ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
“On which Nelson turned his blindest eye.”
To arrive in Naples by car is to have embraced confusion, and the inability to park your vehicle. Even the locals remain perplexed. Streets, it seems, are not made for parking.
This motor mayhem commences way before you even enter the magic of Campania. Having crossed the San Bernadino, and dropped steeply into Italy, it makes its début somewhere in the region of Milan, on the Autostrada del Sole. It apparently was always so. And will be now. Enquiries used to be met with: “Naples? Just head south, straight down the centre, and veer right after Rome.” It’s still the way to go, and not a lot has changed. Anyone caught in the melee coming out of Milan on a Friday afternoon needs the patience of Jove, a deity supposed to be in charge of thunder and lightning. Slow it is, and it’s not going to get any faster with all the SUV’s hogging the outside lane.
Motorways are ubiquitous, and now unreliable. What was, is now designated the E35, discharged out of the mouth of the Gotthard Tunnel, and joined at Modena by the E45 that has crept surreptitiously out of Austria. You get a lot for your money. Instead of being on one or the other, you are on both! This state of affairs lasts until Bologna where they part company, and you have to get a firm grip on yourself. The E35 sneeks on past Florence in the right direction, while the E45 heads off to the Adriatic, which is not so useful if you expect to be in Naples by evening. By a circuitous route you may arrive back somewhere near Orte, a grim little place in the vicinity of Viterbo, where they join up again, and in tandem head for Rome. At this point the E35 vanishes, leaving you alone with the E45 to Naples. Right on!
If you suspected the meddling hand of psychopathic Brussels, the ‘E’ is something of a red herring, organised in collusion with a United Nations Commission who have aspirations for the whole world. Why bureaucrats should want to change all the road numbers, inflicting a huge cost on transport ministries, I have yet to fathom.
Those of an intolerant disposition, and who still insist on going to Naples, should; therefore, go by train. It’s high speed, it’s calm and it’s clean. When you arrive at the Stazione Centrale, close to the historic centre, you’ll find it’s more than a stretch of a leg to where the action is. However, in an effort to circumvent this inconvenience, those of a nervous disposition should avoid the taxis. These vehicles are opertated by the genetic offspring of Greek ancients, who imagine they are driving a tethrippon at an Olympic game. Their modern Hippodrome seems to consist of high speed pavements, ‘one way’ streets, central reservations, short cut city parks, red lights, and on occasion, back yards full of washing hung out to dry. As long as you like living dangerously, and don’t mind travelling in a car that appears to have no brakes, there’s no quicker way of getting to your destination. It’s an absolute must for the brave. A gentle friend of ours, short of the Italian vernacular, having the misfortune of experiencing this ordeal, insisted that the concierge of her hotel prepare a written caveat, presented on boarding a vehicle, that its progress must be conducted in a civilized manner. I think it might have been better if the lady had elected to go by omnibus.
On the other hand, if you’ve come by car, and managed to avoid getting lost in the industrial centre, you’ll be more than aware that you’re finally on the right ‘track’ because the main streets have tram lines, and are cobbled, as in most historical places. But as this is Naples, and stones are portable, they have a tendency to wander. The roads are subsequently made up of a series of holes. A collection of nave plates; therefore, line the pavements for you to retrieve at your leisure, but it’s unlikely to be the one that left your car. Never mind. As long as it fits.
If you need four wheels to feel at home, you can hire a bicycle at the sea front along the Via Francesco Caracciolo. They take two, and are fitted with a soft top for the boy racers. I didn’t enquire how much, as they looked too flimsy to ward off the maniacal drivers trying to find those non existent parking spaces, and weren’t fitted with a horn or bumpers.
Some people seem to have given up altogether, and go to the office by boat!
With your car safely towed away you can turn your mind to more important things. Getting out and about was never so decisive and impetuous a decision. The Greek colonists were working too hard in creating Magna Graecia to enjoy it. Homer, not yet being on the internet, hearing of his chums daring do, pinched the idea, and created the Odyssey from their exploits. The climate, suitable for lemon trees and a nice tan, was to make it the playground of the Romans. Not wishing to miss a good thing, the Roman poet Lucretius wrote his masterpiece ‘On the Nature of Things’, influenced by the Epicurean atmosphere of the place. At eighteen, I thought it a racy tome. The noblesse oblige of the first century thought so too, and discarded the ‘responsibility’ by putting ‘pleasure’ into practice, setting a trend that is still with us.
