Totò The Poet Prince – interview with Elena anticoli de Curtis

Napoletanità ” (Neapolitanity) is something that you always carry inside, wherever you go.

We carry it in our hearts and express it with respect for our past. In order to do this, we need to know the past, better if it is unfiltered, while remaining human.

Antonio de Curtis, aka Totò , was Neapolitan right into his veins. He lived in Rome but has never forgotten his hometown, especially the neighborhood where he was born: the Sanita’ neighborhood.

During his career he acted in a hundred films. Sometimes, at Cinecittà studios, it happened that he participated in two films at the same time, performing, on two sets on the same day, gags and jokes that still today make everyone laugh!

In a historical context in which our country was materially and morally destroyed by world conflicts, the characters of Totò, first on stage, then on film, consoled and entertained all Italians.

Have you ever watched one of his movies? Dubbing, as he said, sometimes takes away the meaning of the lines, but even if you don’t speak Italian you will still understand the meaning of the scene thanks to his extraordinarily communicative expressions.

During his career, both on stage and on the cinema set, he brought his own experiences, anecdotes, stories, suffering and self-irony, which only those who have known firsthand are able to express, and he did it so masterfully. He was a keen observer of types and characters. Even before the beginning of his career as an actor, he used to follow the people who intrigued him, in order to study them and then to imitated them, exasperating their particularities. In addition, his extraordinary facial expression was even more enhanced by the shape of his face due to a childhood accident. The two elements together made him a very funny mask. But once back home, Toto’, the prince of laughter took off his mask and discovered the man Antonio de Curtis.

Silent and lonely when he entered the house, as is customary for many Neapolitans, he greeted it. Yes, he greeted the house that welcomed him. He ate little and slept little because he spent the nights sailing the seas of thoughts. He loved the quiet, he had a crepuscular soul. He locked himself in his “think tank” where he reflected, wrote thoughts, composed lines of poems and songs.

Over the years some of his poems and some songs have been published in a disparate way but so far there is a single volume that includes the entire production. It is titled: Totò Il Principe Poeta (Totò The Poet Prince). Curated by Elena Anticoli de Curtis and Virginia Falconetti, the volume is published by the Neapolitan Colonnese publishing house.It is an excursus into Antonio’s life through all his poems and lyrics. A QR code in the book offers a complete experience that allows you to listen to the poems recited by the author himself.

The collection, organized in five thematic areas, features everything that comes from the thoughts, from the reflections of a man who has lived through different dimensions of society, of a man who has suffered rejection and poverty, who made himself. He always went on as a free man, with great dignity and never selling himself.

“Gentlemen are born” he used to say and he was like this. …A Prescindere! (… “Regardless.”) In fact, he was lord in the heart even before discovering his noble origins. The collection of the literary production of the contemporary Neapolitan poet Antonio de Curtis goes far beyond the well-known “‘A Livella” and “Malafemmena”.

After the performances at the theater and, later, after the shooting of the films, when Antonio de Curtis retired to his refuge he also reflected on the condition and evolution of the human being. From those reflections were born wonderful poems, enlightening thoughts and many of his memorable jokes of which, even the most silly, had a great depth. They concealed sensitivity, the suffering and the lack of acceptance of the pusillanimity of a category of people that he called “caporali” (corporals) and that he contrasted with that of “uomini” (men). “Siamo Uomini o Caporali?” (Are We Men or Corporals?) The concept is well expressed in the known homonymous film directed by Camillo Mastrocinque. However in the Toto’ Il Principe Poeta you will find a deep explanation about this and that is not all.

Through his verses Antonio de Curtis invites us to think. He is a poet who leads to smiles as well as to reflection. He aimed to preserve those values that today’s superficiality makes appear futile formalities while in fact they are of significant importance for our social life. These values are respect and help to others. I like to think that his introspective research regarding the drama of the man and the achievement of a balance came from Antonio’ ancestral memory of ancient Greece.

“ Nelle mie canzoni e poesie c’è ciò che è piu’ e veramente mio. I miei sentimenti, le vicende dell’anima e del cuore, e anche la mia vita privata.”

(In my songs and poems there is what is most and truly mine. My feelings, the events of the soul and heart, and also my private life.)

So wrote Antonio de Curtis about his literary production. Antonio was a man who lived coherently with himself. He tried to not to hurt others and to help those in need. It is known that often, at night, he secretly asked his chauffeur, to drive him to Napoli where he put 10,000 lire banknotes under the doors of needy families in the neighborhood. He has saved animals and helped many people. He was a truly generous man. His philosophy came from his being Neapolitan, from his experience. It is an expression of profound thoughts, most of the time contained in a few lines and each word is impregnated with Napoletanita ‘, each word he has chosen has its own specific weight.

