The bella and the brutta of Napoli: sublimely beautiful buildings; the traffic so heavy it takes to the sidewalk. These buildings are on Via Toledo, the main street that connects the Capodimonte Palace, high above the city, to the porto and the glorious Bay of Naples belowI ’ve been all over Italy in the past 25 years, but Naples—Napoli— is where my heart is. It’s where my DNA is, too. Everyone there looks like a cousin. Grandma Josephine (Giuseppina) was from a hill town above the city; Grandpa Antonio was from the island of Ischia (you can’t see the island from the port as you can Capri; Ischia is off to the north, a 40 minute ride by hydrofoil, but still part of the city of Napoli).Napoli itself is the personification of Yin and Yang, Italian Style. It’s big, noisy, hot, congested, dirty—and sublimely beautiful. Povery exists check by jowl with extraordinary wealth, like the renovations going on next to crumbling buildings, or the generosity of a shopkeeper (‘ssage, ‘assage, dialect for "have a taste,") in direct proportion to the taxi driver who tells you the meter’s broken and then charges you double what would have been on it.
Open city: I love how the door to the pizza display swings out onto the street
I go there in early spring when the mornings are cool and the churches remain refreshingly so all day. A classic cultural mosaic, Napoli started life as a Greek outpost, Neopolis—"new city"—several millenia ago, and over time was built up by the Romans, and in recent centuries by the Spanish who ruled it for two hundred years. The architecture reflects all of this. You can, for instance, leave the Spanish Baroque (and the motorini, the motor scooters, and the Smart Cars) of street level and descend to the remnants of a Roman street and shops, and below, that, to the stones of a Greek road.
The ubiquitous lines of laundry hanging overhead are a metaphor for Neapolitan life. Everything is out in the open: the immodestly clothespinned underwear, the shop displays dramatic as stage sets, the gelato machines pushed aggressively out into the middle of the sidewalk. It’s not unusual to see families sitting down to dinner, napkins tucked under chins, in a kitchen that’s open to the cobblestoned streets. On the streets, the motor scooter is an al fresco stationwagon holding the driver, a passenger, a couple of kids and the groceries.
More life on the street. A theater set? No. A family is assembled on the steps of a church for a photo op (how convenient for me) for a boy's First Communion. The horse and carriage is a dramatic touch, no?
Even the inside is outside. This is the Cloister of Santa Chiara, cool and quiet, despite the noisy street life of Spaccanapoli on the other side of the walls. The majolica tiles are unusual in that they depict Neopolitan life, not scenes from religious life. It's a museum now. You can see orange trees and grape vines on the grounds
Animated conversations take place on street corners, and from balcony to street level, and from motor scooter to sidewalk, and via wireless, as the talkers gesticulate wildly to one another—or to the air in front of them when a cellphone is involved. I know this sounds like a cliché, but it’s not. (When I was a kid, my parents would say, "Don’t talk with your hands." They might as well have been saying, "Don’t walk with your feet." It just can’t be done in Southern Italy or its diaspora.)
Down by the water, seagoing life is surprisingly well scheduled as ferries and hydrofoils pull in and out of the port. (Except for the sciopperi, the one-day strikes that take place just when you want to go somewhere.) In Santa Lucia, the picturesque orignal port increasingly crowded by restaurants, muscular old guys painting their boats stop to flex for a tourist—is this real life or theater? Oh, right, it’s Napoli, so real life is theater.
I've never been here when the shrine to Santa Lucia wasn't freshly painted. The fisherfolk take care of her--and she of the them, at least the faithful. "Without me you can't do a thing," says her plaque
Maybe this is where my stripes come from?
Italy is a Latin country, and south of Rome, you really feel the passion, the color, the heat. Hispanic Latins have son and salsa; Iberian Latins, flamenco and fado. Italian Latins, the Neapolitans in particular, have their songs of heartbreak and longing, and the opera of the stage and the street. The languages and expressions are different by degree, but these are cultures cut from the same passionate cloth.
Next post: The Islands in the Bay