In the select group of artists whom Italians refer to by first name only (Dante, Leonardo, Michelangelo) belongs the great Neapolitan actor and playwright Eduardo de Filippo (1900-1984). Eduardo wrote in Neapolitan dialect, which makes his works less accessible than they merit, but also gave him the advantage of a rich, authentic voice to portray his favorite subjects, the real Neapolitans of the "quartieri" ever engaged in a mundane war of attrition to survive, all the more ferocious for its regularity.
In 1931 Eduardo turned his talents to describing a few days in the life of the Cupiello family, set against the most venerable Neapolitan symbol of Christmas, the Presepe, the home-made table-top rendering of the Holy Family in the Manger. The three-act play Natale in Casa Cupiello (Christmas at the Cupiello's) is the story of the determination of one man, Luca Cupiello, the father of the family, to build his Presepe. In the relatively short time since it was first staged, Casa Cupiello has become the traditional Christmas favorite among Neapolitans.
First, there is the fact—crucial to understanding the inhabitants of Naples—that there is no let-up in the daily grind, even at Christmas. The family Cupiello is beleaguered by squabbles, petty theft within the family, a married daughter running off with her lover, a mooching brother-in-law and a layabout bum of a son, none of whom can understand how an adult would still want to fool with something as childish as a Presepe, and all of whom conspire to sidetrack Luca from this symbolic reenactment of the Nativity. Yet while the Cupiello family threatens to unravel right before our eyes, Luca builds his Presepe with the single-mindedness and faith implicit in Christ's admonition to "be as simple children…to enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
Eduardo's specialty is blending the tragic and comic. Donna Concetta, Luca's long-suffering wife, is seated alone at the living room table, desperate and alone in her knowledge that their daughter is about to leave her husband; at that moment the door from the kitchen opens and in come her husband, son and brother-in-law bearing their Christmas gifts to her. A few moments earlier they had been bickering and yammering like the Three Stooges over who was going to give her what gift; now they are The Three Wise Men, appearing suddenly and sublimely, surrounding Concetta and leaving her surrealistically suspended between tears and laughter and refocusing our attention on the things that really matter.
And just as "Merry Christmas"/ "Bah-Humbug" runs through Dickens' A Christmas Carol until Scrooge is finally redeemed into wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, in Casa Cupiello there is a similar call and response between the father and his son, Nennillo:
Father: "Do you like the Presepe".
At one point, Luca is frisking Nennillo's pockets for five missing lire. (Early on, it has been established that Nennillo, a spoiled brat, is light-fingered even to the point of filching and selling his uncle's shoes.) Luca finds the money but tries to blackmail his son into saying he likes the Presepe, after all. "No!" insists Nennillo, at which point Luca holds up the money for the entire family to see. As it turns out, Nennillo had, indeed, pilfered the money from his uncle, who had stolen it from Luca in the first place!
It is the son's "no" that has to be changed, redeemed by play's end. Luca has finally built his Presepe, but has suffered a stroke and is obviously dying. His last question to his son is the same: "Do you like the Presepe?" His son, moved by his father's passion and by his own compassion, the most Christian of all qualities, says "yes" to his father and to the Presepe at the same time.
Eduardo's stage directions have Luca hearing the whispered "Yes" and then looking slowly off into the distance where he imagines a Presepe as great as the world itself, with real people rushing to the side of the real Christ Child. Lost in his vision, he utters the final words of the play:
"What a beautiful Presepe. How
This terracotta Nativity scene is
part of the display in
the Bavarian National Museum in Munich, Germany. It
was crafted by Giuseppe Sanmartino, the same artist
who sculpted the Veiled Christ in the Sansevero
Chapel in Naples.
The Nativity scene, or Christmas Crib, (Presepe, in Italian) on permanent display at the museum of San Martino in Naples has been recently restored and is the finest example in the world of how the building of these tableaux had developed to a craft and an art by the 18th century in Naples.
