Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

©ErN 69,  Oct. 2010  

There are two related items here: (1) The Big Rock Cockayne Mountain, and (2) The Neapolitan Cuccagna.

1. The Big Rock Cockayne Mountain

I was browsing through a delightful book by Matilde Serao called Il Paese di Cuccagna, published in 1891 and in English in 1902 as The Land of Cockayne. It is the most accessible of her works to a wider audience (because it exists in English translation) and explores the life of Naples at the turn of the 19th-20th century. It is an account of the Neapolitan obsession with winning the lottery. The obsession is almost total. Lottery junkies will do anything for a tip on a lucky number, and that has given rise to the secondary obsession, the interpretation of dreams. The local name for the association of the content of your dreams and lottery numbers is the smorfia. (More at that link.) The lotto, itself, was officially introduced into Naples in the late 1600s. Serao's book is a condemnation, albeit a humorous one, of this ruinous vice that runs through all layers of Neapolitan society. In an earlier book, il ventre di Napoli (1884) [The Bowels of Naples], Serao focused her sharp powers of observation on this game that is "the liquor and delerium tremens of Naples." In Cuccagna, she introduces us to such characters as don Pasqualino, who has the gift of divining the numbers. He is, thus, forbidden to play, but not forbidden from helping his friends!

I got sidetracked at the title of the book. I didn't know the Italian expression "cuccagna". Even worse, I did not know the English term "Cockayne". They, and similar expressions in French and Spanish, mean, roughly, "an imaginary land of plenty". It was used as early as 1305 in English and is possibly cognate of  "cake" or "cook", thus a place where good things to eat just drop into your mouth. Cocayne is also spelled Cocaigne in English. Although there is a pun on the Cockney inhabitants of London and the alkaloid stimulant cocaine, there is apparently no etymological connection.

"A place where good things to eat just drop into your mouth" sounded like the "Land of Milk and Honey" to me. Indeed, I had forgotten about that one. It is in the book of Exodus, 3:8: "And I am come down... to bring them...unto a land flowing with milk and honey." Why, Land o' Goshen! I said to myself. Yes, Goshen is another Cockayne and is mentioned in Genesis 45:10 as the fertile land allotted to the Israelites in Egypt, a place in which there was light during the plague of darkness and, thus, figuratively, a land of light or plenty. There is even a painting, The Land of Cockayne, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
(1525 –1569) [photo insert, above] in which the most prominent figure is a well-fed and well-drunk man snoozing it off under a table. His cod-flap is open. 

There is also an expression "lubberland," a place where one is free to be a "lubber"—an idle lout. I had never heard the expression except in pirate movies ("Avast there, ye scurvy landlubbers!") Finally, it all reminded me of the hobo ballad "The Big Rock Candy Mountain", various portions of which I hazily remember as 

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
There's a land that's fair and bright 
Where the handouts grow on bushes 
And you sleep out ev'ry night.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
You never change your socks 
And little streams of alcohol 
Come a-tricklin' down the rocks.

There's another verse in here, and then…

Oh, the buzzin' of the bees in the cigarette trees

'Round the soda water fountain

Where the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings 
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

And I really got sidetracked when I learned that the African volcano Oldoinyo Lengai is known as a real-life Big Rock Candy Mountain, because, unlike other volcanoes, it doesn't spout forth red-hot lava, but black lava, as liquid as fresh roofing tar but just a tad hotter. It is Earth's only volcano erupting a carbonate lava instead of a silicate one. Carbonates are a group of minerals that, 99 percent of the time, form in the ocean, coming gently out of solution like sugar crystals in old syrup. Thus, it is a volcano spitting out sweet stuff just ripe for the tasting, if your taste runs to fresh roofing tar, I suppose.

Don't forget the Land of the Lotus Eaters from the Odyssey and Tennyson, where “mild-eyed and melancholy" temptresses ply you with the fruit of the lotus in order to make you lazy, idle and good for nothing. Except for the fresh roofing tar, that doesn't sound all that bad. Fortunately, Vesuvius is your standard run-of-the-mill silicate-spewing volcano. Ah, wouldn't it be lubberly?!

2. The Neapolitan Cuccagna
entry Jan 2012

don't find it surprising that those who live in deprivation should create fantasy worlds of abundance. Thus, as noted in the entry above this one, we find such fantasies in many cultures. The fantasies are just that, though —inventions, states of mind. We know that there are no real mountains of food or rivers of wine or places where leisure reigns and toil is banished.

