I am not quite sure how calming it is, knowing that I can die now that I have seen Naples. Surely, it would have been more prudent to hold off on seeing Naples for a while.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe coined the referenced phrase in a letter in 1787, when Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of Naples, when Italy still was a patchwork of nations, where he presumably referenced the city’s wealth, prosperity, and scenery. And, this also roughly coincided with the rediscovery of both Pompeii and Herculaneum, the two cities that were covered in ash after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.
But, it seems that Goethe, and many years of recurring emphasis, has set my expectations a bit too high. Naples is a bit of a dump, trash everywhere, buildings falling apart, while Pompeii resembles many other Roman ruins.
In fairness, visiting the National Archeological Museum, in Naples, where the most impressive discoveries from Pompeii and Herculaneum were moved, it’s clear how spectacular the rediscovery of these two covered towns, in the 18th century, must have been. The level at which frescoes, paintings, sculptures, people, were preserved is astounding.
But, in the formerly covered cities themselves, only some replicas of these finds remain, among, mostly, crumbling walls, making the original sites quite similar to many other Roman ruins around the Mediterranean.
Then, perhaps the one thing I was most looking forward to see, was the Alexander Mosaic.
In Pompeii, a copy remains, in the place it was found, the House of the Faun, and experiencing just the copy of the mosaic, in its place, was, for me, grand; the mosaic is believed to be a copy of an early 3rd century BC Greek painting (now lost), which makes this depiction of Alexander the Great one of the few near-contemporary illustrations in existence.
The original was moved to the museum, and this was the one object I was most looking forward to see with my own eyes… only to find a canvas of the mosaic, instead of the mosaic itself.
Turns out the mosaic is being renovated. It’s ‘hiding’ behind the canvas, but wrapped in paper, so even my lifting the canvas meant I only saw a wrapped package hanging on the wall.
Another sad moment in Naples.
Incidentally, it was the Goethe who popularised the “vedi Napoli e poi muori” after whom the Goethe Institut is named, but it was probably not Goethe who came up with the phrase, borrowing it from the locals upon his visit.
Shortly before my visiting Naples, the city’s soccer team, once the home of Maradona, had just won some major prize, and they had put lipstick on the pig, with blue and white flags and streamers literally everywhere. But this, in a way, emphasised the somewhat dire state of the city.
It’s often said that Maradona is revered like a saint in Naples, but I always figured this was a kind of Italian hyperbole. Except, it isn’t. Maradona is revered like a saint, in Naples.
Besides Maradona, Naples is also home, or the adopted home, to a host of foods recognised the world over, though not for all can the provenance be quite exactly pinned on the city. Yet, these include Neapolitan ice cream, Margarita pizza, limoncello, a bunch of sweet cakes, including the easter special pastiera, spaghetti ala puttanesca, and mozzarella di bufala.
I’ve taken to walking from and to the airports on this journey. This won’t work in every destination, but when it does, like in Naples, it allows me to pass through a number of socioeconomic strata, from the enclave that is the airport, through the crumbling periphery, to the propped-up center. And, in Naples, to the periphery again, as I was staying in a convent, with a crucified Christ above my bed, on the outskirts of town.