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Midway through the narrative of Don DeLillo’s novel, Underworld, the character Nick Shay finds himself
standing in the middle of a fenced enclosure in a bungalow slum, looking up at the spires of the great strange architectural cluster known as the Watts Towers, an idiosyncrasy out of someone’s anarchist visions … the whole complex of structures and gates and panels that were built, hand-built, by one man alone, an immigrant from somewhere near Naples, probably illiterate, who … ends up spending thirty-three years building this thing out of steel rods and broken crockery and pebbles and seashells and soda bottles and wire mesh, all hand-mortared … The work he did is a kind of free-souled noise, a jazz cathedral.1
DeLillo’s account has undoubtedly introduced many readers to the compelling artwork widely known as the Watts Towers (fig. 1), a masterpiece of outsider art that is viewed every year by thousands of visitors. Now, thanks to the publication of Luisa del Giudice’s timely book, Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts: Art, Migrations, Development, they will be able to get a comprehensive overview of the work’s origins, subsequent efforts to save it, and the varied meanings it has come to hold for art historians from around the world.
Very little is known about Sabato Rodia. He was born in 1879 in Rivottoli di Serino, a village in Campania, the province whose capital city is Naples. Around 1893 he emigrated to the United States, at his parents’ behest, where he joined his older brother. He worked, presumably, as a day laborer, though in later interviews he refers to quite a range of job experiences in a great many regions. He married Lucia Uzzi and had three children with her, but the two were divorced in 1912. He seems to have had a second marriage, though it may have been a common-law one. He also drank copiously, as he noted in many interviews, but later stopped. [End Page 199]
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Eventually, in 1921, he purchased a small, triangular lot in the Watts section of Los Angeles and soon began constructing the complex assemblage that became the Watts Towers. He was already forty-two years old, and when he stopped work on them in 1954, he was seventy-five. All this while he also held a day job to earn income that he largely spent on the principal materials, steel and cement, that he deployed in the evenings and weekends. In 1954, he had a stroke, an event that wasn’t noticed by his neighbors until three days later. Alarmed, he gave away the entire lot to a neighbor and, in 1955, moved north to Martinez, California. There, living off Social Security payments that ranged between $70 and $74 a month, he passed his last years largely undisturbed, except for occasional visits by members of a group that was created after his departure from Los Angeles, the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts (CSRTW).
Members who interviewed him typically wanted to know more about his motivation in building the Towers. He was not especially helpful. “Why I build the towers?” he retorted. “Why a man make the pants? Why a man make the shoes?”
Members who interviewed him were also scrupulous in recording his answers, but it was of little use. Rodia, despite having emigrated when still very young, never mastered English and, as the transcriptions make very clear (Appendix A, pp. 349–423), probably didn’t understand the questions that were being addressed to him. On the one occasion when an Italian speaker came to see him, Rodia was visibly reassured by his presence but promptly switched back into the broken English he routinely used; he also didn’t really know Italian—only the half-forgotten dialect of Campania that he had spoken as a child.
Rodia was an autodidact. He firmly believed that Galileo had constructed the leaning Tower of Pisa, and he saw himself as...