Sneeky, classical bits are still everywhere. There is, as you walk the streets, a parallel Naples right beneath your feet. Something like a sandwich with Greek on the bottom, Roman in the centre, and God knows what on top. About these you should know. The Cammora are not members of the ‘underworld’ for nothing!
You can explore this clandestine place, via the San Lorenzo Maggiore, and walk down subterranean lanes lined with small shops; the ‘King’s Road’ of their day. Business must have been bad, they’re all closed, and not even a single ‘for sale’ sign. As Augustine Birrel noted, I was in ‘That great dustbin called history’. As history repeats itself, is this the sign of things to come? Apparently, one hundred and fifty acres have been excavated. It’s quite spooky walking about in the sixth century BC. Neapolitans should be grateful; the arches are still holding up a great chunk of their city!
If going underground doesn’t suit, you can still get an idea of the general ensemble in the Piazza Bellini, where a sunken pile of Greek walls, green with age, fends off the surrounding Baroque palaces. It’s definitely not the sort of place where a McDonald’s would give it a touch of class! But then, is there anywhere?
Just round the corner you find the Poet’s quarter, home to the second hand book shops. You can browse at leisure on the street where all the bargains are to be found, just like in any English country town. Always on the look out for a steal, I came across an uncut 1938 edition of Ariosto’s ‘L’Orlando Furioso’ with copious notes, for one euro. It hardly turned out to be a find, as the Italian text would baffle most of Italy, let alone a novice. ‘Archaic’, my Italian friend said. Not to worry. It looks the business.
For an excellent idea of how things were before Vesuvius and the bulldozers laid most things waste, a visit to the National Archaeology Museum will provide the necessary enlightenment. The original intention of this huge, neat building, was as a cavalry barracks, and the space is monumental, like a great many of the exhibits. Having moved metres of walls to display stunningly decorated rooms from Pompeii, it’s just as well they had a little elbow room. It’s all there, even the naughty bits for grown ups behind closed doors - if you like queuing. More edifying, I’m sure, are the statues, ‘Danzatriei’, five life size bronze, blue eyed maidens. Leonardo’s La Gioconda (Mona Liza), has nothing on them. Besides being decidedly more beautiful, their eyes do everything for the imagination, except blink!
Digging in Naples is a hazardous gamble for public spirited councils. Two metres down, into the new metro, they can stumble upon a Roman port in the Piazza Municipio, or an Imperial Roman villa where they’re going to put the next station. Workers get used to leaning on their shovels, not something they learnt from the Romans.
Undergrounds are something the Neapolitans do well, having been at it for over two and a half thousand years, and the mod’s haven’t lost the swing of it. According to legend the Cimmerians built their city underground as they had an aversion to the sun. Strange, when you think, a pair of Ray Ban’s might have altered history. Pliny – he who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD – reckoned that Campania was a land full of caverns. He wasn’t wrong. They’ve obviously had plenty of experience, and are still at it. Having been let loose on the hole in the ground that is the new Metro, the Spanish architect, Achille Bonita Oliva, created a mosaic wonderland at the Toledo Metro Station, letting William Kentridge use tesserae in a Byzantine extravagance that demonstrated public toilets couldn’t have it all their own way.
You should find time to go on the Metro. It’s a work of art, and a museum all in one. Take your time. You’ll want to get out at every station, and all for the price of a tube ticket. On the Bakerloo line? I think not!
Back in the open air one is consistently aware of the architectural glamour of the place. The churches are so varied that one could spend years studying them. I don’t advise it. Years ago, in Gubbio, I determined to visit them all, an exercise which exasperated my better half into confessing that she really couldn’t take any more Virgins and babies, making the perceptive observation that not one of them represented the same woman. Or even the same baby! You can suffer a serious religious crisis in the attempt. Photography would have put a stop to all that, and we’d have known the VM wasn’t a blonde, even if JC was. For that reason, with over four hundred churches, Naples was out. Caravaggio or no.
