Dreaming of museum of Italian culture in Philadelphia

Michael DiPilla with his Italian memorabilia related to the founding fathers. He's secured nonprofit status for the proposed Italian Culture and History Museum and talked to the city about a building.
Michael DiPilla with his Italian memorabilia related to the founding fathers. He's secured nonprofit status for the proposed Italian Culture and History Museum and talked to the city about a building. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 19, 2014

Michael DiPilla has a dream that's as big as the Colosseum and as alluring as the Mona Lisa: to build a national museum of Italian culture in Philadelphia.

Not because the city has the largest number of Italians - that would be New York. But because Philadelphia and Italians go together like, well, pasta and gravy, and have since this country's beginnings.

When George Washington's troops grew disheartened in the snows of Valley Forge, the general staged a production of Cato, a play about an Italian politician, to cheer them up.

Ben Franklin taught himself to read Italian. Thomas Jefferson learned it, too - and may have borrowed his most famous pronouncement, "All men are created equal," from an Italian friend.

That the founding fathers saw Italy as inspiration is just part of a story s sure to make the museum a destination, its backers say.

"It would wow people," said DiPilla, 49, a computer engineer and president of the eight-person museum organizing committee. "The Italian contributions to the United States have national significance."

But - cavoli! - someone else has had a similar idea. In South Philadelphia, the History of Italian Immigration Museum is set to open June 1 ins the Filitalia International center on Passyunk Avenue. That small, do-it-yourself institution aims to exhibit "the tangible and intangible heritage of Italian immigrants throughout the world."

DiPilla said he'd never heard of that museum, and besides, "We're covering a much larger time of history."

He's secured nonprofit IRS status for the proposed Italian Culture and History Museum of Philadelphia. And he's talked with Mayor Nutter's deputies about the possibility of a $1-a-year lease arrangement on a city building to house it.

Michael DiBerardinis, deputy mayor for environmental and community resources, is supportive of a museum.

"As an Italian American, I think it's a great idea," he said.

But, he cautioned, it's important for backers to operate from a reliable, detailed business plan, because specialized museums face a rugged financial environment today.

"The small museums that are connected to my departments - the Philadelphia History Museum, the African American Museum, the Mummers - it's a tough go, particularly on the financial side," DiBerardinis said.

Philadelphia is, of course, packed with museums, not just those offering art and Revolution history but that cover topics ranging from minerals to mourning, dolls to dentistry. Ethnic museums celebrate the achievements of Poles, Swedes, Jews, Germans, African Americans and Irish.

Sponsors insist an Italian museum wouldn't be a case of "me, too."

Films, lectures, and exhibits would highlight Italian achievements in law, government, culture, and architecture, and a genealogical section would help visitors trace their lineage to the old country. Part of it would be a kind of Italian Please Touch Museum, full of hands-on activities where kids - and kids at heart - could sing opera, play a mandolin, or maybe even stomp grapes.

"As long as we market it right, people will come," said Jody Della Barba, a South Philadelphia civic leader who was Mayor Frank Rizzo's secretary after he left office. "When you think South Philly, you think Italian."

Just under 6 percent of the U.S. population is of Italian descent. The figure is higher in Philadelphia, where 8 percent, or about 123,000 of 1.5 million residents, claim that heritage.

Italian roots run deep here. Philadelphia is home to the nation's first Italian ethnic Roman Catholic parish, Mary Magdelan de Pazzi, established in 1853. The surge of work-hungry Italians into South Philadelphia during the 1880s stamped a permanent identity on the neighborhoods. From those streets emerged Mario Lanza, Al Martino, Frankie Avalon, and Fabian.

Today, a stop at the Italian Market is mandatory for tourists - and for politicians seeking citywide office - even as the area grows more diverse.

DiPilla and the museum committee have set up a website, met with the Italian consul-general, and held two fund-raisers, most recently a $50-a-plate gala at Spasso restaurant in April. They've looked at possible locations near Independence Hall, including the Bourse building, that offer a chance to put the museum on the tourist path. They're also considering sites near the Italian Market.

So what's holding up the groundbreaking?

"The issue," DiPilla said, "is who is going to write the check."

And, at the moment, that person or group has yet to emerge.

These days, said Danielle Rice, director of the Museum Leadership Program at Drexel University, museums big and small battle for the same pool of donor dollars, challenged to show the community they deserve support.

"It's tough for all museums," she said. "The fund-raising environment seems especially tough. It has not fully recovered from the recession."

DiBerardinis, who describes himself as having gravy in his veins, said it was not out of the question that the city could provide space if - and it's a big if - there's an available building that fits the needs and would be appropriate for a museum.

When he met with DiPilla, he said, he suggested the committee explore the chances of becoming partners with an existing museum to try to trim costs by sharing expenses.

DiPilla said, ultimately, the location will determine the level of needed financing. If a virtually cost-free space can be acquired, a museum could operate on a low budget. If a center has to be built, the cost rises to about $3 million.

"We really need this," said Della Barba, who sees people from up and down the East Coast traveling to an Italian museum. "It can be sustained by good marketing and the new generation, the third and fourth generation of Italian Americans. They need to go where they came from before they can know where they're going."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage

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