Unlike the Cross, which to
Christians stands for redemption and salvation, or even
the evergreen tree, which by its very nature symbolizes
that which is unchanging, the presepe really isn't a
symbol—it "means" exactly what you see: the birth of
Christ. It fulfills a deeply felt need even from the
earliest times to tell and hear stories of the Holy
Family, to recreate each year anew the eternal message of
Popular Christian tradition says that St. Francis of Assisi started the custom of remembering Christmas through a tableau of Mary, Joseph and others around the manger crib of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem, but the tradition is certainly much older than that. Pilgrims to the grotto chapel of Bethlehem in the early centuries of Christianity spoke of decorative representations depicting the first Christmas, and as early as the seventh century, relics said to have been part of the manger in Bethlehem were transferred to Rome to the Domus Sancta Dei Genetricis—the House of the Holy Mother of God. The Domus came to be known as the Praesepe (crib) and in modern Italian is presepe or presepio. Long before St. Francis there were elaborate Latin Liturgical dramas with actors, dialogue and music. These productions were so theatrical that Pope Innocent III denounced them in 1207 on the grounds that they threatened the sanctity of ancient traditions.
This is where St. Francis
comes in. He got permission from Innocent to set up a presepe in 1223 in
the town of Greccio in order to celebrate Christmas in his
own way—simply. Thomas of Celano, a biographer of St.
Francis tells how "Greccio was transformed into a second
Bethlehem, and that wonderful night seemed like the
fullest day to both man and beast for the joy they felt at
the renewing of the mystery." There was no music, no
liturgical drama—just the Crib, and Francis preaching and
restoring simplicity and tenderness to the tale of the
birth of the Saviour.
During the Renaissance, religious plays returned, but they were no longer Latin Liturgical dramas. They were now transformed by local customs and language; once again, almost as if to reject the simplicity of the Miracle, the manger was incorporated into elaborate Nativity Plays with stage managers, sets designed by prominent artists, ever greater numbers of actors and increasingly ambitious plots involving fire-belching devils and legions of angels and shepherds. All this was staged, of course, in church. Productions of this nature were clearly out of place, not the least reason for which was that various incendiary special effects actually burned down a number of churches. Again the plays disappeared, this time for good. But the tradition of the Christmas Crib, itself, from that time to this, has remained.
There are as many different kinds of Cribs as there are places where Christmas is celebrated. Some of them use life-size figures and some even real animals and people to recreate the stable in Bethlehem; in some areas, shepherds bring gifts of cloth from Flanders or grapes from Burgundy; in Tuscany the shepherds and their dogs have names and they bring wood and cheeses and chestnuts; there are mechanical clockwork cribs from Dresden and ones that school children craft from simple cardboard and paper-maché; there are Chinese cribs and ones sculpted elegantly out of ebony in the Congo; they have been modeled in rustic clay and elegant porcelain; they have been ornate tableaux in Baroque churches and simple two-dimensional cut-outs propped up on suburban lawns.
The tradition of the presepe in Naples is
special. By the eighteenth century the city is said to
have had 400 such displays in its churches and many more
in private homes, as well. The King supervised the
building of his own presepe and the whole court was kept
busy in the days leading up to Christmas. (Tradition
requires that the scene be built up over time, little by
little, until on Christmas Eve, the Christ Child is put in
the manger as the very last element of the display.) Even
the royal presepe, however, could not have compared to the
one to be seen at the museum of San Martino. The thousands
of figures in the main presepe and secondary display cases
are all original, having been gathered from those made by
craftsmen of that period who specialized in such Nativity
scenes. They introduced the use of bodies of cloth wound
on wire, with feet, hands and head exquisitely modeled and
The Manger, itself, is at
the center and is overarched by a host of angels
suspended from the ceiling. The three Wise Men,
accompanied by an incredible entourage, have proceeded to
the site of the Birth through a typically local
countryside, one peopled by shepherds and musicians,
salesmen displaying their goods, minstrels playing and
guests eating and drinking at an inn where every variety
of macaroni and fish, meat, sausages, fruits and wines
from the Neapolitan countryside are on display. There is
exquisite detail on all the faces of all the figures; the
construction of even the tiny musical instruments is
accurate; and even the faces of the animals are
painstakingly curious or grave or sleepy.
While the birth of Christ means much the same to Christians all over the world, the faithful everywhere blend Christmas with their own peculiar characteristics. To see what this means in Naples, one has to go beyond the traditional nativity tableau, the presepe; and beyond the benevolent old crone, the befana, who brings gifts on the eve of the twelfth day of Christmas; and beyond the plaintive wailing of the traditional Neapolitan Christmas musical instruments, the zampogna (bagpipe) and ciaramella (folk oboe).
