I posit that, Neapolitan pizza was not born in a vacuum!—that it is an aftermath of a tediously long historical process, which spans over a period of 2700 years. Accordingly, I think it would be beneficial to have a very brief historical perspective on the issue. In short, history of Naples is a melting pot of different civilizations (Greeks, Romans, Germanics, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, Spaniards, French, and etc.) who have left their marks on the city that once upon a time was considered a jewel of Europe.
Naples has two distinct histories that are sometimes not easy to distinguish from one another: (1) Neapolitan history according to myths and (2) Neapolitan history according to historians. As claimed by legend, history of Naples begins when Parthenope, a Siren, was drowned and washed ashore on the Bay of Naples. When Parthenope’s singing voice could not allure Ulysses (“Odysseus”, in Greek), who was sailing past her, she became distraught and threw herself into the sea. Her corpse was washed up to the islet of Megaride (the site of Castel dell’Ovo in Naples), on the Bay of Naples, where the early Greek colonists discovered her corpse and arranged for a solemn burial on Pizzofalcone hill.
Historians tell us that Naples was founded by a colony of Euboean Greeks of pre-antiquity, who migrated from the Greek island of Euboea to the Island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. Around 750 B.C., they ventured onshore to Cumae, northwest of Naples. Thereafter, the Cumaeans established a settlement further inland on the hill of Pizzofalcone, which became known as the city of Parthenope. At last, around 470 B.C., the Cumaeans established another settlement further inland, which became known as Neapolis (meaning, New City), i.e., Naples.
The ancient Greek became established as the language of the region. Later, Naples was incorporated in the Roman Republic until the Germanics, i.e., the Kingdom of Ostrogoths, took over the city after the decline of the Roman Empire around 467 A.D. Thereafter, the Byzantine Empire took over until the ducal period (the succession of dukes) commenced, whereby Naples gained its short-lived independence by about 840 A.D. Later, Naples became a kingdom as opposed to dukedom, ruled by various Neapolitan, French, and Spanish kings. For a long time, roughly from 1503 to 1714 A.D., Naples was a part of the Spanish Empire, whereby it became a center of arts, math, sciences, and philosophy. It is worthy of note that Naples has had an intimate connection to the world of music. Founded in 1737, Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is the oldest opera house in Italy and all of Europe. Once upon a time, when Naples used to be a music capital of Europe, some of the greatest composers dreamed of performing at the theater. Illustrious composers such Johann Adolph Hasse, J.C. Bach, Joseph Haydn, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, Umberto Giordano, and many more—they all have graced the theater with their immortal music.
Throughout the period of the Spanish occupation of Naples (1503 – 1714 A.D.), there were intermittent attempts to emancipate Naples from the Spanish Empire and make it independent again. After centuries of wars, economic hardship, and political uncertainty, by 1861 Naples joined the Kingdom of Italy (or, some assert that the Kingdom of Italy appropriated the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) as part of the “Italian Unification” in order to put an end to foreign domination. (From 1816 to 1860, the Kingdom of Naples and Kingdom of Sicily were joined together as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.) To this day, there are Neapolitans that are still against or are apprehensive about the Italian unification, and they view the event as an economic and political exploitation of the South by the North. There is currently a Neapolitan movement, amongst others, known as Movimento di Insorgenza Civile (Civil Insurgence Movement) which actively protests aspects of such alleged injustice against the South. Take notice, in the picture below, that only the southern half of Italy (what used to be the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies prior to the Italian unification) appears in the emblem adopted by the movement.
Several years after the Italian unification, the Queen of Italy, Margherita Maria Teresa Giovanna, ventured down to Naples to win the hearts of her new subjects. Reportedly, she diplomatically opted to enjoy some Neapolitan pizzas as a gesture of solidarity with the Neapolitans. According to American Heritage: Collections, Travel, and Great Writing On History, when the royal palace commissioned the Neapolitan pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito to create a pizza in honor of the visiting Queen, he prepared three varieties. And, “of the three contenders he created, the Queen strongly preferred the pie swathed in the colors of the Italian flag: red (tomato), green (basil), and white (mozzarella).”
Per La Repubblica, an Italian journal, “Three varieties [of pizza] were prepared by Naples’ best pizzaiolo: one with oil, cheese, and basil; one with cecenielli (whitebait); and one with mozzarella and tomato to which the pizzaiolo’s wife, Maria Giovanna Brandi, added a basil leaf, inspired by the color of the Italian flag.”
This event, which unfolded on June 11, 1889, either at the royal palace Capodimonte or at the establishment today known as Pizzeria Brandi, underscores the cultural importance of the Neapolitan pizza—that it is more than just a comestible item. Perchance, queen Margherita reckoned that the way to the hearts of the Neapolitan people was through their pizzas, one of which—the one garnished with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil—was thereafter named after the Queen: “Pizza Margherita”.
Nowadays, Neapolitans (not all!) celebrate the occasion by enacting the event of the Queen’s visit, as pictorially illustrated hereunder. Sometimes I wonder if the celebration is more about Pizza Margherita than Queen Margherita! No doubt, there is an aspect of sacredness to this humble source of nourishment. As pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia expresses, “This pizza isn’t just a food. It’s a way of beingNeapolitan. . . . The Queen did a publicity stunt in Naples to gain acceptance. In coming to Naples and eating their pizza, she let Neapolitans know she was a queen ‘of the people.'” In a future article, we shall see that Queen Margherita was not the first royalty encountering the beloved pizzas of Naples. Also, we shall see, in another future article, that it might be a dubious assumption that a pizza topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil was unprecedented before Queen Margherita’s visit to Naples.
It is notable that during the 10th century A.D., after the conquest of Malta and Sicily (which became the Emirate of Sicily) by the Moslem Arabs, many Islamic influences poured into Naples, which had made alliances with the Arabs in order to ward off the hostilities from the North. The first Arab attack on Sicily occurred in 652 A.D., and they were intermittently repeated until the eventual conquest which led to a long period of occupation by the Arabs (roughly 827-1091 A.D.).
Below are five maps from five historical periods of Italy: 1000, 1494, 1796, 1810, and 1861. (For more information on the maps click here.)
Verily, Naples has a very rich history, not divorced from its culinary tradition as we shall see. It would be imprudent not to take the historical process into account in understanding the origins and evolution of Neapolitan pizza. The pizza is a symbol of Naples’ nostalgic longing for political independence, which never became eventual. Yet, the pizza has remained as a proof of their historical identity. It is in this sense that I stated in the previous article: “A pizzaiolo napoletano is a custodian of the Neapolitan tradition that he has inherited.”
For those who have further interest in history of Naples (particularly from a cultural perspective), The book Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples by Dr. Jordan Lancaster is recommended. The book is enjoyably easy to read and understand, and it can be used as a guide for those who visit Naples.
Next article: Part 3: The Mediterranean Phenomenon
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