Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

Give Me that Old-Time Profession! (3)

This is #3 in a series. The first one, with  the introduction to the series, is here; then part 2   part 4part 5,   part 6)

The Fig vendor. Not just any fig, but what Italians call the "Indian fig."  (I'm not sure if it is even a fig.) This fruit (is it even a fruit?) is what I grew up calling a "prickly pear," the thing that grows on a "prickly pear cactus." Let me do some research: Opuntia ficus-indica. Good. "Indian fig" and "prickly pear" are both legitimate English usages. Good. Uh-oh—a fig (aka syconium) is a "false-fruit!" Great. A fruit is the "mature ovary of a flowering plant." OK—I think.  A cactus is a kind of thistle. (I should have stayed awake in Botany 101.) The fruit of this plant (is it a plant?) is also called "tuna." (I'm just copying here, pardner, but there is something fishy going on.) Do not confuse this thing (is it a thing?) with another "Indian fig" called Ficus benghalensis, which is a Banyan tree.

I love prickly pears as long as someone else peels them for me. My most recent non-loving encounter with the Indian fig was when I showed off my considerable juggling skills at a local fruit-stand. Instead of reaching for apples or oranges, I chose the fruit-thing with thousands of almost invisible sharp filaments called, I imagine, "prickles." I spent painful days deprickling my palms. That never would have happened if I had been jugging plain figs. Or even Banyan trees.

Old clothes vendor. This one is probably gone forever as a profession. Most people give old clothes to local charities such as the Sisters of Calcutta, who run a shelter in the historic center of town. Recently, the city put in place, alongside the rows of segregated trash bins (for metal, plastic, paper, etc.), a number of bins for articles of clothing. They have disappeared, probably because too many people were rummaging through them for usable items to wear—not a bad idea, in principle, except that they left the items they didn't want just lying on street. The city's solution was to remove the bins. Flea markets still abound in Naples and used clothes often wind up there. It may very well have been the flea-marketeers, rather than people in genuine need, doing all that rummaging.


The Shoe-shine boy. The label on the card reads Pulizza-Stivali, a boot-cleaner, or what used to be called a "boot-black." Interestingly, the most common name in Naples for this profession—which has almost disappeared—is the dialect word sciuscià, a word of English origin. It was the local pronunciation of the word "shoeshine" and came into Neapolitan dialect when the Allies moved into Naples in late 1943. The word is also the name of a prominent 1947 film in the genre of Italian Neo-Realism. To my knowledge, there is only one itinerant sciuscià left in Naples, an elderly gentleman who sets up his box outside of the via Toledo (aka via Roma) entrance to the Galleria Umberto almost every day and seems to do a good business. There are still a few established shops with proper chairs as well as magazines to read while you wait, but those places are disappearing, too.

Viggianesi. Street musicians, of course, still exist all over the world. The term "viggianesi," however, to mean "street musicians" was another tough one. Almost no one still recognizes this term except as a demonym meaning "persons from Viggiano," a town well south of Salerno; it is inland and in the Basilicata region of Italy at 3,000 feet amidst the Lucanian Appenine mountains.

It turns out that the inhabitants of Viggiano have a very long tradition of seasonal emigration as musicians, typically with harps! I have never seen street musicians in Naples with anything close to the instrumentation shown in this drawing. The most common instrumentalists are solo accordions; there is also a smattering of solo violinists, As far as groups go, I have seen small jazz groups, a roving band of Peruvian Pan-pipe players (say that one five times fast!) and even, recently, a klezmer band. At Christmas time, there are also the typical Neapolitan

It must have been around 1900 when a group of "Viggianesi" street musicians last appeared on the streets of Naples, a logical market for anyone from the economically depressed areas of southern Italy seeking to make a bit of money in the big city. Apparently, the tradition of exporting musicians was so strong in Viggiano that some houses there still bear witness to that tradition in that some
façades (photo, right) bear bas-reliefs of musical instruments. (Notice the "folk grip" of the violinist, or "fiddler" in the above drawing; also, I don't know why the harp is traditional there.)

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