A Labor of Love
by Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò (1926-2015)
Written on the occasion of Casa's 20th Anniversary in 2010
I am a citizen of Milan and New York: I am a citizen of the world. I grew up in difficult times, during the war, with a father who refused to submit to orders and impositions from above. Early on I began working by day and studying by night – which today sounds normal, but was not at the time – and that kind of discipline helped me a lot; I learned a lesson that I never forgot: I understood early on that no one is better than anyone else, but that everyone has different qualities. The terrible years of the war were a great but painful school. Still, mine was a happy childhood thanks to the constant love, deep and vigilant, of my parents, Giovanni and Regina Soncini.
I met Guido Zerilli-Marimò, who became my husband in 1949, when I was working for the Partito Liberale Italiano. Guido, with his fervent creativity, was helping his friend Giovanni Malagodi with Party propaganda during the first postwar elections. To meet someone because of a political credo, a common hope, creates a strong tie: sharing difficult times reinforced our characters and guided our choices, as it did for many other people of our generation.
During the years of the reconstruction the two of us had to face a serious financial blow, because my husband's factories had been destroyed during the war. Furthermore, his partner, Roberto Lepetit, had been killed in the concentration camp of Ebensee for his heroic militancy in the Resistance. Paradoxically, Guido had been spared because of a serious car accident that had left him in the hospital for almost two years. Although he suffered the consequences of it for the rest of his life, he always considered it a blessing in disguise sent by his mother. Guido Zerilli-Marimò was a clever man, of great intellectual and moral stature. After the war he was one of the first Italian industrialists to come to America – his first trip took forty-six hours aboard a military plane – where he knew he would find the cutting edge of pharmaceutical research, which had contributed to the discovery and development of antibiotics, the drugs that revolutionized the production of pharmaceuticals all over the world. So after many long years during which Italian research had been paralyzed because of the war, and our factories had been destroyed, an exciting new work project began which resulted in the development of the Società Lepetit. It began as a smaller pharmaceutical sector of the Ledoga chemical industry, which produced tanning and coloring extracts, but in about a decade Lepetit became a multinational business, active in over one hundred countries, with factories in Europe, South and Central America, and Asia, and with high-level research labs. These were years of intense activity and enthusiasm, inspired by hope ans dreams: after all, we came from a city, Milan, that had suffered destruction and humiliation in a country reduced to starvation. We felt the need to let go of those dark years, the days in which our daily rations were 120 grams of bread as hard as a rock. To see our country getting back on tis feet thanks to everyone's contribution and work, and to the capable enterprises of Italian industries, filled us with pride and joy. I remember how moved we were in front of the Italian flag waving above our factories in Buenos Aires, in São Paolo, and all the others that followed soon after. We were getting back on our feet in this great period of general hardships and hope, and of intense patriotic love.
I was with Guido the first time I came to New York in October 1950. My husband had already been here many times: both Columbia University and his work had brought him frequently to new York. Like Guido, I immediately fell in love with the city, its vitality, and its cosmopolitan qualities in business and culture. We returned here year after year, embarking on the magnificent transatlantic ships of the time and staying here from October to December- Although the voyage was often rough – I still remember an epic storm in the Atlantic aboard the ill-fated Andrea Doria – we always loved and appreciated New York, and we had many friends here, in addition to my husband's colleagues. Today there are many important cities in the world, but back in the fifties – when Europe was getting over the war that had left it drained of blood – to come to this city, with its intelligent vitality and cultural interest, was like reaching Eldorado.
During those years we became friends with Elmer H. Bobst, the head of Warner Lambert, and his wife Dodo (Mamdouha). Initially we saw each other for work purposes, but soon the relationship became one of deep friendship that brought our families close together, resulting in our spending a lot of time with each other. Unfortunately, Elmer died in 1979, and soon after, in 1981, my husband left us as well. Since then I began coming back to New York more and more often as Dodo's guest. The Bobsts had donated a splendid library to New York University, and Dodo, a University Trustee, was always invited to university events. Being her guest, I began participating in these events as well, and began to love NYU.
