10 giugno 2022
by Francesco Palmieri
A son from Naples returns home, writer, chronicler, flaneur

Irresistible Naples. Any wekend is good to return or for a first visit


Only a few years ago, in the dim light, the prince of Aquino himself tore off the tickets for the occasional visitors to the Sansevero Chapel, the alchemical and artistic dream of his ancestor Raimondo di Sangro. Thousands of pages have been written on this figure and on that monument, which now attracts crowds of tourists almost as if to compensate for the limited attention it once received, until Naples was once again described as an unmissable destination.

The Tour (no longer Grand) is now faster and less demanding. With TripAdvisor and B&B. Smartphone and without a tourist guide. Any weekend is good to return or for a first visit.

Napule tre cose tene belle: ’o mare, ’o Vesuvio e ’e sfugliatelle [Naples has three beautiful things: the sea, Vesuvius and sfogliatelle]

The nonconformist does not snub clichés, not even the most simplistic. He passes them by, crossing through the common places: The Capodimonte Museum, the National Archaeological Museum, the Museo Madre or (even) the Nitsch Museum, but also the Filangieri Museum, in the building in via Duomo which was, among many other things, full of ghosts and where the collecting madness of an illustrious family still shines through. And we mustn’t forget Santa Chiara, Napoli Sotteranea, the Bourbon Tunnel. Maybe a dip in the sea in Posillipo. A meal at the Tribunali or Borgo Marinari. A tour of Castel dell'Ovo. A visit to San Gennaro in the Cappella del Tesoro, the pagan shrine of Maradona in the Spanish Quarters, the capuzzelle in the Church of the Souls of Purgatory. An alienating tour of the endless ossuary at the Fontanelle Cemetery. Coffee at the unmissable Caffè Gambrinus. Handmade chocolate from Gay Odin or the Gallucci factory. A climb in Vomero up to Castel Sant'Elmo, the Museum of San Martino, Villa Floridiana. A different return descent to San Gregorio Armeno to see the shepherds, with perhaps a visit to the Church of Santa Patrizia, where the co-patron saint’s blood liquefies after the service, but only once a week. Then San Gaetano. San Lorenzo. The San Carlo Theater or Le Trianon opposite of the ancient stones of Forcella. 

You can go to Piedigrotta, where the Virgin Mary lost a shoe, and up to Virgil's ‘columbarium’ next to which lies Giacomo Leopardi, the fabulous young man whom Mario Martone gave a different face from the worn-out portrait in high school textbooks. You can visit (with flowers) Enrico Caruso at the Cemetery of Santa Maria del Pianto, which is also home to the chapel of the famous Totò. The rundown little house where Prince de Curtis [TN: real name of Totò] was born acts as a counterpoint in the Rione Sanità, not far from the triumphal baroque architecture of the Palazzo dello Spagnolo, the basilica of the “Monacone” and the tuff stone catacombs.


But the list is too long even for the biggest enthusiasts. Pizza at Sorbillo’s or Michele’s, at Brandi or at Antica Pizzeria Bellini. The self-important subway with all its stations different, as if for a beauty competition. The three cable cars, which, for over a hundred years, have taken people up and down, to avoid enjoying and suffering the pedamentineand steps between the hill and Giù Napoli.

It’s not flat, it’s not vertical/ it’s a line that climbs the hill/it’s a road that starts at the sea/the path of the slanting city; (E. Bennato)

The end of the lists is like heaven: always a step away. We’re missing the Roman theater, swallowed up by Via dell’Anticaglia, where Nero sang. The Church of the Gesù near the school featured in the famous song Lazzarella, where the holy doctor Giuseppe Moscati is laid to rest and his clinic is preserved. We’re still missing San Domenico Maggiore with the Crucifix who spoke to St. Thomas when he taught in the adjacent monastery, where his room and his left humerus are devotedly preserved, while the location of the cells of philosophers Tommaso Campanella and Giordano Bruno is unknown. Damnatio to those two friars condemned.

