The Face of Naples

It’s hard not to know or recognize one of the most famous and intriguing maskers of the European culture while here in Naples: Pulcinella. White dress, black mask, pointed hood, and BIG nose, he is everywhere! A personage of the comedy of arts, in which he plays a comic servant, Pulcinella originated from a man who really existed! And spoiler alert: He is actually not from Naples but from a small town called Acerra!! Born in Acerra, not far from Naples, in the XVI century, Pulcinella was recognized for his long nose, sunburned face, and a grotesque appearance. But he was witty and astute. His comical talents were observed by comedians, who took him to Naples and admitted him to their company.

We had such a fascinating visit with A-MATUS CLUB (a language school who offers cultural outings) to a museum in Acerra dedicated to Pulcinella. It’s situated in a Baronial Castle that once belonged to the feudal lords of the city. One of the quaintest and most unique museums I’ve been to! The rooms display original documents around popular, literary, and theatrical traditions about the masked man; old and modern original works of art; and dresses, masks, and photos of the actors that played Pulcinella. Genres displayed range from puppets, theatre, presepe (nativity scenes), to film. There’s even a monument of the un-masked Pulcinella. I think this is a great off the beaten track cultural must-see!

Pulcinella: Macaroni and Stable

Pulcinella became the masker of ‘the Napolitan.’ That means a man who wishes to enjoy life, who wants to fill his hungry stomach with pasta and wine, who wants to make music, dance, and love. But Pulcinella is more than that. He has a number of very strange traits His mask has a nose in the shape of a beak and beady eyes like a bird. In the booth Pulcinella’s voice resembles the squeaking of a cockerel. For that reason, the puppeteer uses the pivetta (squeaker). The name Pulcinella means cockerel. There are pictures that represent the birth of Pulcinella out of an egg. To Pulcinella are attributed magical powers. In Naples, little Pulcinella statues painted from terracotta are sold to serve as bringers of good luck. During Christmas they are placed in the stable, between the shepards and the Magi.

Pulcinella: Puppet in the World

Around 1600 Pulcinella appeared for the first time on the stage of a regular company of comedians, but before that time he was already seen among the buffoons at the squares. Itinerant Italian troupes of comedians have spread the Commedia dell’Arte over many European countries. As a puppet Pulcinella is more important. He became the favorite of the public, above other personages of the Commedia dell’Arte that had found a place in the puppet theatre. Just like the comedians, Italian puppeteers strolled about Europe. In the foreign countries the audiences also highly valued Pulcinella. He acclimatized and adapted a number of traits from already existing autochthonous farcical figures.

Other thoughts on this masked symbol:

The Symbolism of Pulcinella, Exorcist of Neapolitans’ Existential Angst

The origins of Pulcinella are uncertain. Although the character probably developed from a type of ancient theatre called atellane (from Atella, a city near Naples) in the 4th century BC, it was not until the 17th century that he was taken up by the commedia dell’arte. From the 18th century he became the most famous, the most studied and the most represented character (and puppet) in the world. Far from Naples, he changes his name and sometime loses some of his typical features. In Paris he’s known as Polichinelle, in London Punch, in Istanbul Karagoz, in Spain Don Cristobal, in Germany Kaspar and in Moscow Petruska.

Roberto De Simone, an authority on the subject, claims that Pulcinella represents all aspects of Neapolitan popular culture, which, for thousands of years, has exorcised all its existential anxieties by inventing symbols, dances, and, in this case, a character. Pulcinella has in fact a rather funeral aspect: his black face with hooked nose, his spectral complexion, his deformities and his smock as white as a shroud are certainly scary enough; his nasal, croaking voice is not of this world.

His name probably derives from pulcino (chick) because, like a chick, he was hatched from a hen’s egg- the hen is the creature sacred to Persephone, queen of the underworld. Pulcinella thus embodies death and the misfortunes of humanity, but at the same time he wards them off with his cornucopia-shaped cap and his burlesque behavior. The roles he plays are as numerous as the defects and qualities of a people, for Pulcinella is both comic and tragic, simple and smart, affable and arrogant, rich and poor, cowardly and brave, hopelessly stupid and amazingly resourceful, but always able to rise from the ashes, like any genuine Neapolitan.

His inherent and total ambivalence fits perfectly into the Neapolitan culture, where contradictions reign. He has a lover and is frequently lewd, but his Italian name sounds feminine and he is sometimes graphically depicted giving birth to small “clones” from his hump- this is the myth of the hermaphrodite that runs through Neapolitan culture. The androgynous Pulcinella also rhymes with Verginella, the name the people gave to their great benefactor Virgil, also both man and woman. Moreover, for the alchemists the hermaphrodite is the perfect being insofar as it synthesizes man and woman, and therefore the universe. Pulcinella has a big belly, another allegory of motherhood, but also of hunger because Pulcinella is forever hungry. He dreams only of macaroni, an affirmation of his strictly Neapolitan origins. Then, suddenly, his stomach becomes a sign of opulence and he’s seen gorging himself on the long steaming ribbons of pasta that he grabs in handfuls to stuff his mouth. This is what the poor did in the old days when boiled macaroni sprinkled with grated cheese was sold in the streets…

Secret Naples,” Valerio Ceva Grimaldi and Maria Franchini, p.386-387


Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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