Punch-drunk but still standing Naples has borne the attentions and abuses of history with steely grace. Today she is like the coffee she serves – undiluted and unapologetic.
Here’s an attempt at a ten point profile of the city.
1) Naples has been prized, dominated and fought over by most of Europe’s ambitious elite. Over the centuries these have included: the Greeks; the Romans; the Ostrogoths; the Byzantines; the Normans; the Hohenstaufens; the Angevins; the Aragonese; the Bourbons; the Austrians; the republican French and Napoleon; then back to the Bourbons and the new Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Finally, in 1860 Garibaldi convinced Naples to join a unified Italy.
2) Then came the build up to, and the consequences of, the Second World War. First there were the Fascists, next the Nazis, and finally the Allies. Before they arrived the Allies heavily bombed the port of Naples, and then the Germans, who decided to leave at that point, destroyed much that remained of the city.
This is how the Encylopedia Britannica puts it:
While Naples shared with all Italy the degradation of fascism, few Italian cities suffered so heavily in World War II or made so painful and incomplete a recovery.
3) Disease, the most high profile being the plague and cholera, have also been frequent visitors to Naples. The plague’s worst visit to the city was between 1656 and 1658, when Naples is said to have lost a third of its population. Three of the major cholera epidemics were in 1837, 1884 and 1910.
4) In amongst the battles for ownership, the building, the re-building and the illness, there have been earthquakes, those of AD62, 1688 and 1980 are particularly well known, and, in addition, there have been unpredictable volcanic eruptions. In AD79 Vesuvius buried Pompeii and she has blown many times since – amongst her more damaging eruptions have been those of 1631, 1906 and 1944.
5) Each of the ‘events’ listed above, and many others not listed, have left open wounds into which crime and corruption have crawled. Since the Second World War in particular organised crime has become part of the reality of Naples, twisted into politics and industry and able to offer incomes when no others are available.
6) The population of the city and its outskirts, young by Italian standards, is estimated to be close to three million. Naples is one of the most densely inhabited European cities and has one of the highest unemployment rates, officially 30%. In 2012 youth unemployment in Naples was 53%.
7) Yet still Naples is beautiful: its light and location are extraordinary and there is dignity, history, art, music and fresh food everywhere. The city’s old centre is so layered in treasures that it has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.
8) The University of Naples Frederico II, near the heart of the centro storico is said to be the oldest state-funded university in the world with Thomas Aquinas amongst its pupils.
9) Many great names throughout history have been associated with Naples. In no particular order they include: the poet Virgil who spent his last years in Naples; Scipio Africanus, famed for his defeat of Hannibal; Spartacus the slave who hid out with fellow slaves on Vesuvius; the great naturalist Pliny the Elder; his nephew Pliny the Younger who watched the Vesuvius eruption of AD79; Petrarch, poet laureate and highly-esteemed visitor to Naples; Rossini who was musical director for seven years at the Teatro San Carlo opera house in Naples; Enrico Caruso the famous tenor born in Naples; Sophia Loren the film actress who was from Pozzuoli just outside Naples; Diego Maradona the Argentinian football player who played for Naples and led them to victory after victory; and the much-loved, Naples born, Italian comic Toto.
10) The city is also famous for its handicrafts including: handmade leather gloves; handmade umbrellas; a world of small sculptures – the presepe, the pulcinelle and the symbols of good fortune including the horn, the pepper and the owl; and finally, its light, simple pizza, the Margherita, invented in Naples and thought to be named after the Italian queen – Margherita (Queen consort of the Kingdom of Italy during the reign of her husband Umberto I).
Here are two YouTube clips that are worth a listen if you have the time. The first is Enrico Caruso singing ‘O Sole Mio’ and the other is the first in an eight part series of short YouTube films called ‘Naples – City of the Damned’. Don’t let the title put you off – if you get through the eight clips all is explained. This first clip gives a real idea of Naples after the Second World War and the way it ends may well lead you on to the others.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2014
I have used many sources in writing this piece amongst them the following book, and the links given to website articles as well as some that are listed below:
Vesuvius: Gillian Darley published by Profile Books in 2011