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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

September 23, 2009 Event Flyer

Built with Faith:
Place Making and the Religious Imagination
in Italian New York City

Presented by Joseph Sciorra

2009 Botkin Lecture Flyer for Joseph Sciorra

Italian Americans have developed a rich repertoire of devotional art and architecture in New York City for well over a century, which can be seen in the religious spaces they create today in their homes and neighborhoods. A temporary sidewalk altar to the Virgin Mary, the Lilliputian topography of the multi-figured domestic presepio (Nativity crèche), a house exterior extravagantly decorated for Christmas, and a stone-encrusted grotto in honor of the Madonna transform everyday, mundane urban space into communal sites of religiosity. They are alternative sacred spaces beyond the normative ecclesiastical paradigm, existing outside of, but in relationship to, the consecrated halls of the local parish. This presentation explores the ways in which contemporary vernacular architecture, material culture, and public ceremonial display created by Italian Americans shape the religious and cultural landscapes of New York City.

The public display and embellishment of religious statues present examples of Catholic sacramentals, material objects imbued with the power to make the divine present in the mundane world. The sacramental, whether material object, ritual behavior, or a combination of the two, is a vehicle for channeling God's presence, i.e., grace, into the everyday world. These personalized sacramentals directed to a larger public take on specific significance in the urban context. Vernacular religious constructions and assemblages instill a sense of intimacy and identification with one’s immediate surroundings, by promoting face-to-face social interaction and a network of acquaintances in settings that blur the boundaries of private and public, the domestic and the street.

Arbitrators of elite cultural style and official religious doctrine condescendingly relegate garden statuary, Christmas displays, and festa environments to the denigrated canon of kitsch. The cultural given is that these practices are audacious displays of déclassé taste and spiritual banality. Thus the artistic creativity, ceremonial use, and symbolic meanings of these objects for Italian-American Catholics are rarely given serious consideration. Some critics find such material culture and their related behaviors disturbing because personal religious beliefs and practices are inappropriately exposed in the public sphere, a breaking of a socio-religious taboo concerning public/private propriety. Ultimately, what is left unexplored and subsequently negated in these critiques are the vivid and creative ways personal devotion is publicly enacted and negotiated as long-standing and integral parts of the city’s religious landscape.

Italian-American Catholics' relationship to their religious folk art has not remained static, but has changed as economic and political forces have altered the city and its residents. Tensions between stability and change, between the desire for continuity and community, and the frailty and impermanence of urban neighborhoods have led sometimes to a bitter and nostalgic view of urban life among many Italian Americans. This presentation will look at how de- and post-industrialization, suburbanization, migration, immigration, gentrification, Vatican II, and other changes have impacted local structures of feelings, conceptualization, and belief in relationship to religious spaces such as a temporary stoop altar to the Madonna in Harlem. Ultimately, I am interested in how people remember, imagine, and interpret the city and one's relationship to the divine at these religious sites during times of changing, global forces.

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The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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