By Tam Hussein
Article appeared in Emel, March 2012, reproduced with kind permission. Full unedited article is below.
When Stendhal said “See Naples and die” I didn’t know whether to believe the 19th century author. After all, the old hedonist had said the same thing about Venice too, but standing on the precipice of the famed volcano Vesuvius I knew he could’ve meant that literally. This sulphurous beast had consumed Pompei and Herculanum with just a belch.
I peered at the sprawling city of Naples held hostage by the volcano and thought that if it blows this ancient city is finished. My father in Law, my guide for the day, nudged me towards a 16th century Baroque observatory turned museum that rested on its slope. “This is the place” he said with a hint of pride, “where the science of Vulcanology was born”. And yet, how peculiar and bold of Neapolitans to insist on constructing their houses so close to the crater of an active volcano. Did they not know that it was illegal to build on a designated nature reserve? I demanded to know how they did it. My father in Law gave a wry smile and offered that typical Italian expression that consisted of a monosyllable “eh”; a syllable that captures all the irony and vitriol and requires no knowledge of Italian to divine its meaning. He pointed to the port of Castellammare in the south, then to the port of Naples in the north with its huge cranes unloading Chinese leviathans and said: “for the same reason that powers that be allow the Camorra to control those ports over there”. I wanted to probe him further about this criminal organisation, but by then he was already complaining about the illegal landfills that the shady organisation had created. Illegal rubbish dumping had not only threatened its citizens with its toxic waste but also its precious water buffalo that produces the milk for that white cheese known as Mozzarella– a hall mark of Italian cooking.
I didn’t know which one my father in Law felt more livid about; the rubbish or the fact that his cheese was contaminated. But in truth this was not the time for listening to lectures on cheese and beasts of Indian origin; I stood on Vesuvius holding the bay of Naples like a cup in her hands. The perfectly blue sea shimmered in the sunlight, with one of the most enchanting islands in the world, Capri, in the foreground. I couldn’t help thinking that this Island, a play ground for the rich and famous, had once been a naval base for the Ottoman admiral Khayreddin Barbarossa. Further up the coastline, Naples rested like a listless bather disturbed only by the half Island of Nisida stabbing out into the sea. I peered closely into the verdant green mountains surrounding Naples and beyond lay towns like Pozzuoli emitting its sulphurous smoke through its pavements, scalding hot mud, and devils stink. From Vesuvius it became abundantly clear why the Greeks, despite the risk of invasion from sea and an active volcano decided to colonise the bay. It possessed fertile volcanic soil for its grapes and citrus fruits and a calm deep harbour. Unsurprisingly by the 9th century BC this ‘Neapolis’ or new city had become a hub for trade and industry. I also understood why the Romans would make this place into a perfect holiday retreat for rich emperors and famous lawyers like Cicero. Fortunately these days you don’t need to be rich to holiday here; low cost carriers will take you here within 3 hours and the relatively cheap hotels around the railway station Piazza Garibaldi makes it affordable for those on a budget.
Drive in Naples and you will hate it. Traffic and the fact that the language does not possess interrogative particles makes one realise why Neapolitans use such colourful gestures, intonations and invectives that make Hollywood actors weep. Neapolitan drivers follow traffic regulations that are so full of exceptions that they are obsolete. Bizarrely, there are even T-Shirts with seatbelts printed on them with the express intention of disobeying the seat belt law. But if you walk the picture becomes very different.
If I had time I would have liked to several days exploring the horde of artefacts from Pompei and Herculanum at the National Museum, and the art galleries bursting with renowned artists like Carvaggio to the lesser known painters like Rosa and Solimena. But my father in Law wasn’t that sort of man; he was a business man and wanted to show me ‘real’ Naples.
Part of the ‘real Naples’ was shopping but that didn’t mean nice Italian boutiques with nice shop fronts and exquisitely dressed people. No, shopping Neapolitan style meant going to the Piazza Garibaldi served by people with typical Neapolitan names like Pasquale, Antonio, Gennaro in a raucous cacophony of gestures and flurry of words. Once you have negotiated past these stall keepers where everything is made in China, and gawped at the crowd gathering at the prospect of winning some money at the game of the three cups, once you have seen the athleticism of Bengali and Senegalese migrants running with their livelihood on their heads as the police drive past, you realise that boutique chic belongs in Milan.
Perfume and electronics are suspiciously cheap. Entering a perfume shop where goods were packed to the rafters with an assistant wrapping four presents a minute (with tassels), the owners would accept only cash. Asked about the ever present Neapolitan habit of accepting only cash, my guide told me “Neapolitans dislike taxes” and in all likelihood those perfumes had some sort of Camorra connection; most goods in Naples usually do. Being in Naples you realise why Italy has a specific force policing finance. “Remember you need to keep your wits about you here,” said my father in Law, “it doesn’t matter how respectable they appear, if they charge you 1 Euro to make a photocopy and don’t give you the receipt call the Guardia di Finanza, who will black mail them for a bribe- problem solved”.
