Dramatic, surprising and deliciously contradictory, Naples and its coast have long been a fertile ground for creativity. Caravaggio, Ribera, Scarlatti, Totò, De Sica: the region's list of homegrown and adopted talent spans some of the world's finest painters, composers, playwrights and filmmakers. Indeed, some of Italy's most internationally recognisable cultural icons hail from Campanian soil, among them commedia dell'arte protagonist Pulcinella, the disconcertingly catchy tune 'Funiculì, Funiculà' and celluloid goddess Sophia Loren. Welcome to southern Italy's cultural powerhouse.
While Naples has produced great paintings throughout the centuries, none compare to the works created in the golden 17th and 18th centuries. High on wealth and power, the booming city had become the New York of its time, a magnet for talented, ambitious artists desperate to put their stamp on Naples' grand new churches and palaces.
The main influence on 17th-century Neapolitan art was Milan-born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573–1610), who fled to the city in 1606 after killing a man in Rome. Although he only stayed for a year, his naturalist style and dramatic depiction of light and shade (termed chiaroscuro) in paintings like The Seven Acts of Mercy (inside Pio Monte della Misericordia) and Flagellation (inside the Museo di Capodimonte) had an electrifying effect on Naples' younger artists.
Among these was Jusepe (or Giuseppe, locally) de Ribera (1591–1652), an aggressive, bullying Spaniard who arrived in Naples in 1616 after a seven-year stint in Rome. Ribera's combination of shadow, colour and gloomy naturalism proved hugely popular, best captured in his capo lavoro (masterpiece), the Pietà inside the Certosa di San Martino.
A fledgling apprentice to Ribera, Naples-born Luca Giordano (1632–1705) found great inspiration in the luminous brushstrokes of Mattia Preti (1613–99), not to mention the pomp of Venetian artist Paolo Veronese and the flounce of Rome-based artist and architect Pietro da Cortona. By the second half of the 17th century, Giordano would become the single-most-prolific baroque artist in Naples, his many commissions including wall frescoes in the Duomo's nave and a ceiling painting in the adjacent Basilica di Santa Restituta. The Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo boasts several Giordano creations, including vault and wall frescoes in the Cappella della Visitazione and canvases in the Cappella di San Francesco Saverio. Upstaging them all is his Triumph of Judith, a ceiling fresco in the treasury of the church of the Certosa di San Martino.
Giordano's contemporary Francesco Solimena (1657–1747) was also influenced by Ribera, although his use of shadow and solid form showed a clearer link with Caravaggio. Solimena would also become an icon of Neapolitan baroque, and his lavish compositions – among them the operatic fresco Expulsion of Eliodoro from the Temple in the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo – represented an accumulation of more than half a century of experimentation and trends, spanning Preti and Giordano himself.
The Neapolitan Score
In the 1700s, Naples was the world’s opera capital, with industry heavyweights flocking south to perform at the Teatro San Carlo. Locally trained greats like Francesco Durante (1684–1755), Leonardo Vinci (1690–1730) and Tommaso Traetta (1727–79) wowed conservatories across Europe. Naples’ greatest composer, Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725), trained at the esteemed conservatory at the Chiesa della Pietà dei Turchini on Via Medina, which also gave birth to the renowned music group Pietà de’ Turchini.
Creator of around 100 operatic works, Scarlatti also played a leading role in the development of opera seria (serious opera), giving the world the three-part overture and the aria de capo.
Running parallel to the high-brow opera seria was opera buffa (comic opera). Inspired by the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte, the genre began life as light-hearted, farcical interludes – intermezzi – performed between scenes of heavier classical operas. Kick-started by Scarlatti’s Il trionfe dell’onore (The Triumph of Honour) in 1718, the contemporary interludes soon developed into a major, crowd-pleasing genre, with homegrown favourites including Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La serva padrona (The Maid Mistress) and Domenico Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto (The Clandestine Marriage).
The following century saw the rise of the la canzone napoletana (Neapolitan song), its roots firmly planted in the annual Festa di Piedigrotta folk-song festival. Some tunes celebrated the city – among them the world-famous 'Funiculì, Funiculà', an ode to the funicular that once scaled Mt Vesuvius – and others lamented one’s distance from it. Either way, the songs deeply resonated with the locals, especially the millions who boarded ships in search of a better life abroad.
The arrival of the American Allies in 1943 sparked another Neapolitan musical predilection: jazz, rhythm and blues. As music journalist Francesco Calazzo puts it: ‘As a port city, Naples has always absorbed foreign influences. Musically, the result is a fusion of styles, from Arab laments and Spanish folk to African percussion and American blues’.
