‘The Terrible beside the Beautiful, the Beautiful beside the Terrible….’ – Goethe on Naples

August 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm (Art, Book review, books, Italy) ()

  Benjamin Taylor begins his book about Naples by describing two miracles that he he witnessed there. One involves the liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro (Januarius), the city’s patron saint. The other has to do with the author’s lost passport.  The stories are connected, and he tells them both in this video:

I love the way Benjamin Taylor describes the geographic and geological attributes of Naples:

What has escaped no traveler is that this oval bay, arms reaching out irregularly into the Tyrrhenian, islands beautifully situated to either side of the mouth of the harbor, makes the loveliest of geologic settings–not least because it is equipped with a reminder of how provisional all loveliness is: Vesuvius, this coast’s incomparable emblem of uncertainty, in whose shadow a hundred fifty generations have lived: ‘Vesuvius, which again and again destroys itself,’ as Goethe says, ‘and declares war on any sense of beauty.’

(British paleontologist Richard Fortey writes with great eloquence of the significance of Naples in his book Earth: An Intimate History. “The Bay of Naples,” he informs us, “is where the science of geology started.”  He is referring to the precise and dispassionate eyewitness account given by Pliny the Younger of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.)

In the front of Naples Declared, Taylor has placed a detailed chronology of the city’s chaotic, eventful, and often harrowing history. When I began my reading about Naples in preparation for my journey thence in 2009, I recall being astonished to learn that it was first settled by the Greeks around 600 BC (although there’s evidence that other Greek explorers reached the islands as early as 1800 BC). I like Taylor’s wry observation:  “The wonder of the place is that it has not been annihilated by so much history.”  His deep admiration of the ancient Greeks informs his love for ‘Neapolis:’

At Naples, from which it spread to Rome, the Greek response to life–natural, canny, sensate, disabused–persists in subtle and overt ways, despite the centuries of permutation.There is, in Naples, a living interdependence between Christian and pagan emotions. It is said that the land is Christian but the water pagan. On land, the Mother of God has her dominion; but Sirens rule the Bay.

(I recently encountered a very similar sentiment, expressed in an almost flippant manner, in the short story “The Lotus Eater” by Somerset Maugham. The events of the story take place around the turn of the last century, on the Isle of Capri. A visitor to the island asks a long time – and rather world weary and cynical –  expatriate resident about a street festival that appears to be some sort of religious celebration:

‘Oh, it’s the feast of the Assumption,’ he said, ‘at least that’s what the Catholic Church says it is, but  that’s just their hanky-panky. It’s the festival of Venus. Pagan, you know. Aphrodite rising from the sea and all that.’)

Taylor’s sojourn on Capri was, for me, a revelation. (A short time after you arrive in the Campania, you’ll be pronouncing ‘Capri’ with the accent on the first syllable.) I now fully realize how much I did not see in 2009, and how much of the island’s fascinating history I was ignorant of. I particularly regret missing the Church of San Michele Arcangelo, with its spectacular majolica floor:    

I knew that I wanted to see if the Villa Rosaio, a house once lived in by Graham Greene, was still there. I did not get to do that either. Basically, we tour members were deposited in the shopping district and left free to roam. Not that that in itself is a bad thing; it’s just not the only thing. I was pleased to read of Taylor’s conversations with Shirley Hazzard, whose Greene on Capri  I loved.

Shirley Hazzard accepting the 2003 National Book Award for her novel The Great Fire. She has lived intermittently in Naples and Capri for many years.

For anyone who’s  writing about Naples, quoting  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is virtually inevitable. The great German polymath first arrived in Italy in 1786. He spent two years there and was especially taken with Naples, writing innumerable letters about his experiences there and his impressions of the place. These were later collected, along with his other Italian correspondence, to comprise the book Italian Journey. (The blog The Solitary Walker graciously provides some direct quotes from this volume.)

Goethe in the Roman Campagna, by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm von Tischbein, 1786

Of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Taylor tells us: “This artist, nowadays equal in interest to Rembrandt or Vermeer, Monet or Cezanne, went all but forgotten for three hundred years, his art a comet that astonished and then disappeared.” He goes on:

Still, Caravaggio’s heightened chiaroscuro, somber glowing blueless palette, concentrated action, and meaty naturalism persisted thereafter in painting as a kind of underground song, anonymously nourishing artists who did not know they were his legatees.

(I love “meaty naturalism.”) Caravaggio was rediscovered in the early twentieth century when his praises were sung by English painter and critic Roger Fry.

