Tag Archives: naples

IEI Students in Italy!

Napoli

Hi Mario:
I made it to many of the places you’ve mentioned. Unfortunately, this was my one and only full day here! I leave tomorrow to head back north. I absolutely love Napoli! I didn’t expect it; I thought it would be overwhelming, but it’s much softer and sweeter than Rome, even though yes total chaos! It’s like negotiating a crowded dance floor for me, I love the flow of it. I also experienced the “optional” red light.

The people here seem good-natured and gentle. Unlike in New York, where there is a sour mean streak. (Although I’m proud to say I survived the withering look of the barista at del Professore. That look was only surpassed by the one he gave me when I asked him for a pastry after finishing my Americano. I was prepared for this though, so it made me smile.)

Plus, almost no tourists except for at the museum! Trastevere in Rome was crawling with them (yes, people just like me, yech).

Naples Redux

Naples’ artistic and cultural patrimony dates back two millennia, but there IS a vibrant, young Naples of music and spectacle awaiting the adventurous visitor. A place of modern entertainment, where various types of contemporary music can be enjoyed, is Galleria 19 (read: Galleria Diciannove), which is located on via San Sebastiano, in Naples’ historical center, very close to Via dei Tribunali.

As glossy and hip as any equivalent establishment in the Haight or in SoHo, Galleria 19 offers disco, contemporary pop, jazz, instrumental and vocal, often with local musicians and singers performing live. The locale, reached by going down a few steps from street level, is a remodeled old book repository, long and narrow, with the stage at the far end and a hypermodern bar along the left side. Comfortable chairs and love seats are strewn along the right side, leaving a center space for dancing. Want to rearrange the furniture to suit your group’s seating preferences? By all means forget stuffy american rules and redecorate: this is free-form Naples, where rules are kept to a minimum.

History
The ambience is a suggestive, atmospheric blend of severe ancient walls wearing the latest fashion in art and lighting. Most of the clientele, young people in their twenties and early thirties, are there in their evening best. Nowhere else in all of Naples will you see such expanses of long, stockinged female legs, ending in feet encased in pumps sporting 8-centimeter stiletto heels. As for the quintessential little black dress, this is the place to show it off, and they are little indeed. The young men do their best to keep up, in their form-fitting short coats and pants from Fusco. Definitely a feast for the eyes.

Napoli sotterranea

Napoli sotterranea

Napoli sotterranea

Naples wears its urban dysfunctions as a disguise, a perverse diversion from the underlying substance, a challenge to anyone who wishes to know her. Like some women who are defined “high maintenance”, she requires infinite care and understanding, and forgiveness for a multitude of caprices and unreasonable demands. Willfully and maliciously, she flaunts her impossible congestion, her periodic sanitary crises, the hauteur of her people, the casual haphazardness of her services, her refusal to yield to the demands of modernity, as a gauntlet to filter out the faint of heart. Only the strong need apply, but the rewards for those who possess the necessary patience and fortitude are great.

The treasures of Naples are endless. I know the city, and yet in the course of three days there we found things new and undreamed of. One of these is Napoli Sotterranea, the subterranean city above which the modern city is built. This consists of an extensive network of underground passages, caverns and cisterns, whose deepest recesses date back to pre-Christian Greek times. Above the Greek layer one finds structures dating from Roman times, and above these one finds medieval walls and artifacts. The underground city exists for several reasons: first of all, in constructing their buildings, Neapolitans simply used the surrounding tufa, the volcanic rock ubiquitous in the region. So, as a palace or a church went up, a hole was created by the quarrying of the building material. A key use for this growing network of underground passages, then, since ancient times, was the storage of water for the city. The water came from springs in the Apennine mountains, according to the ancient techniques of the Romans, who were able to build long aqueducts without pumps. Amazingly, this water collection and delivery system persisted into the 19th century, when, because of contamination from seeping sewage, it was abandoned in favor of the current hydraulic system.

Palinuro

Palinuro

No hesitations this time, no halfway measures, no roundabout routes. Straight to Naples, Capodichino airport, from Spokane, Washington. Late morning arrival, zero problems, caffé and sfogliatella first order of business. Hot, but it’s the humidity that gets to you, 80 degrees in Naples is not at all like 80 degrees in San Francisco. It is a Friday.

