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main index   © Jeff Matthews    entry Oct  2014

Period Postcards from Naples
26 27 28

Postcard from Naples 16 - This is a colored version of an Alinari photograph from c.1895. It is labeled Napoli - Scugnizzi - Dolce far niente (the sweet life of leisure). I have seen thousands of faded copies of bad copies of the original b&w photograph, usually being peddled by street vendors. The shot was certainly staged by the Alinari photographer, probably to reenforce the rest of Italy's notions about the shiftless south. The original was no doubt a large glass negative (which, if it still exists, must be in the Alinari archives in Florence). These colored small post-cards are always garishly over-saturated. This particular shot is one of the most popular of all of the “scugnizzi” photos. The singular of that word is “scugnizzo” and has various English translations, most of which are too cute, such as “ragamuffin” and “street urchin.” The word was apparently first used by Ferdinando Russo in 1895, who said that it was a slang word for kids who live by their wits out on the streets, whose parents may not be around, or who have run away from state institutions such as orphanages. At least in modern Italian (which has appropriated the dialect word) there is a distinct flavor of “juvenile delinquent” about the word. That's why “ragamuffin” and “street urchin” are too cute. (There is a separate entry on scugnizzo at this link.) The etymology of the word is not certain; one theory is that it is from a medieval verb, cugnare, meaning to scrape.

Interesting is that I also found the original b&w version in a publication that was trying to trace the etymology of another phrase—figlio 'n ntrocchia. The word scugnizzo was not mentioned in the text, but there were plenty of pictures of scugnizzi. The phrase figlio 'n ntrocchia conjures up an intelligent,
roguish hero of low social class who lives by his cunning and little by little through often humorous adventures works his way up. He is essentially a loveable scoundrel. There is a literary genre based on this personality type called picaresque (from the Spanish picaresca since the genre goes back to Spanish literature). In English-language literature some examples are: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding (1749), a number of novels by Charles Dickens, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884) and many others even up into modern literature (Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and, in German, Thomas Mann's Adventures of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954). So I asked five or six friends what they think of when they hear figlio 'n ntrocchia. I suggested that it meant something very rude such as "son of a bitch." Not so, according to them. It means, "intelligent, cunning, quick-witted, and not above putting a hustle on you."

"But," I sputtered, "that describes the entire city of Naples."
"That," said one, "is why there is no picaresque tradition in Italian literature. We have an entire city!"

But they all said that there was at least potential overlap between scugnizzo and figlio 'n ntrocchia, depending on just how roguishly loveable and on their way up those kids in the postcard look to you. The etymology, however, suggests that my version may be at least as plausible. The phrase means at least "son of a..." [figlio]—and, then, depending on how much time you want to spend searching very old manuscripts for the meaning of trocchia—either a prostitute or a group (meaning a bunch of men). The best translation may very well be "cunning son-of-a-bitch," uttered with some admiration, of course. I'm sure that's what the Alinari photographer said when he looked around and saw that his camera was gone. I have actually met a likeable scoundrel only once around here and he didn't look anything like these kids! You may meet him here. Hold on to your wallet.

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