Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I hardly ever look at this blog anymore, and it was so important to me when I was living in Naples. It was a lifeline, really. I don't want to let it go, and I am touched when I see a comment here and there from people who have enjoyed the blog and want to hear more. I would love to write about my trip to Naples last summer. It was a great trip, but not without complex feelings. The problem is, I am STILL writing my dissertation, plus teaching and organizing symposia and child-rearing and job-searching, so the blog will have to wait.

I do want to say here that I began reading Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan trilogy (now there's a fourth I need to get my hands on) while in Naples in July and it absolutely crushed me. I read the books in Italian, reveling in the multisensory way she captured Napoli. I read in a fever, actually having to put the books down for a couple of days because they were causing me such emotional upheaval. I recommend them highly. My friends who have read them in English say they are wonderful, so kudos to the translator.

I still have my heart set on a project--journal article at least--about Massimo Troisi and Neapolitan gesture as a form of resistance. Let me finish the dissertation and then we'll see.

Thanks for continuing to read. A presto!

Friday, May 9, 2014

I was thrilled to see two comments on my last post. Thanks, guys! It can be lonely in the blogosphere, especially when you abandon it for long stretches of time. Today I saw a group of graduate students in Italian Studies that I met during my first year in graduate school. We're all still chipping away at our dissertations. I told them I feel like Rodin but without the talent or vision, just chipping away at this big boulder and hoping something that looks vaguely like an elbow or a nostril appears. My dissertation project is no longer about Naples but it is still about gesture so there is some continuity there.

Speaking of Naples, we bought our tickets! I'm actually more excited than worried, which is quite unexpected and pleasing. Already there is stress around who to say with, when to go to Procida, when to go to Calabria, but really, rompipalle, this is the stress of privilege, so be grateful! We'll be in SoIt (doesn't quite have the ring of SoCal, but I like it) for just under three weeks. It will fly by. I look forward to a change of air, fetid air as it may be.

What should I eat, I mean, do first?

That's not a rhetorical question.

Also, quick non-sequitur: after posting legions of photos of La Bimba on this blog, it's time to post one of La Giaconda. Check out that punim/faccia!

Monday, March 24, 2014

It has been too long

I think about this blog often, but it is only this evening, after a day of alternating between self-pity and self-loathing, that I find myself here. La Bimba, The Husband, and I have been in Berkeley for almost six years now. Six years! And we have a second bimba! I'll call her, La Giaconda, instead of La Seconda, since a dear friend says she looks like the Mona Lisa. Do not fret: La Giaconda mia has eyebrows and much fuller lips. I have turned back to this blog because I have reached a doctoral impasse, an academic writing stumbling block too large to scale. I've lost faith in my scholarly abilities and believe, or rather hope, that a little writing bait-and-switch might help the situation. I am aware that "bait-and-switch" is not exactly the right term here, but I like it.

Also, we are thinking about traveling to Naples this summer and I have mixed feelings about it. I haven't been back since the end of 2009/start of 2010. That was not an easy trip. I'm working through some PTSD from my time in Naples and though I would love to revisit old stomping grounds, I have my misgivings. So I thought returning to some fun or at least funny memories might help get me excited about the prospect of drinking in and eating up the city I once called home.

I met The Husband ten years ago. I find that astonishing. He has been adjusting slowly, slowly to life in California. It hasn't been easy. The language, the culture, the way people like to make plans in advance, the Chinese food, so many things. He has let go of one or two Neapolitan ideas like no bathing after eating, and has let me in on some ones I'd never heard of in Naples, like only one person changes the baby's clothes at a time because, lo sai, like the hat on the bed, only when you're kaput do two people change your clothes.

There's so much to report but my eyes are closing. I'm on spring break, La Bimba, who is almost eight, EIGHT, is not, so maybe I'll have a chance to write some more.

If anybody's out there, say hi. Un bacione.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Anybody there?

