The son of the mechanic who works on my car got in a traffic accident the other day. Nothing serious, but he did spend the night in the hospital for observation because of a minor concussion. He went off his motorcycle and into a car. Of course, he was not wearing a helmet—this in keeping with the proud skull service that Neapolitans pay to their well-known streak of suicidal anti-authoritarianism. My own unscientific surveys (I stand on the corner and count) show that only about half of those who ride on scooters and motorcycles bother to wear helmets.
One of the most
popular TV programs in Italy is Striscia la
notizia. It does everything from poking fun at
Freudian slips of the tongue by newscasters to
exposing corruption involving the black market sale of
residence permits to illegal immigrants. Periodically,
they dwell on the fact that so few two-wheeled
motorists in Naples (and Palermo, where the situation
is even worse) wear helmets. (They even have a few
choice video clips of motorcycle cops (!) down
here cruising around bareheaded.
At times, they also
take over what should be in the hands of the social
services in a city of a million people. Last
Christmas, I dropped by and they were serving a
holiday meal to 500 Ukrainian refugees, most of whom
were young and healthy. The sisters are helped out by
a great number of Neapolitan teenagers who pop by to
sort clothes, make gift parcels, run errands,
bust of Mother Teresa shown in the photo is on via
See also: Mother Teresa and the Jelly Bean
The paper reports that a group calling itself by the English name "Snob Club" is going to convene at one of the most exclusive hotels along via Parthenope, the seaside road at Santa Lucia near the Castel dell'Ovo. These ridiculous people are going to eat truffles and then—ready?—shine their shoes with champagne.
I know two things about truffles:
1) intelligent German shepherd dogs, yes, may dig them up on a direct order—but they won't eat them ("Pee-yuuu! You must be kidding. There's your truffle, maestro. Gimme a biscuit.) (This, as opposed to stupid pigs, which have to wear snout rings to stop them from devouring the profits.)
(2) Rossini once called truffles "the Mozart of mushrooms". What can I say? I still like The William Tell Overture.
I know nothing about
shining shoes with champagne, but I am tempted to go
down there anyway just to hear these people
mispronounce the name of their own club as "znob".
This is in keeping with the rules of Italian
phonology. (Such rules in your native language operate
when you try to pronounce a foreign language. That's
why you have an "accent".) In Italian, phonetic
assimilation requires that voiced consonants such as
"n" be preceded only by other voiced sounds. Thus, an
"s"—normally pronounced as the unvoiced sibilant
("sssssss") becomes voiced ("zzzzzzz"). I realize that
if you majored in ceramics or automotive repair, all
this may be of little interest to
One of the most
interesting collections in the National Museum
in Naples is the one dedicated to counterfeit coins
from the 18th century. At the time, the archaeological
digs had recently opened at Pompeii and Herculaneum,
both buried by the massive eruption of Vesuvius almost
two millennia earlier. With interest in Roman
artifacts running high at the Bourbon court of Naples,
enterprising locals started turning out "genuine"
Roman coins. After more than two centuries, these
coins have, themselves, now acquired a decent
[update from 2018:
the Coin Collection in the National Museum is great! See this link.]
Naples has always had a reputation as a hub of counterfeit goods. It is no problem at all to walk into some stores in town and buy brand name clothes, handbags and shoes that look like the real thing and that may even be well made. Whether or not what you buy really is the real thing, however, depends on the luck of the draw. The counterfeits should cost less.
Currently there is an epidemic of counterfeit watches. In the past, if I was approached on the street and offered a "genuine Rolex," and I looked at the watch and saw "R-O-L-L-E-K-S," then even I had enough street savvy to demur politely. ("I already own a K-A-R-T-I-E-R.") The problem with the new counterfeits is that they are so good that even an expert from Rolex or Cartier has to take a second (and third) glance at them. The watches have turned up in reputable stores where at least one prominent merchant claims he bought them legitimately from a company in Milan that had imported them. Everyone concerned claims to have paid the appropriate import duties and other taxes.
I didn't notice it
at first, but a few days after I bought a new pair of
eye-glasses, I had occasion to examine the frames more
closely. "Giorgio Armani" is inscribed on them. I
flattered myself into thinking that I was wearing a
fashionable set of specs. I know he makes clothing,
but frames for glasses?
There is a bit of
unpleasantness going on down at via San Gregorio Armeno, the
street in the historic center of Naples known for the
shops that make and sell the wherewithal for your yearly
Christmas presepe, the
Legitimate shops line both sides of the narrow street for the entire block between via S. Biagio dei Librai and via Tribunali. They are licensed to be open and do business. They are getting extreme competition from the many "abusivi" ("those who abuse the law") in the area, itinerant street vendors selling their own Christmas decorations.
It is no secret that Naples is a hotbed of blackmarketeering and just plain street-hustling, people out trying to make a buck. In some cases, these unlicensed vendors are not so itinerant —no opening of the jacket to reveal rows of tiny angels and stars pinned to the lining— ("Pssst. Hey, buddy—wanna buy some tinsel?") They use quickly deployable tables and shelves to display boxloads of goods right on the open street just feet from legitimate shops trying to do business. The shopkeepers have complained, and the police have been moving in to chase off the "abusivi," who have, in turn, reacted violently by overturning rubbish bins and setting fire to the contents. Who knows if the situation will settle down in the coming weeks.
In any event, this
is related to this paragraph from item #34, below:
The most striking numbers
for the south have to do with the so–called
“submerged economy”—that is, the black market.
One-third of Italian wealth is generated by illegal
activities, but most of it is in the south, where
there are as many as 11 million illegal workers, and
where 70% (!) of manufactured items are counterfeit
knock-offs of brand names or are otherwise illegally
produced. Eurispes claims that this will amount, in
2003, to 130 billion euros in taxes that will not be
2014 - I wrote the original item over 10 years
ago. The numbers have not changed substantially.
Neapolitan musicologist Roberto De Simone is a most remarkable person. He was born in 1933, began to study piano at the age of six, entered the Naples conservatory at 13, and at 15 performed the Mozart Piano Concerto K.466 with a cadenza he wrote himself. He began a concert career but eventually gave it up to devote himself to the study of literature and folk music of the local area (Campania).He was the artistic director of the San Carlo Theater in the late 1980s and was appointed director of the Naples Conservatory in 1995. He has spent his professional life rejuvenating the cultural history of his city. This includes collecting folk tales and music, and reviving a number of seldom or never-performed pieces from the vast repertoire of 18th-century Neapolitan comic opera—works by Pergolesi and Jomelli, among others.
written, among much other work, a requiem in memory of
the poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, a cantata for the
17th-century Neapolitan revolutionary, Masaniello, and, in 1999,
a remarkable oratorio, "Eleonora,"
in honor of the republican heroine of the Neapolitan
revolution of 1799. He is currently reworking his
stage version of The Cat Cinderella, based on
the oldest version of that fairy-tale, a dialect tale
by Giambattista Basile from
the early 1600s. As with many of his other works, he
will take the show on the road in a version that
employs a modified Neapolitan dialect in order to make
the work accessible to a wider audience.
is risking a lawsuit, but the publicity is probably
worth it. He has opened a hole-in-wall, stand-up or
take-out fast-food place near Piazza del Gesù
in the heart of downtown Naples. His advertising logo,
displayed prominently over the entrance, is a large
red letter M, clearly meant to remind you of
Below the M is the word Maren's—an English-looking play on the Neapolitan word for snack, "marenna", itself a variation of the Italian "merenda". The M also stands for "mamma"—mother—says the proprietor, a reminder that he prepares snacks just like mother used to make. Indeed, there are no fast-food burgers here—just typical and traditional Neapolitan fare: small pizzas, enormous sandwiches with ham and mozzarella, rice balls, etc.
large letter actually reminds you more of the metropolitana
logo common throughout Europe. Unless McDonald's wants
to make a case that they own part of the alphabet and
wants to sue most of the subway lines on the
continent, this may wind up in the same category as
the time when Warner Bros. threatened Groucho Marx
with a lawsuit over the title of a Marx Brothers film,
A Night in Casablanca, so close on the heels of
the Warner Bros. film, Casablanca. Groucho
reminded the studio that he and his brothers had been
brothers for longer than the Warner Bros. had been
brothers, and that he was seriously considering a
countersuit over that. The studio let it drop.
