It’s sometimes the fate of a single city to epitomize an era: Berlin in the 1920s, perhaps, or London in the 1960s. So which one would represent our own period of ecological anxiety, true crime and fake news? I’d wager it’s one you might not suspect: Naples.
In terms of cultural clout, the place is booming. The city’s famous bay, flanked by Mount Vesuvius, is on every TV schedule and streaming platform: from Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, an autobiographical movie about parental loss, to Ultras, which documents the warring factions of a Neapolitan hooligan crew, via Mare Fuori (RAI’s cult TV series about a youth detention center in the city) and Mixed by Erry, this year’s Netflix hit about music bootleggers in the 1980s.
In May, Napoli even won the Scudetto, the Serie A championship, for the first time since 1990. The fact that their leading marksman wore a black face mask and had a Neapolitan sun peroxided into his hair only made the story more enticing.
Naples’s return to global notoriety is largely down to Roberto Saviano. His docu-novel, Gomorrah, gave rise to an eponymous film by Matteo Garrone, a five-season series running from 2014 to 2021 and a “mid-quel” film, L’Immortale. Saviano has made the most of his success. Living under armed guard, he has been a vocal opponent of the city’s mafia, the Camorra, and is rarely off Italy’s front pages as he takes principled stands on criminality, fascism and corruption. Other novels, La Paranza dei Bambini and ZeroZeroZero, have been turned into a film (released as Piranhas in English) and an eight-part series respectively.
Elena Ferrante’s novels, too, have focused attention on the city. The mystery surrounding Ferrante’s real identity did for Naples what Banksy did for Bristol – an intriguingly alternative polis and its anonymous artist. As with Gomorrah, adaptations of Ferrante’s work have come thick and fast: her Neapolitan Quartet has become three HBO seasons so far, and The Lying Life of Adults became a six-part Netflix series.
So where has this insatiable appetite for all things Naples come from? In an age in which there’s almost no planetary wilderness left to explore, the city represents an enticing jungle, full of fascination and risk. As with the best fairy tales, travelers are inevitably drawn from the safe path into the dark woods and, when you’re there, it can feel like 1980s New York: always edgy yet incessantly creative.
“That squalor and poverty is, in a terrible way, picturesque,” says Marius Kociejowski, whose book, The Serpent Coiled in Naples, was recently published in paperback. “You can build up considerable tension in that kind of environment: you find a warmth to the people there, but never quite know if you’re talking to someone involved with the Camorra.”
The mystery surrounding Ferrante’s real identity did for Naples what Banksy did for Bristol.
The danger isn’t only to do with criminality. Naples always seems to be in an end-times drama because of its much-painted and feared volcano, Vesuvius. Even more threatening is the bubbling terrain of the Phlegraean Fields, pocked with craters, just a few miles away. Here the land has risen 3.6ft in the last 18 years. Much of the land under the city is hollow, too, with houses or roads frequently sinking into the voids. Naples’s nagging sense of imminent doom, of an earthly revenge on perfidious humanity, makes it an apt setting in our era of climate emergency.
But the city models resilience as much as risk. Its history is one of underdog survivalism in the face of daunting difficulties: the Irpinia earthquakes, cholera, Allied occupation, corrupt politicians, poverty and organized crime. In L’Oro di Napoli (1947), Giuseppe Marotta wrote of Naples’s “remote, hereditary, obstinate and intelligent endurance”. The slightly pejorative word for this is arrangiarsi – the creative, sometimes crafty ways to get by. Beating the system is an enduring part of Neapolitan self-mythologization.
That’s why Mixed by Erry has become such a spectacular hit: the film, based on a true story, is in that sweet spot between criminality and innocence. Three brothers from a rough suburb churn out millions of bootleg cassette tapes thanks to Enrico “Erry” Frattasio’s love of music and mixing. They become, by sales, the biggest record label in Italy. The brothers act as a metaphor for Naples’s ability to counterfeit and confuse. In the film, a market stall holder inadvertently tries to sell an undercover cop a copy of an Erry tape: “This,” says the stall holder proudly, “is a false original.” The investigator, furious that the original was itself fake, snaps back: “What was the original, then?” Erry is so successful that the bootleg is, itself, being bootlegged.
