The particular beauty of Naples, an incomplete listPosted on June 3, 2017
I crave Naples the way I occasionally crave a very specific type of food: Intensely, completely, and then – in exactly the same way as when I allow myself to indulge in inadvisably large quantities of something like sushi or Indian food – not at all for a relatively significant length of time, until one day I wake up again and think: You know what I need? I need a pizza, eaten in the city where it was invented, and I need a dose of that in-your-face, brazen chaos that only Naples can properly deliver.
I’d been to Naples a good number of times before, but only ever for day trips and never with Alessandro, who generally claimed to dislike the city for exactly the same reasons – the chaos, the sheer anarchy of the place and the shadowy history hanging over it all – that made it so fascinating to me. Apparently the draw of truly excellent pizza alone just wasn’t enough of a motivator for him. But this time, on a rather grey and blustery Friday, we both got on the train headed down to Naples to spend the weekend with our friend Livia, who had been living there for two months, and to dive deeper into the city than I had been able to during my previous day trips.
There are a lot of cities that feel like they’re laying everything they have to offer in front of you, putting all their beauty on display up-front in a series of elegant piazzas and well-manuciured buildings, with the occasional sweeping vista thrown in for good measure. Naples, on the other hand, makes you work for its best bits. It doesn’t care if you love it or not, and so it holds its beauty close, tucking it away behind someone’s private gate or around a particularly grungy-looking corner, surprising you when you least expect it.
There’s a lot of unconventional, odd beauty in Naples, and I’m certain that it would take years to uncover it all. So while I know that the cumulative result of every trip I’ve taken to Naples barely even amounts to scratching the surface, I wanted to put together a list (of sorts; it’s rather long-winded) of some of the details and particularities of the city that I find most beautiful, in one way or another.
For a city that tends to come across as worn-out and grubby on first inspection, there actually appears to be an almost obsessive emphasis on cleaning in Naples. This is the city famous for its garlands of drying laundry zig-zagging across streets and flapping out of windows; every single alleyway, no matter how small, seems to be decorated by at least a couple of semi-dry sheets and a towel or two fluttering in the breeze. Every time I walk around Naples, I come away with the impression that at any given moment, at least 50% of the city’s population must be loading or unloading a washing machine, the only possible explanation as to why there is constantly so much laundry everywhere.
I’ve spotted little roadside shrines to various saints and the Madonna all over Italy. Their style varies significantly depending on where they are – Rome’s madonelle tend to be elaborate verging on over-the-top, with ornate carved frames surrounding softly faded imagery, while the shrines down in Bari are simple and homely and, oddly, often draped in lace curtains.
Naples though, not exactly known for its subtlety, takes the concept of the roadside shrine to a whole new level. In both quantity and styling, the shrines of Naples stand out. They’re everywhere: one shrine after another lining the narrow streets, visible deep inside gated courtyards, peeking out from behind parked cars, posted beside doorways and shops and markets, watching steadily over the comings-and-goings at the local fishmonger.
Many of the shrines sport corrugated plastic roofs, discoloured and fuzzy with moss from a daily onslaught of drips from the second floor’s freshly-washed laundry. Others have little fences surrounding them – crooked wrought-iron bars doing their best to protect the saint inside from poorly parked cars – or are framed in a neon tube light, bathed in a pale blue glow. Nearly all of them could be described as tacky; plastic flowers in lurid colours and fake candles abound, and, if you ask me, it’s exactly that tackiness that makes the shrines of Naples so endearing.
The hardware store that looks like it’s been in business for the better part of a century, its windows frosted in a thick layer of dust. The fishmonger where Neapolitans stand around trading gossip under a striped awning, the day’s catch spread out in front of them. The old lady selling plump heads of garlic out of a few plastic crates at the side of the street, calling out in completely indecipherable dialect. The artisans, working with metal or wood or chocolate in semi-hidden, florescent-lit spaces. The hole-in-the-wall shops that seem to sell a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing. All of these shops feel like the soul of Naples, something that’s endured for generations, resisting change and commercialisation and that slick, curated feeling that seems to be taking over one city centre after another these days.
I am not normally the type of person who wanders into a building’s private courtyard just to explore and snap a few photos – I’m always fairly certain that there’ll be an elderly lady watching from some hidden window within, ready to make a scene at the first sign that something doesn’t belong. And yet, in Naples, we wandered into countless courtyards, and nobody gave us any problems – I’m going to assume that’s because they know that some of the city’s best scenes are hidden away inside, waiting to be discovered.
From the crumbling baroque staircases, peeling frescoes and hidden garden of Palazzo Sanfelice, tucked away behind an unassuming facade in the depths of the Rione Sanità, to the glimpses of unexpected colour and greenery lurking past gated entrances, it constantly feels like some of the most beautiful parts of Naples are very nearly secrets, available only to those who are brash enough to brush past partially-closed gates and brave the occasional stern stare.
Naples is not a place that subscribes to the “less is more” school of thought, and this extends to the appearance of the city itself. If you stand in the middle of a street – which often feels more like an urban slot canyon, tall and narrow with only a sliver of sky at the top – and look up, you’ll find a dense web of balconies, awnings, street signs and sagging wires that all tangle together into one impenetrable mass. Walls are layered with years of peeling paint and graffiti; everything is textured, everything demands that you look at it.
If you walk up the hill looming over the city, up Corso Vittorio Emanuele and circling around towards where Castel Sant’Elmo is perched at the top, the chaos of Naples revels another few layers: Colour – there are splashes of bright primary colours everywhere, buildings displaying ochre and brick-red facades – and a sea of uneven rooftops dotted liberally with satellite dishes. From above, the narrow streets of Naples are all but swallowed up, vanishing into the chaos.
There are handfuls of things I could add to this list, and handfuls more if I had even more time to explore the city. With Naples, I feel like I’m always just scratching the surface – which means that I’ll be back, obviously, when a few more months have gone by and I suddenly wake up with the feeling that a trip to Naples (and a pizza or two) are needed.