Friday, April 8, 2011


Vesuvius watches over Napoli

Whether it was the long sleep-in, the relaxed breakfast on the hotel roof top terrace, the smooth and efficient gentleman at the ticket office at the Roma Termini train station, or the fact that I managed to get onto the train to Naples without incident and glide smoothly for one short hour down the boot of Italy to my destination; whatever it was, I greeted my first view of Naples with friendliness and enthusiasm. The chaos and confusion at the cab rank didn’t bother me; the loud radio in the taxi tuned into an excited football commentary just seemed like interesting local colour. The masses of garbage piled in massive Sunday heaps on the pavements reminded me of Naples’ woes in the municipal garbage department and I made a note to check on how that was getting along.

Castelo Nuevo, Napoli
The cab driver and I negotiated a price to the Hotel Vesuvio - well, he told me what it would cost and I agreed to pay it; after Rome everything seems cheap. In a 15 minute journey we passed through drab, rather grubby looking streets filled with comfortably ordinary looking people – none of that high-fashion ‘Beautiful People’ stuff that central Rome has going on – and soon approached a rather large, solid looking castle of some kind. My ignorance is so far embarrassing. Having steeped myself in Roman history from Romulus and Remus to Renzo Piano for the last few days, I have yet to embark on the where, what and how of Naples. Another thing to look up. Clearly we have here a major port with some major ex-fortifications.

Then the taxi emerged in a blast of sunshine onto the esplanade and a brilliant sea spread before us. I had been told that the Hotel Vesuvio was on the seaside, as indeed it is; and a gorgeous sunny early afternoon showed this bit of Naples at its best. My good mood, and good fortune, continued as the nice lady at reception (‘Rita’) informed me that they had upgraded my room and I was ushered into a rather divine little suite with two tall windows looking over the harbour and another important-looking fortification – with promise, from Rita, of the Isle of Capri in the distance when the sky isn’t so hazy. All this for half what I was paying in Rome. Excellent.

In honour of the warm weather and my good mood, I changed into a dress (though the sight of my pale white ‘northern winter’ legs was a bit alarming). Next followed lunch on the rooftop terrace – an excellent concept, the rooftop terrace. This restaurant was named ‘Caruso’. Others in the hotel have names like ‘Puccini’, Vivaldi’ and ‘Verdi’. I may burst into song myself. Lunch was fish, then some shellfish, then some more fish. And a lemon gelato. I was going to stick to acqua minerale, but they buzzed up with a complementary glass of prosecco, so what was I do to?

In my room, there are green shutters that can be lowered over the tall windows to turn the afternoon sunlight into dappled shade. A siesta, I think.


Annette locator: Naples

On my last night in Rome, I went to dinner with two new friends, Daniela and Jacqueline. Daniela is a Roman born and bred; Jacqueline was born in France but has lived in Italy for many years. She married a Neapolitan. She was a famous popular singer in her day, and her husband Toto Savio was well known (and, it seems, well loved) as a song writer and performer. Jacqueline spoke very fondly of Naples. She recalled arriving there as a young bride-to-be to meet the extended Neapolitan family. She was young, beautiful, blonde, dressed in pink and looked like Brigitte Bardot. It sounds like a clash of cultures; but Jacqueline spoke happily of her Neapolitan family. I was urged to see this street in Naples, to buy such-and-such local specialty. Prefaced with a warning from both ladies to dress down, not wear jewellery and be careful of my handbag, they both nevertheless assured me that Napoli people were the friendliest and most relaxed of anywhere in Italy.


This morning, following a leisurely breakfast (“Puccini Room”) I met Dolores, my guide. Off we went in a black Mercedes with a nattily-suited and sunglasss-ed driver, whose name I was given as ‘John’. ‘Giovanni’, I assumed. ‘Gianni’, as it turned out.  I had especially asked to see the Archaeological Museum, and there we headed. The street where the hotel is located, an esplanade running along the waterfront (Via Partenope), is open, swish, clean and salubrious. Leaving it behind, you soon descend into rampant grubbiness, not assisted by the garbage piles. The old central part of Naples (which is all I’ve seen other than the waterfront) is daubed in graffiti and rather grubby. The Museum could do with having some money spent on it – it houses some exquisite and rare treasures, but in very rough and ready displays in the crumbling grandeur of a massive 16th century palatial building. It reminded me a little of my visit to the National Museum in Damascus, also replete with priceless treasures in dusty cases; except that the Damascus museum looked a little more prosperous.

