Napoli: Under the Volcano

In Naples, it took me a long time to learn how the lock on the main door of our apartment block worked. The key turned, but I would use all my strength and the lock still wouldn’t give. The trick was to grab a firm hold of the bars on the caged door, thrust the entire door forcefully up as the key turned, and hey presto. When I was still struggling, there was sometimes a North African concierge hanging around, or the permanent residents were quite happy to assist; you got there in the end. It sums Naples up, for I thought this was a great city. It’s a rickety mess where everything appears on the point of collapse, yet somehow it all manages to work. It is as if Naples remembered about health & safety halfway through, and thought “Nah, I’ll just wing it”, which fits my temperament perfectly.

If you want the whistle-stop tourist experience, Naples will confound you; the three nearest bus stops will be closed whilst the diggers excavate an entire piazza. Four-fifths of the historic buildings will be covered in scaffolding, probably behind a mocking fabric screen containing a computer-generated impression of what the building looks like underneath. You will have to move aside every few seconds for the vespas zooming down the side-streets. It is not a city to whom it would ever occur to lay on plastic gondolas for American tour groups: the Circumvesuviana train, that goes to Pompeii and Sorrento, makes the subways of Death Wish seem like the Orient Express. Things exist to facilitate the rough lives of the poor folk who live here, and you are incidental. But if you stop standing on ceremony and just go with the flow, it all clicks into place.

Norman Davies’ interesting tome Vanished Kingdoms illustrates how we get history wrong, by looking at previous eras and framing the powers at that time in terms of France, Italy, Germany long before even the idea of such states had any currency. If certain dice had rolled differently, Burgundy or Byzantium might still be major players in the EU (as we come to terms with the break-up of the United Kingdom, he reminds us that this process started in 1922). You can see this first-hand walking around Naples, which was very much the Bourbon capital in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. There is a Bourbon style repeated again and again, of buildings in a red/pink colour with a dark grey trim, like giant Raspberry Ruffles. Next to the booklet in our flat explaining how the boiler and the wifi worked was a booklet informing us that Naples had been stabbed in the back by the great stitch-up that was the Risorgimento, that Bourbon Southern Italy was actually more economically productive and affluent than the failed states of the north but that inept and cowardly leadership had enabled the foreign takeover and occupation that is modern-day Italy. There’s evidently a great deal of frustration on both sides.

Bari Vecchia was a good dummy run for Naples, where it’s still tight-knit and poor neighbourhoods but on a wider scale. We stayed in the fascinating Quartieri Spagnoli, a grid of dark little streets lined with high-rise buildings , independent grocers, fishmongers, and the like on the ground floor. It was interesting just to watch life go on here. One thing I really liked was that old ladies would avoid the bother of stairs by hoisting plastic buckets down with rope, and shouting their order to the corner shop or the neighbour below (I was very grateful that our 5th floor place had a functioning lift, even if the two of us could barely squeeze into it). They may be poor, but there is at least an infrastructure for poor people- the city isn’t just 800 branches of Pret. A bar near us did hefty mixerless prosecco spritzes for 1 Euro, or 75p; two would get you very merry. You could get a take-away pizza from the best places in the city for the same price. The Quartieri Spagnoli occupy one side of Via Toledo, the main corso that provides the spine of the city, running from the heights to the seafront, where everyone takes their passeggiata and does high-street shopping.  It is as if the streets north of Oxford Street were one gigantic council estate; London feels very far away.

I always get rapturous about these cities when I’m on holiday, but being on holiday might have more to do with it. Naples’ woes are well documented, but I found it to be magical in the most off-handed way. It started when we stepped off the train; bracing myself for the infamous traffic, I was surprised to enter Piazza Garibaldi and find everything weirdly silent. The streets were cordoned off, lined with a smattering of crowds. With a shrug we tried to make our way to the flat. Crowds got gradually thicker and I noticed some flags that read “BENVENUTO FRA NOI, PAPA FRANCESCO”. Surely not, we thought to ourselves. Then four police motorbikes whizzed past, then next thing I knew the fucking Popemobile was in front of me and the Pope and I were dumbly waving at each other. This Pope gets a good press. We wondered what he was doing in Naples and assumed it would be to dispense platitudes. Tuning into the evening news, we found that his speech had seen him go after the Mafia and declare that “this city stinks of your corruption”. The best pontiffs are the ones who bare their teeth.

That the Pope appeared in front of us upon arrival, and then vanished, was oddly typical. There is an immense density of historic and unique features crammed into the ramshackle, grimy city centre, but Naples shrugs off this dazzling array. They aren’t painstakingly preserved in aspic like they would be in Venice or Paris, in fact they are left to dilapidate and come apart. It would horrify some people, but I found it had a paradoxical charm; this centro storico, for once, was not a carefully-curated museum but a living, teeming city.

A prime example is found in the city’s Duomo. It is said that Naples contains 440 historic churches; when you’re there, the inclination is to give up and not try to see any of them. We stepped into the Duomo during Sunday morning mass simply because it started raining heavily as we were passing. Most people were in the main church; a small baptistry to the side charged 1.50 entrance. They don’t make a big deal out of this at all and hardly anyone bothers with it. Inside, the ceiling is all C4th mosaics, from before the fall of Rome.

