An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
The home of pizza. A place where Maradona and other footballers are honoured like saints. Sheets and lingerie hanging on sunny balconies. Narrow streets packed with scooters. Crazy traffic jams. Busy multicultural districts. Jewellery shops displaying beautiful coral, tambourines and horns looking like erections. Antique galleries full of locally produced porcelain. Paintings of Campania felix and statuettes of Moors wearing imposing turbans. A breath-taking sea front overlooking mainland Europe’s most active volcano. Naples is one of the most talked about places in Europe.
A city where stereotypes overshadow a heritage second to none. Naples is portrayed as the land of rubbish, dirt, political corruption, and human trafficking.
‘Comments’ on Naples also include the nature of its inhabitants. Neapolitans are perceived as a population with a genetic tendency to illegality paralleled by a collective fascination for miraculous liquids. This ranges from the protection-granting ritual of sacred blood liquefaction to that shed by local gangs in an endless war for territory.
‘Truth and legend go hand in hand’ said Benedetto Croce, and minimising the scale of some of the problems affecting Neapolitan society is as dangerous as a blind acceptance of media stereotypes.
The treasures of local history have often been overshadowed by Naples’ so-called ‘historical failures’; by the slow pace of progress and social change. Founded by the Greeks, with a heritage enriched by Roman, Arabic, French, Germanic, and Spanish influences Naples’ position in European history has not always been associated with social and economic decay. Nor has the image of Neapolitan people always been affected by the generalised commonplaces of delinquency, violence and laziness.
Tolerant, busy, artistically and economically active, Naples has since ancient times developed into a multicultural city. The tolerance often shown towards otherness (albeit for economic or political reasons), allowed different communities to flourish in the city. With its imposing urban structure enriched with buildings of undisputed beauty Naples has been home to Jews, Genoese, Sicilians, Dutch, Greeks, Tuscan, French, English, Arabic and, more recently, Chinese. In different periods of history, those communities have been able to set up businesses, trade with locals or, in some cases, get lucrative commissions from local authorities.
On the religious front, Naples has a rich heritage of toleration. In the mid-sixteenth century, for example, Neapolitans rebelled and won their battle against the decision of instituting a Tribunal of the Inquisition in the city. Back in time, Naples also had a synagogue and a mosque both situated in central districts. Neapolitan sacred architecture narrates a history of stylistic and religious syncretism. Walking on the streets of Naples, one can admire hundreds of churches. Some of these still preserve the vestiges of pagan temples (an example being the superb archaeological site recently discovered below the medieval foundations of San Lorenzo’s church).
Neapolitan history is also littered with figures who have made significant contributions to European culture over the last millennium. Among them were scientists, intellectuals, artists, singers, composers, philosophers and polymaths who were born in Naples, operated within the city or chose to represent it. Take as examples Virgil, Cicero, Pliny, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Pontano, Caravaggio, Giambattista Basile (the inventor of modern fairy tales), Giambattista Della Porta who perfected the lens used by Galileo Galilei for his telescope or the immense contribution of Neapolitan schools of music and theatre to European culture.
Economically the Kingdom of Naples was ‘the granary of Europe’. This state had factories which produced food, weapons, porcelain, ceramic, leather goods, silk, and draperies. Other things were produced too. But the process of Italian unification in the 19th century partially destroyed the economy of southern Italy.
Then there is the city’s famous diversity. Take the homosexuals and transvestites. In an age where religious hatred, racism and homophobic attitudes are unfortunately still an everyday issue, ‘femmenielli’ (Neapolitan dialect: homosexuals) are respected members of society. This is a place where transvestites don’t hide or necessarily follow the path of street prostitution.
A few questions remain: to what extent should stereotypes be considered as a truthful description of reality? Are we prepared to accept what some journalists employed by ‘politically correct’ newspapers write on cities in which they would not survive for a minute?
Challenging ideas constructed to shape general perception of facts and events is an act of courage. It is up to our own experience to build opinions and to position ourselves within a debate. Personal experience and direct observation are precious tools that give us the right to express our view: whatever that may be.
Lorenza Gianfrancesco is Post-Doctoral Researcher at Royal Holloway University of London. She has also taught at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Reading University. Her research interests include early modern Southern European intellectual history, Renaissance and early seventeenth-century Naples and Southern Italy with a focus on academies, printing and publishing, propaganda, celebrations, Mount Vesuvius and science. Her publications include essays on Giambattista Basile, theatre, academies, science and celebrations in seventeenth-century Naples. She is currently completing a monograph on the world of academies and their role in civic life in seventeenth-century Naples.