Category: Sicily

Reflections On the Italian Educational System: An American Perspective, an article by David Garyan

Trento, Italy


Reflections On the Italian Educational System: An American Perspective

Having not only lived in Italy as an American since September 2019, but having also studied and worked here continuously since my arrival, I feel it quite appropriate to comment on recent developments having to do with Elin and Benny Mattsson’s letter about the state of Italian education. Before I do this, however, I would like to briefly outline my background in order to show why I may be qualified (perhaps in a limited sense—I admit) to offer some thoughts on the situation.

My professional background is in English literature and creative writing, both of which I studied extensively at US universities. Apart from my B.A. in the subject, I also received an MA in English (with an emphasis in Rhetoric and Composition), along with an MFA in Creative Writing (with a concentration in poetry). After my postgraduate studies, I taught at San Bernardino Valley College in California for a year and a half as an adjunct professor, until May 2019. In the fall of that same year, I arrived in Italy to begin my laurea magistrale in International Cooperation in Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna (campus Ravenna), from which I graduated in 2021 with a score of 110/110.

During this time, I worked extensively at different Ravenna public schools as a madre lingua on short-term contracts. Needing something more permanent, I relocated shortly thereafter to Trento and secured a job teaching English at a private school called MyES.

Due to my lengthy sojourn and my varied experiences in Italian educational institutions (high school, middle school, elementary, and university), I can confidently state that much of what Elin and Benny have described in their letter is unfortunately (and I very much stress that word) true. Unfortunately, teaching methodologies and materials are often not up to par. Apart from the didactic component, the disciplinary problem they mention is highly relevant, and may stem, paradoxically, from the fact that it is not the students themselves who are poorly behaved, but that they are reacting to a largely obsolete system (at least in relation to highly developed countries) based on clearly delineated hierarchies—the teacher, never to be questioned, challenged, or engaged on equal terms, and the student, docile, meek, subservient and clearly inferior to the teacher. I have seen this scenario play out too many times in different educational settings here in Italy—both witnessing the phenomenon as a madre lingua in the Italian public schools and experiencing hierarchical limitations first-hand during my university studies.

Indeed, there is and should be a difference between educators and students, and the claim here is not that students know more than teachers (although they sometimes do), but that in comparison to the US, for example, the act of challenging professors (in a healthy intellectual way) is not only seen as academically productive, but such behavior is also encouraged. Professor routinely show up in casual clothing to emphasize the lack of formality, and some even encourage students to address them on a first-name basis—such things are not only rare here, they are, in many cases, absolutely unheard of. According to The Office for Global Professionals and Scholars, which provides immigration services for Mass General Brigham Institutions, «Americans treat each other in an informal manner, even if there are big differences in age or social position. It is also common for employees or students to act casually with their professors and advisors; however, this is not a sign of disrespect …. Informality also extends in the way people dress and communicate with each other. Look at other people where you work as an indication of how you should dress.» The exact opposite approach is taken in Italy, where there are two different «styles» of communication, the so-called «everyday» style of general situations and the «high» style one must adopt with academics and other professionals. Having heard it first-hand from many Italian friends, the «high» style is elaborate, ceremonious, and intentionally diffident with respect to the «inferior» party, and knowingly overindulgent—in the most hedonistic sense—with respect to the «superior» party. In other words, ritual over substance, showmanship over skill, presentation over depth.

Many have criticized Elin’s and Benny’s letter, and in the spirit of critical thinking, they have gone the right way about it. For example, Giangiacomo Farina, director of Siracusa News, stated the following: “Simply, the Italian school system is very focused on teaching content and less on teaching structures and open-air playing spaces.” And this is precisely where the problem lies. From what I have personally witnessed, neither the Italian schools nor universities are largely interested in teaching students to think for themselves—to think critically. It is perhaps for these reasons that the most prestigious Italian university (and also the oldest in the world—Bologna—founded in 1088 by Irnerius) does not even crack the top 150 in the world. Thus, the system does not, in fact, fail because it does not work, or has never worked—no, the system fails precisely because it is outdated (and oftentimes even medieval).

The entry of students in the Natio Germanica Bononiae, the nation of German students at Bologna; miniature of 1497

In 2019, The Local ran an article called “‘Educational crisis’: Italy’s schools compare badly with the rest of Europe, study finds,” which cited data some of the following data: “only one in twenty Italian 15 year-olds is able to distinguish fact from opinion when reading a text on an unfamiliar topic.” Furthermore, “one in four has difficulty with basic reading comprehension, failing to identify the main idea within a medium-length text.” The article goes on to mention that “things have worsened in the last decade, as the country has dropped ten points when it comes to reading skills since 2009.” In light of the data, Michela Montevecchi, Vice-President of the Education Commission, has stated that Italy is “a country that isn’t thinking about the future. And further: “We are losing critical capacity, but our society isn’t dealing with it. Our children are less and less able to analyse the complex situations that they will find themselves facing,” she stated. The head of Italy’s teaching union (CGIL), Giuseppe Massafra, has echoed Montevecchi’s statement, saying that “the report confirms educational poverty is a national emergency.” These are just some of the criticism which have been leveled in recent years.

