Guardians of the Sacred Chapter Twelve

Pulcinella (Part Two)

Giulio then pointed to the sign he had attached over the entrance to his bottega, which, in thick, black permanent marker, designated the spot as the association for war veterans. He then indicated the sign below it specifying the purpose of the chairs. Obtaining the consent of the neighborhood for founding the association or its physical presence in that particular spot was irrelevant. I learned that in Naples it means little whether an official body or an individual person issued a particular sign. Be the signs cardboard or metal, people held a tacit respect for them; the signs manifested a strict adherence to written words, regardless of who issued them.

I asked Giulio who the war veterans were. He pointed to the man who sat half asleep on that same chair where I had first seen him several hours earlier that morning.

Lui,” (He) Giulio said pointing to the old man. “He is the only war veteran.”

I smiled at the elderly man. He understood enough to be pleased at Giulio’s distinction, to which he smiled back with a single remaining tooth.

“The rest of us are the civilians,” Giulio said proudly indicating the accuracy of the second part of his sign, which stated that the association comprised war veterans and civilians.

“But now they can’t take my chairs anymore,” he said proudly indicating something that I had failed to notice when he first removed the chair from his shop. As he struggled to move it around, I realized that, in what he believed to be a trick of ingenuity to make his neighbors understand the offense he took at their gesture, Giulio had tied chairs to the massive wooden table in his shop with the help of a thick blue string. He had knotted the string four or five times around the chair’s center.

I perused Giulio’s little shop extensively, studying the individual odd objects assembled in the overcrowded space. His obvious appreciation for the arts led me to inquire about the neighboring Pulcinella statue. I assumed he would like Pulcinella.

“Oh no, don’t even begin to talk to me about that thing. I despise it,” Giulio said, rolling his eyes.

“You know the thing is new. It’s not part of the vico. I can assure you it wasn’t here before,” he said almost degrading it by virtue of its novelty. Giulio was somewhat of a cross between Pulcinella, the character who tried to cleverly outdo official orders, and a modern day Don Quixote battling against the windmills of modernity that had started to penetrate that small corner of purgatory.

As to how long exactly the Pulcinella had been there, Giulio could not provide me with a precise answer, but he seemed convinced that the sculpture had been there no more than a few months. A few days later, in a book I purchased on Naples, I read that it had been placed there almost six months prior. New, however, is a relative term in Naples. People are comfortable employing the term in reference to anything that followed their own arrival in the area; quite simply, if they remember a before and an after. When I told Luigi that I had spoken to a particular custodian of a church, he dismissed him as a viable source of information saying that the man did not know anything because he had “just arrived here.” I thought that was a very relative use of the word “just,” because the man had been in that very same position in that very same church even longer than I have been alive.

“It would have been better had they never put that there,” Giulio concluded referring to Pulcinella. In a gesture of protest, he purposely turned his back to the sculpture.

“I’m not even going to look at it. I despise the thing. I dislike that it has its eyes on me all the time,” Giulio referred to the sculpture’s position against the wall of the alley. In truth, one had to get out of the bottega and turn left to see Pulcinella, who looked straight onto the arches and not into Giulio’s shop. Except that while Giulio was never inside his bottega, he could always be found standing outside. From where Giulio stood, Pulcinella did look directly at him.

“Maybe I believe this because I’m from Naples, but I have always felt that it’s bad luck to have other people’s eyes on you; it’s a sign of envy,” he said. “I tried to avoid it my whole life, and now I have them all the time.” Statues too have the same effect, I suppose.

“And I will tell you something,” he said convinced. “Ever since they put that sculpture there, I haven’t seen a single lira in this store. And it’s not just me—all of us. You can ask the butcher. He will tell you the exact same thing.” I decided not to bring up the crowds of people I had witnessed at the butcher’s shop that morning or that they had all paid in cash for their meat. But I doubted that those who lived in the neighborhood would have had much use of stepping inside Giulio’s shop. Besides, Giulio seemed to have such a strong sentimental attachment for all those individually selected artifacts. Each of those objects, after decades in the store, had developed a story of its own, and together they formed a personal collection of sorts. Giulio would have had a difficult time parting with any piece of it—just like he did with his chairs.

“One of these days,” Giulio said “I will get a large, round mirror and place it there.” He pointed to a pillar that held one of the arches. “That way Pulcinella looks into the mirror, and the stare of his eyes is reflected directly back at him and away from me,” he said. As he explained that next feat of ingenuity he had devised to outdo the new in the neighborhood, I thought of another purgatory; that of Dante, who punished the envious by sewing their eyes shut so that they could only look within. Only, I suppose that since Pulcinella’s eyes were made of metal, no one will ever be able to close them. He will always inevitably look at Giulio.

