John Paul Morabito
La Madonna dei tempi (dopo Rafaello Sanzio da Urbino), 2019; cotton, wool, glass beads, gilded masonry nails, 85 x 42 inches. Photo: Ian Vecchiotti
Morabito: A Queer Tangent in Tapestry
Sensibilities are expressions of the ineffable. At the point in which they become tangible and concrete they are no longer sensibilities, they have hardened into ideas.* I am using sensibilities to articulate an idea. My work is not about queerness or Italian-American-ness. Rather, my Magnificat tapestries are queer and Italian American works about the Madonna. The decadence and perhaps campy opulence of my tapestries can certainly be read as queer, but it equally reflects the sensibilities of a multi-generational Italian immigrant culture. Bronx-Italian fashion and home décor is so exaggeratedly opulent that it often crosses over into the synthetic. It is marked by leopard print, long painted nails, big hair, glass block walls, marble everything, and gold, gold, gold, gold. This excessive aesthetic is my native language.
My maternal grandparents, Rich and Mary Rosa, were born Cosimo and Maria Rosaria; they gave up their names and their language to build a life. Yet, like so many within the ethnic enclaves of the Bronx and Harlem, they maintained and passed on a culture. My grandmother’s Napolitana family immigrated to 119th Street in Italian Harlem. From the 1870’s through the 1940’s, Italian Harlem stretched from 104th Street up 120th Street in East Harlem. Cara Harlem, as it was known, was constructed within the context of disruption and separation, and through orientations that were distinctly Napolitana, Calabrese, and Siciliana.
On 115th Street between First and Pleasant Avenues stands the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, home of the Madonna of 115th Street. With dark flowing hair and a shining gown of white and gold, the Madonna Napolitana stands proud. Generations past would have seen her dress weighed down with beloved jewelry offered by the faithful as gifts of gratitude and penance for her grace. In Harlem, her devotions began in apartments, behind tenement walls, and in building courtyards all especially decorated to show rispetto alla Vergine. When she was crowned by the Vatican in 1904, the Southern Italians (despite their poverty) donated their cherished family heirlooms to be melted into her golden crown. Wearing her peoples’ sacrifice, the Madonna of 115th Street reigned from the basement of Mount Carmel until 1923 when she was moved to a throne at the main altar. The Madonna of 115th Street is an immigrant herself. It was southern Italian faith that brought her across an ocean.**
With Magnificat I draw upon the work of the great masters to complicate, infiltrate, and reclaim this cultural legacy. The Italian Renaissance is a heritage that represents an orthodoxy from which I, the queer child of an Italian American immigrant family, have been ostracized. The Italian people have been Catholic for 2000 years; it is a bond I cannot and will not deny. Responding aesthetically, I activate divested allusions to Catholic opulence within the woven image and extend it beyond the picture plane. Glass beads adorn the top and bottom borders of the tapestries with shimmering fake gold that invokes the splendor and fall of the Catholic Empire. The decadence of this fallen majesty mirrors the sincerity of faith with the unnatural sensibilities of camp. These sensibilities, whether belonging to my grandmother’s domestic recreation of the Vatican or the exaggerated glamor of a drag queen, simultaneously engage queerness, ethnicity, and the sacred.
*Susan Susan, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 1961
** Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Connumity in Italian Harlem, 2010
Madonna col bambino e due angeli (dopo Sandro Botticelli), 2020; cotton, wool, glass beads, gilded masonry nails. Photo: Ian Vecchiotti
Madonna del filatore (dopo Leonardo da Vinci), 2018; cotton, wool, glass beads, gilded masonry nails, 78 x 42 inches
Photo: Phillip Maisel, courtesy of CULT Exhibitions
John Paul Morabito