Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews


main index       © Jeff Matthews & Larry Ray         entry Jan. 2009               


Remembering Naples

Here are some excerpts from emails sent to me over the last few years by Larry Ray of Gulfport, Mississippi. He spent time in Naples many years ago and enjoys sharing his memories. With his permission, I share them with you. Larry maintains a blog called the iHandbill as well as a website, Larry Ray.com. He also does English-translations of the material on Napoli Underground, an organization devoted to exploring the tunnels and caverns beneath the city of Naples. (Also see Larry's items The Great Money Pit and Beneath the Oldest Basilica in Naples on this website.)  The material below is in no particular order, and I have not edited the content other than to insert an occasional explanatory comment [in brackets like this]; I have also linked to the entries in Naples: Life, Death & Miracles that were the sources of his notes to me. Larry also has This recorded interview  (about 30 min.) from Radio New Zealand about the caves and quarries beneath Naples.


Below: Napoli-Piedonte railwayBrit cemeteryRiva FioritaAchille LauroGrand Albergo di LondresMain Post OfficeWall shrinesVilla Floridianathe FemminielloSanta LuciaRemembering Lucky LucianoPlaying Music in NaplesChestnuts roasting on an open fireThe Young Man & the SeaAgnanoThe Gallery (novel)Naples in the Nineties;
Earthquake memories.



...One of many, many nagging mysteries about Napule has always been that narrow building near the Orto Botanico, the “Ferrovia Napoli—Piedimonte Matese”. I actually searched for rails, looked for stairs descending to a platform, etc. and finally tucked it into the Naples X File drawer of my memory. I frequently walked home up to Cupa Carbone all the way from Piazza Municipio and on Via Foria would see this mystery station sitting out there all by itself . . . now I know!  

There is also a gray columned gate leading to an army barracks of some sort nearby.

Also in 1959-60, a theater, beneath the Galleria Umberto, with its entrance almost at the inside intersection of the Via Roma - Via St. Brigida entrances was a porno grind cinema with a real rough edge to it . . . the underground theater idea fascinated me . . . the rough crowd did not. Then in the mid 80's, right beneath the steps at the entrance on the Via Verdi side, a friend of mine (who owned the 'Fratelli Cimmino' TV and appliance store across from that entrance) told me that a small theater for live performances of jazz, theater, etc. was being restored there. I watched the construction down in the lower 'bow' of the two stairways leading up from via Verdi into the Galleria . . . on subsequent  visits, the Cheops factor had done its logarithmic thing and when I last saw it, it was a boarded up, dust covered place mark in time. Are either of the places I mention the location of the café-chantant of your article?

[Yes, they both are.]

I visited the Metropolitan cinema in the huge tuffo cavern off via Chiaia many times. I understand after being closed for decades it is now a multi-screen theater. My speleologist buddies in Naples tell me that the huge theater only occupies a tiny bit of the massive tuffo quarry in that part of the Chiaia district...
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...I seem to recall a Brit Cemetery and an American one too. I believe the British Cemetery was or is also called Cimitero dei Protestanti and is off Piazza Volturno on Corso Garibaldi about halfway between Piazza Garibaldi and Carlo III. I know this because I used to go to the Anglican Cathedral on Via San Pasquale up off Riviera di Chiaia and some of the older folks would go there annually for a bit of a tidy up…

Garibaldi gave four prime pieces of real estate to the Brits for Protestant Anglican churches in Milan, Rome, Florence and Naples, it is said, in appreciation for their help in the unification. The one in Naples is a time warp . . . small expat congregation, part military, consular types,  Brit shop owners and visitors. There is an ancient tracker pipe organ, it is freeze-your-ass-off cold in the winter . . . old round cracked red leather kneeling pads . . . a cornerstone honoring Queen Victoria, and a lovely little courtyard on one side for after mass gathering, tea and such. There is a older local woman who for years has been the assistant to the various young pastors who have been posted there. She is serious, sweet and the church is very much her whole life. One of my favorite tales is a visit many years ago for morning mass, and as we filed out, I mentioned to the ruddy-faced young priest that I was from St. Mark's parish, 1847, in South Mississippi. His face formed into a condescending beacon of superiority and through a stiff half smile he nodded and said, "Ah, Episcopalian…  well, you are always welcome." Then he turned abruptly to pump the hand of a pledging member behind me...
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...I was more than delighted to see the photos and read about my old hangout, Riva Fiorita!  I have had many wild and wonderful times in "The Castle" and the close up of the turret being restored is also a close up of my days in that turret with a wild, genius cybernetician, Dr. Valentino Braitenburg and his wife and young daughter. He lived in the front portion of the villa with his American born, New Yorker wife. Dr. B was doing research in a laboratory located in a building just across from the Zoo entrance at the Mostra, and we got connected because he needed a technician to help with things electrical and electronic in his research work. He took a real shine to me and taught me how to extrude micro glass electrodes which I inserted with a micro manipulator into live frog brains (they had been immobilized with a dose of curare . . . can't make this kind of stuff up!) He was mapping a portion of bovine brain wherein lie groupings of Purkinje cells, also called Purkinje neurons which were of interest to him because they act as a delay network. Frog brain was used for in vivo study on an oscilloscope screen. Valentino was highly animated, juggling several projects at once . . . he is a phD cybernetic scientist, earned his MD, played concert piano and was incredibly influential upon my early development because of the machine gun exposure to things mysterious, challenging and delightfully new. In the very turret he played wildly and excellently upon his piano, and then enlisted my assistance in helping him design a transducer to allow him to put music INTO a violin while it was being played. And yes, he was a masterful violinist as well.

In your bottom photo, the second story balcony on the light colored apartment building took me back to another Riva Fiorita halcyon memory . . . for that was the apartment of Irene Abi, a German or Austrian girl about my age, 20-21, with whom I had a deep friendship and a somewhat beatnik romance. We had a striking resemblance to one another and were easily taken for twins which was a total hoot to both of us. Somewhere I have a photo of her leaning over that top railing, her chin resting on it, with a delightful mischievous smile.

