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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Jan. 200

The Scugnizzo

photo of nino d'angeloThe Neapolitan word scugnizzo is normally rendered in English as “street urchin,” although that term and others such as “ragamuffin” are too archaically cute to be much help in understanding how these children of the street have typically lived—and still live—in Naples. They are always poor, go to school when they have to, and hustle through the rest of their young lives by hook or crook; that is, with small jobs such as running errands, washing windshields at stoplights, and, inevitably in some cases, by descent into the seamy underworld of petty-crime. They scrape by. Indeed, scugnizzo apparently comes from medieval vernacular Latin, “cugnare,” meaning “to scrape”. 

Neapolitan lore and literature is full of scugnizzi (the plural). Any collection of late 19th–century photography of Naples has the obligatory shot or two of the bare–foot kid hitching a free ride on the back of the horse–drawn trolley or thumbing his nose at the well–to–do. There is also a well–known 1931 play, “The Last Scugnizzo” by Raffaele Viviani (photo, above, shows Nino D'Angelo starring in a recent version of that play) and the 1946 Oscar–winning bit of Italian neo–Realism entitled “Sciuscià” directed by Vittorio De Sica. That title, itself, was a neologism in Neapolitan dialect from the local pronunciation of “shoe shine,” as in the post-war phrase, “Hey, Joe, you want sciuscià?” Also, the Neapolitan maker of films of social involvement, Nanny Loy, turned out his Scugnizzi in 1989; that film is the basis for the musical of the same name by Mattone and Vaime currently playing to enthusiastic audiences in Naples. It has a mostly amateur cast of young street–wise Neapolitans who know what they are singing and dancing about. The piece is set against the backdrop of the jail for juvenile offenders—still in operation—on the small isle of Nisida off the shores of Bagnoli in the Gulf of Naples. 

The irony is that while the president of Italy, Carlo Azelio Ciampi, was in Naples the other day enjoying a production of the musical, a 13–year–old boy, characterized in at least some newspaper accounts as a scugnizzo was shot to death while trying to steal a motor-scooter. He and his 17–year–old accomplice pulled up on their own scooter alongside a young man driving alone on his. “Give us your bike!” one of them shouted. The potential victim, it turns out, was an off–duty policeman in street garb, and he was armed. By his account, the two both wore hoods. He turned to make a run for it, and they followed him. This time, the one on the back of the scooter pointed a pistol at him and the driver yelled, “Shoot! Shoot!” At that point, the young cop pulled out his own pistol and—again, by his account—fired one “downward warning shot” in their direction. Whatever the case, the bullet struck the 13–year–old driver in the face and passed through to wound the accomplice on the rear seat. The young driver died shortly thereafter, and his accomplice was taken to a hospital. He will recover. The pistol he had pointed at the cop was found at the scene. It was a plastic toy. 

The mother of the child is screaming (through lawyers) that her son was murdered by a trigger-happy cop. The policeman—only 20–years–old, himself—claims he was afraid for his life and fired only to warn his assailants. Investigations are now going on into whether he may be charged with, as the law puts it, “culpable use of excessive force in self-defence”. I have no idea how that will turn out, nor do I know anything about the boy that died. I do think, however, that musicals about poverty lend an air of illusory delight to a condition that will not be sung and danced away.


[Also see related entry here]

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