“Let’s go eat in Naples.” said Charlie to me one drizzly winter morning. This is my sort of man, you see – he knows his buffala from his burrata and rather than nipping down the road to try the new pizza place, he cuts straight to the chase. I admit, Naples has held little attraction over the years. Italy is full of temptation: from the misty sunrises in Florence, to the epic sites of Rome and Italy is a country of villages and small towns for me. I love Florence, I was impressed with Rome and I enjoyed the fast pace tempo of Milan, but the longer I live in one of the biggest cities in Europe, the more I like my weekend getaways to include a small town square and preferably no queue for dinner. If I want buzz, I stay at home in London, so Naples’s reputation for chaos has meant that it was not on my personal top 50.
“Let’s go eat in Naples”
True to its reputation Naples is chaos. It is more Tunis than Turin. Loud, hectic and irresistibly obnoxious by day and mysterious and alluring but edgy at night. With the looming mount Vesuvius just over it and the sparkly and glitzy Island of Capri just offshore, it’s actually no surprise that this is a city of contrast. And, even though it is dirty (again more Tunis than Turin) and dark in more than one corner, it has a certain charm, which you can sample extensively over three days along with your pizza margherita.
We quickly discovered that charm is something that Neapolitans have in heaps – Charlie was re-christen Carlo by our taxi driver and in an accompaniment of bear-hugs and many “Si, Carlo, si!” a flat rate fee of €20 to our accommodation right in the middle of the old town was agreed. Now, however much they say that the Italian economy is on the brink of collapse, I am not buying it: by the time we reached the front door of our AirBnB the meter was showing €12 – these cheeky bastards will be just fine.
Our host led us up the many marble staircases as is traditional in Italy. Lifts are nowhere to be seen, but marble abounds. I was, to my surprise, rather struck by envy which I put on the curb of being a fresh, first-time owner of a flat in a mansion block in London – all this marble! Either this used to be a much posher neighbourhood or geology has been kind to Campania. This being Italy however, I would not be entirely surprised to find out that the locals simply find marble more beautiful than polypropylene carpets and, may I add, it is also superior in its fire-resistance properties?
But I digress and let’s face it – I did not go to Naples to swoon over communal residential areas and the ubiquitous high ceilings. I came here to eat and see some of that moody darkness Elena Ferrante describes in her books so beautifully.
Napoli is a city of three main passions: death, food and football. Depending on who you talk to in the city, they will tell you that one of the three is the “true religion” of Naples.
Although I did my best to avoid football, it came up in conversations with the locals almost as frequently as their mothers did (I know you are thinking, I am exaggerating, but trust me the stereotype is real).
Pizza is the highest deity with Matteo and Michele the main prophets
Food is the obvious one: pizza is its highest deity with Matteo and Michele the main prophets (more on this next time). Death, however, took me somewhat by surprise and I will focus on it here.
As a fellow Catholic (lapsed many years ago, still working through the guilt) I felt like I understand Napoli’s anguish. All things considered, geography and economy included – it makes perfect sense.
Let’s start with Naples’s rather dramatic geographic positioning – unless you duck deep between the buildings in the historic centre, you cannot escape the view of Mount Vesuvius. Not only is it Europe’s sole active mainland volcano, but it is also considered one of the most dangerous in the world because of its proximity to a densely populated city and its tendency to go out with a bang (for more keen geologists here is what I mean, but in jargon). Day trips to Pompeii, a town destroyed by Vesuvius’s most famous explosion in 79AD are offered throughout the city and too many shops and cafes bear the mountain’s name for you to ever forget a large lava deposit is only a few kilometers away. You cannot walk around Naples without at least briefly pondering the possibility of the next big eruption.