Countless studies have already shown that students need material relevant to their lives, things they are interested in talking about. Indeed, not only do they have the capacity to think for themselves, but, in fact, they want to think for themselves—they are eager to express their opinion about important issues related to what is happening in the world they live; many teachers inside the system, however, are more concerned about protecting their own authority, power, and image. They are more concerned with discipline than with education. Egos run high, and in a country where bella figura reigns supreme and decorum is king, it is more important to make sure that students follow all the proper codes of etiquette, rather than, perhaps, learn something new. Having witnessed those approaches time and time again, I eventually began trying different things in my own classes (always under the supervision of the head teachers); while the methods were not always successful, they did often reveal that the rebellion Elin and Benny have described almost always comes as a reaction to this off-putting hierarchical authority teachers impose (perhaps with good intentions of forming good, disciplined children). However, discipline is largely the job of the parent, not the teacher, and if the parents have already done a poor job at that, there is very little a teacher can do to change bad behavior, so it is better to focus on something else and perhaps try to win over problematic students not with yelling (God, how much of that I have seen), but perhaps some activity relevant to the lives of those students.

Despite the fact that Farina’s well-intentioned criticism falls short, it is, at the very least, polite. What surprised me most were the hostile reactions to the Elin and Benny’s letter. For example this comment by Rossano Sasso, a representative of the nationalist League party former education secretary, who said that he would not “take lessons from a Finnish painter.” This comment, astoundingly, represents the very hierarchy I have talked about: “I am Rossano Sasso, a qualified figure, and you, Elin Mattsson, are just some run-of-the mill painter, so sit down, be quiet, and take notes.”

In reality, I understand. Italians are proud people with a history that stretches back thousands of years, and when Marcus Aurelius was living up to the tenets of Plato’s ideal philosopher king (in this case emperor), Finland at that time was agrarian—to put it most politely.

So, yes, egos do run high, but perhaps a little too much so, because what Sasso has done is committed the classic ad hominem (that’s Latin, by the way) fallacy. You never attack the person—you always attack the argument. It does not matter if Mrs. Mattsson is a painter, a housepainter, or perhaps even an unemployed painter. She has made an argument that has obviously hit a nerve, which is why the response is so strong, I am assuming. I have encountered this kind of arrogance observing my lead teachers, both in the classroom and also as a student at the University of Bologna, where students, during exam sessions, where routinely belittled and even brought to tears—behavior that is unimaginable in any kind of US academic institution. Such actions would have been grounds enough to dismiss any educator, or at least reprimand them.

In addition to my own experiences, I have friends currently studying in Italy (I will not say where because their studies may be negatively affected by these statements). One friend has personally witnessed professors behaving in ways that are absolutely representative of the superior/inferior hierarchy I have mentioned. For example, during one exam session in 2021 (which I also happened to be watching on Zoom) a student (clearly nervous) had gotten flustered during an oral exam—he/she simply could not answer the question; it was clear, however, he/she knew the answer, but simply needed time. After answering some other inquiries not very successfully, he/she told the professor it was possible to answer the other one. The response was: “I don’t care what you know. The exam is over.” My friend and I were absolutely astounded because this was a student who had demonstrated excellence repeatedly throughout the course, and was now being punished for not answering questions with the proper decorum deemed worthy of “esteemed” professors.

The question is simple: Why have so many people attacked Elin and Benny? If ordinary individuals had done this, I might have understood the rude behavior, chalking it up to poor education and manners, but it seems that the ones at the very top are interested in silencing the debate with ad hominem attacks, because, clearly, there is truth in what she has written. And another more interesting question is the following: If the Italian education system is really as good as Mr. Sasso claims, then why does he not have the good sense to know that attacking and denigrating a person is not the way to win an argument? Again, you must defeat the argument, not the person, but clearly some teacher somewhere did not do his/her job, or perhaps the student may have forgotten.

There is, in fact, a term to describe Italy’s outdated education system, and it is called the “banking model of education,” famously postulated by the renowned Brazilian educator and social activist Paolo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Freire used the metaphor of the bank to describe a type of education system where the establishment of hierarchy is more important than actual education, meaning that teachers are simply interested in “depositing” large amounts of information into students—with no interest in critical thinking or self-reflection—and then “withdrawing” that information from students in exactly the same so-called amount they have “deposited” it. In other words, the formula is as follows: “I, the teacher, tell you exactly what I want you to know, and you, the student, repeat it to me exactly the way I told it to you.” Astoundingly, Mr. Farina’s criticism of Elin and Benny revealed precisely that this is how the Italian education system functions (“focused on teaching content and less on teaching structures”), and I am really not surprised that he admitted this, because some of my professors (along with my friends’ as well) have even stated that a student’s responsibility is to completely internalize what they have heard, and regurgitate exactly what they have internalized during the exam session. The problem, therefore, with the Italian education system, is as I have already mentioned—it is not that its methodology does not work, or has never worked; the problem is that it is outdated. While such a didactic approach may have been excellent in a class of four students, under the tutelage of Irnerius 1000 years ago, it does not work today.

