Samuel Ussia wants to spearhead a second Renaissance at the intersection of Hampshire and Portland streets. Ussia, president of the Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, hopes the construction of a $1 million Italian Center of Culture in Cambridge will be "the tool by which Italian-Americans insert themselves into the mainstream of the historical process in America."
"Times weren't mature enough before for the establishment of the center," Ussia says. Until recently, the "melting pot" concept was foremost in the minds of Italian-Americans. "The idea was that you could put someone in the melting pot, wash him clean, and leave on him the imprimatur of America--but that didn't work. If I wanted a cup of espresso in the North End, I'd go whether they had put me in a pot or not."
The 56-year-old engineer from Brookline calls "constructive ethnicity" the successor to the notion of a great American melting pot. "All ethnic groups have to synthesize the best values of their culture in the formulation of the new American ideals," Ussia says, adding that changing demographics and a resurgence of ethnic pride will form this new American culture.
Greek-Americans preserve their culture through the Hellenic Society, French-Americans through L'Alliance Francaise, and Jewish-Americans through B'nai B'rith and other organizations, but "Italian-Americans have nothing," Ussia says. "It's fine to revert back to your roots, but it's crucial that Italian-American culture--somewhat different than Italian culture--have a home of its own. We have to do it now," he adds.
Founded in Italy in 1889 by poets and men of letters "trying to defend the Italian language against the invasion of French and English terms," the Dante Society, with 310 chapters worldwide, has since become a vehicle for the diffusion of Italian language and culture throughout the world. The society is named for the 13th-century Italian poet whose "Divine Comedy," an imaginary excursion through the Inferno (hell), Purgatory and Paradise (heaven) is one of the classics of Italian literature.
Italian immigrants founded the first United States chapter in Cambridge in 1911, and the Massachusetts chapter has held its monthly meetings at the Harvard Divinity School for the past 16 years.
Funded by contributions to the Dante Society, the two-story brick center will occupy 13,000 square feet in the heart of an 87,000 square-foot Cambridge Redevelopment Authority project. It will contain an Italian-and-English library of 10,000 volumes, classrooms, art exhibition areas, audio-visual facilities, meeting rooms and lounges. The center will offer college-level Italian language courses and Italian theater. Its library will contain works on the literature, geography, history, music and art of Italy.
"We certainly won't be able to replace Italy, where every stone has a history," Ussia says. "We'll mainly be catering to the new generation--they're just discovering new heroes." For example, Ussia describes a youngster who has just learned about opera tenor Enrico Caruso: "He'll be able to go to the audio room, check out a tape, and listen to tapes of Caruso's operas."
Ussia also hopes the Dante center can eradicate the mass media's negative stereotyping of Italian-Americans. "We're bombarded by the adverse publicity of the Mafia and other criminal elements as if that's the only prerogative of Italian-Americans. The press is after sensationalism in news, and good deeds don't get any play," he says.
Protesting that Italians are almost invariably stereotyped as wine drinkers and spaghetti eaters, Ussia says, "Sure, I love ravioli, and I can kill a bottle of wine, but I'm also part of the intellectual and civic community, both among Italian-Americans and the community at large."
He cited Pietro Belluschi, consulting architect for the center, and Salvatore Luria, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology and director of the MIT Cancer Research Center, as examples of Italian-Americans making important contributions to Americans society. Ussia says, "Nobody knows about these people, but we certainly know about the others."
Belluschi says the design of the center combines modern architecture with the culture of Italy. "It's rather simple, with good honest materials and a roof like those in the Italian countryside," Belluschi, who won the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architecture in 1973, says. "Hopefully, after people are through with all these current fashionable things in architecture, they'll come back to this," he adds. Enthusiastic about Italian-Americans establishing a national cultural center, Belluschi says, "It's the natural instinct of a society to become interested in its identity and make the most of it as possible."
Construction on the center is scheduled to begin late this summer and will be completed late next year. The rest of the development will include 23 single-unit townhouses and a small park.
Born in 1923 in Hannibal, Mo. to a first-generation Italian immigrant, Ussia returned to Italy at the age of ten to receive an Italian education. He learned philosophy, literature, geography and history by studying the classics. There he says he adopted the "contemplative, studious, and intellectual qualities of southern Italians."
Divided between his American birth and his Italian heritage during World War II, Ussia nevertheless remained in Italy to study during the war. Eventually earning doctorates in electrical and mechanical engineering from the University of Naples, he and his Neopolitan wife, Toni, moved back to the United States in 1958 "for better professional opportunities."
But his return to Europe had sharpened Ussia's appreciation of Italian culture, making him more determined to see it brought to Italian-Americans. "It's said if you take Italian culture out of Western civilization, there's nothing left," Ussia says, adding, "Rome brought civilization to a world that was barbarian beyond its confines."
Italy awarded Ussia its "Cross of Knight," the equivalent of an English knighthood, in 1972 for his cultural services to the Republic. He has won numerous professional awards for his projects, including the design of the mechanical and electrical systems for the Midwest Coliseum, a 20,000-seat arena in Richfield, Ohio, and home of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Although some people may feel a national center of Italian culture would be more appropiately located in New York or Philadelphia, City Councilor Alfred E. Vellucci has no doubts that it belongs in Cambridge and that it will benefit the entire community, not just Italian-Americans. Vellucci says Italian's contributions to the community have ranged from Civil War volunteer service to the establishment of vital small businesses, querying, "how can you even ask where Cambridge would be without Italians? That's as ridiculous as asking where it would be without Harvard."
"Sure, I love ravioli, and I can kill a bottle of wine, but I'm also part of the intellectual and civic community, both among Italian-Americans and the community at large.' --Samuel Ussia
Ussia says changing demographics and a resurgence of ehtnic pride will form a new American culture, and that Italian-Americans must play a part.