August 25, 2011

Feast of Santa Patrizia, Patroness of Naples

Saint Patricia (1625) by Leonardo Carpentiero
Photo courtesy of Electra Napoli*
By Giovanni di Napoli
August 25th is the feast day of Santa Patrizia (Saint Patricia), patroness of Naples. Each year the faithful gather at the Chiesa di San Gregorio Armeno (Church of St. Gregory of Armenia) to venerate the saint and view the miraculous liquefaction of her coagulated blood. The church, believed to have been built by Saint Helena (c. 246-330 AD) on the site of the Roman Temple of Ceres, underwent several significant renovations and is the latest resting place of Santa Patrizia and her relics.
Interestingly, the legend of Santa Patrizia has become conflated with that of Parthenope (the mythical founder of Naples) in what has been described as a Christian "refounding" of the city. In Virgil's Golden Egg and other Neapolitan Miracles (Transaction Publishers, 2011) Michael A. Ledeen writes:
"The creative genius of Neapolitan chaos juxtaposes and merges the two female archetypes, and tosses in an element of ancient sorcery for piquancy. Both Parthenope and Saint Patrizia are virgins and have noble ancestry. Both have power to control natural elements. Both came from the East and died on the shores of the Gulf of Naples. Patrizia landed on the island of Megaride, where Virgil cast his saving spell on the Castel dell'Ovo, where the ancient Cumans built the first Neapolitan buildings, and where they believed Parthenope arrived, dead or dying. And in the seventeenth century, at the height of the Baroque, the body of Saint Patrizia was carried to a monastery atop the hill of Caponapoli, where, centuries earlier, the tomb of Parthenope was located. Patrizia was proclaimed a patron saint of Naples from Parthenope's old temple." (p. 38-39)
It should be noted Parthenope is a synthesis of the ancient Greek myth about the deadly enchantress who failed to seduce Odysseus (Ulysses) and the charming medieval love story between Cimone and the chaste princess from Greece, whose "finite brow of a goddess" and "huge black eyes" were said to resemble the vigorous beauty of Juno and Minerva. The tale is eloquently retold in Matilde Serao's Leggende napoletane (Neapolitan legends).

Fountain of the Siren (Fontana della Sirena),
Piazza Sannazaro, Napoli
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Although less known than the miracle of San Gennaro (Saint Januarius), the liquefaction of Santa Patrizia's blood is no less important. As John A. Marino pointed out in his Becoming Neapolitan (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011): "Saints bodies in life and after death were considered to have efficacious healing powers, and their blood was believed to be able to transmit grace and virtue, a symbolism that connected aristocratic values and noble blood to the religious fervor of saintly virtue." (p. 204-205). This ancient cult of the blood is peculiarly Neapolitan and still resonates with the devoted people of Naples today.

According to tradition, Santa Patrizia was born in the mid-seventh century. She was the niece of Emperor Constans II (630-668 AD) and was educated at the Imperial Court of Constantinople. Extremely pious, the Byzantine princess dedicated her life to God, taking a vow of celibacy. Ordained a nun, Patrizia was invested with the veil of virginity. Her father had other ideas and arranged for her to marry a powerful nobleman. With the help of Aglaia, her loyal maidservant, the young maiden fled to Rome seeking refuge from the unwanted nuptials.
Naples' Coat-of-Arms
[An alternate tradition puts her birth around 340 AD and claims she was the niece of Constantine the Great (272-337 AD). Further complicating things, she is sometimes included in the story of the Emperor's visit to Naples in 324 AD. Caught in a storm, Constantine and his daughter Constance vowed to build a church if their endangered ship reached safely to port. In gratitude for answering their prayers they founded the Chiesa di San Giovanni Maggiore in honor of Saint John and Saint Lucy. As a side note, the gold and red coat-of-arms of Naples is said (by some) to originate from the standards used to welcome the Imperial family.]

In 668 AD Mezezius the usurper assassinated Constans II in Syracuse for attempting to relocate the Empire’s capital to Sicily. Learning of her uncle's murder Patrizia returned to Constantinople to renounce her temporal titles and worldly possessions. She distributed her inheritance to the poor, inspiring other noblewomen to do the same. Before returning to Rome she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, visiting many sacred sites. It is said she possessed a fragment of the True Cross and wore on her right sleeve a nail from the Crucifixion, which reportedly turned blood red every Good Friday. The sacred relics were passed down from Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine.

