Swans Commentary » swans.com March 12, 2012  



Stereotyping In Naples
Part II - Funiculà


by Peter Byrne





[Read the first part of this Travelogue.]


(Swans - March 12, 2012)   My quest for the real Naples lost its way. I found myself taking the clichés I was out to explode and using them to combat other stereotypes lower on the limbs and sprouts of the city's family tree. It didn't look like I'd ever get to the solid wood of the trunk. My confidant, Gennaro, moreover, wasn't such a clear cut example of local authenticity as I'd assumed. Could anyone be genuine in Naples? Wasn't everyone so spirit-of-place conscious that he was doomed to do an impersonation of a Neapolitan?

Genn, for instance, liked the idea of belonging to an unrepeatable human type, genus neapolitanum. The idea, put poetically by Pier Paolo Pasolini, gave his life unity. He wanted to be an exemplar incapable of dilution. The only modification he would accept was his destruction, the end of him and his Neapolitan essence altogether. To say the least, Pasolini's was a big idea. But did it really fit Genn or anybody else? In Naples, rather than being something, wasn't everyone only representing something? Was there a difference between the two for a "poor, bare, forked animal" living between menace of Vesuvius and sulphur-spitting Pozzuoli?

Give them answers and don't ask too many questions, my teacher of English composition used to say. I decided to give it a rest and walk toward Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples' answer to the Eiffel Tower of Paris and London's Big Ben. This took me through the Gallery Umberto where I rendezvoused with Genn. He was downing one of those tiny super-clichés, an espresso of the South. I'm not going to talk about that soft internal foam that doesn't show at all on the surface. I'm not going to call it nectar, for heaven's sake, because it's only coffee, simply the best coffee ever. Imbibing you understand why the great local playwright Eduardo De Filippo devoted some of the best lines of his plays to the tiny cupfuls.

The urban galleria didn't create Italic sociability. Simply, in the course of the 19th century, it gave street life an Olympian stage. A hole was carved out of the heart of the city and filled with two extra-lofty vaulted halls that crossed in a perfect plus sign, +. The charm of the four entrances was that they gave access from corners of the city that could have very different flavors. Everyone melted into the dead center of the cross. No one ever said so but passing there he got a whiff of the sacred.

Genn and I and everyone walked back and forth like Hollywood Romans, but in baseball caps, not togas. He told me that nowadays after dark the Gallery was mainly used by immigrant street peddlers. I waited for the racist line that you heard all over upper Italy these days: There were too many immigrants and they had changed Italy for the worse. But it wasn't forthcoming. Genn launched instead into a jovial description of what late evenings were like under the sky-high roof where we were walking. Africans from every part of their continent came with a pack of goods. Sri Lankans arrived pushing their specially-designed carts for umbrella salesmen. Balkan sharpies with no goods on show calculated the odds off in the shadows.

"Everyone pretends to be selling something," said Genn. "Of course, there are no buyers. The peddlers have really only come to be together in a place of their own."

That took me back to my impression that Naples was a good town for immigrants. They seemed happier and more at home here than in the rest of Europe. It made sense. Neapolitans were jealous of their own freedom to the point of not interfering with anybody else's. This resulted in a certain amount of municipal chaos but it was mainly goodhearted. Genn laughed at the idea of racism being put in the same sentence with Naples. It started him on one of his set pieces: The Greeks had founded the city three thousand years ago. Nero, Tiberius, and miscellaneous Romans had get-away villas here. The Spaniards came and bled the city for a couple of centuries. The Bourbons used Turkish labor to build their Versailles at Caserta. Then the snooty hicks arrived from Piedmont. This was melodious to listen to, but I was thinking more of recent times and cut him short:

"I've never forgotten those lines from Rossellini's movie about 1944, Paisan. The Neapolitan kid is trying to steal the shoes off a drunken US soldier who is black. Remember? At one point the man asked the kid if he's Italian. The kid says, 'Who me? I'm a Negro.'"