I was pleased to have a guide here, because it is a big place. We sent two hours (quite enough for my attention span) and saw only part of the offerings. Let’s take a tour (bearing in mind that I haven’t yet decided if Dolores is an entirely accurate guide: generally knowledgeable, yes, but there are a few question marks...)
We started in a massive – I mean really high-ceilinged – reception room with frescoes on the ceiling and nondescript paintings hanging on the walls. It wasn’t until I asked about some strange markings leading diagonally across the marble floor that Dolores said airily, “oh yes, it’s a sun dial. But it doesn’t work anymore since they built a building next door that blocks the suns’ rays from entering through that little hole you see up in the wall.” Now, I’d count that as a particularly interesting feature, but Dolores was off into the next gallery before I could get too excited. A cheap guide book I later acquired told me that this room is in fact called “The Sundial Room”. Hmm...

Pompeii 'cinnabar red': ancient frescos
We then commenced to inspect a treasure trove of bits and pieces retrieved from Pompeii and Herculaneum (the town next door that was also buried by Vesuvius’ eruption on 24th August 79 AD). Dolores presented this theatrically: we started with bits of glass and ceramics, household items; worked up to ornate bronze things, including some macabre surgical instruments; then inspected a whole stash of lovely silver items found all in one house. While I was still ooh-ing and ah-ing over these, we visited the frescoes: if you thought (as I vaguely did) that the fresco technique was invented around the time of Michelangelo and the Renaissance, you can stand corrected, as do I. Here were frescos 2000 years old, the world’s largest collection of ancient art. The brilliant red cinnabar colour for which Pompeii is famous, plus blue from lapis, black from coal and yellow from ochre still shine as brightly as they ever did. I was astonished to see how much has been retrieved from the deadly lava and ash.

2000 year old mosaic art work from Pompeii - ain't she sweet?

But wait – there’s more. In the next gallery we viewed the mosaics. Here were detailed pictures of animals local and fantastic made with the tiniest chips of mosaic tile; portraits of Pompeians about their everyday business; a huge battle scene showing Alexander the Great fighting the Persians. The level of art work in both the frescos and the mosaics is breathtaking – the figures are lifelike, active, three dimensional and full of character. What happened to Western art in the middle ages that the artists went back to that funny flat perspective-less style? Here is art a thousand years earlier, brimming with style as if it were made yesterday. Stunning stuff.

But wait – there’s more. In addition to the many, many images of Bacchus, wine, grapes and Bacchanalian parties (Pompeii was a great wine producing area), the locals were also rather fond of that other great vice, sex. Dolores warned me – ‘the ancient Italians really liked just drinking and sex’. Same old same old. In a room called the ‘Cabinere Secreto’ (“Secret Room”) the museum has discreetly tucked away some of the more lewd examples of erotic art, including frescos from the brothels of Pompeii showing the particular prostitutes’ specialities (if you get my meaning), and some rather alarming stone penises which apparently protruded from the houses.  Shortly after we finished looking at these, the museum guardians closed and padlocked the door to the Cabinere Secreto. Perhaps because a group of school children where making their merry way towards it.

In addition to retrieving items from Pompeii and Herculaneum, archaeologists have also had some major finds in country villas nearby. I was astonished by the story of the House of Papyrus, a major villa where they found thousands of papyrus scrolls: a library, in fact. They had all been burnt (by the lava and ash) to melted lumps – one is on display in the museum. But a clever monk invented a method of unrolling some of them (it is a little ‘machine’ which adheres some sheep gut or something similar to the roll as it unfolds, so that it doesn’t disintegrate). They had a couple of these on show too. I understand that some of them are in a somewhat better state than these two, and can actually be read. They are all in Ancient Greek, and those which have been deciphered so far are mainly philosophical works (of course!), principally Epicurus and the Stoics.


