At the former Royal Castle atop a verdant hill – once Royal Hunting Grounds – once real people are now actors talking through elaborate costumes. Only Pulcinella, the mask, is as unreal as he once was. We linger a bit while, in the big room, King Charles V and his son Philip (not yet King of Spain) look at the scene through the eyes of Titian with what seems little amusement. They must certainly have other concerns with their Empire on which the sun never sets – they look out the big paned windows, at palm trees and magnolias, at the old town down below and the Bay, the mountains, Capri and the Vesuvius (you don’t see it now, you just know it’s there, which is a typically Neapolitan thing you’re told.) In another room a lady-in-waiting of some Crown Princess tells of how good the Kings are (were) and how many good things they do (did) and how much they love (loved) their people. Coy about the romantic escapades of the Queen, excited about the King who likes to mingle with the fishermen at the docks – unwinding, 18th-century style. The court, she says, is assembled in the Royal Palace downtown, facing the docks and the port and the dormant volcano, and looks out its big paned windows shaking its one head at the king’s odd behavior. She likes it, though; she’s one of the people. So kings look out, the court looks out, the city looks out, till the sound of coins tingle in the fancy plumed cap to stipulate a due return for these professional productions of professional actors – even though that does break the illusion and horses’ hoofs in the distance are just tourists being trotted around, not unclogged, smog-free roads and boulevards, on which the sun does set eventually behind acrobatic high-rises on winding paths up and down once lush bountiful hills.
Then some will inevitably tell you that what you’ve seen is not the real city. The real city is its outskirts, the rundown, dirty, crime-ridden outskirts – what you’ve seen is the relatively polished, the cleverly cleaned-up version of what this city is or can be, a better phrase, because we don’t want the criminal, we want the charming, (it is so complicated to explain.) In a counter bid to our obsessive encasing of historical ruins, the makeshift basketball court in the shade of the Porta Capuana, youths playing while a bunch of people of many oriental nationalities camped right underneath its bastions, seemed the perfect example of the prejudice of beauty in the face of stones and history – they are revamping the area alright, cleaning the pavement, restoring the old gate (with funds for the peripheries of the European Union) – yet these teenage basketball players, born and bred in the hood, don’t, literally, give a damn; they play there just as they could be playing anywhere else, provided they have a basketball court (The surprise lies in their not playing soccer.) So this is the issue with the broken outskirts, they have nothing, never had nothing, and young folks there have no courts, or fields or pools, nothing, what are they going to do? – you go in and you feel that crime is lurking behind piles of trash – those youths can only go down the wrong road of the bad life, while these kids at the Porta Capuana, right across the street from what was the official Courthouse of the city of Naples for five hundred years, live a life of hardship, you’d imagine, but the easy kind. What does one expect? Crime at every corner? No, but neither does one expect this baroque eccentricity which does exist. No, it doesn’t. People just live normal lives here – that’s all.
Areas around train stations don’t usually get much attention. Yet this one, and its large rectangular square, may be the best ordinary gateway into the city in all its ‘splendor and squalor’ (S&S – Naples’ rhyming code to its much maligned beauty and decay?) You’re not really encouraged to walk right, but the hood oozes life of all colors and creeds – in the throbbing heat of summer, too, when the rest of town only seems discernible through the style of dripping laundry hanging dry out of windows and balconies; neither is there a reason to go left, but the air smells salty like seawater, seeping in from behind a few boulevards, some unpleasant buildings and the docks – you don’t see the sea, you smell it; And, finally, why venture to the other end of the square, despite any beautifying revamp, to a statue of Garibaldi, the hotels, and the pulsating beat of avenues leading to other visceral hubs? The image of veins and arteries, often used but seldom with any meaning, comes to mind, pounding beneath your feet. There’s a church dome some way off up to one of the hills, and a former castle and a former charterhouse; the craggy outline of densely populated humanity, and spots of greenery that were once pastures and vineyards, praised by those who saw the city a few hundred years back, or less, when, you’re constantly reminded, this was a capital, and what a capital! – left now to talking buildings and people that look instead of listening.
It is the day Ethiopia will plant 250 million trees to tackle climate change and yet another boat of refugees will sink in the Mediterranean; posts are viral with the reactions of Italian Navy officers rescuing dead bodies, of mothers, of infants, of newborns wrapped firm in their mother’s denim leggings; (globalization for all of us, baby; or the impression of safety you think denim leggings will give against the very blue waters of the Med? I was staring, spellbound, at the same sea only yesterday afternoon, from the soothing shores of Cape Posillipo, the ‘respite from worry’ of ancient Greek seafarers – this would have struck a discordant note with the death bulletins from south of Sicily.) This morning Vesuvius shows the bay and the city its sinuous flanks and round top, the middle ground being wrapped in clouds, white and light blue, like the clouds can steal the hues of the morning sky – anyone can wax poetic when it comes to the bay of Naples – guide books informing the impression-thirsty traveller where to look at dawn and where to look at sunset, where to be as the sun rises and where as the sun sets (then do whatever you like in between, explore what’s in between sunrise and sunset, like the vows some exchange at a wedding, for better, for worse, for rich and for poor, in sickness and in health, till death do us part – who’s us? – the Baroque absurdity of existence coming out in the crumbling palazzi, some wonderfully restored, which you will just stumble on, not visit, as they come to you unexpectedly. You can’t feel it unless you’re here.)