Criers and Vendors: Street Life in Nineteenth-century Naples

One of the characters featured in Cotsen 55086. But who is he and what’s on his head?

Rare books — like most books — all have something distinctive about them.  Some present a famous story, usually in an early edition or unusual version.  Some have striking illustrations, often in a format that’s beautifully designed or rendered via an illustration process that’s a feat of artistic skill or technological innovation — or both.  Some are just lovely historical artifacts of print culture, and a delight to hold in your hands.  And some individual rare books have unique histories or one-of-a-kind metatextual aspects of annotation, marginalia, reader markings, or even inscriptions or dedications by their author or some other person of note.

Can you tell a book by its cover? (Cotsen 52086)

Some rare books combine several of these aspects.  A case in point is a book of nineteenth-century street vendors whose cover, however, embodies the old saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover: ordinary marbled paper-covered boards and a roan spine, both somewhat the worse for wear.

This book lacks a title page or a title — quite possibly issued that way, as several other similar books of cries apparently were.  Based on the contents, one bibliography by Karen F. Beall assigns the descriptive title “Neapolitan Street Cries.”1  Within the unprepossessing covers is a set of beautifully-rendered, hand-colored lithographs of an array of street vendors, most crying their wares in mid-nineteenth-century Naples. These provide a window into a past world of activities quite remote to us today. Adding to the book’s interest is a noteworthy, if somewhat puzzling, inscription by the renowned English Victorian artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Hey, Mr Tambourine Man… Tambourine seller with his wares balanced on his head

This book is essentially a bound collection of illustrated plates; the only “text” is an Italian-language caption below each illustration identifying the street vendor.  For instance, the “mystery” illustration of the man with the elaborate headgear featured at the head of this blog posting is a tambourine seller, shown with a range of tambourines somehow balanced on his head and captioned “Tamburraro.”  A reader has penciled in an English-language version of the title — “dealer in tambourines” — as has been done on most other illustrations in the book.  Was someone practicing their Italian, or (I think more likely) making the captions comprehensible to a non-Italian reader?

Several of the other hand-colored lithographs feature gravity-defying collections of objects balanced on vendors’ heads.  Take a look at the watermelon seller and the glass carafe vendor.

Glass Carafe Vendor

Watermelon Seller










Despite the wealth of apparently naturalistic detail, I have to think that art has enhanced life in these depictions.

The depictions of the Neapolitan vendors combine both men and women, a reflection of life at the time. Among the women are an egg merchant and a seat caner, the latter conducting her work not in a shop but right there in the street.  She has made herself comfortable for working by taking her shoes off; or perhaps that’s to aid in her work?

Egg Merchant, with her live supplier of eggs close at hand.

Caning seats with a supply of reeds readily at hand.










In an era of farmer’s markets and street fairs, we tend think of people selling actual products when we think of street vendors.  But nineteenth-century street vendors provided services as well as products, as some of these illustrations remind us.

Suppose you were a tourist, just having arrived in Naples.  How would you buy things?  What sort of currency would you use, and where would you get it?  Probably from a local money changer like the one illustrated, who is depicted with a stern seriousness, or perhaps just with extreme concentration, as she counts out coins from one of the moneybags on her street-side desk.  (The illustrator has gone beyond the purely representational and captured something of the role of a money changer at the time, and perhaps something about the inspiration’s own personality in his depiction, at least to me — a testament to skill and insight.)

“Cambio Monete” – a stern-looking money changer.

“Il Segretario” — a public scribe at work at a street-side office.










Likewise, the depiction of the public scribe in the midst of scrivening seems to capture something of the essence of the man at work, as he pauses in the middle of writing, perhaps somewhat absentmindedly, or perhaps in response to a client just out of view?  His expression, slightly grizzled face, and clothing — nineteenth-century business attire, but well worn, bordering on threadbare — all suggest a man who has seen better days.

Neapolitan sorbet seller

These days, it may be a little hard to imagine why anyone would be performing such a role in the first place.  But at a time when many people were illiterate, some literate but unable to write out a clear business letter or other grammatical, well-composed communication, and professionally-written letters in a clear hand were  needed for various reasons, professional scribes filled an important need.

Other characters depicted remind us of the pleasurable and entertainment aspects of Naples street vendors and performers. A sorbet seller — certainly not the friendliest-looking of the characters depicted! — holds up one his tiny cups of sorbet, apparently made for being enjoying while walking along the street. His other hand holds the ladle for the sorbet, placed within what looks like an ice-packed cooler. Next to him is a basket with a lot of little paper cups — apparently, he’s expecting good business!

Street theater featuring Pulcinella.

Although the “Pulcinella” street theater actor’s depiction looks a little less than comical, at least to my eye, Pulcinella was a much-loved stock character in Neapolitan puppetry.  The baggy white outfit, conical hat, and mask were all part of his standard appearance, as was some sort of a stick or cudgel, a horn-like version which he seems to be wielding here.

