She is a beauty, Napoli.
From a coastline that wraps beneath Vesuvius toward the long outstretched arm of the Sorrentine peninsula, it is blessed by an ethereal natural splendor. Awaiting those who venture even farther south than Sorrento is the spectacular, rugged coastline of the cerulean sea-washed Amalfi Coast.
Such proximate beauty, such struggle, such passion. What a confounding place is this city. I’ve traveled into and around Naples for many years, yet never have quiet made sense of it all. . .until now.
Energy hovers over Vesuvius like an invisible veil. In the nearby towns of Vico Equense and Castelmare di Stabia, the ruins of Pompeii to the confining, choking lanes of Naples’s quartieri Spagnoli, that energy ignites the lives of Neapolitans. Such energy can be fierce or frightening, energizing or enervating.
Geologists and seismologists are forever anticipating the terrible loss of life and infrastructure when (not if) Vesuvius deigns to yield to her enormous, growing pressures. That veil of invisible power, of a tension that builds beneath our very feet, becomes palpable.
On an afternoon visit to the Capella Sansavero in the heart of Naples, I studied Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Cristo Velato, the Veiled Christ. This is baroque sculpture at its finest, highest art. Intricate lines of linen cloth lay across the face of the deposed body of Christ, the veil so intricate and fine that it tempts visitors to pull the fabric away. Don’t, however, be deceived. The veil, the entire work, is solid marble: cold, intractable, unyielding.
That unseen yet palpable energy from Vesuvius pervades Campanian air. It is as thin and intractable as Sanmartino’s veil. In Naples, life happens in the street; there are few other places to go. In the narrow lanes of this ancient city, people live on top of each other. Secrets are rarely held.
To ride the bus in Naples is to ignite every human sense. Everyone, to a person, seems on alert. While many people believe that life in Naples is one of reckless abandon, nothing could be farther from the truth. Everything is an issue; from where to park, to the lackluster and unpredictable schedule of the city’s transportation system, to how to avoid paying any bill, to the intense odors of a Monday morning’s bus ride. This city is – in every possible sense – alive. Lover’s quarrels, negotiations for apartment leases, arguments over bills and marriages all happen in the open, for all to see and hear.
Then, there are the churches, by location pattern-less, constructed in many parishes in the most haphazard manner imaginable. They seem scattered by some enormous hand, as if they had been dice tossed during matches of religious zeal to ‘own’ human faith.
Naples is a dream; existing between love and hate, blood and life, the sacred and the profane. When visitors consider that unemployment hovers near forty percent, that there is little room to breathe in the quarters of the city and that the Neapolitani exist within a culture of struggle every day to protect their own sanity, an acceptance and understanding settles. There is, indeed, a veil that falls across Naples. It is one of life, of nature’s unpredictable whims, of human furies, of fading religious zeal. Underneath she simmers like Vesuvius, incites vent to human emotion, all the while giving an impression, to the uninitiated, of careless ease.
Naples is a city of passion, of life; raw, engaging, frightening and inspiring.
Don’t reach for the veil. It’s cold, solid rock.
As I made my way along darkened lanes, barely illuminated by streetlamps, I came across one such church, an open door, and the sound of voices. Beckoned to enter by an elderly woman, I shuffled up the worn, roughly carved, steps and entered. From within candle lit stalls rose the voices of passionate belief, of that rare and elusive beauty that is our human voice. A moment’s peace from within as the unending cacophony of life that is Napoli droned in the background.
Visit Naples? Absolutely. She is a jewel, a challenge, a confounding conundrum of love, art, passion, of life!
I will be presenting, in this blog, details about the treasures of Naples in future posts.