Pizza Napoletanismo

May 10, 2012

A Philosophy of Pizza Napoletanismo (Part 5: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza)

In the previous article, we made a brief appreciation of Francesco de Bouchard’s observation in respect to pizzas of Naples from 1847 to 1866. Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), a French novelist who authored The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, traveled to Naples in 1835 (about 12 years before Bouchard commenced to write his book on Naples) and recorded his experiences in a journal that was published between 1841 and 1843 under the title Le Corricolo (“The Wagon”). The book is fascinating, to say the least! It was partially, and perhaps too literally, translated from French to English by A. Roland in 1845. Fortunately, the book, retitled Sketches of Naples by the publisher, is freely available on Google Books.

Alexandre Dumas (1855)

Let us see what Dumas relates about pizza in Naples in 1835. Although the quoted passages below are long and some of which may not seem germane, they are hopefully worth your while. Keep in mind that the book was written 26 years antecedent to Naples joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, and 54 years prior to Queen Margherita of Savoy being served the Pizza Margherita (named in her honor) in 1889 in Naples. In his Le Corricolo, Dumas writes:


. . .When we traverse Naples, with our liberal ideas, drawn, not from personal study of the people, but from the theories emitted by journalists, and glance lightly at that portion of the surface of this people whom we see lying almost naked upon the thresholds of palaces and in corners, where they eat, sleep and live, the heart is oppressed by the sight and we cry out, in a philanthropic transport: “The Neapolitans are the most wretched people on the globe.”

We deceive ourselves strangely. The Neapolitan of the lower class [known as lazzarone (lazzaroni, plural) or lazzaro (lazzari, plural), a peculiarly poor class of the Neapolitan society] is not wretched; for his necessities are in exact harmony with his desires. What does he wish to eat? A pizza [implying that pizza is a humble food] or a slice of watermelon suffices. How does he wish to sleep? A stone to place under his head is all that he requires to render his slumber delightful. His nudity which we regard as an affliction is, on the contrary, a pleasure in this ardent climate, where the sun clothes him with its warmth. What more magnificent canopy could be asked, to the palaces which lend him their steps, than the clear heaven which shines above? Is not, to him, each star that glitters in the firmament, a lamp burning at the feet of the Madonna! Does he not, with two grains, obtain sufficient each day to supply his wants and have an ample abundance remaining to pay, largely, the improvisator of the Môle and the conductor of the corricolo [wagon drawn by a horse]?

Corricolo Napoli (Neapolitan Wagon)


The Lazzaroni, alas, is passing away; those who desire to see him must come quickly. Naples lighted with gas, Naples with restaurants, Naples with bazars, frightens the careless child of the Môle. The lazzarone, like the red Indian, retires before the approach of civilization. The French occupation of 1799 gave the first blow to the lazzarone. At this period the lazzarone enjoyed all the prerogatives of his terrestrial paradise; he did not give more business to the tailor than our first father, before the fall; he drank in the sun at every pore. Curious and simple, as a child, the lazzarone soon became the friend of the French soldier, whom he had fought [in January of 1799]. But the French soldier, above all things, loves propriety; he accorded his friendship to the lazzarone, he consented to drink with him at the cabaret, to walk with him arm-in-arm; but on one condition, sine qua non, that the lazzarone should put on some clothing.

The lazzarone, proud of the example of his fathers, and of ten centuries of nudity, opposed the innovation for some time, but, at last, consented to make this sacrifice to friendship. This was the first step toward his destruction. After the first article of dress came the vest, after the vest will come the jacket. The day the lazzarone wears a jacket, the lazzarone will be no more; the lazzarone will have become extinct. . . . In the mean time, we have had the good fortune to be able to study this great passing race and will hasten to furnish data to the learned, by the aid of which, in their anthropological investigations, they may be enabled to ascertain the nature of the lazzarone.