The list is still unfinished. We are missing the Cemetery of 366 Fossae, a minimalist masterpiece by Ferdinando Fuga, created to deposit, every day of the year, the remains of the poor and the destitute. Yes, it was a mass grave, but at least they prayed over the right number and who knows some may have played it in the lottery. Dreams were extracted once a week, Saturday at the Grande Archivio, but once was enough to saturate the city of gamblers that Matilde Serao described in the Paese di Cuccagna [Land of Plenty]. The first woman editor of a newspaper in Italy, tireless writer and thinker, not a looker but with several lovers; she intimidated Mussolini and charmed Gaddafi (who had read all her work). Every now and then she got totally riled up and crumpling up her skirt complained: damn this thing! Because she was a lady, and could not always go where the male reporters went. However, those who stood under the windows of the newspaper, in the Galleria, heard Donna Matilde's outbursts towards those same reporters who – damn them! – hadn’t come up to scratch.

Giuseppe Marotta, who should be remembered for more than just L'Oro di Napoli, died while writing, head on page, and died of writing; while Francesco Mastriani and Federigo Verdinois, workaholics but inevitably poor, wrote as they died, novel after novel, article after article.

How much has been written, how much is written in Naples! There is always a team of sophisticated publishers plus a Lilliputian cohort of shrewd printers, despite the weakness of the industry lamented since D'Annunzio was first published in the city. Like any capital of something that is or has been, for Naples, the 'About her' column is never complete.

There are even people who travel to the city looking for Via Gemito, after the novel by Domenico Starnone. Or the Rione Luzzatti district and the steep slope of San Giacomo de’ Capri, where The Lying Life of Adults is set, written by Elena Ferrante.

White oleography, black oleography. White Marechiaro and black Scampia. One color mixes with the other over time, in space or in blood red. And every time everything seems to start over again because, as rapper Ralph P tells us, “nothing new” happens:

“Sto esaurito pecché nun tengo nient’’e nuovo, nient’’e nuovo” [I'm burned out, because I see nothing new, nothing new].

Not that Naples remains stuck in the past: it is the past that flies over the present and is already sitting waiting for the future to arrive. A city that ebbs and flows, birthplace of philosopher and historian Giambattista Vico behind Piazza San Gaetano, baptized in San Gennaro all'Olmo, the sacred corner on the lower decumanus where Via di San Gregorio Armeno begins. It is the birthplace of Roberto Bracco, a sensitive playwright and forgotten since before he died, whom few remember was multiple times nominated for the Nobel Prize. He wrote the verses of a song set to music by Enrico de Leva, 'Nu passariello spierzo: a sparrow that cannot rest in peace until it finds the hut where an old woman has just died, ch’era campata senz’ammore e guaie [who had lived without love and trouble]. Autobiographical. But what a prolific writer was Bracco! Every now and then, an as yet unseen volume of his work resurfaces in the book stores in Port'Alba. Work that is hardly seen in the theater anymore.

Vico, on the other hand, wrote a lot of very little. Having finished The New Science, the typographer lost it, and he had to rewrite the whole thing in the modest little apartment, where his children cried and his wife got angry because how was she to know that he was a great philosopher? And who cared?! To the family, he must have seemed more like Balzac's alchemist in The Quest of the Absolute.

’’Nu guaio passato [Past trouble]

Journalist Joe Marrazzo, having finished his novel on the life of Raffaele Cutolo, lost the typescript after his car was set on fire with it inside. He too rewrote the whole thing. Il Camorrista was a success that inspired Tornatore's first film, and, enchanting aspiring mafia bosses, it became one of the reasons why the special prison regime ‘Articolo 41-bis’ continued to be applied to Camorra boss Raffaele Cutolo until the very end, an old man with dimentia weighing 90 pounds. In their imagination, he never aged because he had been frozen in the features of actor Ben Gazzara, which were harder than his own.

“Death must be accepted” (R. Cutolo)

Tullio Pironti died in 2021 but his book store in Piazza Dante, a foretaste of Port'Alba, was there before him by dynasty and survives him. Boxer as a young man, chess player in the back room as an old man, somewhere in the middle he was a        publisher capable of holding his own against the giants of the North, the first in Italy to publish Easton Ellis, DeLillo, Mahfuz and others. Italian publisher Bompiani has resuscitated his autobiography, Libri e cazzotti, memoir and manual of humanity, a few weeks after reviving two great texts of late twentieth century fiction: Ninfa plebea by Domenico Rea (1993 Strega Prize) and Malacqua by Nicola Pugliese, the most beautiful book on Naples in the rain, on waiting and distance seen up close.

