Diana Gonzalez Gandolfi

Forgotten & Now Remembered: 1985 Argentina (Memory Terrains Series); pigmented wax and oil over encaustic collograph, watercolor, and colored pencil on panel; diptych, 40 x 60 inches

Gonzalez Gandolfi: Growing Up Between Continents and Cultures


I can trace my Italian roots and surname four generations back, to my bisnonno Gaetano Gandolfi, my great grandfather on my father's maternal side, but I know only bits and pieces of the family’s origins and history. Some of what I know has been passed on by generations of aunts as well as my father, all now deceased. Recently, however, I discovered new things about my bisnonno from a newspaper article, inherited from my father, which appeared in 1893 in L’Epoque, a Parisian publication.


In this article, my great grandfather, who was born in 1839 in Lugagnano de Vald’Arda in the province of Piacenza in Emilia Romagna, is prominently featured on its front page with an engraved portrait and an article about his life titled, Le Commandeur Gandolfi. I grew up with stories that he had been a general in the Italian army, but what I discovered is that he fought alongside Garibaldi in the First and Second Italian Wars of Independence, making him, according to the article, an Italian hero and patriot.

Commandeur Gandolfi in L'Epoque, 1893

After the unification of Italy my great grandfather, who had earlier studied business, left the country for Argentina in 1868 in search of new opportunities. Many of the Italians who migrated to Argentina around that time came from the northern regions of Italy, and like my great grandfather, were involved in commerce. Bisnonno Gandolfi became a prosperous businessman, a banker, politician, and inventor, and was involved in civic projects around the city, many of which were in the Italian enclaves.


I do not know where or when he met Maria Arraiz, his French Basque wife, but she joined him in Argentina sometime in the 1880’s and they started a family. They relocated to Paris in 1886 to better educate their children. My grandmother, Zulema, the youngest of their eight children, was born there in 1891 and spent part of her childhood in France before the family returned to Argentina permanently. Bisnonno Gandolfi died in Buenos Aires in 1897 and was buried in a mausoleum in the Italian section of the Recolleta Cemetery where the rest of his family eventually joined him.


Although I did not grow up with too many stories about bisnonno Gandolfi, I did have a relationship with his daughters, my great aunts and have very fond memories of visiting them in Buenos Aires. They were great cooks and refined bakers and always had high tea ready when we came. My father was their only nephew. They adored him and raised him after his mother died. These women were a bit bohemian, creative, and intellectual, and they fascinated me. Music was a big part of their lives as most had trained as concert pianists, but they were also weavers, painters, and writers.


When I was a child in Argentina, the Italian traditions we kept at home were the ones my father grew up with, which were mostly connected to language and food. We spoke a little French and Italian but mostly Porteño, the language of Buenos Aires, which is a mixture of Spanish and Italian. Words like parlar, ciao, laburar, fiaca, buonyorno, pibe, che, were part of our daily vocabulary. I also grew up hearing Lunfardo, the jargon enshrined in Tango lyrics, laden with Italianisms, often also found in a mainstream colloquial dialect.


My parents were doers who taught their five children to be self sufficient, creative, and problem solvers. My mother, who was not Italian but fourth-generation Argentine of Asturian and French origins, had an amazing work ethic. She was a fantastic seamstress, made most of our clothing, knitted our sweaters, made my father’s suits, and could repair anything. She was also an extraordinary cook, but hated the kitchen. Cooking was a job she passed on to me as I got older. My father was an architect and a university professor who often brought work home, so I grew up exposed to blueprints, models, and construction materials. The first home we lived in was a modular prefabricated structure he designed, manufactured, and assembled which I still dream about 70 years later.


Like my Italian great grandfather, my parents decided to leave Argentina in 1961 for better opportunities abroad. Our nuclear family travelled the world for five years, living in Colombia and Indonesia before finally settling in New York City where my father found a permanent job at the UN Headquarters.


Growing up between continents and cultures, between the lives left behind and the life to come, has given me a complicated sense of identity—one caught between two worlds. Like most Argentines, my origins are mixed but since I became an American citizen, I identify myself ethnically and culturally as an Argentine American of Italian, Spanish and French-Basque descent. This mouthful of ethnicities has shaped who I am, and in part, influences and inspires the work I create in the studio.


It is not surprising that the work I make is heavily influenced by my biography or that it focuses on themes connected to place, dislocation, exile, identity, and memory. These are some of the same issues my Italian bisnonno had to deal with when he left Italy.


The history and diversity within my family have had a tremendous influence on me but they have not defined my identity as an artist. My years living in New York City with mia famiglia has.


Now We Know Where We Are: 2008 Buenos Aires (Navigated Territories Series); pigmented wax and pigment stick over encaustic collagraph, watercolor, and colored pencil on panel; diptych, 12 x 9 inches

From All Directions: 1968 NYC (Memory Terrains Series), pigmented wax and pigment stick on panel, 24 x 24 inches

Diana Gonzalez Gandolfi