Don’t be put off though, there are designer boutiques a plenty here, but then why not buy something made in Naples? The city is famous for its bespoke tailoring and leather products worldwide. If you can afford the price tag, the shirts of Anna Matuozzo and the cravats of Marinella and leather goods of Fratelli Tramontano are probably the best purchases to go for.
Here food is a serious affair; a city where a Pizzamaker or Pizzaiolo can earn more than a teacher’s salary, and people pay for quality and what is in season. It is a city where franchises fail. And yet despite insistence on quality and freshness, the food is not expensive. Owing to its curious history; Naples is a city where street food is king. Although Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, its Spanish rulers were absentee landlords and treated it as a huge tax farm leaving the city impoverished; and so street food flourished catering for the poor and downtrodden. The best place to experience this is definitely the Old City where you can still have a Pizza or a focaccia for two, for less than 20 Euros. The best ones are indicated by the crowds waiting outside; the smell of wood fire ovens keeping them waiting; Di Matteo, I Presidenti, and Trianon are especially good. Naples also offers some great Trattorias that can rustle up some delicious pasta dishes with a variety of seafood from fresh sardines, squid and shellfish, to desserts and divine ice creams. Just make sure to remind them not to add any liquor or wine to the food.
After a leisurely lunch we explored Spacca Napoli, the area around the two parallel roads, Via dei Tribunali and San Biagio dei Librai that cut the Old City in half like the colourful washing strung up on the line. The locals are so busy with their daily lives that they miss the great conflict in the heart of their city; that of the self indulgent architecture of Baroque and the more subdued lines of the Renaissance. This conflict seems to continue even underneath Naples; we went on a subterranean tour of Naples on Via Tribunali and we found miles and miles of tunnels excavated to collect material for its buildings. Except here Baroque does not compete with Renaissance architecture but Greek tunnels with Roman. The tour is claustrophobic and creepy but a fitting parable of what dark secrets this city withholds. But just because locals are oblivious to this conflict does not mean that they don’t care for tradition. Make no mistake this city is jealous of its traditions. In Spacca Napoli Pulcinella, the mascot of Naples, still plays Renaissance love serenades and Pensioners smoking Toscanas still play cards on the narrow streets with Renaissance designs. Far from it, tradition is an integral part of life.
One prevalent tradition here is belief in the super-rational. As we explored the Spacca we found an ancient woman in black sitting in her basement flat drinking coffee and selling Frankincense, red cornas or chilli peppers used to ward off Malocchio, the evil eye. In Naples new or old t is not strange to find statues of the Franciscan monk Padre Pio said to have saved downed fighter pilots or an odd shrine devoted to Diego Maradona. In fact, if you want to see an example of Neapolitan devotion visit the enormous Baroque church of San Gennaro; not only is it magnificent with its frescoes from Lanfranco and paintings by Ribera, it also holds the bones of St. Januarius, Patron Saint of Naples, and the two phials that purport to hold his blood. The saint was martyred in Pozzuoli in 304 AD; his blood was collected and transferred to Naples. Three times a year thousands gather to watch the miraculous act of the martyr’s blood liquefying, if the miracle does not occur it is considered an evil omen. Neapolitans will tell you that it failed in the year of the volcanic eruption in 1944, and the year of the earthquake in 1980.
As is usual in Naples, this belief in the super-rational is tinged with darkness. Naples seems to love the morbid in more ways than one. It is said that over 40 000 bones are kept at the ossuary of Via delle Fontanelle, this cemetery where Neapolitans come to adopt a skeleton in order to converse with the Other side. This cult though condemned by the Vatican still continues unabated. This darkness is also captured in its art; visit the church of San Severo and wonder at the Neapolitan artist Giuseppe Sanmartino who captures all of Christian pathos and emotion in the thin veil of marble that covers the Christ figure in death. There’s darkness in its science too; go down stairs of the San Severo and be confronted by the macabre efforts of the alchemist, Prince Raimondo di Sangro who managed to preserve an intact display of two arterial systems. How he did it confounds scientist to this day as is the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his servants. Even in the presepe or nativity market on Via San Gregorio Armeno amidst the delicate scenes of the Nativity there is a devilish sense of humour that pokes wry commentary on Italy’s woes; of unprincipled politicians, footballers, and mafioso and death all rolled into poignant nativity scenes. I wondered where all this darkness came from.
The answer came to me as the day came to a close. We ambled from the neoclassical Piazza Plebiscito with its pantheon of Bourbon kings and earthy red royal palace, to the Castel Nouvo the fortress on the sea. Eating a brioche filled with ice cream my father in Law said that it was because God peopled this heavenly city with devils so that it could not compete with paradise above. Say one thing about Naples and say that it is as distinct as its coffee, lively, full bodied, vigorous, yet dark and bitter.