My grandmother was born in 1906 and lived most of her life in Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast. The breathtaking beauty of this place was part of her daily life; she used to enjoy it when she rested from her domestic duties, which were not few considering her nine children.
She was beautiful, my grandmother, with a stately bearing. Tall and stern. And despite the purported fondness of Neapolitans for singing, she never sang (even though she knew how to play the piano, but even in that case she never played).
However I heard her humming once. She was well into her eighties and I asked her if there was a song she remembered particularly. She thought about it and instead of just saying the title she sang in a very low voice: “Parteno ‘e bastimente/ pe terre assaje luntane…” (“the ships are leaving/ for lands far away”) Just these two lines. The song reminded her of her cousins, she said, who had to leave the Costiera with their families when they were young girls. Her eyes were wet. She suddenly looked fragile.
I wonder how many people of her generation, when listening to or singing the song containing those two lines, felt what she felt at that moment: the pain of separation. A rip that never heals.
Indeed, Santa Lucia luntana is a song about separation. And it describes it from the viewpoint of those who remain on the quay, watching the ships sail away. And when those ships have disappeared, the voice of those aboard still reaches the shore, because they are singing. They are singing to say farewell to their country and goodbye to their loved ones, to comfort themselves and overcome their fear of the unknown. And then, all of a sudden, the song’s perspective changes and the quay is seen from the travellers’ standpoint, while they fix their eyes on Santa Lucia quay, their last glimpse of the bay of Naples. A guitar is accompanying their song; the fingers of the musician tremble on the strings. “Quanta malincunia” (“How melancholy!”) say the words, and the melody makes us feel that melancholy deep inside.
If any of you have been to Ellis Island in New York, if any of you have visited the immigration museum that has been open on the island since 1990, if any of you have seen that place where third-class travellers – our ancestors’ cousins, brothers, sisters – were subjected to rigorous medical checks before being permitted to enter the promised land, then perhaps you will have been struck by the photos on the walls documenting the massive migrating flow. And perhaps you will have noticed how all those faces – male and female, young and old, attractive and unattractive – shared one thing only: the melancholy in their eyes. The same melancholy that had appeared in my grandmother’s eyes: the melancholy provoked by an epochal separation; the melancholy that a little song had the courage to sing.