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.”
Judging by the impressive number of galleries, foundations and private collections in Naples, the art world seems to fall into the former camp. The city’s vibrant contemporary-art scene was first established in the Seventies, when dealer Lucio Amelio began showing the work of Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg and other big names, often hosting grand dinners and parties for the artists. The city has since invested heavily in contemporary work: Museo di Capodimonte is the only Italian museum of ancient art to own a collection of contemporary masterpieces; MADRE, which has seen its attendance double in the past year, is particularly well funded and has an impressive chunk of the late collector and gallerist Ileana Sonnabend’s holdings on long-term loan; even the subway stations feature art, including works by Joseph Kosuth and Janis Kounellis.
According to art historian Stefano Aluffi-Pentini, whose company, A Private View of Italy, specializes in exclusive art and architecture tours, “the most favorable way to approach Naples is from the sea.” This strategy, he says, allows visitors to take in the city’s layered architecture—which ranges from ancient Greek and Roman ruins to modern shantytowns, with dizzying examples of mannerist, baroque and Renaissance styles along the way—before entering the chaotic city center.
Many travelers choose to make just a pit stop in Naples, spending an afternoon among its museums, churches and private collections before heading to the citrus-scented shores of nearby Capri or Positano. More adventurous types, however, opt to linger and take in the city’s rich complexities. Among the latter is British photographer Johnnie Shand Kydd, known for his black and white portraits, many of which grace the walls of London’s National Portrait Gallery, as well as for being Princess Diana’s stepbrother. “The beauty of Naples is in its detail,” says Shand Kydd, who has been working on a book of photographs of the city for the past nine years. “I have been told that some people here still speak 18th-century court French.”
Shand Kydd’s focus is not so much the city’s courtly aspects, or what remains of them, as its wild side. “Naples is the only city in Europe which is utterly modern and yet totally pagan,” says the London lensman, who visits five times a year. “Especially when it comes to sex, there are absolutely no prejudices here.”
This paganism is most apparent in a particularly macabre tradition: the Cult of the Dead. For centuries, Neapolitans “adopted” skulls at the Fontanelle cemetery, a 17th-century common burial ground and ossuary located in a cave; they would name the skulls and build them little houses, which they would then fill with gifts of food and flowers. Such TLC was thought to bring about little miracles, like receiving winning lottery numbers in a dream. Local authorities considered the skull worshippers fetishists, however, and when the ossuary became overrun with them, they decided to close the place to the public. Recently Fontanelle was restored and reopened as a historic site, and locals—older women in particular—have been showing up in search of their lucky skulls.
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.”