Before coming to Naples I visited Shirley Hazzard in New York. With the slyly coquettish charm some women hold on to forever, the elderly writer talked to me about the city whose learned siren she became when posted here as a translator for NATO after the Second World War. She was surprised to learn I’d be staying through June and July, but allowed, ‘Everyone has air conditioners now.’ She warned me about the Scippatori, the driver/bag-snatcher pairs supposed to prowl the streets on Motorini like wolves on Vespas. In a famous incident, her husband, the late scholar and translator Francis Steegmuller, was dragged and seriously injured by scippatori. But that happened almost twenty years ago when the lordly Steegmuller and his wife were leaving the Spaccanapoli neighborhood, legendary haunt of the city’s Lazzaroni, the poorest of the poor. The misery of the Lazzaroni disgusted Dickens on a visit in 1846, and their bizarre objectification by the wealthy is still to be seen in antique shops here, which teem with bronze and bisque figurines of grinning paupers.
Things have changed somewhat. Naples’s reputation for danger, for thieves, cheats, Camorra threats, poverty, malfunctioning government, heaps of garbage and insane drivers is really a phenomenon as much historical as real. Naples isn’t that different from other Mediterranean cities, not spruce like Barcelona, less severe and nerve-wracking than Palermo, more vibrant than Alexandria, nowhere near as chaotic as Cairo. Admittedly it’s scruffy. Many old churches, gigantic and unvisited, sprout a romantic shag of weeds. Walls everywhere are covered in graffiti, but the graffiti is so inventive and appealing it’s obvious that art students, not thugs, are running wild in the night. Still, history in this city – and that includes its bad reputation – casts a very long shadow. Many visitors find the heat unbearable and the traffic horrifying. A young Dubliner in my quickie Italian class said Piazza Garibaldi by the train station felt dangerous after dark.
So what’s wrong with me? I keep thinking. I love it here. When I wade into the traffic (you have to if you want to cross the street) I’m surprised by the gentility of the drivers. Automobiles and Motorinos don’t seem inhuman and confrontational the way they do in Paris or even Rome. Here they’re just more powerful pedestrians, modern-day centaurs and fauns, motorized crosses between human and Fiat Punto or human and scooter. On the other hand, I do see a lot of limping, and that can’t be put down entirely to Neapolitan theatrics. I notice a lot of bandaged arms and lower legs in plastic walking casts.
Marechiaro is the heel of the well-heeled Posillipo neighborhood. To reach the public beach there you wade through iffy shallows under a pier of paying sunbathers, then scramble over lava rocks and two-by-four foot bridges — well, boards. The Spiaggia Libera is a patch of worn boulders strewn with cigarette butts and crushed green Ferrarelle water bottles. On Saturdays, bun-brown teenagers, packed as tightly as harbour seals, preen and gossip. The girls luxuriously straighten and smooth their bikini tops, the boys just as luxuriously adjust their Speedos or massage the shoulders and necks of friends. The afternoon wears on. They laugh and pile atop each other with the unselfconsciousness of puppies. Their volcanic sensuality (it stays to this side of licentiousness somehow) is hard not to watch without a bit of aging or Anglo-Saxon envy, a desire, perhaps, to capture it in a nice, safe porcelain figurine. Instead, I wade out on a shelf of rock, stepping gingerly across the black mosaic of juvenile mussels. Most people wear old sneakers. I dive in. Treading water, I turn to watch the shore where boys dare each other to jump into the aquamarine surges from a forlorn Roman ruin. The ruin’s two-storey vaults are built of yellow tufa in the unmistakably Roman diamond-patterned opus reticulatum. The structure may be related to the imperial Villa Pausilypon nearby or it could simply be an anonymous ruin of the sort scattered all around the bay of Naples. I can’t find it in any guidebook. Of course, a sign on it warns Pericoloso!
The historian Statius wrote densely allusive poetry about the region in the first century, the early nineties CE. For him the shores of Naples had to be Parthenopean, its fields Ausonian. (Parthenope, the siren who failed to seduce Odysseus and swam ashore in tragic disappointment, was the name of the first Cumaean Greek outpost on a hill in Naples. The Ausones were an Italic tribe pre-dating even the Greeks.) Amidst all the fussy rhetoric, one is startled by a simple plaint, ‘Will future generations believe, when crops and these now deserted places thrive again, that cities and peoples are buried below?’ (Silvae 4.4) Statius is talking, of course, about the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius on a particular day, August 24 of 79 CE. That’s the unique power of this place. The past has unnerving specificity. It’s remote and close at the same time, like a ruin or a teenager.
After climbing one of the dream-like stairways-called-streets on Capri in withering sunlight, I notice that the rafts of magenta bougainvillea eventually thin out. So do the tanned, bejeweled would-be Brigitte Bardots in filmy white beach cover-ups. Along a path leading – somewhere – to a shrine to Cybele, and with a good view down to the fascist-era Villa Malaparte, a bushy indigenous holm oak grows. It has distinct baroque leaves. These are the ancient ilex leaves we’ve seen all our lives curling neatly in white marble from Corinthian capitals. Here they grow like weeds.