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Book Review: Naples Declared: A Walk Around The Bay by Benjamin Taylor

Posted By Julia Braun Kessler On May 16, 2012 @ 9:36 pm In Books,Italy,Non-Fiction Reviews | 1 Comment

Naples Declared: A Walk Around The Bay
by Benjamin Taylor
A Marian Wood Book/Putnam, 240 pp.
CLR Rating:


Hats Off to the City of Naples: An Underestimated Work of Art

If you should choose to stroll about though the lanes and byways of this ancient city under the guidance of Benjamin Taylor, you’ll find yourself literally sauntering through history. His pace is leisurely, yet it includes exposures to its many conquerors and evidence of conquests over the centuries. More: it gives us a keen sense of the particular ardors, the passions which occupied each period in its past. All this, as he uncovers a captivating picture of the achievements still on view in this city today!

Considering how “casual” the work is in its approach, you could, I suppose, call it a mere glimpse into the turmoil and tragedies that overcame Naples. Yet, in some ways, this technique proves far more vibrant than the traditional presentations of historical events which most of us have experienced in the course of our schooling. Not to say Taylor hasn’t studied his subject or done his extensive research. He has spent some sixteen years and eleven visits to the Southern metropolis, as well as, in the many islands surrounding it, whose greater appeal has brought endless streams of visitors in its direction in the first place: Capri, Ischia, Sorrento, Positano.

He has wandered among these people, looking, admiring, sometimes gaping at what he saw, but persistently querying, asking his questions while befriending the Neapolitans. And this is not to mention the extensive research he has done on their history in their libraries.

The wonder of it is how little all this labor invades the tone and style of his book. He reminds us first off about how little this city has been regarded in Italy and in all of Europe. Certainly, it seldom is considered within the realm of such wonders as Venice or Florence or Rome! Mostly, it has been ignored by world travelers, in their whirlwind tours and when visited at all, even despised. Henry James, who saw it in 1907, reportedly spoke of it as city “at best wild and weird and sinister,” though he added that Naples nonetheless continued “at her ease in her immense national dignity.” But Taylor immediately qualifies his comment with:

What has escaped no traveler is that this oval bay, arms reaching out irregularly into the Tyrrhenian, islands beautifully situated to either side of the mouth of the harbor, makes the loveliest of geologic settings— not least because it is equipped with a reminder of how provisional all loveliness is. Vesuvius, this coast’s incomparable emblem of uncertainty, in whose shadow a hundred fifty generations have lived: Vesuvius, which “again and again destroys itself,” as Goethe says, “and declares war on any sense of beauty.”

And then Taylor reveals for us a whole new world about this swarming metropolis. His opening anecdote alone, particularly struck me, given that I’d myself had a similar incident when there upon my own short visit years back, as well as the same extraordinary recovery he describes.

Like most of us, of course, he had heard endless warnings about the city’s dirt, its dangers, its “gifted pickpockets,” not only in Naples itself, but all over the Italian South. He determined to be super cautious. So, he put his passport in his sock before “wading into the teeming streets” to head immediately for the stately gem of the city, its Duomo. Alas, when he realizes, hours later, that the passport had “ridden up my sock and was now somewhere on the cathedral floor,” he rushes desperately back, tracing his steps and finally arriving back at the Duomo. All the while, in a panic, finding his primitive Italian totally deserting him, and then worse, discovering that this was the afternoon of the week when it was closed to visitors, he despairs. His anguish builds in the intense heat of the day when an elderly man sitting in the shade before the central entry speaks up to him while holding and waving his lost passport! Concludes Taylor, “This miracle, this superb gentilezza, is for real!”

Thus do we embark. Beginning with debunking the many prejudices surrounding the City, he swings over to its admirers during the centuries with a review of the such greats in their experiences of Naples as Sir Philip Sidney, John Milton, Tobias Smollett, Lord Byron, James Boswell and more. And, given the ordeals of such travel in their times, such stays could last for months, even years. In fact, Taylor remarks, always such journeys “culminated at Naples, from which one began the journey home” and meant awaiting their ships.

The author designates himself “a traveling citizen,” adapting Walter Benjamin’s phrase, to distinguish himself from vast numbers of “tourists’’ visible and scurrying all around him in Italy. Above all, he specifies that if there be one rule such a citizen comprehends, it is that “there are some things you will never understand no matter how you try.” It strikes me as a fine way to start his peregrination with the reader.

And, this makes way for his next striking observation concerning the spirit of the city. Naples, he tells us, was long a Greek colony, a City of Pagan devotions. From as far back at 1800 B.C, when the Mycenean traders establish themselves at Vivara, an island located between Ischia and Procida, and well into the fourth century B.C. when the Roman dominated, it remained in their hands. Taylor shows us how this spirit pervades it still.

He observes that “…Naples was a civilization founded by Hellenes, and ‘Greekness’ has been, despite chances and changes, the living subterranean truth of the place.” It was named by them Parthenope, for the Siren who flung herself into the gulf and washed ashore after Odysseus rejected her. And he reminds us that:

Greece gave the Romans their gods, their arts, their sciences, their fundamental sentiment of life: Roman culture is Greco-Roman. What was most essential to Roman poets and historians was their Greek patrimony: the vitalistic pessimism, in a word, the gift for facing without false hope the conditions of our humanity.