Come to think of it, there was a great
German movie called "M" starring Peter Lorre
as a psychopathic child-molester/murderer.
It was directed by Fritz Lang.
Can he sue someone?
At times I have taught a college course in The Language of Advertising. I think, however, that it is swiftly becoming a foreign language to me. Many of the billboard ads near my house are so graphically striking that they distract from the product name—surely a mistake from the advertiser's point of view.
A delightful example
is the one in the photo (left): an infant is nursing at a
huge orange that has been graphically stylized to look
like a mother's breast. I didn't remember whether it was
an ad for milk or orange juice. Now that I look again,
it's neither one. It's selling yogurt.
Some of the ads are overtly pornographic. There is no subtle double-entendre in that ad of the woman kneeling astride an ecstatic man and about to descend to do what comes naturally usually only on Neapolitan television stations at 1.30 in the morning (or so I have heard). It is just one big clumsy single entendre Yet, I don't remember what those two are selling. (If I remembered, though, I'd probably buy it.)I saw one yesterday that showed a dismembered mannequin—torso here, leg over there, head off to the side. All the body parts were nude, as if they were lying there waiting to be pieced together in a department store show window. And I don't remember what I am now supposed to be convinced enough to go out and buy. Glue? Body parts?
One of the best-selling CDs in Italy at the moment is Oggi o dimane by the Neapolitan singer/actor Massimo Ranieri. He started out more than 30 years ago singing Neapolitan songs for the local market; then, he won the Italian Song Festival in San Remo in the early 70s and since has had a very solid career both as a singer and film actor.
This recent CD takes advantage of the typically oriental flavor of much Neapolitan music, a sound due to that erratic Middle-Eastern "quiver" in the voice that almost all Neapolitan singers use—a sound traceable to the Spanish and, hence, Moorish influence in southern Italy. As well, much Neapolitan music employs chromatic elements of Middle Eastern scales. In addition to all that, Ranieri chose to record the numbers using a background of Greek and Middle-Eastern instruments, including the mandolin-like bouzuki, and a variety of North African percussion instruments. Indeed, one number features another singer doing a verse in his own North-African native language. Thus, a century after they were written, these songs—often with texts by great Neapolitan dialect poets such as Salvatore Di Giacomo ("Napulitanata" and "Marechiare") have taken on a refreshingly "new" sound—but one that actually works quite well.
Strikes are common occurrences in Italy. Generally, they are not the tooth-and-nail labor/management battles to the death that they are in some places. More than anything else, they last a day and are meant to disrupt the economy just enough to provoke some sort of settlement, even if it's just a quick fix. Nevertheless, the term "general strike" has an ominous ring to it: factories closed, public transport at a standstill, helmeted and betruncheoned police holding the line against the onslaught of banner-waving, oppressed workers singing the Internationale in all major and minor keys at the same time, etc. There was a general strike yesterday in Naples. Yesterday also coincided with one of the "Green Days", those days on which you can't drive your car unless it is equipped with a catalytic converter. Thus, it was pretty much of a stay-at-home day for me unless I—shudder—wanted to walk to the post office to pay some bills via the handy postal money-orders that everyone now uses. Wait. The post office is a state entity, and postal workers belong to the same great umbrella labor union that just called a strike. Call up first and ask:
"Yes, most of the post offices are closed, but we're open here. We don't belong to that union."
Good news—the post office is open. Bad news—everyone else in Naples will be in line trying to pay bills in that one post office. Even worse, they will all be driven to some ecstatic degree of consumer rage by the fact that they have to walk to the one open post office in the neighborhood and wait an hour in line. I take a chance. (A fistfight with a queue-jumper in the post-office is a small price to pay.) I walk into the post office and it is absolutely Twilight Zone empty. The only one in the building is Post Office Lady behind the glass window—and she might be an alien. I carefully step around the crop circle in the middle of the floor, walk over and pay my bills in no time flat.
evening). The TV says that the strike was only a
partial success since it was boycotted by two other big
labor unions. Nevertheless, in spite of my success at
the post-office, I went for a forced march in the
afternoon because there wasn't even one-third of a scab
strike-breaking bus to be seen anywhere.
The National Archaeological Museum is planning a major exhibit for January on the great eruption of Vesuvius in 79 a.d. that destroyed Pompeii. Unexpectedly, they will have something new for the exhibit —the skeletal remains, uncovered the other day, of a slave.
Archaeologists from the Japan Institute of Paleological Studies in Kyoto were working in the area of the presumed location of an ancient gate that led out from the city of Pompeii in the direction of Capua. The exact location is uncertain and has been the object of archaeological speculation for some time.
In the course of digging around, the team came across the remains of a male skeleton with a metal ring on the leg, showing where he had been chained at the calf. It was a common Roman punishment to keep unruly slaves chained at night so they couldn't flee. The skull shows evidence of having been crushed. Presumably, then, he was not suffocated by noxious fumes or overwhelmed by the flow of volcanic debris; he was probably struck by a heavier projectile thrown up by the eruption. The eruption occurred just after dawn. Still chained in place, he couldn't run.
Here, one thinks of
Mark Twain's grand paragraph from The Innocents
|But perhaps the most poetical thing Pompeii has yielded to modern research, was that grand figure of a Roman soldier, clad in complete armor; who, true to his duty, true to his proud name of a soldier of Rome, and full of the stern courage which had given to that name its glory, stood to his post by the city gate, erect and unflinching, till the hell that raged around him burned out the dauntless spirit it could not conquer.|
[Read MT's complete passage about Naples from The Innocents Abroad.]
Courage is a function
of choice, and, certainly, the soldier so described was
courageous— heroically so. Our recently-found slave, of
course, had no choice. Yet, there is no way to know how
he behaved at the end, even chained as he was.
"Unruliness"—especially in a slave—is not necessarily a
defect of character. There was a second skeleton—that of
a woman—found close by. Who knows if or how he might
have tried to shelter her? Or she him.
I don't remember if, last year, there was one-way pedestrian traffic in the historic center of town near and on via San Gregorio Armeno. I do remember being pushed by a horde of people in a direction I didn't want to go, but I chalked that up to the staunch nonconformist in me—the different drummer, the road less travelled by—all that.
This year—with the Christmas push almost upon us—the city is thinking of imposing just such a restriction. If you look at the map of the historic center of the city (click here), the area of concern is along via San Biagio dei Librai (known as "Spaccanapoli"—the street that "splits Naples") and the parallel street, via Tribunali. They are connected by a north-south street, via San Gregorio Armeno (unnamed on the map, but where numbers 27, 28, and 29 are located). It is the "Christmas street," the site of the many shops and stalls that sell material for building the presepe, the manger display, the most typical of all Neapolitan Christmas customs.
Within the next
few days, it will start becoming virtually impossible to
walk near via San Gregorio Armeno. There is an
unbelievable mass of people, tourists as well as locals
out trying to do some shopping. Thus, says the city, we
need one-way walking on the lower road moving east, then
left and up San Gregorio Armeno and then left again and
one-way west and back out of the center. We should also
have, says the city, traffic wardens enforcing this.
This is almost certainly unenforceable, but I don't want
to find out.
SIAE is the Italian acronym for Società italiania di autori e editori, the Italian Society of Authors and Editors. Although the Italian pronunciation of this combination of letters is amusingly close to "C.I.A.", it is actually the organization that takes care of paying royalties on literature, songs and theatrical works. The Naples branch is very active; the offices are located on via San Tommaso d'Aquino, and the premises have always been a treasure trove of, among other items, all published Neapolitan theater over the last 80 years; that is, a library, of sorts, where the actual first copies of plays are stored—the versions that authors are required to file for copyright in order to be able to collect subsequent royalties. The so-called "Neapolitan Repertoire" for the last 80 years includes virtually all of the works of famous Neapolitan dialect playwrights such as Eduardo de Filippo, for example.
