In Italy, if Rome is history and Florence is art and Milan is fashion, then Naples is people.
Initially settled by Greeks in 2000 BC, Naples is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. With a population of three million residents, it is real, raw and the very essence of Italian working class life.
Our first stop in this bustling metropolis was the renowned National Archaeological Museum. After visiting Pompeii the day before, we could more easily imagine how these artifacts fit into the homes of noblemen. Dramatic frescoes on walls. Gorgeous sculptures in alcoves. Detailed mosaics on floor entrances.
Beyond art, these items denoted high society in the Roman Empire. The ultimate status symbols.
After perusing some Greek and Roman sculpture, we headed to the promiscuous Gabinetto Segreto (“Secret Room”) of ancient erotic art. These scandalous pieces were first put in the museum in 1819. Back then, people could only view them with special permission from the king.
Next up, the mezzanine rooms held beautiful mosaics featuring the tiniest of tiles. Amazing to imagine the time and effort taken to create these impeccable works of art. It’s a shame that cheap, mass produced replicas have diminished the nuance of this meticulous craft. The Battle of Alexander mosaic and its 1.5 million pieces of tiles is special because it doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s one-of-a-kind in the truest sense of the word.
The mosaics on display were primarily from the House of the Faun, one of Pompeii’s largest and most opulent private residences. A 4th century BC Greek bronze statue, “Dancing Faun,” was the home’s original centerpiece and has been intact for thousands of years.
Other sculpture highlights included “The Five Dancers,” “Resting Hermes” and “Drunken Faun,” all 1st century BC copies of 4th century BC originals from the home of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.
The “Toro Farnese,” the largest intact statue at 13 feet (from 3rd century AD) was particularly impressive. Every angle offered a new perspective of the harrowing scene of King of Themes’ wife, Dirce, tied to a wild bull. The sons of Antiope surrounding her, punishing her for inflicting ill-will on their mother. Every element of the composition appeared in motion, except for the still, steadfast pose of Antiope, overseeing the just resolution with satisfaction.
We ended our tour in the somewhat dingy basement housing Egyptian art, artifacts and a few mummies. The ancient Egyptians perceived life as a preparation for the afterlife. When someone died, the processes went on for months.
After some time with the dead, we decided it was time to do some living.
Exiting the museum, we immediately entered the frenetic chaos and hustle-bustle of Naples street life. We grabbed some cheap eats (a prosciutto and ricotta calzone and slice of pizza, 1€ each) and headed down busy Via Pessina. High-rise buildings towered above us as we walked the gritty alleyways, dodging Italian moms on their Vespas with kids in tow. The energy was palpable. We could feel it reverberating in the air. The city was alive, as if wired on 100 Italian espressos.
We made our way through the Spanish Quarter, the poorest and most characteristic neighborhood of Naples. Laundry hung from the the balconies. Doors of ground floor apartments stood wide open showing a cramped kitchen. Kids played football (soccer) in the streets. Gossiping Italian women in tight jeans and cropped jackets paraded down sidewalks.
In Naples, sories of everyday life unfold on every corner and in every direction.
Off bustling Via Toledo, we walked through Piazza Dante, named after the medieval poet, moral philosopher and political thinker. Like most of Naples, his statue is covered in graffiti. Considered the father of Italian language, he remains a strong symbol of Italian nationalism – unlike the king who represented colonial subjugation.
From Piazza Carita, we headed to the Palazzo Reale featuring statues of kings from different dynasties out front. We wandered to the harbor nearby and took in the view of Mount Vesuvius. For a moment, the familiarity of the deep blue bay transported us to San Francisco back in the states.
We continued past Teatro di San Carlo, Europe’s oldest opera house, and Galleria Umberto I, a 100-year old shopping mall to reach the Church of Gesu Nuovo. The church, survived from a fortified 15th century palace, features a unique pyramid-like facade that’s hard to miss. Inside, the atmosphere is as active as the streets. Repentant sinners fill nearly all the confessionals as a steady stream of congregants move in and out of the multiple chapels along the perimeter.
One chapel in particular stood out – dedicated to a Christian doctor, Giuseppe Moscati.
We witnessed people kiss his tomb and hold the hand of his bronze statue, shiny from the extra attention. Further in, we discovered Sale Moscati, a huge room with tall ceilings, filled with Ex Votos, small plaques of gratitude for prayers answered. A broken leg healed. A child born after infertility. A cancer no longer a threat. It was a strange – an almost surreal experience to be an observer among the devotees who came to specifically pray to him.
After our walking tour of the city, we grabbed an ice cream from Polo Nord, the oldest gelateria in Naples. Late afternoon definitely seems to be the time for ice cream in Europe. We happily obliged in the tradition as often as we could.
Before leaving Naples, we had to have a taste of true Neopolitan pizza.
We headed to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele where, much to our surprise (and relief), there were no tourists. Here, Elizabeth Gilbert had her love affair with margherita pizza in the international best-seller, Eat Pray Love. Despite the newfound notoriety, the pizza was about as real as it gets. Doughy crust. Flavorful tomato sauce. Fresh basil. Creamy mozzarella cheese. It was perfection.
Heading up bustling Pietro Colletta, we caught the hour-long train ride back to Sorrento. Arriving at Hotel Linda, Linda herself was waiting for us. She stayed up to make sure we had “no problemo” in the rough and tumble big city of Naples.
“There are simply too many people there… too crowded.” she said.
Yes, but what would Naples be without the crowds? Its gritty charm, unabashed realness and most especially, the people, have shaped the city into what it is. A unique culture that continues to awe visitors, offering them an authentic slice of southern Italy.