Tommaso Prestieri, the art-loving Camorrist
Catherine Cornet - 22/06/2007
He wears the elegance of the southern countries: a shirt and a black tie, a light suit. When he opens his arms to speak/lecture, he gives off the vital force that characterizes the children of Naples. Tommaso Prestieri belongs to a powerful family of Camorrists in Secondigliano. His two brothers were assassinated in Secondigliano’s Monterosa neighborhood as the result of a blood feud with the Licciardi family. But Tommaso Prestieri is a slightly unusual character who sets tongues wagging as much for his various criminal activities as for his presence in the art scene: art is his pet vice. While still a fugitive, he was arrested when he attended a concert at the Bellini Theater—right downtown.
In prison, he discovered writing through love letters, and since his release he has thrown himself into art with seemingly as much passion as he had devoted “to wrongdoing.” Now, he says, people stop him in the street to congratulate him on his activities as an artist, and as Pygmalion: “Just ten minutes ago,” he says, “fire fighters from the Piazza del Plebiscito (Plebiscite Square) said hello to me and thanked me. That means I’ve done something good in my life. The young people who were listening to me last night at the art studio represent one of my greatest victories. What else can you want from life?”
His journey as a manager, which is just as controversial, was a way to carry on the family business. “In the 1990s, I started to do what my father was doing,” he says. But it was also because Naples “is swarming with poets, writers, painters, and photographers, who feel abandoned. They’re financing themselves, and they feel marginalized.”
The Neapolitan song, which has pride of place in neighborhood life, is often criticized by Italian authorities. The minister of the interior, Guiliano Amato, declared on 14th of December 2006, “The anti-Camorra plan will succeed only if ‘the night’ doesn’t go by the Camorrists. And if we win, the “Neomelodici” (the Italian expression to define this genre of Napolitan singers) will have to find a new song.” The “Neomelodics” are often accused of effectively paying homage to crime bosses in their songs, of exalting people in prison and vilifying those who denounce them.
On the subject of ‘Napoli,’ Prestari is inexhaustible: “Naples is monumental, Mediterranean, surrounded by superb hills. It’s both a starry mantle and a sheet of greasy paper.It represents life’s departures and arrivals simultaneously. And if he is so attached to the city, it’s because it has become his alter-ego: “Like me, the city is controversial, but I would never leave—not for all the gold in the world. I was born here. I am Neapolitan, and like all Neapolitans, I’ve never done anything in a straight line. Here, we zigzag.”
In his conversation as in his poetry, dichotomous Naples, which alternates between mother and whore, is always ontological and dual: “Naples—it’s my city, my mother. It’s the beginning and end of a man’s life. One day, I was sitting with friends and we were talking about honesty and honor. I wanted to say something, but no one was listening. When I was able to interrupt, I said, ‘I agree with everything you’ve said about the importance of honor and the honesty of sons, of the family, but you have to understand too that for me, the biggest whore is my mother, so imagine what I think of yours.” Of course, he hastens to highlight that it’s a metaphorical expression: “The most important woman in my life”—the one to whom his latest collection, Opuscule of Love, is dedicated—“is asexual, she is pious, she never leaves the house.” The superlative applies as much to his mother as to his city. “Naples is more lovely than my wife. Naples is like a whore who, when she wakes up in the morning, turns to you with her makeup only half removed. She’s the most beautiful of whores, a city with an emotional and visceral spirit.”
Tommaso Prestieri’s charisma resides primarily in his double relationship with everything that surrounds him, including himself. He has, he says, a little “of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” To become one or the other takes just a fraction of a second. “Sometimes,” says Prestieri, “your head, even if it’s intelligent, makes you do bad things. It just takes a few seconds to do something you didn’t want to do.” In Prestieri’s lexicon it’s important to dissociate spirit, head, and heart, because while he does occasionally regret the schemes in his head, “I’m proud of everything that comes from my heart and my spirit.” And he’s proud of being proud. He speaks of “humility, honor, and being conscious of knowing I’ve done wrong,” and he remains a fervent Catholic, even if he admits he’s “certainly the biggest sinner of all.” But he who “loves God” doesn’t fear his judgment. He would like to meet the son of God, but there too, just for a few moments: “Humbly, I would like to be able to look Jesus Christ in the eyes for a few seconds.”
A fraction of a second to make a mistake. A fraction of a second to look at Jesus.
“I love God. I’ve studied a lot. When I was 15 I went to the seminary. But I had to explain to them later that I didn’t feel the vocation, I couldn’t resist women. Either I do something well or I don’t do it at all. And so I left the seminary.” He laughs his contagious laugh, a southern, self-mocking laughter that doesn’t take itself seriously, especially when speaking of the most profound things. His fervent Catholicism brought him all the way to the pope’s antechamber in the Vatican. After his release from prison, Prestieri sent his book to the Holy Father, who congratulated him for having embarked on this new path. But there too, it was not a question of being ashamed of his past, of his actions. “The important thing is what comes from here [he points to his heart] and what goes to heaven—or up in any case—and my heart is good.” When the secretary of Pope John Paul II received him, he dared to bring up the Neapolitan malavita and demanded an explanation. “I’m a Catholic,” says Prestieri, “one of the worst sinners of all, but maybe one of the most beloved of all. And I’ve taken life as it is, and in my opinion it is very beautiful. I told the secretary, ‘Ah, signo,’—I got excited—you’re still speaking of Naples and the Camorra, but there are prisons in Rome and Bolzano too. The world is one country.’ He apologized, he said he hadn’t wanted to offend me. I told him it was okay, and that we could change the subject.”
Even outside the Vatican he has this special relationship with God: “It’s he who inspires me to paint.” (Prestieri’s books of poetry are illustrated by his own paintings.) “Something strange happened to me. I’ve created a Jesus who is like me, and when I paint I get the feeling that someone is with me. I’m not afraid of what I’m doing. I have a steady brush. The canvas accepts my hand.” And to thank him, he goes to church, “in secret, when no one can see me. I don’t go to pray to be seen by others. I also do charitable works that no one knows about.”
In this conversation with a foreign journalist, he compares Naples to the world because it’s a large metropolis—none worse, none better. Paris: He loves the Louvre, which he visits every time, but “there’s more cocaine in Pigalle than in all of Naples! When I went to this neighborhood I immediately thought ‘the curse of Christ has fallen on this city.’” Marseilles: “It’s the twin sister of Naples, but in France. It has the same port, it’s Neapolitan—the mentality, the crime. . . . They even tried to rob me in Marseille, that was the high point! The Marseillais are as warm and as visceral as here.”
It’s the same with Milan, Palermo, Catania . . . there are so many troubled places, but they’re less talked about than Naples. So why this aggression towards Naples? “In other cities, people are able to get along. But Naples is feeble-minded. It’s inhabited by men who are feeble-minded, and that’s why they’re not able to behave themselves, it’s why you see so many wars that could have been avoided. Elsewhere, they manage to get along and you don’t see the same kind of idiocies that happen here.”
Tommaso takes my arm, and repeats that he regrets nothing: “I’m proud. . . . I look everyone in the eye, and I never lower my gaze before anyone. I am proud of my mistakes and of the ugly things I’ve done, when I did them with my heart.
“I hope that from this conversation you take back to France the respect of someone who loves her,” he concludes. Was he talking about his wife, woman, his muse, his mother, a whore, or Naples?