Giulio turned to his neighbor for approval regarding his solution to handle the sculpture’s negative effects on the neighborhood. I imagine, however, that the superstition about Pulcinella’s eyes must have been new, or maybe even Giulio’s own, if two hundred years ago Pulcinella guarded baby Jesus’s nativity cave much like he does Giulio’s bottega today. “But you told me you liked it earlier,” I said seeking for further explanation.

“It’s a good thing they are trying to support artists in the neighborhood, but really, out of everything they could have chosen, I don’t know if putting a Pulcinella out there was the best choice. There are other artists doing other, more relevant things today,” Luigi said. At the very least, one could admit that the commercial myth of Pulcinella, a traditional caricature exploited to exhaustion by the surrounding souvenir shops, was a somewhat paradoxical choice for a symbol of the contemporary arts.

Luigi had seen many changes around those streets since the time he occupied Giulio’s bottega when he first arrived in the neighborhood in 1975. During his first few decades in the neighborhood, he sold eggs along with live chickens, whose cages occupied the mezzanine now crowded by Giulio’s vintage objects. Luigi informed me that in that corner of Naples, the tradition of selling live animals for personal consumption continued well into the 1990s. Eventually animal rights and hygiene laws that regulated the handling of meat banned people from butchering their own animals. When Luigi lost his customer base as a consequence of these external norms and circumstances, he adapted his profession. It was then that he opened in the shop next door and became a traditional butcher. He noticed my surprise.

“People purchased live chickens?” I asked. Luigi nodded to confirm. Eventually, when the animals were ready to be butchered the family ate them. His particular generation’s sympathy for the custom of killing one’s meal, however, was strictly limited to birds; mammals were a different story. Luigi narrated the morbid account of his parents slaughtering a baby goat raised in their house. The experience had scarred him to the extent that, despite the fact that he was a butcher, Luigi had never been able to eat goat meat since.

“My little goat, the poor little goat,” Giulio interrupted remembering his own childhood companion.

“We had her since she was a baby. I raised her in my house and then once she got old enough, my parents forced me to eat her. All they could say was how good Camilla tasted as they happily devoured her. I’m still traumatized. I don’t even want to hear about goat meat again.”

Someone else who had grown up in the neighborhood had joined us in front of the statue and began to tell us about a turkey her family raised on their balcony to slaughter. At the very least, Pulcinella had drawn us together. The turkey, we were told, flew from the family’s balcony into a room full of students in the neighboring university, the Orientale. The family appeared in front of the turkey to gesture for it to return home and the bird recognized its owners, in the same way a dog or cat does. With the help of the students, the bird returned safely to the family’s balcony, where it survived until the next family meal.

“How many days before they ate them did people usually purchase their chickens?” I asked.

“Usually a day or so before. They then kept them alive on their balconies,” Luigi answered. I tried to envision those narrow alleys and small streets, which one could scarcely call clean today, filled with sawdust and hundreds of live animals. That was how it really was and not that long ago.

“Well at least people knew where meat came from. We are far too estranged from our meat today. So then you would buy a chicken, kill it, and then eat it?” I asked.

Luigi stared at me suspiciously.

“No, it’s not quite like that. Live animals have to be purchased and butchered several days in advance of being eaten. Once you kill a chicken you usually leave it hanging for at least twenty four hours before cooking it. Eating freshly killed meat like that it’s not really done in our society,” he said, growing more perplexed.

We leave meat to raffermare,”  he continued. Witnessing my confusion, he explained that raffermare is a mortuary term, to harden. “Then you eat it. Eating freshly killed meat,” he said studying me more closely, “is seen as something only animals do in the wild; it’s quite grotesque. It’s almost cannibalistic.”

Embarrassed by the fact that Luigi believed that I referred to my own customs for consuming meat instead of inquiring out of pure curiosity, I quickly responded, “Sorry, in fact I don’t eat meat.”

“There you go. I knew you were trouble,” he said, smiling. “Over the years I’ve become an animal rights activist at heart,” he said “I still do this because I have to.”

I decided to ask him one final question before leaving. If Pulcinella troubled them, did they not mind staring at the bronze skull that sat on a pedestal in front of the church across from the street? A single tall green candle burning next to it and a rose placed along the grates of the church indicated that someone still worshipped it. I have such a strong aversion to symbols of the ephemeral that I had purposely turned my head away from the object since the beginning. But when I looked at it again, I noticed its eerie resemblance to a decaying fleshless Pulcinella, the bronze sculpture, which the artist had represented only with a head, omitting the rest of the bust.

