Naples: unearthing the treasure trove (Part II)

It’d be wrong to portray this city only as an idyllic cradle of craftmanship, fine food and mild weather: it is all that, but it’s still a place scarred by neglect, crippled by unemployment and still heavily affected by crime and violence. Take, for example, piazza Nicola Amore: this rather nondescript square, entitled to a senator of the Kingdom with a much misused surname, was the theatre of a brutal assassination, still remembered by a commemorative stone of the kind that became common, in Italy, between 1943 and the Eighties.

Antonio Ammaturo was a police inspector; Pasquale Paola, a fellow officer, his driver. Both were killed in broad daylight on July 15th 1982 as the whole country, included the customers at the bars in the piazza, was debating the World Cup. Their murderers were Red Brigade terrorists. They were chased through the alleys by police, a hot pursuit which wouldn’t have gone amiss in a Jason Bourne film, but ultimately got away. How? With help from the camorra, probably. Because Ammaturo wasn’t an anti-terrorism cop, he worked the organised crime; and the BR were, probably, paying a favour to the big camorra boss in town, the Cutolo.

Crime, in Napoli, is never a straightforward affair.

Where religion ends and superstition starts.

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A shrine dedicated to Diego Armando Maradona, the Argentinian footballer who led Napoli to win both the Serie A titles ever won by the team. Seen at a bar on the Decumanus, completed with a friendly advice to buy a coffee after snapping a picture, ‘lest the camera fell down to the floor, which would be a pity’.

Crime, we said, is complicated. Religion, if possible, is even more so.

Napoli’s downtown district, the centro storico, holds about 400 churches, from large cathedrals to small chapels. The number of shrines, statues and local chapels is virtually unknown; but where does the orthodoxy ends, leaving ground to superstition and apocryphal beliefs? Even the briefest sojourn in town will make one doubt of the existence of such a demarcation at all.

A votive niche, destroyed in the 1944 bombings and rebuilt three years later by the faithful of via dell'Anticaglia.

A votive niche, destroyed in the 1944 bombings and rebuilt three years later by the faithful of via dell’Anticaglia.

The city and its people are deeply religious, but in a way that would make Joseph Ratzinger scream in horror (and probably he did). Miracles, such as the liquefaction of Saint Januarius’ blood, happen with a regularity that the Linea 1 trains can only dream of; the local presepe tradition, to whom I’ll dedicate an instalment in the future, borrows in equal measure from the sacred and the profane; the city’s attitude towards homosexuality and transvestites is surprisingly open in an otherwise bigot country.

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One of the two graffiti left by Banksy in town. Both have religious meanings.

I’d like to think that British artist Banksy understood this when he visited the city, leaving two graffiti in his wake. One has since been brutally defaced by a tag (Neapolitan taggers are prolific, omnipresent and unafraid of ruining centennial masterpieces, for Italian laws are notoriously lax on such crimes), but the other remains. It’s in piazza Gerolomini, next to Spaccanapoli, and depicts an ecstatic Virgin Mary, hands open and eyes raised to the heavens, the classic Assumption pose. What’s not so classic is the revolver lying where her halo should’ve been.

imageSkulls, in the local dialect, are called capuzzelle, little heads. They are the most visible expression of the cult of the so-called anime pezzentelle, souls who didn’t quite make it to the heavens having ended up, instead, in purgatory.  The cult revolves around the adoption of a skull in lieu of the entire persona of the defunct (who is usually totally unknown to the adopting family). The skull is left at the church and treated with all possible care, with flowers and prayers: the base idea is that the family’s intercession will grant the defunct access to heaven and he, in return, will keep an eye on them.

imageimageThe epicentre of this cult is a church with quite a mouthful of a name, Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco. This is where, historically, the capuzzelle were stored and worshipped. This tradition, born after a devastating plague epidemic in the XVII century, is still alive: people might not adopt a skull anymore, having been replaced by the bronze statues of three skulls on stilts standing outside, which are still constantly patted, touched and very much revered even now.

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Worshippers leaving one of Napoli’s tiniest churches in via dei Tribunali.

Layer upon layer

Napoli was founded by Greek explorers and became Athens’ main outpost in Magna Graecia. Later on, it survived the Vesuvius eruption which obliterated Pompeii and Aercolanum as well as wars, invations, plague, unrest and its home team winning Serie A a couple of times. It’s a city that oozes history and, like many similar cities, lives with it.

An abandoned building not far off via dei Tribunali, awaiting refurbishment.

An abandoned building not far off via dei Tribunali, awaiting refurbishment.

