Naples: Food, football and faith

Every now and then, it is salutary to be reminded of one’s own colossal ignorance. During my first visit to Naples, I asked a friend from Southern Italy why it was that nobody swam in the waters near the port. I grew up about as far away from the sea as possible, and was unaware that few people are keen to frolic in the effluence of great wheezing ferries and tankers. So I was puzzled, it being so close to the heart of the city, why the locals didn’t come down here for a dip. The view was unsurpassable, with Vesuvius as a majestic backdrop, and in the distance, shrouded in a hazy veil, Capri. Before my companion could answer, I peered over the railing and saw, bobbing on its back, a drowned rat. Question answered.

I’ve begun this portrait of Naples, originally a Greek settlement, with an anecdote about vermin. But what follows won’t, I hope, fall into the old trope of Naples as a city of light and shade; the familiar duality of crime, disorder and litter on the one hand, and on the other pizza, passion and performance. But I concede that what follows may well slip into these well-worn grooves; chiaroscuro is etched into the Neapolitan psyche, and is played out on its streets. Nevertheless, during my two months in the city, I saw that Naples had adapted well, had indeed even embraced, modernity; that it was somewhere attempting (precariously, but on balance, successfully) to retain its special character; and which, while acutely conscious of its dubious reputation, was possessed of a vigorous civic pride founded on a noble, if plaintive, past.

The port of Naples from Castel Sant’Elmo [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

The stereotype of Naples is, like every stereotype, grounded in some truth. Here was decay and degradation, stage-set narrow alleys with their canopies of washing hung out to dry, and areas one was warned not to venture into after dark (Sanità? Is no good!) But I found Naples a place of great vitality. It hadn’t like Rome become an elaborate museum. Neapolitans work and live in their centro storico. The population is overwhelmingly young. On Saturdays, teenage Neapolitans, like kids everywhere, head into town and find themselves swept up in a maelstrom of dark-haired brats on via Toledo, Naples’ main shopping street. There, as well as in the streets around the university nearby, one often felt that the kids were in charge, or that they had been given leeway to do what they damn-well pleased. It lent daily life an untrammelled, chaotic energy.

Notwithstanding this youthful vigour, there lingers in Naples, above all else, a pervasive melancholy. It might have something to do with it being a port city, and the ocean’s incessant tempting of a better life elsewhere, or for those who stayed, a constant rueful reminder that they could have left. But I think it is instead the residue of a not quite forgotten past. Throughout most if its existence, Naples has been either dominated and subdued, or scorned and neglected, often simultaneously. Ruled by various interlopers from the Spanish to the French to the Nazis, Neapolitans carry with them in their music, in their sardonic speech, and in their conduct, something of their ancestors’ thwarted desire for liberty. It is a spirit that persists in the oft-heard Neapolitan lament that they are looked down upon by their countrymen in the north (a complaint in my experience that is often accurate). In the final analysis, with longing and memory weaved into its fabric, Naples cannot be anything but wistful.

Despite this, Naples at first glance is not unlike every other sizeable European city. Trains and buses are frequent and reliable, the WiFi signal near ubiquitous, and the locals busy about their business. Neapolitans are industrious and guileful (a legacy of the perennial worry of having to make sure there was food on the table) and like all Italians, come alive of a night. Younger ragazzi dress like their equivalents in Europe and America, listen to the same music, and have the same slavish devotion to their mobile phones. None of this is in the least surprising. The global village those of us in the West now inhabit has not just diluted the pleasures of travel, it has flattened the differences between peoples, especially the young. Still, however uniform Naples has become (what a thrill it would be to be able to travel back and see it a century ago) it basks in those parts of its identity that make it unique. Walking its streets, one is rarely confronted by the desperately dull parade of stores that are replicated in cities all over the globe (Subway, McDonalds, KFC, repeat) though no doubt these are poised ready to swoop in.

This is important because the city is perhaps the largest non-capital in Europe that still feels autonomous, and it is this which makes Naples distinctive; it is local in the best sense, rooted in time and place, and in its buildings and its people, and in the smells and sounds one encounters when exploring, it doesn’t feel like it could be anywhere else. Threats to this welcome diversity come not just from the fast food joints, but from the one demographic Naples is eager to welcome: tourists. Its complicated relationship with tourists, though admittedly not to the same degree as Barcelona’s or Venice’s, is, like Neapolitans, open and up front. Daubed on the tower outside the church of Santa Chiara was the message ‘Tourists, go home!’, and I saw similar imperatives in Montesanto. The problem is the usual paradox: tourists bring money, but the more tourists that sweep in, the higher the property prices, and the harder it becomes for locals to be able afford to stay in their homes.

