Raoul Pagnanelli (or Enigma): the Neapolitan drag queen who escaped the Great War

by Francesco Li Volti

Naples, 1916. Al Goldoni Theater a variety that included the likes of Armando Gill, Tecla Scarano and a certain Raoul Pagnanelli, under the heading “Different attractions". And we actually talked about different attractions. Enigma, as she called herself when she went on stage, she was the first Neapolitan drag queen (and probably also Italian) because, at the time, going to see a man dressed and made up like a woman at the theater was really something unusual.

Pagnanelli's art was imitation and, during his career, only once did he actually act, but to interpret Colombina on the centenary of the birth of Antonio Petito, in 1922, proving himself as a singer with Palummella zompa and flies. But the story of this character was much more than you can read in these lines. Class, courage, irony, humility, education and a lot of Neapolitanism: this was Raoul Pagnanelli, a hero about whom we know far too little today.

Raoul Pagnanelli: the first drag queen

Raoul Pagnanelli was born in Naples in 1896, but immediately made himself known for his skill in imitating women. Official imitator of the divine Anna Fougez, he toured Italy, from Palermo to Rome, up to Naples, where critics wrote: "Changing sex does not produce disgust: quite the contrary, because the voice, the gesture, the clothing, the grace are so feminine as to give you the perfect illusion of a vague female appearance!“.

The press, strangely, never went against him, on the contrary, he immediately appreciated its effectiveness and the student spirit, specifying that those skirts and bras were only scenic gimmicks, and that they absolutely did not reflect his sexual orientation. A decidedly more than particular attention, given the more than homophobic times that ran.

A drag queen at war: imprisonment

With the outbreak of the Great War Pagnanelli in 1917 was forced to embrace the rifle and was thus enlisted as an infantry soldier. It will be a very hard time for the Neapolitan artist, especially after being captured in Caporetto, in 1918, when it will be conducted in a German concentration camp in Schwörstadt. Incredible but true, even within this context Raoul Pagnanelli managed to practice his art, entertaining the enemy troops and staging his workhorse, the Enigma shows.

Once the hell of the First World War is over, he returns to Rome and in 1920 we find him at Salone Margherita in Rome. In Naples, at the Kursaal theater, with Gennaro Pasquariello will stage a new show.

Raoul Pagnanelli (or Enigma): the Neapolitan drag queen who escaped the Great War
Italian prisoners after the defeat of Caporetto

International success is "a mysterious death"

The year of the consecration was 1925, performing in France, in Paris (where the public fell in love with it), in Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Germany. Thanks to his experience he was able to steal the habits and ways of doing the foreign stars of those times: from Evelyn Dove to Fiammette Hildegarde, up to Aurora Castillo. It will be from this moment that the bill will no longer be cataloged among "different attractions" but between "transformist imitators".

In 1929 Pagnanelli moved permanently to Paris, making him lose track. There are those who say that committed suicide for love or in Nazi prisons after being arrested because dressed as a woman, who even went on to say that he could have been killed ad Auschwitz, accused of being homosexual. We don't know how his days ended, but what is certain is that during his life he never stopped fighting for freedom, in all its beautiful forms.


Antonio Sciotti, The stars of comic song, Arturo Bascetta Editore, Avellino, 2021

Il Mattino, Fabio Vacalebre, Enigma, the first Neapolitan drag queen who (perhaps) died in Auschwitz, 28 December 202

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