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.
The shop is more than a hospital, and contains some real treasures, old masks and cresh figures, some of which Luigi would sell, but many of which were just there. There’s one angel, I believe from the eighteenth century, which I coveted and from time to time I would ask him how much it cost. “No,” he said, “how could I get through the day without her?” He was right, and I stopped asking. She’s very high up, spreading her blue and white wings and inspiring everyone with a beatific smile.
And then there were his own creations, his and Tiziana’s, little figures of Pulcinella, the black-masked symbol of the city, along with some larger ones that were totally unique: Pulcinella as the King of Hearts, Pulcinella as a street vendor, selling little Pulcinella figurines, Pulcinella making pizza…
While writing Virgil’s Golden Egg I asked him for some help. The problems I was trying to unravel were very complicated, and I asked him if he could make a Virgil for me. I told him what I had in mind, and after several sketches and three differently-clothed models, he and Tiziana produced a true wonder: about 8 inches tall, Virgil the Sorcerer with a magic staff in one hand and a golden egg in the other, hair blowing in the wind, wild eyes seeking the secrets of the city, long robe wrapped around him. And then an unexpected touch: Pulcinella sitting on his shoulders, obviously yelling to everyone in range “hey! look who’s here!!!”
Virgil stood on my desk until the book was complete, and now he’s on the mantel in the living room. We’re not going to forget Luigi Grassi, nor is his magic going to leave Naples. Tiziana, the fourth generation, will carry on, and she’s got some very bright children who, I hope and believe, will some day become the fifth generation of artists and magicians to provide the world with the wonders of the Ospedale delle Bambole.
God knows we need it.