Madonna’s Namesake

Madonna was born to offend you, now wish her a Happy 54th Birthday.

Every single Italian I met when I lived in Rome had the same reaction to my last name: “Ciccone, like Madonna!” They know that Ciccone is Madonna’s last name, what they’re not buying, however, is the Madonna part.

“Carla, what is her real first name?” my friend Massimo asked me. “Madonna,” I said. He laughed and shook his hands the way Italians do when they want to say, “mamma mia! Whaddaya talkin’ about?!” without actually saying it.

While they wholly embrace Madonna as her stage name, it’s unthinkable blasphemy that Madonna’s real name is Madonna. In Italy, that name is reserved for the one and only Holy Virgin Mother of God.

“It has to be Maria, Mary, Marie,” said Massimo, and after a trip to the World Wide Web proved him wrong—as she is indeed Madonna Louise Ciccone—he was left shaking his head.

Madonna had offended him. Not with her singing or stage humping or cross burning or boob flashing, but with her name.

Etched on her birth certificate, the seven letters that make up her bold first name contain within them an inherent contradiction. It represents the antithesis of what she is. If faced with the choice of being the Madonna or the whore, Madonna is the whore every time, and proud of it.

I don’t have to tell you about the impact Madonna’s had on music and culture. She ushered in the seminal music video era of the early 80s with so much sass that she transcended the corniness of the decade and transformed a generation of tween and teen girls (and boys) into lace sporting, multiple cross wearing, messy haired, gum chewing, cheeky little queens.

She was a fearless, fun, envelope pushing badass who challenged the norms of her Midwestern, motor city Catholic upbringing with so much gumption that, though many people were put off by her, they still believed her.

I remember my grandfather smiling down at me in the basement of his house in Toronto as he held up a poster of Madonna in 1987. He told me that we had the same last name as her and were from the same part of Italy, and I was in awe of the beautiful blonde woman with the dark eyebrows, red lips and mean face who, thrillingly, could possibly (but probably not) be my fifth cousin.

The video for 1989’s “Like A Prayer” featured a mélange of scandalous taboos at the time: interracial making out in a church, bumping and grinding, also in a church, and cleavage bouncing in front of burning crosses next to… a church! So it was perfect for a bunch of 7-year-old Catholic school girls to imitate at school.

My friends and I did so over recess one day, happily dancing and acting out the words of the song on a grassy hill. Life is a mystery… Watching us from her pious corner was the hawk-eyed relic of our Catholic elementary school, my second grade home room teacher, Mrs. Van Kant. Everyone must stand alone…

Van Kant somehow found out that Madonna the hussy’s last name was also my own, and pulled me aside before class. “You have the same last name as Madonna,” she said, her stale coffee breath assaulting my nose as she hiss-whispered through her teeth. “She is defiling the church. You better pray for her soul.”

Mrs. Van Kant was terrifying. All tightly wound white curls and high-collared, starched blouses, she constantly rapped a long, yellow pencil against the palm of her hand while patrolling our desks. She’d whack kids on the head with it for chewing gum, looking sleepy, or not praying loud enough. Madonna would’ve despised her.

Had I been 12 at the time, I would’ve been like “screw you, you tight ass bitch and hell yes Madonna CICCONE!” but I was not 12. I was 7. I was scared to death of teachers, hell and the devil and wanted nothing more than to be a good Catholic girl. Madonna was really messing with my elementary school God game, so after praying for her, I viewed her with severe side-eyed skepticism and hated her very much for three years. Until, that is, she became Mae Mordabito.

“A League of their Own” was the zenith of Madonna’s film career. The 1992 movie had a talented ensemble cast and was about women stepping in to play big league baseball for the masses while the men were off killing Nazis during World War II. They faced ridicule and sexism, they had to play in skirts, and they kicked ass.

Not unlike Madonna herself, #5 Mae Mordabito was lippy, feisty, and wicked. At one point, she poisons her team’s female chaperon Mrs. Cuthburt so the girls can sneak out to go swing dancing. More than anything, Madonna, and the rest of the Rockford Peaches (Geena Davis, fist pump!) made awkward prepubescent girls like me want to be sporty and play baseball, which I did, for a little while.

My musical tastes have always run more rock ‘n roll gypsy than pop princess, and I’d be the first to agree if you told me that Madonna’s songs, voice, words, face, performances, antics, or life choices have offended you, but love her, hate her, hate to love her, or love to hate her, Madonna has been the pinnacle of female pop stardom for the better part of the past 30 years. She’s sold over 300 million albums, which makes her the world’s top selling female recording artist.

Two years ago, I took an Alitalia flight from Rome to Sicily. I gave them my passport, and upon seeing my name, the attendant looked at me and smiled wide. She then called a coworker and said, in Italian, “I have Madonna’s niece at my desk!” They bumped me to first class and didn’t charge me for my extra heavy bag. I didn’t correct them. Madonna wouldn’t have wanted me to.

She’s been condemned and rewarded in grand fashion throughout her career, and in much more insignificant ways, I too, have been condemned and rewarded for my name-association.

As she turns 54, my wish for Madonna is to keep on living unapologetically, to keep on pushing (which she will, because she’s Madonna).

Fairground stripper, beret wearing rapper, new-age yogi, whatever’s next for Madonna, it’ll be provocative, because Madonna Ciccone was born to be a controversial anomaly fighting against the majority. I haven’t always liked or agreed with her, but I have always admired her.

She might have the name of a saint, but she’s got the balls of a lion.

