Italian-American? American of Italian Origin? the Case of Peter M. Riccio (1898-1990)
Ragusa, Olga, Italica
Questions of identity, personal or collective, appear to be more alive than ever in these beginning years of a new Millennium. The bibliography on Italian Americans grows by leaps and bounds and continues to cover aspects of the historical phenomenon and more and more frequently present-day groupings in established organizations and in occasional affiliations of individuals who identify themselves in ethnic rather than national or political terms. The permutations are many and, as new perspectives move to the forefront of attention others beat a comparative retreat. Since the great wave of Italian immigration to the United States several generations have succeeded one another and the evolution of history, being what it is, forgetfulness of earlier stages in the development has also become part of the phenomenon. Some bonds, such as the original linguistic ones, have become loosened, as others, such as the professional ones, atone time almost non-existent, have taken their place. (1)
My research was undertaken in response to the progress of Paolo De Caro's work, in far-away Foggia, on the figure of Irma Brandeis (1905-1990), who entered Montale's poetry in the guise of Clizia. In the Florentine periodical La fortezza (6.2 ) De Caro published (accompanied by his own translation into Italian) an article by Riccio that had appeared in 1932 in the Casa Italiana Bulletin, long overlooked as an important source for the study of intellectual relationships between the United States and Italy in the '30's. Riccio's article now also appears in De Caro's revised edition of Journey to Irma. Una approssimazione all'ispiratrice americana di Eugenio Montale. Part I: Irma un "romanzo" (Foggia: Matteo De Meo Stampatore, 1999).
Riccio's own pieces gathered from his unpublished papers and from occasional publications at Columbia University are here framed by two journalistic reports, the first of which from the Providence Evening Bulletin (1966), the second from Jester of Columbia (1955), each one an outsider's view of his personality. Riccio's writings themselves deal with the experiences of a group of Italian-American youngsters growing up in East Harlem's Little Italy at the tutu of the century and of the years that some of them spent at Columbia College around the time of World War I. Included are also two profiles of himself, written at the time when Riccio became Director of the Casa Italiana (1957-1966).
Under the headline, "Professor of Italian Culture Likes the Life of Woodville--Rare Books, Records and Thoreau's Simple Pleasures," the Providence Evening Bulletin published an item on 18 July 1966, which emphasized the private rather than the public life of Peter M. Riccio, professor of Italian and director of the Casa Italiana at Columbia University. (2) Professor Riccio never made a secret of his Italian-American background and this article invites a second look at a by now almost forgotten individual who could well be counted among the influential Italian Americans whose names have been recalled recently at century's end. (3) Mine is not a testimonial but aims to be a historical apercu, poised between the public record and private reminiscences based on Professor Riccio's own occasional writings, facts and facts remembered, regarding the "trajectory" of a second-generation Italian American whose life spanned the twentieth century and who made his mark not in business or politics but in one of the professions.
The Providence Evening Bulletin caught Professor Riccio upon his retirement, an important turning point in his life. Besides capturing traits of his personality--his generosity, cheerfulness, curiosity about the world, his openness and optimism--the writer of the article, while not losing sight of the main, local-news thrust of his piece, mentions highlights of Riccio's public life: the honors earned, his approach to teaching, his views on the comparative merits of a life of privilege and one of self-making, his student years at Columbia, and finally the acorn from which grew the tree--the 1921 letter, foundation document of the Casa Italiana and its "heart," the Paterno Library. (4)
Professor of Italian Culture Likes the Life of Woodville: Rare Books, Records and Thoreau's Simple Pleasures (5)
Woodville is the new home of a Columbia University professor, recipient of honors from the Italian government for his contributions to the spread of Italian culture in this country.
Peter M. Riccio retired July 1 as professor of Italian and director of Casa Italiana, a Center for Italian studies at Columbia University. He will continue his life of culture in the Rhode Island community.
He will make his permanent home in a 200-year-old house on a wooded section of the Bradford-Alton Road.
A frequent visitor to Rhode Island for more than 50 years, he recalled his trips to his uncle's home in Providence when he was a boy. He describes those trips as vacations because at the time he lived in the tenements of East Harlem.
Mr. Riccio plans to spend his time in Woodville during his retirement, although he hopes to visit his son in Puerto Rico this winter.
The Rhode Island countryside is refreshing after the stress and strain of urban living, he says.
Both his brother and sister live nearby, and his family has operated a poultry farm, now one of the biggest in South County, since 1932.
Mr. Riccio confides that it was an early ambition to become a rare book dealer. Although he never has owned a bookstore, he has collected more than 200 rare volumes.
He remembers his trips to Paris when he used to spend hours looking through the old book stalls, or wandering along New York's Fourth Avenue searching for old Italian classics.
"If you can learn to love books," he says, "you will never be alone." "You know how you can be in a crowded room and feel alone?" he asks. "Well, if you enjoy books, then you can be in a cubbyhole and still feel at ease."
He finds the same true with music. He spends many hours listening to his record collection, probably numbering more than 2,000 selections. He developed his love of music while teaching at the Juilliard School of Music.
Mr. Riccio is sometimes critical of the present emphasis in teaching. Too often we are content to accept the material values in life, he says. "Material wealth is treated as a point of arrival. Instead it should be a point of departure."
He is often reminded of Thoreau's theory of enjoying the simple pleasures in life.
Mr. Riccio is amused by the present belief that it is always a hopeless case to be born poor. He believes that a lack of money can often be a springboard to "resourcefulness, self-reliance and initiative."
A visit to his home discloses a great deal of charm, both in the man and his surroundings. Besides his books and recordings there are numerous water colors which he painted during his travels. In one room, a water color of Moscow dating from his 1938 trip hangs next to a Spanish hillside (1966) completed while visiting his son who spent the last year teaching in Spain on the Fulbright exchange program. On another wall there is a painting of his daughter's former home in Europe. She is now teaching art in Deep River, Conn.
Professor Riccio's career at Columbia spanned more than four decades, both as student and teacher.
He began his studies in 1917, was elected Phi Beta Kappa, and started teaching in 1921. Although he received a small faculty scholarship at Columbia, he earned most of his expense money through part-time work.
It was 1921 that he began his efforts to establish an Italian cultural center. After receiving a letter from the young Riccio, the then president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, responded by expanding the student's vision of the cultural center. The Casa Italiana was finally opened in 1927.
Today, its library contains more than 35,000 volumes.
A more official review of Riccio's academic career is in order here, (6) for if, too, tells who he was, both in comparison and by contrast to his peers. Beginning with the 1920-21 session and continuing for almost twenty years, Riccio taught Spanish and French in Columbia's University Extension (later known as School of General Studies), where he was also in charge of Home Study in Italian. In 1927 he also became Lecturer in Italian at Barnard College, being later promoted to Assistant and Associate Professor (1928, 1945). He became a member of the faculty of Columbia College in 1946, where he also served as Assistant (1954-59) to the Dean of Students (Nicholas McKnight). In 1957 he was promoted Professor and appointed Director of Casa Italiana. When in 1959 he became a member of the Faculty of …
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Publication information: Article title: Italian-American? American of Italian Origin? the Case of Peter M. Riccio (1898-1990). Contributors: Ragusa, Olga - Author. Journal title: Italica. Volume: 82. Issue: 3-4 Publication date: Winter 2005. Page number: 593+. © 2008 American Association of Teachers of Italian. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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