On her journey back to the Eternal City a violent storm shipwrecked her vessel off the coast of Megaride, an islet in the Bay of Naples. Patrizia and her retinue were given shelter by the island's monks, but after a brief stay in the Neapolitan Duchy the virgin grew ill and died. She was buried at Castrum Lucullanum, an old Roman villa converted into a Basilian monastery and site of the modern-day Castel dell'Ovo (Castle of the egg).
Castel dell'Ovo, Megaride (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
Legend has it that Patrizia visited Aglaia in a dream to reveal the site of a underground spring in the gardens of the Chiesa dei Santi Nicandro e Marciano (Church of Saints Nicandro and Marciano), an ancient house of worship believed to have been built on the temple and tomb of the siren Parthenope. A well was excavated, bringing much needed relief to the arid district. With the support of the grateful Duke of Naples, Aglaia and her retainers founded a monastery in honor of their mistress.

During the ninth century, fear of Saracen raids forced the Neapolitans to move the treasures of Megaride inland to safer locations. The train of oxen pulling Patrizia's hearse through the city streets instinctively stopped outside the Chiesa dei Santi Nicandro e Marciano. It was decided she would be interred there. The monastery has since been commonly known as the Chiesa di Santa Patrizia (Church of Saint Patricia).

The miracle of the blood is said to be over twelve-hundred-years-old, but the oldest record of the phenomenon dates back 'only' to the sixteenth-century (1570). As the story goes, a sick nobleman was miraculously healed while praying at her shrine. Desiring a personal relic, the greedy pilgrim pulled a tooth from her skull causing blood to flow from the empty cavity. Collected in two ampullae the blood is said to liquefy on her feast day (August 25th) and every Tuesday morning. In 1626 she was declared a patron saint of Naples to help ward off calamities. In 1864, a few years after the conquest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, her reliquary was translated to the Church of St. Gregory of Armenia after the convent church of Saint Patricia was closed down and confiscated by the new Italian government.

* Photo reprinted from The Treasure of San Gennaro: Baroque Silver from Naples, Electra Napoli, 1987, catalogue for the exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum of Art (Oct. 28, 1987 - Jan. 18, 1988).

• Naples From Roman Town To City-State by Paul Arthur, The British School at Rome, 2002
• Virgil's Golden Egg and other Neapolitan Miracles by Michael A. Ledeen, Transaction Publishers, 2011
• Leggende napoletane (Neapolitan legends) by Matilde Serao (translated by Jo Di Martino), Lettere Italiane Guida, 2003
• Becoming Neapolitan by John A. Marino, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011
• The Cronica di Partenope by Samantha Kelly, Brill, 2011

August 24, 2011

The Legacy Of Our Buried Past

Vesuvius looming over the temple of Jupiter at Pompeii
(Photos courtesy of New York Scugnizzo)
The anniversary of the destruction of Pompeii reminded me of my visit to the ruins. It was easy to feel that greatness while walking among the stones of the ancient city, preserved for centuries by the deadly ash of Vesuvius. It also humbled me to behold the legacy of the eruption, a destructive force of nature that, within a day, turned a vibrant city into a tomb.
Vesuvius has erupted several times since Pompeii. The last was in 1944, destroying a B-25 Bomber group located in Capodichino Airport (Aeroporto di Napoli, Capodichino) in Naples. The Allied occupational forces, which had taken the city a few months earlier, assisted in evacuating nearby villages. This was a relatively minor eruption compared to 1906, 1872, or 1631. Earlier eruptions during the Roman Empire caused ash to fall as far as Constantinople. In 1845 the Osservatorio Vesuviano (geological observatory) was opened in the Kingdom of Naples, and is the oldest scientific institution dedicated to studying volcanoes. Surviving the Risorgimento, it was allowed to continue its work, and can still be seen today after miraculously escaping the lava flows of the 1872 eruption.

