Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Mar 2011, box added July 2019



A
ntonio De Curtis — Totò
 
Solfatara Walter Pidgeon & Totò
These three numbered items about the life and career of Antonio De Curtis (name in art, Totò) appeared on the dates indicated in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia and have been consolidated here onto a single page. They include (1) the main entry (directly below) and then (2) entries on two films in which he appeared prominently. (3) One of the films touches upon the Solfara volcano in Fuori Grotta and has an added green box supplement. (3) Entries on the Totò Museum and Totò Theater extracted from the Miscellany pages, (4) Walter Pidgeon & Totò.

1.
entry Nov. 2002
Totò (1898-1967)

It is proverbial that there is something universal about humor, yet, nothing translates with more difficulty from one culture to another than film comedy. Great exceptions, such as Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy, though they may have wound up making talkies, more or less depended on their genius for visual humor, and slapstick developed in an age when humor was silent. Once films started to speak, the rules changed, which is why highly verbal comics such as Groucho Marx are so difficult to render into another language. A pie in the face, a prat fall, or a piano falling downstairs cross cultural and language barriers much easier than trying to translate, "Bernstein is out in the corridor waxing wroth!" "Yeah? Well, tell him to get in here and let Roth wax himself for a while!" 

The Neapolitan comic Antonio De Curtis, known as Totò, is another example of humor that can be appreciated across cultures. True, he is often full of the verbal dexterity that only native speakers of Italian can appreciate, yet his flights of outrageous language are so often combined with pure visual humor that he is easily one of the most accessible of all film comics, language and culture notwithstanding.


Nothing will start a marathon session of tale-swapping quicker than Neapolitans sitting around recalling scenes from their favorite Totò films. If you want one where the pompous get their comeuppance, there's the train scene where he offers to help a windbag senator with his luggage, taking each piece and carefully passing it out the window of the moving train, and for sheer pantomimic grace he is peerless in this version of a marionette puppet dancing his way across the stage as Pinocchio
.



This memorial is at Totò's birthplace in the
Vergini section of Naples.

His early career started after WW I in vaudeville and expanded into films. He made 85 of them in all. Some of them, of course, are silly potboilers, fun but forgettable. Others are "art," the kind you wind up admiring, but still puzzling over and studying in History of Cinema classes, such as his brilliant work in Uccellacci ed uccellini (1966) (lit. "Ugly birds and little birds." English title is "The Hawks and the Sparrows."), produced by another genius, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Others, the most memorable ones, have him in the role of the true clown, the little man down on his luck, just trying to make it through another day. There is this poignancy in Guardie e Ladri (Cops and Robbers). Totò, as a petty thief, spends much of the film making a good-natured overweight policeman chase after him. They become friends and though Totò has to go off to jail, the policeman winds up promising to send postcards to his family from different places around Italy so they'll think Totò is just off on a business trip. Then, there is some of Everyman's would-be defiance of Authority in a film called i Due Marascialli, when a high-ranking Nazi officer in WW II Italy screams at Totò: "I can do what I want. I have a blank check!" "A blank check?" answers Totò, in a retort now proverbial in Italian, "Well, you can wipe your ass with it!" 

A number of other Totòisms have found their way into the language. "Siamo uomini o caporali?!" ("Are we men or corporals?") and the immortal, but untranslatable line (because it contains a grammatical error which contradicts the spirit of the sentence): "Signore si nasce ed io lo nacqui!" (Maybe something like, "Gentlemen are born, not made, and I is one!") He was also the author of a number of well-loved poems and songs in Neapolitan dialect, most memorable of which are A' livella (a poem about death as the great equalizer) and "Malafemmina," a love song. 

Like many comics, Totò did not become appreciated as a "true clown" until after his death. But most Italians knew right from the start what it took critics decades to figure out, and now through the pleasant little time-machine known as television, we can all see why. 



2.

entry June 2003
               solfatara, Totò (2) 

One of my favorite Totò films is "47, Morto che parla" (47, Dead Man Talking). The title has to do with the smorfia, the tradition of interpreting dreams, of associating numbers with certain things in dreams and then playing those numbers in the lottery. The presumption is that someone on "the other side" is giving you a hot tip. Number 47 in the Smorfia is Dead Man Talking, so if you have a dream in which you are conversing with, say, one of your dearly departed, 47 is one number you should play. Unfortunately, you need at least three "hits" to have any chance of making real money. That's three friends in very high places, perhaps too much to ask in any one week. 

