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(cover picture) Belmonte, Thomas
2005 The Broken Fountain: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition. Columbia Classics in Anthropology. New York : Columbia University Press.

Notes: xlii, 228 p.: ill.; 23 cm. ISBN: 0231133715
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 13 Aug 2006 by:
John Gill <>
Wellington, New Zealand
Medium: Written Literature
Poor - Italy - Naples - Case studies
Family - Italy - Naples - Case studies
Naples (Italy) - Social conditions - 1945- - Case studies

ABSTRACT:    A masterpiece of urban anthropology when first published in 1979, this anniversary edition has more than stood the test of time. An ethnography of a low socioeconomic neighborhood in Naples, Italy, with a particular focus of family violence, it is innovative in both subject matter (urban Naples) and style, (reflexive without self indulgence).

Thomas Belmonte’s The Broken Fountain was a masterpiece of urban anthropology when it was first published in 1979, and this 25th Anniversary Edition, with a foreword by Ida Susser and an afterword by Pellegrino D’Acierno and Stanislao Pugliese, has more than stood the test of time.

The aspect of The Broken Fountain that I found so interesting when first I read it in 1989 was that the community being studied was an urban European one, a low socio-economic neighborhood in Naples, rather than an isolated, rural community in Africa, Asia or the Pacific.

Belmonte’s first fieldwork visit to Naples was in 1974, and his second, upon which the chapter ‘Return to Naples’ was based, in 1984. By 1984 both his old hosts and neighbors and Belmonte, nowtenured at Hofstra University, had changed.

In his first chapter of the original book, Belmonte, an American, expresses his apprehension about his assignment, and highlights his inability to speak Italian. These personal shortcomings are almost a ritual of traditional fieldwork in the third world and at first seemed out of place in the urban environment in which he planned to work. However, as his work progresses it is evident that he is a stranger at the table, that the conversation he has and listens to, and the activities he observes and participates in are significantly different from his own home life.

While Belmonte briefs us on the economics and demographics of Naples, this is not sociology; rather it is a deeply personal work based on observation and participation. We feel his discomfort in living in this neighborhood: he is lied to and robbed; the locals do not trust him at all; they think he is a police spy.

We hear Belmonte’s distress about the abysmal parenting skills of his hosts Stefano (a junk collector) and Elena (Stefano’s wife); they play favorites with their children and Stefano is physically violent. In fact, family violence is one of the major themes of The Broken Fountain, and he documents six instances. The other major theme is food preparation and service. Elana’s central role in the family is expressed through food and Belmonte describes four major examples .

The Epilogue, the Return to Naples, still finds the neighborhood squalid and decayed. Belmonte has returned to decide whether he can research and write a sequel in the footsteps of Oscar Lewis’s classic, ‘The Children of Sanchez’. Belmonte comments:

“My visit with Stefano’s family left me gratified and relived. After all, didn’t they treat me as though I belonged in their midst? In some ways, didn’t they regard me as a member of their family? In their presence, and especially in Stefano’s presence, I felt less alone, less exploitive, and thus less of a stranger.” (page 173)

On the other hand Belmonte was already questioning the legitimacy of his claim to the knowledge he had gained through anthropology (page 157) and was apprehensive about how Stefano’s family would react to reading The Broken Fountain.

When the Neapolitan news media gave attention to Belmonte’s return to Naples, Stefano’s family teased him about having become a plumber and publishing a book they deliberately mistranslated as ‘The Broken Sink’. Stefano was both mystified and impressed (page 177) and advised him to write a movie next time as the money is so much better than writing academic books.

The result of this visit was that Belmonte decided not to write the sequel. On reflection he realized that he had lost his scholarly independence and could not regain it without compromising his friendships.

In the foreword, Ida Susser, one of Belmonte’s former teachers, comments that Belmonte was one of the first ethnographers to chart his emotions as well as those of his informants, and that Belmonte managed, a decade before reflexive ethnographraphy, to be reflexive without being self indulgent.

In the afterword, Pellegrina D’Acierno suggests that the main body of The Broken Fountain can be read as ‘a portrait of the anthropologist as a young man’, with Tom Belmonte ‘as Stephen Dedalus, who keeps finding and losing his professional vocation in the labyrinth’ (page 203).

Belmonte died of AIDS in 1995. The eulogy by Stanislao Pugliese, one of Belmonte’s former students, is a moving tribute to a great teacher.

The Broken Fountain is a wonderful introduction to modern ethnography. Its innovation is in both the subject matter (urban Naples) and its style (reflexive without self indulgence). Susser says that good ethnographies have long lives, 25years and counting, signals that The Broken Fountain is one of the best.