Besides those mental states, however, there was a time in Naples when the Cuccagna manifested itself very physically. There were a few times a year when there were, indeed, such mountains and rivers, and on those few occasions the teeming Neapolitan underclass could turn out and partake of a literal —indeed, literary— orgy of abundance. This was the Neapolitan Cuccagna. The word refers to a world of fantasy but was transformed here into a real event at which the masses were encouraged to vent themselves and go berserk in an elaborate, all-you-can-grab ritual. It was planned as an elaborate display of—and acknowledgment by the participants—of royal generosity and benevolence.

The Neapolitan cuccagna was closely connected with the celebrations for Carnevale in Naples beginning in the mid-1600s, a period of such hardship in Naples (plague, revolution, eruptions of Vesuvius—see Naples in the 1600s) that the whole thing might not even be seen as excessive, but as a sort of necessary safety valve, a way to keep the lid on, so to speak, in an age of absolutism. Besides the normal costumed revelry leading up to Lent, wooden floats would make their way down via Toledo (still the main street in that part of Naples) towards the large square in front of the Royal Palace (today's Piazza Plebiscito); they distributed food as they went and, indeed, onlookers were encouraged to jump on board and take what they wanted. The planning for these events (at least three of them during the period of carnevale) was elaborate, involving representatives of the king, as well as the guilds and corporations that built the floats and provided the food.

This loose "moveable feast" of the Neapolitan cuccagna changed radically in the early 1700s when the floats were abandoned in favor of a static cuccagna, a gigantic fixed mountain of food often shaped like a hillside town decked out with images of the monarch and gods of mythology, festooned with banners and whatnot, and often built by prominent architects. Except for the wooden supports, the entire cuccagna "macchina" (apparatus) —the hill, the walls and structures on the hill and the rest of the entire fairy-tale set-up— was made of food, primarily cheeses and meats. Some were so elaborate that wine flowed down channels in the hillside and there might even have been a moat around the whole thing. They were set up at first in the same square by the royal palace and later moved to the other large square at the time, the one in front of the Angevin Castle (today's Piazza Municipio). They became bigger and more elaborate and even more frequent in that they could occur not just for carnevale, but for special royal events. At this point, historians refer to them as the "Bourbon Cuccagna." Murray (sources, below) describes one such event in celebration of the birth of a male heir to Charles III in 1747:
...The medieval Castel Nuovo, bedizened with transparencies in the form of obelisks and urns and thus made to conform stylistically with the spirit of the age; a temple of Public Felicity, actually a fireworks machine that would explode and burn to delight the populace; and the cuccagna, the special treat for the lower orders—a landscaped pavilion constructed of foodstuffs, especially created to be demolished and consumed.
Antonio Joli painted a number of versions of the Cuccagna, including the image at the top of this entry. It is entitled Cuccagna al Largo di Palazzo (The Cuccagna in Royal Palace Square). The huge mountain-like structure, right of center, is the Cuccagna "macchina", the Land of Plenty, a mountain of food waiting to be stormed by the masses. These are not just a few hungry people lining up at a soup kitchen. It is, or is about to turn into, a mob getting ready to storm the heights, during which process they will trample each other, knife each other or possibly be maimed by the frequent collapses of parts of the structure. The storming of the mountain was called the "saccheggio" (looting). Joli's uncanny gift for detail in this and other renderings of the same event also shows the onlookers. They are getting ready to watch what had clearly become a violent spectator sport. It is no wonder that visitors from elsewhere expressed disdain. De Sade described one Cuccagna with horror, claiming that when he witnessed it the "macchina" had been intentionally collapsed so as to make the event more exciting and that among the banners and decorations, there were also live animals (!) pinned to the display.

The cuccagna eventually fell out of favor for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the times had simply changed. By the 1770s, with the ideas of the French Enlightenment taking hold even in Naples, elaborate and violent rituals to feed the poor in the name of benevolent despotism no longer seemed enlightened. The Cuccagna festivals were finally done away with in Naples in 1778. Memories of the fabled Land of Plenty persisted well into the next century, however. Popular verses from the mid-1800s include such ditties as

Vurria che chiuvesse maccarune
Li prete de la caso rattato
Le muntagne de Somma carne arrustuta
E l'aqua de lu mare vin'annevato.

(Roughly, "I would like it to rain macaroni, the rocks to be made of cheese, Vesuvius of roast meat, and the sea diluted with wine.")
_ _ _ _ _


-Del Giudice, Luisa. "Mountains of Cheese and Rivers of Wine" in Imagined States: Nationalism, Utopia and Longing in Oral Cultures, ed. Luisa Del Giudice and Gerald Porter, Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah. 2001.

-Murray, Alden. "The Court and the Cuccagna" in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 18, No. 5 (Jan., 1960), pp. 157-167, pub. MMA.
-Scafoglio, Domenico. La Maschera della Cuccagna, Napoli, Guida, 1994.            
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