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Benedetto Croce’s essay on:
"The Conservatory of the Poor of Jesus Christ and the Legend of Pergolese" *1
—in Napoli Nobilissima
Vol. 5 n. 3 (1896), pp. 33-36.
Modern sources generally confirm the scarcity of knowledge about the private life of composer G.B. Pergolesi (1710-36) and dismiss some of the tales surrounding him as anecdotal. One story in particular, that of a love affair and a possible ulterior explanation for Pergolesi’s untimely death, was first "debunked" (or at least heavily criticized for its lack of verifiable details) by Croce in his essay in Napoli Nobilissima in 1896, “The Conservatory of the Poor of Jesus Christ and the Legend of Pegolese.”
Croce recalls the location of the conservatory on via dei Tribunali,
across from the church of the Gerolomini, and near n. 103,
a building once frequented by Torquato Tasso, and also
near n. 112, the home of Giambattista Vico, who lived
there with his “illiterate consort,” Teresa Destito. The
ex-conservatory is now the Genovese Lyceum and was also
formerly a seminary. Croce notes that the conservatory
produced the “gloria
suprema...Giambattista Pergolese.” *2
The “external” story of the conservatory, says Croce—i.e. the history of the building, itself—is well-known thanks to D’Engenio, Celano, and, a few years earlier than this essay, De Blasiis. Croce sums up the known history: Around 1590, a period when Naples was especially hard-hit by recent famine, Marcello Fossataro, a Franciscan hermit, from Nicotera began providing shelter to homeless children, supporting them and himself with donations. This provoked opposition from those who ran the other two shelters in Naples: S. Maria di Loreto and the Madonna della Pieta dei Turchini, who feared that Fossataro was cutting into their own donations by opening a third conservatory. Fossataro joined his shelter to the conservatory of the Turchini for a while; then, unhappy with that, he appealed to the Pope in 1596 to open his own conservatory. It was approved and the conservatory opened independently in 1596 as the Pauperum Jesu Christi Archiepiscopale Collegium. Children from 7 to 11 years of age were taken in and were given instruction in religion and the “mechanical arts” [Croce’s term], “grammar” (meaning reading and writing) and singing. At first there were two instructors. Musical instruction increased greatly in the course of the 1600s and by the mid-1600s Celano could comment on the excellent results.*3 Croce describes the uniforms the children wore and notes that the conservatory was under the auspices of the archbishop of Naples through an appointed cleric.
In the early 1700s there were the first signs of trouble: discipline was disrupted and a number of students were expelled. For this and a number of other reasons, archbishop Spinelli closed the conservatory in1744. The church had been rebuilt in 1715 and now became an annex of the church of Santa Maria della Colonna.
Then comes the main point of Croce’s essay: though the “external” history of the conservatory is known, the “internal” one of this and the other music conservatories of Naples is obscure and the situation has not at all been helped by Florimo's well-known history of these institutions.*4
Croce complains that there is really very little by Florimo about how music was actually taught and what went on musically within the conservatories. Simply listing which musicians taught at which conservatories, as Florimo does, tells you as little about the music as a list of scientists and the schools where they studied or taught tells you about science. You need an approach that is less superficial and “external,” one that relates the subject matter to the world around it. Thus, from Florimo all we get is an impressive list of all the great names associated with the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Christo, including Pergolesi, Provenzale, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Francesco Durante, Leonardo Vinci, etc. etc.
Even here, when it comes to the simple biographies of musicians, Croce says that Florimo has a tendency simply to repeat what has been handed down orally and present it uncritically as historical fact. In particular, Croce is referring to the episode of Pergolesi and his supposed love affair with Maria Spinelli.
The episode that has passed down can be easily summarized: Pergolesi gives musical instruction to the young Maria Spinelli, daughter of Neapolitan nobility; then, teacher and student fall in love; then, Maria’s brothers show up and tell her they will kill Pergolesi unless she marries someone worthy of her station in life. She, instead, decides to go into a convent, asking only that music for the mass when she takes the vows be directed by Pergolesi. She dies one year later in 1735 in the Santa Chiara convent. Pergolesi directs the funeral mass. One year, later, Pergolese dies of a broken heart.
