French-Italian writer Jean-Noël Schifano’s Chroniques Napolitaines (1984) contains six tales built around actual persons and events from the Naples of the late 15th and mid-17th centuries, brought to life through a combination of linguistic virtuosity, scholarly care and attention to detail, and capacious imagination, making the book an impressive short work of historical fiction. A warning and a pity: the book is unavailable in English.
For anyone still reading, another warning: the tales in Chroniques Napolitaines make for one blood-drenched book. For Schifano, the only French citizen ever to have been named an honorary citizen of Naples, the city where he lived for many years is a one “of bad Catholics and great sinners…capable of anything out of passion,” where the Neapolitan eye is “a demand for forgiveness that accuses,” and where “the passion of love” is only equaled by “the passion for vengeance.” Here the main streets of ancient Naples, Spaccanapoli and Toledo, are a cross on which the city is “every day crucified, every day resuscitated.” Drawing on old records and anecdotes, yet inserting occasional references to the present as though taking the reader on a guided tour of centuries, Schifano’s versions of these stories depict dramatic love affairs, vicious acts of revenge, frenzied political revolts, and barbaric and bizarre tortures (a punishment for parricide involved throwing the convict into the sea inside a sack shared by a dog, monkey and viper). But Schifano also marvels at the less physically violent aspects of the city: its feverish baroque intensity in both life and art; its citizens’ fierce pride and bristling rejection of orthodoxy and rigidity, particularly when imposed by foreign interlopers (the historical scope of the stories falls largely within the Spanish rule of the city); the manner in which the thick mantle of the past continually oozes up through the lava-black streets into the present.
Schifano’s work contains a plethora of fascinating historical details about Naples. References to the presence of the past in the many-layered city abound, including Schifano’s mention of the discovery in 1973, in subterranean chambers beneath the National Archives, of poems by Tirenella, a female poet, who, like a “Louise Labé of Naples,” wrote in dialect of “tyrannical torments.” Another tale mentions Neapolitan desserts of the period, including “Monks’ Fleas,” rounded cakes dusted with burned bits of ground almonds, and “Oranges of Crime,” eaten with three-quarters of the pulp replaced by a mixture of honey and fresh pig’s blood. A Neapolitan was never said to be “crazy,” but to have “parted into the imagination.” Here amid the garbage piles roamed the zoccola, a cat-sized race of “indestructible” rats. And here in a city that smells “of fish when the sun rises and sulfur when it sets,” one encountered everywhere “the secret watchword” of all Neapolitans: “Chi m’o fa fa?” – “Who’s going to make me?”
The drama and violence of Schifano’s Naples evince themselves in the first story, which recounts the furious love affair between the wife of composer Carlo Gesualdo and the Duke of Andria, and the brutal punishment dispensed by the composer when the affair is discovered. Another story, “La felouque du vice-roi,” briefly recaps the brief reign of fisherman-turned-revolutionary Massaniello, the capopopolo or “boss of the people,” who in 1647 led a bloody and short-lived populist revolt against the city’s Spanish rulers. In “Grecs Intermedes,” Schifano – who evidently relishes mining the city’s history for intriguing cases - explicitly refers readers to source documents for an extraordinary trial in which both a tailor and the donkey with which he had been accused of committing an unnatural act were convicted and publically hanged. Schifano nakedly conveys both the atrocity and absurdity of this scene, including an entire paragraph of taunts from the young lazzaroni who mock with cruel laughter the spectacle of the tailor being led through Naples’ streets, his bare feet tethered with leather straps to the hind legs of the donkey plodding before him. This anecdote opens the tale of Tiberio de Vela, scion of a noble family, one of the city’s most notorious “sodomites,” and proud member of the Camorra, then a fraternal honor society scarcely less criminal than its contemporary incarnation. For a period of two years, de Vela roamed about with his gang, stealing young boys off the streets and taking them to an estate by the steaming fumaroles of Pozzuoli near the sulfurous Phlegraean Fields to the north of the city. Here, fantastically orchestrated orgies occurred until universal dismay at the failure of the miraculous monthly “liquefaction” of San Gennaro’s blood in the cathedral of Naples, having until then occurred without interruption for 13 centuries, forced the authorities to abandon the blind eye turned to de Vela’s obscenities and conferred by family’s status, and give the people a gruesome public punishment - not for readers with weak stomachs - commensurate with the drama of the failed miracle.
Schifano has a formidable dexterity with language and a keen ability to imagine the dialogue of the time, mining French for archaic, arcane idioms and vocabulary and sprinkling his narrative with words and phrases from Neapolitan dialect. Without sacrificing any wealth of description or essentials of the history, Schifano also condenses grand events into compact packages; all but one of the stories come in under 35 pages, and even the longest one is divided into linked stories.
