Napoli: A poem for Sunday

The boat was beating across the bay,
we had our backs to Vesuvius,
the wind smacked our faces.
Naples was an enormous packet of cigarettes
you could smoke till you conked out:
the cigarettes were never going to run out
and nor was the coffee, the drugs,
the prostitutes, the locked churches,
the scooters, the rice cakes, the evil eye,
the boys called Gennaro, the funiculars,
the shrines to Madonna, the shrines
to Maradona, the bullet holes, the heat,
the permanent state of crucifixion.
Anyone could be crucified two thousand
years ago but to be crucified now,
to be crucified in Napoli — lift me up!

By Julian Standard.  Source: Poetry (October 2014).  Photo via Panoramio Luca Terracciano

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Piazza Berlini, Naples

In the middle of a little square to the west of the Centro Storico is this statue of Vincenzo Berlini, the Neapolitan composer, who was associated with the Naples Conservatory of Music.  When you wander along Via Tribunali, you can often hear music wafting from the windows of San Pietro a Majella church, today’s nearby home of the conservatory.  The statue used to have four smaller females statues around it, now long stolen or vanished.  Berlini here only has a pigeon, a tourist and graffiti for company.

Lonely Planet describe the square as ‘eclectic, bar-lined..roguish and raffish’.  It is very busy on Saturday evenings when it is filled with locals, students and artists.  A place to hang out for the young and also those young at heart and a good spot for an aperitif.

Naples – Do you Love it or Hate it?

Naples has divided and continues to divide opinions sharply.

‘Naples is an ill-built, ill-paved, ill-lighted, ill-drained, ill-watched, ill-governed and ill-ventilated city’. 1884 edition of Cook’s Tourist Handbook.

Or:

‘There are places that you go to, and once is enough. And then there is Napoli’.  John Turturro, Passione.

During its golden age as the capital of the Two Sicilies, travellers marvelled at the splendours of the city, the third richest in Europe.  Goethe told visitors to ‘see Naples and die’, happy that they had experienced the beauty of the New City.  Later, Charles Dickens, taking a visceral dislike to Naples, said:

‘There is nothing on earth that I have seen so dirty as Naples’ as he decried the ‘miserable depravity, degradation, and wretchedness’.

Today, although observers broadly agree about the merits of the many attractions around the city, including Pompeii, Sorrento, the Amalfi coast and of course Vesuvius, and will rave together about the food, the weather and the beauty of the area, downtown Naples remain like marmite – you love it or hate it.

Supporters, like in this NYT article, note the passion and vibrancy of the city, the multiple layers of history, the sense of human drama played out on narrow streets framed against the Bay of Naples, the quality of the art, not least that of Caravaggio, and the spirit of old and young alike, living cheek by jowl in a crowded, spawning megapolis, the sixth biggest in the EU.  Moreover, they assert, Naples is on the rise and is being taken forward by a dynamic, reforming mayor.

On the contrary, the naysayers assert, Naples remains a lawless, overcrowded, smelly, dirty, crime -and rubbish-ridden slum best avoided.  Many tourists agree and never venture into the narrow, dark streets.

As ever the truth lies somewhere between the two extreme positions.  This occasional blog will try and look below the stereotypes by exploring the culture, history, food and art of the capital of southern Italy and its hinterland, the Mezzogiorno.

Certainly life here can be frustrating but it is never dull.