Unkempt and glorious - Naples, a city apart

On a continent of increasingly uniform town and city centres, Naples, in all its glorious, threadbare muddle, under an enormous accumulation of history, stands out for being uncompromisingly itself. It has  fabulous churches, palaces, galleries and ancient squares. It is set on the world’s greatest bay, and against one of its most thrilling backdrops, the massive brooding cone of Vesuvius.  --- Picture: Wall painting from Pompeii. The baker Terentius Neo and his wife hold writing materials, showing they are literate and cultured.

British Museum exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum; 28 March – 29 September 2013.
This is one of the most authentic European cities I know. It contrives to be perfectly itself, fading, rundown, without even the benefit of internationally known retail chains to give most of its central streets some kind of bogus “respectability”.

Ah, say the people have never been here, isn’t it menacing? All that crime? We walked on several evenings through its darkest recesses, and felt no threat whatsoever.

On a walk through central Naples, I noted down some random, intriguing details. The van delivering wood for the pizza ovens. The orange trees lining Via Sanfelice – with real oranges. Two mighty castles, just a mile from narrow old streets as high as canyons, where washing fluttered miles above our heads, full of one-off shops selling Neapolitan cribs and other specialist items. Boys playing football in bustling mediaeval squares. (You must take Norman Lewis’ book, Naples ’44, to help understand why unkempt - then almost medieval - old Naples is unlike any other city.)

We called at the opulent Gran Cafe Grambinus, on the edge of huge traffic-free square Piazza dell Plebiscite, for an espresso. It’s next to Italy’s oldest opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, and the great glass-roofed arcade Galleria Umberto. These places are as smart as anything in Rome, Milan or Turin.

In the National Archaeological Museum we came closer than anywhere to real Roman people. Many of the wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum were moved here for safekeeping. Among the studies of gods, heroes, and fish, on that sumptuous deep red Pompeian background, are the very ordinary Mr and Mrs Paquius Proculus, peering timidly out at the artist.

There are many more finds from the buried towns, and a splendid supporting cast of Roman and Greek statues. It’s worth taking the bus on (buy the all day ticket, at tobacconists) to the Museum of Palazzo Capodimonte, in a former Bourbon palace on the top of the hill. It contains a rich collection of paintings by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio and El Greco.

In the devout and crowded heart of old Naples we found what is surely the richest concentration of churches in any European city. There are so many chueches, and they are so big, you wonder there were saints enough to name them after, let alone the congegations to fill them. We wandered in and out of the gloriously named Santa Maria Maggiore alla Pietrasanta, Santa Caterina a Chiaia and many more (most are free), admiring sumptuous ceilings, far above our heads.

The artistic highlights include Donatello’s tomb in Sant’Angelo a Nilo, and Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy, in Pio Monte della Misericordia. The baffling and beautiful Veiled Christ is in the chapel of Cappella Sansevero. Experts still don’t know how artist Sanmartino crafted the transparent veil out of marble.
Naples connects to the very soul of the pizza. In 2009 the EU awarded the Neapolitan pizza its Traditional Specialty label. A host of good family places serve it, on a base like a pastry quilt, cooked in wood-burning ovens. We liked the Fratelli La Bufala chain – try the one in Via Medina.

One evening our hotel suggested Taverna dell’Arte, at the top of a flight of ancient steps, Rampe S.Giovanni. It’s tiny, and full of locals,  with  tables for two in cosy corners. They served the taste of the ancient Naples inn, such as salt cod with Maruzzara beans. I could also recommend Ristorante Umberto, (via Albardieri), a trattoria with happy red seats and local fare. La Scialuppa, via Borgo Marinari, is a busy fish restaurant under Castel dell’Ovo.

A major exhibition on the illustrious and ll-fated Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum is on at the British Museum from 28 March – 29 September 2013. (See below). Visitors are naturally drawn towards Pompeii – 37 minutes by train. Well preserved temples, baths, theatres, and homes have been uncovered from the ash and pumice that poured out of Vesusius in AD 79. But Herculaneum is closer, 15 minutes from Central Station.

This small, compact town was buried under 60 feet of liquid mud in the same eruption, and the buildings are more intact. It is an easier visit, and was quiet on the early spring Saturday morning we were there. You are free to wander the narrow roads and enter half-standing houses, with wall paintings and mosaic floors and charred wood, although it’s increasingly hard to justify such free access to tourists.

On the short walk back to the station, do visit the Virtual Herculaneum attraction. They digitally reconstructed the destroyed town and show what life there was like. This could become the way to let people “visit” fragile sites places, as tourist numbers grow.

We stayed at the Romeo Hotel, on the epic Bay of Naples. Japanese architects and Italian designers combined to turn former shipping offices into a startling glass-fronted vision in blue. In the lobby they combine the calm of an open wood fire and a real waterfall, with designer furniture, antique armour and black granite floors. In the lift we admired a video of a manta ray.

With a coffee from the espresso machine in our room, we took in that astounding view of a (quiescent and non-smoking) Vesuvius – the very best view is from the rooftop infinity pool and spa. The staff were friendly, engaging and helpful. The hotel does its own city guidebook, with useful recommendations for eating out and shopping. It’s a five minute walk from Piazza Municipio – where the airport bus stops. 0039 081 0175001.
BA fly regularly to Naples (from £49 one way). It offers flight and hotel deals.

British Museum Exhibition.

A major exhibition on the illustrious and ll-fated Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum is on at the British Museum from 28 March – 29 September 2013.

The museum worked with the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii to assemble both recent discoveries and celebrated finds from earlier excavations. Many objects have never been seen outside Italy. The exhibition’s focus will be the Roman home and the people who lived in the cities.

Pompeii and Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples in southern Italy, were buried by a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 24 hours in AD 79. At the same time the eruption snuffed out of the life of the cities and preserved them for archaeologists to find 1700 years later, and give us unparallelled insight into Roman life.

Set slightly apart, Pompeii, the industrial hub of the region, and Herculaneum, a small seaside town, were buried in different ways and this has affected the preservation of materials at each site. Excavation continues at both sites. Recently discovered artifacts from Herculaneum shown for the first time include finely sculpted marble reliefs, intricately carved ivory panels and objects found in the main city drain.

The exhibition will give visitors a taste of the daily life of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum, from the bustling street to the family home. It explores the lives of individuals in Roman society - businessmen, powerful women, freed slaves and children. An example is a wall painting from Pompeii showing the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, holding writing materials. It projects them as literate and cultured. In their pose and presentation we see them as equal partners, in business and in life.

Pieces of wooden furniture from Herculaneum were carbonized by the high temperatures of the ash that engulfed the city. The furniture includes a linen chest, an inlaid stool and a garden bench. An astonishing and moving piece is a baby’s crib that still rocks on its curved runners.

The exhibition include casts of some of the victims of the eruption. A family is huddled together, just as they were in their last moments under the stairs of their villa. The most famous of the casts on display is of a dog, fixed forever at the moment of its death.

Admission £15. Book online or +44 (0)20 7323 8181. 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 on Fridays.
British Museum Press: Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, by Paul Roberts. Hardback, £45, paperback £25.

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