For many years, the entire collection was well taken care of by a local lawyer, Caro Capiola. His interest in making sure that authors got paid for their efforts was personal, in that he was married to an aspiring playwright. Capriloa was tireless in his efforts to protect the rights of those who wrote for the theater in Naples. This included dealing with crafty theater managers who would often try to get out of paying royalties to the author, because the author had just been paid as a performer in his or her own piece. (There were—and still are—a number of theatrical troupes in Naples—the de Filippo family, for one—where the authors perform in their own works.) That would be paying "twice for the same thing" said the impresarios. Not so, said Capiola—and he was right.
In any event, all of
this is now in the past tense, since the entire Neapolitan
collection —some 8,000 original copies of various
theatrical works written for the theater in Naples— have
been transferred to the main premises of SIAE in Rome. The
works still exist, of course, but the originals are no
longer in Naples. The local daily was a bit nostalgic
about that. It's all in the name of efficiency and
centralization, paradox notwithstanding.
[related item: Copyright laws that make your head
Various agencies and people in Naples collaborated yesterday to make the traditional Christmas Eve meal a reality for many who would otherwise have simply spent the day the way they spend most days—alone. The Naples Chamber of Commerce laid on a feast on the premises of the Principe di Napoli Gallery, across the street from the National Museum. Professional cooks prepared meals for 900 people—the homeless, the needy, or, simply, the lonely. It was quite a spread, too. No plastic cups and forks—real plates, glass and silverware, all served on a number of well-set tables in the Gallery.
Elsewhere, the main train station at Piazza Garibaldi served its yearly Christmas meal to the needy in a building adjacent to the station, called, simply, "Track 10". That term has already become proverbial at Christmas in Naples for those in need near the station: "Track 10 is open this year." That's good news. A secondary train station in Fuorigrotta some miles away from the center of town did the same thing. One restaurant owner in Mergellina rented a bus and drove around picking up people who obviously had nowhere to go; when the bus was full, he took them all back to his restaurant and fed them. Episodes of public and private charity like that were repeated in various guises throughout the city yesterday.
From the entry on
"Geology of the Bay of Naples" (click here for the entire
|Interestingly and very recently (late 2001), archaeology around Vesuvius near the town of Nola has shed light on the fate of a so-called “Bronze Age Pompeii”. In about 1800 b.c. — roughly about the same time as Hammurabi was formulating his exemplary Code in far-off Babylon—a little village on the slopes of the volcano was buried by an eruption. The site is already recognized as one of the world's best-preserved prehistoric villages, found only because someone decided to build a supermarket with an underground parking structure. Thus far, no human remains have been uncovered, indicating that the inhabitants had enough time to avoid the fate of the some 2,000 victims of the Pompeii eruption.|
That is still
making news. The papers yesterday carried an item on
the archaeological dig in Nola, where yet another
4,000-year old structure has been been uncovered—a
50-foot-long structure containing some vases and
cooking utensils. It was possibly a communal gathering
place for villagers. Archaeologists have by now
determined that this "Bronze Age Pompeii" was large
enough to have buildings laid out in groups—not
necessarily blocks, but at least according to some
plan that indicates significant social structure.
Giuseppe Vecchio, the archaeologist in charge of the
site, also adds, "Where there is a village, there has
to be a cemetery, a necropolis, and we'll find that
sooner or later." That would be a significant find.
There is apparently a lot more to be uncovered in the
area. Much of what has already been brought to light
is now protected by modern metal and plastic
coverings—good, perhaps, but maybe not as good as the
lava that has served quite well for four millennia.
update - April
2014: Although the site was open for a few
years (2005-2008) to tourism, there were
significant episodes of erosion and cave-ins, as a
result of which the sites was closed to the public
in 2009, and to my knowledge, has not reopened. Many
of the artifacts, however are on display at the
archaeological museum of Nola.
This morning I noticed in the small coffee bar near my house that what I would have always considered “Christmas stockings” have just been put up as decorations. Then, I remembered that in these parts—indeed, in most of Italy—gift-giving time is far from over.
Long before Santa Claus, reindeer, fir trees, and snow started showing up on the unlikely slopes of Vesuvius, the traditional bringer of holiday gifts was the Befana, an old woman who brings gifts to good children (or lumps of coal to bad ones) on the evening before Epiphany, January 6. "Epiphany" is from Greek and it means “to manifest” or “to show”. January 6 is the twelfth day after Christmas (I think that is the one with Pipers Piping or Drummers Drumming, but I don’t really remember) and is the day on which Christians commemorate the manifestation of Christ, the Savior. It is when the Magi appeared and brought gifts. Depending on the legend, an old woman —either searching for her child (one of the “first–born” murdered by Herod) or having been invited to accompany the Magi—also appeared. Her name, in Italian—Befana—is a corruption of the word “Epiphany”.
Without question, there is something much more peaceful and spiritual about January 6 than December 25. That is, no doubt, due to the commercial glitter of modern Christmas celebrations. At least in Naples, there is no such pitch as “only 15 more shopping days till Befana”. Not yet, anyway. So, the little stockings go up for the gifts, and the children wait.
And this from Richard Crashaw (1612–1649):
“May the great
time in you still greater be, while all the year
is your Epiphany.”
The papers this morning lead with news of pre–New Year’s fireworks of an unexpected kind: the volcano on the island of Stromboli erupted yesterday, dislodging a considerable piece of mountain into the sea. That, in turn, caused a 60-foot wall of seawater to backwash onto the island, flooding homes, destroying boats and small harbor facilities, but injuring only 3 persons. There were no deaths.
Stromboli is the northernmost of the Aeolian Islands, a group of some seven islands north of Sicily. Some of the other islands also have active volcanoes, including the appropriately named isle of Vulcano. The volcano on Stromboli is nicknamed, simply, Iddu—Him—by residents of the island and last erupted 17 years ago. The wave that rose and struck part of the island as a result of yesterday’s eruption and landslide at first was called a tsunami. Geologists were quick to point out this morning, however—for those interested in the fine points of describing that wall of water about to wash them out to sea—that, technically, a tsunami is a wave generated by submarine earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. This was just a lot of water.
The Aeolians are tightly grouped, and the eruption provided a spectacular show for the residents of the next island to the south, Panarea. The islands are a popular tourist target for Neapolitans; the faster hydrofoils make the run from Naples in about 3 hours. Tourists are now, of course, on the way off the islands until such time as things get back to normal, whatever “normal” might mean in a place where an island is named Vulcano.
Mt. Etna, of course, right next door on the island of Sicily has been dominating their news recently. It is currently erupting in its usual slow and effusive fashion—nothing devastating, just layering up more and more lava to mark the passage of the millennia, the way some volcanoes do. Vesuvius—with its own nickname of ‘a muntagna (the mountain)—here in Naples bides its time. That comes up frequently in casual conversation—perhaps less casual today.
[There is relevant information in
the entry on The Geology of the
Bay of Naples .]
It’s Christmas Eve. In Naples, most people have a traditional meal very late in the evening, often almost at midnight and running over into Christmas Day, itself. I will go to relatives’ and eat something, I suppose, though not what tradition requires—that is, eel. I am not going anywhere near something that looks that much like a snake. Yes, I know it’s a fish, but it’s a fish like a penguin is a bird—kind of, but in an unconvincing sort of way. The eel reminds me of a parody of the worst pseudo-Neapolitan song I know (well, it’s the only pseudo-Neapolitan song I know): That’s Amore.* I owe the caricature lyrics (better than the real ones) to a scuba-diver I met once. Sung to the real melody, they start:
“What’s that thing in the
with the big, shiny teeth?
That’s a Moray!
Put your hand in the crack
And you won’t get it back,
That’s a Moray!”
