By Arthur Cola
The colors of Autumn were at peak as I left the Chicago area on my journey to Washington,D.C. I was to be one of the guest authors at Festa Italiana. Okay, here’s where your eyes should widen with a questioning look which asks “What, a Festa in D.C.?” And I would be right there with you were it not for the invitation to participate in the celebration of Italian Culture on Columbus Day weekend in Washington. Joseph Onofrietti, President of the Festa Italiana Foundation had extended the invitation thus I knew such a festival took place. I also had visited their Web site which presented the highlights of what one would experience at Festa Italiana, D.C. style. The music, art, cultural exhibits, films, and of course authors like me, who would be presenting their books. Those author presentations were to take place at Casa Italiana, the Cultural Centerof the American Italian Community in the District. What I hadn’t expected was how the center, along with Holy Rosary Church on whose grounds the Festa was to take place, were located in the heart of our nation’s capital. In fact they were literally within the shadow of the Capitol’s Dome.
Thus, you may imagine how awed I was to find these symbols of Italian Culture nestled at 3rd and F Streets. Wanting to get a feel for what was to take place I drove down 3rd St. and arrived at Holy Rosary Church. A banner hung on the administrative building’s wall announcing Festa. Richard DiBuono (President of the Abruzzo-Molise Heritage Society) happened to be working with other volunteers coordinating last minute details but took the time to give me a tour.
As I stepped into the Church it was like entering a historic time warp in which I was transported to Italy itself. The vaulted ceiling reminiscent of Renaissance Churches drew my attention to the sanctuary with its gleaming white marble altar behind which was a fresco painting depicting Our Lady of the Rosary. To each side where shrines, I lighted a candle at the shrine of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and offered three prayers with three wishes in honor of my Grandmother who taught me to do so on a first visit to any Church and for my Mother to whom I dedicated my book. These elements of our faith tradition blended together so as to spirit me away to the days of my youth in Chicago where such ethnic street festivals were common. But this was D.C. where one doesn’t usually think of such events and yet here it was. Dick led me into the Casa Italiana, where I was to conduct my presentation. That notion was immediately dispelled as Italian art formed the murals within the ballroom area. Here the delicious pasta meal would be served and cultural exhibits would be on display.
Then it happened, that is the significance of Italian influence on our democracy as a young, vibrant and fiercely independent nation. Along the façade of the center were erected four statues of notable Italians, one of whom was none other than Michelangelo. “The Stone Cutter Genius” is what I called him in my novel of the same name. I felt that it was standing in the courtyard of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence where a similar statue of the ingenius artist who painted the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling of creation, the sculptor of St. Peter’s Pieta and the Giant David of Florence, to mention but a few of his masterpieces.
I patted the statue’s foot as did the character in my novel to the statue of David in the Academy of Fine Art in Florence. Perhaps, as in my tale, a spirit will come forth to enlighten me and point me in the direction of tolerance, acceptance, beauty and freedom as was the desire of Michelangelo.
I then looked out onto the streets now blocked off. Joe and Dick were busily setting up the stage area of Festa. I stood for a moment next to the statue of Christopher Columbus. We both cast our gaze with wonder as 3rd and F Streets were transformed into those of Naples, Sicily or Abruzzo where such festivals are still commonly held. Having received my assigned area, I too began to bring what I hoped to be a sense of Italian Renaissance thought, art, legend and intrigue to the visitors of Festa through the pages of my book.
The Gelato stand was being set up next to mine. Ever since my experience of tasting Gelato in Rome it has been called the nectar of the gods whenever I refer to it. Balloons floated over the vendor areas adding a splash of color to welcome the hundreds of visitors now streaming down F Street toward Holy Rosary Church. A Latin Mass would be celebrated to kick off the festival. At the end of the service the procession began.
Altar servers in red cassocks and brilliantly white surplices led the solemn procession with the flags of the United States and of Italy flanking the sacred golden Crucifix as the student marching band played while their drums kept beat to the pace of the scores of people participating. The Knights of Columbus with flowing capes, plumed hats and swords at their side escorted the sacred Painting of the Madonna with her child, Jesus while uniformed police officers carried a floral Wreath which was to be placed at the Memorial for law enforcement members who had fallen in line of duty. Father Lydio Tomasi intoned the responses to the prayers of the Rosary as they made their way to the Memorial site.
The solemnities having concluded the joyous sounds of Italian music soon filled the air as the Duke Ellington High School singers belted out opera songs and tenor Elio Scaccio and Amanda Beagle’s Ciao Bella medley soon had the traditional music of Italy such as “O Sole Mio” and contemporary songs such as “The Prayer” echoing through the canyons of our nation’s Federal Government buildings. And all of this musicality blended with the smells of sausage cooking and pizza baking.
I had the delight to meet many of the Festa visitors. Many were young people dressed in Fratelli (brothers and sisters) Italia (of Italy) tee shirts which commemorated the 150 years of the unification of Italy in this year of 2011. Others chatted with me at length about my books and some purchased them. Three of them were ladies from Church Falls,VA who were the first to buy my novel: The Stone Cutter Genius and my Christmas children’s book: Papa and the Gingerbread Man. Two young men at my presentation were intrigued with the background of Michelangelo’s life which forms the foundation of the story in which a teacher and his two teen sons in present day America learn of the Legend of the Magi Ring. This legend was widely believed in Renaissance Italy and by Michelangelo as well. One was a student from Ball State University in Indiana and the other was an American who was raised in Naples and now lives in the District.
After the raffle drawing for the trip to Italy it was time to say Arrivederci to Festa. My farewell was a walk to the Capitol building which houses the United States Congress. Once again, as I took photos, I was struck by the relevance of Festa Italiana in D.C. The stunning white Dome contrasted brilliantly with the azure blue sky. Here was yet another reminder of the genius of Michelangelo, for the design for the Dome of the Capitol is based on his rendition for the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome.
From the days of exploration by Christopher Columbus and his successors, to the contributions of artisans on the design of our nation’s Capitol to the thousands upon thousands who immigrated here yearning to be free; the people came to this land now symbolized by Washington, D.C. Together we descendants of those generations celebrate the heritage which they brought to these shores as we sing “God Bless America.”
(Arthur Cola is the second generation son of great-grandparents who came to the United Statesfrom Abruzzo and Tuscanyin Italy. He is a veteran educator and author of three novels: The Stone Cutter Genius, The Shamrock Crown (Legend of Excalibur) and Papa and the Leprechaun King as well as three screenplays based on his books. His Christmas themed book for children is titled: Papa and the Gingerbread Man.Make him your friend on Facebook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His web site: www.arthurcolalegendarytales.com.