For one, oral examinations, for example, are highly biased, and apart from being biased, they are unnecessarily tedious, in the sense that in some big classes, students are often forced to wait over five hours to sit their examination, because nobody knows how long each one will take (if you answer well, the exam is short; if you struggle, they will make you struggle—often with the good intention of finding questions that might allow you to pass). The more sadistic professors, however—and I have witnessed this personally—will deliberately ask obscure questions, intimidate, and obfuscate for reasons only God knows. The process is both unpredictable and unfair in many ways, because, by law, anybody is allowed to watch the examination, and grades are often given in public—no privacy whatsoever. Questions are arbitrary—some more difficult than others, and if you’re very lucky, professors might run out of ideas and repeat some questions (in the best case), or flat out ask something that may not have been covered (in the worst case)—and so, if you happened to be watching an exam at the right time, you might be in luck. It is survival of the fittest in the most barbaric, yet, paradoxically, intellectual sense. On the contrary, in the US, students are encouraged to use their own critical thinking skills—yes, they listen to lecture, yes, they pay attention, yes, they know who the professor is, yes, they know his level of intelligence, yes, they know the professor is the most “powerful” person in the room, but, at the end of the course, everyone is given the same objective standard to pass the class: Write an essay (with the freedom to challenge the professor’s point of view, if that’s what you want to do) using the class materials and create an original argument.

Fortunately, many within the Italian education system are beginning to come around to this view, and in the spirit of fairness and objectivity, I would like to say that I have witnessed plenty of those positive aspects as well. And so, I would like to take this time to praise those educators and professors with whom I had the pleasure of working for two years, and who are trying to buck the trends of tradition. Having now transitioned to a private school setting, it is indeed sad for me to admit that Italian public schools are, in fact, behind, although they are nevertheless much better than many inner city public schools in the US. The Achilles heel of Italian public school is certainly its teaching of English, which is why many private English schools such as ours continue to flourish—the public school system simply cannot provide the necessary, modern methodology. In this sense, the private sector has always been good at filling the void, which is why schools like MyES have become so successful here (almost every city in Italy—with a population of over 100,000—has one and there are four schools in Milan alone). Those who can pay come to us; those who cannot must, unfortunately, fall behind. One can only hope that this debate started by Elin and Benny will lead to real change, instead of continuous attacks on their character, background, and personality. One can only hope.


About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

O’clock, a poem by David Garyan, published by Interlitq

Valentina Ventura

Valentina Ventura
Teatro Eschilo, Gela


October 10th, 2021
Trento, Italy



Old math professors,
and perhaps even their students—
those whose minds
have yet to harden
from either scientific
triumphs or failures in life—
will say a musician’s heart
isn’t a metronome
you can follow
to learn the tempo
of love,
and would their logic
really be wrong?
But why is age
so convinced,
while youth
may hesitate
to agree?
Is it not certainty—
like a noose
around the neck
of an innocent person—
that’s eager to judge
the one whose language
it has no interest in learning?
For there are no numbers,
or even equations
which equal them,
that have ever doubted
what they are,
even when they certainly
doubt them,
but four fingers
moving on a fretboard
can be both precise
and make mistakes
in the same moment—
like writers who send
perfectly addressed letters
to the wrong people,
or artists who paint
exact portraits
of people they hate,
never hiding their flaws
or sharpening their beauty.
And who can claim
not to have been
that artist or writer
at least once in their lives?
Indeed, do we not rest
like the most faithful watches—
either on the arms
or in the pockets
of those who always
want our time,
but never bother
to look where we came from,
or where it is we want to go?


About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He recently graduated from the University of Bologna with a degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage. He lives in Trento.

David Garyan’s poem «Reflections on the Roof of Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata» published by Interlitq

Valentina Ventura, VNTVNT
Tempera on panel

Interlitq publishes «Reflections on the Roof of Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata.»

Click here to read the poem.

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

Reaching for the Sky or Realizing Your Depths: Baldassare Forestiere and Simon Rodia, an article by David Garyan

Ravenna, Italy


Reaching for the Sky or Realizing Your Depths: Baldassare Forestiere and Simon Rodia

There comes a time in people’s lives when they feel the urge to do something grand, extraordinary, and even superhuman; this feeling undoubtedly arrives with varying degrees of strength for every person, which is perhaps the reason why not everyone—despite receiving this “calling,” a phenomenon that shouldn’t just have religious connotations—actually goes on to channel and, more importantly, take their ordained goal to the very end. Whether artists feel this urge more powerfully than priests or the other way around isn’t something I’d like to debate here; wherever you think this force comes from, it has led to some incredible feats of willpower, endurance, vigor, and most of all, art.

I can think of no two better examples which symbolize what I’ve written above than the names Sabato “Simon” Rodia and Baldassare Forestiere, who are both pictured below (right and left, respectively). Although their artistic projects couldn’t have been any more divergent (Rodia’s shot straight into the sky while Forestiere’s penetrated the Earth’s depths), their paths, fates, and sensibilities were eerily identical. Both men were from the south of Italy (Forestiere from Sicily and Rodia from the Campania region); both created their masterpieces in California; both spent more than thirty years working on their masterpieces; and both dealt with tragic circumstances and suffered disappointments during their lives, which may have inspired their particular projects.

