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Naples Past and Present

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

Photo: Martin Morrell

Anyone skeptical of that tradition's vitality would do well to observe the waiters at sidewalk restaurants along the waterfront, like Gusto & Gusto, where the staff wears smart orange aprons, crisply ironed and nipped to improve the fit. Sitting there one afternoon over lunch, I got the impression I had wandered right out of contemporary Europe and into another era.

My sense that the scene could not have been much different in the 1940's was fortified when an old crone out of a neorealist film shuffled by. Moving along the perimeter of the sidewalk tables in slippers and a housecoat, the woman dipped into her string bag and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. "Sigarete Americane," she murmured softly: American cigarettes for sale.

From my sidewalk perch that day I also had a front-row seat on the theater of Naples's infamous traffic—that first mild evening had clearly been an aberration—which is ruled, one might say maniacally, by the motor scooter.

To cross a street in Naples is to be terrified, humbled, catapulted back to a moment in childhood when traffic is a wild and treacherous torrent. Cars and trucks and motorcycles race along constantly, erratically, apparently heedless of such an insignificance as pedestrians. "Ya almost went to join my late aunt Minnie, baby," a GI shouts to a Red Cross nurse narrowly saved from a hit-and-run during wartime Naples in John Horne Burns's classic novel The Gallery.

A day never passed in Naples when Aunt Minnie was far from mind.

Even cocooned in a taxi I was made aware of how potential death is always two seconds away in an automobile. Driving to the Kiton factory in an industrial suburb one afternoon, I passed four crashes on the autostrada. This was hardly surprising, given the tendency to pass on the right and tailgate with a passion I associate with another Neapolitan quirk, the need for physical connection.

Perhaps it is a stretch, but this tactile compulsion might account for certain of the virtues of sartoria Napoletana. Although the earnings of most local tailoring companies are relatively small, their influence is not. The soft and sensual, almost feminine cuts one associates with Giorgio Armani's classic style are an essentially Neapolitan invention, as is the natural shoulder local tailors grafted onto the Savile Row suits they copied during a 1920's wave of Anglomania.

No one has exported the concept with greater success than Ciro Paone, the tempestuous entrepreneur whose $5,000 Kiton suits are the gold standard of power dressing for American Masters of the Universe. Four hundred tailors are employed at the company, most sewing suits by hand.

Striding across the work floor that day in a blue double-breasted suit, Paone grasped lapel pieces or chest pads from tailors whose hands seemed in constant motion as they covered garments with thousands of cross-hatched stitches. "Ninety-nine percent of the stitches are invisible," Paone claimed, as he flaunted the suppleness of a shoulder pad, the underside of pocket flap, a breast pocket termed a "little boat" because of the way the fabric resembles a tiny canoe with the corners pinched.

On the way back to town, I mulled over a question Paone had posed: "Did you ever see a shrimp in the sea?" I was forced to admit I had not. "A shrimp goes back to go a step forward," he said. "And we Neapolitans do the same. We consolidate traditions and history helps us. In Naples our surroundings are full of traditions."

To a surprising extent this remains accurate. In Naples one still finds cameo carvers, coral workers, the finest stuccodores, and candy makers at the celebrated Gay-Odin factory who toil behind the scenes turning out confections called Tears of Love.

In a sloping lane where the austere church of San Lorenzo Maggiore meets the Via dei Tribunali, craftsmen like Giuseppe and Marco Ferrigno make the cork-bark crèches for Nativity tableaux and the figures to populate them. Although momentarily tempted to buy an entire Nativity scene, with wise men, drunkards, and a marzipan-pink Baby Jesus, I settled instead for a figure referred to as a soul in purgatory. With his torso and upraised arms engulfed in flames, he now sits on my desk to remind me of that other nebulous sphere known as limbo, a state that every writer knows to exist, regardless of what the Vatican says.

One afternoon I made the half-hour drive to Torre del Greco to meet Basilio Liverino, an octogenarian jeweler who presides over his family's venerable coral business, set in a Brutalist building above a subterranean hillside vault housing what is arguably the largest collection of coral objects in the world.

"I bought my first piece in Florence when I was thirteen," Liverino told me, as we sat in a conference room beneath a print of a Medici cherub with a coral horn slung around his pudgy neck. Today the collection runs to more than a thousand objects—combs and boxes and mirrors and chalices and necklaces and breastplates, many carved from a type of coral called Sciacca for a deep trench off the coast of Sicily, where coral washed by prevailing currents accumulated for an aeon before being discovered in the 19th century.

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