They are wonderful. Maybe half the domed ceiling has lost its mosaics after centuries of fires, earthquakes and wars but there is still a lot and they are vivid, artful, technicolour representations of people and animals not too far away from the magnificence of Ravenna. Perhaps we’re too used to painting, but the technique used to convey things in mosaic bowls me over; little things like the way soaking wet togas are clinging to legs in a baptism scene.

The chapel leading to the baptistry was filled with sculptures, frescoes and memorials. There was a Byzantine-era mosaic that was technically brilliant, but so remote, austere, and so less human than the Roman one. The Madonna and Bambino are actually scowling at you as if you’ve seriously pissed them off just by existing. The pagan world recedes, its qualities not to be seen again for a millennium.

Neapolitan pizza was the best food I have ever tasted, the dough floaty and dreamy, like sinking into a goose-feather pillow. Goethe should have said: See Naples and diet. The churches often seem to be similarly floaty and dreamy in their baroque. You can see why the Grand Tourists, after having boned up on their history of art in Venice, Florence and Rome, would come down here to let their hair down and bask in the sun and sensuality of it all.

A big draw is of course Pompeii and Herculaneum. The latter was a fishing town and not as wealthy. It is smaller, less famous and less visited, its buildings better preserved by a flow of mud instead of Pompeii’s hot ashes, so we chose it over Pompeii. Half the town is yet to be excavated, and before you descend to street level you can see how the Roman town is literally right under the modern-day Ercolaneo. Presumably anyone unlucky enough to live on the edge is being forced out, one-by-one, by compulsory purchase orders.

The best thing about Herculaneum is the opportunity to walk the actual streets of an actual Roman city. With a little imagination, it really helps you to piece together this lost world. There are houses, of course, shops and temples, and an awful lot of places for lunch, which Romans always had out. The staff worked behind bars just like they do today, each bar with five or six big jars of produce.

The fragments of art are a mixed bunch. Romans really went in for these linear, geometrical paintings which leave me as cold as Mondrian does. Classicists have identified four different phases in these paintings but I didn’t know what to make of it. Easier to get my head around, if not better, was the figurative painting. The colours used were interesting; millennia later, the floors and worktops are still reasonably bright and, weirdly enough, reminded me strongly of the designs that surrounded my childhood in the late eighties. I read that Ridley Scott originally wanted Gladiator to be a totally authentic film, but when historians told that him all those Roman temples and palaces would have been painted bright garish colours, he changed his mind.

There were two or three great scraps of mosaics, but the best things have been safely moved to the Archaeological Museum; it’s surprising how much has actually been left to the open air here. Our visit was probably very atypical but Naples was wetter than Glasgow that afternoon and it was hair-raising to think of all this invaluable stuff being eroded by heavy rain.

I made the usual museum mistake of spending too long on the first two or three buildings, which were just bland houses. I think the very last place I went into -by which point I was physically shattered, soaked through and unable to take much more in- was perhaps the best thing there; the baths with their segregated rooms, saunas, and fantastic Neptune mosaic floors.

Although the Archeological Museum, back in town, is the repository for the best of Pompeii, its spine is actually the Farnese collection, that fell into Bourbon hands through marriage. When this powerful family got into the Vatican with Pope Paul III, they collected the best treasures from the parts of classical Rome that were being excavated at the time, like the baths of Caracalla. There are a number of gigantic statues, startling for their beauty but deservedly the most famous is the Farnese Bull.

It has more activity and clamour than most group paintings and it is carried by such juddering muscle and energy and force that however many circuits you do of it, you never feel like you have taken it all fully on-board.

After the really big statues is the hall of emperors; from Caesar on, most of the famous names from the early empire are there, but not Nero or Caligula. I wonder if this is because they couldn’t find any or out of prudish disapproval (which seems beside the point when the empire basked in its naked power and totalitarianism). I’ve always liked Vespasian, who mocked the habit of deifying good emperors with his last words of “Woe is me, I think I’m becoming a God”. Here he looks like a bluff, good-humoured Northern manager of a Championship club. Caracalla, on the other hand, seems as unhinged, loathsome and dangerous as Roy Keane.

No-one in the museum can wait to get around to the Gabinetto Segretto, where all the Roman pornographic material is kept, but as I look through my photos I can’t find any worth publishing. It’s all very tame. There’s Pan raping the goat, that was brought to the British Museum a few years ago, and a few satirical figurines of scholars who are so into their books that their neglected members have become grossly outsized a la Aubrey Beardsley’s Lysistrata pictures, and some paintings from a brothel showing the coital positions in which their girls are accomplished. The room is full of sniggering French teenagers, and not really all that. When it comes to that sort of thing, the Internet has ensured that the age we live in is far filthier than any age before.

