In order to understand fully the reasons leading to Neapolitan poetry of the Twentieth
century, one must read very carefully the introductory essay by Alberto Consiglio, "Spiriti e forme
della poesia napoletana" [Spirit and Forms of Neapolitan Poetry], in the now classical Antologia
dei poeti napoletani1
Consiglio goes far beyond the task at hand, and investigates the historical and social
reasons in order to connect them to the phenomenon, especially in the results and nuances of
certain expressive twists attained by means that might seem improbable to a reader unfamiliar with
the history of Naples. The path followed by Consiglio may seem even impervious, due to the
frequent digressions and subtlety of reasoning, but in the end one realizes that his theses are
rooted not only in his inveterate convictions, but above all in the contentions always supported by
strong documentation. When he states that "Neapolitan poetry, between the Nineteenth and
Twentieth centuries, is the center of all Italian literature. Better still, it is the real, representative
Italian literature,"2 he does not commit an act of pride, but only manifests a reality that any reader
could plainly see. In any case, in the study by Mario Chiesa and Giovanni Tesio, "La poesia del
Novecento in dialetto," [Twentieth- Century Dialect Poetry] which introduces the two volumes
Le parole di legno [Wooden Words]3, Consiglio's statements are accepted and amplified precisely
because not prompted by patriotic fervor. Chiesa and Tesio write: "In the attempt to find a
criterion to mark a point of departure for Twentieth-Century dialect poetry, we have had to
concede that the numbers don't add up: there is no date in which chronological and critical
reasons coincide; or at least we have not seen it. Di Giacomo published various collections before
1901 (and in fact he does not appear in Mengaldo's anthology to throw off the reckoning); yet
anyone working on dialect poetry cannot - it seems to us - begin to talk about the Twentieth
Century without Di Giacomo: it would not be possible to find the origin of the poetic line that
was to bear such fruits in our century. It is precisely in Di Giacomo's experience that one can
observe how an epigon of the Nineteenth Century can become the first poet in dialect of the
Twentieth Century"4 Of course this thesis stems from precise and specific analysis, and the two
authors choose, among other critics, Ettore Bonora5 who, for instance, shows the link between Di
Giacomo and the French symbolists, in an essay rich with pointers and suggestions.
This, however, should not unnerve either Mengaldo or Brevini, who have neglected Di
Giacomo's importance6; the tradition of dialect poetry in Naples is deeply rooted and persistent,
and even if we refused to accept Alberto Consiglio's thesis 7 ("the first vernacular poetry was
Sicilian"), who found the information in Del Dialetto napoletano by Galiano and Meola8, or those
put forth by Mario Sansone9, there still remain the texts of authors such as Velardiniello, Giulio
Cesare Cortese, Giambattista Basile, Filippo Sgruttendio, Giambattista Velentino, Andrea
Perrucci, Francesco Biondi, Nicolò Lombardo, Nicola Capasso, Nunziante Pagano, Sant'Alfonso
Maria de' Liguori, Giacomo Antonio Palmieri, Antonio Villani, Carlo Mormile, Duca Carlo
Morbilli, Domenico Piccinini, Giulio Genoino, Michele Zezza, Rocco Mormile, Raffaele Sacco,
Marchese di Cavaccone, Gabriele Quattromani, Marco D'Arienzo, Luigi Chiurazzi, Pasquale
Cinquegrana, Raffaele Ragione, Alfonso Fiordelisi, Giovanni Capurro10 and Rimatori napoletani
del Quattrocento [Neapolitan Poets of the Fifteenth Century]11 to attest to a continuity, a
constancy, a patrimony, in sum, in whose veining one can read connections and developments,
inquiries and choices that have later engendered a poetry to be considered in all its scope. Plainly
put, Di Giacomo is to the Twentieth Century as Porta is to the Nineteenth, and this takes nothing
away from the poetry of Belli, who looks to Porta, nor from the poetry of Giotti, of Tessa, of
Marin, of Noventa, which has Di Giacomo behind it.
