande brought stories of local Italian-American culture
to the university’s front stoop, anchoring the broader narratives of Stevenson’s event
series to the historic center of Italian-American life in the Baltimore region.
Situated in a spacious, naturally lit room that also doubles as a reception and
lecture hall, the exhibition used three of the room’s four walls. Given the fact that
Exhibition Reviews • 81
thirty-seven of Connolly’s 20,000 photographs of the neighborhood were highlighted,
the exhibition can be considered a small selection of his broader, long-term project.
Placed close together on each wall, the large, colorful photographs consisted mainly
of portraits of the neighborhood’s residents—from children to the elderly to families—
including what appear to be candid shots from cultural events, such as an evening
street festival and a baptism, as well as daily routines. It was at this surface level that
the strongest message of the exhibition was conveyed: Little Italy is about people, and
it is they who comprise and convey its vibrancy. In a sense, this exhibition expressed
Connolly’s vision of Little Italy as a collage of people and places viewed over sixteen
years. In the show, portraits and candid scenes were interspersed, with seemingly no
organizational or thematic structure.
The exhibition’s core image, which was used for the promotional booklet and
postcard, was of James “Guido” Lancelotta in front of St. Leo’s Church, which was
established in the late nineteenth century as the spiritual and cultural cornerstone of
the neighborhood. Connolly does not give Lancelotta center stage; instead, his figure
shares the compositional space with a fire hydrant painted in the colors of the Italian flag,
as if it were another local personality. A longer, panoramic-like photograph provides
a candid look at Rita Patti sweeping one of the city’s busy thoroughfares, Eastern
Avenue, in front of a restaurant, Luigi Petti, and an adjacent bar, Lucky Luciano’s,
complete with a mural of the infamous mobster. The image can be interpreted in
different ways. Connolly could be juxtaposing “good” and “bad”: Patti, challenging
herself with the task of sweeping a portion of a major city route, is doing good, while
the figure of Luciano represents criminality and corruption, and the bar itself celebrates
sinister nightlife—the bad. Indeed, the painted face of Luciano falls right above Patti’s
down-turned head in the composition as if he is watching over her. Connolly could
also be highlighting two different expressions of pride: the romanticization of Luciano,
or Italian-American mobsters in general, that is commonplace in American popular
culture (since one would assume his legacy is referenced to attract bar patrons) and the
pride of regular neighborhood beautification. However, despite the somewhat jarring
inclusion of Lucky Luciano’s legacy in the image, what comes across most strongly is
Patti’s indifference to and, perhaps, acceptance of it as she endeavors to keep the street
clean. The title of the photograph, Rita Patti Sweeping Eastern Avenue, also serves to
emphasize the role she is playing in this mundane street scene. Here, in basic visual
terms, Connolly frames a sense of place by capturing the strong, multilayered identities of residents and how these have shaped a unique urban space.
Nonetheless, Little Italy, Un Cuore Grande provided only a glimpse, much like a
film trailer, into this particular world. While it was predominantly an exhibition of
photographs that could be enjoyed for aesthetic reasons alone, Connolly’s emphasis
on people and their lives within these images left too many questions unanswered
and too little context given. When thought about this way, it was an art exhibition
at first glance, but one with strong social history undertones that could have been
explored further. In the introductory text, placed next to the image of Lancelotta and
the fire hydrant, Connolly alludes to neighborhood change: the changes Little Italy
has undergone during the sixteen years of the project, as well as former transitions he
had learned of from talking with residents. The text ends with the following questions:
“The future of Little Italy? That’s for others to decide. Could it ever again be like this?”
82 • Italian American Review 4.1 • Winter 2014
It seems likely that Connolly wanted the viewer to ponder these questions, to reflect
upon the portraits and street scenes and form some sort of an opinion. However, the
most helpful of clues were missing: Not one photograph was given a date.
While there were a handful of small text panels that featured short quotes from
those portrayed in the photographs, most information for the images could be found
within the exhibition’s booklet, which needed to be kept in hand for reference, since
each piece was numbered. The booklet allowed one to learn titles and read longer texts
corresponding to the people and events represented in five of the thirty-seven photographs. It was explained that these are excerpts from stories compiled by Connolly, and
they certainly maintain his emphasis on people through a reliance on direct quotes, as
opposed to paraphrasing. It was evident that Connolly places importance on not only
the images but also the stories, memories, and voices represented by them; given that
fact, why stop at five? Each photograph or framed series of photographs, such as a
triptych depicting a tense bocce game, begs for its story to be told. In one portrait,
Mario Pompa, standing against a wall of Baltimore’s iconic Formstone, proudly
presents his traditional Italian-American Easter pie to the camera. One would gather
that the making of these pies holds particular significance in the community, and especially to Pompa, but the only information given is the photograph’s title: Mario Pompa
with his Easter Pie.
It may be that, to fully engage with Little Italy, Un Cuore Grande, one had to come
equipped with knowledge of the history, as well as of the living heritage, of the area.
Yet, that could also signal that an opportunity for engaging with visitors uninformed
about Baltimore’s Little Italy was missed. In his introductory text Connolly calls these
past sixteen years a “bittersweet experience.” And while some of the excerpted stories
focus on people, places, and traditions long gone, this element of bitterness was not
spotlighted. The images are vivid, beautiful, and, when taken together, convey a certain
place-based happiness and pride.
—MICHELLE L. STEFANO
University of Maryland, Baltimore County