Croce asks, What is this whole story based on? There is very little documentation on Pergolesi’s short life and career. We know that he was 26 years old when he died of “phthisis” [tuberculosis] in Pozzuoli on 16 March, 1736. And we know that he wasn’t widely recognized until after his death. (There follow some quotes from various sources praising Pergolesi shortly after his death.) But we know nothing about his character or private, intimate life. Only a single biographer early in this century makes reference to an ulterior incident that may have led to Pergolesi’s early demise.*5
The Marchese di Villarosa, who investigated the life of Pergolesi more thoroughly than any other, says Croce, has established the composer’s correct name, origin, age and other particulars; he even printed in 1843 his Lettera biografica intorno alla patria ed alla vita di Giov. Battista Pergolese —and he has never heard of the love affair with Maria Spinelli. Also, twenty years later, Fétis, in his entry on Pergolesi never heard of it, either. *6
Croce admits he doesn’t know anything about the play, Giambattista Pergolese, by Gennaro Bolognese, performed in 1853 or 1854, but says that it must have given some ideas to Saverio Baldacchini, whose 1858 book of verse (printed in Naples), Ripose ed ombre, contains the tale of Rosaura (a thinly disguised Maria Spinelli).*7
Croce says he has not been able to pin down how the story of the love affair started gaining acceptance in literary circles but thinks it must have started in one of the many literary magazines in Naples in the 1830s, the readership of which seemed to enjoy such material.
In any event, the whole thing was presented as fact by Florimo in his 1869 work, saying that Pergolese was a victim of an unhappy love and that he [Florimo] was telling the story as he “transcribed it” from “private papers,” to wit, a family chronicle shown him by the prince of Colubrano.
Wait a minute, says Croce—“I catalogued Colubrano’s papers and that chronicle wasn’t there.” Nor has Colubrano’s heir, the duke of Maddaloni, whom Croce interviewed, ever heard of it. Florimo’s citation even starts “In the first half of the last century...,” meaning it was written in the 1800s [referring to the early 1700s] and couldn’t possibly have been a family chronicle from the time of Pergolesi. Croce cites Florimo’s passage from the purported “chronicle” and says that stylistically it is full of anachronisms inconsistent with what it purports to be. Besides, in the first edition of his work, Florimo says it isn’t clear which Maria Spinelli one is talking about—there were two. In the second edition, Florimo says that he did some research and found out which one it was. He neglects to mention what the research consisted of, says Croce.
All of this doesn’t mean that the episode might never have happened, but it does mean that it shouldn’t be cited as historical fact. There is a long list of questions involving names, dates, persons and place for which no answers exist, no shred of documentation to provide a historical basis for the story. Thus, it should be treated as a romantic anecdote. Yet, Florimo’s account breathed new life into the episode, inspiring, for example, Federico Serpico’s Pergolesi, an 1879 verse play broken into scenes of Pegolesi proclaiming his love to Maria, the confrontation with the brothers, Maria joining the convent, Pergolesi composing the Stabat mater, and Pergolesi dying in Pozzuoli. Also at about the same time, the play Pergolese by Michele Cuciniello came out, and Saverio Altamura did a sketch based on the episode, apparently prompted by the Spinelli family who, a century and a half after the fact, seemed charmed by the idea that their Maria had been in love with a poor church musician. Croce cites a few more recent examples that give too much credence to this episode, one that is to him obviously not history, but anecdote.*8
note 1: In referring to composer Giambattista (or Giovanni Battista) Pergolesi, modern references uniformly use the spelling “Pergolesi.” Croce and some earlier sources spell the name “Pergolese.” Except when quoting directly, I have used the modern spelling. Also, there is a separate entry on Pergolesi here, a separate entry on Benedetto Croce here, and a separate entry on the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Christo here. ^return