Elena Anticoli de Curtis, Antonio’s granddaughter, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and she understands the Neapolitan character of every single word written by her grandfather even though she didn’t know him in person.

In 1998 Elena moved to Italy, and since 2015 she has occupied the place of her mother Liliana, who is now 88 years old, in the work of the Antoniodecurtisinartetoto association.

When I managed to contact her to request an interview, in truth I didn’t expect her to accept, my emotion was irrepressible and I got even more excited when I have perceived the energy and all the transport that she has towards our culture, towards our city.

Since her first visit to Napoli, chaos aside, she has never felt like a foreigner. When she later moved to Italy she didn’t change much of her habits because she has always had a constant contact with the Neapolitan culture. But what are the steps through which she acquired the Neapolitan heritage?

Let’s start by saying that Elena cooks traditional Neapolitan dishes such as eggplant parmigiana and Neapolitan ragu ‘. She loves stuffed peppers, pasta and beans and pasta alla Genovese. Mamma Liliana and grandmother Diana transmitted everything to her through family memories, photos, songs, films, and typical Neapolitan and Italian dishes that they prepared with great familiarity and as much care.

Liliana de Curtis’ house in South Africa has always been full of objects belonging to the Neapolitan tradition. Through small daily rituals, such as that of the preparation of espresso, of private dialogue with the Saints and with the deads, the preparation of ragù on Saturday evening, through the superstitions … the horn, the chilli pepper, the family stories and of friends, Elena met the Neapolitan culture and was happily contaminated by it.

EADC: “Mom cooks very well, she had a restaurant in South Africa. Grandmother Anna (Anna Clemente, Elena’s great-grandmother, mother of Totò . ed) was an excellent cook. From her my mother learned the Neapolitan culinary art that she is very loyal to. At her restaurant, she explained to non-Italian customers that pasta is not a side dish and that, above all, it is eaten al dente. Then on weekends at the restaurant there was always Italian and Neapolitan music. “

lena had a great desire to live in Italy because she experienced less sociality in South Africa.

The first time she went to visit Napoli she was a teenager. Whenever she returns, she takes long walks to discover another piece of history, the Neapolitan one, to which she belongs too.

EADC: “I really like the markets as they are done in Italy because there is a relationship with people. In South Africa there are huge, cold shopping malls, and people are not at all sociable. In Napoli they talk to each other from the balcony, they use the basket … Then it’s a city steeped in history that overflows in every alley … I was really impressed by the number of churches in Napoli. “

Napoli is an open-air museum and Totò can be found in every place. You find him on the t-shirts with his memorable phrases, you find him among the pastori of San Gregorio Armeno, you find him on the shelves of the shops, surrounded by votive candles. You find him depicted in bars, in a picture or a postcard, with desperate expression, saying “I was selling on credit!”. Via Portacarrese in Montecalvario, at quartieri Spagnoli, has become Vicolo Totò . The walls that line the street are all painted with images of him and those of his films. Elena participated at the inauguration of this project created, in 2017, by a group of about twenty artists, many of which are tattoo artists. At their own expense they first painted the walls and then repainted them with their tribute to Totò . Elena was happily surprised by the affection that all the Neapolitan people, from every neighborhood, always show to her grandfather.

This is one of the reasons why the granddaughter of the prince of laughter is very keen on the opening of the museum at the Palazzo dello Spagnolo ai Vergini which has been talked about for years but which has not been open yet because our institutions never reach a final agreement.

EADC: “For now, everything is at a standstill. They are doing some reclamation work regarding the museum space. Let’s wait for the changing of the guard and see what will happen after the next elections. It is very difficult to reach a conclusion. This situation has become a joke. The city of Napoli deserves the museum of Totò . He, after Pulcinella is the mask of Napoli. He represents Neapolitanity. My mother sometimes took bitter blood for this situation. That’s another reason why I would like you to see this project finally realized. “

associazioneantoniodecurtisinartetoto.comRegarding the old apartment in Santa Maria Ante Secula, where Antonio lived his childhood with his mother, Elena clearly explains that it never belonged to Nonno Antonio, nor to his family, therefore it cannot be considered his real home. His real home is the one where he chose to live. Instead in Napoli, his real home is the one in Santa Maria del Pianto, which he wanted and bought when he was still alive. The tomb of Antonio De Curtis, in the cemetery of Santa Maria del Pianto, is already a sort of museum, or perhaps even a temple, and it was born spontaneously, at the behest of the Neapolitans, those who made him, as also noted Virginia Falconetti, among the tutelary deities of the city.

