When the students of the Southern Italian city heard that one of their most famous residents had died, they knew they had to do something.
On March 3rd, one of the busiest hospitals in Naples had a visitor like many others: a homeless man, shriveled and unconscious, was taken to the emergency room after a severe kidney failure. Many poors get hospitalized in this season, and he would have probably gone unnoticed had he not been one of the most recognizable local figures: Antonio Varvella, 49, known to everyone by the nickname of ‘o Barone (“The Baron”).
A living institution in the Old Town, ‘o Barone used to hang between Piazza del Gesù and Santa Maria La Nova, two popular loitering spots for high school students, street artists and bar-crawlers. He knew where to get a free cappuccino in the morning or a spare cigarette at night. His prematurely wrinkled face, nonsense soliloquies and shuffling walk were familiar to many.
A fighter with a long history alcoholism, a survivor of the perils of homelessness, it was soon clear that Antonio was in a desperate state. His blood alcohol content was so high that an infection spreading through his internal organs rapidly caused a collapse, that in a few hours proved fatal. He didn’t make it, and passed away in the early morning.
I first heard of his death from social media. Some people had collected the story from the doctors, or were at the hospital the hours Antonio was admitted, and reported the tragic and sadly ordinary circumstances of her death – “We knew he would end up like this”; a few independent news sources confirmed the disconsolate dispatches, but revealed to know almost nothing about his life.
Of course, unlike mainstream celebrities, on newspapers there was not even a picture of him. Actually one big photograph, taken by a professional, started circulating on Facebook: here is a portrait of Antonio with his blue eyes wide open, framed in a face that has endured much.
The Facebook/Twitter buzz, while registering the astonishment of those who knew him, and had seen him not long before, the sadness of those who considered him a mythical presence in the city center, didn’t add much personal information. Soon ‘o Barone would have dropped out of the news, and become just another statistics on social dispair.
But students, the company he most preferred when in drunken stupor, couldn’t let go. They wanted to know more.They didn’t want Antonio to be forgotten. And they decided to celebrate him, in the streets where he always lived.
At this point all that had been revealed in the press was that Antonio Varvella was 49 when he died, and he might have been some sort of aristocratic in disgrace; other rumors suggested Antonio had been engaged and had had a daughter; that he had been romantic lover who was writing poems for his crushes, and then lost his mind after after a terrible loss.
Starting immediately after a Church-sanctioned funeral that Antonio would have disliked, but that was nevertheless attended by many, volunteers placed messages on various Internet forums and created a Facebook page for the event. One of the recurring questions was: who did know Antonio Varvella, the man behind the survivor’s mask? The individual behind the character?
As the organizers looked for answers, they tried to reach out relatives of Antonio, and people that at one point or another had some interaction with him. A few days before the event, a mural appeared in the periphery of Naples.
How many homeless people ever received the same degree of attention?
It was just the beginning. On March 16th, dozens of students, radical groups and street artists showed up in Piazza Del Gesù to pay homage to the memory of the Barone. Several local musicians accepted to perform for free, remembering Antonio has a fond memory of their sweetest years.
Somebody prepared traditional food, too, and shared it.
It was a completely autonomous event. The police did not even appeared. Nobody protested for the noise. Many tourists thought it was a flash mob, but thank God no, the gathering wasn’t self-centered or idiotic like a flash mob: it possessed instead the stubbornness of memory, and the will to research deep in the wounds of society. It was horizontalism in its purest form.
Yet there was one question that haunted me, as I looked at the photos of those crowded streets. In a city such as Napoli, where social ties are undeniably stronger than other big cities, how could someone’s existence go unchecked for so long? Who was Antonio? What was he like? How could he have been able to hide his past?
Then the organizers tracked down Antonio’s brother, Rosario, and he wrote a letter that was quickly shared over the Web and by word-of-mouth. “Antonio pursued freedom for all his life, since he was a teenager”, he explained. At the age of 17 Antonio suffered a big trauma after a diving accident (“He jumped from the rooftop of an abandoned castle”) that would ultimately impair his mental functions for life. His family had attempted multiple times to get him hospitalized, for a proper assistance, but he always refused any help.
“There’s something I want to say to all you guys out there: I am glad the piazza loved him, care of him, more than his family was ever able to”, Rosario said.
This was the funeral of his brother. A man that Law and Order would have put aside of society, that lived most of his life far from the sight of the affluent, at the moment of his death was paid a tribute fit for a small celebrity.
But was what Antonio’s brother said true? Did the “street” really take care of him, when he was still alive? Were we really seeing him, instead of just watching him, as one piece of the landscape?
Romanticizing poverty and nomadism is always a dangerous game to play. And we must be wary when someone praises the “voluntary illiteracy” and homelessness as in a sense a virtue, an adventure.
Rightly, in my view, philosopher Murray Bookchin once remarked:
“Alas, homelessness can be an ‘adventure’ when one has a comfortable home to return to, while nomadism is the distinct luxury of those who can afford to live without earning their livelihood. Most of the ‘nomadic’ hoboes I recall so vividly from the Great Depression era suffered desperate lives of hunger, disease and indignity and usually died prematurely — as they still do today in the streets of urban America.”
What we truly learn from the story of the Barone is that it takes a collective and individual effort to drag someone out of invisibility. That there is nothing romantic or noble about living a life of deprivation, hunger and disease. And that the brutality of life can, must be resisted with the tools of friendships and compassion. And something even more important than compassion: organization.
Towards the end of the event, Antonio’s daughter arrived. She had heard of the the homage event through the Internet, and decided to pay a visit. She was a tiny, well-mannered young woman in her late 20s. She donated a photo of the Barone when he was probably her age.
And that was a photo nobody else had seen before.
[The article was edited by the Author for minor proofreading on Nov. 11, 2015, following the increased visibility it reached]