The story of the ‘Neapolitan’ mandolin, discussed by various contributors to Plastino and Sciorra’s Neapolitan Postcards: Neapollitan Song as Transnational Subject (Plastino and Sciorra 2016), is an interesting and revealing one in this regard. The Neapolitan mandolin marks two kinds of margin; one an Italy marginal to the mid to late 19th century global order, present in this order primarily as a supplier of labour and raw materials to the industrial world; the other a Naples marginal to Italy’s northern centre of political power. The Neapolitan canzone was, then, doubly exotic. Its ubiquity in 19th century Europe – it was so ubiquitous that Moore would adopt them in his Irish Melodies (and Chopin borrow them from Moore) with hardly a word of acknowledgment - had much to do with this doubled marginality. Its ubiquity was of course a matter of considerable embarrassment to Italy’s elites. As Prato puts it, in an essay in the same volume, Mussolini detested “mandolinists and posteggiatori and pizzaioli from Naples probably because, in his view, they were responsible for foreigners’ opinions that Italians were not a race but just a cowardly bunch (imbelle accozzagla) of people born to serve and 15 entertain” (Prato 2016). Within such a mind-set, Neapolitan song, painfully exposed to the outside world, evidenced cultural contamination, migration, poverty and the southern question. It spoke of a maudlin, nostalgic and self-absorbed emotionality that hardly communicated faith in historical progress or military supremacy. And more importantly, it was open to outside scrutiny, and open in a way that seemed to pander to peculiarly demeaning stereotypes.
The mandolin was inseparable from the global circulation of Neapolitan song, serving not just as a instrumental surrogate for or double of the voice, but as a visual icon. There was very little ‘Italian’, let alone ‘Neapolitan’ about it. It was, as much as anything, a product of the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878. Here, as Goffredo Plastino shows, Parisian manufacturers developed an instrument on an Italian model, but with a deepened bowl, for added resonance, with steel strings, replacing the traditional gut strings, and a machine head to make it easier to tune. This instrument was popularized in Paris not by Italian musicians but by Spanish student ensembles – so called estudiantinas – whose sound was subsequently marketed as ‘Neapolitan’ (via sheet music, musical toys and piano rolls) by Italian entrepreneurs only after they had caught on in the Paris café chantants (Fabbri 2016). Many of these Italian entrepreneurs were Sefardi Jews, whose commercial networks spread “Neapolitan Song” to Athens and Smyrna in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, where it mingled with emerging popular song forms like kanto and rebetika. The mandolin became a household object across Europe and the Ottoman world during this period, attached to musical worlds sometimes connected, sometimes remote from Neapolitan Song – its use as a pedagogical device for teaching western art music in early 20th century Turkey and North Africa is an interesting case in point.
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