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AROUND NAPOLI
Missing Conservatories I
A tale involving the world's worst etymology
by Jeff Matthews
The last part first. Many years ago, I saw the name of the church named PietÓ dei Turchini (top photo, right) on via Medina in Naples. I let fall but a single powerful drop of my intellectual alkahest onto the problem of the origin of the name and --shazaam!-- knew, just knew (!) the answer:

--fact: in the 1500s, Turkish pirates were raiding along the Campanian coast;
--fact: there is in Neapolitan dialect a cry for help, "Mamma, li turchi!" (roughly: "Help! Here come the Turks!"). It is still used humorously to express mock terror.
--factoid: "Turchini" is a plural diminutive of "turco"--a Turk, thus "little Turks".

Conclusion (the chain of deduction takes my breath away): the church was called "Pity of the Little Turks" and was so-called because many centuries ago there was a band of particularly vicious Turkish pirates--a sort of Ottoman Midget Special Forces--about to raid Naples, so the people built this house of worship to seek refuge--pity.

I then found out that turchino is a color, a few angstroms away from "turquoise" and that the church is named for the color of the robes that the little altar boys wore. The kids were the "turchini". The church is named for altar boys. There. And if you prefer the true story to mine, I don't like you.

(Having said all that, I have no explanation for the presence of a Turkish flag on the balcony adjacent to the church in this photo. Someone has a strange sense of humor.)

That church is connected to what was once a very large monastery (long since converted to secular, municipal use) and was the site of one of the four historical music conservatories in Naples. As noted elsewhere in these pages, these institutions were consolidated into a single conservatory in the early 1800s. That is shakily accurate, but is a drab gloss of what went on behind the scenes, so I set out to find the actual old buildings, themselves, and see what I could dig up. (In Naples, "dig up" is not necessarily a metaphor.) Thus:

1. That Conservatorio della PietÓ dei Turchini was built in 1583 and is the only one of the original four sites that is still easy to find. Indeed, the church is still prominent and open to the faithful. It stands on via Medina not far from the city hall. The church has a historical marker posted in front that explains its role as one of the original four. The name "conservatory" originally indicated a place that "conserved" orphans and young women. All of the institutions instructed their wards in music; thus was born the modern meaning of "music school."

2.The Conservatorio dei Poveri di Ges¨ Cristo was founded in 1589 by Marcello Fossataro, a Franciscan monk. It was in the church of Santa Maria a Colonna (photo, right) on via dei Tribunale directly across the street from the mammoth white church of the Girolamini. Illustrious names connected with the school include the philosopher Giovan Battista Vico; a "maestro de [sic] grammatica" from 1620 to 1627, according to the records. [My cockles really go into heat when I read that one of our cultural icons, indeed, paid his dues by pounding verb conjugations into numb little skulls. He made five carlini a month. In modern currency, that works out to, approximately, "not very much".] Musical luminaries at the conservatory included Francesco Durante, Niccolˇ Porpora, and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi .

All monasteries and convents in Naples were closed by the French in the early 1800s (under the reign of Murat), and many were then re-closed at the unification of Italy later in the century. The Poveri di Ges¨ Cristo has a slightly different history. It was closed in 1743. According to some sources, the students staged a "revolt" against the rector, and the conservatory was simply shut down and the unruly students dispersed to the other three music schools. Thus, the Poveri di Ges¨ Cristo is not in the group of Neapolitan monasteries later consolidated. The church stayed open, but fell into ruin over the years. The original entrance is now closed; the metal gate across the entrance is rusted and bent, the wooden doors are rotted, the facade is dingy, the inscription above the entrance is barely legible. To the eye, it is just one more broken-down small old church in the city. Yet, if you walk around the corner and through a side entrance--behind the original church--you are in the courtyard of the old monastery, itself--again a working religious institution. And I mean working. Members of the order of the Sisters of Calcutta (Mother Theresa) scurry and hustle about, heeding the injunction to feed the hungry. They even have a homeless shelter with room for about 20 residents at any given time.

3. Sant'Onofrio a Capuana (photo, right) is from 1578 and enjoyed centuries of musical renown, just like the others. Charles Burney's The Present State of Music in France and Italy, published in 1771, recounts his visit to the music school at Sant'Onofrio. In part: "This morning I went with young Oliver to his Conservatorio of St. Onofrio, and visited all the rooms where the boys practise, sleep, and eat. On the first flight of stairs was a trumpeter, screaming upon his instrument till he was ready to burst; on the second was a french-horn, bellowing in the same manner. In the common practising room there was a Dutch concert, consisting of seven or eight harpsichords, more than as many violins, and several voices, all performing different things, and in different keys: other boys were writing in the same room..." The cacophony was probably typical of all of the conservatories of the day. What may not be typical was the fact the Sant' Onofrio, due to its location in the city, was apparently more affected by the violent events of Masaniello's revolt and then, later, by the devastating plague--the Black Death--of 1656. At one point, the conservatory closed and only reopened after the plague had run its course.

Sant'Onofrio counts as its alumni Niccolˇ Jommelli, Giovanni Paisiello and Niccolˇ Piccinni, three of the great names in 18th century Neapolitan music. The original building still stands, just across the street on the north side of the old Vicaria, the tribunale, the Naples Hall of Justice (until quite recently). That area of Naples was not greatly affected by the risanamento or by the air raids of WW2. The building is under restoration; a plaque says that it is an administrative office building for the province of Naples (which function it will perhaps take up again when the builders leave); also, another plaque identifies the one open office as the premises of the Confraternity [lay brotherhood] of Sant' Onofrio a Portacapuana. The adjacent entrance to the church, itself, looks as decayed and closed as it does in the old photographs from the 1920s. (The photos are to be found in the definitive book on the old conservatories: I quattro antichi conservatori di musica a Napoli (The Four Ancient Music Conservatories of NaplesŚpub. Sandron. Milano, 1924) by the Neapolitan journalist and poet, Salvatore di Giacomo. The square near the old school was originally named Piazetta Sant' Onofrio; it is now Piazza Enrico de Nicola, named for the first president of the Italian Republic.


[bibliographic note: Di Giacomo's book cites extensively from an earlier, now difficult-to-find work, La scuola musicale di Napoli e i suoi conservatori, con uno sguardo sulla storia della musica in Italia, by Francesco Florimo, 4 volumes. Morano, Napoli, 1882.]

(to be continued)
9/2/2006