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Founded by Greek colonists, Naples was later adopted by swinging Roman holiday-makers in search of sun, sea and sin.

Little is known of Naples’ early days. According to legend, Greek traders, possibly from Rhodes, established the city in about 680 BC on the island of Megaris, where today the Castel dell’Ovo stands. Originally called Parthenope in honour of the siren whose body had earlier washed up there (she drowned herself after failing to seduce Ulysses), the city gradually spread to encompass Monte Echia on the mainland.

The Greeks’ main Italian foothold, however, was 10km up the coast at Cuma, then known as Cumae. Founded in the 8th century BC, Cuma became the most important city in the southwest over the next 200 years: a rich commercial centre whose legendary Sibyl was said to be the mouthpiece of Apollo. In military terms, it was the key to the area, as the watching Etruscans understood only too well. Looking to expand southward from their Tuscan homeland, the Etruscans twice invaded and were twice repelled. After the second of these clashes, in 474 BC, the Cumaeans founded Neapolis (New Town, to distinguish it from Paleopolis, Old Town, the name by which Parthenope was then known) on the land that is now Naples’ centro storico (historic centre).

The Etruscan battles had taken a toll, however, and in 421 BC the exhausted Greeks fell to the Samnites. They, in turn, proved no match for the Romans who took Neapolis in 326 BC.

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Roman times

Under the Romans, Neapolis and its environs bloomed into a successful Roman resort. Nero’s second wife Poppea holidayed in Oplontis and Julius Caesar’s father-in-law kept a home at Herculaneum. Neapolis’ citizens, however, never completely gave in to their foreign occupiers. They refused, for example, to relinquish their language, traces of which remain in Neapolitan dialect. Then, during the Roman Civil War (88–82 BC), they opposed Rome, invoking the wrath of Cornelius Sulla who promptly took the city and slaughtered thousands of its citizens. In 73 BC slave leader Spartacus based his rebel army on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius.

Naples’ fabled volcano Vesuvius exploded onto the stage in AD 79, drowning Pompeii and Herculaneum in a mix of molten lava, mud and ash. Coming just 17 years after a massive earthquake, it was a devastating blow for the rural area outside Neapolis, an area already in decline due to the effects of the earthquake and the import of cheap food from Rome’s overseas colonies. Within the city walls, Neapolis was booming: General Lucullus built a massive villa on the spot where the Castel dell’Ovo now stands, and Virgil moved to the town for a period. Offshore, Capri became the centre of Emperor Tiberius’ famously debauched operations.

The welfare of Neapolis was by then tied to that of the Roman Empire. When the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, died in 476, the city passed into barbarian hands.

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Kingdom of the two sicilies

Art, culture and architecture thrive against a backdrop of invasion, rebellion, and occupation.

By the beginning of the 11th century, Naples was a prospering duchy. Industry and culture were thriving and Christianity had caught on in a big way. Outside the city walls, however, the situation was more volatile as the Normans began to eye up the Lombard principalities of Salerno, Benevento, Capua and Amalfi.

The Normans had arrived in southern Italy in the 10th century, initially as pilgrims en route from Jerusalem, later as mercenaries attracted by the money to be made fighting for the rival principalities and against the Arab Muslims in Sicily. And it was to just one such mercenary, Rainulfo Drengot, that the duke of Naples, Sergio IV, gave the contract to drive the Lombards out of Capua. Capua duly fell in 1062, followed by Amalfi in 1073 and Salerno four years later. By 1130 most of southern Italy, including Sicily, was in Norman hands and it was only a question of time before Naples gave in to the inevitable. It did so in 1139. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was thus complete.

The Normans maintained their capital in Sicily, and Palermo began to outshine Naples. Surprisingly, the Neapolitans seemed happy with their lot, and when the last of the Norman kings, Tancred, was succeeded by his enemy Henry Hohenstaufen of Swabia in 1194, the mood turned ugly. The Neapolitans despised their new Swabian rulers and were delighted when Charles I of Anjou routed them at the battle of Benevento in February 1265.