"Do I remember? That was a line pinched from the novelist Malaparte who gorged on the dog's breakfast the city had become after the bombardments and Allied invasion."

"That kid was no racist. Was he typical?"

"There was nothing to eat. That made everyone typical. They had empty stomachs in common. Xenophobia had no traction since stolen and bartered Allied supplies kept people alive. The Free French Moroccan troops were not always welcomed with glee. When not fighting the Germans they had a forceful way with the gentle sex in the Naples hinterland. The French eased the tension by importing Berber women to keep them company."

"I should think that lurid doings like that were easily blown up into prejudice."

"Naturally," said Genn. "But the Neapolitan touch comes through in how the Moroccan-sired children were treated. For that you have to hear the popular songs of the day."

He seemed to be bracing his legs like an opera singer and I steered him quickly out of the Gallery by the entrance that looked on the San Carlo Theatre. Passing around it, we caught a first glance, blinding in the sun, of Piazza del Plebiscito. The huge apron of pavement managed to avoid monotony by rising slightly and appearing to undulate in the glare. Strollers here felt like Hamlet's "king of infinite space" precisely because they were "bounded in a nutshell," a big one. Space, to be grasped, has to be enclosed. The walls here were the façade of the staid Royal Palace stretching forever on one side and the spider legs of San Francesco church reaching out from its dome on the other. A sneaky crack in the southeast corner mocked the snugness of the shell, providing just a glimpse of the not to be enclosed blue sea.

We sat on the terrace of the Café Gambrinus and got our breath back. I only wanted to take in the scene and wallow in one of the most delightful icons of Europe. But Genn was no tourist. He was still going on about the tolerance of Neapolitans in matters of skin color. I couldn't blame him. It was certainly a big point in the city's favor just when the rest of Europe had dressed up its chronic race hatred in new clothes to suit the economic downturn. Still, I didn't really want to hear him sing in Neapolitan. It was a language of its own, different from Italian, and I could hardly understand a word. But he was warming up. I was surprised.

"Hey, Bing Crosby sang that tune! They called it Pistol Packin' Mama."

"It was 1945," he said, "the same old hungry Naples, but with the Yanks in town. Listen to what those typical locals felt about the situation."

He let rip in his tenor that slumped to baritone when he puffed his contraband cigarette.

That hour there in the sun would cost me a day in the nearby National Library. I finally found a translation in straight Italian and then, eureka, an English version. These were not old hypocrite Bing's lyrics. In 2006 a valiant soul named Riccardo Venturi put Tammurriata nera by Nicolardi and Mario into a kind of American. He called it Black Drumsong. Genn was right. This was no Ku Klux Klan sing-along. The attitude toward skin color was flippant like a joke about a friend's short stature, overdeveloped muscles, or flowery necktie. "I'm a Negro," said the little white Neapolitan. He could have asked the soldier what the difference was. Didn't we all have to eat?

Don't understand what's happenin' sometimes
you don't believe your eyes, nay, you don't.
A baby's born and he's all black,
and his mom calls him Ciro, yeah,
she calls him Ciro!

You may believe it or not,
You may believe it or not,
you may call him Ciccio or Antonio,
you may call him Peppe or Ciro
but the baby's all black, black like don't know what!

Street gossips keep a-talkin' 'bout all this:
"Now, it's no uncommon case,
you see thousands of 'em!
An' sometimes one look is enough
an' the gal's left struck, yea, left struck.

Well, one look, that's fuzz,
well, she's left struck, oh yeah,
now go find who dun it,
go find who made the good shot,
and the baby's all black, black like don't know what!

The ol' wiseman in the street says "Let's talk 'bout it,
cuz if we talk about it,
then we can explain how all this gone.
Corn grows where you sow it,
and when you sow corn, it's always corn what grows up."

Yeah, go tell it to mom, yeah,
Yeah, go tell it to me too,
you may call him Ciccio or Antonio,
you may call him Peppe or Ciro
but the baby's all black, black like don't know what!

