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   entry Oct. 2002

       Ferdinando Russo 

I came across a short selection of items by Ferdinando Russo (1866-1927), a Neapolitan journalist primarily remembered today as a dialect poet and composer of song lyrics. In any event, the small volume is called La Camorra, and the five separate items in the book appeared as separate articles from January to May of 1897 in il Mattino, still the largest Neapolitan daily newspaper.

“Camorra” is the Neapolitan name for the local version of the Mafia (itself, really a Sicilian term). The articles were meant somewhat as an expose of the life-style of organized crime in the Naples of the day. The first one is called: Le Donne dei Camorristi (Women of the Camorra). Here is some of that article [the translation is mine]:

Mothers and wives are most often the victims of these picturesque scoundrels. These women are brutally exploited in every possible way. Dominated—I dare say 'hypnotized'—by their own sons and husbands, these unhappiest of women are put through great hardship and sacrifice.

The mothers, of course, are much less scorned and ill-treated than the wives. You know that from the very songs you hear improvised in bars and prisons, the really true folk music —of the people. In that brand of intensely sentimental, but sincere, music, they only sing about two kinds of women: mothers and lovers. Find me just one song about a wife! I mean a real song, not one of these ditties turned out by paid hacks for the music festival of Piedigrotta. No, wives are held in lower esteem —and this is no exaggeration— than women sold at Arab slave markets. Mothers, on the other hand, have their little delicate, sentimental niche in the hearts of these cynical scoundrels.

Russo goes on to cite, in Neapolitan dialect, a few popular verses in which camorra jailbirds sing the praises of their wives and lovers on the outside. As for the lovers, themselves: 

It is impossible to describe the enormous power of these vile creatures, so bound as they are to their vampires, how these witches will even cynically commit crimes just to please their masters. The more they are abused and beaten by men, the more they come to view such treatment as a natural sign of love; that is their understanding of tenderness. They are not sure of being loved unless that love is shown to them in its own very special waywith a club or a razor… The man who doesn’t beat them is destined to betray them that is how they feel. They laugh at such a fool and go on to the next lover. ‘A man has to be a man,’ I heard one of these pathetic creatures say, as she talked enthusiastically of her new lover, who beat her, and heaped scorn on the head of the man she had just left —one who never touched a hair on her head.

The last paragraph is given over to the long-suffering wife as she witness from afar the other women taking gifts and food into the prison for the husband: 

And the poor wife —who has been unable to scrape together anything for her husband— watches forlornly from a distance, through the gates, not daring to approach for fear of the insults. She bears the sight of the other woman walking in like a queen to console him with her gifts, the results of a week of her own shame and humiliation.

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