After participating for a few years, I offered the university some land within my property at Castel Gandolfo for the creation of an Italian campus. Dr. John Brademas, who was then the President of NYU, came to see it and found it beautiful and congenial, since it is only twenty kilometers from Rome; however, since the University had already accepted Sir Harold Acton's offer of Villa La Pietra in Florence, there could not be two campuses in the same country. But he told me that he would be glad to evaluate any other proposal I might have for the university. Returning to New York over and over again, I realized that New York University, with its strong international vocation (“global,” we would say today), had the Maison Française and the Deutsches Haus but not an Italian House. How could there not be a Casa Italiana in a university situated right in the heart of the Village, which had once been part of Little Italy, so important to us Italians? Beyond that, a Casa Italiana seemed to me the right kind of memorial for my husband, as I later stated at the project's press conference- My donation to NYU represented a permanent and constructive homage to my husband's memory. I spoke about it with Dodo right from the start, explaining to her that I wanted to do something for Italy at NYU. She invited Dr. Brademas to her home, and I remember that he arrived at seven in the morning, on his way to London to meet the Prince of Wales. He told me that we could think about a project together.
I was very shy at the time and still very upset over the loss of my husband, a terrible tragedy in my life. Therefore, when Dr. Brademas invited me to breakfast a few days later and I found myself in the great President's Hall on the top floor of Bobst Library, in front of a long table full of gentlemen who were observing me, I felt terribly embarrassed. In spite of my nervousness, I explained to the Board of Trustees that I wished to found a Casa Italiana within NYU because I wanted to donate a living testimony of my country to the city of New York. And so my enterprise began.
The University assigned me someone responsible for their real estate, who accompanied me to visit a few buildings, among which a four-story, nineteenth-century house, part of historic Greenwich Village, located at 24 West 12th Street near Washington Square. I liked the building, but it was in a horrible state: a façade hiding an abyss. It was built in 1851, and its illustrious owner had been General Winfield Scott, the Mexican War hero, who owned it from 1853 until his death. So it was a national monument, complete with the high cost and many doubts that such a state of degradation can raise. On November 4, 2009, thanks to the Casa's noble origins, plus the fact that it had been given new life and, especially, that its activities are central to the city's cultural life, the prestigious New York Landmark Conservancy Foundation bestowed upon me the flattering title of Living Landmark; I was the first non-American citizen to receive it. But to return to the beginning: I received a sign from Providence that greatly contributed to the launching of the project. At the time I was the owner of an apartment in a prestigious area in the center of Milan. The house, designed by Gio Ponti, was immersed in a garden – a rare thing for the city. I was very attached to this residence, since I had moved there as a young bride and had never thought about selling it, the more so because my family and I, having lived in Rome for many years, had rented half of it to the German Consul and half to the Morgan Bank. But one day a gentleman introduced himself and made me an offer for it. He told me that he had an invalid son and that, thanks to the particular design of one of the bedrooms, the boy would be able to move his wheelchair from the room to the veranda and spend time pleasantly in the shade of a tree that reached up beyond the terrace. So, motivated both by the fatherly love behind such an offer and also by the sum I would be receiving which would allow me to start the Casa Italiana project, I sold the apartment. I must confess that it was a very tough decision to make because of the attachment and the dear memories that tied me to my home in Milan. I remember that my brother Massimo comforted me in a moment of nostalgia with a very significant and profound sentence, for which I am grateful: “Don't grieve over it, because that was Guido's house in Milan, but this is Guido's house in New York.” It was true: my husband had always loved this city and said that he felt a universal spirit pulsating inside, which he felt was strongest in American youth. Guido appreciated the values that looked far ahead, and once his house was in New York, I could visit him. Furthermore, I brought some furniture from our houses in Rome and Castel Gandolfo, among which the large monastic table in the Casa's foyer (it used to be my husband's desk) and the bronze putto in the fountain that used to be at the top of the garden steps.