Probably not since I haven't posted for the amount of time that results in lost followers. But I wanted to write that, the other day, I started to watch John Turturro's film PASSIONE, and I was hit with what can only be described as a post-traumatic stress response. Nausea, anxiety. The glorified, romanticized images of piazzette that are normally drug-dealing, hoodlum-hanging sites of feelings that run the gamut from discomfort to sheer terror for the uninitiated passer-by (i.e. me), made it impossible for me to watch the rest of the film. One young Neapolitan woman says that living in Naples is hard, that, more or less, it's beauty and theatricality do not make up for the daily difficulty of navigating such uneven terrain, and I'm not referring to cobblestones (though those make for rough passage with a stroller). I am curious what any of you expats in Naples who have returned to your homelands now think, remember, feel about Naples. Right now, I'm feeling only despair. Of course, there is more to my response to Turturro's film than the city can be blamed for. Personal things, things to do with The Husband, La Bimba, my own psychoemotional background. Still, Naples is a force to be reckoned with and I'm not sure it's useful (except perhaps to increase tourism) to portray it as an exotic land of extreme emotion, dark red lips, and heart-shattering song.

Friday, July 3, 2009


“Siamo africani:” Contemporary Views

De Jorio’s La mimica attempts to return both subjectivity and agency to the Neapolitan common man and woman. His text performs solidarity with the ordinary Neapolitan, defending him as philosophical and complex, while exploiting foreign interest in the Neapolitan picturesque [32]. His representation of contemporary Neapolitan life as centuries-old culture finds contemporary expression on the Comune di Napoli website, “unlike other cities which are in themselves museums, display cases for their art but with no real heart, Naples is famous for the character and drama of its everyday life which is played out by the people who have lived and worked in the historic centre for centuries” [33]. It appears that the show does go on.

Today, Neapolitans appear to re-objectify themselves as a contestatory move: we are exactly what you say we are. And above all, we are not you. When deploying negative stereotypes lodged against them from the outside, Neapolitan self-deprecation is a performance that defines Neapolitan identity as wholly other. Because Africa is the repository or the site of total difference in the European imaginary, Naples becomes Africa. This total difference then becomes a point of pride: to be different is to be special, to stand out. For Kendon, the performativity of Neapolitan gesture is limited to its Austinian work: “a means by which promises were made, blessings accomplished, wishes expressed, contracts agreed to” [34]. He calls the “culture of the basso popolo of Naples in the 19th century” a performance culture (following Hibbitts) [35]. In my experience with the Naples of the early 21st century, the performativity of gesture, dialect, use of proverbs, and self-deprecating reappropriative language, appears to have a wider function, one that may have been in operation when de Jorio was writing: a performance of otherness-as-exclusivity independent of claims to superiority or inferiority.

Shirley Hazzard, an Australian writer who has lived off and on in Naples since the 1950s, writes in her essay “City of Secrets and Surprises” that visitors to Naples “do not take kindly to the devotion Naples inspires in all who know it well. Most galling perhaps is our very acquiescence in the charges: Yes, quite true, the streets are unswept, the museums inconvenient, the services unreliable...Indeed, Naples is often indefensible” [36]. Hazzard goes about defending the city anyway, turning, like De Jorio, to the city’s Greek past. She refers to Naples as Greece’s “northernmost colony” [37] and as “a city of secrets”[38]: “Naples always has something of an air of having survived calamity: it is one theme of her story” [39]. Her Naples is devoid of people, a ghost town of buildings, landscapes, and presepe figures. She writes in a throwback Romantic style, marveling over the city’s apparent contradictions, its “dilapidation and magnificence”[40], its histrionic nature: “Glimpses of the arcane, the grotesque, the diabolical will never fail to startle and estrange--compounded, as in most great cities, by modern violence and disaffection. but few days will pass without some fresh discovery of dignity, delicacy, and endurance--where you are not humbled and exalted by acts of human fellowship and inexpressible grace” [41].

