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Francesco Mastriani (1819-1891)

—was a journalist, playwright, and one of the most popular Neapolitan writers of the nineteenth century in the light literary style defined by the French term feuilleton. Today, he is best remembered for I Vermi (The Worms) from 1863-64 (pub. Luigi Gargiulo. Naples. Republished in 1994 by Torre, Naples.) The subtitle of the book is Studi storici sulle classi pericolose in Napoli (Historical Studies of the Dangerous Classes in Naples). The appellation “vermi” is the author’s neologism and attempt to render in Italian the French of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables; that is, a description of the Neapolitan underclass, the Lumpenproletariat. The book (published originally in installments in the feuilleton custom of the day) is a collection of about 50 vignettes and episodes in the lives of Les Miserables of the Naples of his day. It is one of the founding works of realism in southern Italian literature.

Mastriani’s diligence as a bookworm is legendary; at a young age he worked his way through a 400-volume collection of great literature in Italian, French, Spanish and English and then started to study classical Greek and German. He started to study medicine, gave that up, went to work as a customs inspector and supplemented his income by giving language lessons and serving as a tour guide around Naples for foreigners. The great Neapolitan author, Matilde Serao, commented on his passing that he had admirably stayed out of the academic and artistic circles of his day. He simply wrote. By one count, he produced about 900 items—shorter pieces for newspapers, but also some plays, over 100 novels, and even a funeral oration on the death of Victor Emanuel II, the first king of united Italy.  In the 1850s, he was also the editor of the government journal, Giornale delle Due Sicilie (Journal of the Two Sicilies).

In spite of admiration from many quarters, including Serao and many foreigners (some of whom saw him as an early Neapolitan socialist), his reputation stagnated after his death and only recently has had some revival with the republication of some of his works. Benedetto Croce said of him that “everybody read him except the literati.” As a comparison, perhaps Dickens comes to mind.

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