Having lived in Los Angeles for over fifteen years, the place where Rodia’s work (the so-called “Watts Towers«) is located, I can certainly say that the gem is much better known simply because of where it’s located—in a sprawling metropolis home to millions. Although Watts today (and probably also during the time Rodia lived there) can by any stretch of the imagination not be considered LA’s most desirable neighborhood, the sheer fact that the towers are located in the city has given them far greater exposure than the work of Forestiere, which is equally as impressive (and yet, Rodia is the one featured on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—on the upper right-hand corner, between Bob Dylan and Huntz Hall—while Forestiere, who built his amazing underground gardens in the quiet town of Fresno, has no such distinction).

I had the privilege to see the work of both these men in person and the impact their masterpieces made on me was profound; even more fascinating, however, were their life stories, which seemed like they had been taken out of a Tornatore or Fellini film; naturally, I’ll start with the tale of the one who’s less widely known.

Baldassare Forestiere was born on July 8, 1879, in Filari, a small village in the province of Messina. Growing up with an oppressive, harsh father, Forestiere quickly learned that life wouldn’t become the joyride he or anyone else really expected it to be, and not because his family didn’t have the economic means which could make that a reality—they did—but because his dad not only refused to share much of the wealth with his other three sons, but had also cut Forestiere out of his will entirely. Without prospects, let alone a sensible future, Forestiere had little reason to remain in Sicily and thus decided to seek his fortunes in the US, leaving the island for good at the age of twenty-one, never to return. And so, in 1906, after working odd jobs up and down the coast of California, he arrived in Fresno and began trying to make a living as a farmer, something he would’ve been content to do had life not given him a great basket of lemons. It just so happened that the plain, soft-spoken man from Sicily had indeed been duped into purchasing a type of land locals commonly referred to as “hardpan,” which is an impermeable layer of soil not really suitable (to say the least) for any kind of agriculture whatsoever.

Once again, life had let him down, forcing the Sicilian to endure yet another major disappointment in his already desperate existence: The reality that he would never become a farmer either. His frugal immigrant lifestyle, which had allowed him to collect a bit of hard-earned money, was wasted and there was nothing left to be done. Perhaps it was because of the inability to cope with his disappointment, or perhaps it was due to the killer San Joaquin Valley heat that made existence impossible—whatever it happened to have been, the down-and-out man from the village of Filari arrived at this conclusion: “To make something with a lot of money, that is easy; but to make something out of nothing—now that is something.” The question, hence, became: Well, how do you do that? And even if you did know, where do you go to escape the sun? And if you do escape it, how would you find the strength to give life a new meaning? You start building something like this.

Forestiere, initially, must’ve looked down at the useless land he’d been tricked into buying, reflected for some time, and subsequently glanced up at the sky from where the heat of hell was pouring down, which is perhaps when he realized that his answer was to be found underground; it’s with this ambition that he began the slow and painful process of digging his famous caverns, a task which would last over forty years and eventually culminate in the creation of perhaps the greatest underground complex built by a single man—with no mechanized tools.

Fresno’s small Italian population quickly got wind of his activities and labeled him an eccentric, criticizing his peculiar activities and calling them a shame to the Italian community. Forestiere, like all men possessed by a great vision, continued on with his work, unabashed. Very much inspired by both secular and religious themes, the great Sicilian, in true Renaissance fashion, let his imagination be ignited by the arches and grottoes of the Old World; the Ancient Greeks (who also colonized Sicily) believed that divine beings resided in the latter (supposedly the workshop of Hephaestus was located inside Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano).

To find relief from the summer heat, Forestiere began by first digging out his living quarters, which are seen here, and are quite comfortable, I must say.

Besides spending the next thirty years painstakingly excavating the other structures, Forestiere was also an artist in a much gentler, less laborious sense—he was an expert grafter, which sounds like a vagrant who leaves ghastly graffiti in badly smelling tunnels, but is actually a gardener who has the expertise to create precise incisions in a plant that allow him to insert the tissue of another species, thus making it possible for the organism to produce two (or even up to eight) fruits, a feat Forestiere had managed to accomplish with one of his trees, which, if my memory serves me right, doesn’t exist anymore.

The man from Sicily was also apparently a very skilled engineer. He crafted his masterpiece in a such a way that allowed him to control the entrance of rainwater for an efficient irrigation and drainage system, precisely what made his garden possible. Clearly, the man wasn’t your average down-and-out “loser” with no prospects or job—he would’ve most likely been able to run his father’s factories with more competence and care than the old tyrant himself, but sometimes life has more ambitious things in store for you, especially when it gives you lemons.

Like Forestiere, Rodia also immigrated to the US with his brother, albeit at an earlier age, fifteen, and like his contemporary, who was also born in 1879 (another eerie similarity I forgot to mention), Rodia endured his own disappointments and tragedies, seeing his brother die in a mining accident. After marrying young in 1902, then having three kids, and finally divorcing just seven years after his marriage, the man from Campania at last came to Watts in 1920, and began constructing the world-famous towers only a year later. Faced with bleak prospects brought on by his disappointments, Rodia suddenly decided that he had to do “something big,” and, to this day, no one really knows why, but who can after all understand the “calling” of a preacher, much less that of an artist, whose vision you see below?

