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Number 101 in this series.  Link to all items here.

As we say over yonder:

Stop Pestering St. Joseph’s Genitals!

Well, maybe we don’t say that—at least not in any over yonder I happen to be from. Many Neapolitans, however, are quite convinced that they are, indeed, saying precisely that whenever they caution someone with the phrase “Non sfrocoliate la mazzarella di San Giuseppe!" [also spelled in some sources as sfrogoliate].1

To set the sociolinguistic scene for you: in a situation where someone is haranguing and nitpicking you to death with the same old point over and over, like a broken record click broken record click broken record click... (if you are very young, we used to have records in the caves next to our manual typewriters)...and you want to shout, “Give it a rest!” or “Put a sock in it!”, Neapolitans might tell that person to “Non sfrocoliate la mazzarella di San Giuseppe!"

San Giuseppe refers, of course, to Joseph, the husband of Mary and foster-father of Jesus. Mazzarella is a cane or walking stick, but in this case, according to the first seven Neapolitans I asked about this expression, it's a euphemism for—well,penis. “I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it,” they all giggled. Yes, indeed, it’s obvious, but in a kingdom of the blind, even a one-eyed beggar is a phallic symbol.

The real story is that mazzarella really does mean walking stick or cane. (If you retell this story, please try to keep the difference in pronunciation straight between mazzarella and mozzarella, in which latter case, you’d be talking about Joseph's buffalo cheese.) Where was I? Right—walking stick. I have this information from a fine goldmine of Neapolitan lore: to wit, Feste, Farina e Forca by Vittorio Gleijeses (1919-2009) a Neapolitan scholar and historian. I am looking at the 3rd edition of the book (1977). Even the title is a treasure: feste=celebrations; farina=flour; forca=gallows. Those were the proverbial "Three F's," said to be the keys to keeping the masses in line under the autocratic rule of the Bourbon dynasty. It's a variation of the Latin of Juvenal, who complained that the once proud Romans, who “sold our vote to no man” now seemed to be interested in only two things: panem et circenses, that is, bread and games. (He might have added TuTubum, if he were alive today).

The 3 F's of the Neapolitan Bourbons, Feste, Farina e Forca (mentioned directly above), may also be the inspiration of the better known “pope, king and hangman”, supposedly the method championed by Josephe-Marie de Maistre (1753-1821), a counter-enlightenment, counter-revolutionary Catholic fundamentalist, defender of the divine right of kings and one of the founders of modern European conservatism. The phrase, itself, is not by de Maistre, but is in a description of him by Émile Faguet, who described Maistre as
a fierce absolutist, a furious theocrat, an intransigent legitimist, apostle of a monstrous trinity composed of pope, king and hangman, always and everywhere the champion of the hardest, narrowest and most inflexible dogmatism, a dark figure out of the Middle Ages, part learned doctor, part inquisitor, part executioner.
-Émile Faguet, Politiques et Moralistes du Dix-neuvieme Siècle, 1st series, Paris: Société Française d'Imprimerie et de Librairie, 1899. 

book is a compendium of Neapolitan festivals, big and small, and Neapolitan cuisine, with a few pages on the ghastly spectacle of public hangings.

I paraphrase his story of St. Joseph’s mazzarella.
It seems there was a cane, a religious relic, believed to have belonged to Joseph. Somehow the relic wound up in England and was brought to Naples in the 1700s by the singer Grimaldi (2) and stored in the chapel of his home on the Riviera di Chiaia not far from the church of San Giuseppe. (3) On the feast day for St. Joseph, March 19, the relic was opened to the public. The faithful flocked to the walking stick, as they did on subsequent occasions when it was on display. At a certain point the majordomo noticed that the relic was skinnier than it used to be! Some of the faithful had been using knives to help themselves to little bits of the cane! Thus arose the warning to all who came to view: 'Non sfrocoliate la mazzarella di San Giuseppe!' or 'Don’t whittle on the cane!'
After Grimaldi died, there were lengthy legal battles over who would get custody of the relic. Gleijeses believed (when he wrote the book) that it had wound up in the church of San Giuseppe dei Nudi, not far from the National Museum. I must admit to some nervousness when I walked into that church and asked a nun if I might see the mazzarella of St. Joseph. Would she blush? Hit me with thing? I must have been really nervous because she just giggled and said, “What would San Giuseppe be doing with buffalo cheese?” (4)

*1. Technically, the verb can be used generically to mean worry, vex, irritate, bother, pester. It is one of the many Neapolitanisms that have crept into standard Italian. [back to text]

*2. ref to Nicolò Grimaldi, famous castrato singer, who died in Naples in 1732.

*3. This church

*4. OK, no, but I did go into the church, found the display and took the photo at the top of this page, showing what is apparently St. Joseph with his mazzarella.

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