This fusion came to the fore in the late 1970s. A defining moment for Neapolitan music, it saw new-wave pioneers like Eugenio Bennato, Enzo Avitabile and Pino Daniele revive Neapolitan folk and cross it with rock, roots and hypnotic African beats. Singing many of his songs in Neapolitan, Daniele wrote bittersweet lyrics about his beloved hometown. Epitomised by songs like 'Napule è' (Naples Is), his work struck a particularly deep chord with the public. The singer-songwriter's fatal heart attack in January 2015 prompted widespread grief and camaraderie, with commuters even joining together in song on the metro. Even though he's taken his final bow, Daniele's music lives on as an indelible part of Naples' rich musical heritage, one that forms the focus of John Turturro's documentary Passione (2010), a self-proclaimed 'cinematic love letter' to the city and its sounds.
Rivalling Naples’ musical prowess is its theatrical tradition, considered one of Italy’s oldest. Its most famous contribution to the world stage is the commedia dell’arte, dating back to the 16th century and rooted in the earthy ancient-Roman comedy theatre of fabula Atellana (Atellan farce). Like its ancient inspiration, this highly animated genre featured a set of stock characters in masks acting out a series of semistandard situations. Performances were often used to satirise local situations and were based on a tried-and-tested recipe of adultery, jealousy, old age and love.
Not only did commedia dell’arte give birth to a number of legendary characters, including the Harlequin and Pulcinella, it provided fertile ground for the development of popular theatre in Naples and was a tradition in which the great dramatist Raffaele Viviani (1888–1950) was firmly rooted. Viviani’s focus on the regional dialect and the Neapolitan working class won him local success and the enmity of the Mussolini regime.
The most important figure in modern Neapolitan theatre remains Eduardo De Filippo (1900–84). The son of a famous Neapolitan actor, Eduardo Scarpetta (1853–1925), De Filippo made his stage debut at the age of four and over the next 80 years became a hugely successful actor, impresario and playwright. His body of often-bittersweet work, which includes the classics Il sindaco del Rione Sanità (The Mayor of the Sanità Quarter) and Sabato, domenica e lunedì (Saturday, Sunday and Monday), encapsulated struggles well known to Neapolitans, from the injustice of being forced to live beyond the law to the fight for dignity in the face of adversity.
The furbizia (cunning) for which Neapolitans are famous is celebrated in De Filippo’s play Filumena Marturano, in which a clever ex-prostitute gets her common-law husband to marry her by declaring him to be the father of one of her three bambini. The film adaptation, Marriage Italian Style (1964), stars homegrown siren Sophia Loren (1934–) alongside the great Marcello Mastroianni (1924–96).
Roberto de Simone (1933–) is another great Neapolitan playwright, not to mention a renowned composer and musicologist. While he is lesser known abroad than De Filippo, his theatrical masterpiece La gatta cenerentola (The Cat Cinderella) enjoyed a successful run in London in 1999 before being made into an animated feature in 2017.
Artistic director of the Teatro San Carlo in the 1980s and later director of Naples' prestigious Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella, his extensive research into the city’s folkloric tales and tunes has seen him revive rare comic operas, and create a cantata for 17th-century Campanian revolutionary Masaniello as well as the oratorio Eleonora, in honour of the heroine of the Neapolitan revolution of 1799.
The Silver Screen
In this corner of Italy, locations read like a red-carpet roll call: ‘La Loren’ wiggled her booty through Naples’ Sanità district in Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1963), Julia Roberts did a little soul-searching in its centro storico (historic centre) in Eat Pray Love (2010), and Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon toasted and tanned on Ischia and Procida in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999).
Naples’ homemade offerings have often been intense and darkly comic, holding a mirror to the city’s harsh realities. Feted for his 1948 neo-realist masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica (1901–74) was a master at depicting the bittersweet struggle at the heart of so much Neapolitan humour. His two Neapolitan classics, L’oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples; 1954) and Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow delighted audiences across the world.
Appearing with Loren in both L’oro di Napoli and the slapstick farce Miseria e nobiltà (Misery and Nobility; 1954) was the city’s other screen deity, Antonio de Curtis (1898–1967), aka Totò. Dubbed the Neapolitan Buster Keaton, Totò depicted Neapolitan cunning like no other. Born in the working-class Sanità district, he appeared in over 100 films, typically playing the part of a hustler living on nothing but his quick wits. It was a role that ensured Totò's cult status in a city where the art of arrangiarsi (getting by) is a way of life.
