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main index  © Jeff Matthews   entry Apr. 2003


Matilde Serao (1)also Vergil (4)

Today I set out to learn about Matilde Serao, prominent Neapolitan journalist and writer from the early 1900s in Naples. That is about all I knew—that, and the fact that I still had an unopened copy of her Leggende Napoletane (Neapolitan Legends) lying in wait for me. As with most of these expeditions of mine to find out stuff, I got distracted very easily—but that's half the fun. 

The biographical material is straightforward. She was born in 1856 in Patrasso in Greece, where her Neapolitan father, Francesco, a journalist, had taken refuge during the Bourbon reprisals in Naples following the political turmoil of 1848. Her mother, Paolina Bonelly, was Greek. The family returned to Naples when the Bourbon dynasty ended and the Kingdom of Naples became part of the larger state of Italy. 

Serao graduated from high school in 1874 and got her first job as a telegraph operator at the post-office. She wrote some early novels of little consequence. She married the Neapolitan journalist Edoardo Scarfoglio in 1885, with whom she would eventually have four children. Together, they founded three newspapers, one of which was Il Mattino (still the largest Neapolitan daily). She died in 1927. 

Serao is best-remembered as being the type of chronicler of Neapolitan life that Grazia Deledda and Giovanni Verga were for Sardinia and Sicily, respectively. She was an intense and accurate observer of the kaleidoscopic mosaic that was Naples at the turn of the century—from the hard-pressed underclass to the more affluent Neapolitan petite bourgeoisie, all of whose lives were bent out of joint by the grand confusion of the Risanamento, the 30-year project to rebuild the city, as well as by the problems of a newly-unified Italy and the lingering and bitter split between North and South. [More on Serao and the Risanamento here.] 

Besides her newspaper work, she published 40 books. Historian and critic, Benedetto Croce said that she had an "imagination that is limpid and alive"; Carducci called her the greatest woman writer in Italy; and D'Annunzio dedicated a novel to her. She was also said to be on the Nobel committee's short list for the literature prize, an award that ultimately went to her contemporary from Sardinia, Grazia Deledda.

I already knew that the Roman poet, Virgil, was said to be a magician. He is connected with the "egg" in "Egg Castle" as well as with at least one of the old Roman tunnels in Naples. [Also, see the entry on Virgil.] Perhaps that is why I was attracted to the section in Serao's Neapolitan Legends that is called "Virgil, the Wizard". Serao chronicles the many wonders connected with the poet in Naples. For one, in those days Naples was afflicted with a plague of flies; Virgil made a fly from gold, breathed life into it, and sent it on its way. Every real fly it then came into contact with died, and the plague ended. Virgil also used his powers to dry up the swamps; he caused the west-wind, Favonianus, to change direction to help the local vegetation thrive; and he drove away a giant reptile that lived beneath the hill of Naples. Once, when sickness threatened the horses in the region, Virgil caused a large bronze horse to be cast; he infused it with his magical powers, and any horse that would then walk around the statue three times was cured. And so forth—there are a dozen or so other legends all connected with Virgil and all brought to life in Serao's delightful book. (See this entry for a more recent incarnation of the same legend.) 

She also wrote Il Ventre di Napoli [The Bowels of Naples] in 1884, a series of trenchant essays on the city, and she wrote  Il Paese di Cuccagna, published in 1891 and, in English, in 1902, as The Land of Cockayne. It is the most accessible of her works to a wider audience (because it exists in English translation) and explores the life of Naples at the turn of the 19th-20th century. It is a humorous account of the Neapolitan obsession with winning the national lottery. 

[also see The Big Rock Cockayne Mountain and The Wizard's Secret]

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