“No, that skull there has been around forever. It brings good luck,” Giulio quickly responded. “The souls of purgatory bring good luck. They have already been saved, so if you pray for them you can free them. They will give you something back.

“Besides, no one brings better luck than Lucia (the venerated skull of the woman who died out of love that is kept in the crypt of the church). So many people used to come here. They left her messages of hope.”

Giulio then informed me that he had heard of a fruttivendola (a woman who owned the fruit stand) who had seen a munaciello. The unpredictable spirit visited houses to bring luck or cash. “I can’t tell you if it’s true,” he warned me, “She would never tell you. Around here we don’t tell these things. If you see them, if you experience them, you keep them to yourself.

“I’m sorry I can’t introduce you to people who believe in these superstitions and things; but all of those people are long gone. People no longer believe in these things. I feel like in the last two years or so we lost them all,” Giulio said while Luigi began to walk toward his shop.

While Giulio also made his way back into his shop, he mentioned that if I needed anything he would be in his bottega the following day. When I walked around the neighborhood during the next several days, I often passed in front of the store hoping to find him. I found the bottega closed, but I stopped in front to talk with the members of the association who greeted me each time. Only on the fourth day was the bottega open again.

The members of the association mentioned that although they no longer attended such things, a procession would take place later that day to celebrate the miracles of San Gennaro (patron saint of Naples), who had once blocked the flow of lava from the erupting Vesuvius at the doors of the city.

“Why don’t you go anymore?” I asked the large man, who, in the absence of Giulio’s Vespa leaned on one of the chairs.

“I don’t know, it’s just that nobody goes anymore—they’ve all stopped,” he said with a hint of both indifference and nostalgia. While he never spoke of himself, the man had stopped going when other people stopped believing. His own faith somehow necessitated theirs.

In the time I had to spare before the beginning of the event, for which I had invited my aunt to join me, I explored the alley of purgatory. Under the old street plaque that stood above Pulcinella, an additional sign had renamed it the Vicolo d’Arte (Alley of the Arts). The place had thus been renamed by the city of Naples, but the sign seemed so much at odds with the actual context of that old alley that it appeared even more ad hoc than the one Giulio had placed over his shop. An iron bench stood in front what must have been the impromptu theater. On it, a large, pregnant, orange cat lounged. I searched for visible signs of the arts, but I only saw several people who lived in the bassi, or ground floor habitations, going about their daily cooking and cleaning. The only decorations that adorned the alley were the brooms and other odd household appliances, such as an oven pastry heater, that the inhabitants of those ground floor dwellings stored on the outer walls of their homes. The neon plastic broomsticks visibly contrasted the dark walls of exposed tufo (local dark volcanic rock), which over the years had blackened under several layers of soot. The inhabitants all believed that the street somehow belonged to them. When you ask those in the little vico where they live, they simply respond “in purgatory.” As I walked through purgatory, however, I wondered if they knew they lived in the alley of the arts.

When I left the alley, I joined my aunt at a bar in front of San Lorenzo Maggiore, the monastery in which Petrarch, the father of the sonnet, wrote and lived in the fourteenth century. As the waiter served our coffee, which in the afternoon arrives with generous portions of cornetti filled with Nutella and sugar­covered brioche leftover from the morning, a woman selling the red chili pepper-shaped horns that hang everywhere in the city stopped at our table. She insistently placed the horn on the table in a gesture that implied that my aunt was to buy the chain. After several persistent attempts by the woman, my aunt handed her some coins. Unsatisfied, the woman insisted that she wanted my aunt to have the keychain.

The red charm at the edge of the table, perhaps because of its bright color, quickly caught the attention of a little girl at the table next to ours who had just covered her face in chocolate gelato.

“See that,” her mother said as she wiped away the layer of chocolate with a napkin, “It is a corno, scaccia invidia,” (a horn that chases away envy). The child kept her small finger pointed at the object.

“I like that,” I said. My unusual comment made the women turn toward me. “It chases away envy, which is the most dangerous of evils,” I said repeating her words.

“Yes. Why, did you not know?” my aunt asked. “We say here that the corno is supposed to chase away the envy of others.” The objects originated from Roman fertility symbols associated with success, which eventually came to symbolize good luck more generally.

“Oh I thought it chased away one’s own envy,” I said, thinking that the powers attributed to the object seemed ambitious. As I thought about the impossibility of controlling the envy of others, I remembered Giulio’s long battle to divert Pulcinella’s eyes from him.

