The area of Piazza Mercato used to be the belly of Naples. Founded on an open space below the city walls on the water’s edge in the city’s earliest days, it became a place of commerce, rebellion and public execution. In the late 19th century during the city’s ‘reorganisation’ it became cut off from the city as new roads were built to its north and south. And it suffered from heavy bombing during WW2. Today it is a shadow of its former self.
Sunday morning is a great time for a stroll in the area. You can start at the Porta Nolana market with its noisy, vociferous street traders selling fish, vegetables, pirated CDs, dodgy cigarettes, plastic toys, second hand clothes and fresh pasta and bread. You can then head towards the bell tower of Santa Maria del Carmine next to the market square itself.
The cover photograph captures a day in the square in the mid-17th century. Peter Robb, in his book Street Fight in Naples, calls the picture ‘The Market Place in Naples’ by Gargiulo ‘an image of the choral theatre of Neapolitan life, and like the best Neapolitan art it filled an essentially static scene with a winning dynamism’. Look closely, he writes, and you can see the outline of Vesuvius, picked out in the clear air, thieves, bare-legged barefoot children brawling, monks, mares, beggars, sellers, buyers, animals, the drunk, prostitutes, horses, coaches, the police, and the unconscious. In short, a snapshot of everyday life. You can almost hear the hubbub of market day and smell the stench.
Today the square is rather tatty and used as a car park. Post-war tenements surround it on three sides, covered in graffiti with washing hanging from the apartments. A few children kicked a ball but there little other sign of life on the Sunday we visited. A local parade set off to collect money for a festival. Inside the churches, the faithful attended mass.
The square is cut off from the sea, its previous lifeline. The vibrant world of Gargiulo, where Masaniello, the Captain of his people, was ‘born and married, lived, worked, was followed, adored, betrayed, humiliated, murdered..’ has been lost forever.