Inheriting Totò's mantle, Massimo Troisi (1953–94) was best known internationally for his role in Il postino (The Postman). In his 1980 debut film, Ricomincio da tre (I’m Starting from Three), he humorously tackled the problems faced by Neapolitans forced to head north for work. Troisi’s cameo in the schlock murder mystery No grazie, il caffè mi rende nervoso (No Thanks, Coffee Makes Me Nervous; 1982) – arguably one of his funniest – saw a rambling, pyjama-clad Troisi hopelessly attempting to convince Funiculì, Funiculà (an unseen, helium-pitched psychopath set on sabotaging Naples’ new jazz festival) that he is loyal only to the city’s traditional cultural offerings.
A newer wave of Neapolitan directors, including Antonio Capuano (1940–), Mario Martone (1959–), Pappi Corsicato (1960–) and Antonietta de Lillo (1960–), have also turned their cameras on the city in films such as Capuano’s critically acclaimed Luna rossa (Red Moon) of 2001. While Corsicato’s queer-centric classics Libera (Free; 1993) and I buchi neri (The Black Holes; 1995) evoke the ever-present link between the ancient and modern sides of Naples, De Lillo’s Il resto di niente (The Remains of Nothing; 2004) explores the psychological complexities of revolutionary Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel; it's also the inspiration for De Simone’s oratorio.
More recent offerings include E poi c’è Napoli (And Then There Is Naples; 2014), a documentary film directed by Gianluca Migliarotti (1974–). An ode to classic Neapolitan style and tailoring, its depiction of an elegant, cultured metropolis of Kiton suits and modern-day dandies is a refreshing counterpoint to the ruthless, blood-stained Naples portrayed in the multi-award-winning feature film Gomorrah (2008). Directed by Rome's Matteo Garrone (1968–) but based on the explosive book by Neapolitan Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah intertwines five stories of characters affected by Naples' notorious organised-crime syndicate, the Camorra. Sibling directors Marco Manetti (1968–) and Antonio Manetti (1970–) offer a lighter take on the city's criminal underbelly in Ammore e malavita (Love & Bullets; 2017), a musical comedy about a Camorra hitman ordered to kill a woman he discovers is a long-lost flame. Part rom-com, part action thriller, the kitschy hit swagged a string of awards, including the David di Donatello (the Italian equivalent of an Oscar) for Best Film in 2018.
Feature: A Puppet with Punch
His aliases are many, from Punchinello or Mr Punch in Britain to Petruska in Russia. In his home town of Naples, however, he’s simply Pulcinella: the best-known character of the commedia dell’arte.
In his white costume and black hook-nosed mask, this squeaky-voiced clown is equally exuberant and lazy, optimistic and cynical, melancholic and witty. As a street philosopher, he is anti-authoritarian and is often seen beating the local copper with a stick (hence the term 'slapstick'). At home, however, his wife’s the beater and he’s the victim.
While some trace his creation to a 16th-century actor in the town of Capua, others believe he has been dancing and stirring since the days of togas…or even longer. In fact, his iconic hook-nosed mask appears on frescoed Etruscan tombs in Tarquinia, north of Rome. The mask belongs to Phersu, a vicious Etruscan demon known as the Queen of Hell’s servant.
Feature: Ribera: The Ruthless Spaniard
Even though he was the leading light of Naples' mid-17th-century art scene, success did little to brighten Jusepe de Ribera's dark side. Along with the Greek artist Belisario Corenzio and local painter Giambattista Caracciolo, Lo Spagnoletto (The Little Spaniard, as Ribera was known) formed a cabal to stamp out any potential competition. Merciless in the extreme, they stopped at nothing to get their way. Ribera reputedly won a commission for the Cappella di San Gennaro in the Duomo by poisoning his rival Domenichino (1581–1641) and wounding the assistant of a second competitor, Guido Reni (1575–1642). Much to the relief of other nerve-wracked artists, the cabal eventually broke up when Caracciolo died in 1642.
The Neapolitan Way of Life
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.
