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These 5 items appeared separately in other versions of Naples: Life, Death & Miracles on the dates indicated and have been consolidated onto a single page here.

entry Feb. 2003
Carnevale (1) 

carnevale collageToday is Mardi Gras. I was made aware of that yesterday when I noticed a couple of very young children parading around in pirate costumes in the middle of Piazza Plebiscito. It is strange that in a city that has taken to foreign celebrations such as Halloween, they don't go in much for a traditional Catholic holiday, here. (There are, however, smaller towns near Naples that have traditional festivities for carnevale, such as Avellino and Capua.) 

The only two cities in Italy with extravagant Rio–or New Orleans–like activities for carnevale are Viareggio—on the western coast of Italy as you move up the Ligurian coast past Livorno (quaintly known in English as "Leghorn") on the way to Genoa—and, of course, Venice. The only festival of that nature in Naples, I think, is the Festival of Piedigrotta on Sept. 8 and 9. I say "is," though "used to be" would be more like it. I don't recall ever seeing anything more than a perfunctory fireworks display, a far cry from the mile-long parade of floats, bands and outlandish bedizenment wending its way along the seaside public gardens to the Church of Piedigrotta years—decades—ago. The city keeps promising to revive it. Who knows. So, today, there were a few city-sponsored festivities around town, but nothing much. 

My single experience with the Carnival of Venice (besides listening to Rafael Mendez' splendid trumpet solo!) was a number of years ago. It was freezing and there was much too much over–amplified music pumped into the crowd by crazed DJs from a local Rock station. A friend wanted to go and visit the tomb of Igor Stravinsky located on the cemetery island of San Michele in the lagoon. There, while he was moping over the tomb of the maestro, I walked around and found a remarkable inscription on a tomb from 1888, which said, in essence, this: 

Rest in Peace, my Little Boy

We wished for you intensely, my beloved Nina and I. We had no son, but you were born lifeless, and your dear mother died, as well, giving birth to you, leaving me with five tender little girls.

I remember being struck by the enormity of it: this poor women had died trying to make up for her "failures" in producing nothing but girls. Her husband just had to have a son. 

It also reminded me of when I got married and moved to Naples. A young woman from a small town near Naples found out I was newly wed and said to me, "auguri e figli maschi"—"best wishes and male children". She was sincere, but it was one of those phrases that is well-rehearsed through practice, the traditional thing to say to newly-weds. Today, it has an olden ring to it, or at least it embodies the values of small southern towns, one of which values is (or was) the large family—preferably with a lot of strong male hands for farming. Having said that, it seems to me that whenever I pass through one of those places, I see an awful lot of women out working in the fields, or balancing heavy bundles on their heads as they walk along the roadside, or leading animals to pasture, so I'm not sure what all those strong male hands actually do. Maybe they're for wielding the traditional lupara—shotgun—though, again, I imagine women can be pretty good at that, too.

entry Feb. 2003
Carnevale (2) 

pulcinella in bronzeI see in the papers that 55.000  people have showed up in Venice for the beginning of carnevale, a celebration that will run through next Tuesday, Mardi Gras. 

How can this be?—I ask myself. Did I not identify last Tuesday, February 18, as Mardi Gras on the basis of seeing two young children parading around in pirate costumes? Indeed. There must be some mistake. Perhaps I was thinking in a different calendar. The Coptic Christian calendar, perhaps? That might be a way out, I think. I don't know, however, that there are many Copts in Naples. On the other hand, I do often walk by a small private club called the "Circolo Mare Rosso" (The Red Sea Club). Beneath that inscription is the equivalent name, written in a very strange alphabet that seems to be full of pitchforks and dyslexic versions of the letter J. Yes! That must be Coptic, the end-stage of ancient Egyptian, and now the liturgical language of a strong minority of Christians in Egypt, an overwhelmingly Moslem nation. I have somehow—just by walking by the place—picked up on their early celebration of the week before the beginning of Lent. I rush down to check it out. Oops. The sign proves to be in the Amharic language, written in what is called Ethiopian script, a derivation of the old Arabic alphabet. It really looks nothing like the Coptic script, I have to admit. 