The Petraio, an ancient footpath leading from the city to the Vomero [Image: Author’s own]

Montesanto is an instructive example. Perched on a gently sloping hill directly adjacent to the centro storico (a UNESCO World Heritage Site popular with tourists), Montesanto makes few concessions to overseas visitors walking from the district’s metro station to sights elsewhere. It is doggedly local and Neapolitan. Shops cater to those who live there and its inhabitants peruse the stalls and stores with an familiarity that speaks of regularity and continuity. Its market, La pignasecca, boasts groaning shelves of fresh produce, meat and fish, and its stalls were perpetually busy. But how long before the tide of visitors to Naples spills out of the historical centre and into Montesanto? To whom will the fishmongers sell when the locals have moved out? Tourists don’t need fishmongers. Those imploring visitors to stay away know this, and there is no obvious remedy that comes to mind.

I discovered that the problem had another complex layer. On a tour of one of the city’s many catacombs based in an area saturated in organised crime, our guide gave his profuse thanks to our showing an interest in his city. He explained that he and his fellow guides held their positions as part of a charitable initiative that, by setting them up as cultural ambassadors, offered them a route out of the life of crime and poverty that swallowed up so many of their friends and family. Globalisation, then, has affected positive change in Naples. Yet how it holds on to its idiosyncratic charm amid globalisation’s more deadening effects is anyone’s guess.

Neapolitans, I found, like to talk, and what they really like to talk about is Naples. One doesn’t have to engage with them for long before they are weighing up their city’s merits and demerits, deriding its traffic-choked streets or offering a panegyric to its art and history. There are plenty of bookshops, and it would be an impoverished soul which could fail to be warmed at the sight of the book stalls, crammed with second-hand volumes, at Port’Alba. Historically and artistically literate, Neapolitans have in the irascible figure of Caravaggio, who twice lived and worked in the city, an artist who perfectly reflects the Neapolitan soul: erratic and unpredictable, but also creative and receptive to beauty.

This creative streak often aligns with the practical. Neapolitans on mopeds seemed to be in a competition, which went something like how many tasks can you perform while riding? Amateur participants restricted themselves to merely being on their phones, which were tightly wedged into their helmets, while more ambitious performers might have a dozen members of their extended family sandwiched on the back seat. Elite contestants, however, went far beyond this. They were without a helmet as a matter of course, and liked to put on a show. The standout performer might be the young man I saw in Fuorigrotta. He was riding uphill, a tray of espressos carefully balanced in his right hand. On the left handlebar was a grocery bag straining under the weight of its contents. As he climbed, fag in mouth, he was engaged in a lively conversation on his mobile, which was held in place with his chin; on the seat behind him, clasping him in a bear hug, was his passenger (whom it would be fair to call heavy-set), yelling directions in his free ear. All this at quite a gallop. He was steering, I think, with his knees.

This ostentatious sense of display, of putting on a performance, is very keenly pronounced, as is the notion of one-upmanship and gaining advantage. Social niceties were not absent, merely different; one didn’t wait for people to disembark the train before clambering aboard (that way lies madness). No, one simply joined the swarm fighting its way past beleaguered pensioners trying to get off. If one waited on the street to let others pass, no matter the age or sex, there would no ‘thank you’ forthcoming. Conversely, it wasn’t uncommon for a male waiter, for instance, to call you caro (‘dear’) or even, once, bello. And Neapolitans could at times be almost excessively generous and kind. A passage in Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily, which flits between Palermo and Naples, helped me grasp the nuances of Neapolitan etiquette:

Every transaction in Naples, every social act, requires a complex and at times exhausting social trafficking, a subtle and insidious play whereby the socially weaker player contrives to ingratiate himself and at the same time take the piss out of the stronger, to catch the other wrong-footed, but delicately, imperceptibly, to introduce some subliminal sense of social unease that may then be used as leverage. To create if possible a sense of obligation, of gratitude, even dependency. There isn’t necessarily any malice in this. It’s an old art of creating strength out of weakness and Neapolitan amiability itself is part of it. In Naples it has always been a necessary art of survival.

View of Castel Sant’Elmo, sitting on top of the Vomero hill [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Though it was probably more pronounced in the past, this attitude lives on. In the Vomero district, high above the city, and fancying a pint, I ventured into what I thought was an Irish pub (it was called something like ‘The Irish Pub’). I entered to find a restaurant with lots of polished mahogany. The staff were visibly put out when I told them I only wanted a drink. Clearly, my request was not uncommon. I was led to a seat by the toilet door and tossed a menu. Remembering Robb’s passage, I gave a little something back (a liberal dose of mild British stiffness and light sarcasm), and soon the waiter began to open up, recommending his favourite beer and inquiring as to my comfort. Robb was right (incidentally, Maria, my Neapolitan host, spotted Midnight in Sicily on my desk one evening and had a flick through; quite quickly, she spotted a well-known mafioso’s name. ‘Him! Ma che senso? Why would you want to read about him?’)