From this Gutter, we see the Stars

To say that the traffic in Rome is chaotic would be an understatement. It’s Vespas weaving in and out of messy lines of cars, riders scraping their knees on the sides of buses as they squeeze by; it’s old women not stopping at red lights—not because they couldn’t see the light—because they saw a chance to go; it’s honking, yelling, arm waving craziness.

And so, Roman or not, Italian or not, if you come to Rome, you must acquire certain survival skills, if only to successfully cross the road.

A little puppy named Blackie knows this all too well. At two months old, she comes when she’s called, sits when she’s instructed to, and she waits patiently (and with aching cuteness) when her owner steps inside a bar to punch back an espresso.

Following her owner, and with no leash on, Blackie cautiously navigates through pedestrians and traffic. She looks up at her red pants wearing guide as they cross the street, her clumsy little puppy paws swiftly hitting the pavement behind him. She waits patiently by his side when he stops to chat with someone on the street.

He’s stern with her, but loving, bending down for a cuddle as they wait to cross the road again, and as he does, she becomes the 2-month-old puppy she is, jumping onto his lap, licking his face and getting his red pants all muddy while he laughs. Blackie knows that she’s lucky to have such a great Roman tour guide.

For the rest of us, though, Rome is an ancient urban jungle without a kind navigator leading the way. The city will open her loving arms to you, but you’re not safe to rest there for long. It’s transient. If you don’t move with it, you’ll be swallowed up by it.

You can be amidst the most mind-boggling chaos, noise and confusion on the street, only to walk up a hill for ten minutes and find a serene rose garden surrounded by an enchanted city view that’ll make you thank God, even if you don’t believe in one. This dichotomy is nothing new. It’s everywhere in Italy. In the landscapes and the people.

They are both saints and sinners.

Rome will kiss you as she kicks you.

As it is in Rome, so in life. We have to walk the gritty streets, eventually climbing out of them to gaze upon a lovely vista. And there’s good and bad both above and below.

Some people are born into easy, or seemingly easy, lives. They walk through the great big building that is life and doors open for them as if by magic. People smile at them. They go to school, they get good jobs, they find love. They make it all look so effortless.

Other people are born into lives that seem stacked against them from the start. They fight for breath on the day they’re born and they scrape their way through: banging on locked doors, clawing at walls, screaming and spitting and struggling for a chance to prove themselves. Prove themselves great in whatever form of great they dream of.

But whether we’re blessed or cursed or, like most humans, somewhere in between, nobody goes it alone.

Even the most successful, self-made people would not be so if it weren’t for the help of others. Be it the teacher that tells his student that she’s good at math, or a soccer coach who recognizes and nurtures a young athlete’s potential, or a manager who takes a chance on an inexperienced employee who has the drive, but nothing to show for it yet. No matter how hard we work and how ready we are – we succeed or fail based largely on the support of a few.

Seneca, that wise old Roman, said: “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” We learn, train, and get ready for battle, and when one comes, we go for it – con la forza (with force) – and hope for the best.

I find it hard to explain, but being surrounded by Rome and her vibrant Romans has lead me to think about personality and where it comes from. How everything we do and see shapes who we are and who we are becoming. Ultimately, it’s what we do and how we do it when the cards are stacked against us, when we’re staring into a loaded gun, when we’re trying to cross the street and cars are honking and nearly hitting us and people are yelling, when we’ve fallen down so many times we’re not sure it’s worth it to get back up again. It’s how we handle these moments, not those moments when the sun is shining and roses scent the air, that gives us integrity and character.

You can be the most beautiful person in the world. You can have the best job and the most money and the nicest clothes and the perfect family. You can have houses in France and Hawaii. You can know the difference between Chateau Rothschild and Domaine Leflaive – but if you don’t have much character, you don’t have much.

Lately, this city has been kicking my ass. Nearly a year of being away from friends and family, order, politeness and consistency, and living among the madness, rudeness, and illogical entertainment that is Rome has begun to transition from fun, new, and touristy to real, draining, and unstable.

I’m not giving up, on myself or on Rome, but when I saw Blackie, the little puppy following her owner with the undivided attention of a much older dog, it reminded me how much we – dogs, people, beings – need each other. Need to be loved, hugged, cared for. We need kindness – from strangers, from friends, from family, from lovers. We need to draw love out of wherever we are, and whomever we’re with. Italians go for this love thing with reckless abandon. They love their lifestyle, they love their food, they love their cities, regions, and country, they love themselves, and they love each other.

Someone once told me that if you love Rome, she will love you right back – and this is true.

It’s in the way the sun always makes her buildings twinkle as though they’ve been bathed in fairy dust. The way even her most ruined of ruins beam with haunting, ancient beauty. It’s in the way, right now, the soft sound of a classical piano music slices through the abrasive street noise—motorinos, booming voices of arguing Italians, sirens, the hum of water running from an outdoor fountain—like a silk scarf falling slowly over a sharp sword. Watching it happen was so beautiful and so peaceful, that you hardly care that your scarf is now on the floor in two pieces.

It’s in these moments that I don’t want to ever leave Italy. When I hear that piano played so delicately, so masterfully, producing sounds so cutting and so sweet that they leap into my stomach and writhe it until my eyes are watering and my heart is aching. I picture the pianist weeping, tear drops spilling onto the keys as his fingers bounce delicately over them – long and lithe. Like Rome, he makes me smile and cry at the same time. I can’t see where this beautiful sound is coming from, but I can feel it all around me, inside me. It’s always there. Just like Rome.

“We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” ~ Oscar Wilde