Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Sept 2019


Anna Maria Ortese and Naples


If you have read the works of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante or followed film and TV productions based on those works, you know of the despairing plight of the Neapolitan poor in the years following WWII. As introductions go, they do the job. The writing is straightforward plain Italian prose reminiscent of English writers such as Dickens who wrote his stories in "journalese" to appear in serial format in newspapers of the day. The tv episodes of "Ferrante" (whoever he or she is) are well-done. But if that's all you know about post-war Naples, I call your attention to Anna Maria Ortese* (image shown), one of the finest Italian women writers of the 20th century and who, because she lived in pre- and post-war Naples, is an authentic source.  *[Ital. pronunciation: /Or-'tay-zay/]


Ortese once wrote fondly, even light-heartedly, of Naples:


"I lived for a long while in a truly exceptional city. [...] It had everything: good and evil, health and suffering, the most joyous happiness and the most agonizing pain, [...] all of these things were so tightly fused and confused, so mixed together among themselves, that a foreigner arriving in this city had, at first glance, a strange impression, as if quite normal human beings with regular instruments in the orchestra were not under the intelligent baton of the Maestro, but had wandered off to play on their own, producing an effect of marvellous confusion." [from L’Infanta sepolta, 1950. My translation. jm]


Anna Maria Ortese (1914–1998) wrote novels, short stories, poetry, and about her travels. She was born in Rome and grew up between southern Italy and Tripoli, with her formal education ending at age thirteen. Her mother was from Naples, which explains her attachment to the city. During her 80+ years of life she won literary prizes in a style noted not so much for being difficult (which it is) but for the sense that here was a poet (when she wasn't directly writing poetry) who was doing her best to force her poetry into prose if she could! She lived for many years in Naples following WWII but also resided in Milan, in Rome, and for most of the last twenty years of her life in Rapallo where she passed away. She is buried in Genoa.


In 1953 her third collection of essays, Il mare non bagna Napoli, struck sensitive, ugly chords in Naples. She offended some people, and many never forgave her. She wrote of how the lower economic classes were doing after the war. Her view? Not very well. The Haves didn't care about the Have-Nots, she said, and she took them to task for it.


The title of the offending collection, Il mare non bagna Napoli, (lit. The Sea Does Not Bathe Naples) requires comment. It's a cliché in Italian to say, for example, that "the city is bathed by the beautiful Mediterranean." It's an encompassing cliché; that is, the sea is beautiful and the beauty flows into the city and people. Spindrift thrown up by the waves covers the city and the people with magical pixie dust and, lo, all is beauteous. Except, Ortese says, the sea really doesn't do that in Naples it doesn't turn everything to beauty. The title has been effectively rendered in English as The Bay is not Naples. It's a reminder not to confuse the lovely bay with the city. They are two different things. You have to distinguish reality from fantasy.


People have been writing on class differences in Naples ever since there have been (1) people, (2) class differences, and (3) Naples. Mark Twain's comments in The Innocents Abroad (1869) are succinct and still relevant:


...the contrasts between opulence and poverty, and magnificence and misery, are more frequent and more striking in Naples than in Paris even...Naked boys of nine years and the fancy-dressed children of luxury; shreds and tatters, and brilliant uniforms; jackass carts and state carriages; beggars, princes, and bishops, jostle each other in every street.

Somewhat later, Andrea Baldi, in "Anna Maria Ortese: Breaking the Spell of Naples?" in Delirious Naples, A Cultural History of the City of the Sun, [Pellegrino, D'Acierno and Stanislao G. Pugliese, editors. Fordham University Press, New York, 2019] writes:

This raid on the port and train station was part of U.S. strikes from Dec 1942 to Sept 1943 (the armistice with Italy). They were carried out by long-range B-24 "Liberator" bombers from the US 9th Air Force, flying from North Africa and Sicily. (See the link at  the bottom of this page.) This is not a German air-raid on Naples.   