Having firmly established this point, one can tackle all possible arguments in order to
unravel correlations, allegiances, affiliations and Freudian patricides; what is certain is that Di
Giacomo is "something unique"12 and is also a great precursor of underworld poetry, which
flourished in European literature in the Twenties13.
His recognition as a founding figure, as can be seen, comes from various parts, and
looking at the studies by Benedetto Croce, Francesco Gaeta, Borgese, Bracco, Cecchi, Contini,
Doria, Gatto, De Robertis, Galletti, Pancrazi, Montale, Pasolini, Luigi Russo, Serra, Serao,
Vossler, Vinciguerra, Flora, one immediately forms the right impression of the "magical quality"
of the poet who, even among conflicting judgments, remains for everyone "the sentimental
verista," as he liked to describe himself, the writer who never refrains from giving words and
expressions their primal meaning, their simplicity devoid of the accumulations that time, for ill or
good, has deposited on them. It is true, Di Giacomo's poetry is intrinsically musical, fresh, almost
olfactory, but musicality and freshness are never produced through vagueness and indefiniteness;
in the poet there is a strong sense of measure, which allows him to paint at his pleasure with more
brilliant colors and the most persuasive notes without the risk of overdoing it. It has been chorally
written that he was able to untangle himself from the knotted skein of Verismo and was able to
free himself from the limitations of the local sketch, thanks to that very innate grace that prompted
him to measure theatrical effects without distorting into caricatures or "figurines" certain portraits
smelling of times past, but also capable of gazing beyond the curtain of the present. His works
should be examined as they evolved, in order to understand that he was gradually able to find
adequate means to express content and subject matter fashionable at the time, but without turning
them into stereotypes or depriving them of that subjective dimension capable of breathing life into
a description, a sentiment, an emotion. The subject matter of his verse is that of the southern
repertory of the time, yet the obvious and the trite have no place in the songs of the farmers, of
the street vendors, of the idlers and those who loiter in the streets, in the slums and in the harbor,
living by their wits.
On the contrary, he was able in my opinion to restore a distant poetic truth through
"Canzone 'e copp' 'o tamurro," in which he "invokes," silently and gently, the necessity of bringing
back into piazze and alleyways the "carnascialeschi" of ancient memory. But this time not only
with the intent to offer spectacle and amusement, but to share with the people the shivers of the
never-spent fire reflected in everyday occurrences.
In this sense we could interpret Di Giacomo as one of those theatrical specimen (Lope de
Vega, Shakespeare, Calderón, Goldoni, Molière, Pirandello) who in every instance feel the
vibrations of the stage and find a way of putting on a show. Di Giacomo, however, was also a
journalist and careful student of events, of Neapolitan history, what one might call an erudite, who
did not miss the particulars of a people and a culture thirsting for truth, though never meant to
become tyrannical. The journalist, the man of theater, the erudite, then, do their inlay work in the
"ariette," in the sonnets, in the short poems, in which we find alternating voices, allusions,
suggestions; in which we perceive, in the background, the lament of a Chimera that devours men
and things to make them new, perennially new. He hade made his debut with tales that he defined
"Germanic," to the extent that he awoke the suspicion of plagiarism in Cafiero and Verdinois who
had invited him to contribute to the Corriere del Mattino; they were "fantastic" stories, and if
they showed something "photographic" (as did other works of his later on), it could not be
regarded as a sort of "sin" other than to the eyes of Croce's Esthetics.
Di Giacomo, putting his various natures "on a burner," utilizing a more and more refined
alchemy of language, tempered with a semantic density consonant with the varied linguistic
experiments taking place in contemporary Italy, was able to find a personal voice, rare and
authentic, that never degenerated or festered into the open boils taken from French literature
(Zola or Maupassant), ever more pervasive and abundant. The Eighteenth Century no doubt
enters his world, not only with the modulations of Metastasio, Zappi, Frugoni, Lamberti, Meli,
Martello, but also with the energy of Giacomo Casanova, whom he translated with masterful
discernment and whose style he admired.
