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There was a settlement here, Parthenope, as early as the ninth century BC; this was superseded by a Greek colony in 750 BC, which they gave the name Neapolis.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.