The French Angevins were determined to make Naples a sparkling artistic and intellectual centre. Charles built the Castel Nuovo in 1279, the port was enlarged, and in the early 14th century the third Angevin king, Robert of Anjou, constructed Castel Sant’Elmo.

The last century of Angevin rule was marked by complex and often bloody politicking between family factions. Queen Joan I was suspected of murdering her husband and fled the city between 1348 and 1352, leaving her vengeful Hungarian in-laws to occupy Naples. Some 70-odd years later her namesake, Queen Joan II, could only stop her husband stealing the crown thanks to substantial popular support.

The time was ripe for the Spanish Aragonese to launch their attack.

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The aragonese

After vicious fighting, Alfonso of Aragon took control of Naples in 1442. Known as Il Magnanimo (The Magnanimous), he did a lot for Naples, promoting art and science and introducing institutional reforms. But for all that, he could never live down the fact that he’d overthrown the popular Angevins.

In 1485 the city’s barons took up arms against Alfonso’s successor, Ferdinand I. Within a year, however, the ringleaders had been executed (in the Sala dei Baroni in Castel Nuovo) and peace restored. Peace didn’t last long, and in 1495 King Charles VIII of France invaded. Supported by a small group of barons but fiercely opposed by the population, the French monarch occupied the city for four months. When he was forced out, the Neapolitans replaced him with the Aragonese Ferdinand II.

After Ferdinand II’s death in 1496, the mutinous barons once again flexed their muscles, this time by crowning Ferdinand’s uncle, Frederick, as king. This angered everyone: the Neapolitans, the French and the Spanish had all wanted Ferdinand II’s widow Joan to succeed him. The upshot was the joint Franco–Spanish invasion of 1501. Frederick tried to hang on to power, but facing almost total opposition he skulked off, leaving Naples to the Spanish. Thus King Ferdinand of Spain became King Ferdinand III of Naples.

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Don pedro & the viceroys

Colonial wealth and construction define the character and cityscape of 16th- and 17th-century Naples.

As part of the Spanish empire, Naples prospered in the 16th century. Spain, wealthy on the back of its silver-rich American colonies, was enjoying a period of hitherto-unseen prosperity; confidence was running high throughout the empire. In Naples, the unruly barons were brought into line, order was imposed and the population continued to grow. In fact, by 1600 Naples was the biggest city in Europe with a population of 300, 000. To house the ever-increasing masses, expansion became a priority.

To deal with the situation, viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo took drastic measures, moving the city walls westward and building an entire new quarter, the Quartieri Spagnoli. Yet housing was not enough; the new Neapolitans had spiritual needs to satisfy. Hundreds of new churches and monasteries sprung up, many of them designed by the city’s new wave of architects and artists.

The most prolific of all Naples’ architects was Cosimo Fanzago (1591–1678), whose Guglia di San Gennaro and Certosa di San Martino are considered high points of Neapolitan baroque. Painters were also having a rich time of it. Caravaggio arrived in town in 1606, and Giuseppe de Ribera, Massimo Stanzione, Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena all made their names.

But the good times weren’t to last, and in the early 17th-century economic depression descended, forcing Naples’ viceroys to impose ever-increasing tax hikes. And it was this that drove the Neapolitans to rebellion.

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The masaniello revolt

Already crippled by the sheer weight of taxes, the Neapolitans were becoming increasingly mutinous when the Spanish introduced a levy on fresh fruit in January 1647. It was one tax too many and on 7 July violence broke out on Piazza del Mercato.