note 3: reference to Carlo Celano (1625-1693), Neapolitan historian and cleric, see this entry. ^return
note 4: reference is to the Neapolitan musicologist, Francesco Florimo (1800-1888), director of the San Pietro a Maiella music conservatory in Naples and his 1869 work Cenno storico sulla Scuola musicale di Napoli (Historical notes on the Music Schools of Naples), published in 2 volumes and then expanded in 1880-1882 into La scuola musicale di Napoli e i suoi conservatori (Music of the ‘Neapolitan School’ and its Conservatories), published in 1880-1882. ^return
note 5: That is footnoted with: A. Mazzarella da Cerreto, in Biografia degli uomini illustri del Regno di Napoli, pub. Gervasi, T. III, 1816. The entry for 'Pergoles' in that cited bibliographic encyclopedia does not mention the Spinelli episode, but it does make reference to a vague rumor that Pergolesi may have been poisoned, a rumor to which the author of the entry, Mazzarella da Cerreto, says he lends no credence. ^return
note 6: Villarosa is footnoted with "Napoli, Porcelli, 1843." Also, by the same author, footnote reference to Memorie di compositori di musica del regno di Napoli, Nap. stamp. reale, pp. 139-153. Fétis is footnoted as Biogr. universelle, tomo VI, Paris, Didot, 1864. ^return
note 7: Croce footnotes an excerpt from the poem involving the confrontation between the young woman and her brothers. The same volume of verse also contains a poem entitled “To Pergolese.” ^return
note 8: The Cuciniello play opened in 1873 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples. The other reference is to the painter Saverio Altamura (1826-1897). ^return
a. Neapolitan Stories and Legends (Storie e leggende napoletane) is a literary work by Benedetto Croce. The volume was originally published by Laterza publishers in 1919 and has been through various editions with the inclusion of additional material to the original. The most recent edition is from 1990 and is edited by Giuseppe Galasso. Milan, Adelphi, scheduled to be included in the Collected Works of Benedetto Croce in an edition to be published by Bibliopolis.
As the title indicates, the book is a bit different from Croce's weighty (though not ponderously so) historical writings. The volume contains a number of his youthful ventures into the study of Neapolitan folklore—a less intimidating term than anthropology or mythology, though there is overlap. In any event, a tale that contains these lines,
...something new was happening in the life of the conqueror of Naples, Alfonso of Aragon. Something radiant and fascinating, sweet and voluptuous, was taking over and changing the life and habits of the sovereign...there was the strong presence of a woman in his life...
...will not be tough sledding. Indeed, it will be fun to read, and this one is. (Those lines are my translation from the beginning of Croce's tale of the life of Lucrezia d'Alagno, link below.)
The volume contains these stories and legends. These titles are my translation. I am not aware of an integral English translation of the entire volume, although some of the items may have appeared in translation:
A Corner of Naples – The Tale of Andreuccio da Perugia – Lucrezia d'Alagno – On Hearing Old Neapolitan from the 1400s – Tirinella Capece – King Ferrandino – Isabella Del Balzo, Queen of Naples – The Chapel of Iacopo Sannazaro – Giulia Gonzaga and the Christian Alphabet of Valdés – Past and Present (The Beach and the Villa of Chiaia; the Home of a Poetess; Nisida) – Legends of Places and Buildings of Naples (Introduction – the Legend of Niccolò Pesce – The Legend of Queen Joan – The Legend of Exemplary Justice – the Well of Santa Sofia – The Crocodile of Castelnuovo (directly below on this page) – The Buildings of the Spirits– Mysterious Writings and Popular Figures).The stories all have to do with Naples since the 1400s, mainly told through a sentimental (not sloppy sentimental, simply heart-felt!) presentation of personalities who stood out for one reason or another, persons who shaped what the city was to become. Croce said that “emotional connections” with the past aid “historical intelligence”, and that this “historical intelligence” is a condition for societies to advance. It may not be a sufficient condition, but it is a necessary one. Besides these tales are enjoyable to read. It's worth learning Italian.
