If you were in Naples around the 4th of December 2019, then you must have witnessed the festive atmosphere and the numerous events down the streets of one of the oldest cities in Italy. The acknowledgement of Neapolitan art of pizza twirling as a UNESCO’s world cultural heritage was celebrated for a second time last year since its recognition in 2017. Many people around the world think of this culinary practice merely as a fun process that results in one of the world’s favorite and most popular foods. But to Neapolitan pizzaioli (the Italian word for pizza makers), pizza making is a craft that they use as a tool of cultural expression of a tradition that has been passed from one generation to another for over 100 years. In this article, we will introduce you to the art of pizza making along with the meaning behind the entire initiative of UNESCO to recognize tangible and intangible cultural heritage across the world.
The art of Pizzaiuolo awarded as a UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage
Before we delve into the roots of this tradition, let us take a look at the solemn event that was long-awaited by the Italians, especially Neapolitans. On December 7th 2017, after two million people had signed a petition in favor of what grew to be a rather national bid, the Neapolitan art ‘Pizzaiuolo’ was finally listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This victory meant a lot to Italy since the entire country had been negotiating for the historic tradition to be praised for its strong identity for nearly eight years. The event took place in Jeju, South Korea, at a meeting where the UNESCO Government Committee unanimously voted positively for the culinary know-how of pizza making.
The news spread immediately and the reactions of the citizens in Naples quickly became ecstatic. Many people went on social media to express their pride of the win. Among them were the Italian minister of agriculture Maurizio Martina and the culture minister Dario Franceschini who tweeted that such recognition was not only a victory for Naples but also one for the entire country. With their decision, the United Nations Organization rewarded the hard work of the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry that had been working closely with the Pizzaioli Associations and the Campania Region since 2009 to draw up and register a candidature with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The person responsible for all of this is Pier Luigi Petrillo, a professor at the University of Rome, who initiated the whole movement by submitting three applications to UNESCO and subsequently went on promoting the pizza candidacy around the world.
The whole idea behind this candidacy was for the world to understand that pizza making is more than a commercial phenomenon, and that it should be perceived as ancient art that carries its own personal identity. Living in a world where almost everything can be copied and mechanized, the traditional way of making Neapolitan pizza was indeed facing the risk of extinction because of the various imitations of modern pizza produced around the world that have very little in common with the original. But what exactly makes pizza making so special and appreciated by Neapolitans? To answer this question, we need to look back in time and explore the roots of this culinary tradition.
Pizza making as a tradition and stimulus
Before we delve into the stages of this tradition, let us first take a look at its roots. Although it is difficult to say when exactly the modern version of pizza originated, it is believed that the tradition of pizza making grew in popularity throughout the 19th century. At the time, Naples, said to be the birthplace of pizza, was a thriving city, however life was hard for most people, who lived in poverty. Having this in mind, there were not many things that they could afford to eat, and so pizza, sold mainly by street vendors, became a common food. A flatbread with some basic toppings like olive oil, red tomato sauce and fresh basil was an inexpensive food that could be consumed quickly, just what people needed back then. Soon after, the Neapolitans that immigrated to the United States seeking for a better workplace in the factories brought some of their culture with them and introduced their crusty pizzas to Americans who popularized it around the globe.
Yet, such globalization quickly undermined the importance of pizza for the people in Italy and especially Naples. Pizza making has grown over the years more into a commercial phenomenon without people acknowledging or even daring to find out more about this tradition. The Neapolitans often refer to pizza making as a craft that has an artistic note. The knowledge behind pizzaiuolo is made up of songs, visual expressions, gestures and above all smiles. These rituals have been passed down from one generation to another, transforming pizza making into an indisputable Italian cultural heritage. What is more, this craft, rooted deeply in the daily lives of many young people that are part of the Neapolitan community, is also a way for them to avoid social marginalization.
The pizza making process at a glance
The art of pizzaiuolo is subject to several simple rules that must be, however, followed strictly and with great precision. Everyone is familiar with the basic ingredients such as water, flour, yeast for the dough, and the variety of vegetables and meat for the toppings, yet it is the techniques and rituals that make the overall process so special. For instance, Neapolitan pizzas can be done only by hand, starting with the dough that is worked with the pizzaiolos’ fists for at least 15 minutes. After resting, sometimes even for more than 12 hours, the dough is spread out using a technique called stesura where the pizza maker uses their fingers to spread out the dough from the center to the edge. The next stage, again done by hand, called schiaffo, involves the beating of the pizza base on the counter where it is being made in order to take the desired circle shape. Most people associate pizza making with tossing the dough in the air, however Neapolitan pizza chefs believe that this is rather unnecessary and tacky. Another typical thing that is often related to the authentic method of pizza making are the sentences or phrases with dialect words that pizzaioli are screaming or chanting while preparing the delicious food. Thus pizza chefs and their clients can engage into a social ritual that can be even perceived as a performance with the cook sharing their art with the “audience”.
The local Pizzaioulo Association organizes multiple events and workshops every year in Naples in order to encourage people of all ages to learn the art of pizza making and preserve such valuable tradition for an even longer time. The courses are also focused on the history and instruments that a young apprentice needs to learn in order to continue the tradition. Practice, however, here plays a much more central role than academic learning. To get a better understanding of the concept and learn key skills, apprentices are often sent to observe master chefs at their workplace where they can see every element of the craft.
UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage
UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage is meant for the numerous cultural practices and expressions around the world that are either endangered and require urgent measures to stay alive or demonstrate diversity and require society’s attention. The practices and expressions in question could be of any kind, like dances, rituals, social practices, festive events and more. An intangible cultural heritage does not have to be something that has been a long established tradition and passed on from one generation to another. Contemporary rural and urban practices can also be included, since despite their origin they demonstrate human creativity and the interaction of communities with nature and the environment throughout history. Reminding people of the importance of such traditions through intangible or tangible heritage can maintain cultural diversity as a response to the growing globalization. Looking through the lists one can find many interesting facts about different communities across the world and develop a mutual respect for the ways of life of other people.
To be featured on the list, a particular cultural practice must comply with the criteria of the organization. As mentioned previously, as of 2010, the program comprises of two lists: one that includes practices and expressions that are able to demonstrate the diversity of a particular heritage, and a second one that focuses mainly on cultural elements that require urgent measures to be preserved. Once a nomination is submitted, a committee decides which candidatures can be approved and included in the list of intangible cultural heritage.
Some interesting examples featured on the list are the ritual and festive expressions of the Congo culture that honors the black rebels enslaved during the colonial period, celebrated with songs and sensual dances that allow people to also communicate with Earth. For those who are interested, on UNESCO’s list you can find visual representations under the forms of photos and videos showing the local traditions. That way, people around the world can truly experience the symbolic meaning and cultural identity of each and every practice. Other practices like the whistled languages practiced in Turkey for instance, can teach people of the different methods of long distance communication developed by the local population that used to live in the steep mountains. This tradition, however, is slowly dying because of the rapid technological development and socioeconomic changes depriving people of the usual methods of communication. Being included on the list, such tradition can raise awareness or even encourage people across the world to grow an interest in such linguistic practices.
Developing an interest in a foreign culture and its traditions is something that most people should strive for, as this seems to be the only way for humanity to ensure some sort of sustainability for such cultural heritage. Attempting to understand a different culture is crucial for those who care about spiritual and intellectual growth of humanity. Through the exchange of stories and ideas, one can not only learn to appreciate others but also get inspired to assign new meanings to life. Cultural exchange is something that brings people together and unites them towards one common goal – mutual understanding and compassion. The latter two can undoubtedly contribute to the establishment of an environment where cultural values come before personal interests.