Focus: Death of an Italian dream

Making it in 'La Merica' brought Gianni Versace, killed last week, mythical status in his homeland when he made it in

Fiammetta Rocco
Saturday 19 July 1997 23:02

Giorgio Armani's business may have been bigger, the Guccis' far older, but Gianni Versace, at the time of his death, was the best-known Italian designer in the world. Yet what he represented for his fellow Italians was something far more complex than a positive contribution to the nation's visible trade balance.

The history of Versace's early life plays a small, though crucial part in the iconography of the man. Many Italians would recite it from memory, but it bears repeating. He was born in Reggio Calabria, one of the poorest parts of the Italian south. His father, who made a living selling the bottles of methane gas many southerners use for cooking, was an authoritarian and distant figure. The two never got on. A far warmer and more influential presence was his mother, who always lauded her son's success.

As his business empire grew in Milan, Versace left his roots behind and soon began taking on the trappings of the ultra- wealthy. He was surrounded by bodyguards, and always travelled in a bullet-proof car. Rarely, if ever, did he walk openly in the streets of the city.

Thus the Gianni Versace that Italians got to know was the man in the picture. For his photograph, in the company of pop stars and beautiful actresses, graced the covers of magazines and newspapers virtually every week of the year. This quasi-cinematic myth became the reality.

Never was this more so than once Versace's business began to take off in the United States, and it has as much to do with increased sales as with the near-veneration Italians still feel for all things American, from blue jeans to hamburgers and rock music. For well over a century, Italians - especially southern Italians - equated America with salvation. In their thousands they fled the poverty of Sicily, Calabria and Naples, in search of their fortunes in the land that E Annie Proulx, in Accordion Crimes, her new novel about immigration, calls La Merica.

More often than not, reality fell far short of their dreams. After a difficult passage, many of them spent months imprisoned on Ellis Island and off the coast of New Orleans, only to be robbed by wily exploiters as soon as they were allowed ashore. Yet every now and again, a resourceful or lucky individual achieved fame and fortune. And though this was rare, it happened often enough to encourage the dreams of those who were left behind. Versace was one of these.

The hallmark of Versace's clothes is an overpowering sexuality that turns men into studs and women into hookers. They have an exaggerated, almost cartoon glamour that celebrities the world over, especially in the US, seemed to adore. This was crucial, for the homage paid to Gianni Versace in his homeland over the past week stems from one factor above all others - that he made it in the US. The Italian press was quick, last week, to compare the Versace-mania that followed the killing to the frenzy that came after the deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon.

Although he spent many months of the year in Italy, Versace was to most Italians an emigrant. Celebrated across America, he was the couturier of choice for a firmament of American film stars, names like Madonna and Sylvester Stallone, whom Italians regard as the world's most famous Americans alive. Not since the film stars of the 1960s, like Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, or before opera stars such as Caruso and Maria Callas, has an Italian been so overwhelmingly worshipped by Americans.

Because of it, he was the embodiment of a particularly southern Italian dream: the poor boy who leaves the south and becomes rich and famous in America. The fact that he met his end in such a gruesomely American way, and in a city that is synonymous with immigration will only add to the myth.

Amid the pages of newspaper reporting on the murder last week, two items stand out as significant. According to the Corriere della Sera Gianni Versace was "the triumphant symbol of the Italian in America". It went on to devote much of one page to castigating the president and the prime minister for being disrespectful in not sending any message of condolence to the Versace family.

The previous day, the same newspaper printed two pages of tributes from friends and colleagues. In reporting the memorials, virtually every Italian paper reported (with pride) that among those paying their respects was the crown prince of America's royal family, John Kennedy Jr - proof, if any was needed, that the poor Southern boy had indeed really made it in La Merica.

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