The capital of the Italian South, Naples is a city that comes laden with preconceptions, and most have some truth in them. It’s huge, filthy, crime-ridden and falling apart; it’s edgy and atmospheric, with a faint air of menace; and it is definitely like nowhere else in Italy. Yet Naples has bags of charm, making the noise and disorder easily endurable, even enjoyable, for most first-timers. It doesn’t attract many visitors, and is refreshingly lacking in tourist gloss, but it’s also a grand and beautiful place, with monumental squares, world-class museums, down-at-heel churches crammed with Baroque masterpieces and all manner of historic nooks and corners – plus innumerable places to enjoy arguably Italy’s best and most delicious food.
There was a settlement here, Parthenope, as early as the ninth century BC; this was superseded by a Greek colony in 750 BC, which they gave the name Neapolis. It prospered during Greek and later Roman times, and remained independent until the Normans took the city in 1139, after which it was passed from one dynasty to the next until Alfonso I of Aragon arrived in 1422, establishing a Spanish connection for the city for the next three hundred years.
Following the War of the Spanish Succession, Naples was briefly ceded to the Austrians, before being taken, to general rejoicing, by Charles of Bourbon in 1734. Charles was a cultivated and judicious monarch, but his dissolute son Ferdinand presided over a shambolic period in the city’s history, abandoning it to the republican French. Their “Parthenopean Republic” here was short-lived, and the British re-installed the Bourbon monarch, carrying out vicious reprisals against the rebels. The instigator of these reprisals was Admiral Nelson – fresh from his victory at the Battle of the Nile. Under continuing Bourbon rule, the city became the second largest in Europe, and a requisite stop on the Grand Tour, a position it enjoyed not so much for its proximity to the major classical sites as for the ready availability of sex, giving new meaning (in the days when syphilis was rife) to the phrase “See Naples and die”.
More recently, Naples and its surrounding area have been the recipient of much of the government and EU money that has poured into the Italian South. But the real power in the area is still in the hands of organized crime or the Camorra, with the result that there’s been little real improvement in the living standards of the average Neapolitan: a very high percentage remain unemployed, and a large number still inhabit the typically Neapolitan one-room bassi, letting in no light and housing many in overcrowded conditions. Antonio Bassolino, mayor of the city from 1993 until 2000 and currently president of Campania, has done much to promote Naples and its attractions, and scores of neglected churches, museums and palaces have been restored and are now open to the public. There’s also been a burst of creative activity from local filmmakers, songwriters and artists, with a thriving contemporary art scene manifest in two new, large galleries. However, the Camorra still cast a long shadow, as highlighted by Roberto Saviano’s bestselling book and much-publicized film, Gomorrah.Read More
The centro storico
The centro storico
Naples is a large, sprawling city, with a centre that has many different focuses. The area between Piazza Garibaldi and Via Toledo, roughly corresponding to the old Roman Neapolis (much of which is still unexcavated below the ground), makes up the old part of the city – the centro storico – the main streets of Via dei Tribunali and Via San Biagio dei Librai (the latter also known as “Spaccanapoli”) still following the path of the old Roman roads. This is much the liveliest and most teeming part of town, an open-air kasbah of hawking, yelling humanity that makes up in energy what it lacks in grace. Buildings rise high on either side of the narrow, crowded streets, cobwebbed with washing; there’s little light, not even much sense of the rest of the city outside – certainly not of the proximity of the sea. But it’s the city’s most intriguing quarter, and a must-see on any visit to the city.
The Museo Archeologico Nazionale
The Museo Archeologico NazionaleNaples’ Museo Archeologico Nazionale is home to the Farnese collection of antiquities from Lazio and Campania and the best of the finds from the nearby Roman sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It seems to be under almost constant reorganization, and to be honest the displays are tired and old-fashioned for the most part. But you’d be mad to miss it – it’s truly one of the highlights of the city.
The ground floor of the museum has sculpture from the Farnese collection, displayed at its best in the mighty Great Hall, which holds imperial-era figures like the Farnese Bull and Farnese Hercules from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome – the former the largest piece of classical sculpture ever found. Don’t miss Ephesian Artemis, an alabaster and bronze statue with rows of bulbous objects peeling off her chest – variously interpreted as breasts, eggs, bulls’ scrota, dates or pollen sacs, and bees, mini-beasts and sphinxes adorning her lower half.