Feature: The Old Proverbial
They may be clichés, but proverbs can be quite the cultural revelation. Here are five of Naples' well-worn best:
- A léngua nun tène òsso ma ròmpe ll'òssa (The tongue has no bone, but it breaks bones)
- A mughièra 'e ll'àte é sèmpe cchiù bbòna (Other people's wives are always more beautiful)
- Ògne scarrafóne è bèllo 'a màmma sóia (Even a beetle is beautiful to its mother)
- E pariénte so còmme 'e scàrpe: cchiù so strìtte e cchiù te fànno màle (Relatives are like shoes: the tighter they are the more they hurt)
- L'amico è come l'ombrello, quando piove non lo trovi mai (The friend is like the umbrella: when it's raining, you never find it)
Feature: The North–South Divide
While countless meridionali (southern Italians) have headed abroad in search of greener pastures, just as many have settled in Italy’s wealthier north – a situation comically captured in Ricomincio da tre (I’m Starting from Three; 1980), a film starring late Neapolitan actor Massimo Troisi. Punchlines aside, the film reveals Italy’s very real north–south divide.
From the Industrial Revolution to the 1960s, millions fled to the industrialised northern cities for factory jobs. As the saying goes, Ogni vero milanese ha un nonno pugliese (Every true Milanese has a Pugliese grandparent). For most of these homegrown migrants, the welcome they received north of Rome was anything but warm. Disparagingly nicknamed terroni (peasants), many faced daily discrimination from everyone from landlords to baristas.
Although such overt discrimination is now rare, historical prejudices linger. Many northerners resent their taxes being used to ‘subsidise’ the ‘lazy’, ‘corrupt’ south – a sentiment that fuelled the establishment of the right-wing Lega Nord (Northern League) party. At a party event in June 2009, Lega Nord leader and Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini was filmed singing 'Senti che puzza, scappano anche i cani: stanno arrivando i napoletani' (Smell that stench, even the dogs are fleeing: the Neapolitans are coming). The chant also referred to Neapolitans as colerosi (sick with cholera). As might be expected, footage of Salvini campaigning in Campania in the lead-up to the 2018 Italian general election was met with indignation from many Neapolitans, despite his pre-election apology for the comment.
Feature: In Football We Trust
Catholicism may be Italy's official faith, but its true religion is calcio (football/soccer). On any given weekend from late August to May, you'll find millions of tifosi (football fans) at the stadio (stadium), glued to the television or checking the score on their phone. Naples is no exception: the city is home to southern Italy's most successful team (Napoli) and the country's third-largest stadium (Stadio San Paolo), not to mention a small shrine dedicated to Napoli's greatest-ever on-field hero, Diego Maradona.
Swiped from Barcelona for a record-breaking €12 million in 1984, the Argentine star would lead Napoli to its greatest ever glory in the 1986–87 football season, winning both the Serie A title and the Coppa Italia. A first for any mainland southern-Italian team, the twin win transformed Maradona into a Neapolitan demigod.
While captaining Argentina in the 1990 FIFA World Cup, Maradona infamously encouraged the city to cheer on Argentina in the semi-finals against Italy in Naples. Tapping into Italy's north–south tension, Maradona controversially declared: 'I don't like the fact that now everybody is asking Neapolitans to be Italian and to support their national team. Naples has always been marginalised by the rest of Italy. It is a city that suffers the most unfair racism'.
Thankfully, any north–south resentment was relegated to the sidelines in 2006, when Neapolitan pin-up Fabio Cannavaro led Italy to victory in the World Cup. Nine months after the win, hospitals in northern Italy reported a baby boom.
Campania's architectural cachet is epic and illustrious. Given the region's rich and ancient history, that makes perfect sense. Millennia of political conquests and struggles, of human ingenuity, creativity and ambition, have bestowed the place with a built legacy few corners of Europe can match. This is a land of muscular Greek temples and lavish Roman villas, of storybook Angevin castles, medieval Moorish cloisters and oversized Bourbon palaces. It's an overwhelming list, so why not start with the undisputed highlights?
The breadth and depth of Campania's ancient architecture is superlative, its jumble of temples, towns and engineering feats delivering a crash course in classical aesthetics and talent.
The Greeks invented the Doric architectural order and used it to great effect at the 6th-century-BC temples of Paestum, confirming not only the ancient Greeks' power but also their penchant for harmonious proportion. In Naples, Piazza Bellini has remnants of the city's 4th-century-BC walls, while traces of Greek fortifications linger at the acropolis of Cuma.
Having learned a few valuable lessons from the Greeks, the Romans refined architecture to such a degree that their building techniques, designs and mastery of harmonious proportion underpin most of the world's architecture and urban design to this day. The Greeks may have created Naples' first aqueduct, but it was the Romans who extended and improved it. The aqueduct led to the glorious Piscina Mirabilis, a cathedral-like cistern once complete with sophisticated hydraulics.