Music, however, may give us a clue as to just what we are looking for. Much Neapolitan folk music shifts strangely between major and minor, thus lending to a single melody both joy and melancholy. It is as if the music, itself, had mixed emotions about life. A number of Neapolitan authors have written about this tragic-comic ambivalence, this sorrow in the midst of joy, and they express it poignantly when they write about Christmas.
The play Natale in Casa Cupiello (Christmas at the Cupiello's, see above) by the great Neapolitan playwright, Eduardo de Filippo is about a man obsessed with building his presepe. As one silly and outrageous domestic crisis after another whirls on around him, it is his symbolic reenactment of the Nativity that refocuses the love that inheres in his family on the values that matter. He dies at the end, but his presepe has done what it was supposed to, and his last vision in this life is that of the entire world as a gigantic nativity scene, a stage for universal love.
There is another tale, similarly touching, and typically Neapolitan in its rendering of the light-hearted and the mournful at the same time. It is called, simply, La Mostra (The Display). It is one of an exquisite collection of tales about Naples by Giuseppe Marotta, called L'Oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples) in which the precious metal is a metaphor of those moments that give value to all of our lives, but, perhaps, particularly to the lives of the troubled. [The quoted material, below, is my translation.]
Naples," says the author, "is the longest holiday of the
year." The nights before Christmas, he says, start in late
…with the first shutters banging in the wind, and beneath the moist moon of the warm night breezes there suddenly slips in that cold glass-like chill, stripping clean the stars and mountains… The true clear air, kept young by the wind at God's bidding, the empty spaces between the stars spreading wide to receive the prayers from the streets below or to permit the passage of the comet of Annunciation… and the braciere , that tiny coal-fired brass fireplace with a smooth soft rim to rest your feet on, full of glowing embers to make you pensive.
La Mostra is
about the fruit vendor Aniello Scala and his wife
Concetta. Aniello is a gaunt man, frail and sick from the
consumption that has beset him for years. Once, he was
actually dying, but just as the last rites were to be
administered he suddenly sat up, "declared that he was in
no hurry and asked for a plate of stringbeans and tomato"!
He then married young Concetta and from that time to this
he has been obsessed with his yearly ritual of building a
magnificent display of Christmas fruit!
…the explosive red apples… the blonde figs streaked with white, sensuous and ripe …the display knew no limits, it just poured out of the shop and kept going, winding up wherever it wound up. It was like an amphitheater with its rows of figs, pomegranates, oranges, its podium of melon, prickly pear cactus and pineapple, the imperial tribune of tangerines, berries and apples. Or perhaps it was a temple, a great altar of medlar and pear, the naves of chestnut and columns of fig and grape, unto which sacred offerings of dates and bananas are brought.… Day after day he would unload baskets in his shop, then work on the essential nucleus of the display, the tentacles of which would eventually branch out and meander over the threshold and out into the alleyway…
He is as obsessive about it
as Cupiello is about the presepe in Eduardo's story. His
fruit is full of —is— life, the new Christian life
of faith as well as the sweet freshness of life which he
knows no longer dwells within his own body, and perhaps
even the life which he is about to 'give' to —and for— his
wife in a very unusual fashion.
It was what he lived for and it had sustained him even in those moments when they had lost their four children with tragic regularity…
Here, then, is the tragedy
in the midst of an overblown comic description of mounds
of fruit spilling out the doors: the loss of their
children. Now the tragedy spools out:
Concetta loved don Aniello. You couldn't put up with those tiny sounds of body joints cracking in a sick husband in a marriage bed (and sounding like knuckles knocking on a wooden coffin) without loving him. She loved his irrevocable will to live; it was his most human and yet masculine quality. She continued to love him for that until the moment the white cart came once again and bore away their fourth child. Then she started acting strangely: she refused to mourn, she cut out a picture of a tabby cat and kept it under her pillow, she took off her wedding ring and put it beneath her statue of Sant'Antonio, and she grew silent…
...But she helped him prepare the lights and the coal braciere… When the alley was asleep, Don Aniello sent his wife to bed, lit the lamps and chose a strategic place from which he could keep his eye on the furthermost basket. Then he settled in to hold vigil over his creation…
The almost surreal weave of
fruit and lost children is tied in to the final… what…
tragedy? Maybe. Maybe not.
