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- JANUARY 2018 -
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Best of Italy
“Angels and saints in Chicago and Baltimora”
Cultural exchanges between the University of Bari and the US
Scholars from the Department of Antiquity Studies took part in the convention of the Society of Biblical Literature and held conferences and meetings.
Writer Raffaele Nigro tells of his mission to the States and notes his impressions of the New World.
“Here they flee upwards, in a race to see who can grow the tallest cement. The beauty, in fact, apart from the multi-ethnicity, lies in the height of the blocks, in the metaphysical geometry and obviously in a variegated democracy, varying from State to State”
by Raffaele Nigro
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Chicago. “The bean”, the sculpture by Anish Kapoor which reflects the surrounding images.
Photo courtesy of Alessandra Campione

It’s cold in Chicago this November that in Italy seemed like a carry-over from August. We land after a night flight from Monaco and are welcomed into the neo-Liberty apartments of Loyola University. Winter has really set in here! We are heading for Baltimore, to the annual convention organized by the Society of Biblical Literature. But Edmondo Lupieri, who teaches Theology in Chicago and was a visiting professor last summer at the University of Bari, on learning of the trip to Baltimore, wanted the group of teachers and researchers from the Department of Antiquity and Late Antiquity Studies at the University of Bari, to which I had attached myself, to stop over Loyola and conduct an exchange of ideas on the theme of Holy Places with some colleagues from Illinois. The Bari Department has always been involved in this subject and also, over the last two years, thanks to Laura Carnevale, winner of a “FIRB” (Fondi Italiani per la Ricerca di Base) prize, awarded by the Universities Minister, has brought together the forces of the Universities of Bari, Padova and Enna to study the sanctuary of San Matteo, near San Marco in Lamis. Carnevale explains to her American colleagues that it is an important deposit of books, works of art, votive offerings, documents and chronicles accumulated over the centuries, because the site was, once upon a time, an important stopover for the pilgrims heading for the sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo. So it will be necessary to carry out some capillary investigations and in this she will be helped by her Bari colleagues, by Daniela Patti, archeologist at the University of Enna, and by Chiara Cremonesi, anthropologist and religions historian at the University of Padova.

On the subject of holy places, a must on the agenda in Chicago is a contribution on the sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo dedicated to San Michele and to fifty years of the magazine Vetera Christianorum. Ada Campione, Associate Professor of the Puglia Department is to speak. She talks about the discoveries made by Giorgio Otranto and Carlo Carletti on the walls of the Gargano sanctuary in the 70s; the mysterious names engraved in runic characters by Germanic pilgrims in the Middle Ages. She tells of the peculiarities of the cult and of the site dedicated to Michael: the apparitions of the archangel in mountain caves and the twin feasts of May and September.

The university city is a rare display of comfort and care. It stands on Lake Michigan, which Lonely Planet maintains is as big as the Adriatic, has refectories and restaurants, libraries facing onto the lake, an imposing Roman Catholic church with Orthodox-style frescoes, and even a mosque; enormous classrooms and huge gardens through which a freezing wind is blowing today and shops where you can find everything, from pottery souvenir to tracksuits singing the praises of the Loyola rugby team. The annual fees here are about forty thousand dollars a year, the national average, says Lupieri, considering that in America all the universities are expensive.

A pale sun, which appears suddenly in the afternoon, invites us to go for a walk around town, flanking the lake and slipping, between the disturbing crystal canyons of skyscrapers, into this expressionist maze of steel and glass, as far as the oldest monument on Michigan Ave, a tower from the end of the 19th century, in blatant neo-Gothic style, like a Chicago Notre Dame and then to the Water Tower, where a warm, flourishing mall, one of the many shopping centers contained by buildings made of aluminium alloys and cement, invites us to buy clothing and souvenirs and to eat food of every make.

The Italian restaurants here are thriving and expensive, but so are the Asian ones. There’s no shortage of chilli, paprika, pepper, sauces, spices and butter which prevent any meat, vegetable or pulse from innocently retaining its own taste. You have to be quick, too, when looking for somewhere to have dinner, because there’s a curfew after seven.

