Naples – The Lazzaroni

What a scene for degenerate character study! Or is it merely illustrative of Darwin’s Descent of Man?’ At any rate, those old women with the flax and distaffs would serve as horrible models for Shakespeare’s witches, and it would require no great stretch of the imagination for us to picture them leaning on their staffs and gazing into the smoking caldrons, as they mutter :

As you look upon this crowd of people by which they are surrounded, you can almost hear these ” secret, black and midnight hags ” repeat :

By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes. Open, locks, Whoever knocks!” “Double, double toil and trouble: Fire burn and caldron bubble.”

These people are called Lazzaroni, from Lazarus, the poor man, mentioned in the New Testament, or, as others think, from the Hospital of St. Lazarus. In the beginning they formed a semi-criminal class, and, indeed, many vicious criminals were found among them. They are now of different classes, some being loafers, who do nothing, and others who only work occasionally and for a short time, acting generally as porters or peddlers, living mostly by their wits, and many of them, without the burden of house rent and taxes. Originally their clothing was of a most primitive style, that of the men consisting of a coarse white shirt open at the front and a pair of ragged overalls. Alexander Dumas declared that the Lazzaroni degenerated as a potent factor in Neapolitan life from the time that they began to devote any attention to clothing.

Closely allied with these people, and, indeed, hardly to be distinguished from them, was the powerful and well organized society called the Camorra, a class of ruffians addicted to all degrees and variety of crime, composed of liberated convicts with remarkable acuteness or great physical strength, who, in the capacity of brigands, set a price on every one’s head and struck terror to the hearts of the well-to-do and law-abiding classes. So powerful did they become that even the police and ward politicians were forced into a league with them. They used property as they pleased, and even defied the custom-house officials. The present government has succeeded to a large extent in sup-pressing this society, and, by demolishing much of the district of Naples which used to contain the haunts of the Lazzaroni, has greatly increased the healthfulness of the city and somewhat modified the character of the Lazzaroni themselves. A large class of such people could be produced only in a city where the climate is conducive to laziness, making any effort wearisome, and, as a rule, idleness and crime go hand in hand.

Many of these people live in what is called a ” basso,” which is a sort of shed or stable, with a door that may be closed at night, but no windows. You may see one of these structures directly in front of us, on the roof of which is a balcony with an iron railing. Every particle of refuse from such places is thrown into the streets to stay there until the garbage cart comes around, but not to lie there undisturbed, for it is poked over by the ragman and pulled apart by the dogs and scattered by the fowl that live in the streets, and hence it becomes too widely disseminated to be decently gathered up by the indifferent Neapolitan street-sweeping brigades.

In front of the basso, almost invariably, is a shop of some kind, a wine shop or a shoemaker’s shop, or a soup-house, where all day long a vegetable soup, called ” bouillabaisse,” simmers, and the fumes that rise from it are appalling. Thackeray describes it as consisting of

“Green herbs, red peppers, mussels, saffron, Soles, onions, garlic, roach and dace; All these you eat at Luna’s tavern

In that one dish of bouillabaisse.”

Also in front of this basso which you see before us, is a blacksmith’s shop, and the one room back of it holds the family bed, which is occupied by the entire family, however numerous, and on hot nights during the long, burning summer the place is stifling, while the condition of those who live in the streets is more endurable.

On account of their extreme poverty and the salubrity of the climate, the life of the people of Naples is carried on with greater freedom and publicity than in any other city in Europe. Almost all the offices of daily life are attended to in the streets. Stoves, as you see here, are set up in the open air, and cooking is carried on at a brisk rate. Herds of goats and droves of cows are driven into the city every morning and milked into the customer’s bottle in front of his own door; they even intrude into the Toledo, and goats are taken into the large tenement houses and mount to the top floor, stopping at the different stories to be milked for waiting customers. Abject poverty is expressed by the Neapolitan in the remark that for such an one ” Passa la Vacca,” “the cow goes by,” that is, he has to do without milk. In these street scenes it is not unusual to see, what we behold here, women combing each other’s hair upon the sidewalk. After passing through a scene like this, no matter how warm the day, one shivers for a month, imagining all sorts of sensations which, in reality, have no existence.

At Christmas time, flocks of turkeys are driven into the main streets and to the very doors to sell. You take your pick and pay the price and the remaining turkeys are driven on to the next customer’s abode.

