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  • Quakers and Cowboys:Italian Mythologies and Stereotypes of Americans from Piccinni to Puccini
  • Pierpaolo Polzonetti (bio)

American myths and stereotypes have conquered an extraordinary space in the collective imagination of modern Italy, often coexisting with classical mythologies. In the 1970s, a production by RAI Cinema of The Odyssey (Odissea: Le avventure di Ulisse) directed by Franco Rossi competed with spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone to satisfy the insatiable popular appetite for epics. Ulysses, the free and brave Greek traveler in an unknown and fantastic ancient Mediterranean world, appealed to the public as much as the brave and independent American cowboy inhabiting the fantastic Wild West of Leone's movies. Sergio Leone, who started his career as an assistant director of Verdi's Traviata and sword-and-sandal films like Helen of Troy, was largely influenced by cultural models and mythological constructs that were not endemically American, which explains why his representation of the American West often appears peculiar or even exotic to an American audience. Film historian Christopher Frayling remarked that "most critics of Leone's films complained that they 'lacked the true spirit of the Western,' which, of course, was their purpose"; in fact, as Frayling observed, "rather than invoking the traditional morality of the Western, Leone turned the genre into a robust Mediterranean carnival." His movies, therefore, may be more useful for an understanding of Italian twentieth-century cultural and political history than of the American westward expansion, considering that Leone, "as a child growing up during a time of fascist repression, had—like many interwar Italians—viewed America as a model of freedom, a glimpse of modernity and promise."1

A similar argument can be made for Puccini's operatic representation of the American West. In spite of Puccini's use of American literary sources by playwright David Belasco for two out of his three operas based on American subjects (Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West), a reviewer of the 1910 premiere of The Girl of the Golden West at the Met asked the rhetorical question, "How could Puccini write an American opera? How could he realize the American type?" and [End Page 22] concluded with a quote from Puccini himself: "This is no American opera; it is pure Italian opera."2 Even if Italian mythopoeia of American stereotypes is more informative about Italy than about America, one needs to keep in mind that both Puccini and Leone nevertheless had a remarkable influence on American operatic and cinematographic endemic culture.3 A case in point is the armed American woman in C'era una volta il West, advertised in the original poster with Claudia Cardinale embracing a rifle and also in the posed photos from the American premiere of Puccini's Girl, showing Minnie carrying a gun. These images suggest that there could be a direct relationship between American stereotypes first introduced in Italian opera and those that later reemerged in Italian modern film industry.4 In this essay I intend to show that the stereotype of the American gunslinger first emerged in Italian opera long before Puccini: it began as a transformation of the Quaker type during the time of the American Revolution and disappeared during the last phases of the French Revolution, at the end of the century, when the representation of revolutionary themes became uncomfortable outside France. If Americans in eighteenth-century opera are mostly Native Americans and Quakers, they are mostly cowboys in twentieth-century opera and Westerns. But Quakers and cowboys, as we shall see, are not so different after all. One hypothesis is that the eighteenth-century stereotype left a long-lasting imprint on the Italian collective consciousness.5 Because of the disappearance of this type for about a hundred years, a second and more plausible hypothesis is that the two models are not directly related. However, they might have both germinated from a common mythological revolutionary archetype—the independent fighter who acts according to laws that do not coincide with those laws that bind and bond the rest of the social system.

Although scarcely documented in historical and musicological accounts, Italian opera responded to the American upheaval against the fatherland with considerable promptness. As early as 1768, the...


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