Remains of a victim
Volcanic eruptions have always been a threat in the Mezzogiorno. Etna, Vesuvius, and the Phlegrean Fields (Campi Flegrei) are all still active. The Marsili volcano, located under the Tyrrhenian Sea approximately 150 km west of Naples, can erupt at any time, causing tidal waves the length of the Italic peninsula and Sicily. I’m sure that the Italian government has emergency plans in the event of disaster, but their inability to stop corrupt officials and organized criminals from dumping dangerous toxic waste in Naples itself gives me little confidence in how well they could handle such an emergency. Perhaps I’m being unfair to them. When I see average people in Europe or America unable to handle normal or trivial events, I’m surprised that natural selection hasn’t caught up with them, so I guess it makes sense that the leaders they help elect might not meet our expectations. The condition of Western society these days brings to mind a quote from Oswald Spengler:
"Faced as we are with this destiny, there is only one world-outlook that is worthy of us, that which has already been mentioned as the Choice of Achilles — better a short life, full of deeds and glory, than a long life without content. Already the danger is so great, for every individual, every class, and every nation, that to cherish any illusion whatever is deplorable. The march of time cannot be halted; there is no question of prudent retreat or clever renunciation. Only dreamers believe there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice.
“We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on…without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.” (Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics)
Pompeii is a reminder that our ancestors survived in very difficult times, and still managed to be pragmatic, creative and disciplined. This is not to say that all of our ancestors were nice people, but who can seriously make that claim. At least I can respect them, more so than I do many people today. Continue reading

August 21, 2011

A look at the 122nd Feast of Saint Rocco

Viva San Rocco! Stephen S. LaRocca (right),
President of Saint Rocco Society of Potenza, Inc.
Standard bearer leads the procession
Members of the Associazione Culturale Pugliese Figli Maria S.S. Addolorata (above)
and St Joseph's Society from Lodi New Jersey (below) joined in the celebration
The procession makes its way from the Church of St. Joseph
(5 Monroe Street, Manhattan) towards Little Italy
Devotees carry votive candles during the celebration
The original society statue now stands inside the Church of St. Joseph
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

August 17, 2011

Honoring the Great Caruso at the IAM

Cavaliere Ufficiale Aldo Mancusi at the IAM
Believe me when I tell you, if you are a music lover and were unable to attend the "Life and Times of Enrico Caruso" lecture at the Italian American Museum last Thursday (Aug. 11, 2011), you missed one heck of an evening.
First we were treated to a live performance by tenor Christopher Macchio, who sang the irresistibly romantic love-song, "Because." Published in 1903, the song was immortalized on RCA Victor by Caruso in 1913. I've been fortunate to hear Mr. Macchio sing before (I believe it was at the Mario Lanza lecture earlier this year at the IAM) and knew we were in for something special. Unsurprisingly, he did not disappoint. The packed audience gave the rising young talent a well-deserved standing ovation.
Not to be outdone, guest speaker Cavaliere Ufficiale Aldo Mancusi, founder and curator of the Enrico Caruso Museum of America, gave an entertaining talk about his idol, Enrico Caruso. I've attended many lectures at the IAM and this one easily ranks high up there among my favorites. Cav. Mancusi is obviously a man who loves his job; his knowledge and expertise on Caruso is staggering and the scholar’s passion for the maestro is infectious—I wanted to hear more! One gets the feeling that if he was allowed, Mancusi would have went on for hours regaling us with his fascinating stories about the "worlds greatest tenor."
Cavaliere Ufficiale Aldo Mancusi holding photo of Caruso's wife and daughter, Dorothy and Gloria

