Those who visit Naples or spend some time exploring the city on the Internet, sooner or later will come across the clown-like character wearing a white dwarf hat, black half-mask, and white baggy garb. I am talking about the ubiquitous but shadowy character, Pulcinella, also known as la maschera di napoli (the mask of Naples). His presence is felt almost everywhere in Naples. His pictures and statuettes are omnipresent in the city. Even the two Neapolitan pizza associations of Naples, namely, Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana and Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, have embraced this obscure character in their logos. Although he is an integral part of the Neapolitan culture, and although Neapolitans hold him in high esteem, he is barely understood by them consciously!
Who is this celebrated yet evasive character, Pulcinella? What is his relation to the city of Naples? Pulcinella—thought to be essentially a mythical character that has evolved, mutated, and/or transposed over centuries—is of nebulous origins, possibly traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. No one knows with certainty. However, we do know that since about 1500s (some assert 1600s) onward, this character has been set in motion in works of literature, puppetry, theater (e.g., la Commedia dell’Arte), and opera in Naples. Akin to Don Juan and Don Quixote, Pulcinella has been acclaimed with legendary status. This subject matter can be approached from various perspectives: folkloric, sociological, political, et cetera. Here, I opt to briefly consider this mysterious character from a psychological viewpoint.
Generally, Pulcinella is what Neapolitans call Napoletanità¹: a peculiar mode of being Neapolitan with all its characteristic virtues and vices. (The Italian word “napoletanismo” is synonymous with “napoletanità”, which is a word of the Neapolitan dialect.) More specifically, Pulcinella represents the underlying attitudes of Naples, its moods, its archetypal mental states, its conscience (con-science, “to know with”). Do not expect to find Pulcinella as a coherent character that can be comprehended without difficulties, for he is psychologically ridden with pairs of opposites! He is rational but irrational, wise yet foolish, ecstatic although melancholic, kind even so cruel, rich nonetheless a beggar, sober though intoxicated, full yet always hungry (especially for maccheroni and pizza). One can’t easily predict his behavior, his next mood, his next move. He defies sense and nonsense; he dares commonsense and uncommonsense; he challenges reason and unreason. He is a trickster, a prankster, a provocateur. He is preoccupied with provoking the authorities and people. He breaks the laws, yet he does not promote chaos; he wants chaos, but not lawlessness. If you, so to speak, ever see him, do not make him angry!—yet he gets angry if you don’t make him so. He will be your friend or foe depending on how you think of yourself. He will be a great teacher if you let him get under your skin. He is a master of irony and paradox. Some have even compared him with classical Greek philosopher Socrates, who was the “gadfly” of Athens, provoking the Athenians to think. Yet, do not expect Pulcinella to arouse you Socratically. He won’t tell you “To know the good is to do the good” or “To be or not to be is not the question. . . .” ; instead, he will smack you!
Psychologically speaking, Pulcinella can be construed as an upshot of what the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) calls “collective unconscious”: the inherited, mutual, psychic life of the people below the conscious level. (A Jung’s thesis is that the collective unconscious is a myth making part of the human psyche. And, by “myth” he does not mean a lie or fable, but a very profound mode of communicating fundamental and collective human needs, fears, aspirations, and so on.) As such, if you ask an average Neapolitan who Pulcinella is, they often do not know what to say other than “a folk hero” or “a champion of the poor or working class” or else.
Why the mask? Those who have been to Naples and sensibly felt its mystique and mayhem, can tell you that Naples is a heaven that is laid right next to hell! (After all, the city, beautified with the Mediterranean Sea along its bay, lays in the shadow of an active volcano, Mount Vesuvius.) Once a native expressed to me, “Having chosen to live in the land that lies between fire (the volcano) and water (the Mediterranean Sea)—must tell you something about the inhabitants of this city.”
Indeed, such duality characterizes the city—whose natives call it la città delle contraddizioni (the city of contradictions). During my nine-month stay in Naples in 1984, there were times that I embraced the city with unspeakable joy, and times when I was horrified by it. The affection and generosity of the people is immense, yet Naples can be a cruel place! Throughout its history, Naples has been afflicted with numerous wars, political atrocities, social injustice, hunger, famines, plagues, and other natural disasters; however, Neapolitans have always managed to regain their composure and make outstanding contributions to the city and the world.
The mask of pulcinella is symbolic of the apparent duality of life in Naples. Moreover, the mask is metaphoric of what transcends the mask, what is concealed behind it, namely, the people’s collective possibilities. That is to say, what beauties they can ascend to as a people and, conversely, what destructions they can succumb to. The mask is their own peculiar ways of collectively dealing with their affairs. The mask is Naples! And, few Neapolitans know that where there is a mask, there is a god that has not been recognized yet!
At last, the fact that Neapolitans associate la pizza napoletana with Pulcinella just goes to signify the eminence of the pizza, which is also symbolic of their historical identity.
For those who are interested, an excellent paper, titled “Pulcinella, or the Metaphysics of the Nulla: in Between Politics and Theatre“, was published in 2010 on the origins and political significance of Pulcinella. The paper is authored by professor Agnes Horvath, an associate scholar with Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (UCSC) in Milan, and it is available for purchase ($25.00) at Sage Journals.