In what used to be small monocamera apartments at street level in the building behind the Villa Volpicelli, on the road up and out of Riva Fiorita lived a friend of Irene, a starving German artist who seemed to delight in lecturing me about where art came from, railing that my large surreal, abstract paintings which I was exhibiting were "uninspired trash, a fortunate conjuncture of color devoid of true artistic depth." She really raked me over. I had a Lancia Aurelia Gran turismo, four door "machinone" as my friends called it. It had a right hand steering wheel, and the winding descent down to the Riva Fiorita was always like running a road rally...I had a straight exhaust pipe on the Lancia and It was a helluva lot of fun...I loosened tiles on the roof of the galleria Vittoria at 1 AM many times...some of my dearest memories of those years in Naples from 1959 to 62.

In 1990, a good friend drove me back down to Riva Fiorita and the old castle was looking pretty rough, as was most of the area. I had a great visit with an old fisherman who indeed remembered Irene, and seemed to think that she was still in Naples. I really thank you for popping this gem, replete with great photos, before me. A real delight and to know the history of, and present situation of the old place really is wonderful.
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...My favorite tale about Achille Lauro is that after he and a lovely lady friend arrived at Zi Teresa for an afternoon bite to eat, the scugnizzi  [street kids] below began to chant his name, applaud, etc. He beamed, and finally acceded to the adoration, stood and went to the iron railing where the urchins gleefully presented him, for all gathered on the long terrazzo to enjoy, with a loud, raucous pernacchio chorus before diving back into the waiting Borgo marina. The Mayor walked back to his table while fellow diners smiled and held back snickers. 



Great tale, and might even be true!...





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...The piece on the Grand Albergo di Londres brought back warm memories. When I arrived in late 1958, the Capo navy bus, a gray Mercedes coach that was nicely appointed, stopped right near the Londres. You will probably also remember the Bluebird club right off Piazza Municipio down the short alley that connects to via Depretis. The club was always predictably full of drunk sailors sopping up the 25 cent mixed drinks and so-so eats. Friends took me around the corner to the Londres where I discovered the real inviting feeling of their Lowenbrau beer garden-themed restaurant. I loved their shashlik kebobs with an icy mug of beer. All new and excitingly European for an 18-year-old from Aransas Pass, Texas!

A couple of years later I rented a room with a buddy in the Londres on New Year's Eve and we filled the large armoire in the tall-ceilinged room with fireworks, mostly Roman candles we bought. Some poor carriage driver was trying to make it around the round-about with his wild-eyed horse wanting to get the hell out of there. It was dark. We sighted in on the back of the jouncing carriage with the Roman candles, the exploding fireballs serving as fire-directing tracer rounds. Great fun, but not for Luigi and the poor horse.

The entire piazza was swallowed in a murky sulfurous fog, limiting visibility to a meter or so at best. I had no knowledge of the home-made botte [firework explosions], and on several occasions was sure that either unexploded WWII ordnance was going off, or that entire fireworks stands had gone up. Finally a combination of too much spumante, panettone, and lack of oxygen from the thick smoke sent me off to sleep. What a hangover the next morning.

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...Astounding that [the main] post office it is four years older than I am, and remains in such great condition. I have always loved the wonderful severe, almost forbidding Art Deco cavern. The snotty Post Office clerks behind the windows continued the Fascist tradition every time I bought stamps or needed information. The steps down from street level on Corso Umberto always generated a strange almost eerie out of place feeling. Used to go to the PTT in that general area where one placed a long distance call, took a numbered receipt, sat on a bench and waited to have your ticket number called to enter an ample sound-proofed phone  booth to begin your call. Wish I had of had a teleported copy of your encyclopedia back then in the late 50's, early 60's. Imagine how much more I could have enjoyed Naples…though I doubt that would have been possible. Still the most magical and memorable years of my life...







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[In reference to the votive wall shrines of Naples]  Twenty five or so years ago I took the big elevator down into the Sanità and spend all morning just walking and discreetly shooting some photos. In front of one of the little street shrines the little bulbs were burned out. I thought, what the hell, these folks don't have much money, so I unscrewed one and found a little hardware store, bought the bulbs and returned to replace them, leaving a half dozen little boxed spares. Well, not surprisingly, my every move had been watched in front of the little shrine. As I was replacing the bulbs a severe woman came up and demanded to know what I was doing. I answered that the bulbs were burned out and that I wanted to do something for the neighborhood and got some new ones and was putting them in so there would be a little light at night. I added that I hoped it would make the saint happy. The inevitable crowd gathered. It was quickly established that I was an American who spoke Italian with a definite Neapolitan accent, that I was sincere, and was doing this deed on one of my regular annual trips back to Napoli. Took a while for them to be damned sure I wasn't up to something or that I had no ulterior motive. Then I was greeted with smiles and thanked.

One younger fellow in the crowd came up chided me for carrying around a camera "down here." Certainly I knew that it would be snatched! He then said he would go with me wherever I wanted to go and that I could take all the pictures I wanted "with no worry." The trip then really became interesting. I was invited up to his apartment for coffee and was introduced to wife, kids and a dozen other assorted family members, including one who was a Scafi Blu captain. I told him I had friends who owned a trattoria at borgo Marinaro and had talked to lots of the Scafi Blu folks down there. He warmed up even more and gave me the inward waggle of his hand, palm in, index finger extended indicating I should come for a look see in the bedroom. Beaming, he proudly showed me large brown boxed cartons of Marlborough cigarettes from floor to ceiling. I applauded and said Bravo! Everyone thought that was funny. I soon was treated as if I lived "down there" and have always wished I had returned the next year with copies of the photos for them.

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I also noted the update on the Villa Floridiana and notice of it being transferred to a new bureaucracy. I got to know the museum and staff very well, and even would take a nice panettone or other goodies every time I returned for many years.

I also got to know Enrico DeConcilis, a mild mannered and wonderful gentleman who was a guide there. More of a docent, actually. His wife, Margarita, worked for the yellow pages and we have been dear friends for more than 30 years. Both are now retired. They live in
a very nice apartment in the uppermost part of the Floridiana...we used to get to it using a doorway into the rafters and attic, thence across a suspended walkway and into a small but modern and well appointed apartment. Since my last visit, Enrico tells me they now have an elevator.

