Guardians of the Sacred Chapter Eleven

Pulcinella (Part One)

Almost everyone who visits the neighborhood stops to pose for a photograph with Pulcinella.

Hundreds of iPads, iPhones, and devices of all sorts immortalize the image of tourists from around the world who smile or frown at and even kiss the famous mask. I cannot blame them, because Pulcinella does look quite old, and his story has been told around Naples forever.

To the unobservant eye, he looks as if he has long been embraced by the surrounding stones at the corner where his alley gives onto the series of arches that shelter fruit vendors, butchers, and fishmongers. To be fair, not even local people who have spent their lives on the same street where Pulcinella stands know exactly how long his sculpture has been there. As for what he guards, in more ways than one, Pulcinella stands at the entrance to purgatory; that place in between two worlds that separates the old and the new.

The simplest way to describe Pulcinella’s physical location is to say that he stands at the top of the Vico Fico al Purgatorio (Alley of Purgatory) with the name of the alley emblazoned above his head. From there he guards the so­called church of purgatory (Santa Maria delle Anime Purgatorio ad Arco) from which the alley across the street derives its name. Over the last five centuries, millions of people have visited this church of old traditions to pay homage to the skulls of the anime pezzentelle, or unknown souls, held in purgatory. Their prayers were said to unlock the frozen souls and usher them into heaven, while in return the dead performed miracles for the living. The vendors under the arches told me that once there was an old woman who came from Caserta every day; for a mere two hundred fifty lira, you could buy candles and flowers to ask or thank the skulls for a grazia (a favor to be bestowed upon you). Unofficially, of course (the custom is formally banned by the Catholic Church). When the woman left, which must have been at least before the euro came around, no one replaced her. But by then, there was no longer a need. Today no one goes there, at least not to venerate the skulls.

Although this particular Pulcinella is not new, he is new relative to the legend of this emblematic character of the Commedia dell’Arte whose origins date back to Roman theatrical representations of the fourth century. Since then, the mask has been adapted and re-adapted until in the Seventeenth Century, he became the caricature of the Napoletano popolare, or the folkloristic Neapolitan man of the populace. Dressed in a black-beaked mask, a cone shaped hat, and loose, white pajama-like clothes fastened with a black rope, Pulcinella is the servant who combines wit and humor to turn the slight subversion of official orders into an art. Foreign visitors on their grand tours of Europe were often struck by Pulcinella’s widespread presence throughout the streets of Naples. Goethe was so inspired by the pervasive figure on his trip to Naples in 1787 that he even wrote several Pulcinellas into the latter part of his Faust. According to Rehfus, who visited the city in 1808, Pulcinella appeared everywhere: theater stages, store signs, toys, nativity crèches;  he even stood before the cave of Jesus’s birth.

If you walk around those same streets, you will see that this is not far from the truth today.

You will tell me that, unlike the custodians I have met thus far, Pulcinella is not a person. No, he is not. But he is a symbol of the eternal custodian of the city’s old traditions who has survived centuries of change, occupation, and modernization. Today the bronze Pulcinella guards two of the city’s oldest purgatories, those of the alley and the church. It is also through him that I met the people of the neighborhood; those who have always lived in front of the church he guards. It is because of him that I gathered their stories, beliefs, and experiences. But more importantly, Pulcinella is a mask, or a role, that each artist is free to interpret for himself. Yet it is a role that is shared by many actors. One artist chose to sculpt him out of bronze, but there are many other Pulcinellas today who protect the neighborhood. Let me introduce to you the many ways he is played in that small corner of purgatory he protects so that you may judge who wears the mask best.

This bronze Pulcinella, an emblem of tradition, has replaced another tradition that is already on the verge of disappearing.  For most of the decades of the last century, a woman named Dora occupied the spot where he stands. There, she sold local produce and eggs laid by two chickens that followed her around faithfully. When Dora was born in the beginning of the twentieth century, men walked around with their cows selling milk along those streets. In the early 2000s, which she lived to see, she was the last vendor to have live farm animals. Dora also acted as the unofficial sentinel of that little alley where her warnings and signs were heard long before official orders. Her self ­appointed title of mediatrice also gave her the authority of intervening to settle a plethora of unusual neighborhood matters. She had claimed that piece of the street by virtue of how individuals historically acquired proprietorship of places in that part of Naples: by simply occupying them long enough. Six poles linked with heavy metal chains now cover the space where she once parked her car. They ensure that no one will continue her unofficial tradition by claiming her space. Today, only the bronze Pulcinella can stand there.

I made my way to the Alley of Purgatory early that morning. The streets of the neighborhood, which usually do not awaken before ten, were not yet bustling with people. Only a few vendors were beginning to arrange their wares in those wooden cartons that occupy a significant portion of the city’s sidewalks.

I found the butcher’s shop still empty before the first wave of elderly ladies would arrive to buy the best meat for their ragus and polpette. I noticed Luigi, the butcher, standing alone behind the counter.

