Naples:life,death &
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entry July 2003, end comment added May 2022

Neapolitan language (2)

Salvatore Di Giacomo (1860-1934) 

I am not sure how you come to an appreciation of dialect poetry in a foreign language. Even dialects of your own language are hard enough.  If you are from Paris, you are not necessarily familiar with Provençal, the language of southern France, the brilliant language of the troubadours in the Middle Ages. Or in English, unless you are actually from Scotland or have a particular interest in Scots English, you probably know less than you should about Robert Burns.

I am using the term "dialect" in its precise linguistic sense: a variety of language, in no sense inferior or less than the standard language, simply the non-standard variety of an official language, one spoken by a relatively small group of people in a limited area; thus, Provençal in France, Scots in Britain, and, the case in point, Neapolitan in Italy. [For another item on the Neapolitan dialect, click here.]

That positive definition of "dialect" is not necessarily appreciated even by the people who speak one. There is throughout the world a feeling among many speakers of such dialects that there is something uneducated about the way they speak, something wrong with not conforming to a national standard. It is, however, a matter of fact that many dialects have long histories of song, poetry and theater and have simply lost the social, political (and, in some cases, military) struggle over who comes out on top in the "official language" contest. (There is, very recently, a backlash against standard, homogenized culture; witness the worldwide attention now being paid to the plight of so-called "endangered languages".)

In the case of Italian, if you have studied it formally, you have learned the national language of Italy, the recognized standard based on the medieval Tuscan vernacular Latin of Dante, the language of The Divine Comedy, the progenitor of modern Italian literature. You can travel the length of Italyand you can even live in the country successfullyand communicate quite well with most people, but you are still at a disadvantage when it comes to appreciating local varieties of language, the dialects that some 60% of Italians still speak at home. And, of course, you will not be able to enjoy the considerable body of dialect literature, theater and song.

The dialect of Naples has a long written history. It was the written court language of the Aragonese dynasty in Naples in the 1400s. From that period, Neapolitan gave us the works of Jacopo Sannazaro, whose verses in vernacular were influential in providing models for the formation of modern Italian, itself. Neapolitan was the language of The Tale of Tales (Lo Cunto de li Cunti) from the early 1600s, the oldest and most celebrated collection of folk tales, including Zezolla, the original tale of Cinderella. In the 18th-century, Neapolitan was the language of the Comic Opera, a forerunner of modern musical comedy. And, of course, the entire world knows the Neapolitan Song, though perhaps misidentifies it as "Italian" music. In the 20th-century, the great Neapolitan playwright, Eduardo de Filippo, is perhaps the Neapolitan best known abroad for his work. Again, the plays of Eduardo are usually "Italianized" when they are produced in other parts of Italy, simply so an audience in, say, Milan can understand them. "Italianized," here, means keeping the general Neapolitan accent, cadences, some vocabulary, but changing the died-in-the-wool Neapolitan vocabulary to a more widely understood standard. Neapolitan has one advantage that other Italian dialects do not: Eduardo is so well known, the Neapolitan Song is so well known, Neapolitan comics such as Totò and, more recently, Massimo Troisi, are so well known, that all Italians will tell you that they understand at least some Neapolitan.

Salvatore Di Giacomo is best known among Neapolitans as the lyricist for a number of Neapolitan songs, most popular of which is Marechiaro. Among poetry lovers, however, and literary critics, he is one of those responsible for renewing Neapolitan dialect poetry at the turn of the 19th/20th century in the face of the onslaught of standardized Italian, the language of newly united Italy. Again, dialect is not to be seen necessarily as the language of rough realism, the language of the lower classes and the uneducated. (It may be that, too; in English, for example, that angle is caricatured in such works as Shaw's Pygmalion, where the whole play is given over to remaking Liza Doolittle by remaking the way she speaks.) The language of Salvatore Di Giacomo is not the everyday language of his contemporaries. It is not the language of, say, the Neapolitan working class of the late 1800s. His Neapolitan has a distinct 18th-century flavor to it, archaisms that recall the golden age of Neapolitan culture, the period between 1750-1800, when Neapolitan was the language of the best-loved form of musical entertainment in Italy, the Neapolitan Comic Opera, and was even the language of the Bourbon court of Naples, itself. His language has, thus, somewhat the feeling of nostalgia to it. Turns of centuries seem to bring that out in poets.

