Naples: In the Shadow of Pompeii
Paul Lay reflects on a recent trip to Naples, the closest thing Europe has to a living, breathing medieval city.
It is not everyday that one finds oneself alone in a room containing two Raphaels, four Titians and a Vasari, but that’s the situation I found myself in during a recent visit to Naples’ Museo di Capodimonte. The museum stands above the sprawl of the 3,000-year-old city, in cooler, healthier air, and was built in 1738 to house the immense collection that Charles VII of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies inherited from his mother, Elisabetta Farnese. Room after room is filled with masterpieces: a cartoon by Michelangelo and paintings, usually more than one, by Masaccio, Mantegna, Bellini, Botticelli, El Greco, Correggio and, of course, Caravaggio, who fled to Naples from Rome, where he had committed murder. There were many more paintings than people. I counted half a dozen visitors and a gaggle of curators discussing the Italian elections.
It was February, after all, and Naples is not a city that attracts many foreign visitors, put off by its reputation for noise and dirt (deserved) and violence (undeserved, at least in the city proper). What tourists there are, I thought, will be in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, down the hill towards the centro storico, the greatest of all storehouses of antiquity, home to the treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum (including the Alexander Mosaic) as well as the Tazza Farnese and, most unforgettable of all, the Farnese Bull, the largest single sculpture ever recovered from antiquity. Yet, again, apart from a small party of French schoolchildren, it was just me and the jewels of the Roman world.
There were a few bits and pieces missing from the section devoted to the two cities destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79: one favourite, the portrait of the Baker Terentius Neo and his wife, had been shipped off to the British Museum, where it will take its place in the exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which opens on March 28th. The exhibition’s curator Paul Roberts and his team will do a superb job, as the BM almost always does, as they attempt to give the thousands of visitors expected from around the world a rich portrait of everyday life in the Bay of Naples during the first century, displaying new finds for the first time, including a baby’s crib, preserved by ash and pumice, that still rocks on its runners.
The captions and commentaries will be rich in information, unlike those in the Neapolitan museums, which are plain and perfunctory, bearing name and date if anything at all. But there is something magical about wandering around old fashioned museums like those of Naples, where one is asked to do a little work beforehand, where the cult of ‘access’ is not king and where, on leaving, one remains in a museum of sorts, as Naples is, with its extraordinary Baroque architecture and the cramped, sunless alleys of Spaccanapoli that are the closest Europe has to a living, breathing medieval city, dominated by the shadow of Vesuvius with all the magic and menace that entails.
Corruption, crime and poverty run deep in Naples and are not the stuff of romance. But, for the historically minded visitor, the city offers a fascinating insight into a world almost untouched by the banalities of an increasingly homogenised world. And some very good food.
From The Archive
During the Napoleonic Wars Britain occupied the strategically important island of Sicily. Most of its inhabitants, tired of long-distance Bourbon rule, welcomed the arrangement, but their monarch did not, as Graham Darby explains.