The apartment also has access to the wonderful roof terrace atop the Villa. The panorama is truly breathtaking. I now must call them and see if the change in supervision of the museum will impact their living arrangements which they have had for decades. I never asked, but it seems that Enrico's dedication to, and knowledge of the museum somehow made
him a live-in security presence, though I do not know that to be the case. I sure would hate to see them forced out, and hopefully his presence and knowledge will be appreciated and seen as an asset.

There is also a huge underground auditorium beneath the Floridiana from the early days of the Villa, which is now dank and forgotten. I was told all about it by Enrico and almost worked in a visit to see it, but time was too short. Fulvio knows all about the auditorium cum void from his days with the Departemento di Sottosuolo. I loved the Villa Floridiana and spent lots of time there just escaping the noise and hustle of the city. Lots of lovers groping and mothers pushing babies in preambulators of veddddy British design.
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(In reference to The Femminiello)

I remember seeing them around midnight around the exits of the Galleria Umberto, in the open areas around the Castello Angioino posing and parading about and there were no cat calls or insults . . . I asked a friend what that was all about and he merely explained that they came out on the weekends around midnight and were 'femminielli,' noting that some were damned hard to tell from the real thing.

Then some while later I remember reading somewhere that there was a protective, supportive and accepting tradition in the bassi above via Roma where the femminielli were regulars sitting with the women as they played tombola, and also were trained like daughters in hand work like crochet and such. This reference mentioned that everyone in the quarter was just fine with the situation and in fact, the femminielli were frequently protected by brawny men in the bassi [popular, poor quarter] from cafoni [insult for those with no class, something like "hicks"] who made a big deal out of their femininity.
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(re Santa Lucia, Swedish St. Lucy)

I have an Italian-American immigrant tale from the United States, this time from New Orleans where St. Lucy is venerated in an innocently inappropriate way by the St. Lucy Society of New Orleans.

The wave of Italian immigrants arrived at the port of New Orleans after the war between the states in the U.S.. Most all came from Sicily, and New Orleans culture today is rich with Sicilian cuisine, customs and traditions. The annual St. Joseph's day altars in churches and many private homes still feature huge ornate baked breads and pastries. There are many Italian benevolent societies, clubs and organizations as well, including an Italian-American-Italian federation of the Southeast.

Our Gulf Coast Italian-American Cultural Society from the Mississippi Gulf Coast always had representatives for the annual meeting of the state federation. One year when the federation gathering was hosted in New Orleans, I went over with several of our society's officers. ( I was local club president that year … the first and only Irish descended president of an Italian cultural organization in the area.) One of the events was attending a special annual St. Joseph's Day mass honoring the St. Lucy Society of New Orleans's patron saint in a huge Catholic cathedral there.

Few if any present day Italian Americans in the New Orleans area speak Italian, and their Sicilian dialect also vanished under generations of pressure from parents to speak English and "be American." The incongruence of honoring a patron saint of the blind on St. Joseph's day is just part of the mish-mash of traditions and cobbled together memories of "the old country." Adding to this gumbo from the past is the song selected to be sung at that mass for their patron saint, Saint Lucy AKA "Santa Lucia." Yep, that's what we sang loudly, filling the church with song not about St. Lucia healing the blind, rather it was a familiar melody from around 1849 that glorifies the beauty of an ancient seaside quarter of Naples, Italy:

Over the sea shines a silver star.
Placid is the wave. Fair is the wind.
Come to my swift little boat,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.
Come to my swift little boat,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

It seems that the St. Lucy, who lived in the fourth century has long had a history that does not match her name. All that scholars and historians really know is that she was a brave individual who lived in Syracuse and died, unflinching, at the hands of those persecuting Christians. Fanciful legends evolved after her death as a tribute to her faith and courage. One tells of a chaste young girl who had devoted her life to Christ. Her mother, however, wanted to marry her off into a fine family. Lucy would have none of it, and through her prayers at the tomb of Saint Agatha she brought about a miraculous cure for her mother's long-standing illness.

That convinced Mom, but her jilted bridegroom turned Lucy in to the local governor as a Christian. We know she was persecuted and killed. And the killings were pretty grim in those days including burning, a sword thrust through the neck and torture that included mutilation of the eyes. Another Lucy legend has it that Roman Emperor and persecutor of the church, Diocletian, put out her eyes himself, only to have them restored by God. At any rate she wound up as patron saint of the blind. Her name comes from the same root of the word "lucid" or light, and what the heck, she could be that bright shining star reflecting her light off the waves in the bay off the ancient fishermen's port of Santa Lucia in bella Napoli.
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July 21, 2011
[ed. note: This just arrived from Larry; it is in reference to the entry on Lucky Luciano]

Jeff,

Great story that brought me back to Napoli and 1959, as a barely nineteen-year-old who had arrived fresh from a year of US Navy electronic and instructor schools for a posting to Naval Air Facility Capodichino. I have told you about my instant fascination with Napoli and making the transition from speaking Spanish to Italian facilitated by my taking a tiny apartment on Cupa Carbone, a stone's throw literally across a wooden fence from the American base which in a fenced off area just down from the Italian civilian airport facilities.

A large gray Mercedes bus shuttled us between the Capodichino air base and Piazza Municipio which was a central hangout with the enlisted Bluebird Club, and all sorts of other bars and even a huge pizzaria on the second floor of a large building on the corner of Via Medina and Piazza Municipio above where the entrance to Monte Dei Paschi di Siena bank is today.

Across the piazza roughly around where via Verdi comes into the piazza from Via Santa Brigida there was the California Bar which attracted lots of American sailors as well as locals. I was having a great time trying to communicate, learning Italian and, unwittingly, mimicking the strong local Neapolitan accent and vernacular. I had developed a friendly repartee with a waiter in the California Bar and he found it a novelty that an American was trying so hard to learn to speak Italian. 

One afternoon I stopped in the California Bar and there was just one other person, an older man sitting alone at a table. As I bantered with the barrista, the man at the table smiled and motioned me over. He was nicely dressed, very friendly and he complimented me on my Italian. Really a nice old guy. I asked him how he learned his English so well and he allowed as how he "had lived in the states" and that he always liked meeting "you young fellows stationed here." Sort of like talking to a favorite old uncle.