However, one or two looked too interesting to miss. The Gesù Nuovo is no ones idea of an Italian church. It sits in its own piazza like some giant toad. Converted from an old palazzo, the whole front façade is constructed in dark blocks of piperno, a volcanic stone found in Naples. Cut in a diamond form, the shadows from the undercut give a monumental heaviness without any relief. The front is just windows and doors. Not a statue or saintly figure to suggest its holy mission. The inside? You wouldn’t have guessed. It’s a golden blaze of decorated light in a vast marble airy space with frescoes by Solimena in a softer, but muted style of Tiepolo. As you’d expect, they’re crowded with fascinating figures that are busily minding everyone else’s business. Never was an architectural contrast so cleverly contrived. Ideal for keeping the tourists from cluttering up the place.
Naples, always prone to excess, once had two cathedrals. This, courtesy of Constantine, who on his last legs embraced Christianity, having heard that baptism expunged all past sins. As the Emperor’s read like a two volume thriller, this was politic. So they built a Roman and an Eastern cathedral, more or less side by side. Charles the First of Anjou stopped all the nonsense, and built the Duomo over both of them. Some say it was his son, the Second Charles, or even both of them. How long does it take to build a church, I ask?
A descendent, Robert of Anjou, was not to benefit from this patronage, being buried in Santa Chiara. His wife it seems, was the benefactor, for this is her church, convent and monastery. All three, and none of your vanilla flavoured hokey-pokey, or do I mean hanky-panky. The ‘Poor Clares Cloisters’, many years after the Royal demise, was turned into a Rococo rustic garden. Everything is over the top. Predominantly yellow majolica tiles seem to cover everything; the seats in the avenues portray harbours and country life; even the octagonal pillars supporting the bower overhead manages to find itself festooned with majolica flowers and fruit. It reminds you of that old military aphorism: If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t, paint it!
If you only have time, or the inclination, for one church, then this must be it. The Capella Sansevero. It is justly famous for a series of sculptures, and the somewhat ghoulish patron who commissioned them. Raimondo di Sangro, Prince and alchemist, was a connoisseur of art as well as a bisector of corpses. Apparently, he invented a system for removing the body completely leaving only the arterial system. He left two in the crypt for you to ponder on – a male and a female – though you wouldn’t put any money on which was which. I suppose you could consider him a prototype Gunther von Hagen, the remarkable doctor who invented a system that plasticizes parts of the anatomy so they can be studied in detail. He has an international exhibition, ‘Body Worlds’, that tells you all you need to know. Smokers will rush past the pair of lungs, one as black as coal, the other blushing pink. Better than any health warning. Go if you have the chance, but it’s not for the squeamish. These were once real people, after all! If you expected the chapel to be a realm of normality the Prince at least meets you half way. The ‘Veiled Christ’ by Sammartino is impressive, but excessive, as is the thinly veiled nude ‘Pudicizia’ an allegory to Raimondo’s mother by Corradini. A symbol of ‘Modesty’ it is not. On the other hand Queirolo produced a work of art that pushed the art of sculpture to a point where there was nowhere else to go. ‘Il Disinganno’ is a tour de force, so brilliantly executed that you refuse to believe that it’s carved from one piece of material. They say his assistants refused to carve the knots, believing it to be impossible. Cum sit credere!
The palaces line all the streets, and are so architecturally intoxicating and concentrated round the centre that no other city can really compare.
Therefore, it is something of a shock to find that the wealth of Mammon seems to have been working overtime. If you accidently wander off course the reality is starkly revealed that these main streets were mere facades where the poor were never actually ejected from the centre of the city, just hidden behind the palaces in equally monumental tenement blocks. All that was to change with the arrival of Garibaldi in 1860. Without a kingdom the aristocracy faded away, leaving streets lined with empty palaces. As expected, Queer Street moved into Bond Street, but in a very Neapolitan way. The stables on the ground floor became homes for the destitute; the first floor or ‘piano nobile’ for the rich, and titled; second and third floors by the middle classes, and the upper floors by the working classes of clerks and craftsmen. It represented to Neapolitans the natural order of things. These buildings are often magnificent romantic wrecks, best viewed in the lanes of Spaccanapoli, hidden behind stout gates with still impressive courtyards, and gigantic stone staircases to the ‘piano nobile’.