Thomas Belmonte’s Broken Fountain, an ethnography of a poor Neapolitan neighborhood (or rather, palazzo complex), stands at the opposite pole that then inevitably makes contact with Hazzard’s. Belmonte performs a general indictment of poverty within a Marxist critique using Naples as his case study. His remarks on Neapolitan theatricality represent an at least partial misreading of Neapolitan collectivity: “The theatrical quality of life in the poor quarters, the loud, gesticulating style and the aggressive hubris of the individual, is the Neapolitans’ collective commentary on the instability of the socioeconomic and honorific settings upon which they must stage their lives” [42]. Following Fanon, Belmonte labels his subjects the “damned of the earth:” “The damned of Harlem and the South Bronx, the damned of Calcutta and Naples, the damned of Singapore and San Salvador and Manila...”[43]. Belmonte places the poor of Naples alongside the poor of other big cities, and he attends to the specificities of the Neapolitan situation. “In a cultural sense, they [the poor of Naples] are at once excluded and highly selective. By preference they speak and pass on to their children their own language and are content to learn some fragmentary standard Italian in a few years of primary school” [44]. Belmonte concludes his study as his subjects may have done: that at the end of the day, despite conditions and circumstances, they only have themselves to blame:

“At Fontana del Re in a corner strewn now with rubble, beneath the bruised, shattered visage of a lion, the eroded figure of a sculpted stone sea shell recedes into a wall. ‘This was our fountain,’ they told me. ‘Oh you should have seen it, Tommaso. The water played night and day. In summer, the children scampered in it. At night, falling asleep, you heard it, and it was like music.’ The young men told me it was they who had destroyed it. As children, many years before, with iron rods, they had gone every day to hammer and smash it, until they were satisfied and there was nothing left to break. Thereafter, whenever I passed that ruined corner, I tried to imagine what the fountain had once been like, and thought and wondered and sorrowed, the more as I understood how it came to be broken” [45].

Hazzard has spent a half century intermittently in Naples; Belmonte spent one year. The two writers represent the admirer of picturesque on the one hand, and the sorrower over the “ruined corner” on the other. De Jorio represents a middle way. But what do today’s Neapolitans think “siamo africani” means in the 21st century? I sent via email the following questions to several Neapolitan friends to find out [46]:

Quando abitavo a Napoli, sentivo spesso il commento, "noi napoletani siamo africani." Che significa questo secondo voi? Poi per quanto riguarda le serie di invasioni che fanno parte della storia di Napoli, siete d'accordo che i napoletani (voi, le vostre famiglie, i vostri amici, il popolo) si sentono (o si sentivano in qualche periodo storico specifico) sudditi della nazione italiana? Come descrivereste il concetto napoletano di cittadinanza, di un senso civico?

Marcello, who grew up in the Colli Aminei district of Naples, has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Naples, and moved to the US in his early 30s, responded at great length. He understands “siamo africani” in several ways: [1] as representing a certain historico-geographical truth that Naples “in the most authentic and original sense of being a true mediterranean city, belonging to the most ancient ‘cultural core’ of the mediterranean basin, an echo from a distant time where a North African could have said similarly, ‘I am a Greek’ or ‘I am a Roman’ and been telling the truth;” [2] a contemporary disparaging usage that “speaks of the deep cultural divide between Italy and its southern regions;" [3] a way for the northerner “to summarize everything that is ‘wrong’ with Naples, its being dirty, inefficient, corrupt and, above all, incorrigible;” and [4] a contemporary Neapolitan’s “last, desperate act of self-affirmation.”
Marcello’s fourth explanation relates to the central thesis of this paper, that contemporary Neapolitans wield “siamo africani” as a way to identify themselves as Neapolitan. Interestingly, Marcello extends this idea to all negatively construed traits, whether conceived of as circumstantially or culturally determined: “Being intelligent people, they know that they are ‘guilty on all counts, guilty of all the sins they are accused of and, as a last resort, many have chosen to ‘be proud of it’ whatever ‘it’ is and no matter how negative this ‘it’ is, just as an act of ‘sfregio.’” Like Belmonte, Marcello locates the blame for their circumstances with the Neapolitans themselves [47].

