You never heard of Luigi “Gigi” Grassi, but he was a great man, a dear friend, and an indispensable guide for me, and I must honor and mourn him here. I dedicated my study of Neapolitan creativity to him and his daughter, Tiziana, the artists who have managed the legendary “Doll Hospital” in the heart of Naples. Tiziana called a couple of hours ago, with the sad news that Gigi has passed away.
Have a look at this gorgeous video of the Hospital (Ospedale delle Bambole) and you’ll get a first inkling of the magic he created, the beauty with which he surrounded himself, and the love he brought to his work. You can spot him, in a purple shirt, at 1:45, and there’s a black and white photo of Tiziana carefully tucked away in the background at 2:14. If you want more, and I hope you do, you’ll find many videos if you Google “Luigi Grassi Ospedale delle Bambole.”
The Ospedale was founded by Luigi’s grandfather–also Luigi–in 1800. Grandpa was a set designer for a famous puppet theater in town, and he repaired some of the injured puppets, leaving them outside his shop to dry. One day a woman passed by and said “wow, it looks like a doll hospital,” and that was that.
The Ospedale is located on one of Naples’ most famous streets, known as “Spaccanapoli” (shatter Naples) because it runs in an absolutely straight line (the Romans did it, natch) through the center of town. It’s a couple of blocks from the street where the locals create and sell creche figures at Christmastime, everything from the participants in the Nativity to contemporary politicians, a true artisans’ quarter, with baroque palaces and churches mixed in. And Gigi was one of the most beloved characters.
When I first started going there, somebody took me to the Ospedale because she said it was both wonderful and unique, and that it was a fine window into the Neapolitan spirit. It proved more than that, for all kinds of customers showed up there, from poor people hoping to have their children’s dolls repaired or cured (some rubber dolls got “infected” by something that turned their skin black), to very wealthy customers from the city’s aristocracy or the business elite. In all likelihood there were members or even leaders of crime families, but they were never identified as such. The clientele was a microcosm of the city, in which rich and poor have long lived in the same buildings, and work and play very close to each other.