There is nowhere more theatrical than Naples, a city in which everyday transactions become minor performances and traffic jams give rise to impromptu car-horn concerts. Neapolitans often wear their hearts on their sleeves, and the streets and squares are a stage on which to play out quotidian dramas. Indeed, nowhere else in Italy are the people so conscious of their role in the theatre of everyday life and so addicted to its intensity.
Language & Identity
Neapolitans have a very strong sense of their own identity, one which includes their very particular dialect. Though not recognised as an official minority language by the Italian government, the Neapolitan dialect (known locally as napulitano) is considered one of the world's endangered languages by Unesco. Influenced by centuries of foreign domination (there are an estimated 400 Spanish loanwords alone), it features its own distinct vocabulary, grammar, orthography and pronunciation. The official language of the Kingdom of Naples between 1442 and 1458, Neapolitan lives on in the region's streets, as well as in a bounty of literature and music written in the language, from Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century "Epistola napoletana" (Neapolitan Epistle) to the contemporary folk-rock anthems of the late singer-songwriter Pino Daniele. You'll even hear the occasional Neapolitan quip from Sophia Loren in classic Italian films like L'oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples; 1954) and Marriage Italian Style (1964). As the homegrown actor once famously declared, 'I'm not Italian, I am Neapolitan! It's another thing.'
Neapolitans know that many of the stereotypes foreigners hold of Italians – noisy, theatrical, food-loving, passionate and proud – refer to them. And many revel in it. Everyone has an opinion to give, a line to deliver or a sigh to perform. Eavesdropping is a popular pastime and knowing everyone else’s business is a veritable sport. Neapolitans joke that if you were to collapse on the street a local would first want to know all the juicy details, and only after that would they think of calling an ambulance. In a city with a population density of 2653 people per square kilometre (the highest in Italy), this penchant for curiosity is understandable.
And yet, Neapolitans are far more complex than any earthy, streetwise hallmark can convey. After all, theirs is a city of aristocratic palaces and art collections, a world-renowned opera house, and one of Europe's oldest universities. Naples gave the world pizza and Pulcinella, but it has also given it composer Alessandro Scarlatti, playwright Roberto de Simone, and contemporary artist Francesco Clemente. To the world's fashion elite, Neapolitan tradition means meticulous tailoring and inimitable male elegance. This is the hometown of hand-stitched Kiton suits and handcrafted Talarico umbrellas. It's an oft-overlooked side of the city beautifully captured in Gianluca Migliarotti's E poi c'è Napoli (And Then There Is Naples; 2014), which portrays an erudite, elegant metropolis. As the locals will quickly remind you, Napoli is more than pizza e mandolini (pizza and mandolins).
While Neapolitans may be rightly passionate about their city, a scarcity of jobs sees many forced to bid it a bittersweet arrivederci. Campania's unemployment rate is one of the highest in Italy. Figures released by Istat (Italy's Bureau of Statistics) in 2018 revealed that while the national unemployment rate has fallen between 2016 and 2017, the percentage of jobless Neapolitans had increased from 26.6% to 30.5%. Between 2007 and 2017, the city's unemployment rate had increased by 20%, with almost 80,000 more locals without work. The city's youth-unemployment rate is even more disconcerting. Reaching 56% in 2014, the rate enjoyed a modest (albeit unstable) reduction before creeping over 50% once again in 2017.
These figures do little to help the country's ongoing fuga dei cervelli (brain drain), which has seen thousands of young Italians head abroad in search of better education and employment prospects. According to a 2018 report by Confindustria, the main association representing the manufacturing and service industries in Italy, half a million Italians moved abroad between 2008 and 2015. The report also claimed that the ongoing fuga cost the country €14 billion annually.
For many young, educated and ambitious Campanians wanting to develop their careers, there is little incentive to remain in Italy. Relatively low government investment in research and development (about 1.3% of GDP, compared to around 3% in Austria and Germany) have stunted economic innovation and opportunity. The country's ingrained culture of nepotism prevents many of the country's brightest, most promising talent from obtaining positions they truly deserve. It's a problem well documented in La fuga dei talenti (Flight of the Talented; www.fugadeitalenti.wordpress.com), a book-turned-blog by Italian journalist Sergio Nava aimed at reversing the country's loss of human capital. According to Nava, Italy commonly disregards the value of merit, placing family and other personal relations above an impressive CV or an international profile. Indeed, over 60% of Italian companies recruit through personal introductions and recommendations. In a landscape so riddled with nepotism, putting in a good word is not simply a thoughtful gesture, it's essential to help someone get ahead.