Marcello recognizes Neapolitan identity as embodying a mixture of disdain for their failings and pride over their accomplishments. Paradoxically, this pride also encompasses precisely that which they disdain. Marcello blames that undiscriminating pride for his people’s inability to improve their living conditions. Another friend, Diana, from Naples’ newer Zona Ospedaliera, said, “Even during the Neapolitan revolution, they couldn’t quite get it together to make a revolution.”

Gianni, 32 years old, grew up in the Fuorigrotta district, and currently lives in Pozzuoli, echoes Marcello’s idea of Naples as forming part of the larger Mediterranean world, and then offers this overtly polemical explanation:

“Noi napoletani siamo africani...cosa vorrebbe dire? Che siamo neri? Che siamo poveri? Siamo vittime di qualche carestia, di qualche pandemia? Oggi, A.D. 2009 questa espressione non ha ragione di esistere: la città è lo specchio della società cha la popola, almeno credo. Basta, quindi, col considerarsi cittadini di serie B, basta col considerarsi vittime e basta col trovare sempre un capro espiatorio cui addossare tutti gli atavici malanni della nostra città: il terremoto, il colera, la criminalità, la politica corrotta. Certo, sono problemi reali, gravissimi, che hanno tenuto e tengono tuttora la città sotto scacco, ma non devono essere una scusa per perpetuare ogni tipo di inciviltà, per rimanere seduti, immobili aspettando che qualcuno dal cielo ci faccia dono della sua celeste manna, guaritrice di ogni male, aspettando che da sola “l'Africa si avvicini all'Italia”.

Gianni’s exasperation, like Marcello’s and Belmonte’s, lies with this idea that Neapolitans are responsible for their politically, economically, and socially degraded situation, sharing Francesco Trinchera’s view: “I have always heard that a people gets more or less what it deserves” [48]. The content of the associations with Africa are by now well-known. But if one shifts the focus from sociopolitical reality to the realm of culture, this blame is converted into an affirmation of otherness that comprises the core of napoletanità. What I have been arguing is that is is precisely this alterity that matters in the iteration of “siamo africani.”

To my follow-up question about Neapolitan civic responsibility, Gianni replied:

“Per ciò che concerne il concetto di senso civico ho una mia particolare teoria. Credo infatti che tale concetto ci sia stato lasciato in eredità dai colonizzatori greci. Provo a spiegarmi costruendo un parallelismo tra la polis greca, nucleo fondamentale attorno a cui si è sviluppata la cultura ellenistica, e la casa, la famiglia napoletana. Per i napoletani la casa, la propria casa, la famiglia, la propria famiglia, ha il valore che per i greci aveva la polis:”il centro del mondo”, al di fuori di essa il nulla. Esempio, forse un po' azzardato, il “basso”: l'interno è quasi sempre pulitissimo, immacolato, ma basta mettere il naso appena fuori di casa per notare delle situazioni di totale degrado, anzi molto spesso lo spazio esterno alla casa-polis è una sorta di sversatoio. Tutto ciò che non faceva parte della polis non contava, tutto ciò che è al di fuori della casa, non conta.”

Somewhat like Banfield’s “amoral familism” and Belmonte’s adjustment of it, Gianni describes Neapolitan culture as bound up in the family unit with hardly a glance toward a broader sense of community. And like de Jorio, he traces this lifestyle to the Greeks. Gianni’s basso example functions as a spatial metaphor for my argument: whatever lies outside (the home, a sense of self) has nothing to do with the inside; it does not penetrate or, rather, whatever of it penetrates becomes immediately absorbed as already having been there. Marcello reminds me of the proverb, “Francia o Spagna, basta ca se magna:” whether struggling to put food on the table or sitting pretty on the piano nobile of a Vomero hill palazzo, whether provided for by the government, the camorra, or the family, one continues to live as a Neapolitan. “Stereotypes work in this way (synchronically, in contrasting pairs of good and bad images) as instructions in how to behave, or in how to expect people to behave: either one will be confronted by a happy Neapolitan mandolin player, or by a violent and duplicitous camorrista” [49]. In contemporary Neapolitan discourses of napoletanità, both extremes are in evidence. This absorption of every quality leveled at it, makes napoletanità paradoxically impenetrable; every external threat becomes an empty one. And it demonstrates its flexibility. Neapolitan culture is not a stagnant miasma, another accusation like those leveled at African cultures, but rather an extraordinarily adaptable one whose mode of adaptation is to enfold stereotypes into practices and make it all come out Neapolitan.