The space below Pozzuoli's Anfiteatro Flavio is also testament to Roman ingenuity. Here, an elliptical corridor is flanked by a series of low cellae set on two floors and capped by trapdoors that open straight to the arena above. The cellae on the upper floor held the caged wild animals used in the stadium games. Hoisted up through the trap doors, the animals could then spring immediately from darkness into the bright light of the arena with rock-star effect.
Across the bay, it's a case of Vogue Ancient Living in Pompeii, home to many of Italy's best-preserved classical abodes. Here, buildings like the Villa dei Misteri, the Casa del Fauno and the Casa del Menandro illustrate the trademarks of classical domestic architecture, from an inward-facing design (for maximum privacy) to the light-filled atrium (the focal point of domestic life) and the ornamental peristyle (colonnaded garden courtyard). The finest villas were adorned with whimsical mythological frescoes, stunningly exemplified at the Villa dei Misteri, as well as Villa Oplontis, located in nearby Torre Annunziata.
Following on from the Byzantine style and its mosaic-encrusted churches was Romanesque, a style that found four regional forms in Italy: Lombard, Pisan, Florentine and Sicilian Norman. All displayed an emphasis on width and the horizontal lines of a building rather than its height, and featured church groups with campanili (bell towers) and baptisteries that were separate to the church. Surfacing in the 11th century, the Sicilian Norman style encompassed an exotic mix of Norman, Saracen and Byzantine influences, from marble columns to Islamic-inspired pointed arches to glass tesserae detailing. This style is clearly visible in the two-toned masonry and 13th-century bell tower of the Cattedrale di Sant'Andrea in Amalfi. It's also echoed in the 12th-century bell tower of Salerno's Duomo, not to mention in its bronze, Byzantine-style doors and Arabesque portico arches.
For Naples, its next defining architectural period would arrive with the rule of the French House of Anjou in the 13th century. As it was the new capital of the Angevin kingdom, suitably ambitious plans were announced for the city. Land was reclaimed, and bold new churches and monasteries built. This was the age of the 'Gothic', a time of flying buttresses and grotesque gargoyles. While enthusiastically embraced by the French, Germans and Spanish, the Italians preferred a more restrained and sombre interpretation of the style, defined by wide walls, a single nave, a trussed ceiling and horizontal bands. One of its finest examples is Naples' Basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore, its pared-back elegance also echoed in the city's Chiesa di San Pietro a Maiella and Basilica di Santa Chiara.
That both the facade of the Basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore and the coffered ceiling of the Chiesa di San Pietro a Maiella are later baroque add-ons reminds us that much of the period's original architecture was altered over successive centuries. A case in point is the Chiesa di San Domenico Maggiore, whose chintzy gilded interior betrays a neo-Gothic makeover. The church's main entrance, in a courtyard off Vico San Domenico, also bears witness to a series of touch-ups. Here, a delicate 14th-century portal is framed by an 18th-century pronaos (the space in front of the body of a temple) surmounted by a 19th-century window, and flanked by two Renaissance-era chapels and a baroque bell tower. Indeed, even the Angevins' Castel Nuovo wasn't spared, with only a few sections of the original structure surviving, among them the Palatina Chapel. The castle's striking white triumphal-arch centrepiece – a 15th-century addition – is considered one of Naples' most notable early-Renaissance creations.
While the Renaissance all but transformed Italy's north, its impact on southern streetscapes was much less dramatic. In Naples, one of the few buildings to page the Florentine style is the Palazzo Cuomo, now home to the Museo Civico Filangieri. Featuring typically Tuscan rusticated walls, the late-15th-century building was created for wealthy Florentine merchant Angelo Como ('Cuomo' in Neapolitan) before finding new life as a monastery in 1587.
Yet, what Naples missed out on during the Renaissance it more than made up for in the baroque of the 17th and 18th centuries. Finally, the city had found an aesthetic to suit its exhibitionist streak: a style that celebrated the bold, the gold and the over-the-top. Neapolitan baroque rose out of heady times. Under 17th-century Spanish rule, the city became one of Europe's biggest. Swelling crowds and counter-Reformation fervour sparked a building boom, with taller-than-ever palazzi (mansions) mixing it with glittering showcase churches. Ready to lavish the city with new landmarks was a brash, arrogant and fiery league of architects and artists, who brushed aside tradition and rewrote the rulebooks.
