Like many Neapolitans, Mitzi Di Salvo—a good-humored and, by all accounts, sensible woman—lives in close proximity to an active volcano. Actually, her red stucco house stands on the edge of a crater bubbling ominously under the surface. “My enterprising great-grandfather bought this small volcano in 1868,” she explains. “He and his brother, an inventor, were convinced they could transform its raw energy into electricity and make a fortune.” Things didn’t quite go as planned, however, and nowadays the Solfatara (so-called because it emits sulfur-scented fumes that led ancient Romans to believe it was the entrance to Hades) is quite simply the place Di Salvo and her siblings call home. “A somewhat shaky home, that’s for sure,” she concedes, referring to the fact that her property is constantly undulating due to seismic activity. “It can be a distraction, particularly in the evening, when one is trying to watch TV or have a conversation.”
The ability to live on the edge of potential catastrophe—and to laugh it off as some kind of surreal joke—is a marked characteristic of countless Neapolitans, one that has allowed this ancient population to surf through centuries of foreign domination and more than its fair share of disasters, both natural and political. The most recent debacle was a garbage removal emergency so grotesquely spectacular that it became world news last year. The vision of this most graceful of Mediterranean cities—one of Europe’s economic and political powerhouses during the 18th century—mired in rotting trash as a result of local government inefficiency and corruption was painfully evocative.
The garbage crisis is now more or less solved, but Naples’s image is still inextricably linked to crime and dirty politics, all the more so after the planetary success of Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s 2006 book about the local crime organization that controls drugs, prostitution and illegal waste dumps. The film version won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year, and Saviano now lives with permanent police escort due to threats on his life.
And yet, despite all this bad publicity—or, perhaps, precisely because of it—Naples has become, for a certain type of thrill-seeking, culturally cutting-edge traveler, a hot destination. The city has seen an explosion of boutique hotels during the past two years, and the grand, five-star Romeo Hotel—featuring works by Francesco Clemente in the lobby and a first-class spa and restaurant—debuted last December. Of course, owner Alfredo Romeo, a well-known real-estate entrepreneur, was arrested on charges of corruption a week after the launch.
Such is the charm of Naples. Unlike most other Western European cities, it offers the excitement of unpredictability alongside the fruits of a glorious history, many of which are enshrined in world-class museums. “It’s a city of extremes,” says Mario Codognato, chief curator of Museo D’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina (MADRE), Naples’s impressive museum of contemporary art. “You either love it or you hate it.”