food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

ZEPPOLE – a Pulcinella favorite


detail from Zocchi's Veduta

detail from Zocchi’s Veduta

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.

Pulcinella menu

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.

A cafe in Naples

A cafe in Naples

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!”

Zeppole or bigne de S. Giuseppe

Zeppole or bigne de S. Giuseppe

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.

G.D. Tiepolo, A company of Pulcinellas, circa 1770

G.D. Tiepolo, A company of Pulcinellas, circa 1770

Author: Pulcinella Pasta

Fredrika Jacobs, professor emerita of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the author of three books focused on the art and culture of Renaissance Italy ("Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa: Women Artists and the language of art history and criticism" (1997/99); "The Living Image in the Renaissance" (2005); and "Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy" (2013). Additionally, she has contributed essays and articles to dozens of books and scholarly journals and spoken at symposia and conferences around the world.

2 thoughts on “ZEPPOLE – a Pulcinella favorite

  1. Where can I find these books? In libraries? I am writing an historical novel set in late Renaissance Italy.

    • So sorry for the way too long delay in responding to your question. Some of the books, such as Bartolomeo Scappi’s “Opera,” you can order on-line (sometimes Amazon has them, sometimes not. Most of the articles that I cite n my notes are through a university search engines (JStore, Muse, etc.). If there is anything more specific that you might want I’m happy to answer questions or send you a downloaded article as an email attachment. fj
      please use this contact address (and thanks for reading my blog… I think oysters might be up next!):

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