I saw him a couple of more times and wrote my parents that I had met the nicest interesting old man, an Italian who had lived in the USA, a Mr. Luciano, but everyone called him "Lucky." I got a stern almost screaming letter from my father who told me to stay away from the man and not to talk to him ever again because he was a notorious gangster.

I was sure father had bad information, but after mentioning this to one of the guys who had been stationed there a couple of years he told me that Lucky Luciano did indeed hang out at the California Bar and that he had been deported by the US government and that it was best not to even be seen with him. So I quit going to the California Bar and never saw my friend "Lucky" again.

A few months before I was was discharged, ready to return to Texas and enter the University of Texas, all the newspapers had a photo of a well dressed man sprawled on the pavement at the entrance to Capodichino airport where the US Naval Air Facility was located . . . and, incidentally,  just across the fence from Cupa Carbone and not far from my little apartment. In the photo he was being lifted into a plain wooden coffin. Someone had taken what looked like a cushion from a chair inside the airport lobby and thoughtfully placed it under the head and shoulders of the man who had collapsed and died. He was sixty-five years old.

As a gangly kid from Aransas Pass, Texas who knew nothing at all about gangster mobs, or for that matter, not about much of anything at all outside South Texas, it was one of many real life history lessons I got while living in bella Napoli.          

Aug. 9, 2011

"...I have not picked up either my alto or tenor saxes or my flute in a long time. When I quit playing second tenor with a local 16-piece big band in the late 1990's, I finally stopped playing for the first time since high school days in the 1950's. Played all the way through 4 years in the Navy including the almost three years in Napoli with our little six- piece pop band, "I Saraceni," with my Italian buddies including Corrado Cimmino whose family had a music and record store on Via Santa Brigida across from the entrance to the Galleria. I bought a tenor sax there, met Corrado who is my age and we formed the band and played gigs at the Circolo Calabrese, and spot gigged at the Sombrero Club which you may remember at Piazza Vittoria. It was a cozy walk-down piano bar in a corner building that fronted on the bay. Romano Mussolini was a regular and we all played together and even joined Romano playing at a private party in an incredible private apartment in one of the buildings at Piazza Bovio.

"Those connections greatly helped me learn decent Italian and ultimately I was emcee for a NATO variety act broadcast live on Silvio Noto's "Punto Contro Punto" out of the RAI studios in the Mostra d'Oltremare. That was really well received and we were asked to do a repeat performance as a fund raiser for the Vigili Urbani retirement fund which we did at the Teatro Politeama. This was the time Chubby Checker's "Twist" was the rage. We had a Country & Western segment with American kids square dancing with the cowboy garb and girls in long red dresses and I, skinny as a rail, wearing a fancy white Western style shirt and red bandanna around my neck, was a real novelty speaking in Italian, all carefully rehearsed show biz lines prepared by one of the friends in a group of intellectual young locals who had adopted me as their mascot... Orazio Orlando, who became a famous actor and died early in his life in the 1980's..."

Nov 21, 2011
Chestnuts

...This kind of weather brings back some powerful memories of moments in Napoli when I was 19 years old.

Do they still have the street vendors with the caldarroste being toasted over a barrel with hot coals in it and a wok-like steel bowl on top full of the red hot chestnuts with their shells starting to crack open?  I remember a thick piece of wet burlap over the top, and a pile of newspaper on the sidewalk that was used to create a large cone into which the red hot delights would be placed for customers.

The Fall weather was quite chilly in the evenings in 1959. I had just gotten paid, and taken a ride into town on the big gray US Navy Mercedes bus from the Naval Air Facility on the airport at Capodichino down to the central Piazza Municipio. The large sized Italian paper money was still being used and I had exchanged my dollars for a huge roll of the ornate and almost cloth-like bills that measured about seven inches high and eleven inches long.

Walking up to Piazza Trieste and Trento, I was delighted with a little old man, not much taller than the steel barrel that he was using as a stove, burning strips of wood all set up on a sidewalk. He was so engaging and almost gnome-like as he touted his caldarroste, or "hot roasteds" (that is what it sounded like, not sure of the spelling in dialect) all heaped in a large circular pan atop the coals in the barrel and covered with a damp square of burlap.

I wasn't quite sure what was in the pan but I told him I wanted some in my halting Italian, already with a Neapolitan accent. With a well practiced flourish, he, like a magician, pulled out a sheet of newspaper and in what seemed only one or two moves, produced the nice paper cone, filled it with lots of hot roasted chestnuts and rolled over the top to seal them in. He gestured that I should put the steamy packet inside my coat to keep me warm. I understood immediately and I gestured back pulling my coat tightly to me with my two forearms atop one another indicating "keeping warm." So much of daily communication in Naples is done without a word being spoken.

I whipped out a large cinquemila lire bill the size of half a tabloid newspaper sheet, which was a lot of dough I guess in 1959, rolled it into a cone and paid him with it thanking him, again in my halting Italian. He radiated such genuine surprise, happiness and gratitude for my largesse and a sense of exchanging mutual humor with this unusual tall, skinny American kid. This was among the early personal moments that lured me deeper and deeper into the heart and soul of Napoli.

[See this Miscellany link for a possible answer to Larry's original question..."Do they still have...?]  [and this update]

Feb 18, 2012 [This was inspired by the entry, Lo Guarracino.]


The Young Man and the Sea … or, Name that Fish!  by Larry Ray


For a nineteen-year-old, being stationed at the Naples, Italy, U.S. Naval Air Facility just a dozen or so years after the end of WWI was the the chance of a lifetime to learn a new language and burrow deeply into the mysterious soul of this ancient city. I quickly developed a fascination with the chaos, contradictions and daily street theater that is Naples. While many at the base used derisive names for the Italians and rarely got to know the city, every day brought me another magical discovery and the challenge to understand what I was seeing.

