Sunday, July 1, 2012

Abundance and Decay

Naples was an assault on all senses at once. It was loud, fast, dirty and jarring. It was raw, beautiful, unkempt and fascinating. I'm glad I went and so glad I didn't go to Naples during my first trips to Italy. Much like grappa or aged gorgonzola, Naples is an acquired taste, even for Italy lovers.

Once again, the always fearless Lawrence served as our guide, while Lawrence's brother, Robert, and Robert's husband, John, joined Dave and I on this adventure.

Last Friday morning, as we waited for our travel companions to arrive, a train strike threatened to wreck our day to Pompeii, as did the heat. So instead of going to Pompeii, Dave and I decided to tour the Museo di Capodimonte. This museum is a perfect example of the abundance of this city. The Capodimonte houses, among other treasures, Caravaggio's Flagellation, Parmigianino's Antea (below), Simone Martini's opulent St. Louis of Toulouse Crowning Robert of Anjou and Titian's Portrait of Pope Pius III. 

The Capodimonte may very well be the most underrated museum in Italy, if not Europe. Most general guide books do not mention it, but what a jewel and with so few tourists! Below, me after our morning at the museum, which sits in a very large public park.

On the walk from the bus stop to the museum the urban landscape of Naples becomes clearer. From this viewpoint it's not hard to see why Naples is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, creating another form of "abundance." People are more than simply living on top of one another. If our short time in the city was anything to go by, Neapolitans are jostling for position on the sidewalk, the street, the bus, the cab stand, the city squares each moment of everyday. This palpable "aggressivity," as Lawrence eloquently called it, filters through the city's urban culture on multiple levels.

This view from Via del Capodimonte reminds me of other forms of "visual plenty" I had seen the day before, and would continue to see the rest of our time in Naples. For example, this pasta shop, crechè vendor and pasticceria:

*The delicacies above that look like mushrooms (on the bottom and second shelf) are a Neapolitan specialty and consist of doughnut-like cake that's been dipped in rum. (I passed.)

* * *

In my Italian experiences to date, Naples is unique in its fascinating, unsettling and at times, incomprehensible record of decay, both past and ongoing. I puzzled over whether this was due to lack of use--when I saw churches in this state, like the one below (which is in comparatively good shape when thinking back on several others I observed)--or if this was a matter of money and maintenance, as with the second images, where plants aggressively take root in the cracks of an inhabited sixteenth century palace facade (turned apartments), in the city's historic center, as large pieces of plaster slip from its surface. Compared to Milan, Florence or Rome, where such buildings would be better tended, I felt like I was in a place much like an unsettling, overripe Baroque still life--past its beautiful, glorious prime.

And, yet this seemed to be part of the very fabric and character of the city.

What I've come to discover as I look back over my photos is the actual lack of images I took, especially on our last night when the camera was left at the hotel for safety reasons. We dined at this very nice (heels and a dress for me) seafood restaurant on the spur of land jutting furthest into the Bay of Naples. We sat outside on the restaurant patio on the harbor and had the best table in the place, and consequently in Naples. I faced roughly north and to my left the sun sank over the city, while to my right I could watch the color shifts on Mount Vesuvius, which far from threatening, served only as an earthen canvas for the shifting colors of the sunset. The food, unfortunately was average, but the siting and sights more than made up for it.

Afterwards, not a single cab could be located in the craziness that is a Neapolitan weekend night. As a result we all walked from the restaurant, in the posh part of Naples to our hotel in the old city center. (Thankfully I came prepared with a change of practical shoes!) In 50 minutes I saw young toughs drinking and partying in a church piazza, cars stopped in the outermost lane of a major, divided 8 lane street while it's occupants bought and ate (right there!) food from a little food stand. I saw the worst, abject poverty I have witnessed in my life, and then 3 blocks later Italian children bouncing around in a "jump-in-play" at midnight. We saw the majestic old castle and fort and the new construction around it for a modern subway stop. The clash of opposites the whole way was disturbing...and again, fascinating. This was business as usual in Naples and to my mind, surreal, and at times, sad.

Naples put things in perspective for us, and suddenly the whizzing Vespas or the crowded sidewalks of Florence seemed much more gentile, even welcoming. That's what Naples cemented for me, my love of Florence and an important perspective that only travel can provide.

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