Vibrant, chaotic and gloriously dilapidated, Naples is a place where life, romance and death are passionately entwined. Stanley Stewart falls in love
There is plenty to see in the Naples Archaeological Museum that is not X-rated. There are the classical sculptures from the Farnese collections. There are the Roman mosaics from Pompeii, fine as paintings, which offer such an elegant insight into the ancient world. But oh so predictably, glancing guiltily over my shoulder, I have skulked into the side gallery known as the Gabinetto Segreto, the Secret Chamber. It contains the porn from Pompeii.
Before the ash curtain descended, it seems the inhabitants of Pompeii were pretty frisky folk. There are threesomes, there are foursomes, there are moresomes. There is Pan enthusiastically copulating with a goat and Leela in the embrace of her swan. There is a naked lovely mounting her lover in a position that was possibly known as the “charioteer” in Roman times. I particularly like the chap wrestling with his own phallus, which seemed to have turned on him like a wild beast.
In Rome, Florence or Venice, there would be queues and tickets and unseemly rubbernecking crowds ignoring the “No Pictures” warnings. But here in Naples, I found myself alone in the gabinetto with the lithe maidens and the rampant satyrs. When I finally tore myself away to wander the main galleries, I found only two other people, a couple of Italian students. They didn’t seem very taken with the late Roman coinage. They were together on a stone bench, their limbs and possibly their futures, intimately entwined.
To anyone who knows Naples, the lack of visitors is both one of the mysteries and the joys of the city. Imagine turning up in Florence and finding that no one else had the sense to include the city on their packed itineraries. The Uffizi would no longer be a crowd-management crisis. It would be bliss.
Blissed-out Naples, of course, makes cautious, conservative Florence look and sound like a convent. This is not a city of restraint; the full-on traditions of Pompeii, just around the bay, are alive and well here. The voices are loud, the greetings boisterous, the pizzas fabulous, the driving atrocious, the architecture glorious, the religious rituals weird, and the policemen more fabulously turned out than a Gilbert and Sullivan rear admiral. And the phalluses in the gabinetto come with cupid wings and trailing bells.
Naples’ peeling sepia walls tell you a lot about the city. They are devoted to passion and death. We will come to death later, as we all must. But the passion is everywhere – the canoodling couples, the flirtatious gazes, the lovelorn graffiti. Naples walls are crowded with breathless declarations of love. Te Amo, Maria, I love you, Maria. You are my destiny, Luca. Marry me, Gabriella. I dream of your kisses, Livia. Wait for me, Marco.
Naples is “raw, passionate, secretive, generous, dilapidated, glorious, vibrant and unabashedly corrupt” (Photo: Alamy)
In this heady atmosphere, I fell for Naples. No one would accuse the centro storico, the old historical centre, of being pretty, but she is darkly and ravishingly beautiful. She is also raw, passionate, secretive, generous, dilapidated, glorious, vibrant, and unabashedly corrupt and corrupting.
I love her theatricality, the oriental chaos of her streets, the architecture that began with the ancient Greeks and ended with the Baroque. I love the fat, sensual Neapolitan vowels. I love the scruffy bars where coffee is served zuccherato, ready sweetened; the pasticcerie with the delicate sfogliatelle bursting with cream; the friggitorie, with their roaring wood-fired ovens and bubbling pizzas; the gilt, the bevelled mirrors and the painted Belle Époque beauties of the Café Gabrini; the extravagance of the opera house, the oldest in Europe, where Verdi was once musical director and Caruso, a Neapolitan, got such a poor reception he vowed never to return.
But what I most loved was her resistance to gentrification. There are smart and fashionable districts such as Chiaia, where beautiful people parade between expensive boutiques and elegant cafés. But the beating heart of this city, the old quarters of the centro storico, the crumbling palazzi, the anarchic streets, have not been sanitised with trendy wine bars and branches of Zara. Naples was shabby chic before the phrase was invented. And she remains stubbornly herself. Trying to fit her up for cool metrosexual gentrification would be like trying to get Boris Johnson to model men’s haircare products.
Ruins at Pompeii (Photo: Alamy)
What the city lacks in stripped warehouses of international brands, it makes up for in artistic treasure. At the Archaeological Museum, once you have torn yourself away from the delights of the Gabinetto Segreto, the exquisite mosaics and paintings from Pompeii are among the most beautiful Roman artefacts in Italy. Up at the Capodimonte Museum, the former Bourbon Royal Palace, look for the splendid Riberas and El Grecos and for Caravaggio’s dark Flagellation.
Down in the dense lanes and alleys of the centro storico, there is another great Caravaggio – he was in Naples on the run from a murder rap in Rome – in the Pio Monte de Misiercordo: the startling and complex Seven Acts of Mercy. Up the street in the Capella Sansevero lies the poignant marble figure of the veiled Christ; the detail of the drapery over his body is a typically Neapolitan flourish of virtuosity.