He’s related to the character of Punch in English Punch and Judy puppet shows, which were tremendously popular street theater in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England.  Pulcinella, like Punch, had aspects of the “all-licensed fool,” who could say and do outrageous things with impunity that members of the audience could not.  He would have been a fixture in Naples streets whenever street theater and street vendors were at work, and where shoppers or tourists were passing by.  A reader has captioned this illustration as “Punch & Judy,” an annotation that is not really accurate but quite understandable — and possibly a way of of contextualizing Pulcinella for an English reader?

The beautifully-rendered lithographed illustrations and the lost world they depict are reason enough, I think, to find this book interesting. Further interest — and at least one more question — is added by Rossetti’s gift inscription to his sister Maria on the book’s front free endpaper.  (The poet, Christina Rossetti was another, more famous, sister, whose work included children’s poetry.)

Inscribed: Dante C.G. Rossetti / to his sister Maria. 1837 1841.

Born in 1828, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a major Victorian artist, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, along with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, in 1848.  At the time of this inscription (either 1837 or 1841), Rossetti would still have been a school-boy. His father was Italian, and his mother was the English daughter of an Italian exile, so a childhood interest in Italy — and books about Italy — is no surprise.  But was is perplexing is why Rossetti changed the date of his gift inscription.  Did he first get the date wrong?  Unlikely, even for an otherworldly character such as Rossetti. Did he inscribe the book in 1837 and somehow forget to give it to his sister then?  Again, unlikely.  Did he write his name in his own book in 1837 and then decide to give it to Maria in 1841, inserting a gift inscription line and changing the date?  Possibly, but the ink and hand look remarkably the consistent throughout.  Or did Rossetti decide to give the book to Maria a second time in 1841 for some reason, and simply update the gift inscription?  That may be the most plausible explanation, as unusual as it sounds.  Perhaps there’s some other, better explanation, which has something to do with the relationship between Rossetti and his sister and their personal libraries?  Something to investigate, but for now, a puzzle of sorts about Cotsen’s unusual copy of this interesting title.

  1. Karen F. Beall, Kaufrufe und Straßenhändler: Eine Bibliographie  / Cries and Itinerant Trades: A Bibliography: Hauswedell & Co., Hamburg (p.346).

The Noble Life of Moretto: An 18th-century Venetian Dog

21972, page 22

The author and his beloved dog on page 22. (Cotsen 21972).

On this dog day of summer, we thought we’d relieve the heat with a little canine levity in the Cotsen Children’s Library.  It’s not a children’s book, but it could be considered a forerunner of fictional animal autobiographies like Edward A. Kendall’s Keeper’s Travels in Search of His Master (1799) or Anna Sewell’s better known  Black Beauty.

The above image is from Il Moretto del Pittoni: narrazione encomiastica serio-faceta della dignissime perogative che in lui si attrovavano (In Venezia : Presso Leonardo Pittoni, MDCCXIII [1713]). Which is a mouthful of 18th-century Venetian. Very (very) roughly translated, the title is:”The Moretto Pittoni: The most Serious-facetious Laudatory Narration that is My Worthy Perogative to Find for Him. This half-serious encomium (an extensive celebratory and eulogizing biography of a person or thing) narrates the life and death of Moretto, the venerable dog of the author Giovanni Battista Pittoni and his publisher/father Leonardo Pittoni.

Most of the text is in Venetian, but the opening poetry of praise on the frontispiece (and the lengthy closing “epigraphe”) are in Latin.

frontispiece and title-page spread

The frontispiece and title-page spread.

The story opens with Moretto being found and then taken home to the young author. It follows him through his adventures as a young pup and the tricks he performed in his youth. But the life of Moretto takes a turn for the worse, unfortunately, when he finds himself in a confrontation with the dreaded family cat:

page 26

Page 26. Could the Pittonis have sat by and watched the epic battle without intervening?:

As a result of this episode, the poor dog is blinded. But much to the chagrin of his enemy this means the family treats him even better. Moretto is fed the best doggy meals while the cat looks on enviously:


Page 28. Interesting to see that the Moretto was fed in the kitchen.

But nothing can hold back Moretto! Despite his blindness he continues on in his virtuous life.

A well respected member of the dog community:


Page 34. This looks like an unsupervised dog play group.

And a courageous defender of his home from the traditional enemy:

Page 30

Page 3. How many animals were there in the Pittoni household, anyway?

The latter part of the book mostly deals Moretto’s old age and dignified infirmity. As the wise and aged canine reaches his golden years, he can no longer return to his bed without a little assistance:

Page 45

Page 45, where you’ll also see a picture of Moretto on the wall.

Alas! At the almost impossibly ripe old age of 25, Moretto succumbs to his rheumatism:

Page 53

Page 53. Poor Moretto…


For a relatively short book (72 pages), the story of Moretto’s life is bursting with 171 references and comparisons to classical thinkers and figures like Socrates, Boethius, Ovid, Seneca, etc (citations at page 68 and 69); a purposeful exaggeration of the encomium form. Though I think it is clear that the Pittonis loved their dog and mourned his loss (they published a book about his life after all), I can’t help but appreciate their sense of humor in creating a facetious and over-the-top tribute to a family pet.

Thanks to John Bidwell, Astor Curator and Department Head of Printed Books and Bindings at the Morgan Library, for helping with the translation of the text. Any errors are mine alone.

P.S.  Can anyone take a guess as to Moretto’s breed?