I was reassured by the thought that this project would blend perfectly with the nobility and generosity of Guido's spirit, because he had always been careful and sensitive toward other people's needs, cultural upbringing, and the morals of younger generations. I remember that during an interview in 1962, he was asked what had been his most significant achievement, and he answered: “To have possibly contributed substantially to the education of many young people, initiating them to life by pointing out its laws and dangers.” In fact, many young people enjoyed the job opportunities my husband had offered, also thanks to the cultural organizations that he had created, financed, and directed, such as the Associazione Italo-Americana and the Centro di Azione Latina, which for many years offered language, history, economics, and literature courses as well as scholarships for cultural exchanges with other countries.
I also received a great deal of support from our daughter, my beloved Maria Chiara, who stood by me and always consented with great generosity to the considerable donations for the purchase, building, and administration of the Casa. The complete support of my family for this project was an important moral and emotional help.
In 1988 I jumped headfirst into the Casa renovations, actually a reconstruction ex novo, for which I chose one of the five architects NYU had suggested: David Helpern. He seemed the most serious and promised both quality and efficiency, and he gave me a fine preparatory project. I have never regretted my choice- During those years, in the attempt to assuage the anguish caused by my mourning, I had resumed my studies at the University of Lausanne where I had left them when I married Guido. But in spite of that, I frequently returned to New York full of energy. At four in the morning, suffering from jet lag, I would work on my thesis, and at nine I would meet with the architect, with whom I worked assiduously during the whole construction period, having a clear idea of the result I wanted to obtain: a real Italian house with our own marble and our own wood, treated in accordance with Italian tradition. Regarding the auditorium, which I wanted at all costs and wished to build in the basement (where, on the contrary, the architect wished to install the various technical systems), Helpern had a terrific idea: to raise the garden to street level, thus creating an ideal space for the theater, which turned out beautiful and functional, with magnificent acoustics.
The Casa's objective was clear to me from the start, and twenty years of constant activity demonstrate that the path we chose was right. As far as the Department of Italian Studies is concerned, I discovered that at the time there was not an autonomous department and that the Italian language was taught in NYU's Department of French and Italian. I was told that this was common in the United States, in addition to the fact that the Italian Department had no other space and was therefore sharing a space with its French counterpart- Although I have always been passionate about French culture and grew up speaking French, I felt that it was best for the Department of Italian Studies to be autonomous, so I asked for it to be hosted at the Casa. Today we are proud to say that our Department is considered number one in the United States.
Together with the President of NYU I had presented the Casa's project in May 1988, two years before its inauguration, during a press conference at the Elmer H. Bobst Library. I remember the beautiful speech delivered by Dr. Brademas: “This magnificent gift represents a huge step forward for Italian studies at New York University and in the United States. The vision and generosity of Baroness Zerilli-Marimò allow the University to develop an active programming of cultural relations and strengthen our scientific ties to the civilization of Dante Alighieri, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo.” Words like these fill my heart. Another affectionate and thankful speech was by Chancellor L. Jay Oliva, who became Dr. Brademas' successor: “Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò provides a wonderful new academic and cultural resource for the whole University; since New York University, among all the country's universities, is the one with the highest concentration of Italian-American students, Casa Italiana will become a special source of pride for our students of Italian-American heritage.”
The inauguration took place on November 13, 1990. Many authorities were involved. Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti gave the opening speech and Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, then Archbishop Permanent Observer of the Vatican at the United Nations, blessed the Casa. The ceremony, which brought together many friends fro Italy and around the world, took place in the main lobby. I remember that suddenly, due to the crowd, the fire alarm went off. Giulio Andreotti, who was delivering his opening speech at that moment, stopped and, unflappable as always, said: “This makes it a true inauguration, complete with the bell ringing, as for the launching of a ship.” Our adventure had begun.
The first Director, poet Luigi Ballerini, teaches today at the University of California in Los Angeles. Together we organized “Disappearing Pheasant”, an important symposium with the most important Italian and American poets. It was a brilliant start and was soon followed by many events for the promotion and spreading of contemporary Italian culture. In fact, the mission of the Casa is to represent that which our culture, ancient and modern, can offer to the world. Twenty years ago, when the Casa's activity was not well known yet, we were the ones who invited artists, musicians, and writers, while today we are constantly solicited to present programs, and not by unimportant personalities. This demonstrates the Casa's significant growth, in both the quantity and quality of its programs. Today we organize between eighty and ninety events every year.