b. added May 19, 2017
Capasso bust at the city archives
erected 1903, sculp. Pasquale Cerino
The edition I am using (referenced above) has an interesting few pages not in earlier editions. Croce dedicated the book to the 19th-century historian, Bartolommeo Capasso (1815-1900) (image, left), one of the greatest chroniclers of the history of southern Italy. Croce wrote a tribute to him when Capasso passed away that appeared in Croce's journal, Napoli nobilissima, (year IX, March 1900), but not in any edition of Stories and Legends until this recent one. The editor, Galasso, decided to include it. It is moving and confirms the melancholy nature of the book as a whole. All of the tales are from Croce's youth before he started out as a scholar professionally (around 1890). Croce was born in the Abruzzi just north of Naples in 1866 into the "new Italy," not the kingdom of Naples, so he himself was not the living link with the past, as was Capasso. Croce, the historian, accepted and worked for a sense of Italian national unity (by founding a national cultural journal, la Critica, in 1903). But he grew up with tales of the past, these legends of a Naples that had ceased to exist with the unification of Italy in 1861. The Kingdom was no more. He was saddened that the generation of the old Naples was passing away —indeed, with the death of Capasso, was now effectively gone. Yes, you could still read what he wrote, but this living repository of our regional history—the Greeks, the Duchy, the Dynasties, the romances and battles—this last living link with all of that was no more, just as the south, itself, in a certain sense, was no more. They were now living in an age, Croce lamented, when barely anyone had, or even wanted to have, knowledge of their own past, the Naples before unification. "More than one person has said recently that Capasso's death is an irreparable loss. That is what you say when someone you esteem dies, I know. How could it be otherwise?" he says. Yet in this case, false or imitation sentiment won't do. He recalls his last meeting with Capasso when Croce aided the elderly scholar with revisions to Capasso's Greco-Roman Naples, and says that he felt a tenderness towards Capasso in watching his satisfaction as they worked and in seeing the pleasure that this "grand old man" took at having got this or that classical citation just right. "All of that has died with him, and it has left in our souls an emptiness that cannot be filled."
c. Also in Neapolitan Stories and Legends, this bit of youthful nostalgia from Croce
As I note in the main entry on Croce, much of what he wrote was aimed at making the new united Italy part of a united European culture. From that, my main entry:
Yet, he started writing before that, having founded his Napoli nobilissima (NN) journal in 1895 in order to help restore regional southern self-image, badly tarnished after unification. Many of the items that later appeared in Neapolitan Stories and Legends (NSL) had appeared in some form or other in NN well before being included in the subsequent first edition of NSL in 1919. I note above that NSL was nostalgic and at times even melancholy. This very last paragraph of NSL appeared much earlier, in 1896, in only the second year of publication of NN. Croce was thirty years old. His life as the grand old man of Italian letters was well in the future. Here he reflects the nostalgia I speak of.He founded his journal, La Critica in 1903 and for 41 years published his own writing as well as reviewing important European historical, philosophical and literary work of the times. He said of his own magazine that "La Critica was the most direct service I could render to Italian culture, uniting the role of a student and of a citizen."
But old legends fade quickly away in the social and urban transformations of today's Naples. New legends are not born, either—or at least we don't notice them. Those who come after us will do that when they start to piece together the fragments of our present way of feeling and seeing things. That will be made all the more fantastic by traditional exaggeration. It will all be surrounded by their fascination for the ancient or old that they will attach to each one of our modern statues or architectural works that we currently revile so much.* And they will call all this “ancient” or maybe even “the good old days,” the way we now refer to Naples of the 1700s or, just maybe, the times before 1860.”**
* [In reference to the new structures of the risanamento, in progress when Croce wrote this.]
** [1860 was the year Garibaldi conquered the south to set in motion the unification of Italy the next year.]
3. The Crocodile Story
as told by Benedetto Croce in Neapolitan Stories and Legends (entry directly above)
Everyone has heard this story in some form or other. Croce's retelling of it is one of the best-known versions. Croce, himself, cites two sources:
-Luigi Settembrini (1813-1877), Ricordanze 1879, vol 1, pp. 174-75.
-Gaetano Amalfi (1855-1928)in Napoli Nobilissima, IV, pp.174-76.
--------------- from Croce—my translation, jm ---------------
Settembrini conjectures that the legend of the crocodile in a ditch of the New Castle [ed. note: today more commonly called the Maschio Angioino (Angevin Fortress)] goes back to the time of the successor to Alfonso the Magnanimous, that is, to his son and successor to the throne, Ferrante, and the latter's brutal suppression of those involved in the Barons' Revolt against him. The castle contained a trench placed below sea level; it was dark and damp and served to hold prisoners who deserved the most severe punishment. At a certain point, the guards, to their great amazement, noticed that prisoners were starting to disappear. Had they escaped? How is that possible? They tightened up their surveillance a bit and then saw that they had a new guest in the form of an unexpected and terrifying spectacle. A monster, a crocodile, had managed to find its way from the sea into the trench through a hidden hole and with its jaws was grabbing prisoners by the legs and dragging them back out to sea where it devoured then. From that point on, the crocodile, presumed to have come from Egypt attached in some fashion onto the hull of a vessel, was at once both executioner and instrument of justice; they threw prisoners down there who were condemned to death, and the crocodile feasted on them regularly.
