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main index  © Jeff Matthews   entry Sept. 2004

Descriptions of Street Life

painting
                      "port street," Migliaro 1893

"Port street" by Vincenzo Migliaro, 1893.

In another entry  I refer to the “cascade of chaos” in the pages of Harper’s Weekly in a description of Neapolitan street life from the mid-1800s. (A short excerpt, as a reminder):


…water-sellers bawling iced water; pious minstrels playing doleful bagpipes under a statue of the virgin; Sicilian girls dancing the tarantella with uncommon vigor; friars roaring that they only want a gran more to save a soul from hell; boys fighting for watermelons; exchange tables loaded with copper; lemonade-stands mounted by triumphal arches, bedizened with gold paper and wreathes of flowers; macaroni-dealers ladling huge masses of the smoking delicacy out of cauldrons, and beseeching the crowd not to let it cool; more monks tinkling little bells, and knocking Punch and the conjuror over as they hurry past with a dead man…

I enjoy comparing that with similar passages from other sources—famous ones—from around the same time. Here is a short passage from Pictures of Italy by Charles Dickens:  (Click here for the entire excerpt.)  


…for all Naples would seem to be out of doors, and tearing to and fro in carriages. Some of these, the common Vetturino vehicles, are drawn by three horses abreast, decked with smart trappings and great abundance of brazen ornament, and always going very fast. Not that their loads are light; for the smallest of them has at least six people inside, four in front, four or five more hanging on behind, and two or three more, in a net or bag below the axle-tree, where they lie half-suffocated with mud and dust. Exhibitors of Punch, buffo singers with guitars, reciters of poetry, reciters of stories, a row of cheap exhibitions with clowns and showmen, drums, and trumpets, painted cloths representing the wonders within, and admiring crowds assembled without, assist the whirl and bustle. Ragged lazzaroni lie asleep in doorways, archways, and kennels; the gentry, gaily dressed, are dashing up and down in carriages on the Chiaji, or walking in the Public Gardens; and quiet letter-writers, perched behind their little desks and inkstands under the Portico of the Great Theatre of San Carlo, in the public street, are waiting for clients...

And one from The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain: (Click here for the entire excerpt.)  


…I will observe here, in passing, that the contrasts between opulence and poverty, and magnificence and misery, are more frequent and more striking in Naples than in Paris even. One must go to the Bois de Boulogne to see fashionable dressing, splendid equipages, and stunning liveries, and to the Faubourg St. An-toine to see vice, misery, hunger, rags, dirt — but in the thoroughfares of Naples these things are all mixed together. 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. 

At six o’clock every evening, all Naples turns out to drive on the Riviera di Chiaja (whatever that may mean); and for two hours one may stand there and see the motliest and the worst-mixed procession go by that ever eyes beheld. Princes (there are more princes than policemen in Naples - the city is infested with them) - princes who live up seven flights of stairs and don’t own any principalities, will keep a carriage and go hungry; and clerks, mechanics, milliners, and strumpets will go without their dinners and squander the money on a hack-ride in the Chiaja; the rag-tag and rubbish of the city stack themselves up, to the number of twenty or thirty, on a rickety little go-cart hauled by a donkey not much bigger than a cat, and they drive in the Chiaja; dukes and bankers, in sumptuous carriages and with gorgeous drivers and footmen, turn out, also, and so the furious procession goes. For two hours rank and wealth, and obscurity and poverty, clatter along side by side in the wild procession, and then go home serene, happy, covered with glory!…

Today, it is still possible to catch a carriage ride if you are a tourist and want to pay whatever exorbitant fare they charge for clip-clopping along the seaside on via Caracciolo—a street that did not exist in the mid-1800s; however, some of the romance goes out of the experience amid the din of cars, motor-scooters, and all-around roar of technology. It’s a tough call, but on a bad day in modern Naples, those descriptions from the 1800s sometimes seem almost bucolic.

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