Hundreds of young people have learned everything they know about Italian American culture thanks to a person whose name they have never heard. For generations to come, they will continue to do so. These are the students of New York University (NYU) who regularly attend the courses offered through the Tiro a Segno Visiting Fellowship in Italian American studies. And that person’s name is Vito Vincenti. Our students have never heard Vito’s name because Vito believed in the power of culture and education while not caring at all about recognition, fame or glory for himself. Yet, without Vito’s tireless work conceiving, planning, and promoting the Tiro Fellowship, there would be no Italian American studies program at NYU, and hundreds of students would not have had the chance to study with some of the most respected scholars in their fields: historians, political scientists, cinema, and literature experts from both Italy and the US.
Vito died peacefully last week in his home surrounded by his family. He was a brilliant attorney who could count among his clients some of the most important Italian companies in the US. A proud graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School, Vito practiced law for his entire professional life while sustaining a keen interest in literature, history, politics and philosophy. But to me, Vito was was a friend, a mentor and an ally. I met him shortly after arriving in New York as an active member of the Tiro a Segno Club and Foundation, the oldest and most venerable Italian American organization in the U.S., with a charter signed by its founding members, including Giuseppe Garibaldi’s son. During the first wave of immigration from Italy, some patriotic Italians established a branch of the widespread Italian organization born during the Risorgimento (the process of Italian unification) to prepare citizens to take up arms to free the motherland from foreign powers in New York City’s Greenwich Village. I was quite skeptical of the whole thing at first: I am a committed pacifist, and though I was born into a family of passionate hunters, I had never touched a rifle in my entire life. Accordingly, the Club’s coat of arms (two crossed rifles) and the décor of the beautiful dining hall were rather intimidating to me.
Vito met Baroness Zerilli-Marimò, the founder of Casa Italiana at NYU, and offered her an honorary membership on behalf of the Club. She was the first woman to have ever been admitted, and while expressing her gratitude for the honor, and her delight at being the first woman, she also expressed her hope that she not be the last one. And so, in the new bylaws that Vito worked hard to institute, the Club finally opened its doors to women and to people who were not of Italian American descent. People who are interested in joining today must be introduced by two active members and must demonstrate an interest in Italian and Italian American culture. Vito worked into the bylaws of the oldest Italian American organization in the US the concept of ‘ius culturae’, which is right now at the center of the legislative debate in Italy with respect to the acquisition of citizenship. Ius culturae goes beyond both the Latin principle of ‘ius sanguinis’ (citizenship acquired through one’s parents) and the American principle of ‘ius soli’ (whereby citizenship is granted based on one’s country of birth). I believe this was the topic of my last conversation with Vito a few years ago.
My friendship and alliance with Vito was born after he expressed to me his intention to lead the Tiro a Segno Foundation (the charitable branch of the Club) to establish a visiting professorship in Italian American Studies at NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, under the academic auspices of the Department of Italian Studies. It was an ambitious and unprecedented enterprise that required much lobbying, quite a few events, several dinners, and many one-on-one meetings with the most influential (and skeptical) members of the Club on the one hand and the NYU academic leadership on the other.
Several factors helped us turn Vito’s dream into a reality: the nascent Casa, and her lively and determined founder. Baroness Zerilli made it very clear from the onset of the Casa’s establishment and that of the independent Department of Italian Studies that Italian American people and their culture had to be an integral part of the Center. This was a rather unique approach at a time in which similar academic institutions would still frown at the very notion of Italian American culture. Their attitude could be summarized in the infamous line: “qui non si balla la tarantella”.
On the NYU front, we could rely on the active support of Josephine Gattuso Hendin, who for many years was Chair of the NYU English Department and an accomplished scholar and writer. Professor Hendin began teaching a course on Italian American Life in Literature for us before the Fellowship was even established. But our most formidable partner in convincing reluctant Tiro members to financially support the fellowship was “The Sopranos”, the HBO television series that captivated audiences all over the world and that enraged large parts of the Italian American community. Vito and I decided to turn Tony and his crime family to our advantage and would begin our discussions for convincing Italian American stakeholders with one question: “Would you be happy if all that your children and grandchildren knew about their Italian heritage was what came from ‘The Sopranos’?” We would continue: “If not, then you should start thinking hard about ways in which the Italian American experience can be narrated and taught to American students of all ethnic and national backgrounds.” Most of the time, especially in the beginning, I would just listen and marvel at Vito’s powerful, yet low-key, dialectic. He was able to convince anybody with equal parts strong argument, smile, the right punch line, uncomfortable truths and jokes well delivered.
Vito guided me through the intricate dynamics of the Italian American community. Before every meeting, he would brief me on the types of people we would encounter and would suggest topics that could arouse the interest and support of our interlocutors. He was a great lawyer because he understood people: their strengths, their weaknesses, and their complexities. I learned a lot in the process, but first and foremost, I learned to respect my Virgil, my guide in the woods of Italian America. Technically speaking, I was fundraising; in practice, I was learning about my people and my own identity—and I could not have hoped for a better guide. Vito loved to talk with me about Dante, Machiavelli, Pico della Mirandola, Fellini, Rossellini, Verdi, and was totally in love with the Italian language, which he spoke with gusto and of which he appreciated the most subtle nuances. But thanks to my friend Vito, I came to embrace my own Italian American identity and to recognize myself in the faces, the gestures, and the stories of the people I met at the Club.
My friend Vito would have been a bit upset at me for having now revealed so many of our secrets, and especially for having talked about his pivotal role in establishing Italian American studies at NYU. But we need more Vitos in our community—more people who understand and appreciate the value of culture and cultural philanthropy, and who recognize that you do not expunge stereotypes through censorship but through inclusive and diverse educational experiences. This was Vito’s bread and butter at the dinner table with his wife Edna, an outstanding and passionate educator in her own right, and his children, John and Paul, who are following in their father’s footsteps—and not only in the legal profession. To them, and their families, I offer my most heartfelt condolences and the everlasting gratitude on behalf of scores of NYU students who, without Vito Vincenti, may have walked the streets of America not knowing that “The Sopranos” was but one part–a small and marginal part–of a multifaceted, exciting, and largely untold story.