Guest Post: Deconstructing a Neapolitan Lullaby

The following essay was written by Alberto Esposito about the Ninna Nanna from Cancello Arnone that we discussed in this post. Signor Esposito was the first to record and transcribe this Ninna Nanna, so his thoughts on its meaning are particularly relevant. We thank Signor Esposito for this contribution. 


The angel sends her to sleep, a symbol of heavenly protection that accompanies this lullaby which has been saved from oblivion.

But do not be mistaken, if we separate the chorus from the rest of the song we immediately notice that there is talk of something else. Having clear the synthesis between mother and daughter, what we are talking about is birth and destiny (the “gypsy”), both of which are seen as miserable and immutable. Born among Turks and Moors (war and unknown world), without the presence of mother or father, with a false destiny of riches foretold, the singer is driven only by the desire to be able to rediscover the embrace, not maternal, but of someone else from when she was in swaddling clothes, as possible refuge from the idea that “Chi nasce afflitto scunzulate more” (“Whoever is born cursed, dies disconsolate”). The sense of anxiety continues in the desire to make the child fall asleep by invoking Mammone (an evil mythological figure) or the little old drunkard, seized by an almost deadly fatigue, then losing herself only to find herself belonging to nature, to the sea with the fish (and not to the human community).

The possible love the ferocious intrusion of the mother of the beloved (another possible denied destiny) makes the response of those who lock themselves up heartfelt, but directing to the beloved the wish of a happiness that she has been denied. The tenderness of the details concerning the rival (“aggarbatelle”, gracious; and “accurtulelle de cinture”, a bit short in the belt) with the implications being also economic savings hides/expresses unhappiness with destiny.

Unhappiness that bursts, but in herself, with the desire of death, to drown without leaving any tracks and after a year the sea would leave her on the rocks, a putrefied cadaver eaten by fish. The torment of death that does not nullify the desire for love that even in the worst dissolution would want to be reborn and find itself again in a world of beauty. But the harsh reality looms, the last strophe declares the masculine reality that defines life with simple and brutal words.

This change of subject is also interesting. At first the song is directed toward the child but soon it becomes the story of the mother narrated through several scenes, from the reality of lulling the daughter to sleep to the reflections on destiny, to the desires and delusory hopes, then in the finale with the reflections of the man, as if the man were singing. An ease of change in both the storytelling and in the subject, which belongs to this folkloric world where the forces that move reality are fluid, or better said, “mythic”.

The song, however, is already in itself a sweetener of life: a appeasement, an outburst, a means of relieving the alienation from the hardship of living, even if the singer does not forget in the same song the hard and ruthless reality, but finds a way to overcome it in death/rebirth and in transformation with the delicate chorus, charged with divine protection and with a sound more joyous and calm a more beautiful dimension than hardship. But in reality, the one who sings, I believe, is not a person with the narrated hardship, the one without parents or future, but only with some hardship, but who finds in the song, exaggerated to the point of paradox, a moment of consolation.

Alberto Esposito, scholar of Neapolitan culture

Alberto Esposito, scholar of Neapolitan culture