Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 162,  entry July 2012
Naples is a Paradise Inhabited by Devils
—or, the jury is still out (as they say)
   —or 'close but no cigar' (as they say)
     —or, Who said 'as they say'?
       —or, it's too bad because Croce actually smoked cigars.

There are any number of encyclopedias of quotations. I particularly like lists of misquotes —that is, expressions that everyone (except me) cites incorrectly: for example, it's not "Money is the root of all evil," but "The love of money...etc." (1 Timothy 6:10). Churchill did not say "blood, sweat and tears" but rather "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." *1 And detective fiction's greatest sleuth Sherlock Holmes never said "Elementary, my dear Watson." (It was close, but no cigar.) (I stress "fiction" because a recent poll in Britain shows that a lot of people apparently think Sherlock Holmes was a real person: "Dude, like he's the guy that caught Bob the Ripper! Awesome!"

There are also many cases of accurate quotes attributed to the wrong person. I have had at least one German tell me that "To be or not to be" was by Goethe, and the other day a Neapolitan woman told me that it was by Luigi Pirandello. The expression "Naples is a paradise inhabited by devils" is in this category somewhere.

First of all, Napoli è un paradiso abitato da diavoli is a very well known expression in Italian and especially in Naples. The first time I came across it was in the English version; it was in something by Mary Shelley. I don't remember what, but she spent time in Naples and was always writing about it, even in surprising ways (see Frankenstein). I remember thinking what a clever turn of phrase it was, and I assumed that she had originated it. Not so, though the phrase in English (through Shelley) is still quite current; in 2010 the Swiss composer, Christophe Terrettaz (alias Ozymandias, after Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem of that name) and singer Kelli Ali released an album called A Paradise Inhabited By Devils that, according to the promos, was "inspired by the short stories of Mary Shelley." The phrase also pops up in academic writing (see A Paradise Inhabited by Devils: The Jesuits' Civilizing Mission in Early Modern Naples by Jennifer D. Selwyn, from 2004). The author cites Benedetto Croce as having made her aware of the phrase. (Discussion, below.)

Who actually coined the phrase? No one knows. Really, it's that simple. It's amazing, though, how many Neapolitans assume that it must have been Goethe. There are B & B's along the Amalfi coast that have in their promotional literature: "As Goethe once said, 'Naples is ...etc.etc.'." Letters to the Editor in newspapers are pretty much the same thing: "Goethe once said about our city that..." They all know that he wrote a long-winded travelogue called Italian Journey (Italienische Reise) and that he said witty things about Naples, so he must have said that thing about paradise and devils, no?


I don't know if Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ever uttered the phrase or maybe wished he had invented it, but he never wrote it down and —as absolutely no one ever once said in German (Zeig mir das Rindfleisch!—show me the beef!).*2 In the entire Italian Journey, Goethe uses the expression "Naples is a paradise" only once and in a different context: on March 16, 1787, he wrote "Neapel ist ein Paradies, jedermann lebt in einer Art von trunkner Selbstvergessenheit. Mir geht es ebenso, ich erkenne mich kaum, ich scheine mir ein ganz anderer Mensch." ("Naples is a paradise. Everyone lives in a kind of drunken absent-mindedness. It happens to me, too. I barely recognize myself. I seem to be a very different person.") What can I say? That happens to me, too. I barely recognize myself. I seem to be a very different person. Goethe is stingy, in general, with the word "Paradise". Sometimes the trees outside his window are "paradise" and a certain "Angelika" is "paradise, but Johann is too much of a gentleman to expand on that and we are too discreet to press the issue.