The gals from Capodichino
make love to black soldiers,
the black soldier have their cumshots
and the gals yay they get preggo.

American Express,
get me money an' hurry up
or the Police will come in
and do what they want.

Yesterday nite in Piazza Dante
I had an empty stomach,
wasn't it for smuggling,
I'd now be stone dead.

Lay that pistol down, babe,
Lay that pistol down.
Pistol packin' mama,
Lay that pistol down.

Cigarettes for dad,
Sweets for mom,
Biscuits for the kids
And two dollars for the gal.

Concetta and Nanninella
they liked sweets so much,
now nobody wants to marry 'em
and they get in whorehouses.

The Neapolitan girls
make babies with Americans,
see you today or tomorrow
at Porta Capuana.

And Churchill, that ol' fool
stole all mattresses out,
and America to spite him
tore him all hair from his breast.

Yesterday was eatin' peelings
with my hair on my ears,
my hair, my hair,
a cup of camomile tea,
camomile tea, camomile tea,
and frisella bread with boiled meat,
frisella bread, frisella bread,
and the monk's gotten the scab,
the scab on ass an' cock,
goddam what he's stinkin', god,
stinkin' like a dead dog
may he burn in hell!

Lay that pistol down, babe,
Lay that pistol down.
Pistol packin' mama,
Lay that pistol down.

I wouldn't say Genn spoiled my trip. But he and the city changed its direction. He rubbed my nose in the hackneyed notions I'd set out to ignore and I had to admit they were more interesting by miles than anything else I'd found. Maybe wonky representations of this place were the best thing to come out of it. I took off my investigator's bifocals and put on my fool's cap. I'd dig into what two admitted misinformers -- they were actors -- had given us in the way of caricature.

Here Genn was a big help. He offered the use of his Vomero apartment and his immense collection of DVDs. This led incidentally to my discovery of his occupation. He wasn't a member of the Camorra after all. He was a dealer in postage stamps, conducting his business mainly from home. The revelation put a seal on the change in my quest. The search for authenticity had been a false start up a dull avenue. I would now look for bigger and better clichés.

The comedian Totò, sometimes Antonio De Curtis (1898-1967), modern Italy's greatest clown, became identified with all the well-worn ideas of Naples. He was born in one of its poorest quarters, Rione Sanità, and the comic actor to come was swathed from birth in a joke he never saw the humor of. He was the illegitimate son of the Marquis De Curtis and his irregular status troubled him. When success came he gave a lifetime annuity to another Marquis as a reward for adopting him legally. Finally the Marquis De Curtis also fell in line and recognized Totò as his son. The heir to two noble families then, in 1946, went to great lengths to have his titles validated by the appropriate court. By that time, although it took two dozen words to list them, they carried no weight at all.

Totò began in vaudeville and eventually made over a hundred movies. All comparisons are odious at his level of artistry, but may be needed for non-speakers of Italian. Because he relied on words, his art could not be exported. Think Groucho Marx. His physical agility was astonishing. Think Charlie Chaplin. His laughs echoed melancholy. Think Buster Keaton. However, Totò's quips and wordplay didn't come from the famous table at the Algonquin. His character wasn't a wise guy but a sum total of all the local minor vices. As he invoked the first one and then the next, Neapolitans delighted in themselves. Totò was innocence personified and guilty, like them, only in so far as he was born of woman.

If Chaplin's body was the smoothest of machines, Totò's was a Rube Goldberg contraption. Each section could be disconnected from the rest and operate on its own, often to its owner's surprise and amusement. Such ease in dismantling himself suggested something doll-like and inhuman in this most human comic. His collection of foibles was so large it gave him an extra-terrestrial dimension that preserved him from Chaplinesque sentimentality. Federico Fellini went so far as to compare Totò to one of those emanations a spiritualist conjures up in a séance.