As a South Texan I already spoke decent Spanish and after a year of earnest effort my Italian, heavily mixed with snatches of the saucy local Neapolitan dialect I had included, had come along pretty well. Well enough to make many friends, to converse easily enough and to meet fascinating people like The Maestro. The year was 1961, and I had been in bella Napoli almost two years

Our lead petty officer was a lovable Irishman named Brophy and he had fallen genuinely in love with a local girl named Maria who also had a strong and utterly engaging personality. Maria was the daughter of a traditional Neapolitan family from the general Mergellina fishing community. The head of the family was a short, wiry, slightly stooped but always animated man whom everyone called ‘O Maestro and he had given his blessing to Brophy and Maria. The wedding was an affair to remember and it was at the reception, where the wine flowed freely, that ‘O Maestro and I hit it off splendidly. He thought it amazing that a tall skinny American kid was trying so hard to speak Italian and that so much of it was in dialect, and, according to him, fairly decently pronounced dialect. The Maestro was to become my tutor.

I was invited to come back and visit him and his warm and embracing wife any time I liked. The trip to their modest home was an adventure in itself. The Maestro lived above Naples’ fabled Mergellina harbor about a half mile or so up on the Posillipo cape that juts out and above the sea below.

I took a city bus to get to the Maestro’s home. As I neared the stop I always looked carefully for a large sign on a building proclaiming “Forno Elettrico.” I learned that it meant Electric Oven and the exquisite smell of baking bread was also a signal to get off at the next stop nearby. Diagonally across from the bus stop was a low stone wall with a tall metal spiked fence on top of it and nothing visible beyond it but the bay of Naples as it curved around all the way to Sorrento. A metal gate had a box with a number of buttons with names next to them. It was the first time I had seen this arrangement where you press a button and await a voice from a tinny speaker asking Chi è? If your voice was recognized after the “Who is it” challenge, a buzzing sound indicated the lock on the gate was being held open magnetically and you pushed on it and were in! If you pushed the wrong button, it was often a free lesson in colorful dialect.

Beyond the gate and low wall was a steep wide stone stairway leading down to the bay below. A patchwork hive of one and two story yellow stone block dwellings perched precariously on one another as they clung to the steep incline on each side of the stairs. The Maestro lived at the very bottom of the steps, and he and Mamma were on their narrow front stoop waiting as I arrived. Each visit to the Maestro over the coming months was as if it was the very first one, with enthusiastic greetings and a hearty invitation to come in and eat or have something to drink.

On the side of the Maestro’s building were steps that led down to the a small half moon of sand at the water’s edge where a half dozen wooden fishing skiffs were pulled up and nets strung out to dry. As I tried to tell the Maestro that I was raised in a small fishing community on the Gulf of Mexico in South Texas he looked puzzled, then finally understood. He was convinced Texas was all cowboys and Indians and learning that Texas had an ocean and fishing was an astounding revelation which delighted him. He clapped his hands and almost did a little dance at the water’s edge as he announced that I was going with him in his boat and he would teach me how fishing is really done. The next Saturday afternoon was agreed upon for my first fishing lesson and we went back up the steps for “a glass of wine.” My return bus trips from a visit to the Maestro are mostly a warm vino rosso blur, but I somehow always made it back to the base in time before they locked the gate.

On my first fishing trip, I learned lots of new words. The “Osteria” sign over the door of what looked like a tiny cafe on via Posillipo across from the gate to the Maestro’s house did not mean they served oysters on the half shell. Osteria means tavern, and this one was headquarters for the Maestro and his fellow fishing buddies who pulled out two chairs and invited us to join them. I quickly learned that most all fishing trips started or ended in the osteria. No oysters, but there was plenty of hearty red wine from the fertile slopes of nearby Vesuvius and hours of raucous unintelligible dialect. They all talked to me as if I was one of them. I learned quickly that a laugh, smile or just about any facial expression or hand gesture worked fine as a response, and easily kept me in the animated play of conversation. And little by little, being a natural mimic, I pieced together certain common expressions based upon what they were doing or the gestures they were using. It was a vino-blitzed Berlitz course and I was becoming one of the gang, no longer “that American,” but Lore’ pronounced ‘low-ray,’ the half pronounced diminutive for Lorenzo, Lawrence or just Larry in Italian. See how easy it is?

Later in the afternoon we went out in four boats and pulled gill nets that had been set out earlier. It was pretty slim pickings, and as I helped pull in and coil the net into the boat the Maestro would pull small fish free from the net webbing. Holding each one up as if it were a flash card, he would call out its name in dialect, then wait for me to repeat the name. “Percuóco . . .” he intoned as he held up a small yellow fish. “Pear-koo-oh/ko” I would reply. He would nod approvingly and giggle under his breath. Slowly I learned to recognize and remember the names of maybe a dozen common fish and crustaceans that I untangled from the net. I would name each one aloud in mangled dialect which was riotously entertaining to all the fishermen within earshot of our boat. But I was learning much more than the names of fish. Our friendship grew over time as I tagged along sometimes even at night to pull nets under the white hot hiss of a pressurized kerosine lantern on the bow of the boat.

Late one Fall afternoon we were not too far off shore, but in fairly deep water, and the Maestro began to quickly spool off several feet of heavy white twine wound around a wooden dowel. The nets had just about all been pulled in and the catch had included a decent number of squid, calamaro in Italian and calamaio in dialect. There was suddenly a quiet excitement among all the boats. The Maestro in a bare whisper said, “Look at this bella femmina” as he held up a medium sized squid just hauled in. “Chèsta e ‘mpanuto” the Maestro said excitedly. I understood it to mean “she’s loaded or full,” whatever that might mean. He motioned for me to come closer and watch. As he turned the squid over for a closer look up inside her long skirt he thrust it to me so I could see the clumped eggs visible inside. In an instant he passed a sail repair needle threaded with the twine through the thick top of the squid’s body, tied it in a stout loop and handed it to me, squid and twine.

“Now I will show you how to catch a big one” he told me conspiratorially. Then in broad gestures he indicated that I should carefully drop the squid into the water behind our slowly moving little boat and play out the twine a little at a time. I immediately felt that with all the other boats pretty close to ours, this was a rookie joke and that I was about to be had. But the Maestro was dead serious. The old master was teaching a fine technique to a young apprentice.

“Slowly now, but take an extra wrap of twine around your hand and be ready,” he prompted. He was so intense and wide eyed I was sure this was all grand theater for his buddies, and I was really going to look like a fool at any minute. Then suddenly it felt almost like the twine and trailing hot mama squid had snagged something. The Maestro moved back quickly to feel the tension on the line.