And so, Rodia began collecting all the found objects that were available: tiles, mirrors, bottles, shells, and everything else he could get his hands on—sometimes the neighbors even helped, and sometimes those neighbors happened to be kids with the name of Charles Mingus, who was just a boy living in Watts at the time, but subsequently became one of the greatest Jazz musicians ever (doing “something big” his own way, one might note). Mingus even mentioned Rodia’s masterpiece in his 1971 autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. Given how much is already known and talked about with regard to the towers, it would perhaps be better to quote a passage at length from the autobiography:

“At that time in Watts there was an Italian man, named Simon Rodia—though some people said his name was Sabatino Rodella—and his neighbors called him Sam. He had a regular job as a tile setter, but on weekends and at night time, under lights he strung up, he was building something strange and mysterious and he’d been working on it since before my boy was born. Nobody knew what it was or what it was for. Around his small frame house he had made a low wall shaped like a ship and inside it he was constructing what looked like three masts, all different heights, shaped like upside-down ice cream cones. First he would set up skeletons of metal and chicken wire, and plaster them over with concrete, then he’d cover that with fancy designs made of pieces of seashells and mirrors and things. He was always changing his ideas while he worked and tearing down what he wasn’t satisfied with and starting over again, so pinnacles tall as a two-story building would rise up and disappear and rise again. What was there yesterday mightn’t be there next time you looked, but then another lacy-looking tower would spring up in its place.”

Like Forestiere’s neighbors, who mostly ridiculed and belittled him, Rodia’s neighbors did do the same, but his main problem wasn’t so much being mocked, but being harassed. Given the incredible height of the towers and their extraterrestrial nature, many locals were rather suspicious about Rodia’s work and often tried to prevent him from carrying it out, sometimes with means of direct interference. We must remember that while Rodia began construction in 1921, he worked on his project for over thirty years, meaning that it must’ve looked much more intimidating during and after WWII than when he started building it—and not just from the material standpoint, but also from the psychological one. At some point, the US government even thought the towers were being used for espionage, possibly to establish communication channels with the Japanese—all kinds of wild assumptions circulated.

Hence, it’s highly likely that the communist scare played a large part in how locals perceived not only Rodia’s project, but also the man himself. Tired of being harassed and having his work vandalized, Rodia left Watts and never returned. He died eleven years later, abandoning his masterpiece for good. The site was scheduled for demolition in 1959; by that time, however, the towers had become world-famous. Still, the city wouldn’t budge. Pressure, nevertheless, also grew from the other side—countless artists, scholars, and architects pleaded to have the towers preserved, but in the end all that their efforts were able to achieve was force the city to carry out a so-called demolition test against the foundation for the purpose of testing its strength (Los Angeles is after all prone to earthquakes and the structure might pose a hazard). Just look at those things: The highest tower is almost one hundred feet high (just over thirty meters). Again, all done by hand and no mechanized tools.

Ultimately, the city decided to attach steel cables to each tower and exert a force of 10,000 pounds (roughly 4500 kilograms) in order to see whether the famous masterpiece could withstand it—if yes, Los Angeles would allow it to remain; if no, then authorities would get what they wanted just the same. What ended up happening is nothing short of a miracle because the towers were barely affected by the pull; that’s not the whole story, however—when the devastating 1994 Northridge Earthquake struck Los Angeles with a magnitude of 6.7, the towers, once again, suffered very little damage.

How could this uneducated tiny man, under five feet, build such a thing? Even engineers marvel at it to this day. I can think of no other way to conclude this article but with the following, timely Sicilian proverb: Not every bad thing comes to harm you. We may encounter difficulties—we may even believe that life has presented us with unsurmountable odds, but the lives of Forestiere and Rodia have shown that there’s always a way out; there’s always a way to rise from the depths of defeat and despair, and you don’t necessarily have to reach for the sky in order to make your escape.


About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.



Witches Brew: Machiavelli, Tarkovsky, Cefalù, Aleister Crowley, and Aci Trezza, an article by David Garyan

August 16th, 2020
Ravenna, Italy


Outtakes, Deleted Scenes, and Bonus Footage

Witches Brew: Machiavelli, Tarkovsky, Cefalù, Aleister Crowley, and Aci Trezza

In Chapter 18 of The Prince, Machiavelli wrote the following: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are,” which, in the author’s sense, means that a ruler should strive for virtue if the circumstances allow it, yet, at the same time, be prepared to act in a completely opposite way when another situation demands immoral behavior; this foxlike cunning is what Machiavelli described as the oft-misunderstood concept of virtù—translated as virtue in English, which incorrectly conveys the traditional overtones of moral goodness. In reality, virtù was Machiavelli’s way of emphasizing the wide spectrum of personalities that a good prince should have, all of which would allow him to keep order in his domain and by extension continue maintaining power there. For our purposes, however, I would like to interpret this particular quote in a different way, using the sentence before it (“men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you”) as a guiding point for departing on a different course of discussion; again, the meaning is ambiguous, as it connotes both light and dark—no one can touch me in the sense of absolute power, and, likewise, it’s been so long since I’ve been touched in terms of love or even artistic inspiration.

