Ishmael Reed Interviews Aldo Tambellini
My grandfather, Paul Tambellini had migrated from Sant’ Allessio near Lucca, (Tuscany) Italy to Sao Paolo, Brazil. At the time of my father’s birth, he owned a coffee plantation which made him quite wealthy. My father, John Tambellini, was born in 1896 in Sao Paolo, Brazil. He was the only male with three sisters one of whom, Isola, was adopted. He was the favorite in the family, played the mandolin, read music and also wrote poetry. My grandmother, Antonia (Tonina) Nicolini, who I never knew, was born about 1864 in Daone (Trento) a northern Italian Region near Austria. She was the first of eleven children and at the age of 20 she went with her father to Brazil, looking for work. She was hired by Paul Tambellini, 30 years her senior who later married her. The Tambellini family sold the plantations in Brazil and retired outside of Lucca where they bought property.
My mother’s family came from Massa in Tuscany near Carrara, famous for its marble quarries. I grew up with her side of the family. Her father was a tall, physically strong man who had worked in the foundry building the government’s railroad cars. He was a socialist, as his railroad co-workers were before 1922. As the young Fascist party members were campaigning they ambushed my grandfather and because of his political affiliations, he was beaten with clubs and forced to drink a bottle of castor oil, a ritual reserved for those who opposed the Fascists. My grandfather never liked Mussolini and never changed his mind about him. He kept his friendship with the railroad workers and very often I sat on the cross bar of his bicycle and he would take me to the railroad post where he would visit with his old co-workers. My grandmother, also, came from Massa and her father was a merchant captain who owned a ship and sailed around the world. He would bring back souvenirs from all of his travels some of which we kept in our living room. My mother, one of two sisters, was studying to be an elementary school teacher. She was beautiful and was pursued by my father. Despite the objections from my grandfather, my mother decided to enter into a problematic marriage.
For some unclear reason, my father decided to take his new bride to Syracuse, New York where an uncle lived. I was the younger of two children, born in 1930, my brother was four years older than I was. We were both born in Syracuse N.Y. My parents’ marriage was a difficult and unhappy one. Because of this, my parents separated. My father took my mother, my brother and me, eighteen months old, back to Lucca, Italy to live with her family. He returned to the United States while we all lived in a working class neighborhood outside of the 17th Century wall which surrounds Lucca.
Being an artist came natural to me. As a young child, I was very restless and rebellious, the opposite of my brother. I remember that around the age of three, after the evening meal, I would become very quiet concentrating on drawing on the kitchen table. I would copy images from magazines particularly Walt Disney characters or drew my own pictures. Perhaps the only other thing which kept me quiet was listening to the 78 RPM records playing on the antique victrola in the living room. I also loved to sing. It was a love for visual images and music right from the beginning.
My mother was very educated and she bought me books of Christian Anderson and Grimm’s Fairytales beautifully illustrated and later bought me books on Art. She encouraged and nurtured my natural talent to develop. Sometime around the age of five, my mother gave me a battery operated projector called Lanterna Magica. It had short film clips of American Cowboys and slide strips projecting some stories. There was a long dark corridor in the house which I used for my projections. I later charged the neighborhood children 5 Italian cents to see the shows. A few years later, I became ill with pneumonia, pleurisy and bronchitis and was forced to stay in bed for several months. My mother gave me a marionette theater for which I wrote plays and painted sceneries and later gave shows out on the terrace of the house for the neighbors.
Because of my interests in art and music, my mother was undecided whether to enroll me in art or music school. Grammar school in Italy was for five years and so at the age of ten, I was admitted to the A. Passaglia Art Institute in Lucca. The Art Institute was in the Piazza with Paulina Bonaparte’s statue, Napoleon’s sister who once ruled the city and not far from where the composer Puccini was born.
It was around this time, that Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, allied with Nazi Germany, entered WWII. This was a war that Italy fought without natural resources seeing its citizens donate the inherited cooper pots and pans for shells, wool from the mattresses for uniforms for the soldiers in Russia, iron from the bedposts for cannons and in a dramatic ceremony, the Italian women donated for melting their gold wedding bands in an exchange for a stainless steel ones. It was a time of militaristic discipline which was reflected in the Art Institute that I attended.
In what was called the school’s Galleria there was a large collection of sculpture casts from ancient classical Greece, some Roman and Renaissance, these were models for us to draw with charcoal. We made mural paintings and I, later, executed a fresco on the wall. In general, I received a classic art training. We studied ancient art history very extensively from books and projected lantern slides beginning with the Assyrian, Babylonian Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Romanesque, Gothic etc. Because of the tragedy of war in my neighborhood, I lost a year of schooling. We studied the Greek classics in Italian, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Italian Literature. We memorized passages from Dante’s Inferno this, perhaps, along with my war experience, had an influence on my pessimistic and dark view of the world.
