Una Grande Calamità

Four Days of Naples

by Aubrey Menen
Seaview Books, 287 pp., $9.95

Naples ‘44

by Norman Lewis
Pantheon, 206 pp., $8.95

Naples is a bewildering, irritating, bewitching, and deceptive city not only for foreigners (a term which, in Naples, includes all other Italians), but for most Neapolitans too. General Carlo Filangieri (1784-1867), prince of Satriano, duke of Taormina, could be used as an exemplary illustration of how the people themselves feel about their own city. He was the son of Gaetano, an illustrious philosopher of the Neapolitan (and European) Enlightenment, whose Scienza della legislazione, considered one of the fundamental books of the century, was famous in France and read in the United States. Benjamin Franklin was one of his admirers.

By order of Napoleon and at the expense of the République, Carlo was educated at the Prytanée, the French military school. He became an officer in the French Army, fought at Ulm, Marienzell, and Austerlitz; was later transferred to Spain, fought at Burgos and distinguished himself in the peninsular campaigns. In 1808 he was sent back to Naples and to the Neapolitan Army in disgrace because he had killed a French general in a duel. The French general had dared call Neapolitans “bougres” in his presence. The word, while etymologically equivalent to the English “bugger,” is much milder in French. In old-fashioned novels it is usually translated as “blackguard,” “scoundrel,” or “wretch.” Many years later, the old general Filangieri left his son these disenchanted words, the conclusion of a lifetime: “Credimi, per chiunque ha un po’ di onore e un po’ di sangue nelle vene è una grande calamità nascere napoletano.” (“Believe me, for anyone who has a little honor and a little blood in his veins, it is a great calamity to be born Neapolitan.”) Evidently a Neapolitan could not allow a foreigner to besmirch the honor of his countrymen, but could secretly admit that to be one was a serious handicap for an honest and courageous man.

Many foreigners on short visits often think, in their naïveté, that the city is the nearest thing to an earthly paradise. (Some, to be sure, hate it at first sight, cannot endure the spectacle of its decay and corruption, the filthy overcrowded alleys, the poverty and squalor of its people.) Those who fall in love with it are enraptured by virtually everything: the landscape, the gulf, Vesuvio, the songs, the food, and the charm of its ingenious, courageous, and unfortunate inhabitants. Like people in love, these visitors eagerly believe everything they are told and think everything and everybody around them are exactly what they seem or pretend to be. They see the Neapolitans as happy and childlike, in love with music and gay colors, satisfied with but a few drops of olive oil and a ripe tomato on a slice of bread, enjoying an occasional festa in honor of some obscure but miraculous saint, the melting of St. Januarius’ blood at regular intervals in the Cathedral, and displays of fireworks.

Foreigners who linger longer and look under the surface of things are wiser. They describe, with tears in their eyes, the misery …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.