Hmmm. Maybe I was thinking in the Neapolitan Revolutionary calendar from way back in 1799 when Neapolitan revolutionaries redid the entire calendar after the fashion of Revolutionary France: January was called "Rainy". I think February was called "Foggy". I am not sure of that one, but the potential for confusion with the Seven Dwarfs is obvious and certainly could have been no source of strength to the Republic. Besides, they were anti-clerical, so I don't suppose reactionary Christian holidays were even recognized in the calendar. That, too, is out. 

It can't be the Greek Orthodox calendar, because I don't know anything about that one, except that it uses the Julian Calendar instead of the Gregorian Calendar to calculate Easter, and, after dividing the vernal equinox by pi, they are bound to be a week or two off, just like me. I may just have to step up and forthrightly take responsibility for myself and blame my miscalculation on all on those little Revolutionary Orthodox Coptic kids running around Piazza Plebiscito last week. 

[In spite of all that, the Greek Orthodox faith has an interesting history in Naples. Click here.]

entry Feb 2013

(Feb 12) Of Confetti & Coriander. Today is Mardi Gras, the beginning of carnevale. (For earlier entries on that festival, see the items above this one). I take this opportunity merely to point out an interesting bit of language confusion. Most cultures that celebrate Mardi Gras usually get around at some point to throwing little colored bits of paper in the air or at one another all in good fun. Most languages use the Italian word, confetti, for these paper bits. It is true that the word is Italian, but it means something else. In modern Italian, confetti (plural of confetto) refers to the sugar-coated nuts (generally almonds) that are distributed on festive occasions, commonly on weddings. The tradition is medieval; apparently people used to throw the candies at the bride and groom and at each other, again all in good fun, of course. At weddings today, it is customary for the bride to pass out (no, not pass out, although you never know) hand out the candies to the guests.

The modern Italian word for those festive bits of colored paper, however, is coriandoli, from the coriander plant (seen in the image, right). The confusion probably arises from the fact that in the Middle Ages the coriander seed was originally used instead of almonds as the center of the sugar-coated candy. The confusion is increased by the fact that in the Middle Ages, people used almost any festive occasion to throw things at each other—candy, rice, oranges, rotten eggs, rocks, dwarfs, etc. In modern Italy, the manufacture of both confetti (candy) and coriandoli (paper bits) is still big-time business. All parts of the coriander plant are edible, and 100 g of coriander will provide you with 9400 IU of vitamin A, among many other nutritional benefits. Colored bits of paper are also edible.

(Feb 9 -2016) - Today is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Carnevale or whatever else you may call that grand celebratory Roman Catholic blowout before the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period of penitence before Easter. As noted in entries above, it is not that big of a deal in Naples (as penitence, itself, is not). To be sure, I'll wait until this evening to see if there are any masked celebrants (other than normal guys in ski-masks) out on the streets. But at least we got in one or two minor episodes. The other day, musicians from the San Carlo orchestra dressed up and invited local school children to do the same and come to the grand theater to be entertained for a few hours. They did a good job. A class act.

And having said that carnevale is not that important around here, I am happy to report that there is at least one town near Naples that has a relatively short but growing tradition of staging a yearly procession with floats, masks, carousing celebrants and all. That is the town of Saviano, located north of Mt. Vesuvius about 2 km SW of the town of Nola. They have been doing this since 1979 and it gets better known with each passing year. So we shall see. Their publicity poster for this year is shown on the left.

5.   Feb 8, 2017

The Death of Carnevale
Ash Wednesday by German artist, Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885).
It is not clear if the masked character of Harlequin is gloomy
because he is awaiting execution or because he will have to fast
during Lent! - the painting is in the Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart.

