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Number 102 items in this series. Link to all items here. 

The Femminiello in Neapolitan Culture

image from de Blasio
(sources, below)

A recent headline in the paper caught my eye: Rivolta ai quartieri Spagnoli: i femminielli cacciano le trans. [Revolt in the Spanish Quarter: femminielli drive out the trans.] Explanation is required for the non-translated words. The second term in the headline, trans, is generally used in Italian to mean 'transexual' (not 'transvestite'). In general usage, the term "transexual" refers to those whose physical sex is not the same as their psychological gender (i.e., how they identify themselves). Such a person (a male-to-female transexual, for example) feels as though she is a woman trapped in a man's body. Such a transexual male who then undergoes surgery to change physical gender is, in fact, now a 'complete' woman and in the specific terminology of the transexual community is described as a 'transwoman'. (I am purposely avoiding the use of the term "third sex," a disputed use among sociologists.)

Femminiello (femminielli is the plural) is quite different. He is a male transvestite, not simply a male homosexual; it refers in Naples to men who, in addition to their natural inclinations, have been, as they now say, "gendered"*note 1 to dress and behave as women and who often engage in prostitution. But they are male; they know it and everyone else knows it. It bears emphasis that femminiello is not a derogatory term. The grammar is clear: the diminutive -iello is a term of endearment, and the masculine suffix, -o, is attached to the word for woman; roughly, it translates as "little woman-man." It is not an insult; that is, it doesn't mean "queer" or "faggot"; it is a description and term of acceptance for those who for many, many centuries have fit into the hidden echelons of Neapolitan culture in their own way.

Those who have written about the femminiello emphasize the acceptance. Achille della Ragione (b. 1947) [see sources, below], a Neapolitan scholar, has written [my translation]:

In the variegated world of homosexuality, still ill defined both scientifically and culturally, the position of the Neapolitan femminello is a privileged one...they live mostly in the poor quarters in a welcoming atmosphere, surrounded by good-natured consensus. They were born in a squalid slum, bereft of air and light, into families where promiscuity is the rule and all the children generally sleep in one bed...he is usually the youngest male child, 'mother's little darling,' and tends to imitate his mother's feminine sweetness...It is unusual for a poor family to view the femminiello as a family disgrace in any sense of the word; he is useful, he does chores, runs errands and watches the kids...and a mother would have no second thoughts about asking a femminiello to babysit.

Writers on this subject also cite as evidence of the femminiello's  acceptance in the Neapolitan sub-culture the work of Abele De Blasio (1858-1945), a Neapolitan anthropologist whose Usi e costumi dei camorristi [Uses and Customs of the Camorra, ed.note: the Camorra is the Neapolitan Mafia] from 1897 reports on the cases of 'O spusarizio masculino, popularly sanctioned marriages among femminielli in the poorer quarters of Naples (particularly, the Spanish Quarter).

Authors also cite passages from Curzio Malaparte's La Pelle [The Skin] [my translation]:

I had already heard people speak many times of the figliata [ed. note: figliata is the word used to refer to the marriage of a daughter; in this case, it is short for filgiata dei femminiellimarriage of the femminielli] the famous sacred ceremony held in secret every year in Torre del Greco, where the highest priests of the mysterious religion of the Uranians from all over Europe came to participate, but I had never managed to be present at this arcane ritual. The Asian cult of the Uranian religion was introduced into Europe from Persia shortly before the time of Christ, and by the time of the reign of Tiberius this most ancient ceremony was celebrated in many secret temples in Rome, itself, the oldest of which was that of Suburra. The celebration was suspended during the war [WWII], and this was the first time since the liberation that this mysterious ritual could again be honored.*note 2

Malaparte speaks of the tide of homosexuals, the Internationale of invertiti [those who are 'inverted'] each one a 'noble Narcissus,' streaming back to Naples through broken German lines after the liberation of southern Italy in September 1943—back to Naples, the capital of the ancient Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the most important carrefour [French in the original: carrefour=crossroads] of the forbidden vice. They brought with them the hope that the "liberation" of Europe from tyranny would somehow at last translate into lasting sexual freedom.*note 3

The constant references in many sources to the ancient rituals behind the presence of the femminiello in Naples require little comment. The links to ancient Greek mythology are numerous: for example, Hermaphroditus, who possessed the beauty of the mother, Aphrodite, and the strength of the father, Hermes; or Teresias, the  blind prophet of Thebes, famous for being transformed into a woman for seven years. Both of these personages and, indeed, others in many cultures in the world are presumed to possess something that others do not: the wise equilibrium that comes from knowing both worlds, masculine and feminine.

Yet, there is a lot of over-romanticizing in such references to "ancient rituals"—as if being a femminiello were a time-honored tradition like all other time-honored traditions, the passing of which we should view with nostalgia as does della Ragione. He writes: "The femminielli of tomorrow will be a different species than that which has thrived for 2500 years in the shadow of Vesuvius as a feature, in good and bad, of our beloved city." Yes, that's a long time, but 500 years isn't half-bad either, and it has been at least that long since homosexuality was declared punishable even by death in many places in Europe. If that climate is now changing again towards one of acceptance, the make-up of the old "home turf" of the femminielli, the Spanish Quarter of Naples, has changed as well, which was the point of the article mentioned in the first paragraph, above. There are many non-European immigrants, for example. This is not to say that the trans competition to the femminielli are necessarily immigrants. They may be Italian or even Neapolitan. Interestingly, however, they are often referred to as—and refer to themselves as—viado, a Brazilian term for transexual. They have, however, little to do with the Neapolitan femminiello.

*note 1:Professional nomenclature in English has become confusingly precise in recent years, using terms such as intersexual, pansexual, androsexual and, the most common, transgender. Even that last term has had to be borrowed into Italian as transgenderismo as an umbrella term for those who don't conform to the traditional roles of the sex they were born with. If femminiello has to be slotted into one of these many categories (and I don't know that it does), then transgender might fit. (^back up to text)

*note 2: I don't know what Malaparte means by "Uranian religion [religione uraniana]...introduced into Europe from Persia." In modern times, the term uranian was used in the late 19th century as a synonym for homosexual (also a term from the 1890s). That use of uranian derives from the self-description by the so-called "pederastic poets" in Britain in the late 19th century. That 'Uranian' comes from a German scholar and early advocate for the rights of homosexuals, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, in the mid-1800s; he coined the neologism Urning in a list of sexual-orientation types (in this case, love of a man for a man); he coined that term from Aphrodite Urania, described by Pausanias in Plato's Symposium as representing the "love that springs entirely from the male." There may well have been such a secret cult in Rome, as Malaparte says, but it apparently came from Greece. If the Greeks imported it before that from Persia (or even farther east, India), it isn't clear how followers of this religion might have referred to themselves. (^back up to text)

*note 3: Curzio Malaparte (a pen-name for Kurt Erich Suckert, 1896-1957) apparently came to the conclusion that the "liberation" did not live up to expectations. In the dedication of La Pelle, he thanks "...all of the good, brave and honest American soldiers, my comrades in arms from 1943-45, who died uselessly [inutilmente] for the freedom of Europe." He left his grand home on Capri to the Chinese Communist government. (^back to text)


-de Blasio, Abele; (1897); Usi e costumi dei camorristi; Gambella, Naples. Reprint: Edizioni del Delfino, Naples, 1975.
della Ragione A. I Femminielli. On-line at Guide Campania.(retrieved: Nov. 12, 2009)
-Malaparete, Curzio. La Pelle. Vallechi editore. Florence. 1961.

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