What emerges most vividly against this backdrop of death and superstition is an untamed, creative energy that pervades the city and its inhabitants. “Naples,” says Codognato, “is the most antiglobal, and therefore the most avant-garde, of cities.”
“We are always on the edge of an explosion,” says Lia Rumma, whose contemporary-art gallery, one of the first to open in Naples, in the Seventies, remains one of the city’s most influential, and who is considered a godmother of the local art scene. “This very precariousness is what makes our city’s cultural and artistic vocation so exceptionally strong.” It’s fitting, then, that California-born artist Aaron Young chose the Solfatara as the setting for one of his motorcycle performances, Smoke Flows in All Directions. Last September five stunt bikers whizzed and skidded on freshly painted metal panels placed inside the crater, their roaring wheels sending up smoke and revealing colors hidden beneath black paint.
According to Shand Kydd, however, some of the most entertaining public performances in Naples have nothing to do with contemporary art. “Life in the streets here is like theater,” he says. On summer evenings families escape their steamy, overcrowded rooms by dragging their furniture and televisions into the street, where they share dinner and jokes with the neighbors. “The city is made up of many local villages,” explains Monica Coretti D’Amato, whose pristine waterfront house holds one of Naples’s most impressive private art collections, running the gamut from William Kentridge and Lucio Fontana to Louise Bourgeois, Anselm Kiefer and Anthony Gormley. “Each area has its particular saints, its parades, its ancient habits.” The dialect one hears in the streets is mostly incomprehensible to Italians from other cities. Francesco Durante, author of the recently released Scuorno, an insider portrait of Naples that is selling briskly in Italy, notes that even public transport signs warning commuters to behave are often written in Napoletano rather than Italian.
Belonging to a civilization that considers itself set apart from the rest of Europe makes for a certain sense of unruliness. “Naples,” an old joke goes, “is the only Middle Eastern city that does not have a European quarter.” Perhaps. But it does have its own peculiar code of honor. Artist and designer Michele Iodice, for example, lives in the Sanita district, an area known for having one of the highest petty crime rates in Europe. And yet he rarely bothers to lock his bike. “I am considered part of the family,” he says, “so my belongings, and those of my friends, are probably safer here than anywhere else in Italy.”
Shand Kydd, for one, finds this blend of fidelity and fearlessness addictive. “Naples is like a very bad narcotic,” he says, sipping a glass of red wine at a bar in the city center. “Within three weeks of being in London I start to get this strange, irresistible itch to come back here.” And then there are those who catch the bug so badly that they never leave. French-born Nathalie de Saint Phalle arrived in 1993 planning to stay a few weeks, just long enough to have a book she had written printed at a local press. “At the beginning I felt completely stuck,” she remembers. “I had a terrible time with the local administration, and all I wanted to do was leave. Then I started to get in touch with the city’s thriving artistic community and organize shows.” Sixteen years later she remains, and has turned a boho-glam 18th-century palazzo apartment into a very trendy private club and hotel called Purgatorio. She’s also the proprietor of the Kaplan Project, a gallery that represents 30 contemporary Neapolitan artists. MADRE curator Codognato, meanwhile, who grew up in Venice and whose wife and children live in Rome, says that when he first came to Naples in 1998 to work on a curatorial project, he envisioned staying for only two or three months. Now, after more than a decade, he says, “I am beginning to think I will be here forever.”