Among our different legends and stories, an ancient and well-known one concerns the spirit of the “Munaciello” (little monk in Italian).
And taking my cue from the magical tales of the exceptional Matilde Serao, I will say something about this Neapolitan “red cap”!
The chronicle mixes up with the legend but the news story so says.
In the 1442 after a long war, during Alfonso of Aragon reign, the Kingdom of Naples was completely worn out and between 1503 and 1707 the situation improved with the realization of many works and renovations, including sewers, roads, the Arc of Triumph, the so called Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish quarter), the famous Toledo road and Riviera of Chiaia.
At that time, in the Mercanti (merchants) quarter, the love between the girl Catarinella Frezza, daughter of a merchant of rags , and the noble lad Stefano Mariconda blossomed.
Their love and loyalty was great, but their union was thwarted by both their families and the disparity in marital births prohibited them to get married. Despite so much pain and bitterness, for the two lovers weren’t lacking moments of happiness when they met secretly. To get to her, not without danger, Stephen nighttime jumped up to the roof, from terrace to terrace, till to arrive on the one where the beautiful beloved was waiting. But one night two traitorous hands seized Stephen’s body pushing him out the grille, while crying the poor Catarinella clung to the killers clothing. Stephen got horribly smashed in the fetid street below, staying on there until the family gave him a honorable burial.
The girl, crazy with grief, ran away from home and was admitted to a convent of nuns.
By a premature birth she had a very little baby boy, pale and with startled eyes. Over time the child was not growing normally and the nuns counseled her to take a vow to the Virgin Mary. Caterinella so did, dressing the baby with a little black and white frock as a little monk. Even when he was older, being a dwarf, he continued to wear that sort of habit and that is why people nicknamed him the “munaciello” (the little monk).
With his small body with a big and monstrous head, the nuns loved him but the terrified people and shopkeepers in the street pointed out at him and reviled, as the populace often does against weak and defenseless people. When he passed near the Frezza’s shop, just his uncles and cousins threw the most horrible imprecations. Only between her mothers’ arms he found peace and consolation.
Little by little, in those low suburbs where he was used to walk, word spread that the munaciello had something magical, supernatural. People marked and touched wood when met him. It was said that when he wore the red cap, it was a good omen, but bad when it was black. Since the red cap appeared rarely, the munaciello was blasphemed and cursed.
He was who drew the unhealthy air in the slums, who brought the fever, rotting the water and bringing bad luck. The mud that people flung against him soiled the little frock, while the skins hurt his face. He ran away without speaking, bottling torment up because not able to react. Now that Catarinella Frezza was dead, nobody else could comfort him anymore. The nuns let him do services and little jobs in the garden, but to see him suddenly in the dark frightened them also, as a devilish apparition. His presence corroborated the saying that he had a gloomy face, never gone to church and meeting him in different places at the same time. Then, one night he disappeared and someone said it was the devil to take him away, while someone else suspected the Frezza family members to have strangled and thrown him into a cesspool, as some small bones and a large skull, abandoned in that place, let suppose.
This is the story, but not the end because it’s by his death that the legend of munaciello just will begin.
There, the poor and dull bourgeoisie, who was living in the fetid narrow and dark alleys, in the bassi, without sunrise, without sunset, with no sea, no poetry and imagination had now its own sprite. It’s not the elf who sings on the riverbank, the gnome who dances on the meadows grass or the one living in the new or aristocrats quarters, but the goblin of the old Neapolitan’s houses. The airy beautiful bright and neat zone does not belong to him, as the narrow streets of Toledo, the gloomy Tribunali street or the dark Vicaria and Foria alleyways. Here, where he lived and wandered with his little frock, a large head, a pale face and big eyes, he then reappears as a ghost scaring women, children and men. In those places, where people made suffer that unknown and perhaps big soul, inside a shrunken weak and sickly body, he comes back, mischievous and evil spirit with the insatiable desire for revenge.
The munaciello is capable of everything: when the housewife finds the pantry door open, the bladder of lard smashed, or the oil tank poured, it undoubtedly has been a joke of him. It just is he who let the tray – with the drink on – fall down, while between the careless servant’s hands, who makes sour the wine, who kills the chickens and dry the basil plants. If the sale goes wrong in the shop, if an agreed marriage falls apart, or if a rich uncle dies leaving his assets to the parish, it is the hand of the evil fairy which prepared these great or little misfortune. It always is the munaciello that upsets the family harmony, messes up the house, disturbs minds and brings fear. It still is he, the tormented and tormenting spirit, inside the long frock, bringing turmoil with his black cap. But when the munaciello wears the red one, his coming is welcome.
It’s for this strange mixture of good and evil, of wickedness and goodness, that munaciello is respected, loved and to be feared. And for this that the girls in love put themselves under his protection or that the unmarried old men call him for nine times at midnight out the balcony, hoping to find a wife. For this that the lotto player makes three spells, or the kids to rely on him looking to get the sweets and the toys they want. The house where the munaciello appears is regarded with suspicion, but not without satisfaction; the person – to whom he appears to – needs to be sympathized with, but not without envy. It seems, he appears to girls and children more, but the one that sees him, keeps it covertly, perhaps as a sign of good luck. The munaciello of the legend looks like the ghost of this story, it is to say, a soul that has been crying and that makes cry, that smiled and makes smile; a toddler who men have tortured and killed as a man, an elf tormenting men as a naughty kid then caressing and comforting them as a naive and innocent child.