Among the many activities at the Casa, music plays a central role and musical events are always very popular, as in the case of the lectures by our dear Maestro Alfredo Bonavera, accompanied by instrumental music and singing, or the interesting cycle of interviews, hosted by our friend the musicologist Fred Plotkin, with stars of the Metropolitan Opera (and of the other most important opera houses of the world). Other successes were the two exhibits on Giuseppe Verdi, including Toscanini's baton and the costumes of Montserrat Caballé and Lily Pons. It should be underscored that NYU's Giuseppe Verdi Institute is the largest collection in America and includes sheet music, manuscripts of the Maestro, letters, correspondence with Giulio Ricordi, sketches for operas, etcetera. The Institute was nourished and enlivened for decades by Dean Professor Martin Chusid, with a learned periodical newsletter, and thanks to Professor Francesco Izzo it carries its work forward with intellect, love, and competence. Other musical highlights were the two weeks, entitled The Winners, during which we brought in five pianos, together with our own, to allow six excellent young pianists from Maestro Scala's School in Imola to practice freely every day and delight us in the evening with concerts of a high level and amazing virtuosity. But how to list so many exceptional moments?
Theater also receives our attention: it suffices to mention that such great living theatrical monuments as Vittorio Gassman, Giorgio Strehler, and Lucilla Mmorlacchi have performed in our tiny, 105-seat theater.
There has been a great deal of activity on the exhibition front, with presentations of artists from the past (such as the important cycle on the Futurists – including Futurist women!), as well as many talented young artists in the fields of painting, sculpture, photography, and design. It would take too much time, although it would please us immensely, to name all of the young people who were first launched at Casa Italiana and are now very well known in Italy, in the United States, and in the rest of the world. It is appropriate for me to be able to thank my dear friend Isabella Del Frate Rayburn, who advises us year after year in finding the greatest artists, and the sponsors, for two exhibitions per year, committing herself professionally and financially in favor of the Casa. Together with exclusively artistic exhibitions, we have also hosted institutional exhibitions, by associations or Italian cities with their specificities and interests.
One must not forget that the privileged relationship between the Casa and the Department of Italian Studies leads to many combined events of high academic interest. Although the Department is part of the University, it is “resident” at Casa Italiana; actually, it is an active component of its internal texture of work and interests. Early on it could count on only a small number of teachers and very few Masters and PhD students, but today – as I mentioned above – it is considered the most complete Department of Italian Studies in the United States. It has been led by such famous names from the academic world as Professor John Freccero, the well-known expert on Dante and the Renaissance. Today it is run wisely and in a masterly fashion by Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat. I think we can state – without false modesty – that Italy has been honored here. And it is thanks to Casa Italiana's activities and the constant valorization of our ethical and cultural principles that the foundation of the oldest Italian-American Club in the United States, the Tiro a Segno, donated five hundred thousand dollars to the Department to create a chair of Italian-American history, literature, and culture. Professor Ben-Ghiat can be really proud of the courses, which have been attended for years with interest and benefit by thousands of students.
The history of Italian immigration in America has always been a topic dear to me, ever since my contemporary history professor assigned me an essay on Italian and Irish immigration in the United States. At the time, I had the opportunity to study in the most important library dedicated to this theme, the Center for Migration Studies in Staten Island, founded by Scalabriniani Brothers Lydio and Silvano Tomasi. Father Silvano is now Archbishop and Nuncio in Geneva at the United Nations, and Father Lydio has an important parish in Washington. At the Center I was able to study the migratory flows of our population, which – poor and hit by many adversities in the homeland – was forced to face a very difficult reality in the new country but succeeded in integrating itself perfectly into the social and economic texture of the United States thanks to its faith in the values of religion and family, and thanks to its courage, determination, and tenacity. Today one can find Italian names at the highest levels in the United States – for instance, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi; two Supreme Court Justices out of nine are Italian-American; not to mention the industrial and financial colossi created by Italian-Americans. Once the example was Amadeo Giannini, founder of what would become Bank of America, but today it would be almost impossible to mention all those who honor Italy. Guicciardini left us the line: “A country is known for those it sends away.” And, setting aside prejudices and absurd stereotypes, it is a fact that Italians have excelled abroad. It is with great pleasure that every year I participate at the New York meeting of the Italian decorated members of the American Society of the Italian Legion of Merit, presided in a masterly fashion by New York Supreme Court Justice Dominic Massaro, not to mention those grandiose days in Washington organized by NIAF – the National Italian American Foundation – including the final lunch with three thousand participants, which is attended by the President of the United States.
