Neapolis. Napoli. Naples.
First colonized by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC, Naples has a long and fascinating history. Jordan Lancaster’s recounting of it had me hooked before I ever got there. Thus I was well disposed toward the place, but at the same time wary, because of other things said and hinted at, in books and by people with direct experience of the city.
“Nowhere can prepare you for the manic in-your-face vitality of Naples.A highly charged mix of screaming humanity and teeming streets, it’s an unrelenting assault on your senses. Raucous, polluted, unruly, deafening and with many of its historical buildings filthy and crumbling, Naples is a city that polarises opinion like no other.
Yes – that about sums it up. But it’s only part of the story
On that first day, my traveling companions Jean and Linda and I wandered the streets of the city on our own. We were overwhelmed and to a degree appalled by what we saw. All that graffiti, all over everything – even the base of the Dante statue in the piazza bearing his name. Dante, for God’s sake!
At one point we found ourselves in the Piazza del Gesu Nuovo. Here, street life was the expected mix of chaos and intrigue. We were already learning that the act of crossing the street required taking your life in your hands. The cars were small but aggressive, like tiny heat seeking missiles. Even they were nothing compared to the motor scooters, which were noisy, fast, reckless, and ubiquitous, driven by men and women, young and old. At least they were helmets, which perhaps should equally be issued to pedestrians who unwittingly stray into their line of sight.
In the midst of everything, a man was teaching soccer moves to some children (football, in the local parlance).
I wandered over to an odd sort of wall on which a sign proclaimed “Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo.” I told my friends that I had read about this church and that it might be a good idea to step inside. It was.
A similar scenario unfolded the following day. We had just been to “Napoli Sotterraneo,” Naples Underground. This was an activity that I did not particularly enjoy. We’d been told that we would see Roman ruins in those dank caves, but somewhow all I saw was…dank caves. The situation was not helped by the fact that our guide was a Roberto Benigni wannabe who was squirrelly in the extreme and more intent on impressing us with his hip knowledge of American slang – “Hey, no problem, bro!” – than in conveying information in a a coherent fashion.
At any rate, on the way back to the hotel, Linda and I decided to stop in at the Cappella Sansevero. This chapel was located in a tiny side street off another side street, a place where you’d think you’d be safe from careening motor scooters. You weren’t. These perpetual annoyances were seemingly never denied access. (Or if they were, no one paid any attention.) Linda and I were forced to flatten ourselves against the wall several times in order to avoid being creamed. Raucous, polluted, unruly, deafening…
But once inside the Cappella Sansevero, another world lay revealed, one of transcendant calm and nearly unbearable beauty. The Cappella’s most famous feature is an amazing work of sculpture executed by Guiseppe Sammartino in 1756 : Cristo Velato, or The Veiled Christ:
Further wonders awaited us in that small exquisite space.
Soundtrack suggestion: “Santa Lucia,” one of the most famous Neapolitan songs, sung here by Mario Lanza: