Seduced by Naples

A view of the city from the former monastery of San Martino.

It doesn’t take long to understand Naples.

Once you make your way through the unruly traffic, honking horns, locals shouting in thick dialect across alleys lined with wet laundry, past racy black lace garters on display in shop windows, shrines to the Madonna with blue neon and plastic flowers set into palazzo walls, churches decorated with carved skulls, women squeezed into their shirts and spike heels, immigrants selling knockoff bags, helmetless teenagers on mopeds racing the wrong way down slippery one-way streets, and everywhere the smells of strong coffee, fried dough, fresh clams and the breeze blowing in from the sea — it is immediately clear that two primal forces drive this magnificent chaos of a city: life and death.

Maybe it’s the location, set on that wide bay that looks out on movie-set-perfect Capri and its poorer cousin, Ischia, and the most storied active volcano in the world at the city’s shoulders, Vesuvius, inescapable memento mori. Or maybe it’s the history of colonization — first by Greeks, then Romans, Normans and after them the Spanish, and later even Italians, and the lingering presence of organized crime. But this is a city that has seen it all, survived most of it, and, if you have the patience to explore it, will win you over and never let you go.

Its spell can be powerful. More than elegant, restrained Florence or show-offy Rome, with its perfect, ruined beauty, and even more than otherworldly Venice, I would argue it is earthy, squalid, slightly menacing Naples that is one of the most romantic cities in the world.

I FIRST SAW NAPLES years ago, when I was working as a babysitter in Rome. It was winter. The city’s famous Christmas market was in full swing, as it is now. I was traveling with a group of scholars and archaeologists. They took us to every church in town, one blurring into the next, and I don’t remember much, besides being warned to hold on to my bag. (Always good advice. In Naples, street crime is fast and real.) Still living in Rome, I returned the following summer and stayed in the leafy middle-class neighborhood of Vomero, once a stopping point for Grand Tourists. “See Naples and Die” was the motto in that era, although Henry James’s Daisy Miller didn’t make it past Rome. In the hotel room, one window had a sweeping view onto the bay below, with the ships gliding in the harbor under a summer sun, and the other opened onto the towering hillside above. Captivated by the city’s enticing mix of looming enclosure and open possibility, I vowed to return to Naples again and again. And so I have.

In the years I lived in Rome, whenever I wanted to escape that swampy city, with its oppressive world-weariness, its perennial ability to seduce but never to surprise, I headed for Naples — and still do — a surefire adrenaline rush, a slap in the face, a semifailed state only an hour south by train.

Sometimes I start at the Café Mexico in Piazza Dante, for a perfect espresso or a “caffè shekerato,” a mix of coffee, ice and sugar shaken into a thick cream and filled with so much caffeine and sugar that it makes the back of your head throb. I calm my nerves by browsing in the secondhand bookstores that line the passageway leading to Piazza Bellini, named for the master of Neapolitan Romantic music, into the ancient heart of the city, “Spaccanapoli,” from the Italian word “spaccare,” to split, after the ancient street slicing down the middle of the old city first settled by the Greeks. (The street is now largely called San Biagio dei Librai.)

The area is now a warren of dingy, narrow streets, churches, pizzerias and shops selling Naples’s famous Christmas crèche figurines. There are countless Holy Families, but also little clay workers at their trades — the battery-operated baker forever putting his tiny loaves into the oven, the fishmonger with little silver fish — as well as statuettes of football stars and politicians, sometimes engulfed in the red flames of hell.

Deep in Spaccanapoli lies one of the great wonders of Naples: Caravaggio’s “Seven Acts of Mercy,” surely one of the strangest and most breathtaking paintings in all of art history, a weird chiaroscuro tableau that unites an old man suckling a woman’s breast, a disembodied pair of dirty feet, men in armor struggling in the semidarkness, and high above them a mother and child and two angels, Neapolitan boys really, who cling to each other midfall in a strange and tender embrace.

The unfathomable painting is tucked into the tiny church of Pio Monte della Misericordia, inside a palazzo so unassuming and smog-stained that an unwitting visitor could walk past it entirely. In contrast, the city’s other great Caravaggio, “The Flagellation,” at the Capodimonte Museum, is showcased with drama, placed at the end of a suggestively long hallway of galleries. It captures the moment just before Jesus’s tormentors unleash their fateful blows. Every time I’ve visited the Capodimonte, once the hunting lodge of the Bourbon rulers of Naples and now one of the world’s great museums, it is nearly empty, a sign that this city remains an acquired taste, not completely discovered.

