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Period Postcards from Naples
Postcard from Naples 10 - The macchietta. This postcard is a copy of one of a series published by Bideri in 1900. The originals are in the Lucchesi Palli section of the National Library in Naples. They all deal with the personality types called macchietta, associated with ironic songs and texts of the kind that cropped up in Italian variety shows in the 1880s. These shows were similar to vaudeville, burlesque, music hall and other types of musical-theatrical genres, presenting a great variety of entertainment. One of these was the macchietta. It was particularly strong in Naples where it became so popular that it appeared “on the same bill” as the popular female type, the chanteuse in the best-known theater of its kind in Naples, the Salon Margherita, the café-chantant in the Galleria Umberto beginning in the early 1890s. This particular postcard shows Nicola Maldacea, apparently the first true macchietta and certainly the best-known in Naples and throughout Italy.
The term, itself—macchietta—has multiple meanings in Italian. Originally from macchia (a stain or blotch), it is used in painting in the sense of a "splash" of color and even a quickly done colorful sketch, usually a caricature. The secondary meaning may refer to an eccentric person, as in "What a character!", one who evokes good-natured hilarity and amusement (but not ridicule). From this, we have the extended meaning, above, of the stage personality, the macchietta comic.
This particular comic, Nicola Maldacea, was born in Naples in 1870. He started performing in school productions, then
in small professional and semi-pro companies in the Neapolitan outback. He performed in private recitals (called periodiche). (Maybe that's not so strange. Think of hiring a clown, singer, magician, etc. for your kid's birthday party.) When they wanted poetry, song or comic monologues, they could get Maldacea and a few others like him. Their material included dialect monologues and poetry by such as Ferdinando Russo and other prominent dialect writers of the late 1800s. (Public performances of such material was just as important as publishing the written material in terms of maintaining the dialect in the face of the onslaught of standardized Italian. This was true not just in Naples but in the many other places in Italy with strong traditions of dialect literature. See Dialect literature in Neapolitan.) Within a year Maldacea was involved with well-known companies and in 1891 was approached (as noted, above) by the café chantant, the salone Margherita, which had just opened in the new Gallery Umberto I—along the lines of similar Parisian establishments. It was here that he created the personality type of the macchietta and quite literally became a nationwide sensation. Using material written especially for him, his trademark performance was to come out dressed as one of a vast number of personality types: the happy (or unhappy) husband, the cop, the pretentious duke, the crime boss, the intellectual, the dandy, the priest, the lady's man, etc.etc. (Each role was a separate macchietta.) His material was usually targeted at a specific person (unspecified, of course!) and most of the fun was in trying to guess who it was. Important, however, is the fact he was having fun with them, not making fun of them. It was very one-dimensional, no hidden psychology. It was pure good-natured caricature. The postcard (above) is entitled The Superman. Maldacea was certainly having fun with a known person, possibly a politician of the day. I don't know who, but you can bet that the audience did. Maldacea dressed, overdressed and even cross-dressed for his parts, using a variety of wigs, costumes, noses and what-not. Music may have been composed by name writers but was always secondary, providing rhythmic, almost "rim-shot"-like accompaniment.
For about 30 years, between 1890 and 1920, Nicola Maldacea, was one of the comic performers and satirists not just in Naples but in all of Italy. Tastes change, of course, and his popularity waned after WWI. He went down fast and hard. Like his father, he had blown his money (he had made a considerable amount as a performer) on gambling. He wound up back in Naples playing the same small places he had started in. By the late 1930s, they struggled to remember him so they write a biography. He played some bit parts in a few films. he died in Rome in 1945, pretty much forgotten. Rags to riches—and back.
Alifuoco, Gennaro. (1994) "La Macchietta" in Napoli in Documenti - Archivio Napoli. Edizioni archivio. Bibbiena, Arezzo.
Chiocchini, Stefania. (2007) "Maldacea, Nicola" in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. Treccani.
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