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main index   © Jeff Matthews    entry Feb. 2004

Realism (lit.)

Edoardo Scarfoglio (1860–1917)


The direct language of the literary movements known as "Realism" and "Naturalism" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the result of many political and social processes. Among these were the growth of a middle class, the rise in literacy, and the theories of Marx and Darwin, which called for exacting statements and description. This "democratization" of literature—the need to write about and for new social classes (and old ones not written about before), to write about the real lives of real people in the plain, unadorned language of everyday life—led to Zola, Verga, Stephen Crane, Dreiser, and  D.H. Lawrence.

Such directness occurs late and rather suddenly in Italian literature. Edoardo Scarfoglio was from Paganica in Abruzzo but lived and worked in Naples much of his life. He was among those Italian writers who started to write short fiction (the novella) in the late 1800s and then longer fiction, novels, a form ignored before then by Italian authors, largely bound, as they were (until Manzoni), to classical literary forms. Scarfoglio was successful early in life; he was in his twenties when he could be said to have "made it" as a writer of short, realist fiction, particularly with the publication of The Trial of Phryne in 1884.

For whatever reason—perhaps because journalism was the natural vehicle for everyday language—he gave up "literature" and dedicated the rest of his life to journalism. He married the most prominent Italian woman writer of the day, Matilde Serao. Together they founded a number of newspapers, among which was Il Mattino, still the largest Neapolitan daily. Together, they moved Naples out of the backwaters and into the mainstream of Italian journalism; they provided space for some of Italy's fine talent of the day by serializing such writers as D'Annunzio.


Scarfoglio's narrative skills are best seen in the novella, mentioned above: The Trial of Phryne. It is a retelling—set in small-town Italy of the late nineteenth century—of the trial of Phryne, a Greek courtesan from the fourth century, b.c. She was on trial for blasphemy. Her life was at stake and ultimately saved by her lawyer's appeal to the Greek concept that the Good, True, and Beautiful were inseparable and that such a Beautiful defendant must, therefore, be Good and True. She bared her breasts to the jury and was roundly and firmly acquitted. Sociologists use this episode to speak of such things as the rhetoric of silence in women's judicial supplication, and rhetoric as a "craft of logos," where technique determines outcome, emerging as an indeterminate act outside Western definitions of rhetorical process. The rest of us think of it in terms of, "Listen, sweetheart—smile, look beautiful, and keep your mouth shut."

Scarfoglio's Phryne is a young village beauty by the name of Mariantonia, guilty of poisoning her mother–in-law. Italians who have not read Scarfoglio know the episode anyway from the film version, one part of Alessandro Blasetti's 1952 episodic film, Altri Tempi (Other Times), starring Vittorio De Sica as the lawyer and Gina Lollobrigida as Phryne/Mariantonia. In his appeal to the court, De Sica says, "Does not the law of our land state that the mentally handicapped be acquitted? Why then should such a physically endowed creature as this magnificent woman beside me not be acquitted, too?"

As a writer and literary critic Scarfoglio advocated the liberation of Italian literature from French influence. As an editorialist, he supported such things as Italian expansionism in Africa and the Aegean in the 1890s. Indeed, one finds this reference to him in a lengthy article on "The Italians in Africa" in a copy of The Fortnightly Review from October, 1896: 

Signor Scarfoglio, the editor of Il Mattino of Naples, is the great advocate for the war policy. Perhaps it may be the Spanish blood which flows in the Neapolitan veins, leading to a certain want of judgment and carelessness about consequences, which has made this aspect of the case favorable to the Southern eyes, and secured for Signor Crispi and his ambitious schemes for the glory of Italy in Africa, at all hazards, the warmest support from the South.

That was written by an Englishman during the heydey of British imperialism. Clearly, what was sauce for the English goose was not meant for the swarthy Italian gander.

Scarfoglio had insatiable wanderlust, at one point lamenting his life as a "hack journalist" and claiming that had been born to "hunt elephants on the banks of the Omo and sail amidst the fissures of the polar ice-pack." Aboard his vessel, Claretta, he sailed at least to the eastern shores of Greece and coastal Turkey. From his ship, he wrote Letters to Lydia, passionate prose disclosing his affair with the actress Lydia Gautier. He separated from his wife, Matilde Serao, in 1902 and died in 1917. He is the father of Neapolitan journalist, Antonio Scarfoglio.


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