There was too much information to recap in a casual post (Caruso will eventually be featured in our Titans of the South) so I'll only share a couple of the more interesting anecdotes.
Born in Naples on February 25, 1873, he worked with his father at the local steel foundry. His gift for singing was discovered during choir practice. Fast-forwarding, he debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1903, where he would appear an impressive 863 times. Extremely successful, he was equally munificent. Examples of Caruso’s generosity were a common thread throughout Mancusi's presentation. Apparently, Caruso never forgot where he came from and spread his wealth around, always helping those less fortunate than himself. According to Mancusi, over 130 members of his family and friends back in Naples were on his payroll.
Caruso was injured during a performance of Samson and Delilah when a stage prop fell on him. Misdiagnosed with intercostal neuralgia by his physician, Philip Horowitz, his health seriously deteriorated. Towards the end of his life, and after several operations, Caruso needed a blood transfusion. Afterward, finding out the donor was an Irishman (Everett Wilkinson) from Meriden, Connecticut, he jokingly complained to his doctor he was no longer a full-blooded Italian.
The infection would eventually take his life. Enrico Caruso died on August 2, 1921. He was only 48-years-old.
Cav. Uff. Mancusi also exhibited several old photos, caricatures and a sculpture carved by Caruso himself, who was an accomplished artist as well as a singer. We watched video footage of Caruso's great-great grandson, Enrico Caruso IV (an accomplished tenor in his own right), who performed at a gala event honoring the Neapolitan tenor. Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani awarded a City Proclamation to the Enrico Caruso Museum at the same event.
Bust of Caruso and Victrola
We also listened to an original 1902 recording of "Vesti la giubba" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci performed by Caruso on a 1906 victrola. Technology has obviously come a long way in improving the sound quality of music, but there is something to be said about listening to vinyl on an old-fashioned phonograph instead of mp3s. I'm not sure if it’s just nostalgia, but I find evoking memories of the past very rewarding.
Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa (President and Founder of the Italian American Museum) and his staff deserve special praise for hosting this event. Their hard work and dedication in serving our community does not go unnoticed.
Christopher Macchio closed the evening with an outstanding a cappella rendition of the Neapolitan tearjerker, Core N'grato. It was a near-perfect ending to an extremely enjoyable night. Arguably, the pièce de résistance was the cannoli and espresso we enjoyed at Café Palermo afterwards.
Christopher Macchio, Tenor
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

August 16, 2011

Discovering The Riace Warriors

The Riace Warriors, L-R: statue A and statue B

By Giovanni di Napoli

On August 16, 1972 Stefano Mariottini, a young chemist from Rome, was on holiday in Monasterace, a small town in the Southern Italian province of Reggio Calabria. Enjoying the pristine waters of the Riace Marina, located along the magnificent Ionian Coast, Mariottini made a discovery that has been referred to as "one of Italy's most important archaeological finds of the last 100 years."

While swimming—almost 340 yards off the coast and about 27 feet deep—Mariottini spotted an arm protruding from the sandy sea floor. So lifelike was the limb he thought he found a corpse. The startled diver soon realized that the lifeless appendage belonged to a bronze statue. Upon further inspection he found the leg of a second statue sticking out of the seabed.

Excited by his discovery, Mariottini reported his find to the authorities. With his help the Carabinieri unit from Messina, Sicily—supervised by the Archaeological Superintendency of Reggio Calabria—recovered the sunken statues from their watery resting place with air balloons. A crowd of curious locals and vacationers gathered on the beach and watched intently as the statues were rescued. They applauded with great delight as they were brought ashore.

The initial restoration was done at the Museo Nazionale di Reggio Calabria, but lacking the sophisticated equipment necessary to clean the statues thoroughly, the bronzes were transported up north to the Superintendency of Antiquity in Florence, Tuscany. The restoration was completed in 1980 and the statues were finally made available to the public, first at the Museo Archeologico in Florence, then in Rome at the Palazzo del Quirinale, where an estimated million people visited them. They were eventually returned to the prestigious Museo Nazionale di Reggio Calabria where they draw well over 100,000 visitors annually. Continue reading

