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Everything is related to Naples

Number 106 in this series. Link to all items here.

The Song is Ended, but the Architrave Lingers On.

As an ex-musician who never made nearly the money I deserved, I am pleased to note evidence of at least one local musician who made it really big and then was not shy about mouthing off about it. Above the entrance to his home is still inscribed:

AMPHYON THEBAS EGO DOMUM A.D. MDCCLIV

The musician in question is Gaetano Majorano (1710-1783) [standard Italian spelling is "Maiorano"], the great castrato mezzo-soprano known as "Caffarelli" from the 18th century, when the altered male voice ruled the operatic stage. The residence in question is at via Carlo de Cesare 15 (photo), at the south end of the Spanish Quarter, just a few minutes walk from the San Carlo opera house. The inscription is a rather synthetic way of saying "Amphion is to Thebes as I am to my home. 1754."

Majorano was born in Bitonto, near Bari, and studied in Naples. He sang in Naples for some 20 years and was widely regarded as one of the great voices of his day. He appeared elsewhere in Italy and abroad, as well. He was known for being surly, temperamental, rude and, later in life, generous and polite. Go figure. Both the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni and the great librettist Metastasio mention him in their memoirs and letters as being a wondrous and obnoxious talent. After singing for Louis XV in Versailles once, he was rewarded by the monarch with an ornate snuff box. Majorano complained to the royal gift-bearing messenger that there was no picture of the king on the box. The messenger told Caffarelli that those were only for ambassadors. "Well, then," said the singer, "have His Majesty get ambassadors to sing for him." He was arrested once for sitting in the audience and shouting insults to singers on the stage.  He apparently mellowed enough later in life to be offered the directorship of San Carlo, which he refused.


Majorano amassed enough wealth to buy an estate nearer to his birthplace farther south and also to build a beautiful home in Naples at the address mentioned above. The building was apparently designed by Sanfelice, one of the noted architects of the day. The inscription recalls the Greek myth of the twins Amphion and Zethus at work to build Thebes. While Zethus, a hunter, had to grunt and struggle to lift stones into place for the city wall, Amphion, using the golden lyre given to him by Hermes, played and sang so sweetly that the stones lifted themselves and slid into place. In modern terminology, he had real chops. And so did Majorano, apparently: "Just as Amphion built Thebes with his great musical skill, so have I built my home with mine."

There are a few stories about the inscription. Apparently, Leopold Mozart took his son, Wolfie, over to the house in 1770 when they were on tour in Naples. Father explained the mythology to son and also held Caffarelli up as an example of what kind of money you could really make as a musician. (Obviously, the lecture didn't take.) Another story claims that the inscription was at some point during the singer's lifetime defaced with graffiti that read "Ille cum, tu sine" (He with, you without), referring to somethinga couple of things, reallythat Amphyon had, but Caffarelli no longer had. Some sources think the graffiti must have been put there by a clever Neapolitan scugnizzo—street kid. That's not too likely, since those kids couldn't (and still can't) be depended on to handle a simple phrase in Italian, much less Latin. It was probably a jealous rival.

Now, if only I could make some money with my instrumentum computatorium on the tela totius terrae, I could come up with something similar.


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Many thanks to Knud Posborg for reminding me of this place.


[For related items, see the general entry on Castrati and Farinelli.]

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