Marianna Randazzo (Member of the board of the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum)

Cento anni di storia di due eroi italiani: benvenuti al Garibaldi-Meucci Museum a Staten Island, NY

Sep 02, 2019 584 ITA ENG

Among the Italians who have been successful thanks to the United States there are undoubtedly the names of Antonio Meucci and Giuseppe Garibaldi. A scientist, the first; a warrior, the second. Nothing further from each other. But few people know that Meucci and Garibaldi not only knew each other, but they shared a house and some adventures together.

The place that celebrates their association is Staten Island, the district of New York with the highest percentage of Italian Americans in relation to the total population. The Garibaldi-Meucci Museum celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019: we talk about it with Marianna Randazzo, who is on the museum's board and is in charge of the Educational Programs 

Hi Marianna, you are an award-winning author, and the Education Commissioner at Garibaldi-Meucci Museum. Please tell us something about you and your books 

I am the first generation daughter of Lena and Rosario Biazzo. My mom was a Sicilian immigrant and the impetus of my first book, Given Away: A Sicilian Upbringing. My dad was born in New York City to parents that today would be called ‘Birds of Passage.’ 

I have always had a love of reading, writing, and teaching. I learned the power of the written words when I was taught how to write a business letter. I learned that communicating with businesses got you lots of free stuff like Kool-Aid and Ovaltine! I always yearned to learn everything, so when our father bought us our first set of World Book Encyclopedias, the precursor to the internet, the world opened for me. I was an NYC school teacher for over 30 years. I taught almost every subject and levels up to graduate students in college.

In 2006, I suffered and survived a cerebral hemorrhage. It is said; God closes one door and opened another. Having to reinvent myself, I chose writing. Since then, I have published five books. They have won the Sons of Italy Literary Award and the Morgagni Medical Society Silver Medallion. I am also a storyteller and am in a documentary, The Field Afar: The Life of Fr. Vincent Capodanno.

I am very connected to my Italian roots as I am a board member of the Fr. Capodanno Lodge #212 in Staten Island, The Enrico Caruso Museum of America and the Education Commissioner at the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum.

My books are Given Away: A Sicilian Upbringing; Given Away: The Rest of the Story; Lontana da Casa (In Italian); Brooklyn’s Best: The Michael Behette Story and Italians of Brooklyn. I am currently collaborating with artist William Castello on Sons and Daughters of Italy, which is currently on exhibit in the museum.

My greatest pride and joy are my family, my husband Gaspare of almost 40 years, my three children, their spouses, and my four grandchildren.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum. Please, tell us about the history of this beautiful, very symbolic place.

The Garibaldi-Meucci Museum is living history. Although the story of Antonio Meucci is not told in American history books, Italians were well aware of the telephone inventor's accomplishments since the 1850s, when a model with all the requisites of a good telephone was utilized in his Staten Island home. Having come of age in Florence, Italy, Antonio and his wife Esterre immigrated to America by way of Cuba, after a 15-year residency with an opera company. While in Cuba, he invented a water purification system, tea, and coffee filter systems and an electroplating process that made him and his seamstress wife extremely wealthy. Unfortunately, their wealth, did not serve them well in the Staten Island cottage where the couple lived for over 40 years. In America, his biggest challenges were the English language and being preyed upon by unscrupulous parties that took advantage of his intelligence and exploited the trusting inventor. His residence became a haven for political refugees, including the former of the Italian Legion, Giuseppe Garibaldi. Together, they embarked on business adventures such as candle making, while Meucci perfected his telettrofono (electric phone).

Plagued by poverty until his death, Meucci was given a funeral at the expense of the Italian government. His home was saturated with visitors and representatives of civil and military societies, as well as the Italian and American press and friends who paid him homage.

Today the home, filled with artifacts and historical documents, honors the memory and many inventions of Meucci and the heroics of Giuseppe Garibaldi, "Eroe Dei Due Mondi."

The statue of Meucci in the garden is also an artwork made by an Italian, Ettore Ferrini, am I right?

Correct, the Meucci statue in the garden was erected in 1923. The stone was a gift of the city of Rome. The Italian sculptor, Giovanni Turini, created the Meucci death mask that is on display in the Meucci room. Turini served with Giuseppe Garibaldi as a volunteer during Italy's war with Austria in 1866. He created Garibaldi's statue in Washington Square Park in 1888.

Is this cottage the place where Antonio Meucci invented the telettrofono, the father of the modern telephone before Graham Bell would steal his invention? Could you please help our readers remember this story? 

In Cuba, while running an electroplating workshop, a well-respected Meucci treated fellow employees who were sick with electricity. It was during these experiments he transmitted through a wire, the human voice. In Staten Island, he spent years bringing this principle to a practical stage and trying to promote its commercialization. By 1855, Meucci had telephone systems set up in several rooms of his house and outdoor workshop, his house guests used them, and it was his method to communicate with his bedridden wife. Having been satisfied with the results of having transmitted voice intelligence from one end to the other end of copper wire, Meucci applied for a patent but received a caveat instead. His "telettrofono" was documented in newspapers, spoken about in the neighborhood, and articles and drawings had been sent to Italy.

Meucci experienced a series of unfortunate events.  In 1871, the Staten Island ferry explosion left him critically burned. More impoverished than before, his desperate wife sold many belongings including his telephone prototypes for six dollars to a junkman. Once he recovered, defeated but determined, Meucci recreated his inventions, applied for patents but did not renew them due to poor finances. Seeking commercial backing, Meucci soon found himself at the mercy of spurious businessmen. The ultimate indignity was the filing of a patent by Alexander Graham Bell, for the very invention Meucci had been utilizing for years in his home, the telephone. The legal system did not serve justice. Despite enormous evidence against Bell, the protracted case went on for years, ending with Meucci's death.