A Neapolitan Twist
Like the Neapolitans themselves, the city's baroque architecture is idiosyncratic and independently minded. Architects working in Naples at the time often ignored the trends sweeping through Rome and northern Italy. Pilasters may have been all the rage in late-17th-century Roman churches, but in Naples, architects like Dionisio Lazzari (1617–89) and Giovanni Battista Nauclerio (1666–1739) went against the grain, reasserting the value of the column and effectively paving the way for Luigi Vanvitelli's columnar architecture and the neoclassicism that would spread across Europe in the mid-18th century.
In domestic Neapolitan architecture, a palazzo's piano nobile (principal floor) was often on the 2nd floor (not the 1st floor, as was common), encouraging the creation of the epic porte-cochères (coach porticos) that distinguish so many Neapolitan buildings.
Equally grandiose were the city's open staircases, which reached perfection in the hands of Naples-born architect Ferdinando Sanfelice (1675–1748). His double-ramped creations in the Palazzo dello Spagnuolo and the Palazzo Sanfelice exemplify his ability to transform humble domestic staircases into operatic statements.
Another star on the building scene was Domenico Antonio Vaccaro (1678–1745), who originally trained as a painter under Francesco Solimena. Vaccaro's architectural legacy includes the redesign of the cloisters at the Basilica di Santa Chiara, the decoration of three chapels of the church inside the Certosa di San Martino, and the design of the soaring guglia (obelisk) on Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. With the help of his father, Lorenzo (himself a renowned sculptor), Vaccaro also contributed a bronze monument dedicated to Philip V of Spain, which topped the Guglia dell'Immacolata on Piazza del Gesù Nuovo. Alas, the work was later toppled by Charles III and replaced with a much less controversial Madonna, which still stands.
The Piazza del Gesù Nuovo is one of the very few sweeping squares in the city, a fact that led many baroque architects to invest less time on show-stopping exteriors and more time on what the people could actually see: the interiors. A case in point is the Chiesa di San Gregorio Armeno, whose facade gives little indication of the opulence glowing inside.
Indoor splendour also defines the on-site church at the Certosa di San Martino, its glorious inlaid marble a common feature of Neapolitan baroque. This mix-and-match marble is the work of Cosimo Fanzago (1591–1678), the undisputed master of the craft. A revered sculptor, decorator and architect, the fiery Fanzago would cut the stone into the most whimsical of forms, producing a luscious, polychromatic spectacle that is one of Italy's true baroque highlights. The church is not Fanzago's only contribution at the Certosa; the artist had previously completed the charterhouse's Chiostro Grande (Great Cloister), adding to Giovanni Antonio Dosio's original design the statues above the portico, the ornate corner portals and the white balustrade around the monks' cemetery.
Fanzago took the art of marble inlay to a whole new level of complexity and sophistication, as also seen in the Cappella di Sant'Antonio di Padova and the Cappella Cacace, both inside the Basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore. The latter chapel is considered to be his most lavish expression of the form. His altarpieces were equally influential. Exemplified by his beautiful high altar in the Chiesa di San Domenico Maggiore, his creations inspired the work of other sculptors, including Bartolomeo and Pietro Ghetti's altar in the Chiesa di San Pietro a Maiella, Bartolomeo Ghetti and siblings Giuseppe and Bartolomeo Gallo's altar in the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo, and Giuseppe Mozzetti's exquisite choir in the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine.
Another chisel-wielding genius was Giuseppe Sanmartino (1720–93). Arguably the finest sculptor of his time, his ability to turn cold stone into sensual, soul-stirring revelations is exemplified in the baroque Complesso Monumentale dei Girolamini. It's in this church that you'll find his celebrated pair of Carrara-marble angels, their curls and robes imbued with extraordinary softness and fluidity. Sanmartino's talent for breathing life into his creations won him a legion of fans, among them the city's Bourbon rulers and alchemist prince Raimondo di Sangro. The latter's family chapel, the Cappella Sansevero, is home to Sanmartino's undisputed masterpiece, the 1753 Cristo velato (Veiled Christ). Considered the apogee of his technical brilliance, it's quite possibly the greatest sculpture of 18th-century Europe. Even the great neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova wished it were his own.
End of an Era
Canova may have wished the same of the Reggia di Caserta. Officially known as Caserta's Palazzo Reale, the epic royal residence was one of several grand-scale legacies of the Bourbon years. Designed by late-baroque architect Luigi Vanvitelli (1700–73), son of Dutch landscape artist Gaspar van Wittel (1653–1736), the Reggia not only outsized Versailles but would go down in history as Italy's great baroque epilogue.
