Naples: degrado

I have to confess that Naples depressed me more on my last visit (2018-2019) and more and more as time went on. It seems more squalid, less cared for, and perhaps a bit less friendly than I remember. It was certainly squalid when I came in 1982, when the Piazza del Plebiscito was one huge car park, pedestrian zones were unheard of, buses trundled all the way down via Toledo to Piazza Trieste e Trento and struggled to turn left onto the street in front of the San Carlo. It was a much more provincial city then; there were few foreigners (on buses, people would form a half-circle and simply stare at me); but, at the same time, the Neapolitan dialect was something to be hidden—it was not part of a glorious heritage stretching back hundreds of years, but a tatty and above all working-class remnant of Spanish subjugation, best forgotten in favour of the language of Petrarch and Dante.

Part of the outside of the church of Sant’Anna dei Lombardi, Piazza Monteoliveto
(The Church itself is beautiful inside, and well worth a visit.)

Today Naples seems meaner now, more “degraded”, than it did then, perhaps precisely because the contrast with the ideals of a “normal” city has been made more vivid by the many improvements. Yes, there are pedestrian zones… but motorini still zip across them at break-neck speed (your neck, not theirs), especially coming out of or going into the Quartieri. People do on the whole carry out the differenziata, the separation of paper, plastics, metals, and glass for recycling… but the recycling industry is in the hands of the camorra. Moreover, heaps of rubbish appear almost everywhere you go. There are innumerable splendid buildings in Naples, churches and chapels, libraries, universities, private palazzi… but the neglect of them is deeply saddening, and a bit worrying, as with the fall of chunks of cornice from the Galleria Umberto (recently repaired) and of bits of cornice and plaster from many other buildings around the city (everywhere netting is attached to buildings to catch these missiles before they hit an unsuspecting passer-by). And there are more serious problems too. Here’s just one example.

Rubbish on the road up to the Incurabili

Recently the 16th-century Ospedale di Santa Maria del Popolo degli Incurabili had to be closed in a hurry because of concerns about its safety. Legend has it that the sea-nymph Parthenope, who gave her name to the original settlement that would one day become Naples, is buried under the hill on which it stands; unfortunately, this hospital complex, which originally had male and female wards for syphilitics, the insane, and the dying, as well as a (male) military ward and a ward for pregnant women, and which has five (I think) churches and a stunning 18th-century pharmacy, is slowing sinking down to join her. There had been warning cracks in floors, and part of the pavement behind a main altar in one of the churches had already given way, threatening the resting-place of the hospital’s foundress. In April 2019 the whole complex was cleared of patients and staff. I fear it will now stand desolate and empty for decades—except, probably, for illegal immigrants and other homeless people with nowhere else to go.

There are also several museums of art with important collections and exhibitions dotted around the centre of the city… but the rest of the city seems to be covered, up to the height of 7 or 8 feet, with graffiti at once lurid, threatening, and banal. There are some who consider graffiti, or at any rate some graffiti, art, and it’s true Banksy became a draughtsman at some point before he adopted his fashionably working-class nom de guerre. It’s true, too, that here and there, especially in the University district of the centro storico, the graffiti are far more imaginative, with a fine sense of how colours work on each other, although shading and perspective are non-existent, as no-one knows how to actually draw. But the rest is just gang symbols, names and initials, and professions of love, plus, of course, pornography, which, whether written or figured, unites the intensity of adolescence with all of its subtlety.

Piazza Monteoliveto, just down from Sant’Anna dei Lombardi

I do not know why some people have the patience to stand on a box for however long it takes to draw or write this stuff, and maybe others burst into song spontaneously on seeing the results. But it seems to me that if the graffitisti stood on a box and shouted—at the tops of their voices, for hours at a time, in front of small children and old ladies—their names, their tags, their political views, their sexual achievements and desires, or their ownership of some few square metres of squalid housing and unhealthy backstreets, then even Neapolitans would sooner rather than later deck them or at any rate put them in a straightjacket. Or else they’d have to be rescued by the police from a lynch-mob. Given, however, that they constantly invade, not our aural space, but our visual one, with lurid characters several feet high, everybody seems just fine with it. Why?

