My first encounter with Naples was supposed to happen twenty years ago but never did. Towards the end of our Grand Tour in the winter of 1985-86, my family had been dazzled by Florence, toppled by Pisa, and overwhelmed by Rome... perhaps a little too literally in the last case, as the combined effect of rain, crazy traffic and taxi drivers adding noughts to all those fares in lira had worn us down at the end of a long trip. But we pressed south to our ultimate destination, until the bad weather took a turn for the biblical and showered us in hailstones the size of marbles. Dad pulled off the highway into a motel, where we sheltered for the night and decided that it was time to start our return journey instead of pushing on to Naples.
The place I was most sorry to miss, though, was Pompeii, which had lingered in my imagination since I’d read the Reader’s Digest book of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts at the age of nine. Something about those plaster casts of the victims stuck in my impressionable mind, and Pompeii became my idea of the ultimate archaeological site. Sure, the pyramids were big and pointy, but Vesuvius was too, until its top blew off and spewed boiling lava over the hapless Romans, aiiiieeeee! The story of Vesuvius only grew in stature as I learned about Krakatoa and Thera, visited Hawaii’s Big Island, and followed the eruption of Mount St Helens on the news in the early ’80s. Volcanoes don’t muck around, and being part of the greatest empire of the ancient world was no protection.
So once I knew I was definitely going to Naples for a conference this June, it was no surprise what was uppermost in my mind: would there be enough time to see Pompeii? I booked a flight back on Sunday to be sure of having at least one day free. Then I saw the schedule and found I was presenting on the Saturday morning, my supposedly free day. Maybe I could get the gist in a few hours...
Flying in late on a Tuesday, I didn’t expect to see Vesuvius, but there it was, looming out of the dusk over what was once the third city of Europe (circa 1800). The airport is only a few miles from the centre, so Naples was spread out below us, looking much as it might to an ejected lump of pumice.
Getting in to the hotel late meant waking up late, which ate into what I now knew was my best chance to see Pompeii; conference registration was open until 7pm, so I’d have time to go out to Pompeii and back before the Welcome Cocktail. Weaving across the madness of Piazza Garibaldi (a giant square cluttered with concrete barriers and criss-crossing roads), I headed to the central station and worked out which train to catch. The clue was in the name: the Circumvesuviano.
I’d forgotten to put my passport in the hotel safe, so was obsessively checking my bag; it felt paranoid, but I’d read too many dire warnings of pickpockets in the guidebook to shrug them off. The warnings later seemed well-founded, as I heard of conference attendees’ bags being snatched and felt some suspicious bumps myself. Losing my camera would have been the worst, but as long as you keep your bag away from the street you reduce the risk of that; the main threat is from scooters whizzing past in the tourist streets of the old town.
The train took only half an hour to reach Pompeii, and by late morning there I was, walking around those once-ash-filled streets. The difference between what I was now seeing and the other Roman ruins I’d visited was huge: those were floorplans, whereas Pompeii was three-dimensional, with walls and sometimes even ceilings rising up two or more storeys. The site went on and on; it would take days to see all of it, even with only a third open to the public.
I wandered around in the sunshine, photographing walls, mosaics, paintings, sculptures, water-troughs, rutted streets and plumbed toilets, but was having a hard time finding what would make the experience complete: the casts of the victims. In the same way that photos of Stonehenge leave you expecting something thirty feet high on a desolate plain, instead of half that height standing next to an A-road, photos of the plaster casts leave you expecting Pompeii to be full of them, lying around on the streets, propped against walls, like so many Anthony Gormleys. Until you see some, the place doesn’t feel quite right—morbid though that sounds.
My guidebook said that the “Garden of the Fugitives” had several, but its map didn’t show the location, and the office at the entrance had run out of official maps by the time I’d arrived. But I caught a glimpse of one over the shoulder of a retired American who was holding it at arm’s length, and headed towards the right area... where I got lost in a tangle of streets that all looked the same.
Eventually I gave up and tried another location, the Stabian baths, where there were a few casts in glass cases in a crowded room. It was hard to give them the moment of silence their frozen forms deserved, though, when surrounded by tour guides talking to their groups in four languages. It was the same at the nearby Forum, where I discovered what I would have earlier if I’d turned left instead of right when entering the site: a large storage area full of amphorae, sculpture, and a few more casts. This time, it took a young American trying to impress his girlfriend to kill the mood:
“You know, if you think about it, that’s how we’ll all end up one day.”
Presumably they live near Kilauea.
Time was getting on, and I almost gave up on seeing the Garden of Fugitives; but while exploring the northern side of the town, I spotted another guidebook in the souvenir shop which had a better map. Sneaking a look, I realised I’d missed it before by only a block or two. So back across town I went, down the main street of Via dell’Abbondanza, then that block or two further towards the edge of the site. Behind some high walls I had seen from a distance a couple of hours before lay a vineyard with a glass enclosure on its downhill end. Inside were a dozen or so casts of men, women, children—even babies—in contorted poses, lying where they fell two millennia before. With nobody else around, it was quiet enough to properly imagine the scene: the eruption; the panic; the enveloping cloud of superheated gas, rock and ash.