During my nearly four years on the ground in Naples, I heard Neapolitans from every walk of life complain about each other, about their neighbors or the general populace. They would complain about littering then throw their empty cigarette pack on the ground. They would curse an aggressive driver and then cut off a pedestrian. They would yell about about yelling. Sometimes this was maddening, sometimes it was charming, sometimes I hardly noticed. At a certain point I gave up trying to figure out why the Neapolitans acted in this apparently contradictory manner. What I became interested in is how this mixture of disdain and pride functions as a passive-aggressive mode of maintaining a culture always under threat, like any traditional culture, like any culture that has not been entirely seduced by an ideology of progress. All of Italy functions in this way to an extent, e.g. the notoriously draconian bureaucracy is a national phenomenon. In essence, I am arguing that regardless of the content or from where it is lodged, Neapolitan identity is based on an expression of pure difference: north, south, American, Italian, Vomero, zona ospedaliera, we are not like you. To offer a schema of this process: first, there is the simultaneous acceptance of foreign assessments of the popolo napoletano; second, the act of accepting itself becomes a performance of otherness; and third, the particular content of the otherness is reiterated until it becomes part of the culture, its folkways, like the images of Totò and Vesuvius that hang in every bar alongside Pulcinella figurines and various corne. So, “siamo africani” like “siamo zozzosi, brigandi, calorosi, pittoreschi” operates as a marker of difference, and difference punto e basta elides with napoletanità.

One example: In the film Totò’truffa 62, Neapolitan actor-legend Totò demonstrates how Neapolitans mobilize Africanness. In full blackface and with a giant nose ring, Totò pretends to be the Ambassador of Catongo and says into a telephone: “In casa bubu? In casa bubu? Mbutu? Mbutu? Non buttare niente. E’ peccato! Non buttare... Cosa vola, cosa buole? Ta ta ta bum bum zu, bubu bubu juju.” He then says to the object of his scam of his accomplice, played by Nino Taranto, also in blackface with nose ring, “Questo animalo da che sta in Italia ha imparato parlare in napoletano. Dice pure pommarola in gop. Nel catongo ce ne uno solo [people with the last name Rossi]. Tutti gli altri sono neri. Vedi lui e’ nero, tutto nero. Ci sono anche i gialli ma i gialli sono i peperoni,” In this scene, the juxtaposition of blackness/Africanness with napoletanità functions as a performance of shrewd otherness. When the “real” ambassador arrives with his adjutant (two black men without nose rings), Totò and Taranto escape dressed as Che Guevara and his wife. Totò has played Tarzan, a Turk, a Sheik: all of these representations of Otherness are folded into his Neapolitanness. Totò belongs to Naples—the clever fool who fools everyone.

The statement “siamo africani” speaks volumes about how Neapolitans deal with and iterate difference. They are Neapolitan because they are different from other Italians, north or south, even different from “Neapolitans” from the provinces or from the adjacent quartiere. The persistence of the dialect and gestural language, regardless of its roots in Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, or its physical necessity due to crowded, noisy streets, marks an anti-assimilatory move. Within the broader Italian national imaginary, napoletanità is a cultural commodity, it is “ours” even as the Neapolitans are “them.” Indeed, Neapolitans are taken as “us” for their art, their theater, and film and as “them” for their camorristi, garbage crises, scippi: un posto incantevole che fa schifo.

Andrea de Jorio’s La mimica defends Neapolitans against critiques of their backwardness as it recuperates ancient history and lodges it in the very bodies of everyday Neapolitans. What is reflected in Marcello’s and Gianni’s comments, on the other hand, is how everyday Neapolitans today engage in acts of reappropriation in defense of themselves and protection of their cultural heritage. And in this, they succeed. I would go as far as to say there is no city in the western world with as much resistant, local, cultural specificity as la bella Napoli.