No, I don’t know what it means either.

The exasperation of citizens in face of the degrado of the city is evident in this sign:

Take your dogs home for a crap and a piss!’

And when I say central Naples is full of graffiti, I mean it is full of graffiti. Every surface of every public building, save police stations and carabinieri barracks, has that solid band well over two metres high; even the rusticated stone of the most prestigious institutions isn’t spared. The same is true of most private palazzi if the aren’t cut off from the street by walls and gardens. The steel gates and shutters that protect every shop after hours (many with no distinguishing marks, presumably so you won’t know if you’re breaking into a jeweller’s or a coffee-shop) are covered with it; so are street lights, bollards, traffic signs. You name it, it’s covered in graffiti. No-one tries any more. The Central Post Office on Piazza Matteotti, a magnificent building even if the Fascists did put it up (1928-36), has been trashed by a combination of graffiti, the rubbish left by careless, indifferent slobs, and homeless people sleeping in the alcoves—a wonderful original feature by the architects Vaccaro and Franzi—along via Monteoliveto. The other Fascist-era buildings nearby, built when one of the worst slums was done away with, and which in any other city would be treasures, cooed over by lovers of modernism, are adorned with weeds, broken windows, and, of course, graffiti.

Or take this wonderful building, the Galleria Principe di Napoli.

The Galleria Principe di Napoli, seen from via Bellini

Being so close to the Archaeological Museum (the “MAN” as it’s now fashionably called), it ought to be full of cafés and shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, and books to tourists. Instead, it houses offices of the Comune, plus a few artists’ and designers’ workshops, and fashion shows are held there every so often (or were, anyway).

It has an interesting history, showing how difficult change has been in Naples. It was built as part of the massive changes to this area after the demolition of the state grain depositories dating from the late 16th and early 17th centuries (they were called the “Fosse”, literally “ditches”, from their origin as natural cavities in the ground, although the later versions, which I believe stood more or less where the Galleria stands now, was just a normal warehouse). Via Toledo was extended towards the then new Museum, along what would eventually become via Pessara. Via Bellini was constructed too, while one of the gates in the City wall, the Porta di Costantinopoli, was demolished. But actually creating something new out of the area seemed to be beyond the power of the city. A portico was built along via Pessara, or whatever it was called then, and eventually—very eventually—there came to be a real galleria, or “mall” as the Americans call them. Building it took almost 15 years, on and (mostly) off, between 1869 and 1883. The architects were Nicola Breglia and Giovanni De Novellis, and they must be congratulated for their tenacity as well as for the gracefulness of their design, with its wrought-iron and glass roof, and the clever way in which the building was adapted to the rising ground here.

Keep out.

The Galleria survived World War Two, but almost a hundred years after its inception the north frontage, which also has a portico, collapsed all by itself in 1965. Fortunately, plans to replace it with some dreary 1960s sub-modernist block of offices and flats were foiled, and the frontage was replaced. It then became basically an indoor football field for local youth, who systematically took it apart, breaking everything that could be broken. So it was closed again. Finally, in 2007, a full restauro began, and I saw it soon afterwards. Sadly, as I said, it is not usuallly open to the public now, and it looks derelict and mournful; the facade towards via Pessara has turned into an informal dosshouse for the homeless. Its wonderful location for exploiting the tourists who come to the Museum is of no interest to the powers that be, although, apparently, yet more restoration work is underway. At any rate there are the usual bits of scaffolding and those metal structures that look as if they are closing off a work-in-progress area, but that instead hang around for years while nothing happens. I expect the ghosts of Breglia and De Novellis, are, somewhere or other, doing face palms.

Finally, another example, from the Piazza del Mercato down near the Port, which at the time of our visit was basically a huge open-air bomb-site. I hope the pandemic hasn’t stopped the restoration of this area. These sphinxes made the walk there worthwhile, though.

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