August 15, 2011

The Madonna and the Saint

Reprinted from the August 2011 Craco Society newsletter

In Craco, the feast of the Madonna della Stella is celebrated on the second Sunday of August. The following week, many Crachesi travel to Pisticci to join that town’s celebration of San Rocco. There is a connection between these celebrations going back centuries in Italy.
Thomas Frascella, president of the San Felese Society of New Jersey researched the relationship between the celebrations and posted an extensive story on the San Felese Society website.
San Fele, a town in the province of Potenza about 90 miles north of Craco, celebrates the feast of the Madonna di Pierno, who bears a great likeness to Craco’s Madonna della Stella. The story behind both the Madonna figures is very similar and their connection is understandable.
Frascella points out that, “During the fourteenth and subsequent centuries San Fele like the rest of the adjacent region was exposed to repeated outbreaks of plague ....
"This was a natural consequence of the region’s geographic location along the trade route of the ancient Appian Way. During this period, Marian devotion as well as devotion to St. Rocco, a figure associated with miraculous recoveries from the plague became quite common in the region.
"Every town and village in the region has a church and/or statue of St. Rocco and a Marian statue which is posed in a maternal rendering... Statues of Mary in this pose generally are referred to by the title Our Lady of Good Succor or Our Lady of Perpetual Care reflecting the image’s historic connection as protector from disease.”
With immigration to America, Frascella goes on to say, “Many of those who arrived at the port of New York settled, at least for a time, in the Lower East Side.... The area consisted of crowded largely substandard housing and poor sanitation even for the norms of its day. As a result there were unusual levels of disease. As an example, during this period the child mortality rate among the Italian population in the area was about fifty per cent, twice the rate of the rest of the city…With the above as background it is not surprising that the oldest Italian American religious 'street' festival is the St Rocco festival of Little Italy which began in the late 1880’s and continues to be celebrated to this day.”
On August 21 the 122nd Feast of San Rocco will be celebrated in Lower Manhattan while on the same day the San Felese Society will celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Pierno in New Jersey.
This background is important to understanding the theme of the Society’s 5th Annual Crachesi del Nord America Reunion that is timed to coincide with the 110th anniversary of the statue of San Vincenzo Martire, the patron saint of Craco. This statue, donated by the Craceshi immigrants that were in New York City then, is the last vestige of their presence there.
After a two year restoration under-written by Society members this historic statue and a presentation plaque will be dedicated at a special event on Sunday October 23rd. Mark your calendars to join the celebration.

Announcing the 122nd Annual Festa di San Rocco in New York City

Sunday, August 21, 2011

St. Joseph's Church
5 Monroe Street, New York, NY
(212) 267-8376
Come celebrate 122 years of faith in glorious St. Rocco, helper of the sick and saint of miracles.
12:00 PM — High Mass in honor of St. Rocco
1:30 PM — Procession of St. Rocco through the streets of Little Italy.
6:00 PM — Entertainment and refreshments available, raffle drawing
Sponsored by the St. Rocco Society of Potenza, Inc.
For further information, please visit their website at

Our Lady of Pierno Mass and Luncheon, 2011

Sunday, August 21, 2011
St. Joachim’s Church
19 Bayard St., Trenton N.J.
11:00 AM – Mass at St. Joachim's Church
Followed by luncheon at Villa Romanza
429 Rt. 156, Yardville, NJ
The Mass and Luncheon for Our Lady of Pierno will be held on Sunday, August 21st – 11:00 AM. Mass at St. Joachim’s Church – followed by luncheon at Villa Romanza, 429 Rt. 156, Yardville, N.J. Price per person is $33.00 - Please send reservations to Janet Howard along with your payment. Hall only holds 50 people. No need to choose meals - as it will all be family style.
Sponsored by the San Felese Society of New Jersey
For further information, please visit their website at
Photo of Our Lady of Pierno courtesy of the San Felese Society

August 14, 2011

A look at the Feast of the Giglio di Sant’Antonio in East Harlem (2011)

A large crowd was on hand to view the dancing of the giglio
and partake in the festivities

The capo commences the lifting.
"Lets show the boys from Brooklyn how we do it in Manhattan."

Viva Sant’Antonio!

Proud Bruscianese! The rain didn't dampen any spirits

The inclement weather was no match for these beauties.
The "Giglio Girls" kept the party rolling

Dancing the giglio. Lifters flaunt their stamina by swaying the towering spire back and forth in time with the music

Mass was held at the historic Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church
Photos by New York Scugnizzo

The Pontelandolfo – Casalduni Massacre

General Enrico Cialdini: 
The Butcher of Gaeta
By Giovanni di Napoli
On August 14, 1861 the towns of Pontelandolfo and Casalduni were sacked and torched by the Piedmontese military during the so-called "war against brigandage" in Southern Italy. On the orders of General Enrico Cialdini (*) the towns were reduced to rubble and townspeople indiscriminately slaughtered in retaliation for the death of 41 soldiers at the hands of partisan loyalists. 
Accounts of the Piedmontese reprisal describe the shooting of unarmed men and bayoneting of groveling women. The survivors were left homeless and without means of survival. Dispatched by Cialdini, Colonel Gaetano Negri telegraphed his superior to report on the carnage: 
"At dawn yesterday justice was done to Pontelandolfo and Casalduni. They are still burning."
Sadly, Pontelandolfo and Casalduni were not the exception. In the first 14 months after the conquest of Southern Italy the towns of Guaricia, Campochiaro, Viesti, San Marco in Lamis, Rignano, Venosa, Basile, Auletta, Eboli, Montifalcone, Montiverde, Vico, Controne, and Spinello all suffered a similar fate. Arbitrary arrests and summary executions were common. By 1864 over 100,000 troops, nearly half the Italian army, were deployed in the South to try and keep order. Continue reading