The film was made in 1950 and is a loose adaptation of a stage comedy of the same name by Roman playwright, Ettore Petrolini (1886-1936) with some of Moliere's The Miser thrown in. The whole plot revolves around getting a skinflint Baron, played by Totò, to reveal where he keeps a large stash of money. The conspirators figure that the best way to do this is to make Totò believe he is dead, have him wake up in the afterlife, and then get him to talk about what he did in life and where he hid things such as money. They drug him and cart him away to a Stygian landscape replete with fumaroles and other Dantean special effects; when he comes to his senses, those who were his friends in life are standing around in bed sheets and laurel wreaths, moaning and otherwise impersonating characters whom you might expect to meet in the doom and gloom antechamber of the hereafter. 

I won't spoil the rest of the film for you, but I remember being taken with the set for the scene where he wakes up: barren hillside, lots of rocks, smoke and steam. It turns out that it was filmed on location in Naples, right outside of Naples, really, in the Solfatara, a very active and bubbling sulfur pit. It is located in the area known as the Campi Flegrei. Indeed, Petronius, in The Satyricon reminds us…

Est locus exciso penitus demersus hiatu 
Parthenopen inter magnaeque Dicarchidos arva,
Cocyti perfusus aqua…  (Satyr., CXX, 67-9)

…that between Neapolis and the vast fields of Dicearchia [modern–day Pozzuoli] there is a place at the bottom of a cavern washed by the waters of the Cocytus*... 

[*One of the four mythological rivers of the netherworld, on the shores of which wandered the souls of those who had known no proper burial at death.]

Strabo (66 B.C. -24 A.D.)  also mentions the Solfatara in his Strabonis geographica, calling it Forum Vulcani, the abode of the god, Vulcan, and the entrance to Hades. 

The Solfatara is, at present, a protected nature reserve open to tourism. It is, indeed, at the "bottom of a cavern" —a large crater of volcanic origin and one that is still very active, geologically. In its long history, the Solfatara has suffered from benign neglect as well as commercial exploitation, having been mined for is alum and chalk as well as serving as a source for mineral water with reputed medicinal value. Its value as a scientific station for the study of the geologically very interesting activity in the area started in 1861 when the property was purchased by the De Luca family, which included Francesco De Luca, a physicist. His scientific descriptions of the area, the mineral content of the soil and waters, etc. are still informative reading. The area was officially opened to visitors in 1900 but, bound as it is to Greek and Roman Mythology, had long been a stop on the so-called "Grand Tour"

There have been a number of recent documentaries on Italian national TV about the Solfatara. They refer to the site as an "active volcano" and have used it —with nearby Vesuvius, of course— as a point of departure to discuss the geology of the entire Bay of Naples.

photo directly above by Napoli Underground (NUg)

[update from September 2017: A stark reminder that the Solfatara is not a playground.]

box added July, 2019
This is from Marius Kociejowski's forthcoming book, The Serpent Coiled in Naples, from the chapter on Solfatara, entitled "Signor Volcano". The general entry on Solfatara is directly above this box.
Solfatara and the Last Duel

Solfatara had notoriety as a duelling ground. The duels were done in secret, behind closed gates, always at dawn. They were concluded at ‘first blood’ when honour was satisfied and not at death when, for at least one of the combatants, honour was but a dissipated perfume.

