Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City by Joseph Sciorra (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City. By Joseph Sciorra. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2015. Pp. xlii + 262, 81 black-and-white illustrations.)

Sciorra's summa represents 35 years of scholarship on New York City Italian American vernacular "materializations of the sacred" all along a spectrum of "old, new, and emerging symbols, objects, and behaviors" (p. xxxvii), including yard shrines, domestic altars, nativity scenes (presepi), grottoes, feasts, processions, and high-wattage holiday house displays—many of which demonstrate a social genius of transforming the private into the public; of turning a house display into a block party, a parking hut into a communal shrine, or a grotto into a "nursing home of statues" (p. 144). These are "communal sites of ethnically infused religiosity" (p. xviii).

Sciorra reviews the historically visually intensive culture of Italians within a specifically New York City typography and typology, noting its salient features: a penchant for spectacle, pride in the well-executed handmade, a love of symmetry and order, a resourcefulness that can transform even the mundane into the extravagant, a tendency toward exuberance and "festivalized intensification" (p. 191); metaphoric overlappings of religious, personal, familial, and political meaning; and a reliance on the communal gaze. Often, it nostalgically reverts to pre-Vatican II Catholic practices (as one traditionalist devotee states: "I loved the pomp and circumstance . . . all the fancy things" [p. 47]). At times, New York Italian American Catholics have had to literally fight to save their icons—even against their own clergy in wars over turf and financial resources. Sciorra bypasses the high/low, popular/official dichotomies of "folk" religion, favoring "an ethnographic, context-specific approach to religion as lived praxis" (p. xxvi).

In this carefully written, well-illustrated, and thoughtful volume, Sciorra unites rigorous ethnographic description and transcribed spoken words (despite Italian misspellings, missing accents, and a few mistranslations) with strong historical research and multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks. The writing tends toward the complex (and sometimes impacted) sentence, lists, linguistic playfulness, the recondite (unglossed) idiom (e.g., "vicinage" [p. xxxvii], "titivated" [p. 8], "kenophobe" [p. 49], and "puissant" [p. 154]), as well as felicitous coinage: a belief in saints as "spiritual insurance" or a "protective force field" (p. 17). He especially takes pleasure in the New York linguistic vernacular (quoting an artist: "Some guy come along, he said, 'Youse doin' it the wrong way'" [p. 136]).

A key strength of this volume is that it historically situates (a favored Sciorra term) and richly contextualizes microtopics, reading big meanings into tiny landscapes. Perhaps this is a response to an Italian scholar's snub at his "ahistoricity." Stripped of these contexts, we would fail to appreciate individual agency, the art's "counterhegemonic potential," or worse, dismiss it as "quaint folklore" (p. 89). His iconographic etymologies are frequently gems. Italian edicole become yard shrines in America; Campanian Marian grottoes are at the origins of similar ones, such as the Rosebank Grotto. Sciorra, though, is not only a reader but a writer of history. See, for instance, his meticulously reconstructed history of New York City house displays or his successful landmarking efforts on behalf of the Rosebank Grotto.

Despite decades of our scholarly overlap, it was a revelation to gain a more complete vision of Sciorra's sustaining truths, leitmotifs, interests, [End Page 355] and bugaboos. He champions (simply by taking it seriously) the "denigrated canon of kitsch" (p. 3)—against media stereotyping, Italian American middle-class decorum, hostile or assimilationist clergy, and even other scholars. Further, he surveys evolving urban landscapes and demographics and the fragility of ethnic neighborhoods and practices (despite infusions of post-World War II Italians who helped reinvigorate traditions and neighborhoods) colliding with hipsters and gentrifiers, sometimes looking on with curiosity and/or disdain, or with other ethnics—even though that discourse is thankfully tending toward common cause rather than conflict.

In this volume, Sciorra identifies a distinct Italian American style that is found more or less throughout the Northeast. Just how distinct might be a question for future comparative study with the work of other Italian American scholars, together mapping regional material culture variants against supraregional Italian/American constants. For...


pdf