March to Athens
Day 93-XIX, Naples.
Naples, February 8
I take a morning walk through the backstreets of Naples. I look through famous texts by ancient authors on the book stands in the university quarter. I sniff the smell of sweet sfogliatelle in the narrow alleys where the lines of laundry reach the sky. I take a coffee like they only make it here. And I’m completely happy.
This city is larger than life. This city is theater.
There’s the bay, there’s the volcano, there are the islands, and usually there’s the sun. Put it all together and you have the perfect stage for any story. Tragical, comical, or epical.
The people from Naples fill the stage. They have a character of their own. They are inventive, enterprising and highly superstitious. They know how to enjoy themselves, they know how to avoid the rules and play their own game. They have a big heart. And they showed it to us.
Ever since we arrived here, people came offering food, showers, places to sleep, moral support and a shift on the night watch. It went on all day, the supply was much bigger than the demand.
Together with a comrade of mine, I was accompanied through town to the eastern outskirts on the slopes of the Vesuvius to take tea, shower and dinner. When we left the square, a young bloke had just arrived with a huge dish and a big smile. “Ragazzi, this is a present from my mother… Pasta al forno!”
Angela, our host, has worked as a human rights specialist at the University ‘Federico II’ of Naples. She is proud to tell that it is the oldest institution for higher education in Europe which isn’t linked to the church. The founder and namesake, medieval emperor Frederick of Svevia, nicknamed stupor mundi, was an enlightened patron of the arts in the early thirteenth century. Among other dominions, he was king of Sicily, and he held court at Palermo where he invited artists and scientist from all over the christian and muslim world to exchange their knowledge and talents in an atmosphere of human brotherhood. Some Sicilians claim that Italian, as a successor of scholarly Latin, was elevated to the honour of a written language in Sicily at the court of Frederick II, and not by national poet Dante Alighieri, as the Florentines claim.
We drive along the busy Corso Umberto, the limit of the ancient Greek town, where once the sea arrived. To the left of us there is the old centre with its more or less regular city grid. “Naples is made up of various layers,” Angela explains. “The roads were laid out by the Greeks, around three central axes. On the Greek foundations the Romans built the next layer, and over the Roman remainders arose the buildings from the middle ages. On top of those, the Spanish kings of Naples continued to build new storeys over the course of the centuries.” In many places throughout the old city you can still notice the layers of time, like the traces of geological eras in the rocks.
Ever since she was born under the name of Parthenopia, Naples has been a special place, and the Neapolitans a special kind of people. You cannot give a proper fitting description of the Neapolitan character, but you can recognise it immediately. Both in real life, and in its stereotype characterisations. When the great storyteller Giovanni Boccaccio presents us a Neapolitan in one of his novellas from his 12th century Decamerone, it’s the same character you will encounter in the theatrical pieces by 20th century playwrite Eduardo de Filippo, or in the films with iconic actors like Totò or Massimo Troisi.
The theatre of Naples and her Gulf resists against the currents of the centuries, and her actors continue to recite their own stories. One way or another the struggle for survival is always a recurring motive. Because life is hard in Naples.
In the North, society is pretty well organised, and generally things work out well. But still, people find reasons to complain. Here, people have reasons to complain about everything, but they don’t. They look for the positive side, and they love and share and enjoy what they have. The sun, the gulf, and the greatest stage on earth.