The Artistic DNA - James Michael Starr

The Artistic DNA


THERE, IN THE BACK PAGES of my old guidebook of Italy, is a little 4-page section that itself speaks volumes–to me at least–about my family’s homeland. It’s a section that begins with the understated, one-word heading, LIST.

This shorter index was inserted in front of the normal index, that alphabetized list of fountains and ruins that the turn-of-the-century traveler would flip to. This one–this “List of the most important Artists mentioned”–shoulders its way to the front of the line, as if to interrupt the reader on his way to the tourist spots, as if to point out something more important.

“The Colosseum, sure, sure,” I hear it saying. “Very nice. But first, have you seen…the Caravaggios? Oh!

The Holy See and the Must-See

And for me, it reaches out across more than a century, from the time of my great-grandfather. It grabs me by the throat. It wants to say, now you know him. But did you know his brothers in arms? It implores me to understand the significance that the Italy of my great-grandfather’s day put on creativity. How pervasive it was, how buried in his blood it was. And how, when he took passage on a ship to America, it’s as if he carried in him a beneficent virus that would go on to infect his offspring to the fourth and fifth generations.

I’m convinced it was no easy thing for Nicola Schioppa to leave his country, where artists were revered as if they were national monuments, where an artist’s lifework might literally, as in the case of the index in my old Baedeker’s, put them on the map. In the Italy of my great-grandfather’s day, these were sights not to be missed, as must-see as the canals of Venice or the Vatican in one’s tour of the most beautiful country in Europe.

The Must-See and the Must-Be-Seen

This all goes hand-in-hand with what I wrote in my last post. Somehow, along with the Italian pride he passed down, my great-grandpa Nic also infused his progeny with such a reverence for the artistic act and the creative impulse that, as a child, it was as much a part of the atmosphere that enveloped me as the second-hand smoke I breathed.

But it wasn’t air that was rarified. My family didn’t go to art museums. We didn’t have an art book in the entire house as far as I know. Art wasn’t a thing to be acquired or an appreciation to be cultured. It was more like a genetic marker, a string of code peaking out from your human genome that affirmed to those around you that you were definitely human.

So as my own proclivities for making art began to reveal themselves, I never sensed that my family thought I was special. There was a joy in the discovery, for all of us, for sure, but the message I got was more like, “Well, now you know what you gotta do with your life, don’t you?”

The T, C, A, and G

Of course, I wasn’t the only artist in our house. There came before me Nicola’s granddaughter, my mother, Joanie. The singer. She is now my personal and posthumous–and perhaps also unwilling–Baedeker’s guide to Italy, leading me along a most delicate Transatlantic cable, the wispy rope of artistic DNA that carries us back to Maddaloni, a little northeast of Naples.

If she were still alive, she’d probably say I make too much of The Italian Connection. But the lady doth protest too much, I think, because to acknowledge her birthright might be to admit she squandered it. One of my last memories before leaving East Liverpool was watching her sing on local television, and so when we were to be reunited more than a decade later, I took for granted something would have come of it. Like I said, in my family the question hung in the air: now that you know, what are you going to do with it.

Still Looking

But somewhere along the way she gave up, and like Nicola Schioppa leaving Naples, I know in my bones it was no easy thing for her. So now I write about it, on this journey to somehow discover why. What could have happened during those eleven years we were apart for her to let it die? Let die that thing I believe now helps keep me alive?

I have to admit I don’t exactly know where I’m going with this journey, much of the time. It seems to include a lot of wandering. Can you tell I’m wandering now? Groping around in the dark, in the gaps of my personal history, tugging at things to see how firmly they’re attached, to see if they’ll hold my weight? At the moment I’m tugging on that rope of DNA that leads back to Maddaloni, hoping to better understand where this saga began. Is that knot as tight as I hope it is?

If so, I’m going to follow it back, because it promises to explain a lot.

Suonatore del Liuto (The Lute-Player)
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Circa 1595


You’ve just read part 6 of this personal account. To read the seventh installment, click here. 




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