“Easy, and slowly now!” he whispered, indicating that I should start pulling in the ten or fifteen feet of line I had played out. “Here comes the punch line,” I thought, but I did just as he said, and carefully pulled in whatever suddenly had loaded up the twine. As I drew in the line I saw a large white something at the end of it as I pulled it closer to the boat. I was sure this was it. I was about to pull a large big white sack of some sort into the boat as the Maestro almost crooned “mo nu fatto nappoco . . easy, any moment now, then pull up and into the boat slowly, don’t stop!”

And as my hand neared the “white sack” on the line, I was stunned to see that it was a huge squid wrapped in what can only be described as an enraptured embrace as his tentacles tightly encircled the female squid. I had boated enough poorly hooked fish to know not to allow any slack, and in one steady up and around tug I brought the happy couple aboard. The Maestro was delighted and there were shouts of approval from the other boats.

It was the biggest squid I had seen, a male as long as my arm. And just as I had been told, he was attracted to the egg bearing female. “You did well.” the Maestro beamed as we headed back in. “Next time we will catch an even bigger one!” As we later gathered at the osteria for a glass or two all I could think about was getting anyone else to ever believe what I had just seen and done.

Then, all too soon it was time to leave my beloved Napoli to return stateside for discharge and then on to the University of Texas. I had been sure to get Maestro Salemme’s address and after returning I sent him and Mamma Texas postcards of all sorts including our large boat fleet in South Texas unloading shrimp and fish. I also sent several packages full of all sorts of hooks, sinkers and other fishing tackle to the Maestro. Brophy later contacted me saying nothing could have delighted the old gentleman more. Few things, fifty years later, have delighted me more than being adopted by the Maestro and his fishing buddies. Magical times that will be mine forever.

 ©Larry M Ray 2012


May 30, 2012
Agnano 

                          This is related to the item about the Grotto of the Dog in Agnano:

"This all puts the bits and pieces I have read over the years into perspective. I visited the Terme di Agnano with Licio some 17 years ago and other than the hotel and mud therapy building it was really run down, neglected and dirty. In fact a large open area to the West of the main building was being used by promoters who would set up a stage for rock concerts, attracting screaming kids.

"We walked back to the old baths which were large rectangular vats with shallow iron-red muddy water in them. Walking a short distance on beyond the old baths, water seemed to have pooled in places and from the cliff above the area, a pony tail of what looked like dark colored sewer water was falling to the ground below some 30 to 50 feet of filthy waterfall. I learned just recently, talking to Fulvio, that what I saw was part of the mineral-rich water belched up and out. It was typical of the sources that created the lake/swamp that was eventually drained in a series of wheel spoke canals draining into a center circular collection pond; from there, huge pumps sucked out the fetid and mineral-laden water sending it to a gravity flow down a tunneled shaft excavated from the ever reliable tuffo and thence into the bay in the Bagnoli-Pozzouli area. Fulvio said folks thought for years that it was a sewer dumping into the bay, but over many years folks learned it was state-sanctioned pollution containing a few dead swamp creatures . . . but no worse than the dead creatures dumped into the bay by the Camorra.

"Now, another tid-bit for you to find out. It always threw me when looking at a map of the Agnano area. The radiating drainage canals are very suggestive when seen on a map of the area, and my ignorance of the large lettering "BONIFICA DI AGNANO," which would have made it clear that it was a drainage area, didn't register with my evolving understanding if the Italian language.  [ed. note: "Bonifica" means reclamation.]

"I did know what 'sorgente' meant, spring or fount, so I had always been trying to understand why this "spring" was being sent off into the "distribution canals" The small blue "hub" from which a complex radiating system of straight lines as well as curving lines radiate is identified as "Sorgente d' Apollo," which is what caused my confusion ... hey, Apollo is providing all this great water from this spring and the canals are distributing it outward! (Of course, that is backwards from what was really going on.) 

"And to further confuse things, what must be the pump house to the left of the central pool is identified as "Tiro a Segno" which translates as "Shooting Gallery." So, any chance of finding out the ancient origins of the 'Sorgente d' Apollo' and why the pump house is called a shooting gallery?"


added June 2013   Comments on The Gallery by John Horne Burns (1947)

[editorial note: Larry's original comments on The Gallery were a reply to my comment that I didn't particularly care for the book. (My comments on the book are here.) Then, researching a book about Burns (published in May, 2013, as Dreadful, the short life and gay times of John Horne Burns), author David Margolick contacted me for research assistance. I sent him Larry's comments and the two of them entered into a private exchange. In Dreadful..., Margolick acknowledges Larry's views. --jm]


I also had read the book without really enjoying it because it was sluggish and, to me, sort of all over the place with Burns' descriptions and connection to the war at that point. While "The Gallery" was well received and earned critical acclaim at that time, looking back on his small body of work as a novelist, it is easy to see that "The Gallery" was full of fictional elaborations from Burns own tormented inner psyche. Going back and re-reading much of it makes this quite clear.

This is pointed out most clearly in the book's introduction by Paul Fussell who notes that, "after the war, Burns quit his teaching job and returned to Italy, where he set out to become (partly because of his drinking) the last of the romantics. This entailed his becoming a full time novelist. His satire of private school machinations, Lucifer with a Book (1949) was moderately successful, but A Cry of Children (1952) a melodramatic account of sadly mismatched lovers was a critical disaster. His third try, A stranger's Guise, was rejected by both his American and British publishers who did not scruple to invoke the term, trash, and explained 'In parts the writing is very careless; at times it slips over into the lurid and lush style of a woman's magazine'. This blow deeply depressed him and it was closely followed by a breakup of a homosexual love affair and a cerebral hemorrhage."

So it is easy to see his transplanted fantasies turned into the detailed dialog of tormented patrons in an imaginary gay bar in the Galleria during the war. Little of "The Gallery" is really great writing, but it would have been a real shocker back in 1947.

I have just gone back and re-read the chapter "Momma" in Burns' book, and, at best, his whole idea of Momma's bar might be a huge exaggeration of what might have been some casual meeting place in the Galleria for "cruising" by some homosexuals, but that would have not been a bar but more likely some dark seedy area like the archway and cortile that led to the old Il Mattino offices. And such contacts would have been fleeting ... and dangerous.

