Risorgimento and telephones

A look back at Italian history

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In celebration of the 150th Anniversary of il Risorgimento, the Italian American Historical Society has invited documentary filmmaker and historian, Tony De Nonno to Johnston to remember the Unification of Italy and the men who made that possible: Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Count Cavour.

Unfortunately for two thirds of that trio, it is Garibaldi who will be the central focus. It can’t be helped. Giuseppe Garibaldi will always stand out in discussions of modern Italy and of Europe in general. As a “Hero of Two Worlds,” Giuseppe Garibaldi is bound to get the lion’s share of attention. The deep impact Garibaldi had in the 19th Century on Italy and South America and the inspiration he offered colonial liberation around the world assured him enough fame that President Lincoln offered him a command in the Civil War.

“But he [Lincoln] wouldn’t let Garibaldi take the soldiers with him,” explained De Nonno. “It was one of Garibaldi’s provisos that he let his soldiers become part of his fighting forces.”

Garibaldi was, for all intents and purposes, a mercenary of republican principles and the price of his services was joining him in the next fight for democratic principles and self-rule.

“Lincoln couldn’t allow that, but he obviously respected his abilities,” said De Nonno.

People who are not familiar with Italian history are not aware that, for much of its modern history, Italy was dominated by the Austrians in the North and the Vatican in the south. Both occupiers had no use for the republican spirit that engulfed Europe after the French Revolution and it was Garibaldi that embodied that spirit around the world.

But what may come as a surprise to many who come to hear De Nonno talk about the risorgimento is the part that Italian opera played in keeping Italian nationalism alive during those occupations. The opera William Tell by Rossini is a subversive nod to Swiss resistance to Austrian rule and, by implication, Austria in Italy. In 1842, Verdi’s early opera Nabucco, about the exile of the Jews in Babylon contained the closest thing to an Italian national anthem in the “The Slave’s Chorus,” where the singers lament their forcible separation from their beloved land. It was largely accepted that Giuseppe Verdi’s intention was to give voice to his people yearning for self-rule. The chorus was often repeated at the insistence of audiences throughout Italy, who stood as it was sung on stage.

Even fewer people know about Garibaldi’s sojourn in America and his friendship with another Italian exile whose politics made it hot for him in Italy and wisely emigrated to the new world.

Antonio Meucci, “the true inventor of the telephone,” is a particular hero for De Nonno. Conveniently, Garibaldi and Meucci were friends and allies, offering De Nonno two very good reasons to mention them together.

De Nonno will provide convincing documentary evidence about Meucci’s priority in the invention of the telephone and will screen his acclaimed documentary, Antonio Meucci: The Father of the Telephone.

He will offer details about Meucci’s and Garibaldi’s friendship and virtually tour Meucci's home in Staten Island, New York, where Garibaldi stayed for almost two years, which is now a national landmark as “The Garibaldi-Meucci Museum.”

But the claim about Meucci’s invention of the telephone has not been universally accepted as fact. The Library of Congress offers some perspective on other claimants:

“Attributing the true inventor or inventors to a specific invention can be tricky business. Often credit goes to the inventor of the most practical or best working invention rather than to the original inventor.”

The Library’s Web site encapsulates the various claims and ends up being a bit equivocal about the subject.

“There is a lot of controversy and intrigue surrounding the invention of the telephone. There have been court cases, books, and articles generated about the subject. Of course, Alexander Graham Bell is the father of the telephone. After all it was his design that was first patented, however, he was not the first inventor to come up with the idea of a telephone.

“Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant, began developing the design of a talking telegraph or telephone in 1849. In 1871, he filed a caveat (an announcement of an invention) for his design of a talking telegraph. Due to hardships, Meucci could not renew his caveat.”

To make matters even worse, according to the Library of Congress, others have advocated Elisha Gray, a professor at Oberlin College, as the real author of the telephone. He applied for a caveat [intention to build an example] of the telephone on the same day Bell applied for his patent of the telephone.

“In Historical First Patents: The First United States Patent for Many Everyday Things (Scarecrow Press, 1994), Travis Brown, claimed that Bell got to the patent office first. The date was February 14, 1876. He was the fifth entry of that day, while Gray was 39th. The U.S. Patent Office awarded Bell with the first patent for a telephone, US Patent Number 174,465 rather than honor Gray's caveat.”

Since then, all manner of conspiracy stories have arisen around the subject, including the slander of Bell, who would have been an incredibly energetic and busy man and to have accomplished all that has been attributed to him, plagiarism being among the mildest of his sins.

The safest position to take is that many people worked on the principle of the telephone before Bell beat them to the patent office. Meucci’s role in the invention of the telephone was largely overlooked but the efforts of De Nonno and other advocates for Meucci prompted the United States House of Representatives passed a Resolution on June 11, 2002, honoring Meucci's contributions and work (107th Congress, H Res 269 ).

Telephones aside, De Nonno’s appearance is an opportunity to meet one of the best advocates of Italian-American history in the United States. He is a pleasant countervailing force to the negative stereotype of mobster and vapid party animal so often seen on television. He is also an advocate for cultural diversity.

“I try to draw attention to the dignity and the valuable part of society made up of people from everywhere,” said De Nonno. “I’ve made films about jazz and films about Irish clog dancing and their contributions and stories. These people are the ‘salt of the earth’ and I want to recognize them.”

The presentation and film will be held Saturday, Oct. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Luigi’s, 1356 Hartford Avenue, Johnston. It includes a complete dinner, from antipasto to tiramisu. $35 for Italian American Historical Society Members; $45 Non-Members. Seating is limited so reservations are essential. Call Claire Giannamore at 401-255-8585 or e-mailing her at cmg280@aol.com.

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