Unlike most of the other shops that occupy the space under the arches, it is fairly clear what Luigi sells. You do not have to struggle through piles of decorations that have accumulated over the decades to distinguish what is for sale from what merely happens to be there. So I felt guilty as I stepped inside knowing that I would not walk out with a leg of lamb or a few cutlets of chicken breast. I at least tried to feign interest in his display, which included several potato croquettes and prepared appetizers with ham one could serve along with meat.

Luigi, a man with curly silver hair and large blue eyes, observed me closely. It was only because he told me how long he had been there that I calculated he must have been around sixty; otherwise I would have thought him much younger. Luigi knew I was not his regular customer. One of the first things Luigi told me was that he knew each of his customers. Besides, tourists do not usually stop at the butcher.

“I’m sorry, would you mind if I asked you an informational question?” I asked.

“Even two,” the man behind the counter politely responded.

“Do you happen to know how long the Pulcinella statue has been here?”

“Maybe three to four months,” he said convinced of his answer.

“Do you like it?”

“Yes.”

“You think it’s nice?” I asked.

“It’s a nice thing that they are trying to support local artists.” He told me the name of the artist. He mentioned it was part of the city’s initiatives to modernize the neighborhood. “It’s not bad. It’s sculpted by an artist who has his studio a few streets down. He’s quite known around here. A little while ago they decided to rename the alley into an alley of the arts. The statue is there because it is a symbol for the impromptu theater that opened a few doors from the sculpture in that little alley.”

An elderly woman had entered the shop to purchase two kilograms of meat for her Sunday polpettone. I gestured for her to pass ahead of me, but she responded with a sideways glance that accused me of wasting the butcher’s time. She seemed visibly irritated that I had chosen the butcher to ask useless questions about theater and art in the neighborhood. Luigi felt uncomfortable, either lying or revealing Pulcinella’s Secret, literally and metaphorically as the phrase has been adopted in several languages (to mean an open secret that everyone already knows), or in other words, to put it diplomatically, that no one in the neighborhood felt any particular attachment to the statue.

“It seems like a lot of tourists stop in front of it to take pictures,” I said. And just like me, they all must have been under the similar illusion that they were capturing a piece of Naples’s past.

Luigi, however, understood that was not all I wanted to know. He quickly grasped that my question was more than a purely informational one, that I was somehow exploring the territory. He purposely ignored my comment as he neatly wrapped the meat. When he finally handed the package to the woman on the other side of the counter, he stared at me for a few seconds.

“Are you a photographer or something?” he finally asked.

“No, not at all a photographer. More like a storyteller. I’m trying to write descriptions of scenes taken from this place, good things,” I assured him, slightly embarrassed that he knew that I had not walked in there to inquire about the mask.

Within those brief minutes, the shop filled with elderly ladies, who all bought their groceries at exactly the same hour. I realized that if I wanted Luigi to tell me anything I would have to return at a better time.

“Come back in the afternoon; it’s empty then. Then we can talk,” he said.

Following his instructions I returned that afternoon, during that small interval of time after lunch and before four in the afternoon, when the streets of southern Italy are deserted. When I arrived, Luigi was still in his shop, preparing for the evening’s customers.

Ti offro un caffé,” he said inviting me for a coffee when he saw my head shyly peek through the door of the shop.

We decided to drink our caffé standing around the subject of our conversation: Pulcinella. While we spoke, I observed the sculpture more closely. He is deliberately made to look old; his white deeply scratched hat has been explicitly faded to a shade of tan that gives it the impression of having been stolen from the surrounding stucco of the degrading facade, while the stones of his base seem to emerge from the basalt of the wall. But perhaps what most distinguishes this Pulcinella are the mysterious red stains on his white hat. As to how he acquired them and what they represent I have no official answer. All that came to mind was their strong resemblance to the red marks on Luigi’s white coat. The Pulcinella before me did not look like the versions sold in the surrounding souvenir shops; instead, he bore an incredible resemblance to the engraving of Marcel Sand’s book on burlesque masks. His worn face is half covered by a black mask with a beak. Wrinkled and old, his traits looked unbelievably human. I realized he lacked that element of ridicule that unites the millions of representations of him that surround him. The artist must have found his inspiration elsewhere.

“I know everyone who lives here because they buy their meat from me,” Luigi said with confidence.

I asked him how long he had lived in the neighborhood.

“Since 1975,” he said. “It was a different place back then but in many ways still the same. They took out a lot of what was bad around here. Now there are just odd traces left, like spots on a leopard. But in any case, the people you are looking for, those who knew this place as it was, most of them have already died.”

He pointed to the photograph of the woman who preceded the bronze Pulcinella. Someone had commemorated her spot with a plaque placed next to the sculpture. The thin marble frame held a color photograph of the woman with her chickens. What he said was true; many traditions had scarcely survived with those under the age of eighty. Luigi then pointed to a man who sat on a chair, half asleep.

The elderly man periodically woke up once his chin touched the bottom of his neck.

“He is one of the last remaining ones. He’s getting close to a hundred,” said Luigi, who had been there long enough to remember the man at a very different stage in his life.