Message from my cousin Mimmo. We’re vacationing in Palinuro (which I already knew), come join us for the weekend, we have reserved a bungalow for you right next to our villa. We have no plans, no appointments, no internet, no house, no car. It’s a rare state of Nirvana. We have our telefonini and some dollars. Change some of those right away, switch to the vertiginously expensive euro. TIP: it’s always better to change to a currency in that currency’s home country.

So, what can I tell you about Palinuro, the ancient mariner? Well, let’s don’t talk about the ancient mariner, go to Wikipedia if you are interested, there IS a story. Let’s instead talk about the little town which is named after him. First of all, you can travel from Naples to Palinuro for free. Or maybe it just happens on Fridays. Be that as it may, we did honestly try to buy train tickets, but time was short and the lines were long and the ticket machines didn’t work. So we got on the train ticketless, resigned to paying the fine when the conductor came. But lo!, no conductor in sight for the entire 2-plus-hour trip, hence the proverbial free ride. And did I mention the free entertainment? Opposite us there sat a gentleman who would not stop obsessing about the train’s punctuality. On a little piece of paper he noted the arrival and departure times at each station, kept a tally of the number of seconds we were early or late, and a running (mono/dia)logue on the train’s performance. After the fourth stop it was all I could do to keep from ripping pen and paper from his fingers and tossing both out of the window!

Il Teatro San Carlo a Napoli

Teatro San Carlo in Naples, across the street from Galleria Umberto and around the corner from the Royal Palace

Teatro San Carlo

Naples’ San Carlo Theater is the oldest operating theater in Europe.  Built in 1737, it has never missed an operatic season except in the period from May 1874 to December 1876, when, because of a severe economic crisis, financial support disappeared.  The San Carlo was built by King Charles of Bourbon, son of Philip of Spain and Elisabetta Farnese of Parma.  Charles gave rise to a dynasty which quickly shed all vestiges of Spanish influence and became, to all effects, an indigenous dynasty which endured through the turbulent Napoleonic period and came to an end only with the unification of Italy in 1861.  Naples, as the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (so-called for historical reasons), was, during the early Bourbon period, one of the most populous, beautiful, and cultured cities in Europe.

The construction of the Teatro San Carlo was only one aspect of a general urban renovation whose purpose was to give Naples a physical appearance in line with the dignity and the prestige of the capital of a great kingdom.  Within the scope of this general plan, the San Carlo was conceived as a fitting symbol of the royal power and of the dynasty’s support of the musical arts, a passion long inbred in the depths of the Neapolitan psyche.  The San Carlo replaced the old (1621) and small Teatro San Bartolomeo, which was eventually made into a church.

Passione

Toto'

Toto’

I am obliged to comment on Passione, the film by John Turturro about Naples and Neapolitan songs.  Too many people have mentioned it to me; it cannot go unheeded on this blog.  So, as a native son, what do I think of it?

First off let me be clear about the fact that I have NOT seen the film.  I have only watched some excerpts on youTube, a total of a couple of songs.  My comments therefore are limited to this thin sample and not to the work as a whole.  I suppose that I will see it sometime soon, and I may write a full review then.  But these are the impressions that I gleaned from my experience so far.

Neapolitan songs, the BEST Neapolitan songs (for the poor ones are legion!), are distinguished by a particular pathos, a peculiar blend of fatalism, vivacity, passion, and strength.  They are vigorous without being violent, they are passionate without being sentimental, they are universal without being abstract.  Successful interpreters, Murolo, Carosone, Rondinella, Arbore… have all been able to project this complex pathos, albeit through their different individual styles.  They have all been able to reach beyond the facile impulse of a superficial emotion to the deeper recesses of the souls of the listener, and all this is what has made the Neapolitan song famous all over the world.

Il Maschio Angioino

Maschio Angioino

Castel Nuovo

With this we get back to the mother lode, back to our roots, full circle, Naples, beautiful and forlorn, deceptively gay and mysteriously complex, vibrant as a tarantella and subtle as a stiletto.  The core, the essence, inseparable from the sea and the volcano, smoldering in its millennial languor, prostrated by the sweetness of the summer air, seduced and seductive in the grip of its eternal dream.  And we present here for your consideration the Castel Nuovo (distinct from the Castel Vecchio and Castel Capuano), also known as the Maschio Angioino in honor of its builder, Charles I of Anjou in the 13th century, following the expulsion of the Hohenstaufen.

