NAPOLI NAPOLI MAGICO NAPOLI
Just two hours train ride south of Rome but worlds apart, Naples was a five day wonder for me starting with the Hostel of the Sun, a gathering place for many nations–people from Brasil, Poland, Canada, Israel, Italy, the U.K., even a Roma Druid sat around on pillows in the evenings and shared in the Aperitif Night (lots of free hors d’oevres) and in the free dinner. Energy here was surely created by Marica–a beautiful dark eyed sexy girl whose smile laughter and joy welcomed everybody.
The Centro Historico then offered my first surprise. Street after cobble stoned street still called by their Roman names–Decumanus–was jammed with families strolling by an endless number of shops and stalls selling miniature terra cotta sculptures. Originally a Neopolitan tradition of craftsmen making figures for the Christmas crèche the figures now depict every kind of life. Old ceramic storage jars and found tree trunks now provide stages for amazing scenes complete with flickering lights and moving figures. A rollicking bunch of rotund peasants dive rapaciously into mountains of food; a butcher chops up a side of pork, hind quarters of lamb hanging behind him and heaps of meat stacked on the counter before him; a baker throws pizza dough in the air while a seamstress bends carefully over her sewing machine.
Many of the artists sit in their shops molding clay and building vignettes. They proudly tell you how many generations of their men have been making these figurines. Literally thousands are on offer in every shop and the tiny baskets of fruit, the Marys, the Baby Jesuses nestled in straw in glass Christmas ornaments, the lambs, the tables and chairs, the zucchini and the bananas, every accoutrement of life are joined in some shops by hordes of Santas, crews of Punchinellos in white dress and black masks, and the strangest of good luck creatures–a gross wart-faced old man in a top hat covered in garlic and phallic red peppers. His belly bursting the buttons on his rag tag shirt, he swills a pint of beer and laughs his blackened and tooth missing grin.
Above the thronging masses LEDs light up line drawings of shepherds with lambs, herders with camels, water-bearers, and madonnas while in the center of the district larger than life size line sculptures of Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men and lambs and donkeys surround the Christ Child–just lovely.
Another magical experience in Naples is encountering so many fine antiquities. The Nazionale Museu has the gigantic Hercules and many other sculptures from the Baths of Caracalla; hundreds of mythological wall paintings from Pompeii; stunningly detailed mosaic floors and hundreds of sculptures, full round, in relief and as portraiture. Interesting that only Venus/Aphrodite is nude–all other women seem to be covered up like Vestal Virgins while the men strut and battle, compete and recline all in the nude.
Of course I went into the field to see the miraculously preserved POMPEII and HERCULANEUM, each city destroyed in moments when Vesuvius erupted in 79 BC.
Pompeii is huge and filled with everything a Roman town should have–baths, theaters, an amphitheater, villas, a Forum, a Basilica (law court whose structure lent itself to Christians who later transformed them into churches). I loved seeing its water system, its column construction, its beautiful baths, its lovely floor mosaics and wall paintings (Dionysos reclining nearly drunk accompanied by satyrs and his sleazy old mentor Silenus and served by his Bacchai all painted in brilliant realism on intense cadmium red grounds) although I found Herculaneum easier to negotiate.
The surprise around Naples for me though was PAESTUM– a Greek and Roman ruin south of Naples. Spread out in a grassy plain, nearly empty of visitors, it had a huge Forum, a swimming pool with water slides inside of a fancy villa, two circular meeting sites that resembled theaters but were governmental gathering places–one Greek and one Roman. But what was astonishing and so very beautiful were the three Greek temples on site, each with massive Doric columns and each intact and standing many stories high in monumental glory.
On a less grand scale but another wonderful magical surprise was Linea Uno of the Naples Metro. It’s a new line and millions may have funded the contemporary art that fills several of the new stations, each one of which has its own unique paving, lighting system, wall designs, even escalator siding. I spent hours traveling up and down escalators (the line is deep deep into the bowels of Naples and has initiated many archeological digs ), in and out of entrances to find all the art hidden in every nook and cranny of six stations.
I found lenticular 3-D pink and lime green wall images wherein organic and strange digitally generated objects moved as one walked by; saw a row of burned out Fiats between platforms in another station; found several beautiful abstract mosaic paintings, a photomontage of working men, and a 3-d sculptural painting in a station with some serious portraits of screaming women looming out of a completely black platform way off in a corner of a station. In another there were two block-long photomontages of thousands of Neopolitanos of all ages, shapes and ethnicities that was extremely moving.
My favorite station was Toledo where William Kentridge created a block long mural in black white and gray tesserae documenting the history of Naples with its musicians, scientists, heroes and Patron Saint Gennaro. In the nether regions of the station there is a corridor of moving water en video and farther down are curvilinear walls and ceilings that are tiled in blues, greens, and violets with a skylight that rises to the surface like a mystical tunnel up from the deep sea up to the sky .
A day in Sorrento and Positano, both built on astoundingly perpendicular cliffs, the roads indeed cantilevered over the Mediterranean, were spectacular as well. I left the Hostel with kisses and hugs and came upon an older man playing piano in the train station surrounded by loudly and joyously singing cohorts grouped around him. Magic…no other word for Napoli.