Naples is a city that has seen it all, survived most of it, and, if you have the patience to explore it, will win you over and never let you go.
Naples’ spell can be powerful. More than elegant, restrained Florence or show-offy Rome, with its perfect, ruined beauty, and even more than otherworldly Venice, Naples — earthy, squalid and slightly menacing — is one of the most romantic cities in the world.
In the years I lived in Rome, whenever I wanted to escape that city, with its oppressive world-weariness, its perennial ability to seduce, but never to surprise, I headed for Naples — and still do — a surefire adrenaline rush, a slap in the face, a semifailed state only an hour south by train.
Sometimes I start at the Café Mexico in Piazza Dante or browsing in the secondhand bookstores that line the passageway leading to Piazza Bellini, named for the master of Neapolitan Baroque music.
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I go into the ancient heart of the city, “Spaccanapoli,” from the Italian word “spaccare,” to split. It takes its name from what is now Via dei Tribunali, slicing down the middle of the old city first settled by the Greeks. The area is now a warren of dingy, narrow streets, churches, pizzerias and shops selling Naples’ famous Christmas crèche figurines.
Deep in Spaccanapoli lies one of the great wonders of Naples: Caravaggio’s “Seven Acts of Mercy,” surely one of the strangest and most breathtaking paintings in all of art history, a weird chiaroscuro tableau that unites an old man suckling a woman’s breast, a disembodied pair of dirty feet, men in armor struggling in the semidarkness, and high above them a mother and child and two angels, Neapolitan boys really, who cling to each other midfall in a strange and tender embrace.
The unfathomable painting is tucked into the tiny church of San Pio delle Misericordie, inside a palazzo so unassuming and smog-stained that an unwitting visitor could walk past it entirely.
In contrast, the city’s other great Caravaggio, “The Flagellation,” at the Capodimonte Museum, is showcased with drama, placed at the end of a suggestively long hallway of galleries. It captures the moment just before Jesus’s tormentors unleash their fateful blows.
. Every time I’ve visited the Capodimonte, once the hunting lodge of the Bourbon rulers of Naples and now one of the world’s great museums, it is nearly empty, a sign this city remains an acquired taste, not completely discovered.
The tourists who do come, many of them embarking for only a few hours from cruise ships, tend to flock to the Archaeological Museum, with its vast rooms of ancient statuary and frescoes from Pompeii as fresh as the day they were painted. (Don’t be surprised if many rooms are closed; the museum says it lacks funding for guards.)
Here, you can see the Secret Cabinet of ancient erotica collected by the aristocratic Farnese family and kept hidden from public view for centuries. Many currents of thought have emerged from Naples over the centuries. Moralism was never one of them.
Crime and miracles
The city’s past sometimes seems to shine brighter than its present.
After the quieter years in the 13th and 14th centuries of the Angevin French, who left their mark on some of the city’s most stately medieval architecture, the Bourbons helped transform Naples into the cosmopolitan capital of the vibrant Spanish empire, which it remained for centuries, a hub of commerce and learning.
The young Cervantes was stationed here for five years as a marine, and the Quartieri Spagnoli, now a bustling working-class neighborhood, was built to house the Spanish troops back in the days of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the period when southern Italy was under Spanish rule.
Back then, the Italian south was far richer than the impoverished north. After Italy’s unification in the mid-19th century, living standards and per capita income in the south plummeted. To this day, many in Naples believe the south was better off before unification.
Naples now has a left-wing mayor, Luigi de Magistris, a former anti-Mafia magistrate, who has tried to solve the city’s persistent garbage crisis, a phenomenon deeply linked to organized crime.
In Naples, survival instincts alternate with leaps of faith. The faithful flock to the cathedral to see the miraculous liquefaction of a vial of the blood of San Gennaro. And even St. Thomas Aquinas, the theologian most committed to the demands of the rational, believed that a painting of the crucifixion in the church of San Domenico Maggiore spoke to him.
Somehow, in Naples, this all makes sense. Here, the line between the realistic and the supernatural is forever blurred.