(So much for today’s zoology lesson. So you were expecting Charles Darwin?)
[*For the sake of completeness and because I am tired of people thinking that Dean Martin composed the song, the lyrics to "That's Amore" are by Jack Brooks (1912-71) and the music is by Harry Warren (1893-1981). The song was composed for the film, The Caddy (Paramount, 1953) starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (photo). That's where Dino comes in. He sang it. Also see Neapolitan Song.]
In Naples, some firecrackers have innocent enough sounding names—“Minerva,” for example. Others—perhaps in the quest for nomenclature that will attract the young male—try names such as “Maradona,” after the great Argentine soccer star who played for Naples for many years. Then there are the ominous ones—last year, one bore the moniker, “Big Brother” (certainly more for the popular TV show of that name than as a nod to George Orwell) and another, “Osama Bin Laden”. The fact that that one sold well was less of an ideological statement than a tribute to its being everything a juvenile fireworks nut could ask for—loud, highly explosive, and very dangerous.
Every year at this time in Naples, a general cautionary alarm goes out to the public: Don’t use illegal fireworks this New Year’s. And every year, Naples seems to lead Italy in the race to see how many people are injured—or killed—by shoddily homemade firecrackers. Calling them “crackers,” of course, is dishonest; they don’t “crack”, they blow up, sometimes in the hands of a kid who placed a bit too much confidence in a fuse that was supposed to give him 10 seconds to get away. At least that’s what the dealer told him.
The Italian Environmental League reports that in the last two New Year’s celebrations in Naples, 4 have died and 275 have been injured; 30 have been arrested and 40 tons of illegal fireworks confiscated. Yet, starting a few days ago, the illegal streetside stands that sell these things have cropped up in the usual places; the Sanità, the Forcella, and the Mercato Pendino sections of town. It is no problem all to pick up the high-powered wherewithal that will let you give the New Year a hand—finger by finger.
There are 36 legitimate manufacturers of fireworks in and around Naples, and this is the time of year that counts for them. Some of them, too, have had trouble with the authorities for selling prohibited fireworks—meaning, too explosive. They have other problems, as well: Yesterday in Orta di Atella near Caserta a ferocious explosion shook the night when a car packed with fireworks exploded, leaving shredded metal and charred body parts over hundreds of square yards. The three victims were thieves who had just broken into a lightly—or non-guarded legal fireworks factory and made off with their haul. Maybe one of them lit up a cigarette as they sped away; maybe one of them slid across the seat too fast and set off a slight discharge of static electricity. Who knows.
Indeed, if you live
near someone who makes this stuff and stores it at home
all year, waiting for New Year’s, you may never know about
it until a house down the street explodes. Or if you live
upstairs from that person, you may simply never know about
[Also see an update here.]
At 9 o' clock this morning all was quiet. An hour earlier, hordes of very tired people were still driving around, generally wending their way back home after having stayed up all night to see in the New Year. There were two large public parties sponsored by the city in Naples last night: one was in Piazza Plebiscito, the spacious square in front of the royal palace; the other was in the recently reopened Piazza Dante about a mile from the first one. The celebration at Piazza Plebiscito was the one they have every year—fireworks, music, lots of year–end noise. The festivities at Piazza Dante, however, were billed as the celebration “for intellectuals,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Perhaps they stood around and discussed what kind of values are manifested by blowing off fingers with shoddy, homemade “cherry bombs”. (In Naples, however, they use the whole orchard.)
I stayed home and peeped out the window, from where one could see a massive display of private fireworks: sparklers, sky-rockets, bombs and just plain nasty incendiary devices going off from balconies. No one goes into the street. It starts gearing up at about five minutes to midnight and carries on until about one o’ clock in the morning. Depending on the weather, the resulting smoke and haze from all the fireworks may or may not dissipate quickly. Last night there was moist air with absolutely no wind and, thus, by 20 minutes past midnight, you could barely make out buildings 100 yards away. All you saw was each additional flash as another round was pumped into the gloom. Happy New Year.
It is New Year's. I have spent the last hour or so examining the lentil—yes, the common lens esculenta. I never understood why Neapolitans go on a lentil binge at this time of year. It’s because the lentil resembles a coin—I am here repeating what unregenerate lentophiles tell me—and if you gorge yourself on them at the beginning of the New Year, it bodes well for you; that is, you can expect lots of little metal lentils—commonly known as coin of the realm—to come your way. (You have a special reward stored up for you in Paradise if you can say “little metal lentil” five times really fast.) I have now eyeballed lentils—even with a magnifying lens (hence the name lens esculenta—they look like a lens…lenses?…lensi?…esculenta means "edible")—and they still look like little beans to me. OK, a little convex on one side (which maybe means they are concave on the other side, but I’m not sure—I failed fabatopographics, the study of the description of beans. I majored in music in college), but, essentially, it’s a funny-looking bean. I don’t get it. After all, Averroes claimed that lentils cause melancholic blood, obscure vision, constrict the stomach and impede sexual activity. So, come on. Is a little extra money in the new year worth all that?
An exorcism, of
sorts, will take place at Piazza Plebiscito today when
local poet Salvatore di Natale will parade around near the
bronze skulls installed in the pavement (see here) and mutter incantations
to rid the city of the Evil Eye caused by the presence of
said crania. The poet’s name translates as Savior of
Christmas, which seems potent enough to me, but for this
occasion he has redubbed himself Mussasà Abdel Natal.
I have seen
(photo, left) the three old Fiat 500s parked, painted and
installed as art in the new subway station on via S. Rosa,
so I sympathize with this letter-to-the-editor in il
Mattino. The gentleman says that he had finally
evolved a satisfactory intellectual interpretation of the
artistic display of old shoes in one of the new stations
when he noticed the other morning that someone had added a
beat-up old hat and jacket to the exhibit. Is this, he
asks, an addition by the artist, perhaps something we
might call “Process Art”? Or is it crass and sarcastic
vandalism? Or—one more possibility—is it perhaps a simple
act of charity by some artistically illiterate, but
good-hearted, person who has mistaken the exhibit for a
collection point for the needy?
to portal index
The holiday season was officially over a couple of days ago with the coming of la befana. The shops on the main thoroughfare for buying one's holiday decorations, via San Gregorio Armeno, are closing down, although some of them stay open most of the year to handle general tourist trade.
One such shop displays the most unlikely cast of characters ever intended for a "presepe" (nativity scene) in Naples. It is a display of figures dubbed, collectively, "The Shepherds of the Clean Hands" —"clean hands" (photo) being the name of the great anti-crime campaign started in Italy in the early 1990s. Depending on mood of the shopkeeper, figures can be identified as anyone from the mayor of Naples to the Prime Minister of Italy to the various magistrates involved in the struggle—or just generally famous and infamous characters. This year, Osama Bin Laden was twice present—once sitting on an elephant! He is directly next to a more traditional rendering—that of a beheading—originally meant to be the execution of John the Baptist. The sign, however, tells us that this is the head of "Bossi," an extremely unpopular (in southern Italy) politician from the north. Busts at the very front of the display this year included Mussolini, the playwright Eduardo de Filippo, and the great Neapolitan comic, Totò.
There is no
particular ideological ax being ground in any of this. It
is in keeping with the whole hodge-podge nature of the
entire street, where, in the midst of items such as the
Star of Bethlehem and The Three Wise Men, which might
focus your devotion to the spirit of the season (once you
get them home), there are also boxes of white plastic
skulls (from the Fontanella tradition— see here for a relevant entry),
horrible recordings of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and papier
mache mannequins of Laurel and Hardy.
There is cause
for rejoicing under the big–top today. At the Moira
Orfei circus, a Siberian camel named “Tibet” gave birth
the day before yesterday to a bouncing baby girl, named
“Magic” (after the “Magic World” amusement park where
the circus is running). The calf is healthy and as snow
white as her mother. Mother picked a good day for the
event; the circus was taking its one day in the week
off; this gave jugglers, clowns, and acrobats a chance
to pace worriedly and pretend they know something about
dromedary obstetrics. By the way,
Middle English dromedarie <Old French dromedaire <Latin dromas < Greek dromas, a runner <dramein, to run < Indo.European base *drem–, *dreb–, to run, whence Sanskrit drámati [he] runs, TRAMP.)