Perhaps it was also these studies on the Eighteenth Century, these exercises addressing
authors of international repute, that allowed him to be considered by Renato Serra already an
innovator at the time of La Voce, as Giacinto Spagnoletti reminds us14; certainly Di Giacomo
cannot be ignored or liquidated as one of the many minstrels that have infested Romantic, Verista
and Decadent literature.
The weight of his personality, of his humanity, of his notoriety bothered quite a bit
Ferdinando Russo who, at the outset, was not able to touch in the least Di Giacomo's presence.
Critics remained almost indifferent to his early work which seemed to be taking belated populist
positions of early Romanticism. Now the studies on Russo have become more numerous and the
publication of his works (often ill-conceived and improvised) has created a new, revitalized
interest which is establishing some order and disciplining a subject matter already varied and
confused in itself due to the ease with which the author commented on different topics. As for the
dialect, Luigi Reina remarks: "Without wishing to take up the well-known distinction between
reflected dialect literature and spontaneous dialect literature, it must be noted how for Russo
dialect was almost a sort of restoration of primitive, elementary language, with norms of its own,
autonomous with respect to those of common language"15. This naturalness allows him a great
freedom in his inventions and hyperboles, in his Baroque metaphors and in his full-relief portraits
of heroes-protagonists caught in a superficial psychological posture. But Russo's world is not just
tied to what has been described as his "Baroque surrealism," but spills over into many directions,
advancing a sort of claim over all that concerned the maudit in the province, at times with dark
tones. He also employs Ariosto's type of irony, and harks back to Pulci and Berni, going as far as
the double theatralization of narration"16. In many respects he catches old and fresh aspects of the
Neapolitan spirit, which however appears, from one book to the next, at times pathetic and at
times melodramatic, at times humorous and at times festive, without ever coming face to face
with the burning core of a feeling that smolders to the end and turns to ashes so it can rise again
and regenerate itself, or vanish in the desert and live the sense of emptiness, abandonment,
The crisis of Decadentism seems to leave no trace in Russo; it passes over him and he
remains intact in his cocoon as it gathers the remnants of old melodies, the heartfelt or violent
calls of the slums, the rhythm of a slyness, of a dignity and heroism without future altars. Russo is
the bard of a present entirely played in the cracking whips of the coachmen, in the cries of water-carriers, in the tavern scuffles, in the houses of common women, in the demeanor assumed in
downtown streets. He is the bard of a solarity of twilight, the haughty backflow of a society that
has its rites and feasts, its sad moments and repetitions, its particular thrills.
Carlo Bernari, while editing in 1984 Poesie del Russo17, has pointed out, besides the
discrepancies in earlier editions, certain poetic postures of the Neapolitan attributed to his often
evident "secularity". One thing is irrefutable: Russo does not browbeat his reader by turning to
"nostalgia," even when it seems that he is willing to curl up in the spires and sighs of the good and
beautiful sentiment of the past. His dialect is a chronicle, a diary of everyday ferment, as is his
poetry, rich with echoes and allusions, often satisfied with wordplay and deftness.
The other poet in the anthology, if with only one text, is Raffaele Viviani. It was extremely
difficult to choose after the happy season of Di Giacomo and Russo, especially because the world
of song (an interesting chapter for further investigation on Neapolitan and other dialects) had
produced authors of great dignity, such as Pasquale Ruocco, Tito Manlio, Emma Coppola di
Canzano, Fusco, Bovio, G.B. De Curtis, E.A. Mario, Totò, De Filippo, Nicolardi,De Mura,
Panza, De Gregorio, Pacifico Vento; Viviani, however, interprets better than anyone the change,
the continuity and the synthesis of what took place approximately in the Twenties and Thirties
until the flourishing of neodialect poetry, but he interprets even that spirit of a thousand spirits,
that international Neapolitanness that saw him as a chansonnier, actor, author, mime, acrobat,
playwright. His poetry, as was said, is unpredictable, it moves by fits and starts, in waves, creating
at first a feeling of disorientation. At any rate, there is a predilection for the spoken word, that
seems to assign to things and emotions an irreverent, conspiratorial sigh, as if Viviani were at the
same time pupil and teacher, thief and policeman.