The Farnese Bull
This was pretty exciting. But downstairs was the Farnese Collection, which I’d heard about in Rome at the Palacio Farnese: some major statues which one of the Farneses had brought to Naples for safe keeping during one of those periods when things were a bit too hot for him in Rome. At least, that’s what they told me in the Palacio Farnese (on the audio-guide); Dolores’ version was that the Farnese in question had wanted to be in Naples because his mother was French (which is true, she was: Elisabetta Bourbon. Neapolitan politics is even more complicated than Roman). For whatever reason, here they are, a vast collection of classical statuary (there are paintings from the Farneses too, in another museum). One high and long hall is given over to the triple life-sized pieces which the Farneses ‘acquired’ from the ancient Roman Caracalla baths. If you paid for the excavation, in those days, you got to keep the stuff they dug up. In this case, it included a monstrous statue of Hercules (as always, resting from his labours); and a strange and tortured group known as the ‘Farnese Bull’. It depicts the characters in a macabre myth about two twin boys who murder a fancy woman of their father’s by means of tying her to a raging bull. It is known, however, as the largest ancient marble statue in existence. The statue is not one of my favourites. Apart from the weird subject matter, it has had to be heavily restored.

Which could be the motto of Naples, as I discovered once we emerged from the Archaeological Museum. The city never boasted any Renaissance buildings of note, but was/is Gothic and Baroque. But even that was heavily bombed during WWII. Now, as I think I’ve said, I am rather fuzzy on the various Italian alliances during WWII; but this fuzziness was not improved by Dolores telling me that it was the Allies who bombed Naples “because opposition to the Fascists was very strong here”. These are deep waters, and if I enter I may never return...but the fact remains that much of what Naples had, it now only has in reconstruction, or not at all.

We visited two of Old Naples’ churches, a Jesuit and a Franciscan, just as a taster for the approximately 600 churches in this city of 1.5 million people. The Jesuit one would have stunned me if I hadn’t seen the GesĪ church in Rome. Those Jesuits were a very rich order. Here, they bought a palace from a nobleman (it has a peculiar grey stone exterior) and re-did the whole interior in riotous Baroque. It took about 40 years, and many big name artists worked on it.  Dolores said to me “Baroque means: not one space remains uncovered”, and that is as good a definition as any. I was especially open-mouthed to see that the Virgin surmounting the altar was perched on a great sphere of lapis lazuli, just like the one adorning the tomb of Saint Ignatius himself in Rome. What is it with the Jesuits and lapis lazuli, I wonder? It would have been quite a precious stone and had to come from Afghanistan. This place escaped the bombs: one fell on it but didn’t explode. They keep the casing in a corner as a ‘memori morti’.

The Franciscan church we visited, Santa Chiara, was quite sad. It had been hit by bombs in 1943 and almost burnt to the ground. It has an early 14th century tomb and memorial to Robert of Anjou (one of the French kings who ruled Naples), which is more or less intact. Some of the lower Gothic cloisters remain and have been restored, but the whole upper half and the roof are replaced, and really plainly and badly. Think cement. The stained glass has also been replaced, but is unremarkable. My guide book talks of an interior cloister tiled in Majolica tiles, but Dolores didn’t think to show me that.


With the morning over, and Gianni waiting with the parked car, Dolores and I set out for a walk “to see the real Naples”, as she put it. She comes from Campania, the countryside near Naples, and refers to “my country” quite often. I soon gathered that she doesn’t mean Italy. The “real Naples” that we discovered was a narrow street filled with interesting little shops, holes-in-the-wall selling pizza or gelato; traffic and people, picturesque facades and glimpses into great courtyards off the narrow little defile. It was OK, Dolores, but Rome has better (though I’d never really say that to Dolores).