Led by an illiterate fisherman from Amalfi, Tommaso Aniello, aka Masaniello, the rebellion snowballed rapidly and grew out of control. On 16 July Masaniello was murdered in the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine by extremists from within his own camp: they wanted to drive the Spanish out of Naples, he simply wanted an end to the fruit tax. The French then tried to cash in by sending the duke of Giusa to take the city; the duke failed, and on 6 April 1648 was captured by the new Spanish viceroy, the Count of Oñate. Order was soon reestablished, the rebel leaders were executed and life in Naples returned to a semblance of normality.

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The bourbons

As revolution rocks France, Naples sparkles as Italy’s Bourbon capital.

In little more than 100 years, the Bourbons transformed Naples into Europe’s glitziest city. Between the accession of Charles VII to the Neapolitan throne in 1734 and Italian unification in 1860, Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte was built and Palazzo Reale enlarged, Teatro San Carlo became Europe’s grandest opera house and Via Toledo its most sought-after address. Naples had never had it so good.

From all accounts Charles was not a particularly brilliant man. Neither a general – he apparently hated wearing a uniform – nor a great politician, he was nevertheless dutiful and felt honour-bound to do his best by Naples. Ruling through a Council of State, he ushered in the brightest of Naples’ golden eras.

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The parthenopean republic

Naples’ great republican experiment was a bloody and short-lived affair, sparked by events in faraway Paris.

As a monarchy, the Neapolitan court was hardly delighted to hear news of the 1789 French Revolution. However, it wasn’t until word filtered down that Marie Antoinette, the sister of King Ferdinand’s wife, Maria Carolina, had been guillotined that Naples joined the anti-French coalition.

Troops from Naples and revolutionary France eventually clashed in French-occupied Rome in 1798. The Neapolitans claimed the city but within 11 days were scurrying back south with the French in hot pursuit. In desperation King Ferdinand IV and Maria Carolina hotfooted it over to Palermo, leaving Naples to its own devices.

Bitterly opposed by most of the population, the French were welcomed by the Neapolitan nobility and bourgeoisie, many of whom had adopted fashionable republican ideas. And it was with the full backing of the French that the Parthenopean Republic was declared on 23 January 1799.

But it wasn’t a success. The leaders were an ideologically rather than practically minded lot, and were soon in financial straits. Their efforts to democratise the city failed and the army was a shambles.

Over the water, the exiles in Palermo had not been sitting idle. Ferdinand and Maria Carolina dispatched Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo to Calabria to organise an uprising. On 13 June he entered Naples and all hell broke loose as his men turned the city into a slaughterhouse. On 8 July Ferdinand and Maria Carolina returned from Sicily and embarked on a systematic extermination of republican sympathisers. More than 200 were summarily executed.

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The french decade

The failure of the Parthenopean Republic did not, however, signal the end of French interest in Naples. In 1806 French forces once again entered the city, forcing the royal family to flee to Sicily for a second time and in 1808 Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, was appointed king of Naples. From the Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte, Murat launched a series of what should have been popular measures: he abolished feudalism and initiated a series of land redistribution programmes; he brought in foreign investment and kick-started local industry. And yet still he was hated. As a Frenchman and a revolutionary he could do no right in the eyes of the royalist masses, who were thrilled when he was finally ousted in 1815 and Ferdinand returned to claim his throne.

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War & peace

WWII vents its full force on Naples; the city is bombed to near destruction and the way is paved for organised crime.

Naples’ postunification history makes for grim reading. Poverty forced hundreds of thousands to emigrate, and in 1884 a huge cholera epidemic swept through the city’s overcrowded slums. In response to the epidemic, the municipal authorities launched a huge citywide cleanup. The worst slums near the port were destroyed, Corso Umberto I was bulldozed through the city centre, and developers constructed a sparkling new residential quarter on the Vomero.

The city’s regeneration continued under Fascist rule. An airport was built in 1936, railway and metro lines were laid and the Vomero funicular was completed. The Mostra d’Oltremare exhibition space was inaugurated in 1937 by Mussolini to celebrate Italy’s great colonial victories. But no sooner had many of these buildings gone up than they were hit by the full force of WWII.

