Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Donne E Buoi Dai Paesi Tuoi (Choose Women and Oxen from Your Home Village): Italian Proxy Marriages in Post-War Australia

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Donne E Buoi Dai Paesi Tuoi (Choose Women and Oxen from Your Home Village): Italian Proxy Marriages in Post-War Australia

Article excerpt

In 1991, the Western Australian Opera Company premiered Bride of Fortune, an original production which told the story of an Italian immigrant couple married by proxy in post-war Australia. In the opera, Grazia, a Calabrian peasant woman, marries Vito, a stranger living half a world away in a dingy inner city Melbourne flat. On her arrival in Australia, Grazia discovers that she has been duped by her proxy husband who is an older, crippled, abusive alcoholic struggling to support a daughter from a previous marriage in Italy. The tragedy escalates after the death of Vito's daughter sends him over the edge. Vito blames the long suffering Grazia for the death and holds her hostage in a siege which ends in a sensational police shoot-out. In the melodramatic finale, the curtain falls on the ill-fated Grazia who slips her wedding ring on Vito's finger in a symbolic gesture of reconciliation as she cradles her dying husband in her arms (Dell'Oso and Whitehead 1991).

In the nineteen fifties and sixties, marriages by proxy like the one fictionally portrayed in the opera Bride of Fortune, commonly took place between Italian nationals (usually women) and Italian immigrants in Australia. Such marriages were performed when the physical absence of either the bride or groom made it necessary for a stand in or `proxy' to register consent to the marriage on behalf of the missing party. This particular form of marriage ceremony had been a part of Canonical tradition since the Council of Trent and was later incorporated into the civil marriage codes of many European, Latin American and South American nations including Italy (Diaz 1961, p. 20). Although proxy marriages could not be performed in Australia, marriages contracted by proxy between Italian citizens and Australian residents were accepted as legal by Australian authorities (Australian Archives, 1958a). There is also evidence that proxy weddings were customary for Dutch, Polish, Portuguese and Czechoslovakian immigrants in Australia. However, proxy marriages were most common amongst Italo-Australians as Italy was the largest source of non-British migrants to Australia in the post-war period.

Little has been written about the phenomenon of Italian proxy marriages in Australia, partly because of the stigma attached to these weddings by some immigrants who regarded their marriages as an embarrassing secret to be hidden from friends, families and neighbours at all costs. The sense of Shame associated with marriage by proxy was to a certain extent fostered by the sensationalist publicity given to these unions in Italian language newspapers. Stories of proxy marriages gone wrong made good copy, just as they proved to be excellent material for operatic melodrama. In this paper, I want to move away from the notion that proxy marriages were a form of immigrant tragedy as presented in Bride of Fortune. Rather, my aim is to examine the phenomenon of Italian proxy marriages in the context of broader issues relating to Italo-Australian migration after World War Two. More specifically, my objectives are to show how proxy marriages influenced the construction of Italian ethnic identity in post-war Australia by fostering `campanilismo' or parochial ties amongst Italian immigrants. Furthermore, the whole subject of proxy marriage provides insight into the goals of Australia's post-war immigration policy and the place of immigrant women in the grand scheme of building Australian identity.

My research is based on a variety of primary documentation, including: records from the Australian and Western Australian Archives, legal documents pertaining to proxy marriages in Australia, statistical data from the Archives of the Archdiocese of Western Australia, newspaper reports from the Italo-Australian press and finally oral interviews conducted with proxy brides and clergy in Western Australia in 1997. I have also used interviews from the only other publication on the subject of Italian proxy spouses in Australia, Susi Bella Wardrop's 1996 study, By Proxy: a Study of Italian Proxy Brides in Australia. …

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