The Wizard of Oz

B.A. Santamaria: One Against the World

Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria (1915-98)
(Photo courtesy of
“That cause is strong which has, not a multitude, but one strong man behind it.” – J.R. Lowell: Speech in Chelsea, Mass., Dec. 22nd. 1885
A common complaint heard in many quarters these days is that we as individuals are powerless to effect any real change in society. The powers that be have vast political, financial (and military) resources behind them to enforce their will upon us, members of the Great Unwashed. People who rail against real or perceived injustices, when asked the obvious question of why they don’t do something about it, invariably respond: “One man can’t make a difference.”

Truth be told, this is a complaint that is as old as civilization itself. It is the excuse of the indolent, the apathetic, and especially of the cowardly. One need only pour over the pages of history books to read the biographies of multitudes of people of common birth who, through little more initially than sheer force of will, sought to remake the world around them into their own image, for better or for worse.
In previous articles on this blog this writer has dealt with members of our ethnos, the denizens of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, who have made their mark in the pages of the history books, either in the supplanting pseudo-nation known as Italy, or here in the United States of America. It must be remembered, however, that numerous other Sicilians*, following the destruction of our homeland in 1861, chose to resettle in other parts of the globe. This article is dedicated to one of them; a man of common birth who ignored the admonition “One man can’t make a difference” to make a difference in his adopted homeland in ways which apparently even he never realized. Continue reading

August 6, 2011

The 'Little Monk' – Exploring ‘O Munaciello and His Many Variations

The Nightmare by Johann Heinrich Füssli
By Lucian

Of the many ghosts and spirits of Naples, two in particular are more prominent than the rest. The first is the bella ‘Mbriana, who is generally seen as benevolent. The other is the Munaciello, a more malignant and complex spirit that has several counterparts in other regions of Southern Italy.

It is usually better to start at the beginning, so before I describe the behavior of ‘O Munaciello and related spirits, I’ll recount the two generally accepted Neapolitan hypothesis about his origins. One was connected to the mysterious underground city of Naples, it claims that ‘O Munaciello was actually the “pozzari” (well workers) who would use the many passageways to enter people’s homes at night, play tricks on them or try to collect on unpaid bills. The other occurs in the mid 1400s during the reign of the Aragonese. Caterinella Frezza, daughter of a wealthy merchant fell in love with Stephen Mariconda, a laborer. Their families opposed the relationship and one night assailants murdered Stephen in the lover’s secret meeting place. After this Caterinella was sent to a convent, where she bore a strange child. The nuns made him cloths similar to a monk’s and adopted him after his mother’s death. He never grew bigger than the size of a six year old and had a strange enlarged head on which he wore a black hat and hid within the cowl of his monk’s hood. People came to fear him and began to blame “The Little Monk” for all their misfortunes, except when he wore a red cap, which was seen as good luck. Unfortunately for the child, he wore the red hat only infrequently. One day the child disappeared, and it was assumed that he was murdered.

As author Matilde Serao stated in her book Neapolitan Legends:
“The tale of ‘O Munaciello does not end with his death. On the contrary, it begins.”… “It is not the gnome dancing on the soft grass of the meadows, nor the elf that sings on the shores of the river, it is the evil imp of the old houses of Naples. It is ‘o munaciello.”

