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Benedetto Croce and Neapolitan Legends

13 Dicembre 2022
Benedetto Croce and Neapolitan Legends Foto: Gennaro Cardenio Gennaro Cardenio
“When I look back at my childhood in search of the first signs of what I would later become, I find again in my memory the avidity with which I listened to all sorts of tales, the joy of the first books that came into my hands.”

Benedetto Croce, Italy’s greatest philosopher of the 20th Century, was born on February 25, 1866 in Pescasseroli, a small village in the mountains of the Abruzzo region. Today his hometown, together with the municipalities of Raiano and Montenerodomo and the National Parks of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise and Maiella, pays homage to the late intellectual colossus with a Literary Park.

 Croce's childhood was marked by the restlessness of a lonely, wistful and dreamy boy. As he wrote in his book entitled Memorie della mia vita: “When I look back at my childhood in search of the first signs of what I would later become, I find again in my memory the avidity with which I listened to all sorts of tales, the joy of the first books that came into my hands.” 

 Shortly after his ninth birthday, Croce entered a Catholic boarding school, where he had “fleeting impulses of asceticism, or rather brief aspirations of devout living, and some torment for failing to fully put into practice the religious maxims, particularly the one commanding me to love God and not merely to fear him.” The crisis was followed by a period of indifference and soon by a complete abandonment of all traditional faith. In 1883, a profound upheaval marked his boyhood for good: the Casamicciola earthquake where he lost his parents and only sister; he himself was buried under the rubble and wounded in several places, but survived. After recovering as best he could, he and his brother moved to Rome, to the home of Silvio Spaventa, who agreed to become their guardian. Here he was influenced by a society very different from the one that had surrounded him until then: he finds himself in the house of a very influential politician, among deputies, professors and journalists engaged in political debates and discussions about law and science. Moreover, he experiences the hints of political struggle due to the fact that the house was located on Via della Missione adjacent to Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Italian Parliament. 

 The two years he spent in Rome (1884-85) were among the most melancholy of his life. “[They were] the only ones in which many times, in the evening, laying my head on the pillow, I strongly yearned not to wake up in the morning, and thoughts of suicide even arose” as his memoirs testify. Here he spent a secluded, lukewarm life, without frequenting other Roman youth or engaging in worldly amusements; he studied law at the University of Rome, but without any real interest or even showing up for exams. He preferred to lock himself up in libraries where he devoted himself to research, taking inspiration from old books, on topics to his liking.

During his second year in Rome, he followed courses on moral philosophy taught by Antonio Labriola (a philosopher with a special interest in Marxism), who he had already met as he was a frequent visitor to Spaventa's house and whom he listened to admiringly during evening conversations. It is in the context that his interest in philosophy took shape: these lectures provided him with an opportunity to reformulate in rational terms his anguished need to construct a "faith about life.” 

 In 1886, Croce returned to Naples, abandoned the Rome of politicians and lived alone among librarians. Having appeased the anxieties of his youth, his life became more orderly. The political climate of those years was rather intense: Agostino Depretis’ policy of colonial expansion cost the country humiliation, pain and numerous human losses. The following year Francesco Crispi became Prime Minister, but the country was divided and social problems such as poverty were more acute than ever. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party of Italian Workers was born in Genoa in 1892 thanks to Antonio Labriola and Filippo Turati. These important events in the history of liberal Italy barely left a mark on Croce, who was then immersed in his very personal studies. Between 1886 and 1892, he carried out scholarly research which would later result in his numerous volumes of elegant and passionate historical reconstruction. The latter include essays on the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799; a chronicle of Naples' theatres from the Renaissance to the end of the 18th century; an edition of Lo cunto de li cunti by the seventeenth-century poet Basile; and some of those admirable Neapolitan stories and legends that today, years later, seem to have been penned not by a bookworm, but instead by a writer of great imagination and fantasy, a historian of the irrelevant and unreal, almost a precursor of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator. 

 The latter (brought to us by the Italian publishing house Adelphi) are an extraordinary testimony to Croce's youthful industriousness as a scholar, chronicler, philologist, and historian of all things of Naples. They will, throughout his career, always be revised, reintegrated and reworked in parallel with his philosophical works. This volume includes a series of writings published since the late 19th century in various periodicals. They refer to memories, facts, and legends of Naples from the 15th century onward, through portraits of protagonists who characterised its life. These writings are retouched several times, in the conviction expressed by the author in the Foreword that "the sentimental link with the past prepares and aids historical intelligence, the condition of all true civil advancement.”His pages exude a pathos that strikes the reader due to their genuine Neapolitan spirit, expressing a sincere affection for Naples and the intent to represent its culture and memory, while also providing material for a study of its customs and society. A book born of "affection for old Neapolitan memories," it helps us to understand the city’s disparate events; here we come across a more lighthearted Croce, not the rigid and composed philosopher we encounter elsewhere. 

 This historical picture of the city takes us on a fantastic itinerary; from the beginning of these marvellous pages we read: “When, getting up from the little table, I look out onto the balcony of my study room, my eye runs over the ancient buildings that meet one another at the intersection of Via della Trinità Maggiore with those of San Sebastiano and Santa Chiara. It looms before me on the right, and I almost feel I can touch it with my hand, the bell tower of Santa Chiara […].” The latter depicts a fresco of a Naples which, over the centuries, does not seem to have changed that much - neither in its deep identity nor in its physiognomy. 

 Croce’s collection of essays contained in his book Neapolitan Stories and Legends offer, beyond erudition, a glimpse through which the culture of the Neapolitan people can be admired from an unprecedented point of view. The confident pen of one of its greatest philosophers makes us enjoy every page with emotion, enchantment and delight. For those curious about the past and the fantastical or just simply enamoured with Naples and its history, this masterpiece can’t be overlooked.

Gennaro Cardenio

Translated by Amy K. Rosenthal 

Riproduzione riservata © Copyright I Parchi Letterari

Image: Thomas Jones, Houses in Naples (1782), British Museum, London.
From the cover of: Benedetto Croce, Storie e legende napoletane, A cura di Giuseppe Galasso, gli Adelphi, 156, 1999, 

Benedetto Croce e l'Abruzzo
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Benedetto Croce e l'Abruzzo

Pescasseroli, Montenerodomo, Raiano

Il paesaggio altro non è che la rappresentazione materiale e visibile della Patria, (….) con gli aspetti molteplici e vari del suo suolo, quali si sono formati e son pervenuti a noi attraverso la lenta successione dei secoli


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