Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry April 2010            

he Neapolitan Struscio

The word struscio best translates as “stroll.” It is onomatopoeic; the soft sibilant ssssshhhhh in the middle of the word imitates the rustling sound of the hems of ladies’ fine new gowns as they drag along the ground (the hems, not the ladies) during the traditional stroll on Holy Thursday. The noun struscio is from the verb strusciare, similar to strisciare (to drag, to creep) and is generally used in Naples in the context of this particular stroll on this particular day.

When I first heard the word and of the tradition of the “stroll” on Holy Thursday, I thought of Irving Berlin’s lyrics, “In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, You'll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade...,” yet the strutting of one’s finery in Naples takes place on the Thursday before Easter and not Easter Sunday, itself, which is significant.

Holy Thursday, in the Christian faith, commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus with his Apostles. It is also traditionally a day for acts of charity and humility such as, for example, the ritual washing of feet (in imitation of Jesus’ performing this act, recounted in the Gospel of John). In many places in the Christian world, there is also the tradition of visiting the sepulchers in seven churches (or, at least, according to some lore, three —but always an odd number). It was an act of penance and, no doubt, a reminder of one’s own mortality.

That such a humble procession should change into a vain display of one’s new clothes is beyond me. (Who am I, Thomas Aquinas?) Yet in Naples and much of southern Italy, that is what happened. Historically, it probably goes back to the Spanish rule in Naples, when the rulers of city and kingdom imported from Spain the ban of going on horseback or in coaches on the few days before Easter; they closed the main streets. In Naples, the procession was typically along via Toledo (alias via Roma). The churches you were supposed to visit to show off your humility included, for example, San Ferdinando; yet, that church is right across from the fine Gambrinus Cafe. You had to have your coffee before the stroll, and you can’t go into Gambrinus looking like a bum (this was many years ago), so you dressed up. Thus beginneth a noble tradition.

I was down there the other day, on Holy Thursday, looking for people "struscing" along, but didn’t see many obvious examples. The tradition is occasionally resurrected by various commercial interests. A few years ago, they paid some actors to dress up in finery of the 1700s and parade up and down via Chiaia (a street that starts at Gambrinus), looking fine and humble at the same time.

Source: Vittorio Gleijeses. Feste, farina e forca. Libreria scientifica editrice. Naples. 1972.

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