We’ve glimpsed the heart of the city … we think. It’s a short, ancient artery that pumps life into the cobbled soul of Naples.
This artery, the Via San Gregorio Armeno, is dense with the past. Like all of Naples it has seen centuries of armies, rebels, rogues and kings sweep through and back again, trailed by plagues and starvation. It has survived them all, and its buildings and treasures are now protected as part of the Centro Storico by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Via San Gregorio Armeno might not be as well known as Spaccanapoli, the famous route which splits (spaccare) the city in half from east to west, but the crowds who visit know that each feeds the other.
Both streets have the Naples’ style – eyes in doorways, Vespas out of nowhere, and traders who do not need you to like them – but there is more. Turn into the smaller Via San Gregorio Armeno and the cobbles erupt into colour, tinted with the bright reds and golds of miniature worlds that riot out of the shadows.
Tiny masked Pulcinellas from the Commedia dell’Arte, arranged on invisible tables, elbow to upstage each other in the jostle for space. Some model pizza and spaghetti, others clutch at luck amongst the world figures and painted tambourines. Footballers and tax collectors crowd the Pope while Prince Harry stands coyly with his skin to the wind. Behind them all detailed biblical figures wait for Christmas.
Displays of the presepi – the Italian nativity scenes, the best now an extravagance of handmade Neapolitan characters that add context to the traditional setting of the crib – are stacked behind each shop entrance.
The origin of these (some say pagan rituals and others St Francis of Assissi), and of the figures that have become attached to them, doesn’t seem to matter now. What does matter is that the presepi of Naples are amongst the best known in the world. It is a reputation that attracts collectors throughout the year and a loud jingle of Christmas shoppers in December.
Some look for individual detail and others, if the price is right, won’t mind a touch of the “made-in-China”. Neapolitans are happy to cater for everyone. Their role is to show off the city’s crowded soul and they flaunt it in all its glory through the medium of the miniature – pious; irreverent; talented; indifferent; superstitious; ancient; opportunist; masked; and captivating.
Linger, and curiosity draws you in through the doors to the far shadows of the shops where one or two craftsmen work on the characters in their tiny worlds.
Step outside, and you’re back into the real Naples – the big version – difficult to read and impossible to mould.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs and The Phraser 2014