They finally decided to do away with this dangerous visitor by taking the anchor from a vessel and hooking a large piece of horse meat onto it. The crocodile took the bait, bit, got hooked and was dragged out of the trench and killed. As a warning to all concerned, they impaled the dead beast over one of the gates of New Castle. You could still see what remained of the impaled remains over the second entrance until about 40 years ago [ed. note: about the 1850s], where it was pointed out to school children to frighten them. Everyone talked about the crocodile trench, but no one really seemed to know where it was anymore. Maybe it was even the same place they had thrown Tommaso Campanella into for an entire year. At the most recent work done on the castle, the last remains of the impaled crocodile were removed and either stored or thrown away, who knows where? The remains were certainly not (as some claim) moved to the National Museum because the crocodile that you find there as part of their Egyptian collection comes from somewhere else. But this legend, as Amalfi demonstrates (and he has studied this) plays a part in the "novelistic" popular imagination of peoples in all countries, where prisoners are thrown in to be devoured by crocodiles or serpents or other monsters; this legend is localized in Naples and has adapted to New Castle where the secrets of the castle truly devoured the barons who had rebelled against Ferrante.
Croce's original footnotes are numbered in the text and appear at the end of the text. Anything in square brackets [like this] is my ed./translation comment. I have put an English translation of Giovanni Pontano's Latin passages next to the Latin.
One of the legends that struck me most in my first few years in Naples was that of Niccolò Pesce, the lad who would spend all of his time down at the sea in the water. It drove his mother to such distraction that, in the heat of the moment, she hurled a curse at him, saying "You should just turn into a fish!"; from that time forward, he lived as a fish or half-fish, able to spend hours and days immersed in the waters, at home in his element, without even having to come up for air. And to cover long distances in the sea quickly, Niccolò Pesce used the clever trick of letting himself be swallowed by one of those enormous fishes that he knew so well; he would travel along inside the body until he got where he longed to go, at which point he would slice open the guts of the fish with a large knife and slide out into water and go about his business.
One time the king, himself, decided he wanted to find out what the bottom of the sea looked like, and after spending a long time down there, Niccolò Pesce came up and told him that the sea floor was all covered with coral gardens, the sand was studded with precious jewels, and strewn about were piles of treasure, arms, human skeletons and sunken ships. On another occasion he descended into the mysterious grottoes of the Egg Castle and brought back handfuls of gems. Once again, the king commissioned him to discover how the island of Sicily stayed afloat in the sea. Niccolò Pesce told him that island rested on three enormous columns, one of which, however, was broken. But, finally, one day the king had to know just how deep in the sea Niccolò could really go. The king ordered him to go down and retrieve a cannon ball that would be shot into the sea at the Messina lighthouse [Croce uses the term faro di Messina, which does not mean the lighthouse, itself, but is a toponym for the northeastern point of the island of Sicily and is used in that sense throughout his text.] Niccolò Pesce said he would do it if the king insisted, but that he had the feeling that he would not make it back up to the surface. The king insisted. Niccolò jumped right into the waves, down down without a pause right after the cannon ball that now was sinking swiftly. He reached it in a furious chase and clutched it in his hands. But then he raised his head and looked up to see the waters above him motionless and solid. He was held in place as if by a marble tomb. He knew he was trapped in a waterless, empty and silent space. He could no longer grab the waves and swim. Colà [alternative name, diminutive of Niccolò] was closed in. And thus ended his days.1