Is it true that Giuseppe Garibaldi was welcomed as a true hero when he landed in the United States?

Yes. In 1849, in Italy, the dramatic event of war and politics culminated in the fall of the Roman Republic, resulting in the arrests and punishment of participating patriots. This event added many patriots to the ranks of New York exiles.

Within two months of Meucci's arrival in from Cuba, Meucci had become associated with several eminent exiles and other distinguished Italians in New York City. It was only suitable that a committee had been formed to welcome the supreme and most extraordinary Italian patriot and exile whose arrival was imminent. On July 30, 1850, the New York Tribune announced the arrival of the 43-year-old Garibaldi, from Liverpool, England.

News of the legend's arrival stirred patriots of every nationality.  The idea of having such a legend among them prompted them to hang notices that praised the "gallant champion of liberty."  Admirers greeted his sailing ship at the dock only to be greatly disappointed. An ailing, grieving Garibaldi was not fit to greet anyone. Suffering from severe arthritis, the general had to be carried ashore discreetly. A chair believed to have been used to comfort the general is among the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum artifacts.

Arriving in Staten Island, he first took refuge at the Pavillion hotel, where he took few visitors. He then moved to Manhattan, still unwell and disappointing his followers. His poor health made him untenable.  Eventually, Garibaldi, the Meuccis, and the tenor Lorenzo Salvi took over the lease of a house in the quiet, isolated area of Clifton, Staten Island.

In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi met with Victor Emanuel II and handed over to him the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. The gesture, placing the common good of the country above personal ambitions was to become legendary throughout the world and for future generations, having restored unity and independence to Italy.

During Lincoln's administration, an attempt to recruit Garibaldi to join the Union Army took place. Garibaldi would only accept if he were to have full command of U.S. forces, and assurances that the Union was fighting to end slavery. The proposed arrangement never came to fruition.

Staten Island is the New York borough with the highest percentage of citizens of Italian heritage. How is their relationship with the museum?

It is true that Staten Island has a high percentage of Italian Americans, and many do participate in museum activities. We are primarily known and supported through such organizations as the OSDIA Fr. Capodanno Lodge #212 among other local societies and groups. However, I believe the Garibaldi Meucci Museum is better known throughout the world than it is in New York. Unfortunately, the history of these great men is not emphasized enough, if at all in the school curriculum.

We understand that we owe to the Order of Sons and Daughters of Italy in America the fact that this cottage became a museum in 1919. The museum is now a National Landmark owned and operated by OSDIA, right?

Many dramatic events surround the house of Antonio Meucci. In reality, Meucci was only a tenant in the house and often lived by the charity of others who had a great veneration for the genius, but unfortunate immigrant. The house was gifted to Meucci on the condition that he occupy it for all of his life and then entrust it to a select committee. Eventually, the house became a shrine for pilgrimages, not because of Meucci rather the fact that the freedom fighter, Garibaldi had once lived there. In 1905, the house was left to the heirs of the original owner. The heirs needed the house to be relocated to expand their family brewery business. The Garibaldi Society of Staten Island bought a plot of land in Rosebank (its current location), moved the house and built a rotunda to encase it in. Eventually, increased costs were incurred to maintain the house. It was then that an organizations then known as L’Ordine Figli d’Italia, now known as the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, who had previously contributed to the Garibaldi relic, requested and obtained its custody.

In 1962, the house was officially renamed the Garibaldi and Meucci Memorial Museum, when the Order Sons of Italy in America transferred ownership to the Sons of Italy Foundation, Inc., a 501©3 entity, that owns the house today. In 1966, it was renamed the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum. In 1967, the Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York City designated the Garibaldi Memorial and the lot it sits on a landmark site, and in 1969, the Garibaldi House was recognized as a national landmark.  

As a result of local state leadership by the Grand Lodge of New York, OSDIA, in 1976 an elected Board of Commissioners/Directors with an appointed chairperson was established to administer the Museum.  During the year 1985-86, the Museum was opened on a daily basis with a Curator/Director and currently has an Administrator to manage the day-to-day activities. Volunteers are the core of the GMM. In 2002, the United States House of Representatives, under the sponsorship of then Congressman Vito Fossella, passed a resolution honoring the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci and his work in the invention of the telephone. As well, the Museum is chartered under the Board of Regents of New York State.

Please tell us something about the activities organized by the museum, and how our readers can visit it and help keep it alive and active.

The Garibaldi-Meucci Museum is a cultural hub for music, art, science, cinema, literature, and children's programs. Its research library is a prime repository of documentation of Italian Risorgimento. Like most Italian homes, hospitality, warmth, and the value of family prevail. There is rarely an event where we do not feed our guests. In honor of the Museum's 100th anniversary, there has been a year-long rotating exhibit of traditional dress representing the regions of Italy. Also, a tribute to sons and daughters of Italy whose great stories, innovations, and contributions have enriched humanity, including Antonio Meucci and Giuseppe Garibaldi. The exhibit of art, fashion, and biographies reflects the true legacy and birthright of Italians everywhere. These people, depicted in portraits and chronicled in bios, tell a story of a culture too often buried and ignored. The traveling exhibit is curated by Frances Cicero, illustrated by William Castello and written by me.

In addition, the Museum is anticipating in 2019, as part of its 100th Anniversary as owned and administered by the Sons of Italy Foundation, Inc., thru its NYSOSDIA, a magnificent donation of the “Tower of Venice” designed by sculptor Giorgio Bertoli of Italy.

Readers can help support the Garibaldi Meucci Museum by becoming members at a nominal fee, spreading the word of its' existence and purchasing bricks on our beautiful memorial brick way. By purchasing an engraved brick, they will leave a lasting legacy and contribute a permanent feature on the beautiful Memorial grounds.

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