Jan 222018
 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Antonio Francesco Gramsci, Sardinian-born, Italian social theorist best remembered for his concept of cultural hegemony. He is sometimes characterized as a Marxist, sometimes a neo-Marxist, because he accepted the historical reality of class struggle, and a need for a revolution for equality by the working class. But he did not accept Marx’s view of the inevitability of proletarian revolution, nor of Marx’s theory of economic determinism. He was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini as a dangerous intellectual, and during his imprisonment he wrote more than 30 notebooks (over 3,000 pages), of history and social analysis. His Prison Notebooks are considered a major contribution to 20th century economic, social, and political theory.

Gramsci was born in Ales, on the island of Sardinia, the fourth of seven sons of Francesco Gramsci (1860–1937). Francesco was a low-level government official of Albanian descent who was always in financial difficulty, and was eventually imprisoned for embezzlement. Gramsci had to abandon schooling and work at various casual jobs until his father’s release in 1904. As a boy, Gramsci suffered from health problems, particularly a malformation of the spine that stunted his growth (his adult height was less than 5 feet) and left him seriously hunchbacked. Gramsci was also plagued by various internal disorders throughout his life.

Gramsci completed secondary school in Cagliari, where he lodged with his elder brother Gennaro, a former soldier whose time on the mainland had made him a militant socialist. However, Gramsci’s sympathies then did not lie with socialism, but rather with the grievances of impoverished Sardinian peasants and miners. They perceived their neglect as a result of privileges enjoyed by the rapidly industrializing North, and they tended to turn to a growing Sardinian nationalism which was brutally repressed by troops from the Italian mainland. In 1911, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin. He studied literature and took a keen interest in linguistics, which he studied under Matteo Bartoli. Gramsci was in Turin as it was going through industrialization, with the Fiat and Lancia factories recruiting workers from poorer regions. Trade unions became established, and the first industrial social conflicts started to emerge. Gramsci frequented socialist circles as well as associating with Sardinian emigrants on the Italian mainland. Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party in late 1913, where he later occupied a key position.

Although showing talent for his studies, Gramsci had financial problems and poor health. Together with his growing political commitment, these led to his abandoning his education in early 1915. From 1914 onward, Gramsci’s writings for socialist newspapers such as Il Grido del Popolo earned him a reputation as a notable journalist. In 1916, he became co-editor of the Piedmont edition of Avanti!, the Socialist Party official organ. An articulate and prolific writer of political theory, Gramsci proved a formidable commentator, writing on all aspects of Turin’s social and political life. Gramsci was, at this time, also involved in the education and organization of Turin workers; he spoke in public for the first time in 1916 and gave talks on topics such as Romain Rolland, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and the emancipation of women. In the wake of the arrest of Socialist Party leaders that followed the revolutionary riots of August 1917, Gramsci became one of Turin’s leading socialists when he was both elected to the party’s Provisional Committee and made editor of Il Grido del Popolo.

In April 1919, with Togliatti, Angelo Tasca and Umberto Terracini, Gramsci set up the weekly newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo. In October the same year, despite being divided into various hostile factions, the Socialist Party moved by a large majority to join the Third International. The L’Ordine Nuovo group was seen by Vladimir Lenin as closest in orientation to the Bolsheviks, and it received his backing against the anti-parliamentary programme of the communist Amadeo Bordiga.

Among tactical debates within the party, Gramsci’s group was mainly distinguished by its advocacy of workers’ councils, which had come into existence in Turin spontaneously during the large strikes of 1919 and 1920. For Gramsci, these councils were the proper means of enabling workers to take control of the task of organizing production. The failure of the workers’ councils to develop into a national movement convinced Gramsci that a Communist Party in the Leninist sense was needed. The group around L’Ordine Nuovo declaimed incessantly against the Italian Socialist Party’s centrist leadership and ultimately allied with Bordiga’s far larger “abstentionist” faction. On 21 January 1921, in the town of Livorno, the Communist Party of Italy (Partito Comunista d’Italia – PCI) was founded. Gramsci supported against Bordiga the Arditi del Popolo, a militant anti-fascist group which opposed Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Gramsci was a leader of the party from its inception but was subordinate to Bordiga, whose emphasis on discipline, centralism and purity of principles dominated the party’s program until he lost the leadership in 1924