I thought about how much of the long-gone history of those streets the man in the chair had witnessed. I eagerly attempted to converse with him to find out about the last one hundred years in the neighborhood. Despite his willingness to engage and my desire to listen to what he had to say, the only two words that I could decipher were guerra (war) and Francia. So I understood that during the Second World War he had been in battle somewhere in France, although neither he nor anyone there could tell me precisely where. The war had left him with a meager pension that had allowed him to sustain his life in the Alley of Purgatory up to that day.

From what I gathered from Luigi, ever since the man had returned from the war, he had served as the unofficial guardian of the Vico Fico al Purgatorio. As strange as it may seem in our culture to call on your neighbor to oversee the street, that was the role this man had carved out for himself. When there was an odd stone out of place or the street needed some sort of repair, its inhabitants would call him. The rest of his time he spent sitting on a wicker chair in front of what I soon learned to be Giulio’s , which is right next to Pulcinella, right in front of the church.

“See,” Luigi explained, “at one time, everyone around here had their role. Their whole lives they held onto their unofficial yet untouchable place. We are left to find our own. Adapt,” he said.

As we drank our coffee around Pulcinella, more people joined us. Giulio, a tall man of hefty proportions stepped out of his bottega carrying his motorcycle helmet and a messy shopping bag that overflowed with papers. Giulio wore his hair in a long, gray ponytail and dressed in light-colored linen suits that made him look like an explorer of a past era. He looked like the type of man with a slight tendency toward exaggeration in everything in life and his descriptions were no exception. He pulled on the ends of his jacket when he spoke to you, leaning forward, so that he completely overshadowed you. Next to him was also another large man who spent his days talking to those who stopped to buy their vegetables next door while he leaned on top of Giulio’s Vespa, and a short elderly man who always accompanied him.

Once he greeted us, Giulio quickly rushed back inside to officially open up his shop. The bottega was an unusual place. When I attempted to compliment Giulio on his store, he quickly corrected me, saying it’s not a store. Giulio introduced the space through a brief version of his life story, which started with his career as an economic researcher. After his time as a researcher, he founded a film festival on the island of Procida, which eventually ended, motivating him to open a sort of antique store in the neighborhood. He gradually transformed that shop into what he referred to as a hybrid between a store and an artist space.

When I asked him whether he was an artist, Giulio responded that while he was not an artist, he worked with various artists. When I met him in 2013, the bottega had a wall covered with a glass case that contained odd porcelain kitcheries of the last century. Giulio specified that these were not for sale but were remnants of his old antiques shop that now served as drawing models for his artists. On the mezzanine, which was accessed solely through a disintegrating wooden ladder, stood two life-size, vintage wooden figures of children along with several overfilled bookshelves. Everywhere sat endless piles of books on Naples, the arts, and whatever inspired Giulio’s mind at the time. Only at the very front of the shop, directly behind the display windows, were several posters and pieces of art. Unlike everything else in the store, these objects were apparently for sale. The unlikely objects included a lampshade covered in drawn circus figures and a mobile of sorts assembled out of stenciled postcards. Everything stood preserved and immortalized under a heavy layer of dust. The scene resembled something straight out of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop.

But Giulio’s heart was more drawn to the mission of keeping alive the association, or rather the small group of people who regularly assembled in front of his shop. The signs hanging above his thickly painted, green wooden storefront only served to further confuse the purpose of his bottega. The first sign read Sosta per i Pensionati di Guerra e Civili (place of rest for war veterans and civilians). Under it Giulio had attached an additional piece of cardboard on which he wrote Le sedie sono di proprieta’ dei pensionati  (The chairs are property of the veterans).

I understood that one of those chairs must have been the wicker chair occupied by the sleeping man. After a few minutes, however, Giulio removed from his shop a similar chair, which he placed on the opposite side of the entrance where the man sat.

“The people who bought the bar next door to us on the other side of the vico (alley) are new to the area. They don’t understand anything. Haven’t gotten around to seeing how things work here yet. When we close up shop, they come and take away our chairs because they say we are competing with them,” he complained.

“They claim you need to obtain a permesso (permit) for outdoor seating. Since when is that true?” Giulio asked, outraged at the extremity of their gesture. Judging from their reactions, the others in the group appeared familiar with the conflict.

I assume that there are people in the neighborhood who, instead of paying the few extra centesimi for service fees to drink their coffees seated at the tables, order them to go to then consume them on Giulio’s chairs. I understood, however, the difficulty with which Giulio grasped such drastic measures on the part of the bar owners. He had spent his whole life in that place where merchandise was displayed on sidewalks at all hours of the day, where people spent their lives in the streets, where they put out tables and chairs, where they drank beers and played cards all day under monuments without ever being bothered. Just next door to Giulio’s are two similar wicker chairs on which people have sat for over seventy years to sell eggs and vegetables without ever requesting any form of official permission.

“I told them a million times,” said Giulio while he caressed his beard, “That these chairs are intended for the war veterans,” he said, implying that their beneficiaries deserved respect.