The tourists who do come, many of them embarking for only a few hours from cruise ships, tend to flock to Naples’s Archaeological Museum, with its vast rooms of ancient statuary and frescoes from Pompeii as fresh as the day they were painted. (Don’t be surprised if many rooms are closed; the museum says it lacks funding for guards.)

Here, you can see the Secret Cabinet of ancient erotica collected by the aristocratic Farnese family and kept hidden from public view for centuries. There are little bronze men with giant phalluses, images of couples in flagrante, a satyr pleasuring himself. Some items were amassed by a Borgia cardinal with interesting taste, but most were discovered at Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, leading Christian moralists to believe that those cities were destroyed by volcano and mudslide as divine punishment for lasciviousness. Many currents of thought have emerged from Naples over the centuries. Moralism was never one of them.

ONE PERFECT SPRING DAY a few years ago, some friends and I took the funicular to the former monastery of San Martino, high above the city. From the garden, there is a stunning view of the sweep of the bay — the crumbling, close-packed houses, satellite dishes, the spires of churches with plants sprouting from their cupolas, the industrial port and, in the distance, Vesuvius. San Martino’s central courtyard, with slightly unkempt grass and fruit trees, is decorated with comely skulls. Its walls are heavy with marble detailing, the work of Cosimo Fanzago, the master sculptor of the Neapolitan Baroque and a favorite of Anthony Blunt, the British art historian who pursued a second, even more baroque, career as a Russian spy. The marble is elaborately worked into ripe apples, ornate flowers, curved shapes suggestive of both male and female genitalia. Even in the cloister, one finds another inescapable essence of Naples: the coupling of sex and death.

Wandering around San Martino that day, a friend and I came across a room with landscape paintings of the Bay of Naples, the luminous stretch of coastline that first caught the attention of the Greeks in the eighth century B.C. They made land just up the coast from Naples and named their settlement Cuma after Kymi, the village on the Greek island of Evia from which they first set sail. (Naples, Neapolis, the new town, came later.) Kymi is also on a bay that rises up a steep hillside. The landscapes, old and new, echo each other. And maybe, I thought to myself that day, the history of the West begins with a handful of Greeks setting sail for farther shores, searching for a place that reminds them of home.

After Cuma, the Greeks moved down the shore to Naples and called this settlement Parthenope, after the siren who tried to lure Odysseus to the rocks. Even today, you can tell that Naples was once a Greek city. It is the quality of light, which is stronger and clearer and feels more ancient and essential here — and in all of Magna Grecia, the Southern Italian regions that were once Greek colonies — than the light of Rome, with its softer pinks, or the steady, subtle light of the Italian north, with its countless shades of gray.

For centuries, Naples lorded itself over Rome by asserting its Greek origins. “By staying Greek and not being a political player in the region at all, Naples became everything Rome was not,” Peter Robb writes in “Street Fight in Naples,” his excellent 2011 book, which brings the dramatic history of the city to life. “Neapolitans were free not to be serious. Free to cultivate their Greek garden, and not unaware how deeply Romans remained in awe of Greek culture. Being Greek was a kind of revenge, a soft power of its own kind.”

Naples is also a realm of the spirit. In “The Aeneid,” written by a poet from Mantua who felt most at home in Naples, observing the power politics of Rome from afar, Aeneas stops at Cuma on his way back from the Trojan War before founding Rome. There, the Cumean Sybil, so beautifully depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, advises Aeneas how to descend to the underworld from nearby Lake Avernus to visit his father, but warns of the danger of the journey. “Offspring / of gods by blood, Trojan Anchises’ son, / The way downward is easy from Avernus ... but to retrace your steps to heaven’s air, / There is the trouble, there is the toil,” she says. Lake Avernus is still here today, now in the semisuburban sprawl outside Naples, surrounded by a NATO outpost.

These days, the grotto of the Sybil — where Ingrid Bergman’s character has a breakdown in “Voyage to Italy,” Roberto Rossellini’s 1955 film — is an ill-marked site reachable on confusing local roads, their signs obscured by rushes, in the grim areas that stretch from Naples northward up the coast and are the stronghold of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. A friend and I once went on a rainy afternoon. A handful of mustachioed guards waved us past without asking us to pay. Inside, we were the only visitors. The cave is a long tunnel with a few narrow slats for light. From the woods, you can see the ocean below. I found the site profoundly depressing. The rain, the weight of history, filled me with sadness, a sense of the futility of human endeavor. Had so many centuries of civilization led only to this, a Mafia-infested area of ugly concrete, bad roads, poor zoning?