To document these facts, the narrator telling me all this (the coachman from our residence) pointed out the "portrait" (image, above) of Niccolò Pesce sculpted into a bas-relief in the facade of the building on the corner across from the small street, vico Mezzocannone, where the section starts called "strettole di Porte" [port bottleneck], next to the large atrium. That bas-relief showed a man covered by a kind of fleece, holding a long dagger in his right hand; that, explained the narrator, was the knife Niccolò Pesce used to cut open the fish he was traveling in. Today it's still in the original ancient setting, although the area itself was totally transformed during the risanamento [urban renewal of the 1880s & 90s in Naples]. The bas-relief itself, however, was taken from the building that was to be demolished and was relocated into the wall of a building of newer construction, in a first-floor balcony space just above an old inscription from the 1700s. The inscription attests to the fact that the relief was found during excavations to build the Porto quarter of the city; it verifies other Neapolitan place names and adds that the discovery happened at the time of Charles I of Anjou. By the end of the 1500s, Neapolitan scholarly opinion held that the relief was from a small temple at the Greco-Roman port and was a depiction of the constellation Orion.2 Nor do I know if others have ever contradicted that claim. In any event, in my opinion you might even ask if the bas-relief is really ancient or perhaps just medieval. But place names, hidden behind their classical interpretations, don't really listen and don't much care about how the common people see things. They, no doubt, had already decided that this was an image of Niccolò Pesce. Even Capaccio, at the beginnings of the 1600s, mentions in passing that the people believed it to be a "a wild man" and Celano, in the second half of that century called it a uomo marino [marine man or man of the sea].3 Sigismondo, in the 1700s, finally says with great determination that "the people believe it to be an image of the Neapolitan Niccolò Pesce, the famous swimmer and 'man of the sea'.4
[The image that is there now (2017) is a bronze copy, not the original bas-relief.In my imagination as a lad I often found myself at the bottom of the sea prowling around with that intrepid explorer; his figure and his adventures stayed in a secluded spot within me. Then, years later, when I started to handle books, I learned that the legend of Niccolò or Cola Pesce or Pesce Cola was really from around the lighthouse at Messina. He existed in many versions and easily made the passage up to Naples, settling himself near the port in that old bit of sculpted stone where he fits in so well. And I also learned that many writers from medieval times down to our own day have told the tale or made allusions to it, that it has been told in poetry, song and drama and has been the object of scholarly dissertations. I not only read them but found that I took pleasure in adding to them. Among other things I enjoyed sorting out various versions in Spanish literature (one of which is recalled by Cervantes in Don Quixote) and discovering an unknown popular story in Spanish verse entitled Pece Nicolao, published in Barcelona in 1608; there was just a single copy of it preserved in the library of the orientalist Don Pacual de Gayangos. In that story or relación the legend is set in the small seaside town of Rota, two leagues from Cadiz, where they say he was born and, at the beginnings of the 1600s, where his descendants were still said to live. They say that Pesce Niccolò still dwells in the sea and appears every so often to talk with the sailors and tell them of his everyday doings and explain the secrets of navigation to them.5
See 'note on the image' at the very end of this entry. jm]
But the dissertations of scholars shed no light on the origins of the legend, itself, except that it was told as a legend peculiar to the area of the Messina lighthouse as early as the end of the 1100s, cited by Gualtiero Mapes in his Nugae Curialium, written between 1188 and 1193. After Mapes, it was retold by Gervase of Tilbury [1188-1193] in Otia Imperialia, around the year 1210. There is also mention of the tale by a Provençal poet, who calls his hero Nichol de Bar. Other mentions include those by Salimbene in the 1200s and in the 1300s by Pipino and Fazio degli Uberti, and by Ricobaldo da Ferrara as well as by many others in the centuries after that. But that the legend may go back to some famous diver or swimmer at Messina is just a bit of conjecture like anything else. It's not supported by what even the earliest authors claim, all of whom say that the basis of the tale is historical and happened either in their own times or close to it. Gualtiero Mapes places the origins at the time of William II of Sicily; Gervase of Tilbury says it was during the reign of king Ruggiero; Salimbebe says Frederick II. Salimbene says he got the story from his good friends, the monks of Messina, and one of his blood brothers, Mapes, even claims he got it from those who knew Niccolò personally. That fits with what the Spanish minstrels sang and wrote, who said that Niccolò's descendents still lived in