32 De Jorio’s work, it may be said, straddles, “the valorization of nature and classical ruins that characterizes the picturesque in the late eighteenth century [as it] makes way for the valorization of natural man: the primitive, the savage, and above all the folk” (Moe, The View from Vesuvius, 66).
34 Kendon, xcviii.
35 Kendon, footnote 60, xcviii.
36 Hazzard, Shirley, and Francis Steegmuller. The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. (49).
37 Ibid, 50.
38 Ibid, 51.
39 Ibid, 52.
40 Ibid, 54.
41 Ibid, 57.
42 Belmonte, Thomas. The Broken Fountain. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. (135).
43 Ibid, 139. See also pages 107 and 124.
44 Ibid, 140.
45 Ibid, 144.
46 I am still receiving answers to these questions and here provide a hopelessly scant survey of two.
47 What I do not address in this paper but which begs mention is the fact that Marcello, and later Gianni, both enact this method of defining Neapolitan behavior as other to them. They position themselves as exceptional Neapolitans, which I would claim is part of the extreme othering move I have been describing: Marcello and Gianni would not say “siamo africani” in any context, but their distancing from a particular element of napoletanità produces yet another form of Neapolitan identity based on alterity.
48 Quoted from his “The Neapolitan Question: Ferdinand Bourbon and Lucien Murat” in Moe, The View from Vesuvius, 145.
49 Dickie, 21.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

part IV

Interlude: From de Jorio to Troisi

Massimo Troisi, the late Neapolitan actor devoted to napoletanità [27], makes comically explicit the synecdochic function of Neapolitan gesture:

“Veramente c’abbiamo un lavoretto. Allora mio marito ha detto, va bene. Se si tratta di lavorare di meno tanto di guadagnato. Chist’ ha detto no. Forse non ci siamo capiti. Ho detto che teng’ per voi un lavoretto. Mio marito ha detto, un lavoretto, scusate lo dice la stessa parola, lavoretto, si lavora di meno. Chist’ dice no, non ci siamo capiti. Teng’ per voi un lavore...Non guardate a me. Guardate ‘a mano” [28].

In this skit, Troisi is playing a Neapolitan woman, who talks about the trouble she has with her husband. In this scene, Troisi’s hand (open palm, palm down, moving in a circular motion as if polishing a table top) represents the nature of the job being offered to the husband (an under the table job). But in saying, “Don’t look at me. Look at my hand,” the hand becomes more than the truth behind the words; the hand is the gesturing person. Gesture scientist David McNeill writes that the hand that gestures is symbolic: “The hand is not a hand,”[29] but rather that which it is mobilized to express. I would argue that the Neapolitan hand that gestures is symbolic, not only of the thoughts or feelings of the gesturer, but also of the gesturer’s cultural identity: it is not just any hand, it is a Neapolitan hand, the “spokeshand” for Neapolitan selfhood.

Contemporary Neapolitan gestural practice and the use of the dialect continues to keep the outsider on the outside: “The Neapolitan dialect seems to be metaphor itself...Among street vendors, especially, metaphors are heard that are so witty and clever that not only foreigners, but even our own provincials do not understand anything”[30]. Everyone, even a provincial from one kilometer outside the city, is an outsider, and thus the Neapolitan “I” is never them. Private life may be lived in the public sphere on hot summer nights among the inhabitants of the bassi, and public fighting may be a theatricalization that serves to keep public order [31], but in my view, these practices serve primarily to keep the stranger estranged.