The list of poets becomes longer (even if the quality of the texts increases on average with
respect to previous decades), but almost all follow the line drawn by Di Giacomo, Russo and
Viviani, some emphasizing melody, others rhythm, others recapturing certain beguiling moods and
feelings. The tradition of Neapolitan dialect poetry has no pauses, but, except for some poets tied
to Piedigrotta, the standard of the texts remains identical to that of the past, as if quicksand were
making it impossible to leave the assigned groove. Is Di Giacomo's era over? No doubt it is, but in
the end it is always with him that one must come to terms.
So it was for Achille Serrao who, while born in Rome, uses the dialect of Caivano, in the
province of Caserta. After an intense activity in Italian, he begins to write in dialect in 1990, with
Mal'aria, and one immediately realizes that those texts have forcefully left behind the beguiling
sirens of the ariette and Neapolitan songs and demand a new kind of attention, free of
commonplaces. The significance of this has been noted by Franco Loi, by this writer, Spagnoletti,
Vivaldi, Brevini, who underline the change taking place in a linguistic area in which the difficulty
of change remained enormous, precisely because Naples and the surrounding areas had gone
through several intense periods overflowing with poetry (the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, Nineteenth
centuries, the beginning of the Twentieth).
Serrao, with his long, rugged verses, not devoid of tenderness and nuances, inaugurated a
season which attests to the readiness of Campania's poetry to question everything in order to start
moving forward again. In the musicality that unfolds not under the soft caresses of Donizetti and
Bellini, but under the apparently metallic tumult of Stravinsky, we find a text that denies
recognitions by the sea or Mt. Vesuvius, and stands on a promontory where there is no room for
vagueness or lyrical and metaphysical indefiniteness. And yet pain and feelings abound, but they
do not unthread in rivulets, in assonances, in plaintiveness: they intend to remain what they are, to
exist without false unions.
Interesting, for a different reason, is the poetry in the dialect of Cappella, in the province
of Naples, of Michele Sovente, who adopts the mother tongue after writing in Italian and Latin.
Sovente, like almost all contemporary dialect poets, is a man of vast and refined culture, and his
poetry (until now available only in journals and anthologies) is affected by this, maybe because his
education was too grounded on the Latin classics, their quantitative music, their rigor. One gets
the impression that he is amused in discovering in verses written in the Cappella dialect the hidden
sense of a rhythm that would otherwise be a rigid and perfect hexameter. But one also senses that
the motivations which prompt him to delve into his childhood self are authentic and conceal a
dense core that at times sparkles and breaks into fireworks.
The anthology ends with Tommaso Pignatelli (pseudonym of an unidentified Italian
politician) who with Pe cupia' 'o chiarfo appears as an authentic revelation of the poetry from
Campania. Tullio De Mauro in the preface, Natalino Sapegno in the inside cover, and Franco Loi
in Sole 24 Ore have cited Pignatelli as a high and extraordinary voice that at the opportune
moment is able to leave behind the usual melodic flow of tradition and, at the same time, can
organize an effective and vigorous poetic discourse which utilizes both ancient and recent
Neapolitan patrimony by restructuring it in a new expressive fullness with convincing and, I would
say, significant results. Sapegno points out that Pignatelli is "within tradition, but beyond the line
of Di Giacomo and Russo, he knows how to take the humors of Neapolitanness without
exploiting them, and transforms the Neapolitan language into a high instrument of poetry by
infusing it with new freshness and renewing its expressive felicity."18 This seems to me a
promising view for poetry, whether or not Neapolitan. De Mauro has also mentioned the "refined
quality of these poems"19, stressing how they remain impressed in memory. This is still, if I am not
mistaken, "the deep, exciting manifestation of a people, a nation."20
Since the anthology is meant primarily for foreign readers, we have preferred to give a
selection of rather well-known texts: many of these, in fact, have become tunes sung even by
famous tenors or American singers.
