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The Story Singers of Naples

I came across an interesting essay by Benedetto Croce called I 'Rinaldi' o i Cantastorie di Napoli in his La Critica. Rivista di Letteratura, Storia e Filosofia [Journal of Literature, History and Philosophy], 34, 1936.  What follows is my translation plus an introduction and a few explanations for those who may know as little as I did before I started this. My comments are in square brackets and in a bold, smaller font than the surrounding text and are marked 'ed.note' [ed. note: Just like this!] For reasons of formatting, I have renumbered Croce's original footnotes and put them at the end of the entire essay in a smaller font.

[ed. note]: Introduction.  Rinaldi is the plural of Rinaldo, the Italian name for Renaud de Montauban, the fictional hero and knight in a 12th century epic poem in Old French.  The tale was popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Rinaldo is an important character in Italian Renaissance epics, including Orlando Innamorato by Boiardo and Orlando Furioso by Ariosto. In Neapolitan and Sicilian story telling, since much story telling has had to do with medieval chivalry, the name Rinaldo became the eponym for the itinerant story teller, himself, the cantastorie—lit. 'story singers'.  The story singer, the cantastorie is a 'Rinaldo'. Story tellers have been popular for thousands of year across all human cultures; importantly, this oral tradition before the age of literacy was the transmitter of culture down through the generations. The image, right, was not in the original Croce journal article. It is part of a collection of drawings of largely extint 19th-century professions. It is labelled Il Cantastorie, "C. Martorano inc." and "F.P. Diresse."]

The "Rinaldi" or the "Cantastorie" of Naples
by Benedetto Croce
transl. Jeff Matthews

The Neapolitan story-singers or "Rinaldi", the last heirs of those in the 1300s and 1400s who sang tales of knights and champions, were observed and studied by Rajna [ed. note: refers to Pio Ranja, 1847-1930, Italian scholar] a specialist in the history of the age of chivalry, in his visit to Naples. (1) There were three Rinaldi: one performed at the port [ed. note: at Molo Beverello], another at Porta Capuana, and the third at the Carmine castle. Of the three, the principal one, the most authoritative, was the Rinaldo at the port. His name was Cosimo Salvatore; it was his printed material that Rajna examined. Most of the material was attributed to an old blind sailor, Andrea Auriemma, who died around 1846.

The Rinaldo would recite with an open book in his right hand while he waved a baton—almost a scepter—with his left hand, perhaps reminiscent of the bow that his medieval predecessors used to accompany their tales with music. The beginning of the recitation conformed to ancient tradition, starting with a prayer in ottova rima [ed. note: a form of rhyming stanzas] and continuing with a traditional melody, sung with mime and gestures.

Within just a few years, however, those three had been reduced to only one if we can believe the witty dialect poet, Ferdinado Russo, who, in 1885, reworked the recitations of the Rinaldi into six sonnets entitled Gano 'e Maganza. (2) He says that "near the market at Porta Capuana, the cantastorie recite to the wide-eyed public the marvelous adventures of Rinaldo." The same Russo, in 1888, continued with forty new sonnets, saying in his introduction (3) that traditional customs such as the cantastorie were already things of the past. He adds: "You don't see Rinaldo down at the port anymore unless he is drawn in chalk, his sword raised high in the act of striking. Another has usurped his place, one who with a clucking, unpleasant voice reads the stories of don Ciccio Mastriani, i misteri di Napoli and il Campanello dei Luizzi." [ed. note: the reference is to Francesco Mastriani.]

For at least four centuries one story singer after another frequented these popular venues (4), but perhaps Giannbattista Vico was the first man of letters to turn his attention to the subject. He noted "men who still read Orlando furioso or innamorato or other rhymed romances to amuse the large, vile  crowds of idle people, and then after reciting each stanza, explain it all to them again in wordy prose." Vico related them to "the 'cyclic poets', ...idiots (uomini idioti) singing tales to the common folk gathered around on the day of the festival." (5)

[ed. note: Cyclic Poets were early Greek epic poets, approximate contemporaries of Homer, who collectively composed and orally transmitted the Epic Cycle, ancient Greek poems that related the story of the Trojan War. Aside from The Odyssey and The Iliad, the cyclic epics survive only in fragments.
As noted at Homer, Giambattista Vico was among the first to represent the view that The Iliad and The Odyssey were not only not written by one Homer, but not even by two, three or ten, but rather by the Greek people, themselves; these epics and others were written down only after generations of oral transmission. Vico applied the same principle to Biblical tales and the epics of religious literature in general. Also, Vico is not calling the cyclic poets and cantastorie idiots in the modern sense of the word; he is using "idiot" in the obsolete sense of unlettered or simple.  That is how "idiot" is used in the language of the Greek New Testament, for example (Acts 4.13; 1 Corinthians 14.16). It is usually translated as "unlearned".]

