We know how to interpret a painting or architecture. And thanks to cultural studies, we readily interpret clothing and popular culture. But how should we interpret a city? Some grand cities — central Paris around the Louvre is one; the historic center of Rome, another — are sometimes praised as works of art. We admire their ideal harmony, the way in which all of their districts constitute parts of a seemingly perfect whole, like an artwork. No one would praise Naples in these terms, for it is famously chaotic and gritty — like any number of postmodernist artworks, it is determinedly ununified. And as Daniel Rothbart’s book notes, sometimes it is dangerous — he describes witnessing several street crimes. In the 17th century, Naples, by far the largest Italian city, was the second biggest city in Europe. A possession of the Spanish Empire, then ruled by the reactionary Bourbons until Italian Independence, in 1861, it then became an impoverished, provincial backwater, its historic center full of baroque artistic masterpieces. And it had been home to the three greatest Italian philosophers — Thomas Aquinas, Giambattista Vico, and Benedetto Croce.
Nowadays everyone enjoys Venice, which has turned itself into a Disneyland for art lovers; Naples, which has its own highly distinctive artistic and architectural traditions, is a much harder place to love. Much admired by such diverse visitors as Goethe, Walter Benjamin, the art historian Anthony Blunt, and by Curzo Malaparte, a fascist admirer of Proust who wrote a stunning book about wartime Neapolitan life, and then late in life became a Maoist, and then, on his deathbed, Catholic, it is only now starting to become gentrified. The other great centers of the Italian art world — Florence, Rome and Venice — have modernized. Naples mostly has not — and so there are relatively few tourists. It is a city whose art, food, and unique everyday life may inspire passionate admiration, but as Daniel Rothbart nicely explains in his new book, Seeing Naples: Reports from the Shadow of Vesuvius, it is a also place where just getting across the street takes cunning.
In the early 1990s, Rothbart went to Naples on a Fulbright in pursuit of his career as a visual artist. Bravely, he purchased a used moped, survived several collisions, made friends, took evocative photographs, and learnt to love the city. In this marvelous collection of evocative essays he tells about Masaniello, the famous leader of the 1647 political rebellion; the failed modernizing revolution of 1799; the cult of the dead, a truly oddly local Catholic ceremony; the sad story of the expulsion of the Jewish community; the heroic street rebellion of September 1943, in which the populace rose up and drove the German army from the city; Vittorio De Sica’s 1954 film The Gold of Naples starring Sophia Loren and the great Neapolitan actor, Totò — look up on youtube a scene from another movie where Totò sells the Trevi Fountain to an American bumpkin, very Neapolitan it is. Rothbart writes about the Neapolitan friends he made, and about Caserta, the enormous Bourbon country palace, which is a short trip outside of the city. When he gets to Caserta, he skips the house, and makes his way to the enormous gardens, which have fascinating sculptures. Recently Caserta had a communist major, Maurizio Valenzi, who is discussed by Rothbart. And he explains how he makes his own art. This book is illustrated with an extraordinary range of old and new photographs (some by Rothbart), and engravings showing historical scenes.
The order of this narrative is as elusive, and enthralling, as everyday Neapolitan experience. Rothbart is a great storyteller, very Neapolitan in that way. Just as an artwork can be described in diverse valid ways, so too this city can legitimately be interpreted by writers with varied interests. It’s striking, also, to consider what Rothbart doesn’t discuss — the vast quantity of baroque art in the churches, and in the Capodimonte Museum, including three great late Caravaggios; or the surprising displays of contemporary art in the newly constructed subways. Like an artwork, a city can be interpreted in diverse ways. The many good tourist guidebooks tell you how to get to Naples, where to stay and eat, and what to purchase, when you arrive there; and how to get around the city. Seeing Naples tells something more important — why you should want to go there. In his last sentence, Rothbart describes a train trip, which took him back to the central train station, into “sweet Neapolitan chaos.” I can’t think of a better very short description of this impossible, magnetically attractive city. A recent guidebook proclaims: “Napoli non è solo una città, ma un universo in cui ogni domanda può trovare una risposta.” (rough translation: “Naples is not just a city, but a universe in which every question can be answered.”) Every question?— well almost every question! Rothbart is a perfect commentator on Naples because he is unflappable, because his account is accurate, and because he is entirely sympathetic but not uncritical. A gifted observer, he honestly observes the city’s history and social conflicts without moralizing. He is very good at describing what is hardest to put in words, the highly distinctive quality of everyday life in this city. Read his marvelous text and look at his photos and you too will want to go there or, if you have been, have good memories of that trip. If you can afford the flight, go to Naples tomorrow — but if you cannot, get this book today.
Seeing Naples: Reports from the Shadow of Vesuvius (2018) by Daniel Rothbart is published by Edgewise Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.