“I didn’t want to recreate Italy here.”
Giovanni Casadei is a painter and teacher.
My father was a barber, my grandfather was a barber. My mother was a homemaker. She waited on the balcony each evening for my father to come home with money for the next day’s food. That was the way it was. My mother and father wanted me to be able to get a job so I studied chemistry in a technical high school.
Every Sunday Uncle Roberto, my father’s older brother, would take me to museums. He was a sheet metal worker. I saw all the museums in Rome because of his dedication. At the Galleria Borghese there was a huge Caravaggio, it came all the way down to the floor. I was little and I could look at it at my level. I remember seeing Velazquez’s painting of the Pope. We went to all the small private galleries. I would copy paintings from books. At fourteen, I bought oil colors and painted at the kitchen table from photos and postcards of paintings. My first painting was from a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge with a tugboat. I spent a lot of time drawing pen-and-ink fantasy drawings, instead of playing soccer.
After I graduated there were no jobs, so I did house painting. The only way to find a job was if you knew someone. When I was twenty, I had a girlfriend who was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, and I found a free class to paint and draw from the model. Schools were free—all you had to do was get in.
My first contact with an art teacher was at Scuola Libera del Nudo. Alfonso Avanessian was my teacher for five years. He told me to apply to Academy of Fine Arts. I had a tech degree, not liceo artistico which meant that I had to take a state exam to qualify. There were five days of exams and I had to produce a portfolio. I got in but only went for one year. In the first year, we only painted once a week. To fulfill the curriculum we also studied etching, cast making, and anatomy. The Academy had a conservative mentality and I was impatient—I just wanted to paint. I went back to la Scuola Libera del Nudo and back to my teacher, Alfonso, who was very open.
While I was at the Academy, I met Nancy, who eventually became my wife. She was studying at Tyler in Rome, which was just behind the Academy. My father was diagnosed with cancer in 1982 and died in 1983. Just after he died I was sitting in a park with a friend and I just didn’t know what to do. Nancy wanted to go to the U.S. My friend said “there’s nothing for you here, you should go.” I had to get a fiancé visa, which would last for three months. It took six months to get the visa. I had an interview, a medical exam; it was a long process. I didn’t see a future in Italy, which was struggling financially. The political landscape was bad. Italy was living on American popular culture. My mother knew all American actors, watched American movies on TV. We got a TV in 1968 and fridge too. The U.S. reputation was to be free, to do what you want. I was fascinated.
I came to the U.S. on December 1, 1983. I was twenty-seven. I got married after three months. I only knew a few words of English. I worked for Tom Judd as a house painter. I had to go to school to learn English. I went to the Nationalities Service Center. There were good teachers there. The director knew how to say good morning in every language. I got my green card after getting married.
I would go to Italy every year, as long as my mother was alive. I still have friends in Rome, I am closer to them than to my cousins. With my cousins, our way of thinking became so different that we don’t relate very well.
I took night classes at PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). I studied with Murray Dessner, Seymour Remenick, and also studied at Fleisher. There was a network of people helping each other within the artist community. Things didn’t work out with Nancy and eventually we got divorced. I started full time at PAFA in 1988 and worked as house painter in the evenings and summer. Then I got scholarships and I could work all day and night at PAFA.
I don’t remember the day I left Italy, but I remember my arrival. I landed late in the afternoon in New York and Nancy came to pick me up in a car. I was so surprised to see the huge highway, I-95, New York to Philadelphia—in Italy a highway has two lanes—and to see so many women driving cars! Not many women drove in Italy. Women stayed home, took care of family. We crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge at night. It was quiet with no traffic. Quiet, no traffic, tiny streets, so quiet and we could see the whole city. Nancy had an apartment at 9th and Spruce. It seemed like a little fairy tale town. Row houses in the city seemed strange. Rome is all big apartment buildings, dense traffic, smog.
I wasn’t sure if my move was permanent. I didn’t know how Nancy and I would work things out. In this country, there is mobility of people who work. In Italy a job is for life. I’d never heard of part-time jobs. After graduating from high school, I took a test for a low hospital job and after hearing nothing for three years, I got a job offer. My mother couldn’t believe I turned it down. My parents and sister were furious that I turned it down. When you get job it is for life. If you work for the government, no one will ever fire you. Job security was valuable—but for me it was a death sentence.
When I lived with my mother she cooked, barely allowed me to make coffee. Here I learned to cook, it was a connection to my country. I would call my mother and ask her how to make a dish I wanted to cook. I never felt I belonged only to Italy or to the U.S. I do not make that distinction. I am myself and I like where I live. I never felt out of place. I have an accent and my English is a bit sketchy. My understanding was not great for a long time. I knew I had to make adjustments and learn more English but I never felt out of place.
Nancy’s family were Main Line WASPs. They weren’t happy. We had a protestant wedding. It went completely over my head. I smiled and didn’t understand anything. She translated what was going on for me.
I knew I had to learn to speak English. I couldn’t care how I sounded or I would never learn. No matter how many times I failed I just had to keep trying. I had a constant headache for two years, trying to figure out what people were saying. I turned down a job for an Italian house painting company. I didn’t want to recreate Italy here.
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.