Soundings

Michael Anton
Gritty Grandeur
Underneath its forbidding exterior, Naples is an oasis of civility.
Winter 2011

The outward appearance of the city of Naples is not welcoming. Trash is everywhere, piled high on the sidewalks and street corners even of fashionable districts, such as Santa Lucia. (Supposedly the result of a labor and environmental dispute, the garbage crisis is really the work of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mob.) Seemingly abandoned digs and construction projects dot the landscape. Stray dogs rule the town. Rusted junk lines all the larger roads. There seems to be no surface within reach of a human arm free of graffiti. Even the ancient buildings in nearby Herculaneum—preserved miraculously intact by Vesuvius ash in ad 79—are covered with “scratchiti,” the form of defacement invented by New York City punks when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority learned how to defeat the spray can.

Yet the physical setting is incomparable. Nineteenth-century travelers considered the city, its bay, and its islands—chiefly Capri and Ischia—among the most beautiful spots in Europe, up there with the Rhine Gorge and the Bosporus. The town’s historic core is almost completely unmarred by the ravages of modern architecture or central planning. Medieval streets scarcely wider than outstretched arms open into broad, baroque piazzas. For much of its history, Naples was the wealthy capital of a kingdom, and its royal families and the local aristocracy built well. But after Italian unification in 1861, all tax revenues led to Rome, and Naples reverted to the historical poverty of southern Italy. What has gone up since is cheap, but it is confined to the outer suburbs. Perverse tax policy discourages people from sprucing up their homes and businesses. Scan high and low, and you will never see a smooth wall or a fresh coat of paint.

Naples’s vaguely Third World exterior conceals a delightfully Old World interior. Apart from the ubiquitous scooters and cell phones, modernity seems to have had little effect. There are no chain stores, no fast food, no tourist restaurants—and virtually no tourists. Naples used to be an obligatory stop on the English upper-class grand tour, but tourism fell off after World War II and has never recovered. Part of the cause is Naples’s reputation—much overstated—for street crime. Another part is the declining interest in all things ancient, remnants and ruins of which Naples boasts in abundance. In any case, the town has none of the international amenities of Rome or Milan. This really is a foreign country.

The dinginess of the cityscape contrasts with the elegance of its residents. The old aristocracy had a reputation for high style that has carried down to the present. People tend to dress up in ways that one can distinguish from habits prevalent elsewhere in Italy and on the Continent. A certain formality is the rule. Men’s jackets rarely come off, no matter the weather, and ties are never loosened.

Shops are traditional and quaint. Many can’t be seen from the street at all. A whole Neapolitan economy exists in the upper floors of palazzi, whose large apartments have been divided into elegant ateliers. Finding them requires a guide or at least advanced knowledge. The experience of the hunt—aside from being pleasurable in itself—adds to Naples’s sense of mystery.

Just don’t go looking between 1 and 4 pm: every door but those of the restaurants will be firmly shut. After five, though, the streets—and especially the cafés, the city’s social heart—will teem until midnight or later. An after-dinner stroll requires moving through crowds of teens; Naples remains a notable exception to Western Europe’s low birthrates. A sense of menace, though, is absent. No one is drunk or unruly. If you want to experience real street crime firsthand, try doing the same thing in an English provincial town.

Appearances can indeed be deceiving. Naples’s decaying grandeur, reminiscent of Havana, and slovenly grime, evocative of Detroit, conceal one of the world’s most gracious and civilized oases.

Michael Anton is a writer based in New York.

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