What is clear is that Momma and her bar, with a nightly crowd of very unlikely bisexual or gay soldiers and sailors in the middle of a war in 1944 is a complete fabrication.  Burns' creation of Momma's bar and the improbable military who gathered there is a total fiction, but he was, after all, writing a novel, not a historical document.

The detailed dialog and description of Momma's bar is more likely an extension of Burns' own deep personal interest in sexuality of all kinds, which he elaborates upon lyrically, throughout his book, notably in the last chapters. In the chapter, "Momma," he does not describe a specific location of her bar other than to say that it was in the Galleria. He does, however describe the opening of the porta a serranda and Momma walking in to start her short three evening hours of operation.

His description of the standard type of roll-up steel door, makes it clear that the bar was entered by simply walking right in from the Galleria main floor. There was no underground hideaway. Her clients clearly walked in and out in Burns' account. Military Police also walked right in to tell her to basically get rid of her gay military clientèle and the Italians who came in to hit on the Americans and vice-versa.

And all this open wild gay behavior could not have gone on "for years" because the Military Police would have rounded up all the Americans and hauled them away, and then would have immediately placed the bar off limits by military order. Burns, instead, has some beefy MP officer come in to warn Momma that she has to stop operating a gay bar or they would place it off limits. If the Military Police knew that it was a wild, open gay bar with American military as well as Italians cavorting inside, the place would have been shut down real fast shortly after it opened.

A close and critical reading of Burns' book and especially the "Momma" chapter makes it very clear that what Burns has done is to invent a wild, supposed secret, inside look at a hidden military gay culture. Critics reviewing his book lauded him for presenting this "unknown" look at this long hidden secret. Burns describes military enlisted men as well as officers who waltz into the bar, some described as wearing skin tight short pants and perfume and others grimy and sweaty, coming to the bar after from working on the docks.  A fine cast of characters but a setting, and a world in 1944 where this would not have been possible for any number of reasons.

Here are some points to consider in Naples, August, 1944:

Homosexuality in the US Military was strictly forbidden. Homosexuality was actually rooted out and uncovered by military secret intelligence officers. CID investigators worked undercover as enlisted crew members and routinely were sent to U.S. military bases in the USA and around the world as well as aboard U.S. navy ships to investigate and basically entrap suspected homosexual crew members who were identified in CID papers as" J-8's." In the US Navy, for instance, after being "outed" they were summarily placed into the ship's brig and brought before a court martial often resulting in a dishonorable discharge for what the military considered "the most reprehensible conduct."

When the ship made the next port call, the individual(s) were put ashore and sent home in disgrace, losing, in many States, the right to vote, loss all veteran's benefits and other civil rights. Getting employment with a dishonorable discharge was all but impossible. So all this detail should make it clear that soldiers and sailors, especially in WWII were not going to make their homosexuality known especially if they had done well and advanced in rank during wartime. They most certainly would not go to a public gay bar and flirt with one another and young Italian men ... with MP's standing outside the door.
 
One of Burns characters is a black second lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps who is characterized as making a grand, dramatic entrance into the bar in full gay glory. This has a real problem with credibility. First of all in WWII, Negros, as Blacks were called then, were considered inferior and for the most part served in segregated, all black units with white officers. A black officer would have been a real exception, and he would have had to have been an exemplary and strictly by-the-book individual. The improbability of a black second lieutenant who swishes gaily into a bar where MP's could look in at any moment is a huge stretch of the imagination.

I also have to question whether the other Italian tenants of the Galleria with their bars, shops and restaurants would have approved of or allowed a nightly orgy to go on inside Momma's bar. The "B-Drinking" bars where soldiers and sailors bought watered-down wine for female prostitutes was just fine because the girls took them somewhere outside the Galleria to have sex. But the religious and social exclusion of homosexuality in Italian society would have been very strong, it would seem. For such a bar to have continued on for even a year is not credible.

Finally, the whole idea that Momma's gay bar had become so famous among armies and navies around the world in a matter of a year or so as Burns claims is also sheer fantasy.

There are glaring errors and improbabilities in Burns' characters portrayed as clients of Momma's bar. Burns did do some impressive research in creating these characters, notably the closeted, momma's boy boxer who comes to the bar, and who had fought and won several bouts "in the Teatro delle Palme."

It so happens that I am very familiar with the theater just above via dei Mille on via Vetriera a Chiaia. I got to know the stage manager who gave me a real tour beneath the stage and all around and he proudly recalled the boxing ring set up on the large stage where "smokers" or boxing matches were held as entertainment for troops stationed in the Naples area in WWII. He proudly remembered when Rocky Marciano, a second generation American, whose mother was from Naples, fought in some of those matches. But once more, Burns' invention of a closeted prize fighter who hung out at Momma's and treated her like she was his own mother, is another real stretch of the imagination, or handily adapted, possibly from having attended one of the "smokers" at Teatro delle Palme.
©Larry M Ray 
added November 2013 

Comments on "Naples in the Nineties, a sequel to Naples in 1888" by Eustace Neville-Rolfe & Edmund Rolfe
These are a few comments by Larry on a fascinating book. Where I have deemed it necessary, I have put in a few editorial comments [in brackets and in bold-face smaller font [like this]. I have included a few links to other entries. Quotes from the book are indented and enclosed in standard quotation marks "like this."


I am thoroughly enjoying Naples in the Nineties, a sequel to Naples in 1888 by Eustace Neville-Rolfe written in 1897. He was British Consul for South Italy and has a fine writing style, and clearly was deeply involved with Napoli. His descriptions of the razing of the fondaci and how Corso Umberto was bringing Napoli slowly up to a new level as a major European City are full of intimate details including speculation about how the risanamento will affect life back up in the bassi:

[definitions: fondaci (singular-fondaco) were port-side warehouses sometimes serving as residences for merchants. They were common in maritime cities in Italy such as Genoa, Venice and Naples. Bassi (low) were dwellings in the old city that were at the basement level, below street level. They were small, crowded, unsanitary and one of the sources of the spread of cholera during the epidemics of the 1880s. The risanamento—see that link—was the urban renewal of Naples that started in the 1880s primarily to combat these conditions.]