Keaton's melancholy set him apart as did his tenacity. Totò's sadness came from his omnipresence. His character's only endeavor was to be in touch on all sides, a Naples' gadabout. Totò's innocence wasn't angelic. It was pure ignorance. Pasolini was mistaken to cast him as St. Francis of Assisi. Saints belong in the city's churches, not in its streets. The Neapolitan above all else wants not to be a sucker, a chump. He spends his energies being shrewder than his neighbor. Then, not caring who is astute and who's not, the big wind comes along and blows them both away.

Eduardo De Filippo (1900-1984) who was playwright, director, and actor shared Totò's choice of shabby gentility for his comic and dramatic seedbed. Both tell of a search for dignity with nothing to build it on but the balmy air of Naples and its laughing pessimism. Both men's midlife trauma consisted of WWII suffered Naples' style. It slotted them into the age-old tradition of the wisdom of starvelings and the intricacies of making out.

Eduardo -- for that's how, with affection, Italians refer to him -- had a variety of talents that added up to genius. Because he wrote his own plays around his role as an actor, they can be bumpy. They seem to exist in detached segments in which Eduardo delivers a monologue or engages in a tight confrontation with another character. It's not that he hasn't created remarkable roles for other actors, but his own passive, nagging, decent, Neapolitan morality runs through a whole cast like sap in a green plant. His view of local life is, "Look how low we've sunk. But we can take just one tiny step upward, can't we?" Melodrama and coups de théâtre resound. On occasion he started with a one-act play and over time, maybe years, extended it to badly-joined three acts. But to tarry over the disjointedness of his compositions would be a mistake because they are always held firmly together by his own taciturn personality.

Taciturn, yes. As an actor he turned the commonplace about garrulous Naples on its head. His magic was to have created a verbal tidal wave of plays and movies and yet leave us with the memory of a man who kept his mouth closed. His way of dealing with cliché got the better of both worlds and shamed what I had dared to call my quest. The critic Eric Bentley wrote:

Eduardo on stage is an astonishment. For five minutes or so he may be a complete let-down. This is not acting at all, we cry, above all it is not Italian acting! Voice and body are so quiet. Pianissimo. No glamour, no effusion of brilliance. No attempt to lift the role off the ground by oratory and stylization, no attempt to thrust it at us by force of personality. (Eduardo De Filippo and the Neapolitan Theatre.)

For Orson Welles, Eduardo was "the greatest living actor." The paradox, said Welles, was that he was a pure Neapolitan but achieved his effects by stillness. The great movie actors might do the same in close-ups. But in a huge theatre only Eduardo could bring all eyes to his silent, motionless self and present a close-up to the spectator in the furtherest corner.

I said goodbye to Genn the day before I left Naples. As we sipped a last espresso together he recited with gestures one of Eduardo's many tributes to coffee. Totò couldn't be kept out of our chat and Genn assured me that Neapolitans went to the comic's grave and prayed to him conversationally as they did to the relics of their favorite saint. This sounded to me like the ultimate Naples' finely-embroidered cliché. I loved it. That's how life should be. Brits would shake up Laurence Olivier's urn of ashes and tell him how he knocked them over in The Entertainer. Hollywood visitors would skip that stretch of cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre and repair to Greta Garbo's resting place to say a rosary.

I woke up in the middle of the night and made one of those crazy resolutions. My religious life in Naples' churches had been limited to viewing fleshy oil paintings and observing devotees doing their pious thing. Wasn't it time I too said a prayer? I'd seek out Totò's remains and see what I could improvise in the way of worship.

Naturally I was less enthusiastic in the morning. Still, I set out looking for the right cemetery. One fragmentary conversation and another got me to lunch time without getting any closer to the place that everyone knew about but no one could pinpoint on the map. I overindulged in sfogliatelle breakfast pastry and cappuccini to wash it down. I faced a big midday meal like a Neapolitan loser after another very fruitful defeat.


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Published March 12, 2012