Afterwards the custom would be for both parties to repair to a local osteria where they would find reconciliation over a bottle. As a child Giorgio witnessed the last duel in Solfatara, perhaps the last in Italy, between the senator Gaetano Fiorentino and the lawyer Attilio Romano. Monarchists both, albeit of different branches, they had exchanged insults in the newspapers and later in private
communications on the subject of Carlo Delcroix, another monarchist who, in 1917, after losing his hands and eyes while attempting to diffuse an unexploded bomb, was awarded the Silver Cross for Military Valour.* Fiorentino, under the penname of “Florentinus”, had expressed doubt in Delcroix’s courage, saying the accident took place behind lines, and so drew the ire of Romano who saw this not only as a slur upon his friend but upon all Italian war heroes. What was at stake ultimately were the values and responsibilities of the royal house although one might ask what royal house and what values and what responsibilities.
[* Delcroix would later throw his weight behind Mussolini, and as war hero appears as “Uncle Carlo” in Ezra Pound’s Cantos. In defence of Delcroix he soon repented of his support for Il Duce after the latter’s alliance with Nazi Germany.]
(...) Still, justice had to be seen to be done. There was a court case, which was irresolute in its findings. When words fail, it is time to resort to violence. On the morning of 23rd March 1955 the duel took place, by which point the original grievance had been substituted by mutual dislike or what is sometimes called ‘bad chemistry’ between the two men. At a distance all this seems rather Byzantine, but it was probably no less so at the time. The duel lasted an hour. An Olympic champion sabreur, Arturo De Vecchi, acted as referee. Achille Lauro, the mighty ship-owner, founder of the People’s Monarchist Party, and mayor of Naples, said he would like to have been there, but found reason not to be. Doctors were on hand, one for each side, with their supplies of bandages. There was a minor spillage of blood. The senator won. A reconciliation of sorts was said to have taken place, and indeed there is a photograph of the two shaking hands.
Giorgio remembers it differently. Romano and Fiorentino continued to seethe. Duelling was, and remains, a punishable offence not only in the eyes of the law but also the Church. The police discovered they were about to fight and on the morning fixed for the duel they knocked at the gates of Solfatara. Gegè in a newspaper interview given not long before his death remembered the moment well: "I was sweating cold but I managed to convince them that between the vaporous fumes there was nothing going on." The duel took place and, as usual, it was not fatal. The senator won but no sooner was the fight finished than the carabinieri arrived and made charges. The De Luca family decided, very appropriately, that this historical cycle had become too embarrassing and so, not without a hint of regret for the many emotions,“provate e procurate”, tried and procured, the last duel in Solfatara, perhaps in the whole of Europe, took place.’ There are perfectly reasonable people who say that duelling is a foolish exercise, which, of course, is a perfectly reasonable thing to say except that with its demise went the even more foolish notions of honour and manhood.

other excerpts from The Serpent Coiled in Naples:
 
here ,   here ,   here  here ,   here ,   here here here here

3.
entry June 2003
          pazzariello; Marotta, G. (3)

I have heard that the pazzariello still exists, but I have never seen one except in a period re-enactment of the Naples of days gone by. Indeed, in April 1997, RAI, the Italian state radio, ran a short program called "The Last Pazzariello of Naples" in which they went to a hospital in the Spanish Quarter and talked to Michele Lauri, born in 1920, the gentleman purported to be the last of his kind except, as I say, in re-enactments. "Don Michele" said he had plied his trade from the end of WWII until the late 1980s —50 years of being a pazzariello, then, eventually, the last one in Naples. For many centuries, before mass printing and then electronics made it so much easier to spread the word, there was a profession called "town crier" or some variation thereof, a person paid to walk around and shout out the news of the day and also get in a few ads for local merchants. The pazzariello was that person in Naples.

Typically, he dressed in mock military garb, a homemade uniform with bizarre medals, epaulets and a diagonal sash across the chest. He wore a fancy French Bourbon tricorner hat, usually with the points at front and back instead of on the side and carried a large baton. He looked perhaps more like a circus ringmaster than a general, but at least it was conspicuous. The pazzariello (from the Neapolitan verb pazziare—to joke) was usually accompanied by a small band of at least a flautist and a bass-drum. He paraded around the streets and announced that a new shop was opening, or that this or that shop was almost giving away merchandise, so hurry, hurry, hurry —or that so-and-so had lost a wedding ring and would the finder please have it in his heart to return it. He told a few jokes, rhymed a few couplets, and there were also the obligatory bits of gossip and anti-establishment comments. He and his small entourage picked up the few coins that people tossed their way.