27 Troisi’s theater group was called La Smorfia after the Neapolitan book of numbers, as well as being a reference to making funny faces. In his films and interviews, he spoke in Neapolitan dialect and produced exaggerated (even for a Neapolitan) gestures. Troisi was absorbed into Italian culture as “one of us” even as he forcefully presented himself as Neapolitan.
28 Troisi, Massimo, Lello Arena, and Enzo Decaro. “L’annunciazione.” La Smorfia, 1977.
29 McNeill, David. Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About Thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
30 De Jorio, 271.
31 “De Jorio notes that, with the crucial participation of bystanders, quarrels often become transformed into an event which everyone enjoys, including the litigants themselves. This process may well have developed as a means of social control, keeping quarrels in check and preventing them from becoming dangerous.” Kendon, ciii.

Friday, June 12, 2009

"Francia o Spagna," Part III

Andrea de Jorio’s Neapolitan Pride Project

In his chapter “L’Europe finit à Naples,” Nelson Moe devotes considerable space to a discussion of writings on Naples, characterizing them as swinging “between visions of Arcadia and the apocalypse” [18], between Europe and Africa. Between 1750 and 1885, Stendahl, Renan, Sade, Staël, Dickens, Goethe, as well as many Italians from the north and south, all weigh in on Naples, either demonizing it for its alleged barbarity or glorifying its picturesque quality. 

Andrea de Jorio came from an elite family of the island of Procida and was Canon of the Cathedral of Naples. His interest in gesture, archaeology, and Neapolitan folklore developed during a period of strong philosophical interest in gesture (Diderot and Condillac in mid 18th century France, Engel in late 18th century Germany) and folkloristic-archaeological inquiry into Naples. De Jorio wrote in an atmosphere of support for archaeological research, support that initiated in the Napoleonic period and continued with the Bourbons once they were restored to the throne in 1816.  

De Jorio became interested in compiling a detailed guide to Neapolitan gesture while acting as a tour guide for foreign visitors to Naples’ archaeological museums and sites. As a docent at the Real Museo Borbonico, de Jorio found that comparing the gestures of the ancients found on the Greek painted vases with those of modern day Neapolitans lent insight into how they should be interpreted. “For some years we have had the idea of describing the gesturing of the Neapolitans, so widely praised as it has always been, and of explaining, as well, its perfect resemblance to that of antiquity” [19]. The Neapolitans he refers to are the “commoners,” the street vendors and their clients whom he describes as characteristically vivacious. The “foreigners” are those on the Grand Tour, interested in antiquity and Neapolitan folklore.

“...the questions that foreigners are always asking we Neapolitans about the meaning of one behavior or another, as well as affection for our native land, has increased our determination to its fullest to illustrate, as far as we can, even the apparently disreputable aspects of the very interesting customs of our country that are, in reality, full of philosophy, and could be said to be Roman, Greek, Natural. Indeed, we remain very unhappy that our manner of expressing ourselves with gestures, so noble in its origin, so charming, joyful and pleasing in its performance, so useful and sometimes so necessary for its effects, should be unhonored and neglected still” [20]. 

Here, de Jorio works to transform or unmask the “apparently disreputable” as having noble roots and philosophical function. I regard this move as a precursor to the current strategy of Neapolitan identity formation, one that casts its net more widely to encompass any and every marker of difference.

As a member of the elite, de Jorio simultaneously recognizes and ignores class distinctions, mobilizing the “we” to confirm that there is one Neapolitan popolo. The commoner is noble, and we, the elite, are commoners [21]. Writing before the articulation of the Southern Question, but in conversation with travelers on the Grand Tour, de Jorio’s rhetoric does not fall neatly within either anti-southern discourses of southern elites nor glorifying discourses of the visitor to Naples. There is nothing of the Franchetti belief that southerners cannot help themselves; Neapolitans, from de Jorio’s point of view, do not appear to be in need of any help at all. 

De Jorio completed La mimica in 1832. His study, a “close reading” of body position, orientation, direction, and dynamics, works under the contention that the common Neapolitan folk preserved ancient culture in their bodies; the human body ”as much a historical document as a charter or a diary or a parish register” [22]. Kendon writes that de Jorio’s book acts as a defensive treatise, one that aims to show that the common people of Naples “are worthy of respect” [23]. Kendon also notes that de Jorio “appears to have regarded gesture as a mode of expression shaped by local custom” [24]. In other words, the consistent, tenacious, and resilient gestural practice of everyday Neapolitans generates a positive identity and resists pressures to conform to Italian national and international codes of self-presentation. 

