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Dialect Literature in Neapolitan

…the dialect tends to be inflected with realism, as the language of anger and curse, of social protest and transgression, and also as the language of play and satire, of buffoonery and plebeian mockery, celebrating life in a feast of tongues.

The Other Italy: the Literary Canon in Dialect, by Herman W. Haller (1999) University of Toronto Press.*

If you study Italian as a foreign language, you learn the national language of the modern nation state of Italy. As a bit of history, you may also learn that modern Italian developed, first, from Dante’s brilliant justification in De Vulgari Eloquentia (1305) of writing in the vernacular language—in his case, Tuscan—instead of Latin and, second, from his Divine Comedy, a work that showed that the vernacular could, indeed, produce great literature. Yet, if you examine the premise of De Vulgari Eloquentia, it makes perfect sense that the same freedom to write vernacular literature extended to those whose native language was some variety of medieval Latin vernacular other than Tuscan. Thus, the Italian peninsula developed, on the one hand, a drive towards a standard language and, on the other, a strong tradition towards maintaining regional dialects. Even today, only about one-third of the population of Italy uses the standard language all the time, that is, in all circumstances, domestic and official. Most Italians, at least some of the time, use a regional dialect. In that respect, then, most Italians are “bilingual”—or “bidialectal.” (Note that Italian dialects may differ from one another considerably, so much so that they are mutually incomprehensible; thus, we are not talking simply about different “accents” of the same language, but rather different languages.)

Naples is one of those areas in Italy that has had a considerable history over the past 700 years of independent development as a vehicle for literature, poetry, song and theater. There is a definable body of literature as far back as Croniche de la inclita Cità de Napole (attributed to Giovanni Villani) from around 1300—that is, the time of Dante. It is here that we learn of the origins of Virgil's reputed powers of legerdemain. (It does not go without saying that Neapolitan was also the language of the court and of official documents— depending on who was running the kingdom at the time—on and off for centuries, from as early as the late 1200s when Matteo Spinello of Giovenazzo maintained court journals for Manfred of Sicily all the way down to documents of the Bourbon dynasty, the last to rule the kingdom of Naples.)

Along with other dialects in Italy, Neapolitan has at times enjoyed great success; for example (in the case of Naples) the 1700s and the great period of dialect musical theater. At other times —for example, during the authoritarian period of Fascism and its drive towards standardization in all things— the dialect had less success. Today, dialects are again going strong in Italy, riding the wave of cultural diversity in Europe, in general. If you look at the dialect films of Italian neo-Realism from around 1950 such as Sciuscià or La terra trema (in Neapolitan and Sicilian, respectively) dialects seem to emphasize, almost to the point of despair, the differences among Italians in post-war Italy. Yet, more recent films, such as Il Postino (1994), which features the Neapolitan comic actor Massimo Troisi (speaking dialect throughout) seem to have a thread of national unity running through them, as if to say that perhaps dialect differences don’t really matter that much. In other words, the use of a dialect is not a political statement of protest or rebellion; it’s simply a guy speaking the way he speaks. The same can be said for Troisi/Neapolitan and Roberto Benigni/Tuscan carrying on conversations with each other in essentially two different languages in the film Non ci resta che piangere (1985).

In Naples, the most obvious recent examples of dialect success are the theatrical works of Eduardo de Filippo, many of which are realist plays employing diglossia (shifting back and forth from dialect to standard language)—realist because that is just the way real language happens on the streets of Naples. Other 19th and early 20th-century examples of dialect success in Neapolitan are Antonio Petito (1824-76) (the actor/playwright who updated and made famous internationally the iconic Neapolitan character of Pulcinella), Eduardo Scarpetta, Salvatore Di Giacomo, Raffaele Viviani, Libero Bovio, Ferdinando Russo, and dozens of lyricists in the vast repertoire of the “Neapolitan Song,” a genre so successful abroad as a symbol of Italy, that virtually all non-Italians think that ‘O sole mio is Italian when it is really Neapolitan. It is also the case that many dialect actors and playwrights from the early 1900s passed the tradition on to their children, such that today there are still revered "family theaters" carried on by the likes of, for example, Luigi de Filippo, son of Peppino de Filippo. Also, contemporary musicologist, Roberto de Simone, has been significant in reviving dialect literature and comic opera from the 1700s.

Dialects have been used over the centuries to make social statements, as when the 16th-century Neapolitan poet and musician, Velardiniello, wrote Farza de li massare, in which peasant characters denounced in dialect their social condition under Spanish rule. Or, it has simply produced non-political literature (see this related entry) in the hands of authors such as Giovanni Basile) and Giulio Cesare Cortese (1570-1640), one of Basile’s contemporaries and one of the great dialect writers in the age of the Neapolitan Baroque. A lesser-known example is Pompeo Sarnelli, whose Polisecheata (1684) about Posillipo is a “frame story” such as those by Chaucer, Boccaccio and Sarnelli’s contemporary, Basile.

As noted, the 1700s produced dialect musical theater (that later turned into the Italian-language “Comic Opera” of Naples. One of the great librettists of the day was Francesco Antonio Tullio (1660-1737). He collaborated with musicians such as A. Scarlatti and worked easily in both dialect and standard language. (He was, in fact, the librettist in 1718 for the first non-dialect opera buffa, Scarlatti’s Il trionfo dell’onore, billed at the time as being in “Tuscan” (!) and not dialect.) Tullio’s younger contemporary, Pietro Trinchera (1702-55) often used dialect for social purposes; in his La moneca fauza—the villains speak Tuscan and the good guys speak Neapolitan. He wrote against clerical abuse and wound up in jail for his protests on a number of occasions.

The 1600s produced all over Italy a great number of erudite treatises on why “our” dialect is better than the Tuscan of Dante. The Neapolitan version was L’eccellenza della lingua napoletana con la maggioranza alla Toscana by Partenio Tosco, written 1662. The 1700s also produced any number of handbooks and guides to Neapolitan grammar and style. Also, since the 1600s, a number of classics have been translated into Neapolitan, including The Illiad, The Aeneid, Tasso’s Jerusalem Liberated, Vergil’s Bucolics and Georgics, and even The Divine Comedy. Modern foreign language classics (such as Alice in Wonderland, seen in the above illustration) have also been translated. Finally, the Bible in Neapolitan now exists, thanks to the translating efforts of don Matteo Coppola, a priest from the Sorrento diocese. It took him 10 years, but he has finished the entire Bible. He also holds forth on the Scriptures twice a week on Metropolis Tv, Sky channel 902in dialect, naturally.

[Also see this brief item on Michele Sovente.]

*note: I am indebted to The Other Italy: the Literary Canon in Dialect, the book cited at the top of this page; it is a work of monumental thoroughness and scholarship. An unsigned article, "Provincialisms of the European languages," in The Edinburgh Review  (April, 1844) was also useful.

Also see The Neapolitan Language    to literature portal

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