As if active volcanoes were not enough, Naples is also known for its other deadly feature – the Camorra. It might be hard to believe but this world-famous crime organisation is still going strong in the region – they are rumoured to control the fishing industry, the coffee trade and over 2500 bakeries – chances are that all my cafes and cornettos were therefore sponsoring crime. More terrifyingly the Camorra has claimed over 300 lives in the last decade in street killings and murders of other kinds. Its impact is felt throughout the city even if you are just visiting – for decades the Camorra has been in charge of the city’s waste disposal and although the authorities have managed to overcome the worst of the crisis, seeing heaps of rubbish simply lying around the city is not uncommon. Bins are overflowing and the local cat population is well fed on scraps and leftovers. Add to this the slightly dilapidated state of many buildings and an air of foreboding is palpable when you stroll the streets, especially at night.
It comes as no surprise then that the Neapolitans have taken up the traditional Italian christianity in a slightly more macabre fashion than the rest of the country.
Straight after our first breakfast at Anhelo on the old town’s main artery, known as Spaccanapoli, we decided to start our adventure in Neapolitan eeriness at the Church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco. The building is essentially a two-level chapel with the street level acting as a respectable baroque church, although a keen eye will spot some rather oddly morbid decorative elements on the facade. Below however is a whole different story. The subterranean chapel was built to serve a cult of the poor souls in the purgatory. For the uninitiated: worshipping souls in purgatory is praying for their rapid release to more decisive locations in the afterlife, at least in theory. In practice means taking care of dead bodies without necessarily burying them and making sure that they are all dressed and ready for the next destination.
The main chapel other than looking like some gloomy film set with all the walls patched up, cold light and barely any decoration is nothing until you reach the altar adorned on both sides with a collection of dusty skulls and bones. So far, so eerie, but it is the alcoves beyond that are the main attraction. Count Giulio Mastrillo, who sponsored the building of the church in the seventeenth century has a very respectable marble statue of himself upstairs. Downstairs, directly below it, is the Count’s tomb. What makes it noteworthy is that the Count (and Countess) did not bother with the traditional definitions of burial chambers and forwent the stiff convention of coffins, graves or any other encasement – you can see the Count and Countess’ bare bones in various stages of decomposition with the Count’s skull glowing strangely green from the layer of moss that covers half of it.
The back room is an open graveyard – one wall not dissimilar to the cremation ones you see in today’s cemeteries, but in this case each shelf has a nice collection of human bones stacked inside. Rather worryingly some of the shelves have photos which clearly date back to the middle of this and not seventeenth century. Two other walls are lined with simple graves – small mounds of soil under this strange roof. The main draw however is at the very end of the room and it is a colourful shrine containing a skull dressed in a wedding veil. Decorated with flowers and jewels, surrounded by a riot of colourful notes (with prayers) the skull reminded me a lot more of the Mexican Day of the Dead than the sombre version of christianity practiced in Europe above ground. Legend has it that the skull belongs to Princess Lucia, a young Neapolitan woman who died of tuberculosis shortly after her death. Her dad was a devout follower of the cult and decided to bury his daughter here. The burial logbook does not hold any record of any princesses buried in the chamber but this has not stopped the locals from choosing Lucia as their patron saint and their medium between life here and life in the purgatory.
The ban should be added to the long list of successful ventures by the Catholic Church along with ban on birth control, Harry Potter books and meat on Fridays
Bones, skulls, flowers, Lucia and not a trace of Virgin Mary in sight. The Church did not think the practice chimes well with its teachings and it did the predictable – it outlawed the cult the 1960s. Judging by the freshness of the flowers laid at Lucia’s shrine, the euro coin offerings by the unnamed skulls and candles lit around the underground chapel, the ban should be added to the long list of successful ventures by the Catholic Church along with ban on birth control, Harry Potter books and meat on Fridays.