But what was Antonio de Curtis’s relationship with religion and with death? It was the same as that of many Neapolitans today. In fact, even mother Liliana brought home traditional customs, small habits that give color and hope to the life of many Neapolitans. It is true that in Napoli, in matter of saints we show ourselves perhaps entitled and in a kind of confidence, sometimes even spiteful toward them. It is a living relationship, made up of devotion, praise, prayers, requests, comments, recommendations and reflections but also warnings, spites and demonstrations of disappointment.

EADC: “Even in South Africa, at home, Mom had, arranged on a piece of furniture, the photos of the dead which she talked with. If she got angry she would turn the frames upside down or lock them into a drawer. And then she always carries the figures of the saints with her. “

Grandpa Antonio also behaved like this. But apart from the saints he had to deal with men, or, better said, with “corporals” who, like everyone else, made his life more difficult than it is.

Since the beginning of his career in theater, Antonio has had to fight with hunger, with a difficult period and even with some “pesce demoscristiano” (In order to understand this sentence please refer to the movie “Toto’ Fifa e Arena” as well as to the Italian history of the fourties.) For this reason, he was not immediately accepted and later, deliberately, he was not understood. Once the Tuscan director Mario Monicelli declared: “Maybe we made a mistake with Totò! He was a genius, not just a great actor. And we have reduced him, contained him, forced him to become an ordinary man by clipping his wings. “

For too long Totò was relegated to the category of box office actors, he has not been regarded as he deserved. After three appearances on TV they censored him. Totò denounced, in his movies, situations that we still experience today. For this reason he was censored, then badly treated by journalists and critics, many of whom, after his death, changed their minds. This also certainly contributed to the melancholy vein hidden behind Totò ‘s mask.

EADC: “He had started young to experience injustices. He regretted that he was always badly treated by critics, being considered a second-rate comedian, a hiker. Only because he was a free man and would never submit to any limitation. Then when he died, the first who went against him exalted him. His audience, on the other hand, has never abandoned him. That was for him the real test, the only consolation, his gratification. “

On more than one occasion Totò refused to act abroad. In the book “Vita di Totò ” by Ennio Bispuri, on page 139, the author says that Ronald A. Wilford of New York wanted to cast Toto’ for a show alongside Maurice Chavalier, Marcel Marceau and Fernandel, but Toto’ refused . No one would have refused such a proposal. Why did he refuse?

EADC: “Grandpa was offered to go to the United States and France but he always refused because he was afraid of the plane and did not like being too long away from home. This is a real shame because from the success and participation that there was in 2000, at Lincoln Center in New York, for the presentation of his greatest movies, I am sure that he would have been greatly appreciated in America too. But he was like that. He loved the sea and had a boat but he never ventured into long crossings. He said that the sea had to be respected. By car he traveled at “cruising” speed, never exceeding sixty kilometers per hour. He had a very particular character, very difficult to live with.”

In fact, it was difficult to live with him for his daughter Liliana, it was also the same for Franca Faldini, who was lately next to him and even for his wife Diana Bandini Rogliani of whom little is said and who in addition to being the muse of artist was the greatest love of his life.

EADC: ”Grandma was beautiful. Even as an old woman. Like nonno she was the daughter of nos too. She was a very private person. I have always had the impression that the breakup of her relationship with nonno gave her a sense of melancholy. She has always told about this love as an incredible story. She was 16 when she ran away from boarding school to join nonno. In addition to being older, he had a great charisma, he was very attentive, very protective, almost paternal. She suffered a lot because of his jealousy but even after their divorce, every time she talked about him, her eyes lit up. “

And Elena’s eyes light up too as she tells it. And it is understandable if it is a man of other times, a reserved man, who despite being misanthropic showed respect and empathy towards others. Just like her Granfather and her mother Liliana, Elena keeps the same spirit. Thanks to the suggestion of a family friend, the Neapolitan actor Enzo De Caro, who years ago pointed out to her the importance of continuing what her mother had started. Elena decided not to let go a great artistic heritage, such as that of Antonio de Curtis. Since then, she is taking care of the association’s projects in first person. Having attended English and French schools, she had to start from the beginning by knowing our history, the adventures and anecdotes of her grandfather, the comedy of art, the Sanita ‘ neighbour, the Fontanelle cemetery and everything else about Napoli and her Grandfather, the prince. Today Elena continues to spread the work and thoughts of Antonio de Curtis, in all his completeness as an artist as well as a man, a thinker, in the hope to finally to realize the Museum of Antonio de Curtis in art Totò.

Associazione Antonio de Curtis in Arte Totò