For a fleeting moment, I’d like to see Machiavelli from the perspective of creativity and affection (towards someone or something) because that’s where life really starts for people and how this journey through Italy began for my brother and I in the first place. From Ravenna, we left our apartment in a total mess and departed on a two-week tour throughout the mainland and Sicily. In all, we covered a total of 2,000 km on land, sea, and air, using all the modes of transportation in the process—an automobile, ferry, plane, and lots of trains. In this sense, I’d like to think that after having spent a total of one year here, I’ve come a bit closer to really knowing what this country really looks like, who its people actually are, and what its character is all about.

I’ve touched and been touched by everything I’ve seen during the past two weeks on the road and this intimate contact has made me realize that I do want to stay—that I do love this country despite the challenges I’ve faced and will continue to face. What I’d like to do, thus, is offer a different glimpse into this beautiful, yet complicated place—the hidden features that not many will see or even know about. By extension, there’s really no way to recreate the rush one feels upon encountering a great city for the first time—its impressive culture that everyone knows about; this article, however, will not discuss the Roman Forum, Colosseum, or carbonara; there’ll be no insights into Pompeii (a grand archaeological site overrun by tourists); in terms of Sicily, it’s equally pointless to discuss the Palermo Cathedral, its amazing castles, cannoli, or even arancini because those are things everybody experiences without really feeling the island’s true essence, so to speak; indeed, I saw and tasted all of those aforementioned sights and foods within their respective regions; nevertheless, I learned more about myself and Italians by closing my eyes and seeing with my hands, rather than witnessing everything from a distance.

Unlike Machiavelli, who was deliberately exiled—neither too close nor too far from his beloved Florence (on any sunny day he could’ve seen Santa Maria del Fiore’s dome)—I came to Italy out of my own volition. I arrived with the romantic idea that life would be “easier” here, that I would at last escape the insanity of Los Angeles, and finally find some peace and quiet; it must be said that I both knew and didn’t know that things never turn out that way, that people who move for precisely those reasons never fail in finding other difficulties to preoccupy themselves with, and, invariably, the need to escape them always returns. Upon entering the room in which Machiavelli wrote his most famous work, I felt relieved that exile wasn’t my own fate, that I didn’t have to write a work dedicated to someone who belonged to a family that was responsible for sending me to a place from where I would rarely fail to see the object of my affection—from a distance, always from a distance, never having the opportunity to touch what I so loved.

It’s by this window, in a little town called Sant’Andrea in Percussina, that Machiavelli wrote The Prince with the aim of getting himself out of banishment, attempting to curry favor with the family who had driven him out by dedicating the work “To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici.” Eventually, Machiavelli did return to Florence and died in the arms of his treasured city.

The benevolent fate of perishing on home soil wouldn’t grace Andrei Tarkovsky, considered the greatest Russian filmmaker of all time. Having made his first five films in the Soviet Union, the avant-garde director became increasingly unsatisfied with the repressive atmosphere of Soviet censorship, which began to take a toll on him until finally in 1979, after authorities stopped one of his projects midway during filming, Tarkovsky abandoned the project and traveled to Italy in search of more creative freedom; it’s here where he made perhaps his best movie, Nostalghia, released in 1983.

Unlike Machiavelli, Tarkovsky never returned to his home country, despite the fact that he likewise attempted to portray himself as a man who didn’t have a problem with the people who ultimately did everything in their power to alienate him from his own people. According to a NY Times obituary, when Soviet authorities refused to grant him permanent stay in Italy, Tarkovsky renounced his homeland’s citizenship—still, he stated the following: «I am not a Soviet dissident. I have no conflict with the Soviet Government.» Nevertheless, as Peter Wagstaff writes in Border Crossings, “Tarkovski encountered fierce resistance within the Soviet film establishment, even to the extent that in Cannes in 1983 Sergei Bondarchuk, the head of the Soviet delegation, actively (and successfully) campaigned against the award of the Palme d’Or to Nostalghia.” The great director died of lung cancer in Paris at the age of 54 and it’s long been suspected that he didn’t, in fact, die of natural causes but that his disease was really a product of poisoning which occurred during the filming of Stalker.

Anatoly Solonitsyn, an actor who appeared in many Tarkovsky movies, along with the director’s own wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, died of the same cancer. Tarkovsky’s sound designer at the time, Vladimir Sharun stated the following in an interview: “We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Piliteh with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larissa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.” Coincidence? Maybe. Let’s not get into that, however. Life is life.

Tarkovsky continues to be a major influence on not only avant-garde cinema but movies in general. My brother and I were lucky, thus, that by pure chance, on our way up to Piazzale Michelangelo, we spotted the director’s former residence on a somewhat quiet Florentine street. The plaque was quite high above the door but still big enough for me to get a decent picture. Standing there for a considerable amount of time, it proved difficult not to contemplate what the director must have done and felt walking around his neighborhood.

In eerie Tarkovskian fashion, his name was still on the door and we thought about ringing the bell and asking for a moment of the good director’s time, but for some reason we decided against this and let him enjoy his self-imposed exile without any disturbances from fellow countrymen.