If the pazzariello is familiar at all to those outside of Italy, it is probably through the 1954 film, L'oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples), directed by Vittorio De Sica (1901-74). The film consists of five episodes (six in the US release) based on those found in the 1947 book of the same name by Giuseppe Marotta (1902-1963). The first episode in the film (il guappo—the Racketeer) revolves around the character of a pazzariello, played by Totò (photo, above). (Don Michele, the real deal, had a bit part in the film and was a technical adviser.) Totò's performance is uncharacteristically dark and melancholy and the episode has been called by one critic the last bit of true "neorealism" to come from De Sica (the director of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D) before he started making more light-hearted fare. 

[Click here for an item about another story in the book, The Gold of Naples, an episode that was not in the film. Also here for an episode from both book and film.]


from Miscellany pages:

The Neapolitan comic, Antonio De Curtis (in art known as “Totò”), was the most popular Italian film comic of the 20th century. (“No one is in second place,” as they say.) A number of complaints in the paper have noted that the city can’t seem to get its own unfunny act together enough to buy the comic’s home on Via Santa Maria Antesaecula, a site where they could open a decent museum dedicated to Naples’ “favorite son.” The house has been up for sale a number of times and the city has done nothing.


added, August 2011


The Totò Theater is alive and well. It opened in May, 1996, on the premises of —and after totally refurbishing— the old Ausonia cinema, (perhaps putting the brakes on the distressing cultural trend in the other direction, whereby live theaters become movie-houses). The establishment bills itself as the "comic theater of Naples" and has had successful seasons since its inception. The 631-seat theater is on the south-side of the Botanical Gardens, a few minutes' walk from a street named after the great comic (via Antonio De Curtis) and also near the Vergini/Sanità area of Naples, where he was born. The season generally runs from October through May and features comic plays and musical comedy. The theater also sponsors theater workshops for younger actors just starting out.

Also see: Totò Statue Removed



[note: this is confusing!]

If you recognize the photo on the left as Walter Pidgeon, good eye! (You may advance to the next round.) I asked a Canadian writer (living in London) to "name the famous Canadian actor who is still the best-known Canadian actor from the 1940s in Italy because of his part in a film with Totò about WWII." He guessed, plausibly, Christopher Plummer. That was not correct, so he was disqualified on the grounds that you cannot be a winner if you are a loser.
The published plot of this film, The Two Colonels (1964), says it is about Italian and British troops facing off on the Greek-Albanian border in 1943. Both sides take, lose, and retake a village so often that the villagers no longer pay attention to the battles and collaborate with the side that holds the village at any given time. Both sides use the same hotel as their HQ and a friendship and mutual respect even develops between the two opposing commanding officers. This goes on until the Germans arrive and order the Italian commander (Totò) to destroy the village and kill the villagers, an order he refuses to obey, bringing him a death sentence by firing squad. His men refuse the German commander's order to fire and are also condemned to death. The British recapture the village just in time to save the Italians. They are led by Col. number 2, who looks down on the scene from the rooftop above the square and yells down to the German commander; "Good morning, general. Colonel Timothy Henderson, Royal Fusiliers. You are completely surrounded. Lay down your arms." That is Canadian actor (and singer!) Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984) (from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada) (He became a U.S. citizen in 1943.)
He is best remembered for his work in the films How Green Was My Valley (1941), and Mrs. Miniver (1942). If you did not know of his early career as a singer, that is not surprising. He started singing in stage musicals as early as  1924. This is his 1924 recording of Irving Berlin's What'll I do. It is the only one I could find. Please remember how they made records (those round things with grooves) back then. Here's where the dog comes in --that stupid mutt with the confused look and cocked head staring at "His master's voice" coming from the RCA Victrola. They actually had to grind the dog's nose to a fine enough point to cut grooves in the master disc. They went through a lot of dogs, but the little guys died for a good cause, with a song in their bark and a wag in their tails.

The confusion about this film is that "The Two Colonels"/i 2 Colonelli was billed as a re-release of
an earlier film starring Totò, "I due marescialli". I think they just inserted a lot of that earlier Totò film --sets, actors, dialogue, Germans-- into the "The Two Colonels" and then got Walter Pidgeon for the scenes with Totò (image, above left) plus the scene where "Pidge" arrives just in time to save the day.


                to portal index for literature and film        to top of this page

© 2002 - 2020