No-one in this town wants to hear Al Capone mentioned, but the city that Hollywood sold me can’t shrug off, in my imagination, the memory of the gangster, of the Depression of ’29, or of Prohibition, despite the bright Italian and French designer label neon signs on the wide shopping avenues. There’s the bean, the shiny steel work by Anish Kapoor, in the huge Millennium Park, where everyone takes photos and gazes at their reflections. A dash into the grid-locked avenues, under the bridges of the railway that cuts across the city. And then the awe when standing at the top of Willis Tower, one of the highest observatories in the world, Chicago’s pride, and of seeing Lake Michigan fade away beyond the horizon. Having no depths to plumb, except in search of oil, here they flee upwards, in a race to see who can grow the tallest cement. The beauty, in fact, apart from the multi-ethnicity, lies in the height of the blocks, in the metaphysical geometry and obviously in a variegated democracy, varying from State to State.

Then the lights in the hive of the center come on, like a starry sky within reach, and at 500 Michigan Ave. the Italian Cultural Institute is serving orecchiette and rape with a second course of meatballs and chops. The Americans have come to hear Alessandra Campione illustrate the panorama of contemporary Apulian painters: Adolfo Grassi, Michele Damiani, Manlio Chieppa, Matteo Masiello and Carlo Fusca. Ada, her sister, astounds the listeners, together with Angela Laghezza and Laura Carnevale, by illustrating the Unesco sites in Puglia: Alberobello, Castel del Monte and Monte Sant’Angelo. Some of the guests know Rome and Florence from having been there for holidays; others don’t even know that Puglia, Calabria and Lucania exist. To my surprise, an old friend of mine, Angelo Sibilano, originally from Ceglie del Campo, comes to greet me. He has been here for forty years managing a thriving light fittings store and goes back to Italy at least twice a year.

It doesn’t take long to reach Baltimore, a flight of just over two hours. The conference complex is a cement city, a resort of escalators and endless prefabs. The entire world of Bible scholars, members of religious orders and theologians come together in these spaces. Could there be ten thousand?

Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, Jews and Christian Scientists read the Bible and ancient Christianity from their viewpoint. Saints and gurus, believers and atheists will be inviting each other to listen and to exchange ideas. Mauro Pesce has come from Bologna, Lupieri has followed us from Chicago, the “Pontificia società Gregoriana” publishing house is the only Italian editorial presence at the book fair dealing with theological topics and it will be Angela Laghezza from the Bari group who speaks tomorrow about Gregorio Magno and illness in Mediaeval times. I confess it sounds really strange to hear the name of this Pope, a giant in the building of the Christian and Benedictine tradition, mentioned in the country of John Wayne and the Pilgrim Fathers.

Baltimore is an endless sprawl of houses around an Atlantic gulf. An enormous Holocaust museum tells of the ruin and the power of the Jews in these latitudes, while the harbour has something of England about it, and around a three-masted boat that acts as a maritime museum, you can note the red bricks of the fronts of Phillip’s restaurant, famous for its crab, of the Hard Rock Café, of a book shop designed like a giant transatlantic liner and of the low-story houses, made of fired brick of Little Italy, huddled round a garden infested with Italian flags. Don’t go too far from this street, don’t get dragged into the dangerous center, Loris, an Italian American from Teramo, who has been here for thirty years, kept repeating to us, when we discover him by chance among the staff of the Renaissance Hotel, where he helps us to organize an additional meeting, during which we’ll talk about research projects and possible bridges between Italian schools and American schools. In one of the unexpectedly packed rooms at the Renaissance, a crowd of teachers of various origins; African Asians, Iranians, Egyptian Copts, and Americans, Ada, Angela, Alessandra and Daniela relate fifty years of Vetera Christianorum, the scientific magazine created by Antonio Quacquarelli to give space to studies on the Christian culture of the origins, while Laura Carnevale returns to illustrate her adventure on San Marco in Lamis. Images of Puglia and of its important processional rites, glimpses of the area as interpreted by the painters of the 20th century, the publications of Mario Adda, of Gelsorosso, of Edipuglia and of the Provincia di Bari. It hasn’t been easy to put all this together and act as ambassadors in a land where a veiled autarchy reigns.

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