In Naples, myths intertwine with situationist art. There is a famous story of seat-belt enforcement being sidestepped by sly Neapolitans who started selling, and buying, white T-shirts with oblique black lines printed on them. But that’s not how everyone tells it: there’s an artist who claims he made them as limited edition artwork to parody the city’s cunning – and that his are the “originals” if you can actually get hold of them. Such boggling multiplicities, stories and contradictions are captured in a song that has become the dialect anthem of the city, “Napule É” (1977): “ma nun sanno a’ verità”, sings Pino Daniele – “they don’t know the truth”.
Behind Netflix and HBO’s big-hitting productions, the city’s music scene is where one really feels close to the heart of the place. From 99 Posse to Geolier to Ars Nova Napoli, Naples has always cooked ska, jazz, hip-hop, reggae and all the rest in its claustrophobic cauldron. Renato Carosone is considered, by many, the source of the city’s 20th-century music, but his quartet had a Dutch guitarist and a Hungarian violinist. Musically, the city incessantly draws in world music and then gives it back in unique Neapolitan refrains.
Naples always seems to be in an end-times drama because of its much-painted and feared volcano, Vesuvius.
My current favorite musician, Enzo Avitabile, is a musical and philosophical prophet. Interviewed in Vincenzo De Simone’s documentary, La Gente di Napoli, Avitabile touched on another reason that makes the city an eloquent messenger to today’s world: “Being Neapolitan means wanting to know other cultures but filtering this through [our] own way of living and feeling.”
The result is that the city always feels borderline: Naples is part of Italy, but it’s also, in some way, not. A port with an indecipherable language, it feels strangely South American, thanks in part to Diego Maradona, the impish hero of Napoli’s previous two Scudetti. The hyphenated identities have helped the city, even its suburbs, create very clear identities.
“Being Neapolitan means having a very strong root,” says Avitabile, and that, too, makes the city appealing in our rootless, frenetically mobile times: it teaches something profound about a belonging that never, somehow, precludes openness.
That belonging is in part created by the extraordinary iconography of its steep, narrow streets. There are many shrines to Maradona, to the Madonna and to various saints. But sometimes a halo is replaced by a handgun, or a crucifix by a chili pepper. It’s another cultural mash-up, and one that sometimes makes it feel as if Naples has more street art than actual bare bricks.
Cyop&Kaf, two Neapolitan street artists, are perhaps most symbolic of the city’s ground-level insurgency. Over the last 25 years, they have turned the Quartieri Spagnoli (the Spanish Quarters) into their own canvas. They have given ground-floor garages, walls and doors makeovers that are constantly stimulating, confusing or amusing. The noses often look like carnival masks, or chickens, or a cross between Keith Haring and Ligabue creatures. Not that the duo believe Naples is the center of Italian street art: “I don’t think Naples is the center of anything,” one of them tells me. “It’s simply that paintings don’t get erased because of the ineptitude of the city council and so they accumulate and stratify.”
Cyop&Kaf’s slow but stunning documentary Lievito (“yeast”) is a meditation on how phone-fixated, pop-addled kids respond to ancient skills like puppetry and martial arts. It shows how stunted lives can quickly blossom given simple, but profound, instruction. In some ways it is similar to Michele Santoro’s 2016 portrait of young Neapolitan hoods, Robinù, which went inside prisons and suburbs drenched in crime, interviewing teenagers about guns, girlfriends and dead mates.
It’s a theme that hit the headlines in Italy again recently: on 31 August, a 24-year-old musician was shot dead by a 17-year-old in an argument over a parking place outside a pub. Life can be cheap in the city. There are many clichés about Naples, but one of the most recurrent is that it is “a paradise inhabited by devils”. Perhaps this is why it remains so grimly fascinating: “What applies to Naples,” says Kociejowski, “applies to the universe. It’s such an incredible setting for the great human drama because it’s all there, in the music, the street art, in the terrible truths about the place.”
Tobias Jones is a U.K.-based journalist and author of several books, including The Po: An Elegy for Italy’s Longest River