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Naples Past and Present

Martin Morrell Standing with taxi drivers in the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo

Photo: Martin Morrell

There was a butter-curl moon hanging over the Castel dell'Ovo, where the Lungomare juts into the inky Bay of Naples. From where I sat, the scene looked like a postcard pun staged for my amusement: butter moon, castle inexplicably named for an egg. Tires hissing on the pavement below the rooftop terrace of my hotel were the only disturbance on a still, cool evening. How could this be Naples?I asked myself. Where were the police sirens?Where was the chaos and the din?

I had just arrived from Paris, where my hotel room happened to be located above the service door where Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed made their fateful final exit. Automobile racket on normally sleepy Rue Cambon was so loud that I was forced to shut the windows tight. I had felt jailed in my peach-colored room, with its peach walls, peach upholstery, and mirrored vanity table—a penitentiary as imagined by Barbara Cartland.

Here I had the sudden sense that the two cities had miraculously exchanged personalities, somber Paris traded for Naples's hubbub, Naples's sidewalk carnival rolled up to present an aspect that is unexpectedly prim and sedate. Is there really a contradiction in this, I wonder?Or is it that the best way to meet this gorgeous and filthy and ancient city is to find that place in consciousness Fitzgerald once wrote about, where opposed thoughts can be entertained simultaneously in one's head?

Hadn't I just driven through slick streets to dine on what must be one of the finest simple meals I have ever enjoyed, translucent slivers of prosciutto di Parma draped over pungent melon, a linguine alle vongole served definitively al dente and studded with minute briny clams?Not the least of the pleasures of dinner at Ristorante da Dora was a bottle of frank, crisp Falanghina and the fact, ordinarily unwelcome to me, that the owner sang.

A hole in the wall on a street too narrow for automobile traffic, Dora was as brightly lit as a surgical theater. The television, when I arrived, was broadcasting images of a bloodbath perpetrated by the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia everyone insists does not exist. For some reason I took delight in the take-it-or-leave-it atmospherics, and also in that moment when the owner set down the plate of lobster she was serving and, in a fine, strong alto, let rip.

What was she crooning in that Neapolitan dialect that seems to draw out vowels and round consonants until words are all shoulders, soft and sloping?I have no idea. But the overall effect conspired to make me quite happy; it probably did not hurt that I was a little bit drunk.

Naples struck me immediately as among the few cities left in Europe that retain the power to intoxicate; a grand port that operates as though the earth were yet a sphere of wonders and itself the magnetic center of that sphere. A novelist once noted of the city that it induced a hallucinatory sense of looking through a veil of time, at things occurring before your eyes just as they might have hundreds of years before.

In a way, one is always on that trip in Naples. It is not just that the streets slashing through the Centro Storico or the lanes ramping down sticky, cobbled hillsides were built in Roman times. It is the sense that Neapolitans' intrinsic character derives from these hills honeycombed with caves and catacombs, from claustrophobic lanes fanning from the spine of major avenues as if they were leaves in an ancient tome that is maddeningly hard to crack.

The view is not necessarily easy to reconcile with the city's disheveled nature, its petty crime, its labyrinthine plan and customs, its conceitedness and sluggish pace. Italians in other regions speak of Naples as though it were not part of modern Italy. And that, too, may be behind its appeal. As luxury brands advance on the rest of Italy, Naples revels in its isolation. True, there is a Prada boutique, and a Gucci, and a Vuitton. But these are generally viewed as outlanders, vendors of superficially appealing offerings that cannot hold a candle to local stuff.

I am referring here mainly to sartoria Napoletana, the tradition of male dandyism for which Naples is justly renowned. Milan remains the capital of Italian fashion, of course, but as the designer Kean Etro once told me, no Italian is in any doubt about where the finest custom tailors, or sartorie, are to be found.

The principal Neapolitan names are well known even outside the city: Kiton and Attolini and Rubinacci for suits; Borrelli for shirts; Marinella for ties. But the town is filled with ateliers catering to the supreme stylishness of the local male population and a vanity born of the sense that, as the writer Raffaele La Capria once said, "...in Naples appearing is fundamental, while substance is negligible."

In a brief memoir of his boyhood, La Capria recounted a time when Neapolitans would walk along the Via dei Mille on Sunday, the men appraising each other's suits, the cut and the way the shoulder seams and sleeves were set, the tapering of the trouser waists, the crease of the pants, the width of the lapels.

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