I mentioned the freedom that Neapolitans youngsters enjoy. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than at the weekend in Piazza Dante. During the day, parents take their children there to run and kick a ball about. Of a night, young teenagers bomb across the square on mopeds. These vehicles must belong to their older brothers and sisters, because they are hardly able to see over the handlebars, but this does nothing to temper their speed. Frankly, it looks terrific fun and at 13 I would have loved to have been doing the same. If they aren’t on a bike, then these kids are throwing firecrackers at each other or building small bonfires from table napkins. The carabinieri would every now and then cruise past and, seeing nothing untoward or out of sheer laziness, move on. Watching on from the bar at this quasi-Dickensian scene, I reflected that this kind of thing had been played out on these streets for centuries.

Skulls and votive offerings in the basement of Santa Luciella ai Librai [Image: Author’s own]

But then Naples has always been irreverent; it is innately mischievous with a profound distrust of authority that derives not just from its current relationship with the rest of Italy, but also from its historic role as a Spanish colony. One can see it, obliquely, in the habits of the locals; the way the men congregated in front of bars teasing each other or complaining; the way the women greeted each other in the street and swapped woes. Social bonds and obligations are always manifest where the state is weak; one must rely on others, and others will come to rely on you. And, where the state is weak, the rules, however trivial, will be disregarded. The end result, on the negative side of the ledger, is piles of rubbish, graffiti (of varying quality) on every inch of blank space, and barely an eyelid fluttered when a fag is thrown on the floor. More positively, it fosters durable social relationships that I’ve seldom seen elsewhere.

All of which might make the city seem po-faced, but Naples is almost absurd, and it is the city’s terrain and how Neapolitans traverse it that accentuates this sense of the ridiculous. One is forever climbing or descending some unreasonable, lung-busting hill. Naples’ four funicular railways, though absolutely vital in linking the city centre to Vomero, do feel inherently frivolous. When, near the summit, the funicular comes to a halt and rocks slowly back and forth, it’s as if one is on a theme park ride in need of a safety check. The alternative way of reaching Vomero, by bus, is no less of an adventure, with hairpin turns over vertiginous cliffs. Elsewhere, buses rattle and crash and tumble over cobblestone streets. This bothers the driver not at all, who is apparently oblivious to the din and discomfort of all on board. When combined with their curt and dismissive attitude to any passenger who dares make a polite inquiry, the overall effective is like being an extra in a sitcom.

Piazza Dante [Image: Author’s own]

Indeed, the farcical was never far from the surface of daily life. On a tour of the underground caves beneath the Bourbon Palace, my group was ushered towards the gift shop. Anyone anticipating row upon row of plastic trinkets was in for a shock, for we were greeted instead by a carefully arranged display of Nazi memorabilia. Spotting my interest, my guide took his chance. ‘You like Nazi stuff, yes?’ This was said at such a volume that it reverberated throughout the cave, and was probably picked up on the sonar of a passing Russian sub in the Med. Every head in the gift shop-cum-cave spun in my direction. ‘Well, not quite, not in that sense’. Shortly thereafter, I was being encouraged to try on a pair of Wehrmacht motorcycle goggles. I settled instead for four purple stamps of the Führer.

I read later that Naples had endured a very difficult war. Allied bombing, at first targeted at specific sites, and later indiscriminate, killed thousands, and following the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Nazis occupied the city. Because Italy was an Axis power, Naples wasn’t the city that immediately came to mind when I thought of the Nazis in Europe: I thought instead of Paris and Amsterdam and Prague (it was later that I read about the Four Days of Naples, when in September 1943 Neapolitans rose up against Nazi rule). It skewed how I considered the conflict, and led me to reassess some of my rather blasé assumptions. In an earlier chat, for instance, with my host Maria, she told me how her local church, a huge brick-built edifice dominating its piazza, had been rebuilt after being destroyed by wartime bombing. I ignorantly thought it had been taken out by Nazi raids, and it took me a moment to understand that it had been flattened by the Allies.

In Naples, the inescapable face that greets you in every street doesn’t belong to a Neapolitan, or even an Italian; it belongs instead to an Argentine, Diego Armando Maradona. Everywhere, bloody everywhere, Diego. As an Englishman, this was less than pleasant. His cocksure visage is plastered on posters and stickers wherever you look, framed in the windows of cafés and bars, painted onto walls, printed on t-shirts, affixed to fridge magnets, displayed from flags and scarves… The only other individuals who get even close to challenging Diego’s supremacy are San Gennaro, Naples’ principal patron saint, and Jesus of Nazareth, but ‘D10S’ (geddit?) surpasses them both with the same ease with which he glided past his opponents on the pitch.

