"I'D love to go to Italy too," a deskbound friend in Milan remarked jokingly when I told him about my recent trip to Naples. For Italians as well as Italophiles, Naples is today the must-visit city -- the place where the arts are in the fullest flower, the food is exhilarating, and life pulsates. Like Barcelona in the eighties, Naples is taken with itself in a way that makes visiting it more exciting than it has been in decades -- maybe centuries.
Until very recently, saying that Naples was your favorite city and urging friends to visit was almost foolhardy. The churches and museums were among the finest in Italy, yes, but just try to see them. Guidebooks directed you down dark, menacing alleys to marvelous churches that turned out to be bolted shut. The city's star museum of art, Capodimonte, in a vast royal palace built by the Spanish Bourbons, who made Naples a capital rivaled only by Paris, was simply closed for years. Walking around Spaccanapoli,the quarter with most of the great churches and noble palaces, was so dangerous that you were warned to leave everything of value at your hotel before setting out.
The city has transformed itself with startling speed. Its modern rebirth began in 1984, when a group of citizens calling itself Napoli '99 took the destruction caused by a 1980 earthquake (and the subsequent pilfering of government funds earmarked for rebuilding) as the impetus for collecting private support to restore monuments and museums. Sculptures, portals, and palace façades emerged, cleansed, from scaffolding; whole museums were refurbished, and churches that had been closed for years reopened. During the G7 summit of 1994 the world saw that Naples could be clean and safe, and the main arteries passable rather than clogged.
Cynics accustomed to grime and chaos called it a modern Potemkin village. Rather, it was a preview of the plans of the city's newly elected left-wing mayor, Antonio Bassolino, who vowed to make Naples "livable" after years of civic neglect, corruption, and abandonment to the effective control of the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia. Within months of his election, in December of 1993, Bassolino put traffic cops and patrolmen back on the beat (traffic policemen considered their jobs so hopeless that many would clock in and then go home) and set about cleaning up the city. Since then theft has decreased by 25 percent (it has not, of course, vanished) and tourism has increased by 40 percent. In the spring of last year it took me nearly an hour in a taxi to get from downtown to Capodimonte, which had just reopened to international fanfare. Last April, after the busiest portion of the city's main north-south route had been made one-way, the trip took less than twenty minutes.
Piazza del Plebiscito, the city's main piazza, previously a chaotic welter of vehicles, has been shut to traffic altogether and paved with new black cobblestones, and now it is among the country's grandest spaces. Grouped around the piazza are Teatro San Carlo, Italy's largest opera house, which some critics say lately surpasses Milan's La Scala; a vast royal palace, where you can inspect grandiose mid-nineteenth-century royal suites built by the Bourbons, reminiscent of the ones in Buckingham Palace; an 1887 shopping gallery more ornate than Milan's famous Galleria, restored by Napoli '99 to its gilt, stucco, and cast-iron splendor and now home to shops that display the city's internationally famous tailoring; Caffe Gambrinus, where seemingly half of Naples gathers twice a day for coffee, served in beautifully refurbished neoclassical salons; and, across from the palace, a sweeping semicircular colonnade to rival the one at St. Peter's. Once at 1:00 A.M. last spring I counted seven wedding parties posing for pictures.
And have I mentioned the city's food? It made me swoon.
TWO neighborhoods -- Spaccanapoli, at the heart of the city, and Vomero, in the hills above -- kept drawing me back to their streets, old and narrow and cramped in the first case, modern and wide and airy in the second. Spaccanapoli reflects the classic image of wily denizens living amid decaying glory. Vomero is an unexpectedly calm, prosperous neighborhood where in a small area you can find a selection of the city's best museums, shopping, and cafés.
It's easy to think of Spaccanapoli as the set for a melodrama, with Sophia Loren gesticulating out some back window, or for a postwar comedy starring Totò, the aristocrat whose rubber face immortalized the Neapolitan who knows how to "arrange himself," or sidestep every obstacle. The laundry flapping on balconies and old women hawking contraband cigarettes are picturesque reminders of a time when Naples lived entirely on the streets -- a time as recent as the late forties and the fifties, memorably described in Naples '44, by Norman Lewis, and The Gallery, by John Horne Burns.
The main entrance to the neighborhood is Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, which has what are considered the city's two finest churches -- Gesù Nuovo, named for the Jesuits who fitted it with richly hued frescoes and marble-inlaid floors, and Santa Chiara, which dates from the time of the Angevin domination, in the fourteenth century. I much prefer the vaulting Provençal Gothic simplicity of Santa Chiara, which was bombed and then almost entirely rebuilt after the war. Ian Thomson writes in his useful and entertaining guide in the Harper Independent Traveller series that its vast single-aisle interior "has been compared variously to a large banqueting hall, a ballroom and an indoor car-park." On two separate visits I've seen society weddings there; the well-turned-out local aristocracy did make the church seem like a ballroom, if a somber one, and so did the white-gloved footmen passing paper cones of sugar-coated almonds, called confetti.