Ironically, while it does feature many of the genre's theatrical hallmarks, from acres of inlaid marble to allegorical statues set into wall niches, its late-baroque style echoed a classical style more indebted to contemporary French and Spanish models than to the exuberant playfulness of the homegrown brand. According to the Bourbon blue bloods, the over-the-top Neapolitan baroque was plutôt vulgaire (rather vulgar). And as the curtain began to fall on Naples' baroque heyday, a more restrained neoclassicism was waiting in the wings.
Feature: Architecture Speak: 101
Do you know your transept from your triclinium? Demystify some common architectural terms with the following bite-size list:
Apse Usually a large recess or niche built on a semicircular or polygonal ground plan and vaulted with a half dome. In a church or temple, it may include an altar.
Baldachin (Baldacchino) A permanent, often elaborately decorated canopy of wood or stone above an altar, throne, pulpit or statue.
Balustrade A stone railing formed of a row of posts (called balusters) topped by a continuous coping, and commonly flanking baroque stairs, balconies and terraces.
Impluvium A small ornamental pool, often used as the centrepiece of atriums in ancient Roman houses.
Latrine A Roman-era public convenience, lined with rows of toilet seats and often adorned with frescoes and marble.
Narthex A portico or lobby at the front of an early Christian church or basilica.
Necropolis Burial ground outside the city walls in antiquity and the early Christian era.
Oratory A small room or chapel in a church reserved for private prayer.
Tablinum The main room of the house in Roman times, used to receive guests and clients.
Transept A section of a church running at right angles to the main body of the church.
Triclinium The dining room in a Roman house.
Feature: The Not-So-Brilliant Life Of Cosimo Fanzago
Like many stars of the Neapolitan baroque, Cosimo Fanzago (1591–1678) was not actually Neapolitan by birth. Born in the small town of Clusone in northern Italy, the budding sculptor-decorator-architect ventured to Naples at the tender age of 17 and quickly earned a reputation for his imaginative way with marble. Alas, it wasn't the only reputation he acquired. According to legal documents, Fanzago was partial to the odd violent outburst, attacking his mason Nicola Botti in 1628 and reputedly knocking him off completely two years later. His alleged involvement in the 1647 Masaniello revolt saw him flee to Rome for a decade to avoid the death sentence on his head.
Yet Fanzago's ultimate downfall would come from his notorious workplace practices, which included missing deadlines, disregarding clients' wishes, and using works created for one client for completing other clients' projects. Responsible for giving him his enviable commissions at the Certosa di San Martino, the Carthusian monks would ultimately learn to loathe the man revamping their hilltop home, suing the artist in a long, arduous legal battle that ultimately affected Fanzago's health and the number of his commissions. By the time of his death in 1678, the greatest baroque master Naples had ever seen cut a poor, neglected figure.
Alongside Calabria's ’Ndrangheta, Sicily's Cosa Nostra and Puglia's Sacra Corona Unita, Campania's Camorra is one of Italy's four main organised-crime syndicates. Its illegal dealings in drug and firearms trafficking, prostitution, waste disposal, racketeering and counterfeiting secure the organisation billions of euros annually. Even more astounding is the human cost: in the past 30 years, the Camorra has claimed more than 3000 lives, more than any other Mafia in the country.
Origins & Evolution
It is widely believed that the Camorra emerged from the criminal gangs operating among the poor in late-18th-century Naples. The organisation would get its first big break after the failed revolution of 1848. Desperate to overthrow Ferdinand II, pro-constitutional liberals turned to camorristi (Camorra members) to help garner the support of the masses. The Camorra's political influence was sealed. Given a serious blow by Mussolini, the organisation would get its second wind from the invading Allied forces of 1943, which turned to the flourishing, influential underworld, believing it to be the best way to get things done.
The modern Camorra is a far cry from the days of roguish characters bullying shopkeepers into paying the pizzo (protection money). As journalist Roberto Saviano writes in his 2006 Camorra exposé Gomorrah: 'Only beggar Camorra clans inept at business and desperate to survive still practice the kind of monthly extortions seen in Nanni Loy's film Mi manda Picone [Where's Picone?]'. While small-time extortion still exists, the Mafia big guns are where the serious bucks lie, from human- and arms trafficking, to industries including construction and large-scale waste disposal.
The Mafia’s profiteering extends to Italy’s ongoing refugee crisis. In recent years, numerous Camorra clans have forged alliances with foreign crime groups to run lucrative human-trafficking operations. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), over 80% of female asylum seekers reaching Europe from Nigeria are unknowingly sponsored by sex-trafficking rings. Once in Italy, the women are provided with fake documents by organised-crime groups and forced into prostitution to pay off their traffickers.