Three great canvases by this master are to be found in Naples:

The Seven Acts (or Works) of Mercy was painted circa 1607 expressly for the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a church located in the historic center of the city. The church was founded in 1602 by  group of young noblemen, as a charitable enterprise. The painting still hangs in that church. 

The Flagellation, circa 1607-1608,  resides in the Museo di Capodimonte. (When I realized what treasures were housed in that edifice, originally a palace built  for King Charles VII of Naples and Sicily in 1738, I was amazed anew at what we did not see in 2009.)

The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, painted in 1610, was one of Caravaggio’s last completed works. It is currently housed in the Banca Intesa  in Naples. There’s an interesting story about how it got there.

Taylor’s ability to discourse with equal eloquence on history, music, art, and other subjects is one of this book’s most appealing qualities. In Naples Declared, he’s packed a great deal into a relatively short space. Even so, there was a bit more about the city’s convoluted history than I could readily take in. In addition, Benjamin Taylor recounts his personal struggle with religion and spirituality. Some readers might find these passages irrelevant. I did not, being a veteran myself of similar struggles. And finally, his author is a man of strong opinions, freely expressed. Although I found this startling at times, it did not really distract from my overall enjoyment of the book.

Taylor addresses the question of why tours and tourists tend to give Naples a miss. The fall of the Bourbon dynasty in 1860 was followed by an appalling cholera outbreak in 1884. From that time to this, Naples was increasingly left off travelers’ itineraries:

Called the most beautiful of cities in Greco-Roman antiquity, in the High Middle Ages,  and again in the eighteenth century, Naples will never again exercise its old allure. Venice must have ten thousand sightseers for every independent soul who seeks out the inner secrets of this place.  It is Capri, Ischia, Sorrento, Positano that are the shining destinations. Naples hides its glamour from the hordes on their way to such watering places….Here is a metropolis that has not become a boutique of itself–for painful reasons, it must be said: underemployment, bureaucracies of legendary ineptitude, widespread exactions by the criminal rackets (the ubiquitous and damnable Camorra).

After I returned from the tour of Naples and the Amalfi coast, I wrote about the experience. The title I gave to my first post about Naples was “Chaotic, anarchic, harrowing, defaced…and sublime.”   The place frightened me. At one point my friends and I decided to slip into an building with an odd and forbidding facade, just to get away from the noise and chaos in the streets:  . Once inside, we heard beautiful music – if memory serves, it was the Miserere by Allegri – and we saw this:  . (We were inside La Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo.)

Well, that is Naples in a nutshell, a city of vast contradictions that most assuredly has not, as Benjamin Taylor so sagely put it, become a boutique of itself.

Here are some of my photos from the trip:               

All my posts on the trip can be accessed via this link.

All in all, Naples Declared – subtitled ‘A Walk Around the Bay,’ – is a fascinating read, and I recommend it highly.

I will close by saying this: I have a powerful longing to return to Naples and the Campania of which it is the capital city.


  1. Elizabeth said,

    Very VERY interesting post and rather timely, for I have just recently become interested in the history of Naples. I watched the Laurence Olivier & Vivien Leigh film called “That Hamilton Woman” and it is based on the true story of Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton who lived with her husband on Naples.

  2. Thomas at My Porch said,

    Fun post and I loved seeing your pictures. When I visited Naples in 2000, I was lucky to have a ‘local’ connection that made it seem no less chaotic, but perhaps less daunting. A friend of mine worked on the US Naval Base near Pozzuoli north of Naples (and the birthplace of Sophia Loren). Pozzuoli itself was quite fascinating, they have a Roman theater there that is much more interesting than the Colloseum in Rome because you can really get up close and personal with it. Nothing is roped off and we were the only two people visiting.

    As for Naples itself, I was fascinated by your Chiesa above, but never went inside. That seems a pity now. I am not a big fan of guided tours, but we went on one that was organized through the naval base. A 30 something Neopolitan was our guide and I can honestly say it was the only time I have ever really enjoyed a guided tour. He was so informative without seeming either pedantic or patronizing. Perhaps it helped that there were only four of us in the group, but still.

    One night we went to an orchestra concert in the opera house and I was stunned at how loud the audience was during the music. So many people were chatting it was impossible to enjoy the music.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Hi, Thomas,

      Thanks so much for this; I really enjoyed reading about your visit to Naples. And I’m rather amazed by your description of your concert going experience. One of my numerous regrets while I was in Naples was that I didn’t even get inside the Teatro San Carlo, much less see a performance there. But regarding the latter activity, judging by what happened to you, perhaps it’s just as well!

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