[Don’t you get the feeling that etymologists are just having a good time with you sometimes?]
Anyway, the father, Pippo, is also doing well and is strutting his hump around the tent.
Like many, I have
mixed feelings about animals in zoos and circuses. I
went to the Naples zoo once many
years ago and vowed never to go back. They had a
beautiful Siberian tiger in a very confined space, and
the animal had obviously gone “stir crazy”. I wanted
somehow to release it and let it run out and go down
fighting —after it polished off a band of obnoxious
teenaged moron who were taunting their chimpanzee
first-cousins in a nearby cage by throwing debris
through the bars.
I see that
they put on Verdi’s The Battle of
Legnano at San Carlo the other night for the first
time in 142 years. He wrote it in 1849. If it was,
indeed, performed in 1861 in Naples, I suspect it must
have been some sort of revolutionary musical salute to
the then recent defeat of the Bourbons and the incorporation of the Kingdom of
Naples into the Kingdom of Italy. (I am not driven
by my scholarly demons to the point of actually finding
a concert program from the other night to see if I have
guessed correctly.) Later update: OK. I was driven. The
opera was running at San Carlo in January of 1861 while
the siege of Gaeta was still going on. It's not that the
Bourbons were fighingt battles and staging operas at the
same time. They were through in Naples; Garibaldi
had taken the city in September, 1860. Maybe he just
liked Verdi. Maybe he liked The Battle of Legnano.
That battle, by the way, took place in May of 1176 between the Lombard League and the forces of emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Legnano is just a short hop up the A8 autostrada from Milano (see map 19, coordinate B6 in the fabled 1995 edition of the Italian Auto Club book, On the Road with ACI.) If you get confused and wind up in Legnago (with a 'g'), then you are way over to the east near Verona and are hopelessly lost. There is no evidence that this is what happened to Frederick Barbarossa, but he did lose the battle. And no one ever wrote an opera about Legnago, though for the sake of completeness I should point out that in 1879 Giosuè Carducci wrote a poem entitled Song of Legnano, in which he shows no sign of being confused at all.
In any event, the
modern Northern League (anti-Federalists who have recently
pulled in their horns a bit on calling themselves
“secessionists”*) call their “nation” Padania (from the
Latin adjective for the Padus river, the Po, in modern
Italian) and every year have a party congress in Legnano
to reminisce about the good old days when central
government (Imperial authority) got their cavalry kicked
by the locals. Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II,
however, soon strode upon the scene and put Imperial
(There is a separate entry about Frederick II.)
(*Not too long ago, a young flight
attendant for Alitalia got herself in trouble—just as
the plane was about to land in Milano—by welcoming
passengers to “the capital of Padania”.)
It was such a good idea. I heard a beautiful baritone voice coming from around the corner. It was slow and melancholy, but somehow I knew it was a street vendor pitching his wares. I asked a gentleman near me what the man was singing, and he didn’t know. I walked around the corner, and then I saw and heard the band. It was a New Orleans-type street band playing a slow march, and the marchers that I saw were women dressed in 19th–century outfits. They wore high pink hats and long dresses that brushed the ground as they walked. Many of them carried folded parasols with them that they tapped on the ground as they walked, as if using a cane or keeping time to the music. I thought, “A singing street vendor with a New Orleans marching band right here in Naples! I can’t wait to write about this.”
Unfortunately, it was a brief dream I had yesterday morning just before I woke up. I am very upset—even saddened—by this, and I will not be consoled at all by any load of ontological dingo's kidneys that says maybe it was all real and what I am doing now is a dream. Save your breath.
There are, however, marching bands in Naples. They are parish bands and are usually made up of not more than four or five members. They parade on the name-day of the local patron saint. They may have a trumpet, trombone, saxophone and bass drum, with someone holding the parish banner marching in front. They parade in the neighborhood around the church; usually there is someone in the ensemble whose job it is to “pass the plate” and solicit contributions for the parish.
And, of course, there are still singing street vendors. They no longer work from hand–or horse–drawn carts; they drive around in those horrible tricycle motor–buggies, screaming into microphones that are cranked up, yea, unto feedback. If their income were a direct function of decibels, they would be driving a Mercedes. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who can really understand the whole pitch, sung as it is, in an old dialect handed down from another century with the words, themselves, distorted from the process of singing. Even my mother–in–law—then in her 80s—told me once, “That’s the man with potatoes.”
“How do you know?” I asked. “What’s he saying?”
“I know from
the melody. He’s probably saying something about
Those of us you who have ever reused a postage stamp or erased a cancellation so you could reuse the stamp are criminals and will no doubt be called to account some day. While you are serving hard time with your fellow felons, meditate on the humbling thought that you are a piker, a rank amateur, compared to true masters of philatelic fraud—three of whom appeared a few years ago in the Vomero section of Naples. I’ve just noticed that the three gentlemen mentioned below now have their own website, so I guess they never went to jail.
For an entire year, Pierluca Sabatino, Maurizio De Fazio and Lello Padiglione drew and lettered by computer, then used on postcards and letters, more than 200 homemade commemorative stamps. None of the stamps were counterfeits in the true sense of the word. That is, they were not imitations of real Italian postage stamps. Each one of the phonies was an original and often biting satirical comment on the times.
One stamp showed a young hoodlum slouching against a backdrop of the Bay of Naples; the stamp commemorated "Two Hundred Years of Organized Crime in Naples". Another issue showed a tank rolling over a sand dune beneath the inscription, "Finally a War!" And so on, from the commemorative of "The Week of Putrid and Muddy Water in Naples" to the "First Exhibition of Stolen Cars," "World Day of the Streetwalker," "Bulldozing Illegal Construction at Mergellina," and "Don't Waste Your Life on Drugs—Steal!" Each stamp bore a message and an appropriate picture—and each stamp was duly cancelled by the post-office and delivered to its destination. Only once did the post-office notice; that was when the denomination of the phony stamp didn't cover the cost of postage. The addressee had to pay postage due.
There was some discussion in the local media as to whether anyone in the post office ever really noticed the stamps, or whether postal employees, indulging their own sense of humor at the affair, just looked the other way.
The Gang of Three
even went out of their way to get caught, always including
their real return addresses and even "issuing" special
commemoratives that read "Check Your Stamps. This Could Be
a Fake!" or "First Strike of Postal Counterfeiters."
Nothing. No reaction at all. Apparently, they got
discouraged at the lack of a real challenge and blew the
whistle on themselves. At least that way, they would get
some recognition. I guess it worked. Now, the Gang of
Three have a website at
“I tre giorni della merla.” If merla meant “eagle” or “falcon”—some swashbuckling raptor—then The Three Days of (name of appropriate winged warrior) might be the name of a good spy thriller. However, merla is merely the feminine form of merlo—blackbird—and “The Three Days of the Female Blackbird” refers to the three days just behind us, the last three in January, traditionally regarded as the coldest days of the year. I have read that the basis of this expression is found in an old Lombard legend, but I haven’t been able to verify this, myself, since the Lombards haven’t been a power in Italy in 1000 years and are certainly all dead. I do know of a person in Naples whose name is about as Lombard as you can get without actually being “Lombard”. It’s “Ostrogoth”. He might know.
The legend was right on this year. The last three days have been the coldest in Naples since winter started. There was snow on Vesuvius for the first time; it was spread down about one-third of the slope, meaning that the snow line must have been at about 2000 feet, low enough to powder the tops of the hills along the Sorrentine peninsula and all of the mountains surrounding Naples, itself. It didn’t snow any at sea-level, but we did get hail, and the temperature was cold enough to keep the hail on the ground for a while. It covered the walkways along the seafront and was enough like snow for a short time to enable kids to scoop together a slush-ball or two.
female blackbirds, this is the first day of the Year of
the Goat in the Chinese lunar calendar. (Indeed, it was
too much to hope that they might actually have A Year of
the Blackbird or Crow or Raven or at least a Year of the
Smooth Segue.) It’s time to go down to the nearby
Chinese restaurant and say good-bye to the family that
runs it; they are going back to China after years in
Naples. I remember when there were absolutely no Chinese
restaurants in the city. Then, about 20 years ago, they
started to roll in. There seemed to be well over a dozen
of them. Then, a lot of them closed. Now there are 3 or
4 that I know of. Maybe the ones that left simply made
enough money to be able to return home, as is the wish
of so many immigrants. Naples and southern Italy, in
general—having sent millions of persons abroad over the
years to seek work and a new life—is now in the
unaccustomed position, itself, of being somewhat of a
magnet for immigrants.
as Winter Wonderland doesn’t happen too often—once
a decade, perhaps—but it actually snowed at sea level
this morning. The upper elevations of the city, Vomero
at 600 feet, were covered with snow, and the hermitage of Camaldoli at
about 1200 feet on the hill in back of the city looked
like a postcard from Austria. Vesuvius, of course, is
Item two: The
morning paper happily notes the presence of some local
people in the new supplement of the Treccani
encyclopedia, somewhat the standard reference work in
Italian and the one you have on your shelf when you want
to look something or someone up. The last complete
edition came out in 1997. This year’s update includes,
among Neapolitans, Olympic swimmer Massimiliano
Rosolino; author Luciano De Crescenzo;
and photographer, Mimmo Iodice. It includes also, for
the first time, a horse!—Varenne, the trotter (recently
retired and happily munching clover somewhere), winner
of 60 races in 70 starts. The paper is unclear on
whether or not Varenne is from Naples and, if so,
exactly why he would have a French name.
Since 1982, conducts research and other scientific initiatives in the political, legal, economic, social, culture and communications areas such as:
- a) The Italian Report: an annual publication that portrays the Italian System through multidisciplinary analysis from macro sociological point of view; the document constitutes a precious instrument for political theoreticians, economic and social policy makers and in the information world;
- b) Permanent scientific studies: criminality, infancy and adolescence, schools;
- c) Analysis and interpretation of political and social dynamics;
- d) Planning and implementing theories and instrumentation for communication;
- e) Analysis and evaluation of politics;
- f) Analysis and studies of production systems.
The organization has just issued its annual Italian Report, and the Neapolitan daily, il Mattino, devoted quite bit of space yesterday to the economic part of the report. Essentially, things have not changed too much over the years—most of the industry and wealth in Italy is still in the north, making the historic division between north and south as marked as ever.
The report actually divides the nation into three parts for purposes of comparison. In the north, 2.4% of the population lives below the poverty level; there is an unemployment rate of 3.8%. Those figures for central Italy are, respectively, 1.6% and 6.1%. For the south (the territory of the ex-Kingdom of Naples—that is, south of Rome, from the Gargano river down to and including the island of Sicily) they are 7.3% and a staggering 17.9% unemployment rate. In Italy, as a whole, 10% of the families have 47% of the wealth. Most of those families are in the north.
The most striking numbers for the south have to do with the so–called “submerged economy”—that is, the black market. One-third of Italian wealth is generated by illegal activities, but most of it is in the south, where there are as many as 11 million illegal workers, and where 70% (!) of manufactured items are counterfeit knock-offs of brand names or are otherwise illegally produced. Eurispes claims that this will amount, in 2003, to 130 billion euros in taxes that will not be paid.
The report doesn’t try to shrink heads. That is, while it does say that one-fourth of Italians report being depressed, and that most of them are women in central and northern Italy, Eurispes doesn’t venture any judgment on the truism that money doesn’t buy happiness. It may have to do, of course, with the question, itself. If you ask one of those women in the 10% group that have half the money in Italy if she is depressed—“Of course, I’m depressed. My cosmetic surgery didn’t work. I had two chins. Now I have three.” Down here in the south—“I don’t have time to be depressed, you moron. I have five kids and my husband is out of work.”All in all, the submerged economy in Naples seems to lend a sort of free-wheeling atmosphere to a place where there is—at least, officially—so little money. Everyone hustles something, and people spend what they have. On a normal Wednesday evening not so long ago, on one of the main shopping thoroughfares in the city, a visitor asked me if it was a special holiday. I said it wasn’t. She said: “Look at all the people shopping. This looks like 5th Ave in New York the week before Christmas.”
Another small island is Gaiola off the coast of Posillipo. It has a grim history and people like to tell you that it's haunted (see item 47, below).
The paper this
morning was worried about the fate of the biggest small
island in the area, Nisida. The current Italian national
government apparently has a bizarre plan to make money
by selling off such prime real estate to anyone with
enough money. The Campania region is going to have to
find two million dollars to "buy it back"—meaning, hold
on to it. (For more on Nisida, click
I have difficulty believing that they are going to move "Neptune" again. I was down there today looking at it, and in my non-expert opinion of where fountains belong and how they fit in and why they should not be disassembled, moved and put back together every few years, it looks fine. True, they pinched off one traffic lane a bit in order to install the fountain, but they opened up the pedestrian area around the immediate area, and have put in benches and a tourist information bulletin board. The fountain is now on via Medina, adjacent to Piazza Municipio.
There are very few pieces of sculpture that have traveled as much as this one. This fountain started out down by the Arsenal —at the port— when it was built in the 1500s. It was built on the order of Enrico de Guzman, the Spanish viceroy at the time and was situated so that it faced his residence. The design is by Giovanni da Nola; Neptune (the centerpiece) and the two satyrs are by Pietro Bernini.
In 1629, it was moved up to Largo Palazzo, now called Piazza Plebiscito on the order of the viceroy, Alvarez de Toledo. Then, in 1634, it was moved down to the sea at Santa Lucia after being touched up by Cosima Fanzago. There, it was in such danger of being exposed to artillery fire that it was moved up to via Medina, more or less where it is today. In 1647 it was repaired after being damaged in the uprisings of that year; bits and pieces taken away as souvenirs to Spain by the viceroy also had to be redone. In 1659, it was moved again, this time to Calata San Marco, about two blocks from its current location. In 1700 it was moved back to via Medina to be nearer to the main road leading down to the port. At that time, sea horses and tritons were added to the statue. In 1898 it was moved to Piazza Borsa (the Stock Exchange) and, thus, was located at the beginning of Corso Umberto, the broad boulevard leading to the main train station. That square is currently the site of construction for the new Naples Metro underground train line, so in 2001 the statue was moved back to via Medina where it was in 1640.
current location is described as "temporary," and it is
to be returned to Piazza Borsa when they finish
the metro station in that square. I hope they leave it
where it is.
update: April 2014. "OK, when the music stops..."
That last sentence
above this update turned out differently. Indeed, they
finished the station at Piazza Borsa in 2011 (see this link), but
instead of returning Neptune to that site, they put in
its place a large statue of king Victor Emanuele II, the
first king of united Italy. That statue had been erected
at Piazza Municipio when the square was opened in the
1890s; statue and square were together sort of the
centerpiece of the grand urban renewal project known as
the Risanamento. Then...follow
closely...when they decided to build the new metro train
system and have a grand and brand new station at that
piazza (Municipio-Port), said square had to be dug up.
It is still dug up, though they are making progress
(they are into their second Cheops of building time, one
Cheops being however long it took them to build the
Great Pyramid). The statue of V.E. II, of course, had to
be moved out of harm's way. For a while, it was stashed
off to the side; then, when they finished the station at
Piazza Borsa, they moved him there, where he still is.
In the meantime, Neptune was getting a well-deserved
rest at his current location, not a bad one, as I say
above. Now, however, they (notice how it's always
'they'?! Maybe that should be... " It ARE always they?
