Feb. 2011, edited Nov. 2020
The following two numbered items appeared at the dates indicated on different pages in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia. They have been consolidated here onto a single page.
On a wall in the Cave of Les Trois Ariège in France there is a stone-age drawing of a sorcerer wearing a mask. From his time to ours, from him to our own children modestly disguised for Halloween, or revelers made up for carnevale, there is an unbroken chain of masks. Made of every and anything from mud to gold, they have served to frighten, delight, beg, accompany the dead, cast out demons, and conceal lovers and executioners. From Greek drama to Balinese trance-dancers to modern psychodrama in which actors wear masks of their own faces, in every culture and in all of history, there have been masks.
The mask took on new meaning at the end of the 16th century in Italy, when there arose a form of theatre known as the Commedia dell'Arte. The actors were skilled in the representation of well-defined characters, characters who appeared and reappeared, bearing the same name, wearing the same mask and costume, speaking the same language and, thus, establishing themselves as distinct character types, stereotypes of various regions throughout Italy. For example, the stereotypical mask of Bologna is the pseudo-intellectual windbag, Dr. Balanzone, and Venice gives us the greedy and conniving underling, Arlecchino.
One of the best-known Italian masks is the one that represents Naples, Pulcinella. He is generally presented as a hunchback (remember that male hunchbacks are considered lucky in Naples!); he is dressed in a large, white smock and soft white hat, and wears a black half-mask characterized by a hook-nose. His character type is that of the jolly bungler, always poor and hungry, yet always able to get by, singing songs and playing the mandolin. In his stereotypical ineptness, however, there always remains the touch of the true court jester, the "fool," who delights in snubbing his nose at the powers that be, without them ever really catching on to how much wisdom is hidden behind the mask.
It is that anti–establishment part of Pulcinella's personality, the total disrespect of authority that seems to be not so hidden in much modern-day Neapolitan behavior. That's the reason—say some—that Neapolitans drive they way they do. The state put that traffic light on the corner, telling you when to go and when to stop. A free citizen is almost honor–bound to ignore it.
The character of Pulcinella may, indeed, go back to the Atellan Fables and their pre-Roman Oscan stock characters, one of whom was Macchus, a hunch-backed "wise" fool with a big nose, similar to the traditional Pulcinella. Some sources [Piero Toschi: Le Origini del Teatro Italiano. 1955.] claim that the name itself, Pulcinella, goes back to the 1300s and meant "clown." There is also a drawing by Ludovico Carracci from the late 1500s. The sketch is of a rough-hewn, almost bruised, face with dark features and a large nose. There is no traditional half-mask, but the figure is wearing the well-known floppy hat. The sketch is titled "Paoluccio della Cerra, commonly known as Pulcinella." Although that does not settle the question of the origin of the name, the figure in the sketch, if you add a mask, does fit Pulcinella as he has traditionally appeared on Neapolitan stages since the Commedia dell'Arte.
(A somewhat forced psycho-etymology sees "Pulcinella" as a feminine diminutive of pulcino, the baby chick, unable to reproduce, thus—because of the feminine ending to a masculine noun—hermaphroditic, man-woman, stupid-clever, city-country, demon-saint, pagan-Christian and whatever other polar opposites are supposed to be typical of Neapolitans. I did say it was forced!)
Pulcinella first appears as a scripted character in 1609 in La Lucilla costante con le ridicole disfide e prodezze di Policinella [Faithful Lucilla and Pulcinella's Ridiculous, Daring Feats]. The actor who played Pulcinella was Silvio Fiorillo, the first in a long string of well-known Pulcinellas in Naples. Others have included Vincenzo Cammarano (nicknamed "Giancola") the best-known Pulcinella of the 1700s and a member of the famous theatrical family in Naples that eventually included the librettist of Lucia di Lamermoor and il Trovatore, Salvatore Cammarano. Vincenzo's other claim to fame is that he is apparently the one who hung the term of endearing insult "Re Nasone" (King Big Nose) on King Ferdinand. The king liked it!
Vincenzo passed the Pulcinella mask to his son Filippo. After that, Antonio Petito (the best remembered of the 19th-century Pulcinellas) and then his son, Salvatore, both served to make the character a mainstay of the repertoire of the most important dialect theater in Naples, the San Carlino. The last great "historical" Pulcinella was Salvatore De Muto (1876-1970). He played the character for the last time in 1954 at the opening of the San Ferdinando Theater, coming out of retirement to do so, at the insistence of Eduardo De Filippo.
More recently, Eduardo De Filippo (1900-1984), himself, played Pulcinella on various occasions, including in the remarkable 1959 film, Ferdinando I, Re di Napoli, playing on the relationship between the real-life Pulcinella, Salvatore Cammarano (mentioned above) and the King (played in the film by Eduardo's brother, Peppino De Filippo). Other modern show business personalities from Naples have also appeared in film or on stage as Pulcinella. These include Massimo Ranieri and Massimo Troisi.
[note added Nov. 2020. There is a common expression everywhere in Italy — "un secreto di Pulcinella" — that is, a secret that is not a secret, an open secret, because everyone knows about it. Given the reputation of Pulcinella in his roles in the Commedia dell'Arte as a good-hearted blabbermouth, if you tell him a secret you've just told the whole world.]
© by David Taylor
He matured in Naples
but has for centuries travelled the world over like some
tragi-comic exporter of Neapolitan values and character,
assuming whatever alias most fits the country in which
he finds himself—Punch, Polichinelle, Don Cristobal,
Policianelo, Karaghuez, Jan Klassen, Petruska, etc. Yet
Naples, itself, often risks forgetting the true nature
of one of its most famous sons: the caustic, amorous,
long-suffering, ever-hungry, yet curiously indefatigable
Pulcinella. This world-wide diffusion of the
mask-character known in Italy as Pulcinella was once the
theme of an exhibition in the Villa Pignatelli, Naples.
Works from all over the world, many by famous artists
and showing Pulcinella in his various guises, were
brought together to illustrate the enormous distances
the character has travelled in time, space and
appearance, whilst, though, remaining essentially the
character born from the real-life adventures of a
certain Paoluccio della Cerra.
Paoluccio, after moving from Acerra to Naples and turning his misfortunes and stupidity into something approaching a street-wise philosophy, turning authority and pomposity on their heads with his often unanswerable "...and why?", became christened Pulecenella Cetrulo (a play on words meaning 'stupid chick'). Of the existence of this person, we have the evidence of a 17th century engraving by Ludovico Carraci showing a physiognomy highly suited to transformation into the mask we know so well, and entitled "A true likeness of Paoluccio della Cerra, a.k.a. Pulcinella'.
Whatever the truth of Pulcinella's origins, Prof. C. Greco of the University of Naples, and the other experts employed by the Azienda Autonomo di Soggiorno Cura e Turismo for the research and organization of the exhibition took great pains to track down Pulcinella wherever he has appeared in the East and West, and whatever his attempts to disguise himself, and bring him back home for exhibition alongside a display of objects from the family collections of the Neapolitan playwrights and actors Raffaele Viviani and Eduardo de Filippo.