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Everything is related to Naples
Number 160 in this series. Link to all items here.

Lo Guarracino

A Tale of Musicological Ichthyomachy

Relax. It' just a fish story, but I had to spice up the title in order to keep up with the many people with alphabets after their names. They have used terms such as demopsychological, halieutic and bromatological (look them up—I did!) to describe what is essentially a piece of folk music. The fisherfolk who wrote this thing in the early 1700s must have had a lot of fun and no doubt would have been delighted to know that their masterful tarantella, Lo Guarracino, would bust scholarly chops for the next 300 years. If it was just a single, simple fisherman with a guitar who wrote it, he was a genius.

Lo Guarracino is the Neapolitan dialect name for the fish known in Italian as the coracino. (In scholarese, it is called chromis chromis.) They say it is an ugly fish; you be the judge (photo, above). This tarantella is still well-known and widely sung and danced today. The story told by the text is straightforward—for a fish story: the hero, lo Guarracino, decides to end his bachelor life and sets out to seek a mate. He puts on his best duds, ventures out and promptly falls in love with Sardella, a female sardine. She, however, is already betrothed to Alleterato, a tuna. After that set-up, the next umpteen verses are essentially a list of all the creatures of the local waters as they get involved on one side or the other of the love rivalry. The whole thing escalates and degenerates until there is a universal fish war going on.

The tarantella is dated from references in the text, for example, to Sardella wearing her hair alla caunizza (Pompadour)—that from Anton Wenzel, prince of Kaunitz-Reitberg, one of the ministers of empress Maria Theresa of Austria. No one knows if he really wore his hair like that. I think she did, though. Maybe it doesn't matter, and scholars don't seem to mind the part about fish wearing clothes or having hair. The really scholarly part comes into play because of the list of creatures in the sea. There seem to be 82 of them woven tongue-twistingly into the triplet rhythms of the tarantella—and all of the names are not only in dialect but, to a large extent, in an archaic dialect.

There is a long bibliography of those who have tried to list all the names, find out what the Italian terms are, whether there might have been some allegorical or invented names, whether the creatures still exist, and what, if anything, any of this can tell us about the lives of those who fished the local waters (which is where "bromatological" comes in—having to do with the nature, quality and uses of food). Lo Guarracino interested Benedetto Croce, who tried to list all of the names in 1923 but either got bored or gave up. Historian Gino Doria wrote a book about Lo Guarracino, as did Neapolitan musicologist Roberto De Simone, and in 1982 professor Arturo Palombi, published his study of the text, coming up with the definitive count of 82 names. In 1992, one diligent scholar, Maria Cristina Gambi, published a list with the Linnaean Latin classification of the names, claiming, as well, to have attained some sort of bromatological nirvana in doing so. (I am happy for her!) And poet Domenico Rea said "No Neapolitan fishmonger, as able as he might have been, would have had such a glorious icthyological display; it is an epic list of grand and ardent warriors worthy of the Trojan War."

Trojan War? Indeed, as with many fairy tales involving animals, Lo Guarracino lends itself well to allegory; many scholars (once they get tired of the etymological riddles) see the story in the text as thinly disguised human behavior. Like the Trojan War as well as endless petty love rivalries, it all starts as a squabble and escalates quickly into the flailing of fists—or fins. The film (linked below) does that, as well, unless there is something really fishy about my hermeneutics. It's a marvelous short film called Lo Guarracino by Michelangelo Fornaro. It is done brilliantly in stop-motion animation and won the David di Donatello prize at the New York Short Film Festival in 2005. The film is at this YouTube link. Watch, listen and enjoy it. You won't understand a word, but that puts you in some pretty good company. (And listen carefully to the voice at the very beginning; it should clear up any doubts about whether or not there is middle-eastern influence in Neapolitan music.)


bibliography, sources

-De Simone, Roberto. La tarantella napoletana nelle due anime del Guarracino. Edition: Gabriela and Maria Teresa Benincasa. Rome, 1992.
-Doria, Gino. La canzone del Guarracino. Alfredo Guida. Naples. 1933, reprint 1957.
-Gambi, Maria Cristina. Lo Guarracino che jeva pe mare. Gaetano Macchiaroli ed. Naples, 1992
-Paliotti, Vittorio. "Una guerra di pesci nel mare di Napoli" in L'Isola. On-line here.
-Scialò, Pasquale. Storie di Musiche. Guida. Naples, 2010.
-Sconamiglio, Gioacchino. La Canzone del Guarracino. Ed. Colombo. Rome. 1963.



(This item inspired an interesting comment from contributor, Larry Ray—The Young Man & the Sea.

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