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Naples, Italy: Maddeningly Seductive

After an elegant Sunday lunch (fritto misto and a chilled carafe of Greco di Tufo, the local white wine) on the roof terrace of the Vesuvio, overlooking the glittering bay, we headed for Mount Vesuvius. I have often wondered whether the world is now an uglier place than it was before the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the automobile. Perhaps that idea is too romantic: life was hard in those days, travel arduous. But the discrepancy between the early pastoral depictions of the bay that hang on the walls of every Naples lobby and restaurant-- showing the Castel Nuovo and farmhouses and fields beneath the volcano's smoking cone-- and the tangle of clogged highways we negotiated as we fought our way out of the city persuaded me that we do live in a fallen state. The road to the top of Vesuvius, marked by high-rise housing projects and seedy hotels, was a far cry from the landscape depicted by Sir William Hamilton in his famous series dating from the mid-1700's, when Vesuvius was active.

We arrived at the gate at five o'clock, just as it was closing for the day, and I had to bribe the gatekeeper to let us in. Still confused by the bloated denominations of lire, I handed the guy a 100,000-lira note (roughly $60). When Fabrizio learned what I had done, he hurried back down the path and returned in triumph with my bill, having exchanged it for a 20,000-lira note.

Despite my protestations, Fabrizio was determined to make the ascent with us. He set off in his tasseled loafers, blue blazer, and tie, armed with a crude walking stick. At last we had left behind the crowds; spread out far below us, Naples appeared as tranquil as a Mediterranean village. To the south, the Amalfi Coast towns clung to high cliffs; the islands-- Capri, Ischia, Procida-- shimmered in the bay. At the summit was a simple hutch, the gift shop, where one could buy postcards, mineral samples, and bottles of Lacrima Christae wine, produced from grapes harvested on the sides of the volcano.

As I gazed down through a chain-link fence at the crater, wisps of smoke rose from the ashy lava. I remembered Pliny the Elder's description of the huge column of ash and smoke as being "like an umbrella pine" in a.d. 79, when Vesuvius burst forth and covered Pompeii. (Pliny himself eventually suffocated from the poisonous fumes.) Even now, millennia later, Vesuvius is asleep, not dead.

One afternoon I went to see the mayor, Antonio Basolino, a former Communist Party official. Elected four years ago, he is now often mentioned as a candidate for national office. Basolino is proud of his association with President Clinton-- there is a photo of them together in the Vesuvio's lobby-- and is somewhat Clintonian himself: youthful, energetic, with a full head of gray hair. But he's still unmistakably Italian in his herringbone jacket and black slacks, cigarette in hand.

We spoke in his ornate office overlooking the Piazza Municipio, adjacent to the Castel Nuovo; it was a grand, official-looking room with a frescoed 16th-century ceiling. Culture used to be considered a luxury, the mayor told me animatedly through a translator: "For me, it is the first resource, the most important industry. Turin has the auto industry; we have culture." What he is trying to bring about is nothing less than a valorizzazione culturale (revitalization of culture). He pointed to his most celebrated initiative, the "Monumenti: Porte Aperte" ("Open Doors"), held in May, when all the city's museums are free to the public. Inaugurated in 1992, "Porte Aperte" was designed to reacquaint Neapolitans with their heritage and renew the sense of pride that has been damaged by natural disaster and civic neglect.

Last New Year's Eve, Basolino boasted, describing another of his "initiatives," 100,000 people had shown up in the vast Piazza del Plebiscito in the city center to drink spumante and champagne at midnight. Then there was the "Ritorno di Bastimenti" ("Return of the Ships"), an effort to bring back citizens who had fled Naples for more prosperous shores. Foreign investors, aware of the profit potential in local tourism, have been solicited with some success; so far the city has raised $180 million in bonds. The Japanese government contributed to the renovation of a fountain; the British Airport Authority is helping upgrade the waterfront. Naples used to be the point of departure for boats to the islands-- "a parking lot," Basolino said. Now it is a destination.

It all sounded good, but how effective had the mayor really been?My Neapolitan friends were divided. Defenders pointed to the metro under construction, and the newly scrubbed Galleria Umberto, a glass-roofed arcade like one in Milan. "Things are better in terms of morale," Mirella Barracco told me. Others noted that, for all his talk, the mayor hadn't improved the infrastructure: "The buildings are still falling down." But they all agreed on one thing: Basolino is a master of P.R.

That night we dined at Masaniello, named after the celebrated leader of a people's uprising in 1647. The restaurant, in a former stable, has no menus-- the proprietor described the various dishes available. When he learned we were American he invited us into the kitchen, where his mother stood boning a fish. Then he gave us a tour of the walled courtyard that had once belonged to the Masaniello family. At the end of our bounteous feast, he brought out a dusty bottle of grappa. But at one point during our meal, a cluster of urchins trooped in carrying buckets, come to collect coal from the kitchen's big open ovens to warm their unheated apartments. Naples may be on the way up, but it's still as poor as ever.

On our last morning we went to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, where the mosaics of Pompeii are kept. Pompeii itself had been a marvel: we'd spent the better part of a day there, wandering the orderly grid of streets that formed a thriving metropolis until it was buried by a hail of volcanic ash on that fateful August day in a.d. 79. No matter how much one has read about Pompeii, it is impossible to anticipate the stunning effect of these ruinsãthe frescoes, the statues, the wine bars, even the grooves made in the stone roadway by carriagesãso vividly intact it's as if the Romans had departed only yesterday. But the most treasured artifacts had been transferred to the museum.

The street was sealed off; a student demonstration was in progress, and a cluster of riot police stood before the doors, blocking access. The museum was closed, we were told. But just then the doors opened a crack, and in the confusion we slipped through. Inside, a few intrepid museum-goers were gathered around the admissions desk; the harried clerk had no change. The man behind us proffered a few small bills, and our 50,000-lira note was accepted after it had been put through a machine to make sure it wasn't counterfeit.

The museum's state of disrepair was appalling. There were no guidebooks, pamphlets, or maps to help us find our way around. The white walls of the huge rooms were dirty, the windows smeared with grime. Plaster crumbled from the ceilings. In the courtyard, dusty palm trees rustled in the wind.

But the art! I had never seen anything like the gargantuan marble sarcophagi in the main hall, or the bronze Greek statues with their muscular torsos and handsome, almond-eyed heads. And when I arrived at the gallery that held the frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum, the colors that greeted my eye were unbelievably vibrant. The modesty of their surroundings enhanced the works of art, their durability a counterpoint to the transience of our own world.

A few hours later we were on a boat to Capri. It was dusk, and Naples twinkled in the bay. I watched the hulk of the Castel dell'Ovo recede, and behind it the winking lights of electrical towers, the illuminated billboards, the industrial sprawl, and the lights of the apartment houses climbing the hill. I thought of Shirley Hazzard's warning: "Endless." I had seen so much, but there was so much more to see: the Botanic Garden; the Fontana dell'Immacolata, with its statues by Bernini; the Church of Sant'Angelo a Nilo, which Hazzard had recommended for its Donatello.

As the boat churned through the dark water, I was already plotting my return. Next time, I would take in the fabled opera house, the early Christian church of San Giovanni Maggiore, the 17th-century Taverna dell'Arte. And what if Naples is discovered by American tourists?I could just imagine the Piazza del Plebiscito, so blissfully empty now, on a warm afternoon jammed with tour buses. In a way, I'm sorry to share the news.


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