Later, in1783, Mario Pagano, a follower of Vico, used the same example to shed light on the excitement generated by the telling of these epic tales. "The Neapolitan masses are absolutely mad for tales of Orlando and Rinaldo, who managed to combine war, love, the fates and magic spells. They get so carried away that I remember defending one not too long who had killed a man who dared insult his hero, Rinaldo. Homer, Virgil and Tasso provoked passion, too, but not to those extremes." (6) It was the first mention of the maniacal emotion that gave rise to the term "patiti di Rinaldo" (patute 'e Renalde in dialect) [ed. note: fans of Rinaldo]: they could not only work themselves into a frenzy for a knife-fight but even fall to the ground in epileptic-like seizures. (7)

Interest in popular customs was great among travel writers of the 1700s and continued with even greater vigor into the age of Romanticism, such that the Neapolitan story singer was a common feature in almost any description
in both literature and art of popular life in Naples of the day. (8) I shall limit myself, here, to a single page of a rather rare book, Fragmens. Naples et Venise (Paris, Laisné, 1836). It was published anonymously but was actually written by the countess of Montaran (9); the work contains a lithograph image of the cantastorie.

"I move forward" she writes "into an attentive crowd surrounding a man shabbily dressed in a threadbare black coat. He recites, and his delivery sounds like that of our players of old. The battles, the feats of medieval chivalry, the enchanted princesses and wizards play an important role in his picturesque improvisations: then he repeats the verses of Tasso and Ariosto; lazzaroni listen drunk with pride because these are the songs of their national poets. [ed. note: lazzarone/i was a term for those of the lower classes. It comes from "Lazzarus." Today the term is an anachronism.] I watch the men with interest; usually brutal and indolent, here they are silent and attentive! The improviser moves them to tears, makes them jump for joy or swoon in terror and delight. Are there, then, in these souls, strings that still vibrate such as to produce emotions like these? Poetry speaks to them aloud. Poetry among some peoples was the daughter of Liberty; among others, she became the mother."... (10)

We note here that vivid recitation and passion for Rinaldo also provided the material for a beautiful noveletta by Di Giacomo.(11)

The cantastorie were not just actors; they were also poets, and some of our popular stories in verse, well familiar to scholars of popular poetry, can be traced back to them. (12) Not a few these tales, even the epic ones, were about banditry.

In around 1780 the name of the Rinaldo at the port was Minichiello or Domenico (13);
in 1794 we find the name of Nicola Bruno. I found an Istoria at the end of which—after Fine—we find "Composed for your consideration: Nicola Bruno, who sings Rinaldo."

The small pamphlet (only 4 pages) that contains that line is entitled, "A new history of a stupendous case involving the person of Tomaso Amato of Messina, who was heard to speak sacrilege in a loud voice while the priest was performing the sacred mass on the day of May 11, 1794. He was hanged on the 17th of the same month, this current year of 1794."

The case is well known and is also told by Colletta [ed note: refers to Pietro Colletta] and other historians. (14) On May 11, 1794, in the church of the Carmine, Amato, a lawyer from Messina, having worked his way to the front of a throng of the faithful to a point directly before the altar, started shouting, "I am a Jacobin [ed. note: supporter of the French revolution] for life. Long live the sacred French Assembly! Long live liberty!" and added curses and insults directed at God, the Virgin, the king and others. He was arrested, tried speedily and sentenced to death. Priests, brothers of the Bianchi [ed. note: religious order], and even the archbishop of Naples visited him and implored him to show some signs of contrition, all to no avail. Thus, energetically venting his opinions, he went to his death. This Amato from Messina might well have been the first to proclaim liberty in Italy, as well as the first martyr in that cause, had he not been simply a poor deranged fellow as even some of his judges suspected and which was clear to any thoughtful observer. Colletta says that a few days after the hasty execution, a letter arrived in Naples from general Danero, the governor of Messina, saying that "Amato suffered periodic bouts of madness and a short time ago escaped from an insane asylum." Evidently events in France caused this poor man's brain to boil over; no one knows how or why he wound up in Naples to wander the streets alone. But Caroline of Austria [ed. note: queen consort of Naples], a woman with no scruples or moral conscience whatsoever, but with the true instincts of a criminal, referred to Amato in a letter of May 13, 1793; she cynically wrote to  the ambassador, the Marquis di Gallo: "I am much obliged to him for mixing us in with divinity and religion."! (15)