    "We shall certainly miss the goats if ever they are abolished. They form a picturesque element, an incident one does not see in other towns, a little bit of local colouring not to be lightly thrown away. Nanny is a remarkably intelligent creature when she has been educated into town ways. Thousands of them troop into town morning and night, and are driven out to pasture again night and morning, on the hills in the neighbourhood. In any of the villages around you may see them in the afternoon (or in the morning if you are up early enough) trotting into the city, and when they arrive there breaking off into their own flocks without any confusion, and going their accustomed rounds, and when they reach a house where one of them has to be milked the others lie down on the pavement while the selected nanny marches sedately up the stairs with the goatherd, to be milked, and to descend again as a matter of course. A goat too has a great deal of character. It will not get out of the way of a bicycle, though it is far too sharp to be run over by a cab. It seems to know that the foot passenger and the wheelman are at its mercy, and it will not give place to them. Popular prejudice, which, in places where universal suffrage exists, is an amazingly powerful factor, is all on the side of the goats, for a Neapolitan must have his milk, and his faith in poor humanity is so slender that unless he sees it milked himself he does not care to become a purchaser. His idiomatic expression for extreme poverty is Passa la Vacca, ‘The cow goes by,’ meaning that he cannot afford to buy even a drink of milk."

On the British Cemetery, he has these details from back then:

    "Owing to the building of a new quarter at the eastern end of the town, the British cemetery was closed by the authorities three years ago, and is now surrounded with houses, the garden being kept up at the expense of the British community. A new piece of ground was given by the Municipality on the top of the hill near the Campo di Marte, the large military exercise-ground. The situation is beautiful, but the distance from the town renders it extremely inconvenient. The cemetery has been beautifully laid out, and in this country, where shrubs of considerable size can readily be moved, and grow freely afterwards, the cemetery will, like the old one, soon resemble a beautiful pleasure-ground. The Protestant cemetery is the property of the British Government, but Protestants of all nations are buried in it, adopting the rites of their own denominations."


[A new British cemetery was never actually built as described by Neville-Rolfe. "Campo di Marte," the area he mentions, is the site of the Santa Maria del Pianto cemetery in the Poggioreale area. That cemetery is on the side of the Pioggioreale hill below the Naples airport. The new British cemetery would have been located, as the author says, "on top of the hill," above the S.M. del Pianto cemetery. For various reasons, the land was used for other purposes and today is actually the site of the airport, itself.]

[Also see the third item, above, on this page.]


And some interesting detail about the elevator in the Grotta nuova [new tunnel] opened in 1884, which has always fascinated me after seeing the photo of the tunnel entrance with the huge painted sign "LIFT":  [photo, above. The church  is S. Maria di Piedigrotta. The photo is from a period postcard and not part of the book.]

    "On the top of this hill are numerous villa residences which people live in during the summer season, and it occurred to an astute Belgian that a readier means of access to these villas would be a godsend to their owners. He accordingly constructed a steam lift from the centre of the tunnel to the top of the hill, and by means of this one can go up to the Vomero on the hottest day of summer and be in the shade all the time. It was a bold venture and has been crowned with well- deserved success."

[Note that this was well before the construction of the Mergellina cable-car (1931), still the easiest way to get to the Posillipo ridge. Another cable-car, Chiaia, that takes you up to Vomero, is from 1889, about the same time as the elevator in question. See this link for more on the cable-cars.]

He then describes the calmer delights of the Vomero and evening approaching:

    "The colouring is altogether different here, for the sun is just sinking below the horizon. Nisida is in a glow of golden light; Ischia, Procida, and Vivara are in a glow of golden haze; the trawlers are beginning their night's work, the hand-liners [fishing boat] are rowing steadily home; and the last haul of the seine [fishing net] is making the black sand of Coroglio beach glitter with its myriad trophies of silvery mullet and anchovies. But night is upon us now, so we must put on our coats, for there is no twilight here, and allow the lift to land us in the tunnel, whence the prosaic tram will take us home."

A steam operated ascensore built by a Belgian and used to escape up to the shade of the Vomero. How nice to know more detail.

Jeff, this is loaded with great observations and descriptions like those above and has great illustration plates as well. Really fun to read.


added Sept 3, 2106 -              Remembering the 1980 Earthquake

Yesterday's earthquake in central Italy stirred a lot of memories in Naples. No damage here—too far south—but conversation turned to the devastating 1980 Irpinia quake. Friend Larry Ray, who has contributed to these pages here sent me this message yesterday. It is a reminder that disaster brings out the best and the worst in human behavior. You have heroic first responders and ordinary citizens who become heroic first responders, and you have...well...

    I arrived in Avellino a week after the 1980 quake and did a story for New Orleans Magazine told through the eyes of a young banker, Ciro De Lellis, in Avellino, moment by moment. The historic city center was now a crumbled pile of very old tuffo stone. Some walls remained standing at precarious angles, most everything was flattened. I took over money from the New Orleans Italian American Society and found a wonderful sprightly priest who had gotten a small tent city set up for mothers with infants. He really appreciated the money and I knew he would put it to good use rather than giving it to  some Mayor or official. He pointed out a milk truck making its way along the debris- laden road just above us. I told the priest to follow me, and we ran up and got the truck to stop. I asked if we could buy his load of milk for the kids and their mothers down in the camp.

    He was a young fellow and seemed receptive especially when I told him the money was donated by Italian families in the USA. We bought both shelves full of small cartons of whole milk on each side of the refrigerator truck for $250 which the Padre said was a helluva deal. The fellow carefully worked his way down in the truck to the camp which was set up on a large flat open area, probably an old football pitch. It was mid-morning, overcast and very cold. The truck driver, the Padre and I set up distribution lines right close to the tents and gleeful little kids and thankful mothers dashed out into the cold and loaded up with milk. The Padre later used the remaining cash to help dozens of families. Such memories.

[A few hours later, Larry added:]

    Ciro De Lellis died a few years ago but was well liked and is remembered in Avellino. I just banged out the old memory and left out the terribly slow rescue response and the shameful looting and thievery that was happening...in one pile of rubble there was a photo of just a woman's arm from a little below the wrist protruding from the rubble...and then a second photo someone grabbed of a man pulling off her ring and then dashing away.                (^to top)




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