In 1922, Gramsci traveled to Russia as a representative of the new party. Here, he met Julia Schucht, a young violinist whom he married in 1923 and by whom he had two sons, Delio (born 1924) and Giuliano (born 1926). Gramsci never saw his second son. The Russian mission coincided with the advent of fascism in Italy, and Gramsci returned with instructions to foster, against the wishes of the PCI leadership, a united front of leftist parties against fascism. Such a front would ideally have had the PCI at its center, through which Moscow would have controlled all the leftist forces, but others disputed this potential supremacy: socialists did have a certain tradition in Italy, too, while the Communist Party seemed relatively young and too radical. Many believed that an eventual coalition led by communists would have functioned too remotely from political debate, and thus would have run the risk of isolation.

In late 1922 and early 1923, Benito Mussolini’s government embarked on a campaign of repression against the opposition parties, arresting most of the PCI leadership, including Bordiga. At the end of 1923, Gramsci travelled from Moscow to Vienna, where he tried to revive a party torn by factional strife. In 1924 Gramsci, now recognized as head of the PCI, gained election as a deputy for the Veneto. He started organizing the launch of the official newspaper of the party, called L’Unità, living in Rome while his family stayed in Moscow. At its Lyon Congress in January 1926, Gramsci’s theses calling for a united front to restore democracy to Italy were adopted by the party.

On 9th November 1926, the Fascist government enacted a new wave of emergency laws, taking as a pretext an alleged attempt on Mussolini’s life several days earlier. The fascist police arrested Gramsci, despite his parliamentary immunity, and brought him to the Roman prison Regina Coeli. At his trial, Gramsci’s prosecutor stated, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” He received an immediate sentence of five years in confinement on the island of Ustica and the following year he received a sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment in Turi, near Bari. Over 11 years in prison, his health deteriorated. His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food. He had convulsions when he vomited blood, and suffered headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell.

In 1933 he was moved from the prison at Turi to a clinic at Formia, but was still being denied adequate medical attention. Two years later he was moved to the Quisisana clinic in Rome. He was due for release on 21 April 1937 and planned to retire to Sardinia for convalescence, but a combination of arteriosclerosis, pulmonary tuberculosis, high blood pressure, angina, gout and acute gastric disorders meant that he was too ill to move. Gramsci died on 27 April 1937, at the age of 46. His ashes are buried in the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome.

Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state and ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. The bourgeoisie in Gramsci’s view develops a hegemonic culture using ideology over and above violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo. Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.

Gramsci’s key point, as far as I am concerned, is that Marx’s conviction that the revolution of the working class against capitalism was an inevitable result of the forces of economic determinism, was in error. He believed that an intellectual revolution was an important precursor of social/economic revolution. To counter the notion that bourgeois values represented “natural” or “normal” values for society, the working class needed to develop a culture of its own. Lenin held that culture was “ancillary” to political objectives, but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci’s view, a class cannot dominate in modern conditions by merely advancing its own narrow economic interests; neither can it dominate purely through force and coercion. Rather, it must exert intellectual and moral leadership.

In my oh-so-humble opinion, Gramsci hit the nail squarely on the head, especially in light of affairs in the West these days. Without too much provocation I could launch into a long rant. I’ll try to keep it short. Right now, moneyed interests control the media which means that they control the discourse. Media do not just include news outlets, but also entertainment. All these outlets reinforce the “normal” values of society, which at present include a distrust of intellectuals, and a distrust of education. Consequently, information that benefits moneyed interests – including misinformation and disinformation – can be disseminated with little or no critical reception by the general public.

Gramsci’s native Sardinia has a cuisine that overlaps that of mainland Italy, but with a few idiosyncrasies. One of these is a distinctive pasta called fregola or fregula. Fregola are semolina dough that has been rolled into balls 2–3 mm in diameter and toasted in an oven. Fregola with clams is a common dish in Sardinia. It is usually served with pane carasau, a thin and crisp flatbread.