The conflicts that afflict Neapolitan life appear especially grim when Ortese and her family return to the city in 1945, after having fled the bombing of Campania, barely escaping the ravages of the war. Amid the rubble (Ortese finds her former neighborhood devastated and "transformed beyond recognition," and she endures a "whole year of despair." She cannot identify the city of her youth —already afflicted by disturbing contradictions— in the present state of moral dissolution, where physical destruction and material need are exacerbated by a ruthless will to survive. This fever has infected the Neapolitan lumpenproletariat, which is consumed by the veneration of money, to be garnered at all costs, including the sexual exploitation of vulnerable subjects: "The whole city was one diabolical marketplace, where everything was for sale: cigarettes, bread, women, and saddest of all, even children's innocence."
[quotes are from Ortese, il Mare di Napoli, pp. 123-24].


I am indebted to Marius Kociejowski (whose writings about Naples are here on my website) for his observations:


...Ortese hits dead centre...She strikes at the goolies, the vanities of those oh so fashionable people of the day, and politics being what it was in those postwar years, she lets fly at their political hypocrisies. (Those chapters comprise "The Silence of Reason", the final section of Il mare non bagna Napoli.) I should have said it's strong stuff but it's subtle, which is to say her subjects would have gone all the more crazy when they read her. No doubt she did betray them in a way. She sat at their tables and drank their wine. Of course she became a "non-person" in Naples until quite recently. There are now conferences on her. She lives on whereas the dead are now doubly dead.

An extended note: I found an English-language obituary of Ortese from 1998 that has this distortion by omission (any explanation would be better than none): "In 1945 Ortese's family moved to Naples, a city that still bore the scars of the German occupation, with its aftermath of black marketeering and desperate poverty." The German occupation of Naples is now part of the Neapolitan self-image, but it smacks of a "created memory". Here is what the obit writer might have explained. Two of these three sentences have a great deal in common. Choose the one that is different:


1. The Germans occupied Paris in WWII.
2. The Germans occupied Warsaw in WWII.
3. The Germans occupied Naples in WWII.


The first two came about through belligerent wartime invasion by Germany of France and Poland and the German occupation of the capital cities of those nations, Paris and Warsaw. They are clear examples of a hostile enemy power invading and then sitting on conquered land. What about #3? Did Germany invade Italy in WWII? No. Germany and Italy were two-thirds of the Fascist Axis alliance amusingly called in Italian at the time, "Roberto", as in


RO(ma) - BER(lino) - TO(kyo)



Get it? The Allies vs the Axis — The Super Bowl of all wars. The Allies won, but it was a nail-biter. Back to 1943. The Germans who were in Naples in 1943 were there because they were stationed there (!) as part of the German contingent in Italy. If you were a German soldier in WWII, Italy was better than the Russian front. Uh, a lot better. Even though you had been chased across and out of Africa and then through and out of Sicily and were now being chased up all of Italy by Allied forces, at least you were not on the Russian front. In Italy the Germans were losing and they knew it, but the German soldiers in Naples had been there as friendly partners of Italy for years. (Now, after the Italian separate surrender to the Allies, Naples was enemy territory for the Germans, but they were not leaving until they were good and ready. (They were preparing their long, final retreat up the peninsula
— the lethal defences on the approaches to Cassino and Rome. Thus, the Germans "occupied" Naples.


As a final note, I mention Kociejowski again, who asks in another book of his, Zoroaster's Children, "Should one describe a country in terms of its extremes?" Is that what Ortese was doing? I don't think they drove her away. Maybe she was just saddened. Maybe she got fed up and left her mother's city forever. Anyone who has lived here gets weary of the people describing themselves in terms of their popular music ("All we need is the sun, all we need is the sea! We're Neapolitans!") If that's what she was doing, she had that right. It's as if Neapolitans really have nothing but fantasy, standing out in front of the lottery shop all damned day waiting for their numbers to come up, for their ship to come in — right across the bay, but as Ortese says, the sea doesn't quite come in that far.


related: Air Raids Naples in WW2The WW2 portal.


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