Don Aniello felt the sharp cold and thought that perhaps his wife had kicked off her covers in her sleep. Should he check? Instead, he drifted back into thoughts of his lost children. The braciere gave off a long sweet warmth like that of a loved one's cheek. It was made for father and children to huddle around, to draw close and whisper. How old would they be by now? he asked himself. Then, suddenly and without putting his shoes back on, he got up. In the alleyway the moon was bright and silent. As barefoot as the moon and just as ghostlike, this best of all fruit vendors went to assure himself that donna Concetta was indeed covered… his suspicions were confirmed: the other person, whoever he was, saved himself by going out the window into the courtyard. Don Aniello didn't stay long, but rested a while on the edge of the bed gathering strength to leave.
This normally comic
of the cuckold husband is sudden and totally unexpected
here, as is the compassionate treatment it receives, for
Aniello knows his wife's tragedy.
That's the reason you took off your wedding ring. Don't be afraid. I know what you need and you know that I know. A child that will stay. One that will live......He went back downstairs… He was caught for a moment in the light that shone on the impeccable banks of fruit. Here a tower of violet apples, there a parapet of rusty apples, the same sad colour of Don Aniello Scala's thoughts at the moment. It was a magnificent Christmas display, one that people would talk about for a long time to come… But one cannot ask more from one poor fragment of a lung than it can give. Don Aniello rests his feet on the braciere. He nods and drifts off —if that's what it is. In the magical nights before Christmas in Naples everything is possible. The best part of Don Aniello Scala knows where it must go and goes. His memorable display of fruit leaves the shop and follows him.
One might accept this
tale with fatalist resignation to the fact that in the
midst of joy there must be sorrow, and in the midst of
life, death —even at Christmas. On the other hand, it
takes only the slightest shift in perspective to welcome
it, as do Neapolitans, as a proclamation of the message
that in sorrow there is still joy, and in death, life
—especially at Christmas.
4. The Zampogna (Neapolitan Bagpipes)
To some, its reedy and strident discords are a rallying cry heard o'er the din of even the fiercest battle. To others, it sounds like hell—quite literally, for according to popular legend hereabouts, it is the instrument closest to the devil's heart, if one may at all attribute such a goody-goody organ to the Big Bad One. It is the instrument played at secret times and secret places during the "tregenda magica", the Witches' Sabbath. To yet others, undoubtedly those with no ear for tradition or the supernatural, it is the sweetest music this side of an aerobics class for asthmatic mynah birds.
"It" in English is the
bagpipe; in German, the Dudelsack, in Italian, the
cornamusa, and in Neapolitan it is called the zampogna.
Its construction has stayed basically the same over
thousands of years and in various cultures: it is
characterized by an air-bladder filled either by a bellows
held under the player's arm or, more commonly, directly by
the player blowing into it through a tube-like mouthpiece.
The air-bag serves as a constant reservoir of air,
avoiding any interruption of the tone by the player having
to take a breath. The air then streams out through a main
reed-pipe called a "chanter" that has fingering holes
enabling a melody to be played, and also through at least
two other secondary reed-pipes which play single
accompanying drone notes. The pipes normally have
double-reeds, giving the instrument its uniquely nasal
Whatever the sound of
bagpipes may mean in other cultures, in Naples the
zampogna and its companion, the ciaramella
(a double-reed oboe-like instrument), mean Christmas. For
centuries it has been the custom for shepherds to come in
from the countryside at Christmastide and wander the
streets of the city playing seasonal music, often going
from house to house and being invited in to play. Times
change and over the last few decades Christmas has been
dulled by commercial anesthesia, a tinsel hype that bids
us to hurry because there are only two-hundred and twelve
shopping days left. The Neapolitan version of this is that
instead of playing for the "novena", the traditional
preparatory period of nine days before Christmas, the
zampogna and ciaramella seem to show up a little earlier
each year, turning the season into just another excuse for
busking. Some years they are out so early that they look
like lost druids looking for a midsummer's festival.