After the morning’s experience, the visit to the headquarter of Pio Monte della Misericordia is a lot more mainstream. It also contains the city’s key art collection. Years of travelling to Italy have taught me that no self-respecting Italian town is complete without a Caravaggio and Naples is no different. The charity was set up in the seventeenth century to help the city’s poor and it clearly decided that the best way to achieve its aim would be to commission Caravaggio to depict seven acts of mercy for them. It must have been during a particularly busy period for the painter or he simply took artistic liberties with the brief as not only did he paint just one painting but also I couldn’t spot a single act of mercy in it. The painting hangs in the central altar of the charity’s chapel and the other seven walls of the room are thus adorned with minor Italian masters and their scenes from the Bible. I have a sneaky suspicion that the original plan was to have a cross at the altar and seven acts of mercy on the seven walls of the chapel, but Charlie told me resolutely that I was being overly-cynical, as per usual. The adjacent gallery, the leaflet informed us is “one of the most prominent collections of Italian art” . This is, dear reader, a lie – not only was the gallery badly laid out, it was also just a collection of mediocre non-Caravaggio paintings mainly of Madonna and Child and occasionally another biblical story. I guess this is the problem of starting with Caravaggio – after that the only way is down.
After a pizza pit stop (all the food experiences in Naples will be tackled next time), I felt sufficiently revived to up my game of Neapolitan gloom again and to that end we booked tickets to see the Capella Sansevero. Even the name sound dark and sticky, don’t you think? A fair warning here – just after climbing Vesuvius, the chapel is Napoli’s top tourist attraction and the queues are long. Top tip: buy your ticket online and skip the queues thus saving yourself enough time for another coffee or a cheeky gelato. The chapel is chapel-cum-family tomb known for its incredible centrepiece – a statue of dead Christ covered by a veil. He is carved out of a single piece of marble and is absolutely incredible. Had I not been told the veil is sculpted out of sheer rock, I would not have believed you. I cannot even slice bread in consistently shaped pieces and some Giuseppe Sammartino can chisel out a lacy shroud over a very realistic dead Jesus with a hammer – how unfair is the lottery of genes? I was also struck by another sculpture in the chapel – a man struggling to disentangle himself from a very realistic (but also made from marble) netting – all of it entitled Disillusionment. Have we not all been there?
If there is one thing I learnt over the three days in Naples it is that they leave the best bit to last
The final attraction in the chapel is downstairs. If there is one thing I learnt over the three days in Naples it is that they leave the best bit to last and if you’re going downstairs you’d better be prepared for the murkier side of town. In Sansevero the chapel’s founder, some eccentric count (not the same one as earlier) spent his spare time tinkering with alchemy. He allegedly managed to preserve two bodies’ veins and organs in an upright position with some ingenious substance. Both are of course on display.I proclaimed the whole thing was a hoax – no way I have that many veins, but my companion who has always had superior command of biology assured me that I am “mainly veins”. Hoax, no doubt.
Despite staying on Via Duomo it took us almost the whole weekend to visit the city’s the main cathedral dedicated to its patron Saint San Gennaro. By the time we reached the Duomo, the weekend’s main event had already been underway. My guidebook informed me that we were about to witness the ceremony of San Gennaro’s blood turning from solid to liquid (another hoax!) but the local knowledge from our first night in Naples (Enzo, who will feature heavily next time) told us the event is just a pompous religious procession. Whatever it was meant to be, the celebration gathered a good crowd of tourists and, more convincingly, Neapolitans turned up in scores. The piazza in front of the Duomo was full of busts of saints carried on special contraptions, the locals dressed in white carried them all the way up the street. There was plenty of men in very silly hats and it seemed like a cardinal was addressing the gathered flock- who else would be clad in scarlet to that extent?
Charlie dove into the crowd to take photos, I dove away from it right inside the Duomo which was almost entirely deserted with all the celebrations happening outside. The rather simple, gothic facade of the Duomo did not prepare me for the extravagant and ornate middle – the dome painted in a myriad of colours, the chapel of San Gennaro all clad in gold and marble. Unashamedly Italian, I thought – nobody does cathedrals the way Italians do. A lavishly decorated Duomo is as much a feature of any self-respecting Italian town as a very own-Caravaggio. Say what you want about the North and the South being different countries, but take one look at their churches and you know that the people designing them, building them and using them were all carved out of the same stone. My bet is on marble.