One should keep in mind that an anthology is always like sipping precious liquor, a small
advance, a promise.
1Alberto Consiglio, Antologia dei poeti napoletani: Milan, Arnoldo Mondadori, 1973.
3Mario Chiesa-Giovanni Tesio, Le parole di legno. Poesia in Dialetto del '900 italiano: Milan,
Oscar Mondadori, 2 vls., 1984.
5Ettore Bonora, "Il dibattito sulla letteratura dialettale dall'età veristica a oggi," in Giornale
storico della letteratura italiana, CLVIII, 1981.
6Cf. Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, Poeti italiani del Novecento: Milano Mondadori, "I Meridiani",
1978. Franco Brevini, Poeti dialettali del Novecento: Turin, Einaudi, 1987.
7Alberto Consiglio, Antologia dei poeti napoletani, cit., pp.7-11.
8Ferdinando Galiani, Del dialetto napoletano, 1789 (new edition by Enrico Malato): Rome,
Salerno Editrice, 1970.
9Mario Sansone, "Relazioni fra la letteratura italiana e le letterature dialettali," in Letterature
comparate: Milan, Marzorati, 1948.
10Ettore De Mura, Poeti napoletani dal '600 a oggi, Naples, Conte Editore, 1950.
11Mario Mandalari (ed.), Rimatori napoletani del Quattrocento: Caserta, Tip. Jaselli, 1885.
(Anastatic reprint, Bologna, Forni, 1979).
12Elena Croce, Preface to Salvatore Di Giacomo, Poesie e prose: Milan, Mondadori, "I
Meridiani", 1977 (IV ed. 1984) p.XV.
13Ivi, p. XXI.
14Giacinto Spagnoletti - Cesare Vivaldi, Poesia dialettale dal Rinascimento a oggi: Milan,
Garzanti, 1991, vol.II, p.857.
15Luigi Reina, Ferdinando Russo - popolarità, dialetto, poesia: Naples, Ermanno Cassitto
Editore, 1983, p.19.
17Carlo Bernari (ed.), Ferdinando Russo, Le poesie: Naples, Guida, 1984.
18Natalino Sapegno, inside cover of Pe cupià 'o chiarfo: Rome, A.I.S.E., 1994.
19Tullio De Mauro, ibid., p.4.
20Alberto Consiglio, Antologia dei poeti napoletani, cit., p.14.
ANTHOLOGIES AND DICTIONARIES
La poesia dialettale napoletana 1880--1930, edited by A. Tilgher, Rome 1930.
Napoli terra di poesia, edited by A. Donizetti, Napoli 1931.
Antologia di poeti napoletani. Ottocento e Novecento, edited by A. Consiglio, Rome 1945.
Poeti napoletani dal Seicento a oggi, edited by E. De Mura, Naples 1950.
Un secolo d'oro. Antologia della poesia napoletana dal 1860 al 1960, edited by I. De Feo e V.
Talarico, Naples, 1968.
Antologia dei poeti napoletani, edited by A. Consiglio, Milan 1973.
L'inferno della poesia napoletana. Versi "proibiti" di poeti di ogni tempo, edited by A. Manna,
Dizionario del dialetto napoletano, edited by A. Altamura, Naples, 1968.
Vocabolario napoletano-italiano, italiano-napoletano, edited by A. Salzano, Naples 1979.
Vocabolario napoletano-italiano, edited by P. P. Volpe, Naples 1970.
M. Rak, La tradizione letteraria popolare-dialettale napoletana tra la conquista spagnola e le
rivoluzioni del 1647-48, in Storia di Napoli, IV, 1974.
A. Palermo, Le vie del dialetto. Letteratura e teatro nella Napoli post-unitaria in La letteratuta
dialettale italiana, edited by P. Mazzamuto, Palermo 1984.
R. Giglio, Campania, Brescia, 1988