Anyway, I hate they!) have now decided to move Neptune
over to Piazza Municipio when it is finished. Little by
little, I think Nep is going to go full circle and wind
up back where he started in the 1500s. There are
currently some protesters down at the statue of Neptune,
mostly local merchants who appreciate the open space
around the statue, a place with benches and room to walk
at least a short distance along a street that is
update: March 2015 - The move to Piazza Municipio is now complete.
Naples' most travelled fountain is now in front of the
city hall about 150 meters from where it was a few days
ago. Now, Neptune stares down across the entire length
of the still unfinished metro construction site to the
main passenger terminal of the port of Naples (photo,
above right). It's probably a better location since it's
a pedestrian zone and you can now walk completely around
the fountain and see it from all angles.
this photo really was taken at Capodicchino
airport in Naples shortly after the Germans
left the city in 1943. Photo courtesy of Herman Chanowitz,
the guy sitting on the tail section.
I remember when Naples Capodichino airport looked like an airfield in documentaries about WW2 —maybe even WW1: windsocks on the runway and strange little people in goggles and flying scarves running around mowing the airstrip and hand-cranking Fokker triplanes. Well, maybe not all that, but there were no newfangled accordion tubes that snuggled up to the side of the planes for easy on–and–offloading of contented passengers. There were no contented passengers. There were no busses, either; you walked out onto the tarmac to your plane. Sometimes they got your bags out there before you left; sometimes they didn't. Indeed, it was a throwback to those glorious early days of aviation. They still spelled it "aeroplane," as I recall.
Since the reinvention of mass tourism in the Bay of Naples, that has changed. The sign now says "Naples International Airport" and the place deserves the appellation. The passenger terminal was more than simply expanded; it was rebuilt. It is new, spacious, and comfortable with all the bars, shops and other creature comforts that one expects while one waits. There is also ample parking, one of the few places in Naples to enjoy that comfort so necessary to 21st–century creatures.
The problem now is that no amount of expansion of the facilities can handle the projected traffic. The paper this morning writes of the grand plan to open up the military airport in nearby Grazzanise (about 35 miles from Naples near Capua) to passenger traffic. It was tried once, out of necessity, some 15 years ago when the Capodichino airport was partially closed for modifications. The plan, if it goes forward—and that depends on complicated negotiations between the Italian air force and various civilian agencies that have an interest in air traffic in and out of Naples—is to route charter tourist traffic through the new facility as early as this summer. Since much tourist traffic is directed not to the city of Naples, itself, but to other areas of the Bay such as Sorrento and the islands of Ischia and Capri, and since the Grazzanise airport is near the A-1 autostada that runs into the city, the plan might entail nothing more inconvenient than a slightly longer bus ride for passengers, no matter what their destination.
Me, I have a Fokker
And then there were five. I am talking about the infamous "Towers" along the Flegrean coast, a long stretch of potentially beautiful beach at Castel Volturno, just up the coast from Naples. Officially, the towers were known as the Villaggio Coppola, built by the Fontana Blu Corporation, owned by the Coppola bothers.
The entire complex included eight 15-story apartment houses (the "Towers"), adjacent hotels, restaurants, a small boat harbor—an entire small city and, collectively, one of the ugliest examples of illegal, "wildcat" construction in Italy. Having said that, it is worth noting that they were built largely to house members of the US military. That particular need is no longer served since the US Navy now has its own satellite city in nearby Gricignano—built on property owned by the Coppolas. (Perhaps there is a book waiting to be written about the relationship of the US government to the Brothers Coppola.) The towers, they say, were an example of what you could get away with a few decades ago with large envelopes of cash. ("Oh, what's that over there?" you would say, pointing into the distance. Then, while the building commissioner was distracted and staring off into space for two or three years, you—with no building permit—put up your "ecomonsters," as the press calls them.)Over the years, I have driven up past that stretch of coastline and have grown accustomed to glancing over and seeing that row of ugly monolithic dominoes on the beach—"Pukehenge," we used to call it. They were horribly visible from a distance and perhaps even from low orbit. Yesterday, I looked over and did a happy double-take. There was one missing. They had blown it to smithereens while I wasn't looking. Today the newspaper reports that at 3 pm another explosion will devour two more of them. That will leave five, and they are scheduled for demolition in April. It's almost worth the drive to watch.
I gave a few cents to a gypsy kid who was playing the accordion on the subway this evening. He wasn't all that bad. He looked to be about 15 or 16 and played a good, competent version of a Russian folk song, the name of which I don't remember. He smiled as he played and was not oppressively obnoxious about trying to wheedle money out of you.
There didn't used to be any accordion players in Naples. Now they are a major import item and seem to be in all the trains. The real reason I gave the kid some money was to reward him for being the first gypsy squeeze-boxer I have heard who has not played that annoying "Anniversary Waltz". It seems to be the only song they know, and most of them never get past the first 16 measures— "Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed/ We vowed our true love, though a word wasn't said…" Then they diddle around, lose the rhythm, play some wrong notes and start again.
I wonder if they are
real gypsies from Romania. That song is known as The
Anniversary Waltz (or Song) to
English-speaking audiences and bears the names of Al
Jolson and Saul Chaplin on the music. Jolson recorded it
in 1946. It is, however, "borrowed" from the music of
Josef Ivanovici, a Romanian composer (1845-1906); it is
part of his Waves of the Danube waltz
Today was the beginning of Operation "High Impact". There were so many "Forces of Order" (as Italian so wishful-thinkingly dubs the various branches of law enforcement)—also known as "cops" for purposes of this brief discussion—on the streets of downtown Naples this morning that at least a few bad guys were scared off and most tourists thought they had wandered onto the set of Rambo XII.
These weren't delicate traffic cops handing out tickets. They wore flak jackets and carried automatic weapons. The pulled over suspicious looking cars, and the word is that they confiscated all sorts of contraband by so doing; also, they turned up a lot people without driving licenses or documents and a few out driving around who should apparently have been at home since they were under house arrest for some reason. I did see one bored and heavily-armed cop stop an attractive young woman on a motorcycle because she wasn't wearing a helmet. The gist of the conversation was that he would really hate to see something terrible happen to her beautiful head just because she forgot her helmet. All smiles and friendly words. No ticket, though maybe a phone number was passed.
The best part
is the "Hawks"—undercover cops. They wear civvies,
always travel in pairs and are always mounted on
ridiculously overpowered motorcycles. If you are a punk
purse-snatcher on a 100 cc Vespa, lots of luck. Just one
"Hawk" looks like two longshoremen; they are unshaven;
they scowl a lot; and in the warmest weather, they wear
some sort of jacket or maybe a bush vest with lots of
pockets all the better to conceal the heat they are
packing. Tough customers. Tourists move away from them
because they look like criminals and criminals move away
from them because they look like undercover good guys.
They are about as undercover as a cat-burglar in black
leotards and a ski-mask.
Somehow I admire people who live in volcanoes or at least on the slopes of volcanoes, even when they're extinct (the volcanoes, not the people). Yesterday we had lunch in a delightful restaurant on the inside slope of a crater, out in Baia, just past the bay of Pozzuoli. It is at the end of the Campi Flegrei—the "Fiery Fields"—in parts, a still active and bubbling collection of thermal baths and sulfur fumaroles, but for the most part a welter of extinct craters some millions of years old. (The famous Pozzuoli caldera, however, is only 35,000 years old, and the nearby "Monte Nuovo"—New Mountain—really is new, as mountains go; it surfaced in the 1500s.)
The restaurant was a three-level affair clinging to the slope (photo), making up in vertical space what it lacked in horizontal. From the terrace, you could look across and see other optimists clinging to their bit of slope across the way. You could look down and see a farmhouse at the bottom. It was set in a nice stand of trees, and there was a small vineyard down there, as well.
