Not all Neapolitans know the history of “Munaciello”, especially young people, so I guess that very few of you, living in other countries, will know it. “O ‘Munaciello” and everything that has to do with supernatural and death are part of the culture and folklore of Naples, especially in the past, when there were many legends around spirits or strange presences.
The Neapolitan “munaciello”, that means “little monk” is just a little spirit, perhaps the most legendary of Naples, which is usually represented as a deformed child or a person of a very small stature, wearing a robe, with silver buckles on the shoes. Depending on the circumstances, it may manifest either as good spirit or as a demon, in fact, a Neapolitan proverb says,
« ‘o munaciello: a chi arricchisce e a chi appezzentisce »
which translated means,
“the munaciello either enrich (you) or send (you) in misery”
To let you know his history I will take a cue from a tale told in one of his writings by journalist and writer Matilde Serao.
During the reign of Alfonso of Aragon, after a long war in 1442 that reduced the kingdom of Naples to the extreme, the situation gradually improved, and between 1503 and 1707 many works and renovations were carried out, including sewers, roads, the Arc de Triomphe, the Spanish Quarter, via Toledo, the Riviera di Chiaia, etc..
At that time, in the area of the merchants, love had blossomed between the girl Catarinella Frezza, daughter of a merchant of cloth, and the noble guy Stefano Mariconda. Their love and their fidelity was great, but the disparity in birth forbade them the marriage as the union was not well seen by their parents. In spite of so much pain and bitterness, there were moments of happiness for the two lovers, who used to meet in secret. To get to her, Stefano at night, not without danger, jumped up to the roof, from terrace to terrace, till to reach the balcony where the beautiful beloved was waiting him. But one night two treacherous hands grabbed Stefano and threw him down from the balcony, while the poor Catarinella, crying, tried to ward off the killers. Stefano fell in the fetid street below, horribly mangled, until his parents later gave him an honorable burial. The girl, crazy with grief, ran away from home and was admitted to a convent of nuns. She was pregnant, and prematurely gave birth to a little child, tiny pale and with dismayed eyes. Over time, the child was not growing normally and nuns counseled her to take a vow to the Madonna, Catherine did it and dressed up the baby with a little black and white coat that made him look like a small monk. Even when he was a great age, he was short in stature, a dwarf in fact, and went on to wear that kind of robe, and that’s why people called him “the munaciello.” Small body, large head and almost monstrous, the nuns loved him but people in the street and shopkeepers always pointed at him frightened, reviled at him, as people often do against the weak and defenseless persons. When he passed near the Frezza’s shop, just his uncles and cousins, they threw the most horrible curses. He only found peace and consolation in the mother’s arms. Gradually, in the poor neighborhoods where he was toddling, spread the rumor that the munaciello had something magical, supernatural. From that moment, when people met him, made the sign of the cross and murmured words of incantation. It was said that when he wore the red cap, it was a good omen, but when it was black, a bad omen then. Since he wore the red cap rarely, “the munaciello” was often blasphemed and cursed.
It was said that it was he who carried the foul air in the slums, carrying the fever, rotting water and carrying the bad luck. The mud that people threw at him, soiled the little robes, while the fruit peels hurt his face He fled without speaking, bringing the torment in not being able to react. Now that Catarinella Frezza was dead no one could comfort him. The nuns let him do small services and work in the garden but they also scared to see him suddenly in the dark, as a devilish appearance does. The saying that he had a dark face, that had never been to church, and that people could meet him in different places at the same time, corroborated this. Then, one night he disappeared and did not fail those who said, it has been the devil to carry him off by the hair. But someone suspected the Frezza family to have strangled and thrown him into a sewer, as well as some small bones with a large skull, found in the cloaca, left suppose.
This here is the story, but nothing ended with his death because it is just here that the legend of munaciello begins.
Here, the poor and unimaginative middle class, living in the fetid narrow and dark streets, in the Neapolitans “basso”‚ without dawn, without end, without water, without poetry and without imagination, had their own sprite. It is not the elf who sings on the banks of the river, nor the gnome dancing on the grass of the meadows, or the one who lives in the new aristocrats districts, but the evil elf of the old houses of Naples. The zones airy, beautiful, bright and neat does not belong him, just as they are, instead, the streets of Toledo, the gloomy streets of the Tribunali or the dark quarters of the Vicaria, Foria and Pendino. There, where he lived and where he wandered with his robe, with a large head, pale face and large eyes, then it is there that he reappears as a ghost scaring women, children and men. There, where people have let him suffer, unknown soul but perhaps great in a shrunken weak and sickly body, that’s where he comes back, mischievous and evil spirit in an insatiable desire for revenge. The “munaciello” is capable of all, when the housewife finds the door’s pantry open, the bladder of lard smashed or the vase with oil on his back, with no doubt it has been him to do it. And it’s always him who let fall the tray with the glasses in the hand of the careless servant, that brings wine to become sour, that kills the hens or dry the basil plants. If the sale in the shop goes wrong, if an established marriage fails or if a rich uncle dies and leaves everything to the parish, for people all this happen because of this little demon who prepared these large or small misfortunes. It is always “the munaciello” that mess-up house and furniture, that troubles hearts, disarranges minds and frighten. And it is this spirit tormented and tormentor that brings turmoil with his black coat. But when the munaciello wore the red habit, his coming is a good omen. It just for this strange mixture of good and evil, malice and goodness that “munaciello” was respected, feared and loved.
That was why girls in love put themselves under his protection or because old maids were invoking him, from the balcony at midnight for nine days, so that he could procure them a husband.
For this, the player of lottery repeated three times the spells for having the numbers winning, or children to pray to him to have the wished sweets and toys. The house where the munaciello appears is regarded with distrust but not without satisfaction, the person who has seen him is looked upon with compassion, but not without envy. He appears more to girls and children but those who have seen him, keep it as a precious secret that, perhaps bringer of luck. The ghost of this story, which is a soul that has been crying and that makes we cry, that smiled and makes we smile, is a child that men have tortured and killed as a man, but also an elf who torments men as a naughty child but caress and console them as a child naive and innocent.