Rota and with what father Kircher said in the 1600s, that is “prout in actis regiis descripta fuit, a secretario archivii mihi communicatem”—[Croce cites the original Latin, translatable as “[Kircher]...found the tale described in royal documents communicated to him by the secretary of the archives.]6 Nor do I think that the names Pipem or Pipam or Papam represent any real evidence of Niccolò's surname the way Mapes' and Gervase's editors thought they did. I suspect that is a case of a misreading or of a copying error of piscem [fish] (that is, the letters sc are mistaken for the letter p). Even worse, really contorted, is Steinthal's mythical interpretation of the legend, relating it to the figure of San Nicola of Bari, protector of the sea and, through this Christian saint, to the pagan god, Poseidon.7 Nor is there a connection between the story of Pesce Niccolò, and the popular song, mainly French, about the woman who drops a ring into the sea and the fisherman who, out of love or at least in exchange for a kiss, dives in to retrieve it and returns either safely or dying, depending on what version you read.8
But there can be no doubt as to the factors that compete to form and to feed the legend of Niccolò Pesce and to lend it popularity and long life. There is a tendency to imagine men and animals with special powers different than natural ones: fishmen, birdmen, centaurs or marine oxen, monk fish, sirens, harpies, and so forth. We are overcome by the emotions of the sea, like the curiosity that draws us to the unknown or make us covet wealth. The fear that sailors have at sea is joined to the imagining of miraculous means to overcome peril. Then there is the example of the maternal curse and things of that nature. These motives are still alive even today in the way that people narrate the legend, but they lose their way in the noted ballad by Schiller, der Taucher [The Diver], that takes the legend of Cola Pesce and mixes it with erotic adventure and turns it into something not merely artificial, but mechanical. If I ever had to abandon the simple words of the people in favor of literary devices to talk about this legend, I would chose—above Schiller and all others—the lovely hexameters* of Urania by [Giovanni] Gioviano Pontano, in which Niccolò Pesce once again becomes brother to mythological heroes, to Hercules, Theseus and Perseus.
[Here Croce drops in some Latin passages by Pontano in the original, without providing Italian translations, interspersing the Latin with his own closing comments. I have provided English translations on the right. See note, below].
[Urania 4, at line 469]
...Alta PeloriSaxa virum genuere, aluit quoque sicilis Aetna,
Et puer humanos hausit de matre liquores,
Instructusque hominum curis et ab arte magistra.
Sed tamen, ut paulatim aetas tulit, avia montis
Nulla petit, nulla ipse feris venabula torquet:
Litoribus tantum assistit, neptunniaque antra
Sola placent, solis gaudet piscator arenis.
...the high rocks of Peloro**
bore a man, nurtured as well by Sicilian Etna,
as an infant he sucked from his mother the human spirits,
and acquired the cares of men and the art of authority.
Yet as he grew, no longer sought remote mountain heights
nor speared the wild beast, he paused only at the coasts
where he loved the solitary caves of Neptune
and loved to fish along deserted beaches
So he goes to the sea and enters the hidden chambers of the Nereids in the house of the Tritons and Glaucus and knocks at Nereus' door and surprises Galatea and Arethusa. He returns to the shore in triumph.
[Urania 4, at line 507]
...laetus spoliis tantoque labore
Summa petit; summae nanti famulantur et undae,
Et pelagus posito praestat se ad iussa tumultu.
Occurrit laeta ad litus messenia turba,
Gratantur matres reduci, innuptaeque puellae
Mirantur, stupet effusum per litora vulgus.
...pleased with his catch
and his own great efforts. They show him the waves and
he humbles the sea with his mighty feet and strong arms.
The people of Messina run to the beach, mothers, children, happy at his return, the maidens flushed with honest color watch him in silence, all are filled with marvel and wonder.
When the king threatens him and forces him to descend into the whirling vortex of Charybdis, the young hero knows he is in danger and is afraid, but
[Urania 4- at line 555]
"Vincant fata, inquit, fato et rex durior; haud me
Degenerem aspiciet tellus mea!”
“Let the cruel fates decide, the king the cruelest,
this earth shall not see me disgrace myself.”
And in tragic hand to hand combat with the monster that makes the sea shudder and Etna tremble and shakes the cities of his native island, he succumbs:
[Urania 4- at line 580]
Ille igitur coelo impulsus, tellure relicta,
In ponto degit vitam, et fatum aequore clausit.
