Pulcinella, or pulecenella or pulicinella, is a well-known mask from the Neapolitan tradition, and is a symbol that represents the typical spirit of the Neapolitan: simple, authentic, witty, spontaneous, fighting, cheerful, generous, despite all the adversities of daily life.
Pulcinella sums up the vices and virtues of the Neapolitans. An open, jovial, ironic, communicative people, fond of play and devoted to superstition (an inseparable object is, in this sense, the red horn). One of the best interpreters of Pulcinella, De Filippo, used to say: ‘Being superstitious is ignorant, but not believing in it brings bad luck!’
Pulcinella lives by the day, exploiting his cunning, and is always ready to plot some trick or spite.
He is a joker and a prankster, gesticulates excessively and when he has to show his joy he does so in a blatant manner, starting to jump, dance, sing, shout and make faces.
Pulcinella is totally unreliable; he cannot keep a secret and keeps quiet when he should.
Moreover, Pulcinella is gullible and quarrelsome, he is clumsy in walking and is a ‘macaroni-eater’, perpetually hungry and always looking for food to swallow. He wanders the alleys of Naples all day long and adapts to any situation, becoming, if necessary, servant, servant, baker, innkeeper, peasant, merchant, petty thief, hungry pauper or rich bully. He is also a skilful impostor and a great charlatan, as when, in the alleyways of Naples, he climbs onto a wooden stool and beckons people with his voice and wide gestures of his arms, trying to peddle his ‘miraculous’ concoctions.
Pulcinella is one of the most famous and pleasant masks of the commedia dell’arte and is a symbol of Naples and its people.
The mask of Pulcinella was invented by actor Silvio Fiorillo in 16th century Naples, drawing inspiration from a series of popular figures. The mask was then dressed, as we know it today, by Antonio Petito in the 19th century.
Metaphorically, the mask of Pulcinella reflects the desire for revenge of the Neapolitan plebs who, tired of receiving humiliation, rebel against the powerful.
With his irony and strength, Pulcinella mocks power, emphasising his will to live and overcome obstacles.
The Pulcinella mask has also spread throughout Europe. It has absorbed national characteristics, becoming a different character in each country. In England he becomes Punch, a womanizer and privateer, in Germany Hanswurst, i.e. John Sausage, in Spain Don Christoval Polichinela and in France Polichinelle.
Many actors have dressed the role of Punchinello. The most famous of all was Antonio Petito, who died on stage in 1876 while playing the character.
The first real Pulcinella in history was played by Andrea Calcese, who wore the mask for the first time in 1618.
The mask of Pulcinella has also been worn by Eduardo De Filippo, Enzo Cannavale, Massimo Ranieri and Massimo Troisi.
Italian Carnival Masks
The Neapolitan mask of Pulcinella survives in Carnival and popular festivals and has become a protagonist in puppet theatre, of which it is now the symbol.
Pulcinella’s costume, the modern one we know today, was invented in the 19th century by Antonio Petito.
Pulcinella wears a white costume, consisting of a white, rounded or pointed hat, a white smock and wide white servant’s trousers, supported at the waist by a black belt. The face is covered by a dark half-mask, leaving only the mouth uncovered. He has a curved nose, wrinkles on his forehead, an eerie expression, a protruding belly and black shoes. He also has a shrill, high-pitched voice, an awkward walk and excessive gesticulation.
The Story of Pulcinella
With the birth of the Commedia dell’Arte, Silvio Fiorillo invented Pulcinella, a mask born in Naples during the second half of the 16th century. Certainly, the story of Pulcinella has very distant origins. The mask probably dates back to Latin times; there are, in fact, analogies with the mask of Macco or that of Dosseno, characters from the fabulae atellanae.
The Neapolitans, who call the mask ‘Pulicinella’, were probably inspired by the vernacular Latin word ‘pullicinellus’, which refers to a character proposed by Horace in his work the Satires.
From its Latin ancestors, the Neapolitan mask of Pulcinella inherits the clumsy, commonplace and coarse attitude, the curved nose and the hump. Pulcinella’s name probably originates from a seventeenth-century theatrical performer from Acerra, ‘Puccio d’Aniello’, who was part of a theatre company of wanderers.
Gianni Rodari dedicates this nursery rhyme to Punchinello, the world-famous Neapolitan mask.
“Ladies and gentlemen, step forward. The more people come in, the more of you there are! Run and see the big attraction… My name is Pulcinella and I invented the moz – za – rel – la! To console the poor I invented spaghetti. To cheer everyone up I created the pizza Margherita! Oil, flour, tomato nothing is worth this treasure. Listening to it, people run and have fun… and buy nothing!
Another traditional nursery rhyme about Pulcinella is:
“Pulcinella had a cockerel, all day long he rode it, with bridle and saddle. Long live Pulcinella’s cockerel! Pulcinella had a cat, all day long he was jumping like mad, ringing a bell. Long live Pulcinella’s kitten!”
The Pulcinella Museum is located in Acerra, his hometown.
A word of advice: never buy his famous tambourine, the putipù. It must be received as a gift. The same goes for the horn, which keeps the evil eye away from one’s home.
The Pulcinella secret
Pulcinella is present in the Italian language and has entered everyday speech. The expression ‘il segreto di Pulcinella’ indicates a secret that has already been spilled to everyone.
The expression ‘playing Pulcinella, on the other hand, indicates the behaviour of someone who constantly changes his mind.