Besides the grand and well-known Mardi Gras processions of Rio, New Orleans, Venice, etc. small and very old celebrations still exist throughout Roman Catholic communities all over the world. Near Naples, for example, in some parts of the old historic section of Acerra they still preserve the ancient tradition of celebrating the “death” of Carnevale. On Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras, Martedi grasso), the funeral bier is set up in the center of the courtyard and a manikin of straw and rags, representing “Veceienzo Carnevale” (Vicenzo in conventional Neapolitan, Vincezo in Italian) is laid upon it, having died, according to tradition, from swallowing a meat ball too hastily! In the early afternoon, women gather around the “departed” and chant an ancient litany, a bizarre and ironic funeral lamentation: Oi Vecié, e ‘i si sapevo ca tu murive t’accerevo n'ata vallina. Uhé, gioia soia!  ("O, Vincent, if I had known you were going to die, I would have killed another hen for you. Hey! Joy be with you!") Note the “so-called” quote marks around “death” and “departed”. Carnevale has not really died, or better, he is to rise again.

There is much anthropological literature dedicated to the ritual of death in winter and resurrection in spring of King Carnevale (also Carnival), seen as the symbol of the god of agriculture. For example, The Golden Bough (1890) by Sir James George Frazier has lengthy sections on the religious motif of the dying-and-rising god and fertility rites connected with the yearly cycle of vegetation. Frazier draws parallels among various religious personages—Osiris, Adonis, Dionysus and Jesus. Indeed, very close to home, there is a Neapolitan 3-act comedy (1928) 'A morte 'e Carnevale (The Death of Carneval) by Raffaele Viviani. At the end of act I, Carnevale (in the person of Pasquale Capuozzi) dies but in act III he is found alive in his coffin, having been buried alive by overly eager undertakers! Or—he has come back to life. Take your choice.

Many Christian festivals, from Christmas through Easter coincide with earlier midwinter rituals of European folk culture and are “syncretistic”that is, they blend different traditions. The period of fasting during Lent, for example, is said to represent the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the desert. It was also a time of necessary fasting in earlier farming communities as foodstuffs ran out. Carnevale was the last big blowout—typically what is called a “reversal” festival where social and behavioral norms were altered, gender roles loosened, sexual desire satisfied, etc. You wore masks, all the better to hide your identity.

Image  from: Pulcinella, a Neapolitan rascal.
by Hetty Parl and  Otto van der Mieden.
 Eastern Art Company, Vorchten (NL) (1998)

Thus arose the glorious masks of the medieval Italian Commedia dell'arte. Traditional Neapolitan masks that crop up during Carnevale include the well-known Pulcinella (pictured, left); his lesser-known wife, Zeza; and the Vecchia (Old Woman) of the Carnevale (pictured, right). (This is a particularly weird dual maskapparently a figure of an old woman carrying Pulcinella piggy-back. The figure is ingeniously constructed; Pulcinella is really doing the carrying. His legs, hitched up and held by the woman, are fake and really part of the harness-supported papier-mȃché torso of the old woman. The legs moving below are of the actor playing Pulcinella.) It was a time of the year when the commoner could mock the nobility and get away with it. You went crazy for a while (depending on the area, the craziness might last for weeks—Mardi Gras was just the last day of the period); then you killed King Carnevale, then fasted while you awaited the coming of Spring (Easter), the return of light and the resurrection of the king.

Such rituals as the one in Acerra are by no means unique, but they are diminishing as rural life shrinks and urban population increases. If you live in the city, the trick is to look in individual quarters of the urban conglomerate. Modern Naples has a bit over 1 million persons, but there are hidden corners and small streets that used to be isolated and may still conceal such ancient cultural relics. You turn a corner during Mardi Gras—well, you never know.

Many thanks to Selene Salvi for reading this and making suggestions, as well as
for sending me the illustration of the
painting, Ash Wednesday.

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