From the works of Totò’s, who was one of the most talented Italian actors and the embodiment of Naples, we can learn how strong an influence a city’s character can have on an artist’s work.
“See Naples and die” – these were the words Goethe allegedly said about the capital of Campania. This thoroughly Italian, loud, chaotic, and colourful city is still captivating even today. Full of contradictions and contrasts; it attracts tourists from all around the world with its architecture and location on the picturesque Gulf of Naples in close proximity to Mount Vesuvius and ancient Pompeii.
Strolling through the narrow alleyways, a tourist moves from square to square admiring the beautiful baroque churches and countless fountains. At the stately Piazza del Plebiscito, one can admire the Royal Palace and the colonnade of the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola, whereas along the bay – the massive Castel Nuovo.
No wonder the character of this city left a strong impression on the works of the actor, comedian, poet, and songwriter by the name of Antonio de Curtis, also known as Totò. Often compared to Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, to this day he is considered the greatest Italian actor.
Antonio, Totò for friends
He was born in 1898 in a poor district of Rione Sanità, which had a significant impact on his life. It is among its narrow alleyways where Totò got his nickname, and as a teenager fell in love with the theatre. He made his debut on its stage in 1913, where he learned the art of commedia dell’arte and became inspired by its hero and the symbol of Naples – the boor Pulcinella – a prankster, juggler, womanizer, and conveyor of folk wisdom.
In later years, Totò would portray these Neapolitan qualities on the screen through his characters. Today, above the narrow streets of Rione Sanità, laundry is drying; neglected houses are here and there decorated with murals; and only palaces such as the Palazzo dello Spagnolo or the Palazzo Sanfelice remain a memorial for the old, aristocratic history of the district. And all of this built on ancient, pre-Christian catacombs open to tourists
„Femmena, si ddoce comme ‘o zucchero…”
The Neapolitan episode in Totò’s life was interrupted by the First World War, after which he moved to Rome where he played in larger theatres and started his own theatre company to finally star in his first film in 1937. He created his own style that comprised a funny outfit, a bowler, grotesque movements, and rich expression of his characteristic, irregular face. Naples, however, would remain deeply rooted in his work. In the film “The Gold of Naples”, he portrayed Pazzariello, a Neapolitan juggler and a street musician. Thanks to this role, he left his mark in the Italian cinema. Nevertheless, Naples is mostly associated with his song “Malafemmena”. Written in the Neapolitan dialect
and dedicated to his wife, Diana, it entered the canon of Italian popular music. Totò had starred in 97 films until his death in 1967. In his films, he often commented on the daily life of Italians, families, women as well as political and social affairs. He was a bit like the boor Pulcinella from the Neapolitan comedy – sometimes comical, sometimes talking about important things. Even today, one can feel the presence of one of the most important Italian artists in Naples. A street in the district where he was born was named after him: Via Antonio de Curtis. It is also in this city where his theatre Totò is located while the actor’s body was laid in his family tomb in Naples.
Must-see in Naples
Piazza del Plebiscito
Located along the shores of the bay, it offers a beautiful view of the monuments and Mount Vesuvius
Basilica San Francesco di Paola
Neoclassical basilica at Piazza del Plebiscito.
The Royal Palace
Also located at Piazza del Plebiscito, it houses a museum and the oldest Italian opera house, Teatro di San Carlo.
Toledo Metro station
A true masterpiece created by a Spanish artist Oscar Tusquets Blanca.
The Duomo cathedral
Astonishing, baroque temple on whose stairs meet Neapolitans.
Galleria Umberto I
A shopping gallery made of stall and glass with architecture reminiscent of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.
Massive and overwhelming from the outside, this stronghold’s interior astonishes with its refined architecture of chapels and apartments.