Today’s Napoli floats above a stratification of historic troves tens of meters deep. This is acutely visible whenever a new tunnel, a new metro station has to be built (Toledo yielded, among many things, a Neolithic field, painstakingly ploughed), but it’s also evident everywhere your feet will lead you in the Centro Storico.

One of Anticaglia's famous arches.

One of Anticaglia’s famous arches.

A section of a Roman wall on display behind a glass in via dell'Anticaglia

A section of a Roman wall on display behind a glass in via Anticaglia

Take, for example, via Anticaglia. Anticaglia is one of those exquisitely Italian words that dictionaries translate with “antiques of little valour” or, rather harshly, “junk”. Both are wrong, even though both describe aspects of it. Via Anticaglia stands on the old Roman theatre and, with time, has come to use the remnants of the imperial past – the anticaglie, indeed – that literally covered the area. The archways built by the Romans to provide structural stability to the buildings have been reused with the same purposes, while walls, passageways and temples have become the foundations of houses and churches. A lady, living in a ground floor apartment called basso, even had the theatre’s cavea as her own private backyard.

Roman bas reliefs embellish the gate of a nondescript block of flats in via Anticaglia.

Roman bas reliefs embellish the gate of a nondescript block of flats in via Anticaglia.

People and coffee

An airline had an advert, once, outside Heathrow’s Terminal 3. It read “People: they make an airline” and I so wholeheartedly agree that I could adapt it to cities as well. Because what are, cities, if not an ensemble of buildings and greenery inhabited by people?

Roasted chestnuts seller, via dei Tribunali.

Roasted chestnuts seller, via dei Tribunali.

The Neapolitans have a double-edged fame, at least in Italy. The array of chronic defects that have troubled, and still do, the city in the past have been de facto ascribed to the whole community. Chants calling them unclean, cholera-ridden and shame of the whole country keep on being sung almost every time Napoli FC plays an away game, especially in the North of the country. And Neapolitan have, traditionally, played the role of those scamming honest people, at least until the start of international immigration in the country.

imageThe city’s problems are undeniable, as well as it’s undeniable that many come from the same Neapolitans who inhabit the city itself. But, as usual, things need to be taken with a (in this case very substantial) pinch of salt. In my permanence in the city I haven’t been robbed, haven’t witnessed illegal dumping of litter on the public road, no one has tried to sell me bootleg cigarettes or liquor or stolen phones. I haven’t witnessed anyone riding scooters without helmets, even though traffic had few things in common with what can be witnessed in, say, Zurich or Stockholm.

Scenes from one of the city's many pizza parlours. The tag sprayed on the wall reads "Love smugglers"

Scenes from one of the city’s many pizza parlours. The tag sprayed on the wall reads “Love smugglers”

What I did witness, instead, was a remarkably open citizenry; it wasn’t uncommon for strangers to join up in casual conversation, often evolving in lively discussions as it happened to me and my hosts while wandering through the centre. I also found a deeply pious and profoundly human populace, not yet forced by modernity into forgetting long-standing traditions.

imageOne such traditions is related to one of the city’s main staples, coffee. Forget your lattes, venti cappuccinos and all the rest of the menu that fills up walls upon walls at your local Starbucks franchise: here the one and only is the espresso, served in a piping hot cup, so that the newbie will end up with his or her lips quite scolded (any reference to facts happened directly to myself is entire casual).

Cafe Mexico, in piazza Dante, is arguably one of the best places for an espresso in town.

Cafe Mexico, in piazza Dante, is arguably one of the best places for an espresso in town.

Any half-decent bar in town will prepare you an espresso that, in London, would generate queue only seen during the Boxing Day sales, but few still practice the caffè sospeso. To join this venerable tradition is enough to enter a bar and to ask for an espresso and a caffè sospeso: you’re going to be charged for two cups, even though only one will be served. The other is “suspended”, sospeso, left on the bar’s books until someone in need will enter and enquire if the bar has any “sospesi” available.

And it comes with a 1970s décor and barmen in uniform!

And it comes with a 1970s décor and barmen in uniform!

It’s, I’m sure you’ll agree, a little gesture that won’t change the life of the receiver and, similarly, won’t impact the giver’s finances too much. But, still, it’s a way to ensure that a stranger living a rainy day can still enjoy a little moment of pleasure in his life. I, being my usual cynic self, asked if it ever occurred that the barman pocketed the sospeso, denying them to his poorer customers. The outraged expressions of my hosts made me understand that yes, the city famed for the cunningness of its inhabitants had some very strict taboos.

I wonder if the same could be said of many other places.

This entry was posted in Campania, Europe, Faith, Italy, Napoli, Overlooked locations and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Naples: unearthing the treasure trove (Part II)

  1. I love the graffiti left by Banksy

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