Adolfo Narciso &
Remembrance of Things
of course, has its own version of the "good old days." I
was made painfully aware of that the other day when I
heard a young woman complaining that no one played the
great music of yesteryear anymore (ok, she was 22—maybe
she didn't say "yesteryear")—that is, the 1980s.
mother-in-law (requiescat in pace) was
born in 1905. She lived through two world wars, heard the
first radio broadcasts and lived to see TV transmissions
sent back from the orbit of Jupiter. For her, the good old
days were presumably the early 1930s; she was a young
woman, the Great War was long over, and cool minds would
surely prevail to prevent those things from ever happening
earlier: I am reading Napoli Scomparsa
(The Naples that has Vanished) by Adolfo Narciso. It was
published in 1928. The author was a well-known Neapolitan
journalist born in 1877 in the heart of the historic
center of Naples. As a lad, he was a postal messenger, a
failed actor and once at the age of 14 appeared on the
stage of the Caffè dei Mannesi in Naples
with another youngster, this one by the name of Enrico Caruso. Narciso gave up the stage and went into
journalism and did all right for himself. He died in 1948.
He, too, like my mother-in-law lived through two world
wars and saw a lot of history and saw his Naples undergo a
lot of changes.
To him, the good
old days were the turn of the century, when he was young
and full of energy. The Great War was not even on the
horizon; his nation of Italy was new and vibrant. His city
was in the midst of a great burst of urban renewal, the Risanamento; and he
could sit in the spanking new Galleria
Umberto (photo, right), sip coffee and talk
about—and maybe in some cases even with—
illustrious literati such as D'Annunzio
even then, the Naples that he knew as a boy was changing
and this is the source of his Napoli
Scomparsa. He doesn't regret the changes that
produced a new university, wide streets, modern
sanitation, but yet…the neighborhoods he wandered as a boy
were gone. Many of the changes were in fact dictated by
the Risanamento: old buildings torn down,
historic churches cut in half to make room for straight
roads; old Spanish fountains dismantled; public beaches
paved into ports—old haunts simply gone.
heart of the city was a street named via
del Porto, described as "…where
Corso Umberto now runs, starting at Piazza della Borsa and
running to the market at the port". He tells of sitting in
the old "Caffè del Commercio" there and listening to a
young man play the piano. Another brush with greatness.
The young man turned out to be Pietro Mascagni, the
composer of Cavalleria Rusticana.
Caffè dei Mannesi? ("Mannesi" were the
medieval cartwrights who had workshops in the area.) Yes,
I went to the location he dictates: "…the ancient via S. Biago del librai on the corner of via Duomo…" today to check. There was no
café. (I knew there wouldn't be, but I was still
disappointed.) I walked into the shop on the corner and
"Is this where the historic Caffè dei Mannesi used to be?"
"How long ago do you mean?" said she.
"About a century. You know—the 'good old days'."
weren't good for me," she smiled. "I wasn't born
Caffè dei Mannesi must have at least
survived the construction of via Duomo in 1880 for Narciso
to speak of it as being on the corner; yet, many buildings
in that area—known as Pendino—were simply cleared away.
This was Narciso's neighborhood, and he has a touching
story. He was a young boy when the devastating cholera
epidemics hit the city in the 1880s. He remembers people
simply dying in the streets. Other sources put the toll at
a staggering 7,000 per week (!) for a while. He speaks
very kindly of the politicians who put their lives at risk
to mingle with the people—including not only the prime
minister of Italy, but the king, himself(!)—Umberto
I (photo, left), still referred to in Italy today as il Re buono, the Good King. Narciso's
mother lay dying from cholera and the author recalls how
he ran up to the king on the street to plead for medicine.
The monarch stopped, had an aide jot down the address, and
within hours someone showed up at the home with medicine.
It was, as it turned out, too late, but Narciso never
forgot the episode: the king had not
one speaks of urban renewal in Naples, the focus is
naturally on the Risanamento. That period
ended officially in 1915 upon Italy's entry into WWI. Yet,
there was another period of urban renewal in the city
after Napoli Scomparsa was published (and
well before the forced rebuilding in the wake of WWII).
That was the Fascist renewal of the 1920s and 30. Large
sections of the city show the effect of that: the
passenger terminal at the port, the new post office, and
other huge bits of totalitarian
architecture meant to be imposing.
the time that Narciso published his book, he could still
wander down to a quaint area by the port, a small
secondary port called the porticciuolo. He could have a coffee and
reminisce about being on the same stage as Caruso once
upon a time. The little port had historic importance and
was the site of the old Portosalvo
church at water's edge and the old custom's station.
The Risanamento had left it intact,
bridging it with a new port road but leaving space beneath
the bridge for water exchange. Mussolini's megabuilders,
however, in their drive to expand the docks, filled in
this quaint but useless speck of water in the 1930s and
cut off that section of town from the water forever. I
passed by a building now known as the Zanzur Barracks
(so-called for the locale in Libya from which an Italian
military unit took its name after the Italian invasion of
Libya in the early 1900s). Although the building has not
moved, it is now about two blocks from the port, whereas
it used to be at water's edge. I almost walked by the
historical marker, but I stopped and read. I was at the
entrance to a much made-over building and "…all
that is left of the largest of three naval dockyards from
the time of the Anjou reign, built from 1305 on…"
14th century. Now those were
the good old days.