The mezzanine floor holds the museum’s collection of mosaics – remarkably preserved works that give a superb insight into ordinary Roman customs, beliefs and humour. All are worth looking at – images of fish, crustacea, wildlife on the banks of the Nile, a cheeky cat and quail with still-life beneath, masks and simple abstract decoration. But some highlights include a realistic Battle Scene (no. 10020); the Three Musicians with Dwarf (no. 9985); an urbane meeting of the Platonic Academy (no. 124545); and a marvellously captured scene from a comedy, The Consultation of the Fattucchiera (no. 9987), with a soothsayer giving a dour and doomy prediction. While at the far end the fascinating Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room) contains erotic material taken from the brothels, baths, houses and taverns of Pompeii and Herculaneum – languidly sensual wall-paintings, preposterously phallic lamps and the like.
The Campanian wall paintings
Upstairs through the Salone della Meridiana, which contains a sparse but fine assortment of Roman figures, a series of rooms holds the Campanian wall paintings, lifted from the villas of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and rich in colour and invention. There are plenty here, and it’s worth devoting some time to this section, which includes works from the Sacrarium – part of Pompeii’s Egyptian temple of Isis, the most celebrated mystery cult of antiquity.
In the next series of rooms, some of the smallest and most easily missed works are among the most exquisite. Among those to look out for are a paternal Achilles and Chirone (no. 9109); the Sacrifice of Iphiginia (no. 9112) in the next room, one of the best preserved of all the murals; and a group of four small pictures, the best of which is a depiction of a woman gathering flowers entitled Allegoria della Primavera – a fluid, impressionistic piece of work capturing both the gentleness of Spring and the graceful beauty of the woman.
Other Campanian finds
Beyond the murals are the actual finds from the Campanian cities – everyday items like glass, silver, ceramics, charred pieces of rope, even foodstuffs (petrified cakes, figs, fruit and nuts), together with a model layout of Pompeii in cork. On the other side of the first floor, there are finds from the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum – sculptures in bronze mainly. The Hermes at Rest in the centre of the second room is perhaps the most arresting item, boyishly rapt and naked except for wings on his feet, while all around are other adept statues – a languid Resting Satyr, the convincingly woozy Drunken Silenus, and a pair of youthful Runners.
Football in Naples
Football in Naples
Football is something of a religion in Naples, and support for the local side, Napoli, reached its pinnacle in the 1987 season when they won the scudetto with Diego Maradona as their star player. Their following is not quite as fanatical as it was, and the team dropped down two divisions after going bankrupt. However, they have recently been rescued by the movie mogul Aurelio De Laurentiis and are thriving once more in the top flight. Napoli play at the Stadio di San Paolo in Fuorigrotta; take the Ferrovia Cumana from Montesanto to Mostra and the stadium is right in front of you. Tickets, available from the offices at the ground or from the club’s outlets in town, cost from around €20 for seats in the end stands or “Curve”, up to €60 in the side or “Tribuna” stands.
Accommodation prices in Naples may come as a refreshing change after the north of Italy, but they’re still not cheap, and you need to choose carefully from among the budget options around Piazza Garibaldi. A better bet is the lively and more atmospheric centro storico, where boutique hotels and small B&Bs are opening up all the time.
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking
Neapolitan cuisine consists of simple dishes cooked with fresh, healthy ingredients. As Naples is not primarily a tourist-geared city, most restaurants are family-run places used by locals and as such generally serve good food at very reasonable prices. There’s no better place in Italy to eat pizza, at a solid core of almost obsessively unchanging places that still serve only the (very few) traditional varieties, and you’re never far from a food stall for delectable snacks on the move at one of the city’s many friggitorie.
Nightlife and entertainment
Nightlife and entertainment
Neapolitan nightlife is largely concentrated in two neighbourhoods – the centro storico and the Chiaia district, with the latter in particular a buzzing concentration of bars and clubs well into the small hours – though many clubs close down for the summer from June to September, when they move out around the bay to Posillipo, Bacoli, Fusaro or Pozzuoli. For listings of Naples nightlife, pick up Zero (w zero.eu) or Urban, free monthly publications available in bars, or for big events see w angelsoflove.it, Italy’s answer to the Ministry of Sound.