And, thus after 326 BC, when it was defeated by Rome militarily, Naples proceeded to conquer their arts! As Horace would later put it, “Conquered Greece conquered its barbaric conqueror.” Taylor explains how Naples spread this Greek approach to life as “natural, canny, disabused” throughout the Roman Empire, and preserved that special spirit locally as well. With such Neapolitan notions as, “… on land, the Mother of God has her dominion: but Sirens rule the bay,” he takes us back to that Greek goddess. He adds to this only the common saying in Napoli “that the land may be Christian but the water is pagan!”

So does he gallop through its history calling Naples “Europe’s most extraordinary hybrid” and demonstrating for us many great periods of conquest after Rome, for example, the reign of Frederick the Second around the 13th Century, and then of Robert the Wise in the 14th, when that emperor brought such eminent artists to his court as Giotto and Boccacio. Later still there was that of the Bourbon Charles, who was to become the builder, among other wonders, of Naples’ grand opera house, the Teatro San Carlo.

He brings forward yet other architectural marvels that are to seen there, and shows how Spanish Baroque predominates, but that many other styles are on display in all their splendor, among them Renaissance masterworks like Santa Anna dei Lombardi, only recently restored, or San Giovanni a Carbonara.

He moves through the centuries with ease, chatting about its distinguished visitors, a star-studded cast including Caesar Augustus, Pliny the Elder, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, and later still such as Mozart, Goethe and Leopardi, on to Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia.

Better still, he relates all kinds of odd incident and anecdote about the Bay of Naples’ attachments surrounding such historic figures. There is, for example, his tale, still often told among the foreign colony, about Caesar Augustus:

Octavius, not yet Caesar Augustus, first of many a sacred monster to attach himself to the island, in 29 B.C. traded Ischia, a possession nearly five times larger, for Capri. Upon his first arrival, Suetonius reports, a withered holm oak had miraculously put forth new growth, convincing the emperor that here was the great good place. He returned frequently throughout his reign. In the summer of 14, nearer to death than he knew, Augustus sought repose and amusement among the natives, ordering Greeks to wear the toga and seek Latin and Roman to put on the chiton and speak Greek.…

And then too, there are Taylor’s own experiences while there in Naples, his many encounters with natives, those strangers who have approached, spotting him as an “Americano” and wondered, for instance, what he might be researching over months and months in their great libraries. His meeting with Gabriella, for instance, who is really eager to talk to him about her recent readings of William Faulkner and complain of his having presented her with impenetrable language and daunting constructions. Why, she demands, all this needless complication? And above all, he must give her an explanation of why Americans should regard him as a great writer? A challenging assignment at best, but Taylor is up to the job, and amuses us with his answer.

Or, he tells of a discussion with a young friend Paolo, a Northerner newly come to Naples as an intern at the hospital in one of the working class districts of the City, passionate about his doctoring and eager to serve the poor. When Taylor asks him what he calls a “touristic” question about the popular belief among Neapolitans in the malocchio, or evil eye, and whether jettatori, is the right word for those who practice it, the young man responds with some passion. As Taylor reports it:

Jettatura is the practice of the malocchio, the gift for inflicting it. Jettatori are persons thus endowed.” He looks away, and I can see that his jaw is working. “You find it colorful don’t you?” he snaps. “Such atavistic garbage is what has held back the South.” Croce said that the most fearsome thing about the malocchio is that it doesn’t exist. He’s a bourgeois thinker, Croce, but this is a brilliant remark, by which he meant that it frightened him to see people in the grip of such nonsense. It frightens me!

During the course of our stroll, we are also made privy to the private lives of many writers who had spent time as residents of the Island of Capri, such as Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Norman Douglas, and others. This author’s admiration for Douglas, a long-time Islander, and his free lifestyle, for example, is particularly strong. He alerts us to his belief that Norman Douglas had “fathered forth the sensibility of English travel writing” naming such figures as Robert Byron, Peter Fleming, Norman Lewis, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris, Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron and Pico Iyer as his progeny.

Bright-heartedness, fanatical curiosity, and flying wit are their shared talismans — along with willingness to be a “slave of (the) journey’s emotions” as Robert Byron puts it. These powers they inherit from the author of Old Calabria, Siren Land, and Alone.

So goes wandering with Taylor into a very rich historical past in this miraculous atmosphere while the author never fails to keep us engaged with the riches of this City and the Southern Bay surrounding it.

Yet it is when he leads us through the ghastly history of Naples, during the Second World War, that this reader’s response was at its strongest and most painful. The Neapolitans, we are reminded, were not only targeted for complete and brutal annihilation by Hitler and his generals, but were as well in the forefront of the American invasion of Europe as they invaded first at Anzio Beach and Salerno. A disaster for the natives of that city. Taylor shows us how 1943 and 1944 was the culmination of these horrors and humiliations:

In the final three weeks of German occupation of Naples, following Italian surrender, one spectacle of peculiar savagery seems to have galvanized active resistance. A thousand Neapolitans were herded at gunpoint into the stretch of the Rettifilo facing the university to witness the burning of the library, and were ordered to kneel and applaud the execution of an Italian sailor. That same day, another five hundred citizens were conducted to Teverola, in the Casertano, and forced to witness the execution of thirteen carabineri accused of resisting German orders….

And it went on and on. Ghastly times, resulting in the loss of many lives, but the city of Naples survived even these modern disasters. Taylor concludes with the view that in a city where so much has been felt and thought and made, so much contributed to the sum of glorious and curious human things, his Naples is “not so much a Christ as a Prometheus among cities.” That, he concludes, is what Naples had declared to him.


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