Inhabiting the middle-class districts where he wandered in life, the spirit returns to interfere with the living. Sometimes he engages in harmless tricks, other times he breaks things or causes hardship. He’s been blamed for causing nightmares, depression and immoral temptations. It was said that he is unpredictable and capable of anything.
“It is the imp that makes old maids hysterical and causes them to fall down the stairs in convulsions. It is ‘o munaciello who turns the house topsy turvy, puts the furniture in disarray, disturbs the heart, confuses the mind and fills it with fear. It is he, the tormented and tormenting spirit who brings chaos in his black habit, ruin in his black hood.”…“But truthful history also tells us, good reader that when ‘o munaciello wore his red hood, his presence brought good luck. And because of this strange mixture of good and evil, of malice and goodness, ‘o munaciello is respected, feared and loved.” Matilde Serao Neapolitan Legends p.128-132
The spirit is known for his lascivious behavior toward young and beautiful women, but is also known to take young girls under his protection when they are in love. He is known to cause misfortune, then to comfort the victims of his actions. He leaves money for people with the understanding that they will be silent about his misdeeds, and punishes them if they do not honor the bargain. The esoteric version of ‘O Munaciello claims that his gifts of money were attempts to buy the souls of the living, and that he was an agent or avatar of the devil. Yet despite all this he is very popular in Naples and the people love him. Perhaps he is a devil, but if so he is their devil and as such is forever part of them.

Some storytellers attempt to rehabilitate ’O Munaciello. Author Geraldine McCaughrean wrote a children’s book based on him called Monacello - The Little Monk. While I find the creature much more foreboding than she does, I must admit that exploring our ancestral legends for children’s books is a very positive idea and sounds like a lot of fun. My only reservation is that they will become too distorted or politically correct and lose their meanings.

In the case of Munaciello, his bad behavior is such a part of his personality that even Ms. McCaughrean could only do so much. The author made the following comment about her book:
“I visited a friend in Naples, and she showed me the city’s best secret – its Undercity: a gloomy, buried world of ruined houses and streets. Then I found out Naples has a secret inhabitant too – part-good, part-bad; a bringer of good luck and trouble; a boy with a sad history of his own. Legends like Monacello’s date from a time when stories were not just for children; when they hovered in everyone’s brain, somewhere between made-up and true. I never cared much for wicked villains or superheroes. Monacello is a mixture of sun and shadow – like we all are. My sort of hero.”
Monacello - The Little Monk
(Courtesy of

Despite such modern revisions of the legend, and the Neapolitans fondness for the “Little Monk,” the overall character of this being only gets worse as I research more about him. Other regions of the South have their own versions of Munaciello. Some claim it is the same being; others disagree. Either way, the similarities are impossible to ignore and suggest a common origin to the various legends. Munaciello has several names in Naples alone, and his variants have many more outside of the region. Often the names refer to a type of creature as opposed to a unique one. Most are associated with house spirits. For the sake of expediency I’m going to list only a few along with their particular variations of the legend.

The Monachiccio of the Basilicata region are described as gnomes about the size of a six-year-old child. They sometimes interfere with people’s sleep by sitting on them, tickling their feet, pulling their hair, pinching them or making noise. They always wear red hats, which they cannot be without. If their hat is taken they will cease their activities and beg for it back, making bargains in order to get it. Their character varies throughout the region. For example, in Matera they make mischief, but do not cause real problems or serious damage, but in Maratea they are considered pure evil and their actions range from little pranks to propositions, which can result the loss of your soul or cause your death. Carlo Levi’s famous book Christ Stopped at Eboli contains a chapter describing the monachicchi (literally "little monks") and their exploits.

The Mamucca of Messina is described as an annoying fairy that concealed objects and teased people, and appears much as Munaciello. The name Mamucca originally was connected to a pirate attack in the area in 541 A.D., which was repelled but famous for its atrocities. Many innocent people, including several monks, were extensively tortured and mutilated by the raiders.

The Scazzamurrieddhru of Salento plays tricks and sometimes trades favors. It has a special relationship with pets and horses, helping to care for them but sometimes irritating them or braiding their hair. It wears a hat, which if taken, can be ransomed back for a reward. It is considered the protector of young women who are battered by stepmothers or their masters. Also known as Scazzamurril (Foggia) or lu Laùru, the spirit is best known for spoiling sleep by sitting on the victim’s chest, causing paralysis, shortness of breath, or nightmares. For this reason it is also called the Carcaluru (from "Limestone", "put pressure"). If you enter a cemetery at night, the spirit may punish you by jumping on your chest and causing uncontrollable laughter until it kills you. The name Laùru may be connected to Lares, an ancient Roman house spirit, but the worst behavior of the creature probably originates with the incubus or nightmare spirit described by Petronius Arbiter, Pliny (the Elder), and Augustine, among others.