Fregola con Vongole

Ingredients

4 dozen littleneck clams, rinsed and scrubbed
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups tomato, diced (either canned or fresh plum tomatoes)
hot red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
1 cup white wine
coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups fregola

Instructions

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pot.  Add the minced garlic and cook over moderately high heat for approximately 30 seconds.  Add the chopped tomatoes, plus hot pepper flakes and pepper to taste.  Cook for 3 or 4 minutes.  Add the wine and parsley and simmer for 5 for minutes.

Place the clams, in a single layer, on top of the mixture and cover tightly. Cook over moderately high heat until the clams open, probably about 5 mins.  Discard any clams that do not open.  As they open, scoop out the clams into a large bowl.  Repeat with a second batch, if required.

When all the clams are cooked, add 4 cups of chicken broth to the tomatoes and bring to a boil.  Add the fregola pasta.  Bring back to a boil, then cover and simmer over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until al dente (about 15 minutes).

Taste, and adjust seasonings. Usually extra salt is not necessary. Return the clams to reheat for a minute or two, then serve garnished with chopped parsley. If you can find it, serve with Sardinian flatbread.

Nov 042017
 

On this date in 1737 the Real Teatro di San Carlo in Naples began performances with Domenico Sarro’s Achille in Sciro. San Carlo is the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in the world. Nowadays the opera season runs from late January to May, with a ballet season from April to early June. The house once had a seating capacity of 3,285, but has now been reduced to 1386 seats. San Carlo became the model for numerous theaters throughout Europe. The theater was commissioned by the Bourbon king Charles III of Naples because he wanted to endow Naples with a new and larger theatre to replace the old, dilapidated, and too-small Teatro San Bartolomeo of 1621, which had served the city well, especially after Scarlatti had moved there in 1682 and had begun to make Naples one of the major opera centers in Europe.

The new opera house was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano, a military architect, and Angelo Carasale, the former director of the San Bartolomeo. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium is the oldest in the world. It was built at a cost of 75,000 ducats. The hall was 28.6 meters long and 22.5 meters wide, with 184 boxes, including those of proscenium, arranged in six orders, plus a royal box capable of accommodating ten people, for a total of 1,379 seats. Including standing room, the theatre could hold over 3,000 people. The fastidious composer and violinist Louis Spohr reviewed the size and acoustic properties of this opera house very thoroughly on 15 February 1817 and concluded that:

There is no better place for ballet and pantomime. Military movements of infantry and cavalry, battles, and storms at sea can be represented here without falling into the ludicrous. But for opera, itself, the house is too large. Although the singers, Signora Isabella Colbran, [Prima Donna of the Teatro San Carlo opera company and Rossini’s future wife], and the Signori Nozzari, Benedetti, etc., have very strong voices, only their highest and most stentorian tones could be heard. Any kind of tender utterance was lost.

When it was opened, the opera house was much admired for its architecture, its gold decorations, and the sumptuous blue upholstery (blue and gold being the official colors of the Bourbons), and was, at the time, the biggest opera house in the world. In 1809 Domenico Barbaia was appointed manager of the royal opera houses in Naples and remained in charge until 1841. He soon established a reputation for innovative and dazzling productions, which attracted leading singers to the opera house. On 13 February 1816 a fire broke out during a dress-rehearsal for a ballet performance and quickly spread to destroy a part of building. On the orders of Ferdinand IV, of Charles III, Barbaia was able to rebuild the opera house within ten months. It was rebuilt as a traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium with 1,444 seats, and a proscenium, 33.5m wide and 30m high. The stage was 34.5m deep.

On 12 January 1817, the rebuilt theatre was inaugurated with Johann Simon Mayr’s Il sogno di Partenope. Stendhal attended the second night of the inauguration and wrote: “There is nothing in all Europe, I won’t say comparable to this theatre, but which gives the slightest idea of what it is like…, it dazzles the eyes, it enraptures the soul…”

In 1844 the opera house was re-decorated, changing the appearance of the interior to the now-traditional red and gold. Apart from the creation of the orchestra pit, suggested by Verdi in 1872, the installation of electricity in 1890, the subsequent abolition of the central chandelier, and the construction of the new foyer and a new wing for dressing rooms, the theatre underwent no substantial changes until repair of the bombing damage in 1943.