THE CITY’S PAST sometimes seems to shine brighter than its present. After the quieter years in the 13th and 14th centuries of the Angevin French, who left their mark on some of the city’s most stately medieval architecture, it was the Habsburgs who helped turn Naples into the cosmopolitan capital of the vibrant Spanish empire, which it remained for centuries, a hub of commerce and learning. The young Cervantes was stationed here for five years as a marine, and the Quartieri Spagnoli, now a bustling working-class neighborhood, was built to house the Spanish troops back in the days of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the period when southern Italy was under Spanish rule. Back then, the Italian south was far richer than the impoverished north. After Italy’s unification in the mid 19th century, living standards and per capita income in the south plummeted. To this day, many in Naples believe the south was better off before unification.

Naples now has a left-wing mayor, Luigi de Magistris, a former anti-Mafia magistrate, who has tried to solve the city’s persistent garbage crisis, a phenomenon deeply linked to organized crime. The city has never been easy to govern. In 1547, the Neapolitans revolted against the imposition of the Spanish Inquisition. A century later, Neapolitan peasants revolted against their Spanish overlords, furious that they were being impoverished through taxes to pay for Spain’s foreign wars. In 1943, when the Nazis began rounding up Neapolitan men, the furious women of Naples fought back, successfully driving the Nazis out of town, albeit on a killing spree, in a rare mass citizens’ revolt against the German occupation.

In “Naples ’44,” his remarkable diary from a year spent as a British intelligence officer in the city at the end of World War II, Norman Lewis recounts tales of mothers prostituting their daughters and Allied officials making devil’s bargains with local gangsters. Everywhere, people looked for miracles, believing the intercession of the saints would save them, while one smiling priest takes another tack, selling umbrella handles carved from the bones of the saints. “He, too, had to live,” Mr. Lewis concludes.

In Naples, survival instincts alternate with leaps of faith. It is here that the faithful flock to the cathedral to see the miraculous liquefaction of a vial of the blood of San Gennaro, and where even St. Thomas Aquinas, the theologian most committed to the demands of the rational, believed that a painting of the crucifixion in the church of San Domenico Maggiore spoke to him. Somehow, in Naples, this all makes sense. Here, the line between the realistic and the supernatural is forever blurred.

The history of conquest has also left its mark. “O Francia o Spagna pur che se magna,” the old Neapolitan saying goes: It doesn’t matter if we’re governed by France or Spain, so long as we eat. This Neapolitan realpolitik, a cynicism about power, can seem dangerously close to nihilism. And yet this city is bursting with life. The food especially lingers in the mind — fresh fish carpaccio and Sancerre at the Pescheria Mattiucci on a cool evening on the cusp of spring; the paccheri alla Genovese with beef and caramelized onions at L’Europeo di Mattozzi; a simple margherita pizza at Di Matteo, its dough just slightly springy, its marinara sauce not too salty or sweet (“this pizza,” a friend once said, “is like a kiss on the forehead”).

I once read my horoscope in the Naples daily newspaper, Il Mattino. “Love: It’s useless to try to find a logical meaning, ask questions and analyze with the mind what’s happening, the answers are only in your heart,” it read. “Work: Chaos reigns supreme and you just can’t catch a break. Put everything aside and wait for help from the next moon.”

ONE WINTER DAY I was with friends at the pastry shop Scaturchio, famous for its sfogliatella, delicate layers of pastry stuffed with ricotta and orange peel and dusted in confectioner’s sugar. We messily tried to eat as we walked, laughing so hard that we blew the powdery white sugar all over our dark coats. We passed the Gesù Nuovo church, with strange mystical symbols carved in its rocky facade, and entered the cloister of the church of Santa Chiara, a garden lined with colorful majolica scenes from the Old Testament.

Evening was approaching. High above the cloister walls, the sky turned a pinkish blue. The world felt far away. The sounds of the city faded. Outside, boys were playing soccer in the churchyard. There we were in Naples, like so many before us, suspended between the sacred and the profane, the silence of the cloister and the chaos of the world. Campa un giorno e campalo bene. Live for the day and live it well.

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