This mixture then produced a bloody and dark manifestation of the Holy Faith in the coming years and gave rise to these lines of the cantastorie in the introduction (also repeated at the end) of his retelling of the episode:

Our lord, the king, rules
with his sons, with double honor,
together with our queen;
may divine grace save them all;
our eminent cardinal,
with ministers and Regent,
that they may defend
Jesus and the Holy Church.

We can draw some anecdotal details from this version of the episode: as Amato shouted before the altar, the first to react was a "captain from the customs station" by the name of Nicola Scuotto. He shouted "Long live Christian law!" and arrested Amato. Also, there are these details of Amato's final torment:

They finally got to the market place
with this unworthy, wicked man of
unworthy, traitorous words;
they didn't take off the shackles
and he went to his death like a beast
strung up by the hangman;
they cut off his head,
pulled out the tongue
and showed it around;
they cut off his hands
and threw them down;
then along with the body
they burned it all.
Out of spite and fear,
the ashes were strewn to the wind
and the people shouted with joy:
"Praise to God and justice."

You may find elsewhere in my writings (16) two other stories in verse composed in Naples about the events of those years: the first is from 1793 and is about the taking of Toulon and the Neapolitan troops that were present; the other is from 1795 and is about the battle of Capo Noli and the part it played in the defeat of the French fleet by the Neapolitan naval division commanded by Caracciolo. Perhaps these, too, were verses composed by some "Rinaldo."

(1) See his article: "I Rinaldi le cantastorie di Napoli", in Nuova antologia, 15 December 1878, pp. 557-79. ^up
(2) Gano 'e Maganza, costumi napoletani, sonetti. Naples, printed by Iride, I885. ^up
(3) Rinaldo, costumi napoletani, Naples, Pierro, 1888. ^up
(4) Apparently these recitations of epic adventure were introduced into Naples in the second half of the 1400s, at the time of Pontano, who, in his description of one performance, though he changed the language from medieval to ancient Roman, in the Antonius dialogue says that the  custom was a new one recently introduced from northern Italy. (" hoc quoque recens a Cisalpina Gallia allatum est.") ^up
(5) Scienza nuova seconda, 1. 111, sez. I, cap. VI (Nicolini edition, pp. 762-63). ^up
(6) "Del gusto e delle belle arti"(1753), cap. 16, in Opere, Naples, 1845, p. 303. Also, Vincenzo Cuoco, in his article from 1807, noted the close comparison drawn by Vico between the "cyclic poets" and the "rinaldists") Scritti vari, Cortese and Nicolini, 11, 260-62. ^up
(7) See, among others, Russo, in the cited preface to his Rinaldo. ^up
(8) For example, M. Lombardin, Napoli in miniatura (Naples, 1847), p. 295; or better yet, F. de Bourcardu, Usi e costumi di Napoli, vol. I (Naples, 1853) pp. 49-56. Both works have engravings of the cantastorie. ^up
(9) Barbier. Anonymes 3, II, 494. ^up
(10) Op. cit., pp. 167-68.  ^up
(11) Salvatore Di Giacomo. Novelle napoletane (ed. di Milano, Treves, 1914): the novella Per Rinaldo was certainly written before 1884. ^up
(12) Winspeare, Abusi feudali (Naples, 1811, note, pp. 107-08), speaks of these as having been written by "the 'cyclic' poets of the public square." ^up
(13) Croce. Teatri di Napoli 3, Bari, 1926, p. 249. ^up
(14) The most recent and best informed of these is Simioni, Le origini del risorgimento politico nell'Italia meridionale, II (Messina, 1929) pp.99-103. Note additional account told by an Englishman who was present in Naples at the time: N. Brooke, Voyage a Naples et en Toscane (French translation, Paris, Year VII), pp. 131-35. ^up
(15) Correspondance inédite de Marie-Caroline reine de Naples et de Sicile avec le Marquis de Gallo, ed. Weil-di-Somma (Paris 1911), II, 202-3. ^up
(16) Curiosità storiche, 2, Napoli, Ricciardi, 1922, pp. 133-5. ^up

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