In the very same lanes you can find streets dedicated to that comedia dell’arte, Pulcinella. Legend has it that he was a real person, a farmer called Puccio d’Aniello, who so impressed a troup of itinerant comedians that they prsuaded him to join them.
He’s not to be confused with Pinocchio, or the Cornicello, a good luck charm that seems to dangle from more automobile mirrors than Saint Christopher. I even saw one in a rusty car abandoned with the prams under the arches. Perhaps the owner of a bicycle wheel chained to a lamp-post round the corner should have had one, though it was obviously no match for a spanner. I don’t think they come with a guarantee, so it’s no wonder. Obviously they don’t all work. Still, you should get one. They ward off the evil spirits. I haven’t touched a gin since, though it seems to have overlooked my cognac.
Alas, there is also a different, even dangerous world, that is better not visited after dark. A heavy police presence lingers at the corner of the Piazza Plebiscito, as does the notorious Spanish Quarter lying across the road, behind the Via Toledo. The latter is a fine street that changed its name to the Via Roma after the Risorgamento, and only recently changed back again with the return of swank. You can’t park your car there either, as it’s generally ‘wall to wall fitted’ with people. I’ve never been able to see the pavement! One part is strategically filled with street traders, their wares neatly laid out on a sheet. They don’t pester you, and loiter quietly until the police appear, whereupon they vanish before your very eyes with a swift fold of the sheet, and a puff of dust.
Gambrinus is there, only a few steps away, a bar of perfect manners, providing a perfect espresso at a vivace pace. You can take it standing up with the locals, or not; sitting down in ‘The English Tea Room’ where the Earl Grey comes with lemon in the proper manner. I didn’t try for the cucumber sandwiches.
Opposite is the San Carlo opera house which is reputed to have the most perfect acoustics. I know not, but it sounds very good to my tin ear. An interesting detail is the mirror on the wall of the boxes. If you sit down, and look into it, you can see the Royal Box. No doubt when their highnesses got up for a little light relief, you followed etiquette, and rose to your feet. The interruption must have done wonders for the opera. No one told them their days were numbered, even as the opera house went from strength to strength.
Meanwhile the Neapolitans outside, who Cato considered a race of incorrigible rascals, continued to mutter under their breath, prise up the cobbles, and wait for Garibaldi who was making his way to their deliverance by a circuitous route.
This domestic dualism wasn’t meant to last, anyway. Unlike the nobility, the new metropolitan elite with their dubious genealogy, couldn’t bear any retrospective collective memory, taking over Posillipo as their own, and turning it into the only area of Naples, where behind the luxury villas, there are no working class homes. Exclusive it is. You can only glimpse some of the villas from the sea. Money talks!
Pozzuoli, round the corner, on the other hand, tries to retain its homogeneity, despite the shakes, and parts of it disappearing under the sea every 700 years, or so. A sometime, ‘Now you see it, now you don’t’ sort of place. I was sceptical until someone pointed out the Temple of Serapide, an occasional fish market (I kid you not) subject to immersion, with barnacles attached to the top of the Corinthian columns. Not surprisingly, the metropolitan elite never saw the place as a good investment.
Not everything in Naples is beneath your feet, some things are up in the air. The Funiculare Centrale from the little Piazzetta Augusteo off the Via Toledo, is missed if you blink. It takes you up to Vomero, a modern conurbation totally devoid of the voluptuous atmosphere you’ve just left. So why would you go? Beside the ‘in house’ entertainment of actors posing as itinerant salesmen plying their wares, and a view consisting of brick walls, and back yards grinding slowly by, the final panorama really is no less than stunning.