Until you see the casts, Pompeii feels like an amazing archaeological site, it’s true, but only on a bigger scale than others you may have seen. But the casts make it feel like a town: like a place where people lived and died only a few short years ago. There they are, right in front of you.
That evening I discovered that the conference venue was about as far from my hotel as possible, in the Città della Scienza near Campi Flegrei, a converted industrial site with a skeletal factory ruin next to it. With over an hour’s commute either way and a 9-to-6 conference day, I didn’t see much of Naples itself over the next few days, beyond Piazza Garibaldi and the metro system. One evening I left the train halfway back to the hotel and explored the streets of the wealthier area of Chiaia, looking for a trattoria recommended by the guidebook which turned out to be closed. Instead I ate some pasta and fish at a nearby osteria where I was waited on attentively because I was the only customer. The locals still hadn’t come out to eat when I headed back to the metro at 9.30; it was like being in Spain.
There was plenty of good eating in Naples, even though most of mine consisted of conference catering and hotel breakfasts. I’ve mentioned the pizza, but not the gelati (the classic Neapolitan combination turns out to be strawberry and lemon, not strawberry, vanilla and chocolate), the sweets (my favourites were a box of Morositas Berry Morbide—death berries, as I thought of them—made of licorice), the Fonzies (which are almost identical in packaging but inferior in taste to Australia’s Twisties), and the many pastries and cakes. How can you resist something called a sfogliatelle?
Like so much of Naples, though, I didn’t have enough time to explore the food fully. Nor did I get to the royal heart of the city, with its castles and promenades by the bay. But on Saturday I skipped the last keynote of the conference to leave enough time to see the first of Naples’ two greatest museums, the Capodimonte. Housed in a palace on a hill, this gallery is full of old masters, including many I’d never encountered before: Beuckelaer and Giordano caught my attention, but the best find for me was Parmigianino, whose Antea graces the cover of their catalogue, and whose Sacra Famiglia was as beautiful as a Botticelli. Add a swag of knockout Titians, El Grecos, Breughels and Goyas, all restored to luminous colours, and you have one of the better galleries of Europe.
After looking around it twice, I watched a procession of dented Fiats and Renaults drive past while I waited for a bus back downhill to the edge of Centro Storico, the old town of the “new town” of Neapolis, as the Romans knew it; the street plan is apparently still theirs. I’d never seen a historic centre this full of Baroque splendour that was so thoroughly neglected: full of crumbling stone and paintwork and covered in graffiti, with piles of uncollected rubbish obstructing the streets, apart from the small tourist zone with its souvenir bags of multicoloured pasta; and everywhere scooters zipping by within bag-snatching distance. Piazza Garibaldi’s traffic seemed sedate after a walk through the Centro, but it was worth it for Da Michele’s pizza.
The next morning I had only a few hours to see the biggest attraction of all: the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, the one with the stuff they hauled out of Pompeii and Herculaneum. If you only have half a day in Naples, spend it there, because the treasures are incredible: intricate mosaics of all shapes and sizes; kitchenware, glassware and pottery in immaculate condition; life-sized bronzes with inlaid eyes; coins and jewels that look as if they were made yesterday. The sheer quantity of it all brought home how truly rich the Roman Empire was, and how advanced, with all of this coming out of two or three provincial towns.
Then there was perhaps the greatest revelation of all: the Secret Cabinet, closed for much of the twentieth century, full of erotica from the Vesuvian digs. I’d already seen the brothel district of Pompeii, but this really showed how matter-of-factly the Romans treated the subject of romance. Paintings of nude men and women in dozens of positions shared the room with bronzes of erect Roman gentlemen pointing proudly below their waists, a marble of Pan in an intimate moment with a goat, oil-lamps embossed with hairy phalluses, and bronze flying penises (with penis legs) that would make one hell of a screensaver. Possibly the most incredible in terms of its distance from 21st-century mores was a large painting of cherubs at play, chasing each other around, holding each other down using more than their arms, and being eaten by hippopotami.
As if the Vesuvian treasures weren’t enough, the museum also contains a bunch of large Roman sculptures acquired by a member of the Farnese family while he was Pope, along with his extensive collection of jewels—all in the name of ecclesiatic research, no doubt.
Seeing Capidimonte and the Archaeological Museum could only ever be a partial excavation of Naples. It’s a big, sprawling, grimy city, with all the fascination that implies, and there was far too much that I missed: the interiors of all the churches, the castles, the funicolari and the views from the top of them. Despite the city’s reputation for crime—not just the pickpockets and bag-snatchers, but the mafia-like Camorra—the Neapolitans I met were invariably friendly, and appreciated my attempts to struggle by in their language. Maybe I warmed to them more because they all looked like they were from Melbourne, as well as like their Renaissance portraits and the frescoes in Pompeii; uncanny genetic staying power.
I’ll have to go back one day to see it all, along with Sorrento, Capri, and the Amalfi coast. In the meantime, these reminders will have to do...