Today Italy enjoys great sympathy in America. I remember when this attitude began during the fifties- Ladies, then, would admire my dresses made with rich silks from Como. When visiting Italy, I would guide them through our prestigious industries. Today the Italian lifestyle, “Made in Italy,” and our culture are valued everywhere, but beyond the giants of the past that everyone who has every studied or spent time in Italy knows, it is our duty to let the Italy of today be known, with its many talented artists and writers, and our ideas projected towards the future.
In this regard, I would like to mention the creating – in 1998 – of the Zerilli-Marimò Prize for contemporary Italian fiction. The idea originated together with Professor Francesco Erspamer, who was then Chair of the Department and is now Head of the Italian department of Harvard University, who suggested that I create a fund for the translation of contemporary Italian works rarely taken into consideration by American publishers who favor the classical authors. During these twelve years, with the collaboration of the Casa delle Letterature of Rome, directed by the capable and brilliant Dr. Maria Ida Gaeta, the Prize has met with great success. A small “feminist” note: the last four prizes went to women: Alessandra Lavagnino for Le bibliotecarie di Alessandria in 2002, Silvia Bonucci for Voci di un tempo in 2003, Valeria Parrella for Per Grazia Ricevuta in 2006, and Milena Agus for Mal di pietre in 2008.
I am not and have never been a feminist, but I surely do not regret my many years as Director of the dear ANDE, Associazione Nazionale Donne Elettrici, just as I am proud to have been the first female honorary Member of the Tiro a Segno Association. I have often found myself in predominantly male contexts, among which the boards of New York University and the Morgan Library and Museum. At NYU I was the first non-American citizen to be elected. And I want to repeat my deep satisfaction, my pride, in being part of such a stupendous University as “dear old NYU.” I am now a lifetime Board member, and during my many years in the bosom of such a prestigious institution I have enjoyed seeing good grow and expand in favor of an intelligent and determined youth prepared for a brilliant future. As far as I am concerned, in the University I have always found friendship and recognition to the point of considering it “my American family.”
I have often been asked what our projects are for the future. Certainly our desire is to continue along the lines we have followed since the beginning of the Casa's activity. From what we have seen, this is already sufficient to keep our hands full, but a sector that has not been explored enough is the sciences, where we can possibly do more and better in the future. For this we can also learn more from the University, which is strong not only in teaching the humanities, economics and the various artistic disciplines, but is also one of the most important scientific research centers, with its famous New York University Medical Center, one of the best hospitals of New York. Another impulse could come from the possible collaboration with the recently acquired prestigious Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn.
Every day new possibilities present themselves, but there is a project that has been dear to me for many years and that is coming to life: although last year our Department added Art History, taught by Professor Ara Merjian, I feel that to decently complete the formation of young people who really want to know Italy it is necessary to create a Chair for socio-political and economic studies after 1945. This Chair has finally been created, a gift of mine for the Casa's twentieth anniversary and a new instrument for initiatives and common activities.
Together with Professor Stefano Albertini, the Casa's true supporting pillar and skillful Director, with whom I have had the pleasure of working for more than sixteen years, we look back with satisfaction at all the work we have done. My gratitude goes to Stefano Albertini for his intelligent, capable, competent, and untiring work in favor of the Casa. For many years he has supported me, and if the quality of our programs has risen gradually over time, the thanks go especially to him- Truly, day after day our heartfelt work is carried out with passion, giving us the shared joy of brilliant results.
Twenty years in an institution like this one, part and parcel of a glorious university that has been improving for almost two hundred years, becoming the admired and world-famous New York University, represent the first steps of a journey that – with its many projects already on the way and the ones that will follow, with help of God and our strong will to continuously better ourselves – will give Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò of New York University sturdy wings with which to fly ever higher.