The conversation of the Lazzaroni, and, indeed, of Neapolitans generally, is largely made up of gestures; it is more emphatic and saves considerable trouble. An outward wave of the hand signifies ” good-bye,” and an inward, “come!” a downward, stop ! Thumb pointed backward, “look!” to the lips with a backward toss of the head, a drink. Passing the hand across the forehead, as though wiping off perspiration, means fatigue; the forefinger drawn across the mouth, anger; across the clenched teeth, defiance; rapping the knuckles against the closed teeth, eating; closing the teeth and shaking the lower jaw against the upper, hunger ; hand extended and thumb and forefinger rubbed against one another, “the price,” and so on.

Selfishness here, as elsewhere, is a prevailing characteristic. When a Neapolitan sees a funeral go by he always exclaims, ” Salute a not ! ” (Health to ourselves!)

In elbowing my way one day through just such a company as this, I encountered a vicious looking fellow selling knives and sharpening them in the street. Upon espying me he cried out, ” Eccolo, Signor ! it will cut a sausage into strips as thin as paper; it will split a hair, and “- here he brandished the knife over his head with considerable energy which showed he was an old hand at the business -” it will cleave the heart of your enemy in two!” As he uttered these last words he made a lunge with the knife in my direction, which caused me involuntarily to take a step backward. I concluded not to make a purchase and moved away.

No Neapolitan crowd is complete without the presence of children. It would be interesting to count the number here before us-see that tiny infant in its mother’s arms just back of the old women who are spinning. They literally swarm the streets of the city, and it is amusing to see them cry, for they always go to the wall for it – their ” wailing-place “-a relic of Saracenic rule. Strange how an insignificant custom points back with its tiny finger across the centuries.

That good-sized woman with the broad shoulders and the ” battle-face “- for of all classes in Naples the women are the most desperate and courageous and fight savagely – the one holding the baby in her arms – recalls the history of an infamous per-son who lived in this city and in just such a street as this, some years ago. Beside her the woman to whom I have referred would have been a child, for she was of herculean build with the physiognomy of a beast. Her hair was coarse and red, her face broad and pitted, looking like a huge bronze breast-pin from which the setting had fallen out. Her eyes were small, but black and piercing; her neck was short and ox-like. But with all this, she combined such force of will and dignity of carriage as to win the title from her associates of ” Her Majesty.” After having been imprisoned several times, she married, at thirty, a half-witted, deformed man, in company with whom she opened a provision store, giving her husband five sous a day, one cent, for pocket money. She ran the establishment with a tyranny that brooked no opposition. All day long the hunchback stood behind the counter and waited on customers, and at night he went to a neighboring café and spent his five sous for sour wine, while Her Majesty attended to affairs of her own. This woman kept ” children for hire,” about thirty of them, ranging from five to twelve years of age. These she fed and lodged and hired out to sing and dance for organ grinders in the streets ; or else they were sent out to peddle small wares. Each child must bring home thirty sous, six cents, at night, no matter how obtained ; and woe be to the child who failed to do so. It was fearfully beaten and sent to bed without its supper. This woman was the confidante and adviser of all the thieves in the neighborhood, and yet nothing could be proved against her; she even managed the disposal of their booty, but so ingeniously that she was never detected in any of her transactions. For thirty years she ruled not only her idiotic hunchback husband, but the entire street, with a despotism never exceeded by any royal tyrant ; and yet, she was not the only woman of her class, and worse types may be found in Naples today.

Most Neapolitans, and even young boys belonging to the lowest order of the people, carry knives, and to stab an enemy or to gouge out his eye with a piece of glass is thought to be a fine pugilistic effort. It is truly said that Naples is a Paradise inhabited by devils,” but among them are merry, rollicksome devils, as well as many that are vicious and corrupt.

Tattooing is a rage among these people, both men and women, but when the operation is carried out on a large scale, as it frequently is, it causes the victim, especially the women, to faint ; this, however, is not an objection so far as the operator is concerned, for he can then continue his work without opposition from the subject.

Notice to the right of the cook stove a baker with his tray of rolls, which he carries on his head, and on this side of him is a standard with extended arms, on which the open-air cook-shop keeper throws an awning when the sun is excessively hot ; also beyond the cook stove is a queer arrangement serving as the shafts of the wagon. Observe that instead of a pole simply, such as we use here in America, they have three, one in the center and one on each side. On the shafts is spread a strip of cloth for an awning. There does not seem to be enough of it to cast a decent shadow, however.

These people, like the colored people in America, have a streak of humor. A young fellow, upon being asked his name, replied, ” I don’t know; I believe it is either Peppino or Giuseppe ” (which are really the same), “but where I come from they always call me ` Soup ‘ and ` Tripe.’”

Call them what you will, the essential characteristics of the Lazzaroni still exist in Naples.

We will now view a distinctive industry of the city, the making of macaroni, and those of us who believe in using nothing but the imported article will have an opportunity of seeing the conditions under which it is produced.