Around the chapel is a collection of statuettes illustrating the virtues. I couldn’t help but notice that there was nothing very modest about Modesty. The gossamer material of her see-through blouse snagging sexily on her nipples was much more erotic than anything in the gabinetto.
Like some metaphor of place, some pointer to multilayered complexity, there are vast subterranean worlds beneath the Neapolitan pavements. In a small flat off Vico Gigante, I found the trap door beneath an old woman’s bed that leads to a Roman theatre, only discovered in 2003. At the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore I followed a flight of steps down 10 metres and 2,000 years to a street of Roman Neapolis. I passed a bakery, looked in on a wine shop, stepped into a laundry and a bank. While Pompeii is inundated with tour groups and droning guides, I was alone here with the ancient world.
Back on street level, boys were thumping a football against 12th-century walls. Above me the balconies were bannered with laundry, tiny thongs almost lost between granny’s bloomers. A group of girls passed, casting looks of casual contempt at the young men drooling in their wake. A Vespa appeared; the man riding pillion was balancing a sofa on outstretched arms.
Pulcinella bust on the Via Dei Tribunali (Photo: Alamy)
A band suddenly burst around a corner, brass instruments blaring and drums pounding. Bathed in sweat, stout men carried banners of the Madonna. On the reverse were photos of the recently deceased. The musicians were buskers for the dead. Friends and relations dropped coins into a proffered hat and bowed their heads as this noisy memorial parade passed.
Naples seems as obsessed with death as it is with sex. Among the ragged declarations of love, death notices are plastered on the walls like old adverts, with grainy pictures of the deceased. They announce dates of memorial masses, paid for by the family, and performed on the anniversary of their death.
Halfway along Via dei Tribunali – the ancient Roman street that bisects the centro storico – I found the church of death. Weeds sprouted from the dark facade of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco and bronze skulls perched on plinths beneath iron railings. As I climbed the steps, a chill seemed to descend on the street. I might have been arriving at Dracula’s castle.
Prayers to the dead are central to Catholicism. But in Santa Maria the practice of praying to the dead was banned in 1969. It turned out that the worshippers, who were getting out of hand with the fervour of their devotions, were praying to the wrong dead.
At the back of the nave, a guide opened a trap door and led me down a flight of stairs. At the bottom we emerged in another church, a replica built directly beneath the one above. In this underworld church, the walls were grey and unadorned; we had entered the domain of the dead. Skulls stared at me from the niches around the walls among a litter of bleached bones. Around them were petitioning messages, faded photographs, dead flowers, plastic jewellery. In a far corner, a young woman pressed her forehead against the stone walls murmuring the secrets of her heart to the dead.
Traditionally this church underground has been a burial place for the anonymous dead, for those who died without family or memorial. I gazed down through grilles in the floors at these paupers’ graves. A cult developed around these souls trapped in purgatory, a kind of spiritual bargain. People came to pray for them, to help their passage to paradise. In return, the living sought their help in their quest for husbands, fertility or good fortune.
The Vatican stepped in to put a stop to this unseemly glorification of the poor, pointing out that worshippers should have been upstairs praying to the saints, the apostles, the Virgin. But this is Naples, resistant to authority, and the petitioners still make the descent to the underground nave. The young woman had finished her prayers and stood for a moment in the ghostly nave. She seemed distressed. The guide offered comfort, asking why she had come. “For love,” she said. “I have come for love.”
Looking out to the bay and Vesuvius beyond (Photo: Alamy)
It was Goethe, in love with Naples and his Italian mistress, who popularised the phrase “See Naples and die”, promoting the idea that nothing could ever outshine this city. It is the bay, of course, that prompts the greatest swooning with a panorama that stretches from the great bulk of Vesuvius, past the Sorrentine peninsula to Capri, stalking the horizon like a ghost.
But Goethe wasn’t just talking about the bay. He loved the city, the enthusiastic chaos of the centro storico, and its capacity for extravagance in everything from grief to architecture, from love to pastries. It is time for visitors to reclaim it.
Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com) offers three nights at the four-star deluxe Grand Hotel Parker’s from £498 per person B&B, including return flights from Gatwick, private transfers, and the services of the Kirker Concierge to book excursions, local guides or a table for dinner. British Airways (ba.com), easyJet (easyjet.com) and Monarch (monarch.co.uk) all offer direct flights between the UK and Naples.
In the city that invented pizza, Di Matteo (pizzeriadimatteo.it) is one of its best pizzerias. Gather outside for snacks of takeaway pizza or go upstairs for table service in spartan surroundings where it is all about the food. Pizzas from €4.
Have something to add? Share your comments on Facebook.