Instead of hanging a large mirror on the pillar of the arcade, I wondered why Giulio had not placed a hanging corno. If a mirror could have reflected envy, a charm could have chased it away. At first I thought the remedy had never occurred to him. Later, when I had pizza with Nando at a place in the dodgy neighborhood of pigna secca where they fill their crust with ricotta cheese, I asked him about the corno. “They chase away envy,” he said. “You can never buy one for yourself. Someone has to give it to you. We say here that you can never buy your luck.” Nando spelled out the additional specifications to optimize the object’s effect as a good luck charm; mainly that it had to be hard and hollow, curved, and pointed at its end. But most important, he insisted, were the hands that made it because of the energy released from the hand of the artist onto the object. I tried to adhere to them most closely when, several months later, I returned to Giulio’s store, and I gave him a corno to fight Pulcinella’s envy. It was the single object missing in his bottega.

When we reached San Biagio dei Librai, the street through which the procession passes, we found it surprisingly empty. Every year on the first Sunday in May a miracle is said to liquefy the contents of a relic stored in the Duomo that supposedly holds the saint’s blood. This can be scientifically explained through a phenomenon called thixotropy, which accounts for the liquefying of certain old, congealed liquids when shaken. This includes clotted blood (although even old mayonnaise behaves exactly the same way). To celebrate the successful process, which Neapolitans interpret as an auspicious sign for the city, members of different congregations march the silver busts of saints from the Duomo to the church of Santa Chiara, where the archbishop delivers a final mass.

The Catholic Church does not officially recognize the miracle, but every year since the fourteenth century, be it out of superstition, belief, or just in case, the people of Naples have gathered to commemorate the event. They celebrated that, at least for that year, they had been spared until the following when the saint’s blood could always fail to liquefy as an omen of oncoming calamities. It was said that the blood failed to liquefy in 1799 when the French occupied the city and again when the unification of Italy began. If you ask around, the people will tell you that it did not happen in 1939 and 1940 (the beginning of the Second World War), in 1943 (the year of the Nazi occupation), nor in 1973 (when a cholera epidemic swept the city). Others will even tell you that an exception occurred in 1980 when three thousand people died in an earthquake in nearby Irpina. The lists are many and varied, for everyone has their own retrospective view of what constitutes a disaster. I resorted to the written word for confirmation, but I quickly abandoned my efforts when I found an article from 1944, another year that the saint’s blood had apparently failed to liquefy. The archbishop, interviewed by a foreign reporter, observed that the blood had not failed to liquefy since the cholera epidemic of 1884. That particular fourth of May, 2013, the archbishop of Naples, Cardinale Sepe, announced in the church of Santa Chiara that San Gennaro’s blood had successfully liquefied.

Until a few years ago people celebrated the passage of the busts by hanging their best embroidered sheets from the ledges of their balcony. Entire families assembled to throw rose petals onto the marching statues of saints. Most people walk along the streets ignoring or avoiding the procession. This relative apathy toward the ceremony, however, does not stop them from rushing to touch the busts of the saints once they are placed in the church of Santa Chiara, just in case, I suppose.

While the congregations struggled to carry the heavy silver busts of the saints, an older woman rushed against the flow of the procession. Her yellow shirt made her unexpected movements even more visible among the crowd. She stopped when she arrived in front of where we stood. She did not say anything. Instead, she reached out her arm to gesture that we were to take the leaflet with a female saint on the cover that she held in her hand. These leaflets, commonly found at the entrance of churches, have prayers to invoke the assistance of the saint to obtain a grazia. The woman turned the pamphlet so that its back cover faced upward before she handed it to me. With a slight nod, she indicated the printed information with opening days and visiting hours before she disappeared back into the crowd to join her group, which had already moved far ahead. I read the name of the saint printed on the cover: Santa Maria Francesca delle Piaghe. I had never heard of the saint before.

“She is the protector of women who are infertile,” my aunt informed me. “I wonder why she came all the way back here to bring this to you,” she said, alluding to the fact that the leaflet could only have been intended for me. The woman could not possibly have ignored that my aunt was visibly twenty years too old to benefit from it.

I have often wondered how she knew, but I had stopped asking those questions long before. We walked back that evening through the same path I had taken the preceding days, only that this time, about halfway along our way, I noticed a brown metal sign that I had never seen before. It had a picture of a church with a white arrow pointing to an alley.

“Isn’t that the place?” I asked my aunt. “The place from the pamphlet we received?”

Later when I arrived back home, I called Nando to tell him. He was silent for a while before he spoke.

Bello,” he paused. “Non, so cosa dire, ma bello.” (“I don’t know what to say, but it’s a beautiful thing.”)

“Do you believe in these things Nando?” I asked him.

“I don’t, but I do. In the end, the truth is that we all believe.”

There it was, literally and metaphorically, my next sign.