Its importance as a port meant Naples suffered horrendously during the war. Heavy aerial bombing by the Allies left more than 20, 000 people dead and destroyed large amounts of the city centre.

Events came to a head in 1943. Bombardments were at their worst in preparation for the Allied invasion and the Germans had taken the city. The Nazis didn’t last long, though, being forced out by a series of popular uprisings between 26 and 30 September; these were led by local residents in particular by young scugnizzi (a Neapolitan word for the young boys who used to hang out on the city streets) and ex-soldiers. Known as the Quattro Giornate di Napoli (Four Days of Naples), the street battles paved the way for Allied troops to enter the city on 1 October.

Greeted as liberators, the Allies set up their provisional government in Naples. By this stage the city had become an anarchic mass of humanity, with Allied troops, German prisoners of war and bands of Italian fascists all competing with the city’s starving population for food. Then in 1944, when it looked like it couldn’t get any worse, Mt Vesuvius erupted.

Faced with such circumstances the Allied authorities turned to the underworld for assistance. In return for the Allies turning a blind eye towards their black market activities, criminal organisations such as the Camorra were willing to help and began to flourish.

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Modern times

Described as the Città Perduta (Lost City), Naples is still struggling to contain its feuding criminal families.

Dubbed the Neapolitan Renaissance, the rebirth of Naples over the past 15 years has been little short of spectacular. Under the charismatic mayor Antonio Bassolino, the city shed its fearsome reputation and bloomed into a gleaming model of urban regeneration.

But what is now history must have looked almost impossible when Bassolino took the reins of civic power in 1993. Naples was in a mess. The Camorra was in rude health, its bosses publicly partying with the city’s iconic football star Diego Armando Maradona, abusivismo (illegal construction) was flourishing and public services had virtually ceased to exist. The grim situation was not unique to Naples – corruption and cronyism were rife across the country.

By the early 1990s the time was ripe for change, and in 1992 the nationwide Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) anticorruption crusade kicked into gear. Naples voted its approval by electing Bassolino whose promises to smarten up the city and fight corruption were exactly what the weary Neapolitans wanted to hear.

In the seven years that followed, Naples began to clean up its act. After being used as a huge car park for years, Piazza del Plebiscito was pedestrianised; a new arts festival, the Maggio dei Monumenti, was inaugurated; and Naples’ new metro stations were treated to a dash of modern art. In 1994 world leaders met in Naples for the G7 summit.

After winning a second term in 1997, Bassolino couldn’t keep up the momentum he’d created, and the pace of change began to slow. In 2000 he was elected president of the Campania region, a move that many people considered a political fudge to remove him from the day-to-day running of the city.

Into his shoes stepped Rosa Russo Jervolino, a former interior minister and Naples’ first female mayor. Elected on a centre-left ticket firstly in 2001, and then for a second term in May 2006, she hasn’t had an easy time of it. In April 2002 political chaos ensued after eight policemen were arrested on charges of torturing antiglobalisation protestors arrested at a 2001 government conference. In 2003 Naples’ street corners were submerged in rubbish as authorities struggled to sort out the city’s refuse contracts. Three years later and it was the same story all over again as a strike in July 2006 left many suburbs mired in rotting refuse.

Worst of all, however, was the return of the Camorra to the limelight. In late 2004 and early 2005 a bloody turf battle erupted on the streets of Scampia and Secondigliano, two tough suburbs in the north of the city. In just four months, up to 47 people were gunned down as rival clans fought for control of the city’s lucrative drugs trade.

A year on in 2006 Italian journalists continued to highlight the city’s crime profile. In September the leading news weekly L’Espresso ran a major article on Naples under the headline Città Perduta, which described life among the city’s gangs of thieves. Whether the return of organised crime is a momentary hiccup in the city’s roller-coaster history, or heralds a descent into the bad old days, remains to be seen.

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