In the beginning of the Forties, the war was fought in North Africa and Russia all battles taking place in faraway lands reported on the radio with propaganda and lies. Then the Allies both American and British landed in Sicily and Salerno. The war had now entered the boot of Italy. The late 1942-43 were among the most frightening times. The B-23 bombers passed by our sky frequently-air raid sirens-search lights at night- we would come out of our houses and run to some nearby fields hoping for the best. Anti-air shells would explode in the sky. This went on for several months very often. On January 6, 1944, the Day of the Epiphany, when according to tradition, children receive gifts from the benevolent witch, La Befana, at 1 o’clock pm, I was on the street with my bicycle, the B-23 unloaded their destructive cargo on my working class neighborhood. Twenty one friends and neighbors were killed, many wounded. Lying down on the street, I miraculously survived so did my family who remained inside my house, Two bombs remained unexploded falling on soft ground in back of the house. The building was damaged and so we moved about seven kilometers to my Brazilian aunt’s place. Her name was Isola and she lived in an old mill with a waterfall in the countryside outside of Lucca called Guamo. A few weeks passed and then the last of the German youth’s army took over the area.
Hiding in the nearby mountains, there were the Partigiani, the Italian, anti-fascist, anti-Nazi freedom fighters who were sabotaging the German army. They were fighting for freedom and liberation of Italy from the oppressive occupying German army. We did not know then, but the Germans were building the last resistant line waiting for the Americans and its Allies who were still below the line of Cassino in the South. There were surprise raids by the SS troupes in order to take able bodied Italian men and force them to build the resistance line which years later we found out was called the Siegfried Line. During one of those raids, I ran at 4 AM out of the house and hid in the cornfield alongside a neighbor, a farmer, whose brother was taken prisoner and who never returned home. The SS had ordered that if anyone were to help, give food or lodging to a Partigiano, ten members of that family would be executed. Not too far away from where I was, in a town called Sant’Anna there was a massacre of over 570 women, children and old men. They were gathered in the church’s piazza and along with the priest were all massacred, the order being given by a twenty-nine year old SS Officer. My mother fearing for the safety of her two sons remained psychologically damaged.
We were waiting for the American Troupes, then, called the liberators. At a certain point shells were shot in our direction from the nearby mountains. We took shelter in the holes we dug in the ground. The big German cannon with a camouflage net by the water well responded. Then, suddenly everything became silent and all of the German troupes with their Polish prisoners disappeared. A day later, at noon, a row of jeeps came from the winding mountain road. It was the American Buffalo Division. The population came out to embrace the black G.I. liberators. Freedom also brought the disintegration of the social structure. Prostitution and the Black Market flourished.
We moved back to the city and I went back to the Art Institute. I volunteered to paint the scenery for a play written for the Italian Veterans in a hospital in Lucca. Most of them had fought in North Africa and were afflicted with tropical diseases. Besides the scenery, I had a small part in the play. I painted a mural for the American G.I. Club. As a US citizen, I had the right to return to America where my father was living. My brother, also a citizen, was drafted by the US Army while in Italy.
With my mother, I boarded the Marine Carp, a Liberty ship, for the 15 day trip to New York. On this long unusual trip, we ate cafeteria style with the sailors. I met a young poet from Rome, Gianni Cappelli, whose father was living in Chicago. This poet had been associated with the great modern Italian Poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti. My background had been Greek and Italian classic epic poetry and for the first time, I was introduced by Gianni to modern poetry. My first experience writing poetry first in Italian then in English, began not too long after.
The adjustment to the New World was very difficult, I spoke very little English. The first morning, landing in New York Harbor, my father spoke about a separation from my mother. For some time, I lived alone with my mother who increasingly was becoming more paranoid, afraid of listening devices planted in the apartment in Syracuse, New York and the spying and monitoring of her thoughts while she was on the street. I worked at small jobs including picking potatoes with the migrant workers. As I was learning the language, I took a job painting the big gasoline tanks in Oil City in Syracuse, New York. I painted fresh silver paint over dry silver paint. One day, stepping on wet paint, I slipped, fell down and kept sliding towards the tank’s unsecured edges. The July hot metal was burning my bare chest. I stopped only a few inches from the edge, the bottom, a concrete slab, were sixty feet below- another miraculous survival.
I joined a group of Artists, among them Hilton Cramer and James Kleege called Vedet, some from NYC, sharing a large loft on Salina Street (the main street). There, I used to go and do mu art till late evening, they had many records of classical and jazz music and for the first time, I heard the haunting sound of Billie Holiday. As part of the loft, there was a floor downstairs used as a gallery, where we all exhibited. We also had art shows there from New York City. I brought some of my work to the old Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts and one of the teachers there, Lee Brown Coye, gave me a teaching job with the Museum. I was the teacher and yet, the youngest in the class.
I was enrolled in the local Vocational High School, primarily to learn English. A wonderful Speech teacher asked me if I know Italian songs and when I said yes, I was asked to sing in front of the class. From then on, I was invited to sing at every school assembly. I became very popular in that school. I took some art classes from a teacher who was very conservative. One year, at the Scholastic Art Competition, I won sixteen golden keys (first prizes) for various art media.