The lazzarone is the oldest son of nature. . . . Other men have houses, other men have villas, other men have palaces, the lazzarone has the world. The lazzarone has no master, the lazzarone is amenable to no laws, the lazzarone is above social exigencies; he sleeps when he is sleepy, he eats when he is hungry, he drinks when he is thirsty. Other people rest when they are tired of work; the lazzarone, on the contrary, works when he is tired of resting. He works, not as in the north, . . . his labor is pleasant, careless, embellished by songs and drolleries; interrupted by laughter, and moments of idleness. This labor continues for an hour, a half-hour, ten minutes, or one minute, and in that time brings enough to supply all the necessities of the day. What is this labor? Heaven, only, knows. A trunk carried from the steamboat to the hotel, an Englishman conducted from the Môle to Chiaja, three fish, escaped from the net which contained them and sold to a cook, the hand extended at random in which the stranger laughingly lets fall an alms; such is the labor of the lazzarone.

As to his food, this is more easy to describe; for, although the lazzarone belongs to the species of omnivores, he, generally, eats but two things: the pizza and cocomero or watermelon.

The impression has gone out into the world, that the lazzarone lives upon macaroni; this is a great mistake, which it is time to correct. The macaroni is, it is true, a native of Naples; but, at the present time, it is an European dish, which has traveled like civilization, and which, like civilization, finds itself very far from its cradle. The macaroni, moreover, costs two sous a pound; which renders it inaccessible to the purse of the lazzarone; except upon Sundays and holidays. At all other times the lazzarone eats, as we have said, the pizza and the cocomero [watermelon]; the cocomero in summer, the pizza in winter. The pizza is a sort of bun [talmouse is the French word used by the author, meaning “cheese-cake” or “pastry shell with a filling of cheese”]; it is round, and made of the same dough as bread. It is of different sizes according to the price. A pizza of two farthings suffices for one person, a pizza of two sous is enough to satisfy a whole family. At first sight, the pizza appears to be a simple dish, upon examination it proves to be compound. The pizza is prepared with bacon, with lard, with cheese, with tomatoes, with [petits, “small”] fish.It is the gastronomic thermometer of the market. The price of the pizza rises and falls according to the abundance or scarcity of the year. When the fish-pizza sells at a half grain, the fishing has been good; when the oil-pizza sells at a grain, the yield of olives has been bad. The rate at which the pizza sells is, also, influenced by the greater or less degree of freshness; it will be easily understood that yesterday’s pizza will not bring the same price as today’s. For small purses, they have the pizza of a week old, which, if not agreeably, very advantageously, supplies the place of the sea-biscuit.

The pizza as we have said is the food of winter. On the first of May the pizza gives place to the cocomero; but the merchandise only, disappears, the merchant remains the same. The seller is like the ancient Janus, with a face which weeps upon the past and smiles upon the future. [Janus is an ancient Roman deity, guardian of doorways and gates and protector of the state in time of war. He is usually represented with two faces, so that he looks both forward and backward. According to Wikipedia, “In ancient Roman religion and mythology, Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time. He is usually a two-faced god since he looks to the future and the past. The concepts of ‘January’ and ‘janitor’ are both based on aspects of Janus.”] On the said day the pizza-jolo [pizza maker] becomes the mellonaro [seller of melons]. The change does not even extend itself to the shop; the shop remains the same. A pannier of cocomeri instead of a basket of pizza is now carried; a sponge is passed over the traces of oil, bacon, lard, cheese, tomatoes and fish which have been left by the winter comestible and all is done; we pass to the comestible of the summer. Fine cocomeri come from Castellamare; they have an appearance at once exhilarating and tempting; the lively rose color of the pulp is heightened by its contrast with the black seed. But a good cocomero is dear; one of the size of an eight pound ball sells for from five to six sous. It is true that a cocomero of this size, in the hands of an adroit retailer, will be divided into ten or twelve pieces. Every opening of a cocomero is a new exhibition; the opponents stand opposite and each endeavors to surpass the other in the adroitness and impartiality with which he uses the knife in dividing it. The spectator judge. The mellonaro takes a cocomero from the flat pannier where it is piled, with twenty others, like cannon balls in an arsenal. He smells it, he raises it above his head like a Roman Emperor the globe of the world. He cries: “It is like fire!” which announces, in advance, that the pulp will be of the finest red. He cleaves it open at a single blow and presents the two hemispheres to the public one in each hand. If, instead of being red, the pulp of the cocomero is yellow or greenish, which indicates that it is of an inferior quality, the piece fails, the mellonaro is hooted, spit upon and cursed; three failures and the mellonaro is disgraced for ever. If the mellonaro perceives by its weight or odor that a cocomero is not good, he makes no avowal of the fact. On the contrary, he presents it, more boldly, to the people; he enumerates its fine qualities, he boasts of its savory pulp, he extols its icy juice: “You would like very much to eat this pulp! You would like much to drink its juice!” he cries; “but this is not for you; it is destined to delight more noble palates than yours. The king has ordered me to keep it for the queen.” (End of quote)