At the bottom end of the job chain are Campania's migrant communities. While a growing number of Chinese, Sri Lankans and Eastern Europeans are opening their own small businesses – mostly restaurants, grocery shops and cheap clothing outlets – the majority of immigrants in the region work on construction sites and in private homes. Indeed, around 70% of immigrants in Naples work as housekeepers, babysitters or domestic carers for the elderly. In the 1970s and 1980s, housekeeping was a veritable dream job for the newly arrived. Having a maid was the ultimate status symbol for the city's rich, and as a result many immigrant workers enjoyed long-term job security and friends in high places. Since the 1990s, however, increased demand has come from the time-pressed middle classes. Unlike their upper-class counterparts, many of these more modest clients cannot afford to offer workers the same economic and legal perks. What was once a secure job is now fraught with insecurity.
Even more precarious is the life of the clandestini (undocumented migrants), many of whom risk their life to reach Europe from northern Africa on dangerous, overcrowded boats. Once in Italy, many become the hapless victims of organised-crime syndicates, who offer new arrivals false documents and employment opportunities that are often exploitative, from lowly paid farm work to prostitution.
Family Life & Gender Battles
While Neapolitans pride themselves on their spontaneity and flexibility, Sunday pranzo (lunch) with the family is usually non-negotiable. Rain, hail or shine, this time of the week is sacred to Neapolitan families – a time to catch up on each others' lives, pick over the latest news about politicians, footballers and celebrities, and eat like royalty. Indeed, the sacred status of Sunday lunch is a reminder that family remains the bedrock of Neapolitan life. Indeed, loyalty to family and friends is deeply engraved in the Neapolitan psyche. As Luigi Barzini (1908–84), author of The Italians, claimed that a happy private life helped Italians cope with an appalling public life. This chasm between the private arena and the public one is a noticeable aspect of the southern mentality, and has evolved over years of intrusive foreign domination. Some locals mightn't think twice about littering in the street, but step inside their home and you'll find floors clean enough to eat off. After all, you'd never want someone dropping in and thinking you're a barbone (tramp), right?
Maintaining la bella figura (beautiful image) is very important to the average Neapolitan and how you and your family appear to the outside world is a matter of honour, respectability and pride. To many southern Italians, you are better than your neighbour if you own more and better things. This mentality is rooted in the past, when one really did need to own lots of things to attain certain social roles, and ultimately sustain your family. Yet fare bella figura (making a good impression) goes beyond a well-kept house, extending to dressing well, behaving modestly, performing religious and social duties and fulfilling all essential family obligations. In the context of the extended family, where gossip is rife, a good image protects one’s privacy.
Families in Campania remain among the country's largest, with an average household size of 2.69 compared to 2.23 in Lazio, 2.26 in Lombardy and 2.18 in Piedmont. It's still the norm to live at home until you marry and one-third of husbands still visit their mothers every day. While many of these will have a bowl of their favourite pasta waiting for them, some will also have their laundry freshly washed and ironed. OECD figures reveal that Italian men spend 130 minutes per day cooking, cleaning or caring, significantly less than Italian women, who spend an average of 306 minutes per day on what the OECD labels unpaid work.
According to Eurostat, Italy's pay gap – at just over 5% – is the second lowest in the European Union. While this may sound promising, it partly reflects the fact that Italy has fewer women participating in the workforce than most other developed nations. According to the OECD, fewer than half of working-age Italian women are in employment. As a result, those women who are employed are more likely to be highly educated and in higher-paying positions. Numerous employers continue to view female candidates as a risk, likely to give up their jobs to raise a family. Add a largely ineffective childcare system, and the juggling of work and motherhood becomes a rather stressful act for many women, both in Campania and other Italian regions.