The detail is barely perceptible amongst the minutiae that Giuseppe Zocchi (ca. 1711-1767) crammed into an engraving of a festive scene enacted in the piazza fronting the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. In the left mid-ground are two figures astride an ass. Both wear hooked-nosed masks that recall one of Pulcinella’s defining physical characteristics: his prominent hooked nose. One, with a riding crop raised in his right hand, faces the ass’s rump. The second, facing forward, is too busy shoving an over-sized spoon into his mouth – another familiar characteristic of the perpetually hungry Pulcinella. Intent on food, he cannot be bothered about either his direction or that of his noble steed. Are these odd characters meant as a prompt to the viewer, a commentary on the havoc and ribaldry that attends festivals during which taboos are often dismissed and the propriety of traditional gender and class roles inverted? Perhaps.
If I equivocate on this point, I don’t on the next. Pulcinella is a fascinating figure in “opera buffa”- especially the comedy of ridicule that enticed so many Neapolitans to the theater during the 18th and 19th centuries. What are we to make of plays such as “Il ritorno di Pulcinella da Padova” and “Pulcinella marito, e non marito”? There are expert opinions on the subject. In 1911, Benedetto Croce argued that Pulcinella was not a single persona but a complex of characters that allowed spectators to find some aspect of themselves (or their plight of poverty) within him.* More recently (1992), Domenico Scafoglio situated Pulcinella squarely within the ambient of social transgression. It is an idea that I find appealing with respect to Giuseppe Zocchi’s engraving.* Still more recently (2002), Sebastian Werr has claimed, “Pulcinella appears more as a kind of reflective screen on to which the spectator projects not only his fears but also his desires, both recognizable and (in real life) the unrecognizable.”* Rather than ponder the psychoanalytics of this, I prefer to consider the ass-riding, spoon-shoveling, mask-wearing figure in Zocchi’s engraving as well as a couple of other Pulcinella figures gracing menus and eatery signs.
It is an undeniable fact that Pulcinella plays the part of the fool in ‘opera buffa’. No less indisputable is his constant state of poverty and hunger. A line like “Ma jammo da magnà?” (Do we get to eat [now!]?) is a staple of Neapolitan popular theater. Even more wonderfully telling is Francesco Terracino’s play on a love duet in Donizetti’s tragic opera “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which premiered in Naples in 1835. In “I Corsair- Damigelle” the heartfelt duet between the parting lovers, Lucia and Edgardo, is transformed into Pulcinella’s passionate longing for ZEPPOLE, a sweet dough sometimes filled with a ricotta pastry cream that is deep fried in a manner similar to that of a doughnut or cream puff.
ZEPPOLE are eaten in various varieties throughout Italy but Naples claims ZEPPOLE were created there during the Middle Ages. Not unlike the funnel cakes devoured at county fairs across America, ZEPPOLE (also called “bigne”) were (and are) a featured confection at fairs, especially those associated with St. Joseph (March 19th). “Roma in bocca,” a cookbook dedicated to traditional Italian cuisine offers the following advice. “… another thing- be careful not to eat too many, for they are always so delicious!”
The inspired chef can find numerous recipes on-line.
*Benedetto Croce, “Pulcinella e la relazioni della commedia dell’ arte con la commedia popolare romane in Saggi sulla letteratura italiana del seicento (Bari, 1911).
*Domenico Scafoglio and Anton Giulio Braggalia, Pulcinella (Milan, 1992).
*Sebastian Werr, “Neapolitan Elements and Comedy in Nineteenth-Century Opera buffe,” Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 14 (2002), pages 297-311.