The residents are not in any actual danger because the craters really are extinct. On the other hand, on the eastern side of the city of Naples, Mt. Vesuvius last erupted in 1944 and is now described as "quiescent". I think that term describes a condition somewhat more threatening than "dormant". I know that the Vesuvius Observatory updates their webpage on a daily basis, reminding you of the number of "seismic events yesterday," for example. Most of the "events" are not noticed by human senses, but sensors indicate a significant amount of activity. They say there is a "plug" building up about 6 miles below the crater. The real optimists are the ones who built on that slope right after the eruption half a century ago and who continue to build and lead their lives with complete, fatalistic disdain for what the future might hold. Last year, the collective communities around Vesuvius considered it important to have a practice evacuation of the area. They chose, as I recall, 500 volunteers and said "Go!". The make-believe refugees from a make-believe eruption then followed the planned evacuation routes to safety. It went well. Evacuating almost a million people in the real thing would be a different matter, I'm afraid. Perhaps the only point for true optimism is that Vesuvius is one of the best monitored volcanoes in the world. It is unlikely that there would be no warning at all of an impending eruption.
here for a separate item on the "Geology of the
Bay of Naples".]
The paper reports on the epidemic of obesity among Neapolitans. A survey of 659 Neapolitan men showed that 50% were overweight with 16 % of that group being ranked as obese. Among 6,300 women in the study, 43% of the women between ages 40 and 59 were 19% over their ideal body weight; between ages 50-64, 46% were 27% over their ideal weight. The numbers for children are especially alarming, and I think the paper has made a mistake, or at least made it difficult to interpret. They say that "between the ages of 6 and 11, the 'obesity rate' is 23%". That is unclear to me. Are 23% of children between the ages of 6 and 11 obese? That would be a disaster, I think. Anyway, I haven't seen that many roly-poly kids bouncing around the streets.
But you never know. On
the same page is an entire article devoted to the
opening of a new fast-food chain in Naples. This one is
Pans & Company, a Spanish company that will open
franchises shortly at four locations in Naples. It is
part of a plan to have 20 such eateries in the Campania
region up and running within the year. They will employ
about 500 young people just entering the job market with
low-level managers going to Barcelona for a period of
training. The obvious comparison is with McDonald's,
which has opened a number of places in Naples in the
last few years. The Spanish competition in Naples is
really an extension of a campaign started ten years ago
in Spain to provide a so-called "Mediterranean
diet" within a fast-food format—or, as the paper
says, "bocadillos instead of hamburgers". [Also
see this later item
At that point, Ulysses has his men stuff beeswax in their ears and has himself lashed to the mast of his ship, all the better to resist the tempting song of the sirens.
I think all that is supposed to have happened along the Amalfi coast (well before there was an Amalfi, of course). My friend, Bill, got his good ship, Down East, into the water at Nisida in the Bay of Pozzuoli the other day and set out for Amalfi and beyond. He made it across the Bay of Naples in good time, rounded Cape Campanella and headed by the small isle named Li Galli (but originally Sirenuse--see Land of Sirens) from the shores of which the sirens Ligeia, Leukosia, and Parthenope made their futile pitch.Bill reports that you can still hear police and ambulance sirens from the Amalfi coast road if you sail close enough to shore. Also, sailing—that was the real problem. The local maritime wisdom that the wind dies down at noon along that coast ("…as though some power lulled the swell…") and makes you break out the oars turned out to be true. Just past the cape and just off the magic isle, the wind died and Bill had to break out the engine. Ah, there is nothing like the smell of diesel fuel at sea to make you sing with Tennyson that you aim "to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars".
Maybe they are trying to tell us something. There are 19 towns in the area around Vesuvius known as the "Red Zone". That is the area that will have to be evacuated in case of an eruption. There are about 600,000 persons living in the Red Zone. The communities at risk are now prepared to offer €25,000 (about $30,000) towards a new place to live to anyone who leaves the area. They call it Project Exodus and the hope is that the project will reduce the population by one-third.
The "to anyone" details are not at all clear. No one seems to know whether it applies, say, to all family members in the same house or apartment—almost certainly not the case—or if it even applies to those who rent as opposed to those who own. It probably means that a single sum will go to a single owner. I suspect that there will not be many takers. Those who buy property around a volcano—at least in Naples—are characteristically fatalistic about the future; you might be tempting providence by taking the money. ("Oh, trying to pull a fast one, eh? Where's my thunderbolt.")
I don't know that this is the world's greatest pasta shop, but I like it. Pasta comes as spaghetti, macaroni, fettuccine, tagliatelle, penne, rigate, vermicelli, capellini, anelli, spirali, fusilli, maltagliatti, et noodle cetera—and those are just some of the common, generic Italian noodles in the present tense. Neapolitan conjugations include—but are not limited to (as pasta-loving legal fleagles like to say) —ziti and paccheri. They come in red, green, white, and even the off-brown of (ugh!) whole-wheat health-food pasta. Also, they are stubby, skinny, straight, wavy, cork-screwy, and shaped like a torus, also known as an "anchor ring" (or "donut" to non-mathematicians). Attempts to create a stable double-torus noodle have thus far been unsuccessful. (See Dente, Al. "Getting a Handle on a Trivial Tubular Neighborhood" in the Journal of Pasta and Topology.) I think this shop has all of them.If all that is just "noodles" to you, then maybe you don't deserve this information. But if you are familiar with the bizarre very-pre-surrealist works of Giuseppe Arcimboldi (1527 -1593), who specialized in painting human figures out of edibles, you will be pleased to know that his spirit is alive and well in Naples. Mr. Noodle Head (photo) and other similar renditions of the human head are to be found in a fascinating pasta shop on via Benedetto Croce, a few yards after entering the old city from the direction of Santa Chiara (approximately,where #6 is on the map of the historic center.)
Palazzo Filomarino della
Rocca is most recently well-known for having been
the residence of the great Neapolitan historian and
philosopher, Benedetto Croce. The
original structure was built in the 1300s and was rebuilt
and enlarged in the first decade of the 1500s. Subsequent
modifications were added by the renowned architect
Ferdinando Sanfelice in the 1700s when the building passed
into the hands of Tommaso Filomarino della Rocca. He was
responsible for the addition of a fine library, as well,
keeping with the intellectual tradition of the
premises, which had in the past hosted no less a
philosopher than Giovan Battista Vico.
That tradition still survives, as the building currently
houses the Italian Institute
for Historical Studies founded by Croce.
The building is on a long street popularly known as "Spaccanapoli" (Naples-Splitter) in the historic center of the city (see number 5 on the map of the historic center of Naples.). The section of the street where the building stands is, today, named via Benedetto Croce.
The scene was the Mostra d’Oltremare, the Overseas Fair Grounds in Naples. Since last I wrote about it, at least the arena, the spacious outdoor theater, has been renovated and is once again ready to host large-scale productions, maybe even Aida, just like in the good old days.
The event in question last week was a bit less ambitious, but still worthy of mention. It was Pizzafest 2003, a pizza cook-off to choose—and what better judges than Neapolitans?—the world’s greatest pizzaiolo, or pizza chef.
Without further ado, may I have the envelope, please. Ahem. The third-place winner is Luigi Picariello from Naples. (Ho-hum.) The second-place winner is Antonio Langella from Naples. (Please hold your applause and ho-hums.) And the world’s greatest pizza chef is—Makato Inishi from Japan! (I told you to hold the ho-hums.)
That’s right. In a fair cook-off, the 23-year-old Japanese young man beat all comers. He came to Naples two years ago for the express purpose of learning the art of pizza cooking, and seems to have done rather well. I don’t know if he is the gentleman I mentioned elsewhere, one sent here with an interpreter to learn the pizza trade. It wouldn’t surprise me, but on the other hand, I have heard that there are at least a few such visitors from Japan in Naples. In any event, there were no sour grapes (not an authentic topping, anyway) on the part of the Neapolitans. They seemed happy that they had taught Makato so well.
This is perverse, I know, but somehow I am reminded of the scene in Doctor Strangelove where Sterling Haden, as deranged general Jack D. Ripper, asks RAF officer Mandrake (played by Peter Sellers) if he had been tortured by the Japanese when he was their prisoner in World War II.“Yes,” says Mandrake. “I don’t understand. They make such bloody good cameras.”