Famous names are associated with the castle.  Pope Celestine V (the only pope to ever abdicate the Pontificate, and consigned to hell by Dante in his Inferno), sojourned here.  So did Petrarch and Boccaccio and Giotto, who produced frescoes which have unfortunately been lost.  The castle was almost entirely rebuilt during the tenure of the Aragonese, and further modified during the 18th century.

The Renaissance facade inserted between the medieval towers gives a startling contrast.  This exceptional work is actually a triumphal arch, executed in marble, and was commissioned by King Alfonso of Aragon following his conquest of the Kingdom from the Angevins.  It consists actually of two arches stacked vertically; the intermediate facade is where Alfonso’s triumph is actually represented.  The rest of the structure is abundantly decorated with mythological and allegorical symbols, as was the practice in those times.  Many artists from Naples, France and Spain worked on this remarkable arch, and it is difficult to accurately attribute every feature to the proper author.

The Vesuvius and Pompeii

Vesuvio in eruption

Depiction of Vesuvio in eruption

Today we go to Naples again, we have been away entirely too long. Naples is of course on the sea, and it snuggles up against the Vesuvius. To this proximity to a dangerously active volcano many people attribute many of the character traits that Neapolitans are supposed to have: their fatalism, their penchant for living in the “now” rather than planning for the future, their many religious practices which center on rituals for the dead, their ability to “make do” under adverse circumstances, their irrepressible joyfulness and zest for life. The Vesuvius and its history of eruptions have marked this land and this race indelibly, even as the volcano provided, century after century, the “tufa” out of which the city was built and the volcanic ash that enriched the soil and made it among the most fertile in the world.

The most famous eruption by the Vesuvius, and by far the most lethal, was the one that occurred in 79 AD and that buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. These cities lay for centuries under meters of compacted ash, utterly lost to posterity for a millennium and a half, until accidentally rediscovered in 1599. For many decades they were forgotten again, then finally excavations began in earnest (though even later they proceeded by fits and starts.) Even today Pompeii is not fully excavated, and new discoveries are being made all the time.

Alexandre Dumas and Italian Unification

The military and political events unfolding during the unification of Italy in 1860 are full of fascinating details.  F.W.J. Hemmings, in his biography of Alexandre Dumas (yes, the swashbuckling author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo), writes:

“As recompense for the services he had rendered the cause of Italian unity, Dumas had, almost playfully, made two requests of Garibaldi: that when Naples was taken, he should be issued with a license to shoot game in the Capodimonte reservation; and that excavations at Pompei should be started up again under his personal supervision”.  Subsequently, the official title of Director of Excavations and Museums of the City of  Naples was conferred on Dumas.

However, the nomination did not meet with the approval of the people of Naples, who demonstrated in the streets until, to Dumas’ great chagrin, it was rescinded.

In a letter to Garibaldi Dumas wrote: “Do you want to be King of Naples?  You have almost as good a chance as M. Murat, and a better one than King Victor Emmanuel”

and, again quoting Hemmings:

”What chiefly kept Dumas in Naples, after the collapse of his high hopes of major archaeological discoveries in Pompei, was the editorship of the daily newspaper L’Indipendente, which started publication on October 11, 1960….he was able to compose and serialize a history of Naples between 1804 and 1815, under the title I Borboni di Napoli – a complete misnomer, of course”

Hello world!

Panorama di Napoli

Naples with Vesuvius


I want to tell you about a book I have just finished reading.  It is called  “Ancient Shore – Dispatches from Naples”.  A slim, poetic, endearing little book, full of the innocence of the stranger who alights on these shores and is seduced by the Siren song of Parthenope.  It is written by Shirley Hazzard.  We natives are always a bit put off by, and suspicious of, such books.  Basically we are unwilling to credit foreigners with the sensitivity and the expansiveness of mind required for a thorough understanding of the City and its culture.

Nevertheless, Ms Hazzard has written a lovely little book, and she is, on prima facie evidence, a lovely lady.  I should be pleased and honored to offer her a cappuccino at the Gambrinus.  And I am looking forward to reading her “The Bay of Noon”, the story of Jenny and Gioconda in Naples.