In Campania, this money is usually divided between the recruiter in Nigeria, the smugglers who facilitate the cross-sea journey, the Italian-based Nigerian racketeers that manage the sex trade, and the local Camorra clans that allow the gangs to operate on their turf. Many of the hapless victims are women find themselves working in Castel Volturno, an infamous Camorra stronghold northwest of Naples. For most, it will take up to six years to pay off their crippling debts.
For the Camorra and other Italian-based crime groups, southern Italy’s overcrowded, oft-mismanaged asylum centres have also proven fertile ground for recruiting petty criminals, drug mules and manual labourers forced into low-paid work on farms and other Mafia-infiltrated local operations.
Another big money spinner for the Camorra is the drug trade. Indeed, the Camorra-ravaged suburbs of Secondigliano and Scampia in northern Naples have the dubious claim of being Europe's largest open-air drug market, supplying addicts from across the country with cheap, low-grade heroin and cocaine. Disputes between rival clans over this lucrative trade have seen the spilling of much blood.
One of the most serious clan battles so far this century was the so-called 'Scampia Feud', ignited by camorrista Cosimo Di Lauro in late 2004. As the newly appointed head of the powerful Di Lauro clan, the 30-year-old decided to centralise the area's drug trade, giving himself more power and the clan's long-respected franchisees much less. This did not go down well with many of Di Lauro's associates. Among them were Raffaele Amato and Cesare Pagano, who broke away to form a rival clan dubbed the Scissionisti di Secondigliano (Secessionists of Secondigliano). What followed was a long and ruthless series of murders and retributions between the opposing groups, one that would claim over 50 lives in 2004–5 alone.
Over the years, the law has captured many Camorra kingpins, among them Cosimo Di Lauro, his father, Paolo, Giuseppe Dell'Aquila, and Pasquale Scotti. The latter – a fugitive Scissionisti boss convicted in absentia of over 20 murders – was arrested in Brazil in 2015 after 30 years on the run. Authorities have also seized millions of euros worth of assets: in February 2015, police in Naples confiscated €320 million in real estate and business ventures linked to the city's Contini clan.
Despite these victories, the war against the Camorra remains an uphill battle. Its presence in Campanian society spans centuries, and, for many, the Camorra – known locally as Il sistema (The System) – has provided everything Italy's official avenues have not, from employment and business loans to a sense of order in local communities. The Camorra's weekly drug-trade rates range from €100 for lookouts to €1000 for those willing to hide the drugs at home. Driving a shipment of drugs from Milan to Naples can pay as much as €2500.
Italy's enduring financial lull has proven another boon. With liquidity in short supply, hard-pressed companies have become more susceptible to questionable money. Camorra-affiliated loan sharks commonly offer cash with an average interest rate of 10%. An estimated 50% to 70% of shops in Naples are run with dubiously sourced money. Mafia profits are also reinvested in legitimate real estate, credit markets and businesses around the world.
Although too many Neapolitans shrug their shoulders in resignation, others are determined to loosen the Camorra's grip. In the Sanità district, people like parish priest Don Antonio Loffredo and renowned artist Riccardo Dalisi offer youth the opportunity to learn artistic and artisanal skills and help restore local heritage sites, including the Catacombe di San Gennaro. Across the city in Ercolano, elderly shopkeeper Raffaella Ottaviano made international headlines for her refusal to pay the pizzo. Her courage has influenced other traders to say no, which in turn has led the local council to offer tax breaks to those who report threats of extortion instead of giving in to the Camorra.
Feature: A Toxic Legacy
According to Italian environmentalist association Legambiente, the Camorra has illegally dumped, buried or burned close to 10 million tons of garbage in Campania since 1991. Alarmingly, this includes highly toxic waste, collected from northern Italian and foreign manufacturers lured by the cut-price rates of Camorra-owned waste-disposal companies. Despite widespread knowledge of the practice, numerous local politicians have either turned a blind eye or accepted kickbacks from cammoristi. In 2018, Naples-based news source Fanpage.it uploaded a series of highly publicised videos that captured alleged collusion between the Camorra and numerous local politicians in matters relating to waste-management contracts.
This systematic negligence has had devastating effects on the region. Abnormally high rates of cancer and congenital malformations of the nervous and urinary systems led medical journal The Lancet Oncology to nickname an area in Naples' northeast hinterland 'the triangle of death' in 2004. In 2008, a public-health survey by the US Navy concluded that water contamination in certain areas of the region posed unacceptable risks, while Campania now also lays claim to Italy's highest infertility rate.