Di Giacomo was born in Naples in 1860. His father was a doctor and his mother a musician. He studied medicine briefly, largely to satisfy his father's wishes, but then gave it up for the life of a poet. He founded a literary journal, Il Fantasio, in 1880, and, like many young writers, had a varied apprenticeship: he worked in a print shop for a while; he was a journalist, publishing some of his early verse in the Neapolitan daily, il Mattino; he showed up at poetry readings and song festivals to read his material. He even wrote a series of youthful stories à la Hoffman and Poe set in an imaginary German town inhabited by sinister students and mad doctors. Not unsurprisingly, he had a lifelong love of libraries as well as literary and historical research, founding, in the course of his career, the Lucchese section of the National library in Naples and holding the position of assistant librarian at the library of the Naples Music Conservatory. He was, with Benedetto Croce, one of the founders of the literary journal, Napoli Nobilissima. He received a critical boost in 1903 when Croce published a defense of dialect poetry. Di Giacomo published no anthology of his collected poems until 1907 when he was 47 years old. He died in 1934.

His plays, such as A San Francesco and Assunta Spina, are bitter stories about turn-of-the-century life in the Naples of the Risanamento (the massive and decades-long urban renewal of the city that displaced tens of thousands of persons), workers whose health is ruined by their labors, prostitution, betrayal, prison, crime, etc.—all this, perhaps, to show that he wasn't just a songwriter. He did write, as noted above, easily and abundantly for the famous Neapolitan song festival of Piedigrotta, a fact that still leads some critics to dismiss him as a lightweight. Financially, he did all right from the song-writing business, at least for a while. Before WWI, a major German piano manufacturer, Polyphon Musikwerke, opened and sponsored a record shop in Naples, providing Di Giacomo with an outlet for his work. The outbreak of the war, however, and subsequent anti-German sentiment caused the shop to close.

Di Giacomo was a passionate reader and reporter of history, though again, in the eyes of critics, not a "real" historian. He had the delightful journalistic flair for padding the word count. Thus, a very informative history of Neapolitan theaters, including, of course, San Carlo, starts with a 2,000-word letter written by a bored opera-goer, a woman present in 1737 at opening night of the first-ever opera put on in the new theater. She wrote the letter in the course of the performance! Di Giacomo delighted in pointing things out that not everyone knew about very familiar places in Naples: that little church, Santa Maria della Graziella, down there on the side street that you pass every day, was the site of the original opera house in Naples; or the famous grotto behind the church of Piedigrotta —was that really the site of the goings-on recounted in the most infamous piece of pornography in Latin literature, Petronius' Satyricon?

One gets the feeling that Di Giacomo viewed standard language as a necessary evil —good, even necessary, for modern commerce and politics, but almost by definition devoid of the life that people bring to the language they speak, the joy, sadness, lust, music, the vernacular turn of phrase that exists only at a particular place in a particular time for a particular people. He closed his own essay on Neapolitan dialect poetry, written in 1900, with this passionate quote from the great vernacularizer, Dante: "With the gifts God gives us from Heaven, we shall try to renew the language of the common people."

Comment added in May, 2022:
On language vs. dialect. "Dialects" often run the risk of being stigmatized, that is,  disapproved of by the official state-approved language  of the majority. Also, certain dialects are "self-stigmatized", that is, speakers start disapproving of the way they, themselves.  speak. (It happens all the time: "Oh, I just speak a dialect." In Italy, Neapolitan is one such
self-stigmatized dialect; Sicilian is another. In February of 2022,  a Sicilian newspaper ran an article that reported on the responses by 9-10 year-old school kids on the difference between Italian and Sicilian. Their comments are interesting: "The mafia, thieves, and bad kids speak Sicilian. The police, teachers, and good kids speak Italian." "Women speak Italian. Men speak dialect."

See also Dialect Literature in Neapolitan

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