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Naples Past and Present

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

Photo: Martin Morrell

"People think there is no more coral, that it is finished," said Liverino's son, Vincenzo. And it is true that industrial pollution and global warming have destroyed many of the world's great reefs. But coral is still fished in the deep waters off Sardinia and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and it is that coral Liverino uses for objects the company crafts for Pomellato and Cartier. "We never treat, we never color," said Vincenzo as he guided me through the museum and workrooms where the dull raw material of this "red gold" is sorted, polished, cut, and then mounted or strung. "We make everything by hand," he added.

Back in Naples, I stopped at a jewelry shop to buy myself a coral-horn keychain, always on the lookout for additions to the list of superstitions I irrationally observe. It was hardly a notable purchase, given the quality of what I had just been shown. Yet it pleased me, this corno, and although probably no more effective at warding off the evil eye than other methods, carrying the little phallic amulet in my pocket seemed like an acceptable adaptation to the local male habit of making constant manual reference to one's genitals.

When I mentioned this nearly universal practice to Pasquale Venditti, a guide who has spent four decades herding tourists around Pompeii, he shrugged. "We are not so different from the Romans as we think," he said, and then invited me to the famous brothel in the ruins where each cell is adorned with a graphic fresco advertising the occupant's sexual specialty.

Things do change, of course, in ways depressing as well as good, as I learned one evening at Lucilio, a restaurant tucked behind the Hotel Excelsior. Built in the late 19th century, the tidy place is run by the Di Pinto family, whose forebears were ostricari, or oyster sellers. Their stands once lined the lungomare, crazily decorated with tutti-frutti friezes made from shells.

In those days, nassaiuoli, or basket fishers, hauled their catch in woven nasse, lining up on the quays alongside mussel vendors, offering mollusks recently plucked from the rocks to be used in a spicy local fish-and-pepper soup called mpepate in Neapolitan dialect.

"Then, it was no problem," said Antonio Di Pinto, the restaurant's bookish-looking proprietor, referring to fresh- caught fare. "Now, with the pollution, it is dangerous," he went on. His point was underscored by a menu note disclosing that the octopus served at the restaurant is frozen and shipped in.

Pasta that night was paccheri, wide tubes whose name in dialect translates roughly as "big slap." It was followed by swordfish, accompanied by a bottle of Fiano di Avellino, a wine that experts like to call "assertive." Di Pinto brought out a photo book filled with images of a defunct festival called Nzegna, a carnival that reversed the social hierarchies of the Bourbon court and crowned local vegetable sellers king and queen. Processing through the streets, the verdummari went down to the port in vegetable-covered barks, there to be ceremonially tossed into the bay.

What astounded me was not so much the costumes or the rituals but the faces in the photographs, so heavy, ripe, and seemingly particular to this place. It is too little remarked how much pleasure in travel derives from the simple act of staring at others. Although it is not considered politically correct to revel in human difference, to an inveterate gawker and generalizer it is hard to ignore how Milanese men tend to carry themselves with prim Teutonic self-importance, while in Rome a nose is hardly worth thinking about if it lacks a fleshy tip or an aristocratic bump. In Naples, a certain kind of big-eared skinny guy, of a sort I call the Sinatra, is much to be seen, as is his sleepy-eyed counterpart, a guy who calls Dean Martin to mind.

Whether the Sinatras and Martins (Crocettis, originally) came from Naples, I don't know. But that these faces seem so recognizable to me cannot be unrelated to the huge migration of Neapolitans to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. The exodus, prompted by years of famine and rural unemployment, probably helped set in play the city's decline, a loss of vitality so acute that a quarter century ago, as the writer Nicolas Spinosa observed, Naples was sliding down a slippery slope of what he described as degradation and marginalization. It was no help that the city was devastated by one of its periodic earthquakes in 1980.

Shabby still, but substantially rebuilt, Naples now has an energetic mayor who has initiated projects that include the promotion of contemporary art. "That is a very Neapolitan thing," said Alba Cl-emente, whose husband is the Naples-born painter Francesco Clemente. "Absorb and continue. It's a survival policy." As in other port cities, Neapolitans tend to hold fast to their customs while also quietly incorporating whatever aspects of the new may suit their immediate needs. "It doesn't work some of the time," Ms. Cle-mente said. "But most of the time, it does."

It's culture by accretion, and what has accumulated over time is enough to keep a visitor occupied for three lifetimes and not the three days guidebooks claim are enough to knock the city off. Even without dipping into the contemporary art scene, or the famous opera house, I was kept in constant motion and a heady state of excitement at the art-historical mother lode for most of a week.

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