After all, it’s enough for a great filmmaker to be seeking asylum in a foreign land only to end up in a Latina refugee camp. In a documentary about the approximately 80,000 refugees who were housed in the so-called «Rossi Longhi» center, Italian journalist Emanuela Gasbarroni uncovered a document which proves that Tarkovsky did, in fact, pass through there—a fact perhaps «forgotten» by biographers. Even the memories associated with the camp, according to the la Repubblica article, are something that authorities are trying to remove from people’s recollections. Damnatio memoriae is clearly affecting not just Tarkovsky but all others who’ve had to endure self-imposed exile or forced migration.

Tarkovsky fled Russia because of censorship and a stifling creative atmosphere. Generally speaking, it’s not a surprise that those in power are rarely comfortable with views that challenge their own dominance; what’s more interesting, however, is the so-called woke phenomenon which is currently sweeping across the US and also all over social media. Anything challenging the current dominant liberal stance is met with illiberal liberal denunciation—you know, cancel culture. The way it’s very easy for parents to love children who always behave and do what they’re told, so it’s very convenient to “tolerate” and “encourage” speech that satisfies the agenda of the dominant political class. There’s no freedom of expression anymore if you’re only free to support the status quo and to dissent even the way a ruling class sees appropriate. In one sense, contemporary American activists, for example, have achieved a lot in “exiling” the Confederate legacy from its historical homeland; on the other hand, this process has led to a type of intolerance rarely seen in a country like the USA.

Today, even small amounts of “unsanctioned” disagreements can led to being ostracized, along with loss of employment and status. By no means does this argument serve as an excuse for people to say what they wish—that’s not freedom of speech. Indeed, controversial comments should be protected, but when they have no merit or intellectual value—when they’re simply made to inflict pain, people who live by utilitarian principles of maximizing society’s happiness should invariably recognize these comments as pain, instead of “speech.” In his article “Worlds Apart: Reconciling Freedom of Speech and Equality,” UC Berkeley professor John A. Powell distinguishes which kind of controversial speech is acceptable and which is not: “Assaultive racist speech functions as a preemptive strike. The racial invective is experienced as a blow, not a proffered idea, and once the blow is struck, it is unlikely that dialogue will follow. Racial insults are undeserving of first amendment protection because the perpetrator’s intention is not to discover truth or initiate dialogue but to injure the victim.” Walking the streets of Rome, I was confronted with the very challenge Powell highlights. Take a look at this photo taken not far from the Colosseum. Tell me: Does it offend you?

In the US, such an establishment would probably have already been burned down, but would that have served the First Amendment’s interests or gone against its core values? I’m really not sure at this point, but I think we have to do a better job in confronting the past, and by confronting it I mean something akin to carefully removing the poisonous plants within a forest, not simply writing off the entire organism by uprooting every tree just because that particular environment has produced harmful substances within a place that ultimately represents something bigger than the considerable problems it simultaneously constitutes. Although I was startled when I first saw it, ultimately, I’m now okay with this particular establishment and also business concept in general, precisely because as a US citizen I value freedom of speech; furthermore, in this case, I don’t think the messages or depictions are meant to assault anyone. These are a series of dictator wines and among the detestable Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin varieties, there also appear Che Guevara, Lenin, Marx, and Churchill—figures who are far more complex than the previous three, meaning their intellectual pursuits and achievements make it harder to fit them neatly inside the classic dictator archetype.

In reality, it’s not necessarily about despots, repression, liberalism, freedom, or even the difference between Europe and the US; what it’s really about is the human tendency to see everything foreign, mystical, and strange as a threat. Even the most liberal people or countries will seek to avoid that which disturbs the harmony of their environment.

Nowhere in Sicily did this become more apparent when Mussolini, in 1923, told Aleister Crowley—the infamous occultist and poet—to leave the city of Cefalù. Crowley was a controversial figure in the early twentieth century, claiming that he was the prophet of a new age called the Aeon of Horus. He developed the religious philosophy of Thelema after experiencing a vision in 1904; supposedly an entity called Aiwass had contacted Crowley in Egypt and dictated the text known as The Book of the Law, which would go on to serve as the foundational ideology for the entire belief system. One of the core principles of this religion can be seen in the following picture I took inside the abbey.

After renting the house, Crowley was known to have driven the landlords crazy by painting murals on the walls and supposedly some of the graffiti is original, but I have my doubts about the latter point; locals would’ve probably whitewashed everything shortly after Crowley left; the reason for this is precisely because he believed that people had a so-called True Will which was unique to them and it was their duty to follow it; hence, like stars, which occupy both a distinct time and space in the universe, Crowley believed that humans too were both dependent and independent of time—that they were part of the universe yet possessed a path and destiny which was unique to them. Yeah, kind of crazy, to be honest, which is why I was so interested in seeing this place. I mean look at the alien behind me.

