Legend has it that when Ulysses managed to escape the fatal chant of the sirens, the creatures were overwhelmed with shame. One of them, Parthenope, couldn’t bear the dishonor and killed herself by drowning in the sea. Her body was washed ashore on the land that would later become one of the most lively cities of the Mediterranean: Naples.
Today it’s difficult to imagine the Naples that once was. The city went from a small Greek colony in the first millennium B.C. to one of the most populous European centers in the 17th century. In between, it was conquered by the Byzantines, Normans, Saracens, Germans, Hungarians, and Spanish. Each ruler left a deep mark on the urban development, culture, and characters of their Neapolitan subjects. Throughout the centuries, the myth of Parthenope was forgotten, rediscovered, and eventually immortalized in several decorations and monuments scattered across Naples’s streets.
As I stroll through the maze of alleys in the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Neighborhoods), I am absorbed in thought. Surrounded by the constant noise of motor scooters and the ever-present sight of laundry drying outside balconies, I think not of Naples’s rulers, but about some of the city’s most historical residents: the femminelle.
Far from the specific language we use to address the complexity of gender today, femminella (and its male form femminiello) is Neapolitan dialect used to indicate anyone that doesn’t quite fit the common concept of masculinity.
What people usually mean by the word is somebody assigned male at birth who recognises themself as female and therefore fulfill roles traditionally attributed to women: sewing and stitching, cleaning, taking care of the elderly, etc.
It goes without saying that the definition is highly problematic. What is, I ask myself, Naples’s “concept of masculinity”? As I recently watched Paolo Sorrentino’s 2021 film The Hand of God, I immediately thought of the city’s male legend: footballer and macho-icon Diego Maradona. Wealth, popularity, and a certain success with women made him an icon and role-model for an entire generation of men. In Naples, Maradona still enjoys the same level of veneration as the patron saint of the city San Gennaro.
Between these sacred and profane male icons stand the femminelle. “Today, we would describe femminelle as non-binary or genderqueer,” explains Paolo Valerio, a honorary professor of psychology at the city’s university. “It was a phenomenon that had to do with a certain world. When that world ended, they [the femminelle] had to change too,” he adds.
I question myself about the “certain world” Paolo refers to, and I find an answer in the ancient culture typical of the south Mediterranean in which gender roles were strictly prescribed and interactions between men and women were generally disallowed, if not banned altogether.
The first written account of a femminella dates back to the 16th century and is not so positive (even living in the Renaissance had some cultural limitations). More recently, in his powerful book La Pelle (The Skin, 1949), Curzio Malaparte gives documentary-style accounts on the meaningful role femminelle used to play in Naples’s culture.
© Luciano Ferrara
Although the modernization of the country and the Italian feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s shook this culture to its core, some patriarchal dynamics still linger in Campania today.
In all of this, however, the femminelle resisted–and it’s one of the best paradoxes the city could offer.
The term femminiello itself is highly ambivalent: it’s an expression indicating playfulness that is, in fact, subtly taunting. It manifests fascination and attraction on one side, and isolation and distance on the other.
A constant presence in the life of Naples’s historical neighborhoods–what writer Matilde Serao coined “the belly of Naples”–femminelle were liked and well-regarded by the general population. Quite surprisingly, the moments in which they were the protagonists of collective life were during popular and religious festivities. Considering the Catholic Church’s historical aversion to queer people, I find it fascinating that the most popular event for the femminelle was (and still is) the feast of Candlemas, celebrated by a procession to the Marian Sanctuary of Montevergine on top of a mountain near Naples.
Every year, femminelle make a pilgrimage to the mountaintop to pay homage to the image of the Madonna Schiavona. Together with the other pilgrims, they participate in traditional dances in the square outside the church. The event is known as the juta dei femminielli and has become a well-known event for the whole queer community of southern Italy.
Valerio tells me that the Sanctuary of Montevergine is said to be built on the former site of a temple dedicated to the Phrigian goddess Cybele, who was known in Ancient Rome as Magna Mater (“Great Mother”), goddess of the mountain and of the sky above it–a striking dualism. Catholicism eventually substituted her with the Virgin Mary, keeping the female archetype intact.
Other rituals associated to femminelle are the sposalizio mascolino, in which two femminelle would enact a wedding; the figliata, in which a femminella, with the help of friends, staged a baby’s birth; and tombola, a lottery-style board game. Those lucky enough to have witnessed these events, which are becoming rarer and rarer, describe them in terms that range from amusing to magical.
It’s through these rituals that the syncretistic nature of Naples emerges: a mixture of cultural elements dating back to the first Greek colonists that founded the city on the spot where they found the body of Parthenope.
Although the rites are still performed occasionally, femminelle are generally described as a historical phenomenon. After World War II, the transformation of urban structure and the global push towards cultural homogenization substantially impacted them. Far from fitting with heterosexual culture, femminelle also don’t conform to the contemporary models of homosexual and transgender culture that, however slowly, are nowadays rooting in Italy too.
As I keep walking the dark slabs of volcanic rock that pave the center of Naples, I remember: ancient Greeks didn’t depict sirens like women with fish-tails, but rather as half-bird creatures with wings and talons. As both human and animal, Parthenope embodied the union of opposites and became a symbol of prosperity. She was a powerful being in touch with both earth and sky, like Cybele and Montevergine’s image of Mary.
Unconsciously or not, some of these cultural references were handed down to the femminelle. As modern sirens, they safeguarded the complexity of Naples, a city whose streets, so famous for being full of life, are (for one thing) built right on top of catacombs.