The list simply has to include a tour of Port'Alba inside the incubator of the ancient town center, where few booksellers remain, standing the test of time, and include both members of ancient families such as Nunziante Pironti (known as Nunzio), grandson of Tullio, and recent arrivals such as Pasquale Langella, formerly a waiter in a bar. It works, this combination of books and coffee. Customers are offered a cup, but beware of silly questions, because both Nunzio and Pasquale have already published booklets of dry humor in which they collect the pretensions and oddities of Pickwickian visitors. Neapolitan irony is not self-evident. Actually, yes, it is: sea, Vesuvius, sfogliatelle and teasing.

Sea, Vesuvius, the Grotta Azzurra that would inspire Andersen’s Little Mermaid. We know what a Grand Tour was like from Goethe. We know what Conrad and Wilde did some time after, and then we know about when Gide came or Ortese stayed, pretending to be gone for the rest of her life. But we didn’t know about Andersen until Langella published the three Naples diaries of the Danish writer for the first time in Italian. Every so often, a discovery is drawn from this well of San Patrizio, or rather of Santa Patrizia or Santa Partenope: Inexhaustible Naples.

"’A tiene ’na cosa ’a raccuntà? ’A tiene o no ’na cosa ’a raccuntà?” [How much it has to tell! How much it has to tell, eh?]

The rhetorical question by director Antonio Capuano to Fabietto Schisa, Paolo Sorrentino's alter ego, which Naples continually asks itself and to itself replies: ‘Yes!’ So the list still isn’t finished, as it should also be updated at night.

Of course, there is now the risk of becoming a bit like Venice, with the compulsory tourist tours of the clichés for those with no spirit of adventure: you want Pulcinella, puppets of Greta or Zelensky, here you go; babà at  Leopoldo’s and pastiera, which is traditionally actually eaten only at Easter and you can now find in August and at Christmas. Are you looking for Detective Ricciardi: if you can content yourself with it, he has a table at Gambrinus, like (the famous) Pessoa has in Lisbon, but the seat could have been filled by Croce, D'Annunzio, Caruso, Morelli and Palizzi, Di Giacomo and Ferdinando Russo (who really did eat there). Or, in no particular order, Scarpetta, Carosone, Eduardo, Viviani, Murolo (father and son), Pino Daniele, Paisiello, Pergolesi Rossini Donizetti (working guests). Each with its own names. Without shame: even Ciccio Cappuccio and Teofilo Sperino, guapponi, [mafia-style criminals] of another era, appear on the list.

“Senza nulla a pretendere” [With no pretensions] (Totò)

Because “nun è peccato. Si me suonne int’’e suonne che faie, nun è peccato!” [it’s not a sin. If you dream about me in your dreams, it’s not a sin!] (U. Calise-C.A. Rossi). Passing through common places then leaving them behind to discover, for example, the tomb of Alessandro Scarlatti in the church of Santa Maria di Montesanto. Just to admire the definitiveness of the tombstone devoted to the “greatest innovator of music,” who “from antiquity took away the glory, from posterity the hope of imitation.” Or to find that there is an alleged grace-of-god shrine of Dracula in the cloister of Santa Maria la Nova, which according to some historians actually does contain the remains of Vlad Tepes. The Count of Cagliostro came to this church to mourn the death of the master Cavalier d'Aquino, or perhaps to learn the rituals of Egyptian Freemasonry. In any case, he understood that in Naples you have to move discreetly because it is neither Paris nor The Hague nor a reputable German town. The calloused sons of Parthenope expect to win at ‘three cards’.

Ccà nisciuno è fesso [Here, no one is a fool].