Crowley was a notorious drug user and hedonist in general. Locals didn’t take kindly to his presence and his reputation certainly preceded him. The infamy surrounding the man reached such an extent that even the well-known Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia wrote a story about him called “Apocrifi sul caso Crowley.” The work is in a form of letters exchanged between Mussolini himself, a general, and the commissioner of Cefalù. With my rather limited Italian and some help from Google Translate, I realized the story is written in a satiric tone and probably for good reason, given how flamboyant Crowley was—it wouldn’t be wrong to think of him as the twentieth century Oscar Wilde, one that also thought he was a prophet, however. As the pictures show, the abbey is in complete ruin and locals couldn’t care less about preserving it, which is a good thing because we really don’t need any more men (or women, in fact) believing they’re prophets.

Another reason the premise is best left in a state of disrepair is because it’s more interesting this way and also much harder to find. There’s nothing I love more than walking through ruins; this pursuit always demonstrates to me the frailty of human endeavors. In Ortygia, for example, I saw the Temple of Apollo, dating back to the sixth century before Christ; as I looked at what was left, it was clear to me that this was once an impressive structure but what was even more majestic was feeling the presence of time walking among the ruins, slowly picking up rocks and putting them into its bottomless pockets. Crowley’s abbey, on the other hand, is one hundred years old and looks worse than what the Greeks built so long ago. I think it’s, thus, safe to say whose legacy time is giving a much harder time when it comes to being removed from the face of the earth. There’s perhaps a greater amount of stone left at the Abbey of Thelema, but on any given day you’ll find more people admiring the Temple of Apollo, meaning the Greeks are still with us while Crowley has largely been forgotten.

Speaking of the Greeks, we can perfectly make the transition to Odysseus, the legendary king of Ithaca who fought in the Trojan War and was stranded at sea for over ten years before finally returning home. The first stop our great hero and his men made on their long journey home was in Sicily; in fact, one of the most important and recognizable events of the myth are said to have occurred in the town of Aci Trezza, about a twenty minute car ride from the hometown of my university classmate Emanuele and his sister Valentina, both of whom I consider very good friends. They were gracious enough to host my brother and I for the duration of our stay in the Catania region and also took us to Syracuse.

Meeting people like Emanuele and Valentina is a fortune filled with the greatest happiness and sadness—happiness because you’ve found genuine people in a world where it’s difficult to do that and sadness because it’s so difficult to find genuine people in a world where everyone is supposedly looking for happiness. Hence, it’s both very easy and very challenging to have friends like Emanuele and Valentina—easy because they’re the most understanding and generous people in the world and challenging because you don’t want to do anything that will upset them, making you second-guess every action and emotion; in fact, a funny thing related to what I’m speaking about happened the morning my brother and I were supposed to fly out of Catania. While sitting in the courtyard of their house having breakfast, enjoying a cake their mom had prepared for us, I tried making a little jest to show how good it was by telling them I wanted to take the whole thing with me; they thought I was being serious and started wrapping it for me; immediately I told them this wasn’t necessary, and we all had a good laugh about the matter.

Nevertheless, having said all that, the cake still ended up flying from Catania to Bologna because Valentina packed it for her boyfriend and then forgot to take it out of the car before our farewells—in these circumstances Emanuele drove us to the airport; on the way, I didn’t miss the opportunity to tell him I was putting it in my bag, and, in fact, I’m eating the cake right now as I write this article; indeed, life is really all about that—misunderstandings that lead to understanding; confusion that leads to clarity; missed opportunities that bring new opportunities and sometimes these revelations also work the other way around, meaning not in your favor. In the end, however, I think I should accept that life is beautiful and every second of it is worth living, even when nothing makes sense and it seems like the whole world was designed to work against you. Maybe this is what we were all thinking here after having climbed up to the dome of Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata in Catania. Maybe we’re no longer seeing with our eyes but looking at the world the way it really is—perhaps even coming so close as to touch it.

(Photo by Valentina Ventura)

Let’s return, however, to Odysseus and the town of Aci Trezza; as Emanuele told me, not only is it the city where Giovanni Verga‘s novel I Malavoglia is set, but there are a number of places which begin with Aci in Sicily; it goes back to the Ancient Greek myth of Acis, a mortal, and Galatea, a sea nymph. When the Cyclops Polyphemus (yes, the same one who traps Odysseus) becomes jealous of their love, he kills Acis; in her grief, Galatea transforms the object of her affection into an immortal river spirit; it’s thus in the town of Aci Trezza that Odysseus runs into Polyphemus. The Matterhorn-shaped rock I captured in this image (there are about three or four in the vicinity) is supposed to be one of the stones which that angry Cyclops threw at Odysseus after he escaped the cave and began taunting the giant; locals call them faraglioni dei Ciclopi.

Unlike Odysseus, however, we left the island on better terms with Polyphemus. We finished our last day in Sicily by eating granita e brioche catanese at Gran Cafè Solaire, one of the best spots in the area for it and afterwards Emanuele drove us to the airport. Now back in Ravenna, I already miss Sicily; as with everything good, I feel both happy and sad—happy because I know that I’ll be back and sad because I don’t know when. Sabbinirica, my friends.

(Photo by Valentina Ventura)

Here’s to Sicily and I hope to see you soon, but why write anything else when pictures have invented an alphabet you don’t have to learn how to read?


About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.