Neapolitan Street Urchins

Published March 3, 2011 by Tony


Scugnizzi in riva al mare

“Scugnizzo” is a Neapolitan word we can translate in English as street urchin that finds no equivalent in others languages.

This word comes from the Neapolitan word “scugnare” that in Italian (“scalfire”) means “to scratch” and refers to the ancient game most kids played in the street with a handmade wood toy called “strummoloin Neapolitan dialect “.

It derives from the greek stróbos = vortex, so spinning around in a whirling motion and it was a sort of “spinning top”, a conical, spherical, or pear-shaped toy with some thin screw groove and a nail as tip that may be set to spin through a thread string.

Just the “merry-go-round” (trottola in italian) that the street urchin threw against another “strummolo” to scratch it and win.

Thus, “scugnizzo” was he who usually scratched the “strummolo” when playing in the streets.

About Naples, in the time culture, casualness, environment, conditioning, circumstances and adaptation work together shaping a people and for Neapolitans – I would say a race – they shaped an unique and particular one.

Somebody could notice that “street urchin” isn’t a peculiar characteristic of Neapolitan people only because everywhere and in poor nations mainly, the history has been characterized and is characterized by the presence of street urchins around. This is true but if we consider the civilized countries as Italy is, the figure of the street urchin is something correlated with the past, just with the recession times.

Instead, the urchins were a reality in Naples till some year ago, at least.Scugnizzi

Nowadays, the street urchin is a rare presence here because we don’t have to confuse the present juvenile delinquent or the small-time-crook with the original scugnizzo.

The scugnizzo originally was a slum young people (a kid) of a poor (and usually of a numerous) family or orphan even who lived roving around because his family’s home too small and with nothing to eat.

It often were the own parents to chase away the annoying youngster with the hope he could make shift and gain experience. Despite he spent most time together other street urchins,playing and roaming around in order to get a piece of bread, he didn’t disdain some work or job order.

Well-being brought the phenomenon to wane slowly and to change but, also if in recent times there weren’t many kids leaving their homes and living around by their own wits, some youngster still prefer or are forced to spend a long time in the street.

Lately, the obligatory school time till the fifteenth year of age obliges children to attend school every day but the region Campania still has a great deal of students playing hooky.

Some family even is forced to send their children to work with a shop because their financial straits. Others disadvantaged families in dreadful status have no possibility or capability to follow their offspring and so the new “scugnizzi” generation goes on.

They often are kids that prefer to spend time in the street rather than stay in the “basso” (a typical Neapolitan accommodation which houses the lower social classes, small, lower ground and with a direct view of the road) where their family are living, or to avoid sharing a bad family situation. Then there are others children that in spite of the acceptable conditions of their families prefer to spend their free time in the street looking and acting like “scugnizzi”.

Undoubtedly, the tourist coming here today won’t find the ragged and thin boy walking around barefoot with the complexion darken for the dirtiness as once it was!

The “strummolo” is disappeared and with it the original “scugnizzo” too.

scugnizzi Scugnizzi

Today the old simple games have been replaced by the technologic games and without an industrial toy children aren’t able to make do through modest objects or playing without by team play in the street. In some alley, inside the most populous quarters, you sometimes can find groups of noisy brats playing (football frequently) and screwing around, twitting and bantering but at the occurrence becoming rascal and petty thief.

As  on the post “Neapolitan Spirit” I wrote:  “Hunger let wolf came out” and Neapolitan scamps are no less than adults.

Anyway, I’m not referring to the criminal underworld or habitual offender also if currently it is not unusual to find around youngsters already involved in but, this is another stuff common everywhere.

Habitually we often call any rascal as “urchin” because it is not an offensive term and because the scugnizzo remains a Neapolitan symbol, a local archetype and a historical sign still present in our hearts.

In the square “Piazza della Repubblica” you even find a statue dedicated to the memory of the “scugnizzi” as symbolic figure of the popular insurrection against the Nazi during the second World War called known as “Le quattro giornate di Napoli” (the four days of Naples).

4 days of Naples

2 comments on “Neapolitan Street Urchins

  • I have read the article more carefully. My comment may be dated. I still recommend “Children of the Sun” by Morris West.

    • I was born and grown in Naples where I still live and know well who scugnizzi are. Most likely you neglected that in my post I am referring to those who might be considered the scugnizzi of today and not those of the postwar period mentioned in the old book that you now seem to publicize!

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