The only thing certain is that when Goethe and, a bit later, Mary Shelley were here, the phrase was current. It was on the lips of any and everyone on the so-called Grand Tour, but the phrase has a much older origin by at least a couple of centuries. Benedetto Croce, historian, philosopher and enthusiastic logophile set his considerable skills to work on the problem and produced a delightful book in 1923 called, of all things, Un Paradiso abitato da diavoli.*3  Croce has a couple of good leads, including a 1539 letter by Bernardino Danièllo (1500-1565), an Italian scholar known for commentaries on Dante and Petrarch, in which Danièllo says that nature, in order to make up for having granted the city such beauty, decided "di dare questo paradiso ad habitare a diavoli" (" give this paradise to devils to inhabit"). Croce has an even earlier reference to one Piovano Arlotto, (pseudonym of Arlotto Mainardi [1396–1484], a Florentine priest known for jests and facezie (witty anecdotes).*4  Arlotto wrote that the air of Naples is all good, but that the people are bad. If it weren't for the people, Naples would be a Paradise! Croce concludes inconclusively; that is, the expression probably arose in the 14th century among the "foreign" (that is, from northern Italy) communities of merchants in Naples.

Galasso, who wrote a commentary on the Croce book, is also the author of his own L'altra Europa, Per un antropologia storica del Mezzogiorno d'Italia (The Other Europe, towards an historical anthropology of Southern Italy).*5 One chapter is called Lo stereotipo del napoletano e le sue variazioni regionali (Stereotypes of the Neapolitan and regional varaiations). He discusses the expression and says, essentially, that Croce's two early examples are interesting but don't really pin down the expression. Again, close but no cigar. (Gee, I wonder who said that.)*6

Even Croce's book causes confusion. In February, 2012, the choir now known as "I Turchini di Antonio Florio" (formerly called by the historic name, the Choir of the Pietà de’ Turchini) from Naples gave a concert in Hamburg called Angels and Demons, Comic and Serious opera in the 18th century. A blurb-promo for the concert traced the title to "Croce's phrase" that Naples was a paradise inhabited by devils. He didn't say that. I didn't either (although it is the title of this article). At least they didn't claim Goethe said it.

All this reminds me that I had a friend in the army whose favorite quote was "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know." He was always quoting it. I don't think he understood the irony, especially since he claimed it was by Schopenhauer. (We were a well-read band of brothers. We threw books at the Commies in the Cold War.) Apparently, the phrase is by Ralph Waldo Emerson, but don't quote me on that.

—1. The Churchill quote is a bit more complicated. He made it famous, but it was originally used in English by Theodore Roosevelt in an address to the Naval War College on June 2, 1897, following his appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Teddy got it from Giuseppe Garibaldi, who, according to various sources, rallied his troops during the defense of the Roman republic in 1849 by telling them "Non ho null’altro da offrirvi se non sangue, fatica, lacrime e sudore". ("I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat.")^up

—2.The expression 'Show me the beef!' is a variation of 'Where's the beef?' an advertising slogan for Wendy's® in a 1984 TV commercial. The ad agency was Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. The ad was written by Cliff Freeman.^up

3. Reprinted with a forward and comments by Giuseppe Galasso. Piccola Biblioteca, Adelphi, 2006, 3rd edition, ISBN: 9788845920363.) ^up

4. See Facezie del Piovano Arlotto, commentary by G. Baccini, Firenze 1884. Also see Wit and Wisdom of the Italian Renaissance by Charles Speroni. University of California Press. 1964. ^up

5. Alfredo Guida, Napoli. 2009.  ISBN 978-88-6042-631. ^up

6. No takers on this one, but the expression probably originates in early 20th-century US carnivals where they commonly gave away cigars as prizes at fairway games. If you came close but didn't win, they said "Close, but no cigar." The first use in print appears to be by Joel Sayre and John Twist in the published version of their screen play of the 1935 RKO George Stevens film, Annie Oakley,  a scene in which Annie Oakley (played by Barbara Stanwyck) says to Col. William Cody (alias Buffalo Bill, played by Moroni Olsen), "Close, Colonel, but no cigar!"  ^up

My thanks to Selene Salvi, a young woman who eats archives for breakfast!

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