The Spirit of Nightmare was most likely an ancient explanation for a modern condition known as sleep paralysis or night terrors. People who suffer from this sleep disorder can experience paralysis, loss of speech and shortness of breath. The attacks cause extreme fear and often are accompanied by realistic hallucinations in which the afflicted perceive an evil presence in the room or sitting on their chest. Sometimes the hallucination is also perceived as a sexual assault, which explains the ancient and medieval stories of the incubus.

Some parts of Northern Italy have their variations of Munaciello or Scazzamurrieddhru, such as the Mazapegol of Romagna. Sort of a cross between the gnome and an incubus, they are hairy, monkey-like imps that wear red caps and sneak into the beds of young attractive women, sitting on their stomachs and causing nightmares. It is said that the women can banish them by doing something disgusting that upsets the creatures.

My overall impression of ‘O Munaciello and his counterparts is not easily described. Perhaps the best way to put it is that it was intellectually thought provoking, but at the same time reached out to the darker corners of the mind.

Garden gnome, Capri
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)

In life Munaciello was not treated well, in death he returns to meddle in the affairs of the people who mistreated him, often in a negative way. Is this a consequence of their attitude towards him or a vindication of it? Either interpretation can be argued. Being an abused underdog is certainly a cause for sympathy, but does not automatically make the victim a good person or trustworthy. Some psychologists say it actually makes a person more prone to abuse others; although I personally don’t think enough credit is given to the many people who overcome a difficult past. It is interesting that the story of the Munaciello clearly illustrates such a situation long before modern studies were done on this topic.

Although sometimes acting as a protector or benefactor, the negative things that are done by this being are hardly compensated for by receiving some money in your shoe, and even that comes with possible consequences. Aside from the few harmless variations of the legend, the only component of the tales that allow people to get the upper hand is stealing his red cap and negotiating with the creature for its return. The rest of the time the spirit (or gnome) is in control, regardless if it is providing protection or making trouble. When my editor was reviewing my notes he playfully asked me: “Knowing what he’s capable of, would you steal his cap?” To which I could only respond “No my friend, I don’t believe I would.”

The Munaciello and similar beliefs are still popular in Southern Italy; there was even a song dedicated to the Scazzamurrieddhru by Domenico Modugno in 1954. I’m certain that there was some demonizing of the figure by the Church and other sources, as has been the case with most of the old beliefs, so I’ve tried to be fair and include the more positive aspects of the legends. However, even some of the nicest descriptions of this complex spirit contain something bad, and the possible connection to the spirit of nightmare is not at all flattering. When examined in depth, the stories give us a lot to think about. Perhaps the most important part is the possibility of losing your soul, because with something that important, should a chance be taken?

When ‘O Munaciello or his fellows pay for your silence, the possible consequences must be considered, and the warnings of the legend are just as valid in the modern world. The combination of corporate greed and cosmopolitan social engineering is marginalizing and eliminating our people and our culture. The most obscene aspect of this modern cultural leveling is that it encourages the participation of the very people it is destroying by promising short-term profit or an imaginary “utopian paradise.” Sadly, Southern Italy has seen the same promises before, from the architects of the Risorgimento. Once again, we are being asked to sell not only our soul, but also the soul of our people, for a handful of silver pieces and empty promises.

Munaciello references:

Leggende napoletane/Neapolitan Legends by Matilde Serao, translated by Jo Di Martino, Alfredo Guida Editore, 2003, ISBN 88-7188-670-4

Siren land by Norman Douglas, Dodo Press 2008, ISBN 978-1-4099-4192-7

Monacello - The Little Monk (Modern children’s story adaptation) by Geraldine McCaughrean, Illustrator: Jana Diemberger, Phoenix Yard Books, 2011, 978-1907912030

Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, ISBN 978-0-374-53009-9

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Revised Diagnostic and Coding Manual, 2001, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, ISBN: 0-9657220-1-5

PDF file: Legends and ghost stories in Naples between two centuries: Matilde Serao, Roberto Bracco and Benedetto Croce, study by Armando Rotondi