The fort at the top has not a lot to admire being extraordinarily plain, and the French were supposed to be good at forts! Perhaps the overwhelming beauty of nature’s efforts makes everything else look dull.
However, the view from the monastery of San Martino placed handily in front of these military barracks, is nothing if not spectacular. They’ve messed about with the fourteenth century original, adding a quite impressive colonnaded cloister with Tusco-Doric columns during the seventeenth century. The background behind this is the glorious shimmering blue sweep of the Bay of Naples, and the misty grand-daddy of all volcanoes. Far too close for comfort if you ask me.
The Museum of San Martino includes a fine collection, if not the finest, of Neapolitan Cribs. Ignore the groans, and any Christmas religious prejudices, these ceramic figures of which the Neapolitan shepherds once ruled the roost, are straight out of the neo-realist films of De Santis, drawn from everyday life, representing people in their daily round. Some are nearly full size. The baker, the cobbler, mother in the kitchen, the priest and the lawyer. The very faces you can still see in the street today. Every possible person is there, except me!
Forts and volcanoes figure strongly in Naples. Something to do with Big Brother, and the easily excitable geology, on which it stands. I am reliably informed that there is no such thing as an extinct volcano, just forgotten ones. As the Castel dell’ Ovo stands on the ‘extinct crater’ of Monte Echia, its foundations are a little suspect. The egg (uovo), could be considered a romantic fabrication. Virgil is said to have buried an egg in its foundations, but I fancy he was a thousand years too early to give the Normans a hand. Still, given the castles situation, a poached egg might be possible! The Neapolitans still shake their fist at it. A mystery, until you realise the canon are pointing inwards, towards the city! The Masaniello uprising had made the Habsburg’s edgy.
Naples is also a city of dogs. This is no aspersion, as they lounge in unfettered bliss all over the city. Most look quite dead, or at least untroubled by the thousands of people swirling round them. Naples might be where they coined the expression: ‘let sleeping dogs lie,’ and lie they do. They all have their favourite places. The more sophisticated ones occupy the ‘Fontana dell’ Immacolatella’ by Naccherini and Bernini on the sea front. It is surrounded by a nice lawn, a very useful thing for a dog, which these, thankfully, seem not to use. A large number are also to be found on the cobbles (one up from the tiles) of the Piazza Plebiscito, where they lie in supine bliss, and a large waist high friendly beast can be found in the Via Console outside a bar, where it appears to have been trained to bark when it espies a policeman. The odd thing is, it even knows those in plain clothes.
On the train back from Pozzuoli you may be accompanied by a canine passenger who apparently goes to Naples, and back on its own. It is remarkably well behaved, sitting by the door disturbing no one. Apparently it’s been doing this for some years with a season ticket, and the blessing of officialdom. No doubt he has pals in the Piazza Plebiscito.
But the place to see Neapolitans at their very best, despite the pick pockets, is the Piazza Plebiscito, on New Years eve. Tactfully, it has been sensibly evacuated by the dogs. The crowd is packed tighter than that in the ‘Campo’ of Siena for the Palio, except it’s continually moving and swelling in time to a cacophony of noise in which the Neapolitans can demonstrate the richness and spontaneity of their character. Fortissimo it is. Giant bubbles seem to glide through the crowd in which attractive Neapolitan young ladies seem to be encapsulated. They are not powered by anything except the crowd, who push them on with attentive gentleness. The traditional concert in the piazza, added to the thunderous din, is as spectacles go, spectacular. Ear plugs mandatory. Not surprisingly the explosive Neapolitans have a passion for fireworks, and they come in such profusion, welcoming in the new year, that they must light up the whole of Campania. But enough is never enough, for when the official show is finished the private ones take over, and continue spluttering and banging in the sky until it’s almost dawn. Too noisy for me, so a quick exit. Never mind. The young will be young, and I’m off to bed. I doubt if I shall sleep a wink.
Naples. Thousands of years of history to explore in one small place. Once you’ve been you’ll always be seeking a way to go back. See Naples and die, they say. Don’t worry, you’ll be far too busy seeking out all its treasures to consider it!
Now, what have I got booked for this next millennium?