“In life there are more fools than employers” (Totòtruffa 62)

Before the Prince of Sansevero, in a building in Via San Liborio behind Piazza Carità, there settled, between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a “magician”, read scientist, Giambattista Della Porta, who also dabbled in dramaturgy. Because magic is theater. Theater is magic. Fellow citizen Cavalier Cesare Gabbrielli, inventor of the proverbial exhortation “my eyes!” was an illusionist and a mind reader, who came face to face with his audience. It was he who suggested to Thomas Mann the story from which Visconti drew a ballet and D'Annunzio called him a “magical creator,” thus giving Eduardo the idea of caricaturing him in the one-act Sik-Sik, the magical creator (Gabbrielli was in fact sicco sicco [oh, so thin] as emphasized by his traditional black tailcoat, as well as an avid consumer of cognac and cigarettes).

It is not easy to be a magician in Naples, where the magician par excellence was Virgil (second job, poet), keeper of the egg of life under Castel dell'Ovo (hence the name). If that shell breaks, the city ends. With her, the Neapolitan tribe dies out. “Tribe,” said Pasolini.

Those who find themselves passing in front of the Diana Theater in Vomero should know that it was here that Gabbrielli reigned with a consistently full house; that it was on that stage, from which Massimo Ranieri recently fell, that the De Filippo brothers rose to success and also where Eduardo and Peppino broke up, when the youngest, tired of the despotic eldest, in the middle of rehearsals, climbed onto a chair and started shouting “du-ce du-ce!”.

There have always been small esoteric groups strolling through the streets of Vomero: engineers deciphering the Centuries of Nostradamus, professors of Latin, creators of new mathematics, aspiring Templars, exegetes of the Prince of Sansevero, daydreaming flâneurs, who unlike the brilliant neurasthenics Walser and Bernhard, weave while strolling improbable pearls of wisdom with dialectal ironies, aware, in resignation, that in the end everything is a game or a dream. That is, as Tony Pisapia/Toni Servillo said:

“'A vita è' na strunzata” [Life is bullshit] (P. Sorrentino, L’uomo in più)

Because the reaction of engineers and lottery players, as La Capria writes, is “a reaction to this sense of precariousness, as well as an expression of the ancestral esoteric spirit of the Neapolitans... an uninterrupted continuity with the ancient world.” The past is always there and even those who leave Naples leave with Naples, but unlike Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, who left Dublin with “silence, exile, and cunning”, they are held in exile and cunning but never in silence. For or against Naples, they continue to talk wherever they run to.

The fact that nostalgia rhymes with oleografia does not mean one has to be suppressed together with the other.

“Vurria turnà addo te/pe’ n’ora sola, Napule mia/pe’ te sentì ’e cantà cu mille manduline” [I would like to return to you/just for an hour, my Naples/to hear you sing/with a thousand mandolins] (A. Pugliese/F. Rendine)

Perhaps we need to overplay it so that even real nostalgia seems fictional, using oleography to mask the face when time, which hears only its own reasons, proves too insolent:

“Ma che cunferenza s’’a pigliate ’o tiempo a ce vedé spartute” [How has time dared to divide us?] (V.D'Agostino-L.Giuliano-L.D'Alessio)

So, if you say “addio” in Naples, it is often an exaggerated “arrivederci”. An adios from Spanish viceroyalty. Sirena it was, Sirena it is and will be (or would be). When the Vesuvian Frenchman Teodoro Cottrau (re)invented the famous Addio mia bella Napoli [Goodbye my beautiful Naples], he swore: “O magica sirena fedel, fedele a te sarò” [Oh, magical siren, faithful, faithful to you I will be]. But how could he have imagined that on May 9, 2022 the singer-songwriter Liberato, a mysterious identity like Banksy or Elena Ferrante, would have published the song Partenope, again all about Naples:

“Nu juorno bell’e bbuono a ’sta guagliona nn’’a truvaje/Chiedette a tutte parte, nisciuno me pensaje/Nun te n’adduone ca ’sta piccerella t’affunnaje/’Ammò, era na sirena’,/dicette e me guardaje.” [One fine day, I couldn’t find the girl any more/I asked everywhere, no one knew what to say/Haven’t you realized that this girl pulled you under?/Love, it was a siren,/she said and she looked at me]

The past awaits the future and hurries it as it gets bored.

Seguici su