Nearly 2,000 years ago, Pompeii, Herculaneum and other Roman towns situated at the foot of Mount Vesuvius were buried after a violent eruption. Thousands of their residents died from the noxious gas, pyroclastic flow and stream of ash-laden mud.
Twenty years ago, Naples itself was buried under extraordinary flows of dangerous material, a victim not of the terrible volcano nearby but of corruption and ineptitude, which led to a garbage crisis of such proportion it threatened the health of the city’s inhabitants and nearly crushed the local economy.
Those were dark times, when foul fumes wafted through the city, when rats ran amok, when residents were forced from their homes, when fresh air was hard to find, when the local mafia dumped toxic waste in the surrounding countryside. The hopes offered by then-Mayor Antonio Bassolino, a left-wing go-getter with enormous pride in his city, were torn asunder by the accumulation of refuse (uncollected mountains of it throughout the city) and the ensuing controversy.
Naples already suffered from a bad reputation. Foreigners were warned about the place, told to protect their wallets and purses, admonished to avoid certain neighborhoods. The reputation for crime and disorder was exaggerated. I have been visiting the city for more than 30 years and never lost a single lira to a pickpocket (though I was recently swayed into buying unwanted pairs of socks from a sad sack who claimed to be unemployed, and I have certainly paid too much for a hard-to-find parking space).
Even back then, when Naples resembled Earth in the Pixar movie “Wall-E,” the great capital city of Italy’s South delivered its reckless charm and seduced anyone with an inclination to rummage through a rich culture full of fascinations and delicacies.
Today, Naples has become a bustling tourist destination, one of the most popular in Italy (especially among Italians). The garbage is long gone — shifted to Rome, which currently is coping with its own crisis. Some of the disorder is gone, too. Drivers in this notoriously equivocal city actually stop at red lights now.
It’s a city with so much to offer, visitors would do well to plan a solid week there. Or more. Within an hour by car or boat is Reggia di Caserta, the enormous palace and gardens; the aforementioned Herculaneum and Pompeii; the Sorrento peninsula and Amalfi Coast; the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida; the volcanic Phlegraean Fields of Pozzuoli and more. You can visit Vesuvius’ crater. You can root for team Napoli at the San Paolo Stadium (“Juve merda!”). You can gorge on Mediterranean vongole in Torre del Greco, or experience creative Neapolitan cuisine at Il Ristorantino dell'Avvocato where Raffaele Cardillo, a former lawyer, is respectfully re-imagining typical local fare.
For me, Naples is great fun during the Christmas and New Year holidays. That’s mostly because Zio Peppe cooks up a storm. And Zio Peppe is a very good cook. It’s also because it feels good to immerse oneself in this lively urban environment, so enriched by cultural pride and great art, as well as a creative entrepreneurialism informed by a mix of desperation and joie de vivre.
My Neapolitan wife likes to tell the story of the parking attendant at a bank she visited one day. The bank was full of people, and the number she had drawn indicated a long wait. She left in frustration, only to be greeted by the parking attendant who, with a smile, said in dialect, “Do you want to buy a 14?” Every so often, he would venture inside and pull a couple of numbers from the dispenser then return to his post, waiting to read impatience on the faces of customers.
Naturally, my wife took him up on the offer, placing a one-euro coin in his palm and returning to the bank.
That creative entrepreneurialism can backfire, though. Sometimes it betrays an ugly provincialism or an embrace of corruption. At Reggia di Caserta in early January, the bike rental guy ran out of inventory by 1 p.m., and what inventory he had consisted of wheezing, decrepit two-wheelers with flat tires. The shuttle bus that takes visitors three kilometers to the far end of the garden — where the source of the long, cascading fountain is located, as well as the entrance to the recently renovated English Garden — was not operated by the palace people and therefore cost an extra couple of euros. Upon arrival at the English Garden portal, we were told it was closed for the day. Really? At 1:30 p.m.?
But maybe this stubborn insistence on maintaining ancient day cycles and life rhythms is a good thing. Maybe it represents the determination of Neapolitans to refuse the pressures of modern commercialism in favor of adhering to tradition, to a cultural inheritance made in equal parts of pride, joy, cynicism, fatalism, humor, negligence and nonchalance.
This nonchalance has its benefits. In another Italian tourist destination, Venice or Florence, for example, prices are more or less set according to a combination of demand and touristic naivete. In Naples, instead, you can still eat a good pizza for about 4 euro and get a terrific espresso for around 1 euro.
