Glauco Canalis An intimate portrait of Naples’ coming-of-age suburban youth

Cover Image - Glauco Canalis
WordsGilda Bruno

During a trip to Naples, photographer Glauco Canalis came across kids enjoying the ritual of ‘o cippo ‘e Sant’Antuono, and something awoke in him. It’s harmless fun, but on first glance it may appear to be more sinister. Reminded of his own childhood recklessness, he set out to document them to offer an alternative depiction to the ones often given of Neapolitan youth. Canalis tells writer Gilda Bruno how, as he established a deeper connection with the boys as they came of age on the city’s streets, he uncovered a story of fragile masculinity, vulnerability, and the vivid hopes and dreams they harbored in spite of the complex socio-political environment they had grown up within.

A photo of a group of teenage boys playing in the street at night
A photo of a small fire roaring in the street at night

“The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars”, Glauco Canalis’ documentation of suburban teenagehood in Naples, stemmed from a simple question: “What the hell are they doing?” The photographer was in the Campanian city to work on a video clip when he came across swarms of children chaotically dragging huge Christmas trees on their backs. 

“It was January 2018,” he recalls. “They were trying to throw them behind a sheet of metal, but were so tiny that they struggled under the weight.” Watching them awakened in him memories of a childhood “spent on the streets doing all the crazy things kids do,” and Canalis began to dig deeper into it. For the following years, he focused his gaze on the youngsters of Torretta—a working-class suburb of the affluent Chiaia neighborhood—as they spent the run up to Christmas and the days following it storming its narrow alleys to collect any trees they could find and hide them in preparation for ‘o cippo ‘e Sant’Antuono (St. Anthony’s fire). Set aflame on the eve of January 17, this yearly bonfire is the final act of a three-month-long mission reuniting children in defense of one of Naples’ longest-standing customs.

A black-and-white photograph of two boys riding a moped around the streets of Naples, dragging an old christmas tree behind them.

In the original, centuries-old iteration of this pagan ritual, which marked the end of winter, farming families burnt domestic waste to protect their crops from the threats of evil spirits. For these youths’ parents and grandparents, “‘o cippo ‘e Sant’Antuono was a moment of popular communion,” Canalis says. “People would gather in a dedicated space, coming from all over the district, some carrying sweets to share with the rest, others just joining in with their cheeriness. It was a break in the ordinary: a time to feast, talk and build community.” Today, as the tradition is hindered by the city’s “suffocating” urban fabric, where parking lots and private gardens are built at the expense of public green spaces, its survival is under threat. But nothing, not even the police persecuting them, can stop the new generations from chasing its ancestral, contagious energy.

A photo of two teenage Neapolitan boys embracing. The photo is taken from behind them, the sun shining on the backs.
A photo of a teenage boy staring at the camera with his hood up, two tattoos around his right eye

“Something in these children tells them they have to do it,” Canalis explains. Aged between six and 16, “many of them have dropped out of school or were raised by their mother alone, with their father in prison; others have never even had a room of their own.” For these teens, il cippo is more than an act of vandalism. It is a rite of passage imbuing them with an unconditional sense of purpose. Navigating a context deprived of opportunities, with criminality seizing on the fragility of Naples’ socially marginalized residents, the faces portrayed in “The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars” are those of children confronting life head on, searching for meaning and belonging even in the absence of positive role models to follow.

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A photo of a group of teenage boys sitting on a coastal wall in Naples, looking into the camera

Canalis wanted to “cast a light on the difficult sociopolitical context those kids are growing up in,” he says of the intention behind his project, which was developed over the last five years. Titled after the lines of a poem by Russian author Apollon Nikolayevich Maykov, “The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars” illuminates the feverish coming-of-age of underprivileged Neapolitan teenagers; a community existing in the shadow of the sun-drenched, slow living-inspired city portrayals recently glamorized by the Instagram feeds of global photographers and influencers alike. When it comes to documenting Naples, Canalis explains, image-makers lack critical thinking: “I see photos of elderly people sunbathing on the reefs, but no one asking themselves, ‘how has clinging onto rocks like crabs become the only way for them to access the sea?’” Born into a system that fails them, its youngest inhabitants follow il cippo as the only silver lining granting them something to believe in.

A photo of a group of teenage Neapolitan boys hanging out by the sea, a cigarette hanging from one of their mouths

In Canalis’ retelling of their pubescent reveling, they romp about on their motorbikes, act tough in front of the camera, fend off the challenges of their quest and brave obstacles bigger than them, all in the pursuit of the same fire. Perhaps most importantly, beneath their balaclavas and gritty looks, their vulnerability transpires too. On a personal level, “I was interested in rendering their state of iridescence,” the photographer explains. “This phase where they are caught between stages: half child, half grown-up; striving to be seen as strong by girls and yet more fragile than ever.” 

On his recurring visits to the Torretta district, he lensed his subjects’ bodies as they morphed from frail into sturdy, witnessed their voices grow deeper, their faces change overnight. It was through that process that Canalis realized that “allowing an idea to brew means understanding that, sometimes, a story will shift away from your initial conception of it to take on different forms, volumes and colors—to mimic the needs of those captured in it.” 

Ultimately, the collection holds a mirror up to the growing path of Neapolitan youth, projecting their vitality, hopes and dreams back at them. “When you are forced [to be in] a dead-end context, it is hard to imagine any other alternatives,” Canalis says. “With ‘The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars,’ I wanted these children to see who they are, who they can be.”

A black-and-white photo of two teenage Neapolitan boys embracing