The iconography (the term is particularly apt) is now well established, and our Diego is usually depicted in one of two ways. First, as the holy man, complete with saintly robes and halo (like a saint, Diego is almost never shown smiling). This was perhaps initially tongue in cheek, but I think the joke is now lost, and, particularly since his death, he has really come to operate as an icon in the Greek sense, even if only half consciously. The image is borrowed from the sacred heart of Jesus prayer cards, but it has Diego looking not out at the viewer, but up to the heavens. It is revealing that when he passed on and departed this vale of tears, Napoli renamed Stadio San Paolo, Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. Diego 1, Saint Paul 0.

The inescapable face [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

The other representation is Diego lined up on the field pre-match, staring resolutely ahead, certain of victory. This is Diego in Che Guevara mode, and it is so like the famous photograph of Che that there really is no need to unpack it further: here is the revolutionary hero, come to rescue Naples from its subjugation by its northern overlords. It’s easy to mock, but Neapolitans took Diego into their hearts not just for his footballing prowess. He is certainly among the most gifted men to have ever played the world’s most popular sport; and yes, he twice led Napoli to the scudetto, the club having never won it until his arrival. More than this, though, Diego was, as many Neapolitans will point out, just like them. He had nothing, and neither do they. And when he arrived, in all his munificence, he lifted the forever also-rans Napoli out of the darkness and to the summit of Italian football. For Napoli fans, there is something miraculous about it all.

One-club cities like Naples often seem more vocal and flamboyant in their celebration of their team. Unlike those cities that are shared between rival clubs, they can afford to flaunt their team’s banner without fear of contradiction, or even retribution. I have never seen in Rome, for instance, adults in Roma or Lazio tracksuits, or kids in full replica kits, as one sees everywhere in Naples. At the time of writing, Napoli seem sure to be crowned champions of Italy for the third time, their first scudetto since our Diego was last in town. Even though they are 19 points clear with 11 games to go, Neapolitans are wary of tempting fate. However, I was assured that cars were already being stolen in preparation for the parades and celebrations to come.

Naples and its people have always practised an unique form of worship tinged with a very potent strain of paganism. It was only in the late Sixties that the Vatican imposed a ban on Neapolitans tending to skulls as part of a ‘cult of the dead’ at Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio. This sense of the strange is with one everywhere. One was never quite sure when the truth was being told, or whether what one was looking was a mirage or the real thing. Was the flamboyancy of the Neapolitans an honest expression of feeling, or was it a cheap show for tourists, a conforming to stereotype? Similarly, and more crudely, was that shifty looking guy part of the Camorra, or just a bloke on a fag break? This uncertainty, this constant probing of what was and what was not authentic, is understandable in a city where one never quite becomes accustomed at being able to merely look up and see an active volcano. That it is amplified too by the ghosts of the past only enhances the strangeness. In Naples, a city of catacombs, of churches with basements lined with skeletons, and nearby Pompeii’s display of the remains of that town’s sad victims, the macabre is always at hand.

A victim of Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD. [Image: author’s own]

But where there is mystery and magic, there is always a light waiting to be let in on it. Italy apparently consumed more concrete than any other country in the 20th century. Visiting Naples, this sounds about right. Yet the incredible natural beauty of the landscape remains. To the Greeks, and later, the Romans who settled there, when all was greenery and shimmering sea, it must have felt like Arcadia. Even now, despite the splurge of concrete, one can imagine what it looked like when it formed part of Magna Graecia. The concrete has in many places been put to good use, and Naples today is peppered with a stunning architectural heritage. The villas and mansions of Posillipo and Chiaia, with their fantastic vantage of the bay, are like something dreamed up by a poet. The problem is that when the architecture is bad, it’s eye watering. The suburbs seemed abandoned, as if the locals had been warned of an advancing army. Where was everyone?

Back in the city proper, when the stupor of the afternoon gives way at dusk to the restless motion of people fleeing home, or to the bars, all thought of the gloomy periphery is banished. Northern Italy can boast of its clean, well-ordered cities and towns, and their inhabitants’ devotion to moderation. Naples is incapable of such restraint. It is scruffy and gluttonous, and offers its pleasures straight up, whether culinary or sporting. Its Catholicism is visceral and bloody, all guts and glory. When people think of Italy and Italians, they are usually thinking of Naples and Neapolitans. To my mind, there is no higher compliment.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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