It’s also the city, more than any other in Italy, where the arts flourish. I mean the new stuff. Perhaps it’s because the economy of Italy’s south is such a wreck and unemployment so high that Neapolitans seem to be so educated and creative. Not all of them of course; there’s a sizable working class too busy surviving to attend the theater, let alone write plays. But those with ambition and some means tend to be action-oriented, preferring university degrees over joblessness.
The art of Naples
The art makers are many, come in various stripes and find great satisfaction in creating works that reference, directly or indirectly, their beloved hometown. Take Lello Esposito, for example. He started making sculptural San Gennaros and pulcinellas long before it became fashionable to do so. He made it his business to turn Vesuvius into an icon of Naples and to reproduce in bold flourishes the famous Neapolitan curniciello — “corno” in Italian, which means “little horn” and which wards off the evil eye and promotes virility.
Esposito’s big sculptures and paintings have been exhibited all over the world. The artist, among the city’s great advocates, has inspired others to celebrate Naples. The band FOJA, led by singer-songwriter Dario Sansone, has adopted a style at once modern and reminiscent of Neapolitan folk music. Sansone sings in Neapolitan, not Italian, and he is often accompanied in part by Luigi Scialdone’s mandolin.
Or take tattoo artist Enzo Brandi, who inks beautifully rendered “souvenirs of Naples” on many of his clients, featuring a view of the soccer stadium or a Pulcinella-curniciello combo or a view of the famous gulf and coastline. Brandi, whose tattoo shop is located in an apartment building in the upscale Vomero neighborhood, says he strives “to create a style that is an expression of the culture to which I belong, that of Naples.”
Or consider Edoardo De Angelis, who is among a growing number of filmmakers from Naples or focused on the city. De Angelis’ recent films, “Mozzarella Stories,” “Perez,” “Indivisibili” and “Il vizio della speranza” all are set in the greater Naples area and all include explicit geographical references and address social and economic issues facing the people of Campania. Other filmmakers, such as Alessandro Rak, are reinvigorating not just Neapolitan culture but Italian cinema itself.
These are among the contemporary merchants of Naples. They are at the front of a long line that includes actor-comedians Totò and Massimo Troisi, singer-songwriter Pino Daniele, opera star Enrico Caruso, playwright Eduardo de Filippo, novelist Elena Ferrante and many more. No wonder the ancient Romans liked to settle around that big volcano: it seems to fertilize more than those famous little tomatoes.
The ruins of Naples
Vesuvius certainly was a draw to the people of Herculaneum, who in their ignorance of the looming threat seemed to live it up pretty good. I managed to pay the ruins a visit on a beautiful Sunday when admission was free and post-New Year crowds were modest. I have seen Pompeii — or, rather, what’s left of it — on a few occasions, but I had never been to the smaller sister city that remained undetected until a farmer dug a well in 1709 and hit pay dirt, so to speak.
Initial excavations, using tunnels to access the site, produced some spectacular statues. Then, during the first part of the 20th century, Italian archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri really got things going — at Herculaneum and Pompeii — with systematic excavations that revealed huge portions of these remarkable cities.
They were inhabited by wealthy Roman families who lived in large villas overlooking the sea, gathered and socialized at the forum, played sport and exercised at the gymnasium, attended to their gods in the temples and at the shrines, collected written papyrus scrolls in their libraries, milled grain and cooked bread in their stone kitchens, fished in the waters of the Gulf of Naples and traded goods near and far.
Some thought to look over their shoulders once in a while at the looming, silent monster behind them. In 62 AD, the magma miles below the Earth’s crust stirred, sending shock waves to the surface. The earthquake damaged and destroyed many of the old Roman buildings. It was but a warning.
At Pompeii, archaeologists recently uncovered the skeletal remains of a man who, while trying to escape the hot bombardment of volcanic material in 79 AD, ended up flat on his back with a large square rock atop his head and upper torso. Excavators also found the cavities left behind after two horses embedded in the rubble had decomposed.
Walking through the Herculaneum archaeological site, I was struck by the beauty of the place. The fish were jumping back then, and the living was easy. What is left of the wall frescoes and fountains and gardens and shrines and kitchens indicate a booming little local economy and a happy retreat from the bustle of Naples.
Marble floors, painted walls, elegant fountains, public baths lined with mosaics, a vast gymnasium, a large forum, a remarkable library — these are among the amenities enjoyed by residents before the Great Incineration. Today, visitors can view carbonized wooden beams and doors, the remains of fishing nets and many other objects that were preserved underground for so many centuries. It’s quite a sight.
Pompeii has not yet revealed all its wonders, and only about 25 percent of Herculaneum has been excavated. The discoveries are bound to continue for many years to come.