This long story, “Les heures contraires” (The Contrary Hours, referring to a Neapolitan term for that time of afternoon when the Neapolitan heat seems to make the city a purgatory of souls caught between flames and death), plunges the reader fully into Naples’ gritty ruthlessness (and since Chroniques napolitaines is unavailable in English, I’ll supply perhaps too much plot detail). Schifano’s stories often link discrete anecdotes as though layering impressions upon the reader, and “Les Heures Contraires” is no exception. Using as a motif the common 16th century practice of poisoning as a means of dispensing of enemies, Schifano begins with an episodic series of poisonings. These culminate in a lengthy account of events that unfolded during the reign of Don Pedro of Toledo. This ill-educated, rapacious Spanish libertine, jealous of the pagan liberties of Neapolitan youth, who “worshipped at the same time Isis, Osiris, the Virgin and Holy Child, the sun and the moon, the member of Priapus and the cross of Christ,” provoked a wave of sexually-driven violence in the city such that even cloisters were not immune.
The most notorious of these incursions occurred in the convent of Sant’Arcangelo di Baiano in Forcella, among the fiercest of Naples’ neighborhoods. Schifano restores to its proper Neapolitan origins this tale borrowed by Stendhal and removed to Tuscany in one of his unfinished “Italian Chronicles.” Into this convent a number of daughters of noble families were inducted in order to put an end to adolescent love affairs and thus prevent scandal and matches unpropitious to the families’ welfare. Schifano sensitively depicts the conflicts of these young novices, who, far from being religious devotees, were essentially prisoners. A scene depicting a young girl’s depilation as part of her “eternal” consecration into Sant’Arcangelo is chilling, as is a scene in which the ambitious new abbess wins protection for the convent by allowing a powerful duke into the convent to rape her own 12-year-old niece.
Subterfuges the girls use to continue to see their lovers often result in disaster. Suitors of two young novices are assaulted by thugs hired by the girls’ families, their bloodied bodies thrown into the convent to die in front of the eyes of the girls (who in revenge conspire to poison the mother superior). When another novice attempts to conceal her lover inside a crate containing a clavier, the delivery, accidentally left in the courtyard to bake under the hot sun, causes the young man to suffocate rather than risk breaking out and compromising his beloved’s honor. Schifano’s omniscient narrator follows another novice who, thanks to a door left unlocked, escapes one night to join a gentleman with whom she is infatuated, but is first castigated by the man for violating her vows, then taken by him, then discovered upon her return. Finally, two fetuses are found discarded next to the convent. Fury erupts out of shock that a mother could kill her own babies (and not, in pagan Naples, out of any religious objection). In the only major European city where, thanks to the “ferocious eccentricities” of its people, “the courts of the Inquisition had no right to be conducted,” the cumulative anger merges with friction in the Neapolitans’ tolerance of Spanish rule, leading to a disastrous eruption of street battles, protests before the convent, and an almost comical wave of efforts by the ecclesiastical authorities to impose inquisitional order on Sant’Arcangelo – the last checked by the intercession of the girls’ families, Neapolitan repugnance at sermonizing foreign clerics, the quick dispatch of one cleric via poison, and by the girls themselves.
In drawing the tale to a close, Schifano constructs successive anecdotes in which three of the girls deliver forceful, furious speeches. The first, Tullia, viciously lances one cleric’s authority, sending him packing simply by raising the specter of her family’s power. Subsequently, when a vicar takes refuge in the cell of another of the girls during an attack on the convent, the narrator juxtaposes both the injurious confinement and the fabulous wealth of these daughters of the rich, as the vicar is “scandalized” to see
…suspended on the walls carpeted in sunflower-colored satin embroidered with silver, two large paintings. One represented a rosy and amorous Aurora lifting into the skies of Syria the hero Cephalus, that same Greek who made love with a bear in obeisance to the oracle of Delphi, thus assuring his progeny; the other, Sélène and Endymion, the beautiful and naked boy asleep beneath the avid yellow shadow of the beautiful and naked Nyctalope, queen of the lunar work of love, descending from her starry chariot. Ostentatiously, the Vicar turned his eyes away from these profane, culpably lascivious visions, slowly directing his steps toward the door, seized abruptly by a whirlwind of thoughts and sensations as heavy and burning as the August sun that swept the second gallery without pity. But the Abbess held him back. She wished to give him the perfidious pleasure of detailing for him furnishings and curiosities, the whole inventory exchanging itself in a jealous and impossible transference between the old woman and the young.