Lazzarone (Drawn by R. Armenise, 1884)

To take a closer look at the pizzas described by Dumas in the above-quoted passages, let us consider the pertinent part of the original French text side-by-side with a slightly different English translation thereof:

The original French text:

“La pizza est une espèce de talmouse comme on en fait à Saint-Denis; elle est de forme ronde et se pétrit de la même pâte que le pain. . . . Au premier abord, la pizza semble un mets simple; après examen, c’est un mets composé. La pizza est à l’huile, la pizza est au lard, la pizza est au saindoux, la pizza est au fromage, la pizza est aux tomates, la pizza est aux petits poissons; c’est le thermomètre gastronomique du marché: elle hausse ou baisse de prix, selon le cours des ingrédiens sus-désignés, selon l’abondance ou la disette de l’année. Quand la pizza aux poissons est à un demi-grain, c’est que la pêche a été bonne; quand la pizza à l’huile est à un grain, c’est que la récolte a été mauvaise. Puis une chose influe encore sur le cours de la pizza, c’est son plus ou moins de fraîcheur. . . .”

English translation:

“Pizza is a sort of talmouse [the French word for “cheese-cake” or “pastry shell with a filling of cheese”] like we bake at St.-Denis [in France], and is round in shape and molded by the same dough as bread. . . . At first glance, the pizza appears to be a simple dish; after examination, it manifests as a compound dish. The pizza is with oil, the pizza is with bacon, the pizza is with lard, the pizza is with cheese, the pizza is with tomato, the pizza is with small fish; it [pizza] is the gastronomic thermometer of the food market: it [pizza] increases or decreases in price depending on the course of the ingredients named above, depending on the abundance or scarcity of the year. When the pizza with fish is priced half a grain, the fishing has been good; when the pizza with oil sells at one grain, the harvest has been bad. The more or less degree of freshness of pizza also has an impact on its price. . . .”

Dumas’ overall description of Naples’ pizzas, extant in 1835, seems concentric with Bouchard’s description of pizza, extant between 1847 and 1866. While Dumas makes references to the following ingredients:

1. Bread dough,
2. Bacon,
3. Lard,
4. Cheese (It is not clear that exactly what type of cheese he refers to),
5. Tomatoes,
6. Small fish, and
7. Olive oil,

Bourcard makes references to the following constituents:

1. Oil,
2. Salt,
3. Oregano,
4. Garlic,
5. Cheese or formaggio (It is not clear that exactly what type of formaggio he refers to),
6. Lard,
7. Basil,
8. Tiny fish,
9. Muzzarella,
10. Prosciutto,
11. Tomatoes, and
12. Clams.

One should wonder to what extent the lazzaroni participated in the development of Pizza Napoletana as known today in Naples. Did it develop in their hands, for instance, the way Flamenco was developed in the hands of the gitanos (gypsies) of Spain, another race of similar social status as the lazzaroni? Below are pictures of lazzaroni boys of the modern era. (The pictures were found at the following websites: site #1 & site #2.) It is not known specifically when the photos were shot. For more information on lazzaroni, click on the following links: link 1 and link 2.

Lazzaroni boys of the modern era, Naples (the sources and dates of these pictures are unknown)

It has been said that Neapolitan pizza has a humble origin, inspired by poverty and necessity. How about art? Can the phenomenon of Neapolitan Pizza be viewed as a reconciliation, as some have suggested, with the traumatic history of Naples and its unfulfilled dreams of self-determination and independence? “History is the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtues of individuals have been victimized,” according to German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831). Can pain and suffering breed art? German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was of the conviction that “art” brings about “redemption” from life’s pain and suffering. Is it the case that Neapolitans basically have, however subconsciously, found solace in the pizza?—which is fundamentally an icon and reminder of their historical identity and the past glory of Naples.

Next article: Part 6: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza

Previous article: Part 4: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza


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