Nativity figures: Naples
Special to Naples, though, is the side street known for its makers and purveyors of small nativity statues (and a few others of footballers, and Berlusconi, with and without girls). This was interesting; it was one of the sights that Jacqueline and Daniela in Rome had assured me I should see. Dolores suggested that I wander off down this street on my own, but I insisted that she come with me. On my own? To get lost, or have my bag snatched? When I’m paying a guide? I don’t think that’s the way it’s done. As it turned out, Dolores was able to take me into one of the nativity statue makers’ shops, and we went upstairs (“Ciao, Marco!”) and I saw one of the guys at work – very friendly. The place was stuffed to the rafters with figurines. The worker proudly showed us one he had made of Pope Ratzinger: “Papa!”

Walking back to the car, Dolores pointed out to me a small plaque on a wall, put up by a daughter to commemorate her mother, who had run a fruit stall on that corner for many decades, ”with Naples in her heart.” Dolores’ eyes seemed almost tearful as she explained fervently that you would never see such a thing in Rome or Milan – phooey to Rome and Milan! – and this is why Neapolitan people love Naples so much. Gosh. Earlier she had explained to me that the unification of Italy had not been a good thing for Naples and the south, because Vittoria Emanuele, he who was proclaimed king in 1871, was from the north and took all the industry north. Naples had industry before that – it was all the northerners’ fault; and now here they were reliant on tourists. After hearing this, I was intrigued by what looked like posters calling for a secession movement; and I found that secessionists are not uncommon, nor is criticism of the Risorgimento. Deep waters.


Having shed Dolores, I took care of another ‘must do’ in Naples: I had pizza for lunch, in a restaurant on the waterside across the road from the hotel. Vesuvius showed through the sea mist. The pizza was not bad. I took a walk to the ferry terminus (too confusing), and went into one of the town’s major castles, called Castelo Nuevo (to distinguish it from the one opposite my windows, which is called Castelo dell’Ovo (“The Egg” – just why is obscure). The one I visited did not have any treasures or major sights I need to tell you about, but I liked the medieval courtyard: it gave off a good vibe. It was built around 1279 on the orders of Charles of Anjou (a French ruler again) and became a big cultural centre under Robert of Anjou. After the Angevins came the Spanish (it is really no surprise that Neapolitans don’t feel very ‘Italian’), and Alphonse I turned the place into a major fortress. Over the centuries it has suffered rather badly, from defeat and neglect. But today it is in use: there is a lift (there are not many medieval castles, complete with moat, which also boast an elevator) and municipal offices are located there. While I was there a bride and her groom not only posed for photographs, but also joined their wedding reception to the tune of Wager’s Bridal march, playing on solo violin.

It was a little hard to find anything much to see inside the castle, despite a rather fuzzy photocopied guide sheet I was given on entry, but the guide sheet did have a lot of interesting things to tell me about the main room in the castle, known as the ‘Hall of Barons’, because Ferrante I of Aragon lured some plotting barons in there (co-incidentally, under the pretext of a wedding party) and did them all to death. The room has a lofty cupola, but was badly damaged by fire in 1891.

Where the Giotto frescos would have been.
If they still were. The 'Hall of Barons'.
Breathlessly, the guide sheet informed me that in 1330 Robert of Anjou commissioned the famous painter Giotto to fresco the entire room, which he did; but looking up at the blank walls I learn that these are “unfortunately lost”. My attention is directed to bas-reliefs on the architraves, “partially destroyed by the fire”. On the northern wall, “through a badly-damaged Catalan portal”, we enter the Chamber of Angels, so-called “because it was once frescoed with angels”. On the seaward-facing wall there is a big rectangular fireplace with two galleries above for musicians, decorated with two transennae (“unfortunately destroyed”). In the south-eastern corner a gothic door leads to “the spectacular piperno spiral staircase” which “is at the moment in disrepair and not open to the public”. A theme was emerging. But on a happier note, I was informed that the Hall is, at present, the meeting chamber for the City Council.

Emerging from the castle, I found a small heart of shops and public buildings, including the Teatro San Carlo, Naples famous opera house (nothing on while I’m here), a shopping galleria modelled a bit like the one in Milan and named after Umberto I (Spanish), a place to buy ice-cream, to post a postcard, the parliament building, and a street leading back down to the Via Partenope.

Wedding party (one of many) posing on the waterfront. Naples.

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