Far better are the selection of frescoes and mosaics from Pompeii, especially the mosaics: some of the ones depicting theatrical troupes are startlingly lively and perhaps exceed the best mosaics of Byzantium. The cat below could have walked in out of a Dutch master’s still life.

Back on the streets, there’s quite a lot of fascist architecture if you find that sort of thing interesting. I found myself snapping bank buildings on Via Toledo and being stared at as if I were doing the tango down the street with a donkey. A lot of the best ones, such as the incredible Post Office, are clustered together in one spot, which is, very pointedly, currently being used as a car park and called Piazza Matteotti (after the political opponent the Blackshirts beat to death). The Post Office is coated in graffiti. As with the dilapidation elsewhere, it feels organic, like weeds, moss and vines growing out of the earth and covering over the monuments of past civilisations.

There are some very early Christian remains in the catacombs of San Gennaro, with hourly tours. Naples’ patron saint’s bones were here for a while, but have been moved around several times over the centuries. These are subterranean burial sites and chapels, like the cave churches of Matera, and the oldest sections date from the C3rd. Our guide pointed out how early Christianity adopted all the common symbols of Roman paganism; Jupiter became Jesus, Mars and Venus became Adam and Eve, the cupids became cherubs, and so on. Peacocks painted over tombs symbolised eternal life. The family painted below had two layers underneath, the painting being modified each time another of the family died; we know the child died young, the husband next and his much younger wife (in mourning colours) dying last.

When deciding what sights to investigate, I like to check Tripadvisor reviews; I was very surprised to find that the Archeological Museum and the Capodimonte Gallery came somewhere around #26 and #32. I did the museum anyway, thinking that perhaps its great paintings had just been curated in a stuffy, inexpert way. The first few rooms start with a big bang. There are Titians of Popes and the recipients of their nepotism, all sly and guarded. There are Michelangelo drawings, Botticelli, Raphael, El Greco, Brueghel, Caravaggio. But there are a lot of rooms, and the proportion of crap gets greater and greater as you progress.

The next level is the rooms of the Bourbon monarchy, which are over-the-top in their splendour to the point of silliness. Paintings here are all pompous royal portraits and Canaletto-ish views of the Bourbon king riding into the Vatican and being feted like the second coming. You feel like the ideals of the Renaissance are being debased by acquisitiveness, and the simple primal need to have the biggest car; this lot were to the Medici what we are to Victorian England. Nice monkey on the chandelier, though.

Then there’s another floor of great paintings, a religious ivory carving from Nottingham (!) and some modern art, but your brain is saturated by this point and you wish you’d spent far less time on the ground floor.

This is up to the north of the centre, on a hilltop; there’s a big park which gets more visitors than the art inside. On the big raised boulevard back to the city centre, you pass the Sanita area; accessed by a lift down to ground level. This rough area was much beloved of neo-realist filmmakers and I found it far more interesting than the swanky areas. We really looked like fish out of water walking around. Maybe I was naive but I didn’t feel threatened, just a slightly bemused indifference, despite all the talk about the most destitute parts of Naples being no-go areas. The worst we got was the people trying to sell bricks inside iPad boxes outside the central station, about whom we had already been briefed.

The Lungomare is a good place to promenade, conversely, if you want to see Naples at its most handsome. The port is around the other side and this is all nice views, although the hilltops facing the sea have obviously been subjected to a Mafia-driven housebuilder’s free-for-all. Neapolitans and NIMBY do not really mix.

As you stroll along the seafront, the horizon is altogether dominated by the size and shape of Vesuvius, as instantly recognisable as the Eiffel Tower or the Wren dome of St Paul’s. Having seen Herculaneum, I started wondering if Vesuvius was the key to why everything is a bit slapdash and held together by sellotape. Naples lives under the volcano. It killed everyone once before and it could happen again tomorrow. Life is short, death is always on your doorstep, why strive for perfection and make yourself anxious over something you cannot control? Many visitors see the chaos and mess of Neapolitan streets, and proclaim that it is closer to Cairo or Delhi than Europe; perhaps the root cause of this is a spiritual one.

The street corner shrines of Bari are very much in effect here; some have photos of deceased loved ones, and are adorned with trinklets and personal effects that from our cynical standpoint, we interpret as kitsch. But here they are sincere. The living live with the dead. Every wall has posters that look like they are for concerts, but are actually death notices, informing people about forthcoming funerals.

This reaches its apotheosis in the quite moving Fontanelle cemetery, which you have to walk right through the Sanita and all its corner boys to find; we got there five minutes before closing time on our last day in Naples. It was shut down in the 1960s, when the Catholic church declared that Naples had descended into fetishism, but has recently been reopened to visitors.

These are tall caves in the rock, where anonymous skeletons were moved when the churchyard graves filled up and people insisted on being buried at their parish church. It became a paupers’ grave when plague and cholera wiped out swathes of the populace. In the C19th the haphazardly buried remains were excavated in an attempt to put them in order, and volunteers began adopting and caring for individual skulls; building them little houses, asking favours, leaving them tokens and flowers, and lighting candles to pray for their souls; if they didn’t, it was thought, nobody would and the souls of the poor would never find peace.


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