Though de Jorio hoped his book would serve as a practical guide for archaeologists and artists, he appears to have been most interested in defending his popolo against accusations of barbarity. He writes, 

“Finally, we have never intended to enter into quarrels with those superficial writers who too often like to impute ignorance to our low people. If they mean that they are ignorant of mathematics, astronomy, the dead languages, etc., they speak the truth; but if ever they maintain that our low people are lacking in natural philosophy, in talent, in spirit, they are in error. Therefore, in the course of the work, and as far as circumstances permit, in regard to the material itself, we have aimed to show the mistake for which they may be blamed” [25].

Again, it appears that de Jorio was committed to elevating the ordinary Neapolitan in the eyes of the dismissive, often repelled foreigner, because he recognized that the barbarism associated with such ordinary people blemished the image Naples in general (and might negatively affect the reception of his work as well). Schneider writes, “Having studied the classics in England, France and Germany, they [the Grand Tour travelers] made the journey to Southern Italy, as to Greece, in search of an unspoiled antiquity; but the recent histories and societies of the living peoples of these places marred the experience” [26]. This is precisely the circumstance that de Jorio sought to redress in his book. By tilting the perspective on the behavior of the lazzarone from barbaric to noble, he moves to transform the uninformed visitor’s scorn into educated respect.

But de Jorio is also making a proprietary move: by reading the gestural content of ancient images found in Naples and its surroundings, de Jorio was able to locate their value in the bodies and culture of everyday Neapolitans, stripping the foreign archaeologist of his expertise: only a native can understand; the outsider remains outside. By transmuting the barbarous into the noble, de Jorio’s ethnographic project insists upon a complexity of Neapolitan cultural practices that defies any accusations of primitivism. 

De Jorio’s project was to redefine rather than deny foreign accusations of Neapolitan barbarity and backwardness. By tracing the gestures of the ancients forward to the bodies of his “street vendor” contemporaries, de Jorio, in a sense, reappropriates negative stereotypes to produce a positive version of Neapolitan identity.

18 Moe, The View from Vesuvius. 61.

19 De Jorio, 4.

20 De Jorio, 6. It appears possible that de Jorio’s effort to elevate the Neapolitan masses by linking them to the ancient Greeks may amount to a cult of napoletanità, not entirely dissimilar to the later Fascist move to equate modern Italy with ancient Rome: “The cult of ‘romanita’’ remembered the glories of Ancient Rome through everyday practices such as the Roman salute and the omnipresence of Roman iconography on stamps, coins, and public buildings” (Andall, Jacqueline & Derek Duncan. “Memories and Legacies of Italian Colonialism.” Italian Colonialism: Legacy and Memory. J. Andall and D. Duncan, eds. Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2005, (10)). It is precisely the focus on “everyday practices,” whether salutes or idiosyncratic gestures, that leads me to this idea.

21 This reminds me of Marco Purpura’s recent discussion of Gianni Amelio’s comment, “siamo tutti albanesi.”

22 Thomas, Keith. “Introduction.” In A Cultural History of Gesture. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991, page 2.

23 Kendon, lv.

24 Ibid, lxv.

25 de Jorio, 10. De Jorio performs a similar defense of the Neapolitan dialect. Under the section titled Dimunitivo, he writes, “Let us tolerate peacefully the contumely with which some foreigners believe they denigrate our language, calling it a language of children because of the copious number of diminutives with which it abounds. Rather, let us celebrate the glory of speaking an idiom that is so rich and capable of expressing with a single word both the object and its quantity” (183). He also cites Galiani’s Vocabolario delle parole del dialetto Napoletano, che piu’ si socostano dal dialetto Toscano, con alcune ricerche etimologiche sulle medesime degli Accademici Filopatridi. Opera postuma supplita, ed accresciuto notabilmente (96). 

26 Schneider, Jane. 4.