For an entire page, the abbess continues to catalog of the room’s contents: its “ebony footstools inlaid with mother of pearl,” finely wrought silver-work basins enameled in vermillion and “filled with tulips of milky calcedonian,” marble busts of nymphs and éphèbes, “a great ivory chest with fastenings of gold and studded with garnets,” Persian rugs depicting hunting scenes, frescoes of silver putti playing among sinuous vines, grand chandeliers. When the vicar suggests to Guilia, the cell’s inhabitant, that her lodgings should possess an order more appropriate for a religious novice, the girl snarls at him:
Is it insufficient to satisfy your own extravagance…that I waste away in this atrocious solitude? I, Guilia Caracciolo di Brianza, born of a blood more illustrious than the earth, arrivals from Cunes with the first Greeks who founded Paleopolis, who with each of my steps follow the footprints of thirty centuries of armed nobles brandishing the herald of three gold bands beneath an azure field, I, of the most venerable branch of the Caracciolo, deprived of my liberty and my rights, should be disallowed play with such innocent objects because you, who were nothing before your birth, remain nothing while alive, and will be nothing after your death, should so will it?... Is it so great a crime, in this century, to embellish one’s prison cell, when one’s own parentage casts away all one’s worth, despoils it, disperses it across the world? You, civil servant of Heaven, you come here to add upon the cruelties of my cruel family; to preach charity, but invade my bedchamber to tear from the miserable a last and frivolous illusion, the beauty of time going past, the powerful dreams of humanity that course through my veins, to remind us outright of this indignity: the tender age at which, ignorant of the world save for the grandeur of our race, and prepared at any moment for the greatest gestures, for the most supreme sacrifices, we were manipulated so sinisterly in order that we renounce life!...
Chastened, but determined still to make an example, the vicar conducts an expeditious trial, held within the convent’s prayer chapel, which immediately confers sentence: several of the girls are to be imprisoned, others exiled, and the two responsible for poisoning the mother superior to be poisoned on the spot. The speech by one of these girls, Chiara, contains all of the defiance and contempt Neapolitans would expect:
Let us drink, she said, in this royal cesspool, to the health of dead souls and their black thirsts! And she drank in one gulp the viscous liquid, down to the final drop. Eufrasia let the tears course down her cheeks and whimpered, shaken by sobs sounding like some dirge of antiquity. Chiara moved close to her and helped her bring the goblet to her mouth, afterwards brushing with a gentle kiss the already tumescent flesh, bitter with the taste of the hemlock. Whether to collect the empty goblets or interrupt the girls’ embrace, the Sicaire took a step towards them. Chiara turned sharply, hurling at the feet of the armed man the two chalices, which rebounded and rolled upon the marble in twin, resonating circles. Crying aloud she addressed the tribunal and the whole assembly nailed in a stupor before the chapel’s golden aureoles: Back, cursed wasps! I am condemned to die, but stay away from me, macabre abusers from beyond the grave! I am the immaculate, unbridled! Leave us to die alone before our empty vaults, impudent preachers, unspeakable judges, away from the penetrating lasciviousness of your cadaverous eyes!
Her companion already dead, Chiara scribbles to her brother, with her last bit of strength, a note poignantly, devastatingly practical and accusatory, willing her belongings to her sister inmates and affirming that whatever fees may be due to the convent have been paid in full.
Though Schifano’s book is filled with grand characters, the star of Chroniques napolitaines is Naples itself. Woven of passion and punishment, the tales work together to forge an indelible image of a span of history in what may be the most troubled, complex and unique city of Europe. As brutal as Schifano’s tales may be, they still revel in the sharply paradoxical and often hidden splendors of Naples, as though to emulate the exaggerated chiaroscuro and saturated detail of the Neapolitan Baroque paintings of Caravaggio, Stanzione, and Gentileschi (a luxuriousness evident if one compares Schifano’s story of Sant’Arcangelo with the flat affect and spare narrative of Stendhal’s chronicle, The Abbess of Castro, which depicts violent events in another Italian convent). Above all, one senses Schifano’s awe at Naples’ human dimension, his almost obsessive passion to grasp, through its layers of the past, the city’s singularity and the almost theatrical violence of its glory and ferocity, his unflinching attempt to restore to grand measure a people “all at once the most idolatrous, skeptical and ironic people on earth…each individual creat[ing] in his own way his own tolerant religion, constituted from the gestures of the day-to-day and of millennia.” A tour de force.
Translations are my own, as are the defects of them.