When San Carlo was built, the Neapolitan School of opera enjoyed great success all over Europe, not only in the field of opera buffa but also in that of opera seria. Naples became the capital of European music and even foreign composers considered the performance of their compositions at the San Carlo theater as the pinnacle of their careers. Likewise, the most prominent singers performed and consolidated their fame at the San Carlo.

From 1815 to 1822, Gioachino Rossini was house composer and artistic director of the royal opera houses, including the San Carlo. During this period he wrote ten operas: Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815), La gazzetta, Otello, ossia il Moro di Venezia (1816), Armida (1817), Mosè in Egitto, Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818), Ermione, Bianca e Falliero, Eduardo e Cristina, La donna del lago (1819), Maometto II (1820), and Zelmira (1822). After the composition of Zelmira, Rossini left Naples.

To replace Rossini, Barbaja first signed up Giovanni Pacini and then another rising star of Italian opera, Gaetano Donizetti. As artistic director of the royal opera houses, Donizetti remained in Naples from 1822 until 1838, composing sixteen operas for the theatre, among which Maria Stuarda (1834), Roberto Devereux (1837), Poliuto (1838) and the famous Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), written for soprano Tacchinardi-Persiani and for tenor Duprez.

Giuseppe Verdi was also associated with the theater. In 1841, his Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio was performed there and in 1845 he wrote his first opera for the theater, Alzira; a second, Luisa Miller, followed in 1849. His third should have been Gustavo III, but the censor made such significant changes that it was never performed in that version nor under that title (until a re-created version was given in 2004). It was later performed in Rome with significant revisions to the plot and its location, while the title became Un ballo in maschera.

The unification of Italy in 1861 lead to Naples losing its status as the musical center of Italy and the home of the country’s leading opera house to La Scala as power and wealth moved northwards. By 1874 the fall in income from performances led to the closing of the opera house for a year. Its fortunes were able to recover due to the continued support in the later half of the 19th century and into the 20th century by Giacomo Puccini and other composers of verismo operas, such as Pietro Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Cilea, who staged their works here.

In the late 19th century, the house created its own in-house orchestra under Giuseppe Martucci, which helped attract a number of respected conductors including Arturo Toscanini, Pietro Mascagni and composer Richard Strauss, whose influence expanded the opera house’s repertoire.

One performer who did not appear in Naples from 1901 onward was Naples-born Enrico Caruso, who after being booed by a section of the audience during a performance of L’elisir d’amore, vowed never to return.

Here’s a small taste:

Speaking of taste, one of the most beloved Neapolitan dishes, perhaps as part of a pre-opera dinner is spaghetti alle vongole napolitano. It’s very simple to make and is one of my favorites.  You must use very small clams, but you can use linguine in place of spaghetti.

Spaghetti Alle Vongole Napolitano

Ingredients

500 gm fresh small clams in their shells
200 gm cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
500 gm spaghetti

Instructions

Wash the clams thoroughly and keep them in salt water for half an hour before cooking.

Cook the spaghetti in abundant boiling water.  Check every few minutes once it is soft to make sure it is cooked al dente and no more.

Sauté the garlic gently over medium heat in oil in a deep skillet (with a lid) for about 2 minutes. Do not let it take on any color. Add the tomatoes, salt to taste, and half of the parsley. Stir slowly and cook for 3-4 minutes.

Drain the clams and add them to the skillet. Stir and cover until the clams are open (3-4 minutes). If the sauce is too dry add a small amount of boiling water from the pasta pan.

When the spaghetti is cooked al dente, drain and put it back into the same pot. Pour over it the juices from the cooked clams.  Stir for 1 minute over low heat.

Empty the spaghetti on to a serving dish and serve with the clams and tomatoes garnished with the remaining parsley.

Serves 4