Thus, forced by king and fate
Cola's life is ended.
1. [Paraphrase: Croce says he is reminded of similar descents into "magic waters" in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso as well as in Dante's "Inferno" in the Divine Comedy, as well as in passages by Giovanni Pontano; the last mentioned are the passages he uses in the last section of his text, directly above].
2. G.C. Capaccio, Delle imprese, Napoli, 1592, f.26; Il forastiero, Napoli, 1634, pp.80.87; Summonte, Historia di Napoli, Napoli, 1602, vol. I p.208; cfr. also Celano, Notizie, cit., vol.IV, pp.103-104.
3. Capaccio, Forastiero, loc.cit., Celano, loc.cit.
4. Descrizione della città di Napoli, Napoli, 1788-89, vol. II, p.193.
5. I reprinted the Relación in Napoli Nobilissima, V. 1896. For all literature about Cola Pesce see the very rich study by Pitré Studi di leggende populari in Sicilia, Torino, Clausen, 1904, pp. 1-173.
6. Ath. Kircher, Mundus subterraneus, Amsterdami, 1678, vol. 1, p.87.
7. "Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie", XV, 1885, p. 479; XXII, 1887, pp. 131-33, 234.
8. Nigra, Canti popolari piemontesi, Torino, 1888, p. 356.
[my ed. notes, notes on translation and notes on the image of Niccolò Pesce: **in the first line "Peloro" refers to the eponym of the Peloritani mountains between Mt. Etna and the north-eastern tip of Sicily (image). In Greek mythology, Peloro, was one of the Spartoi (not to be confused with citizens of Sparta), a mythical people who sprang up from the dragon's teeth sown by Cadmus. There is no single Mt. Peloro, but rather a 60 km stretch of impressive peaks that tower over the Ionian sea to the east and coastal towns such as Messina. The cape at the very north-eastern tip, is still called cape Peloro and has a very historic lighthouse (at this link).
*Hexameters. Croce's readers were well-educated, probably subscribed to his journal, Napoli Nobilissima (which had published versions of this tale as early as 1895) and had studied Latin. Hexameter (dactylic hexameter, to be precise, also known as "heroic hexameter" is a form of meter or poetic rhythm of classical epic poetry in both Greek and Latin and was the meter used by, among others, Homer and in Latin by Virgil in the Aeneid. Hexameters have 6 'feet' to a line, with the accent on the first beat of the "foot" (the "measure" or "bar", to put it in musical terms). Giovanni Pontano, in Urania, is writing about Greek mythology, so he chooses that rhythm. Pontano has been called the last European to write masterful poetry in Latin.
In my translation, some parts are more freely translated than others; that is, it is not meant to be a precise line by line translation. I am not a Latin scholar, so I translated the passages from various Italian translations of the Latin, some recent and some from the 1500s kindly provided to me by Selene Salvi, good friend, and extraordinary scholar and artist. I am extremely grateful for her help.
Notes on the image. In most editions of Croce's Stories and Legends there is one illustration used for this story; it is a sketchy black and white line drawing of the building and the bas-relief. As far as the bas-relief, itself, is concerned, this note has come to me from Selene recently:
ed. note: Croce says, simply, that..."The bas-relief itself, however, was taken from the building that was to be demolished and was relocated into the wall of a building of newer construction...". It is not clear if the one that was removed was the same as the one they put back. Some sources claim that the original bas-relief was removed during the urban renewal, the risanamento, and taken to the civic museum of Donnaregina and eventually to San Martino. That would mean that they put a bronze copy back in the newer building. In any event, the original is missing. I don't know of any way to resolve this tiny mystery.]I tried to track down the original marble bas-relief of Niccolò Pesce (or Orion), but it seems to have disappeared (what you see on that building on via Mezzocannone today is a bronze copy). The website of the Campanian Regional Administration for Cultural Heritage reports that it is conserved in the San Martino museum. When they recently opened the basement section where they keep items that were not destroyed in the Risanamento [ed. note: urban renewal of the 1890s] I hoped to find it. It wasn't there and the director of the museum told me that she has never seen it... a tiny mystery...