Baroque flourishes, celestial superheroes, bellowing baristi: few cities match the raw intensity of Naples. Living in the shadow of a time-bomb volcano, this Mediterranean giant thumps to a fatalistic beat. Sexed-up scooters race beaten-up Fiats, and a sea of graffitied “Ti Amo”s declare a collective, passionate urgency. Founded by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC, Naples' cast of lovers and traitors has included everyone from Romans and Angevins to the Aragonese and Bourbons. Adored and betrayed in equal measure, its predilection for light and shade, for intensity and immediacy, is elementary.
The Caravaggio connection
One artist who perfectly captures this duality is Caravaggio, his trademark chiaroscuro (light and shade technique) evoking the city's own extremes, from the claustrophobic bassi (one-room, street-level apartments) to the gilded vanity of Teatro San Carlo, Italy's oldest opera house.
Wanted for killing a man in Rome, the troubled Caravaggio found brief refuge in Naples in 1606, where he landed several commissions. Among them was his masterpiece Le Sette Opere di Misericordia (The Seven Acts of Mercy). Hanging above the main altar of the Pio Monte della Misericordia, it is regularly dubbed Naples' most important painting.
Not that the city is short of Caravaggios. Equally arresting is his Flagellazione (Flagellation) in the palace-turned-gallery Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte, not to mention The Martyrdom of St Ursula (1610), ceremoniously housed in the Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano. Completed a few weeks before the artist's lonely death, the latter depicts a haunted Caravaggio behind the dying Ursula, an eerie premonition of his own impending death.
Saints and superstitions
Arguably, the ill-fated Caravaggio may have faired better wearing a Neapolitan corno - the red, horn-shaped amulet adorning necklines and souvenir stalls across the city. An esoteric pesticide, its claim to fame is keeping the dreaded malocchio (evil eye) at bay. It is as Neapolitan as pizzaioli (pizza makers) and as much a hit as the crucifix. In Naples, the "Catholic" and "Cultish" share more than just the letter "C" and the two collide in spectacular fashion at the Casa e Chiesa di Santa Maria Francesca delle Cinque Piaghe. Once the address of 18th-century stigmatic Santa Maria delle Cinque Piaghe, it is still home to her miraculous wooden chair. A humble-looking prop in a time-warp apartment, it is the draw-card for thousands of infertile believers, who come to sit on it in the hope of having their clucky prayers answered. New-millennium Neapolitans may scoff at the ritual, the sea of baby trinkets hanging from the walls - ex voti offered by those with answered prayers - tell a different story.
Not to be upstaged, Naples' patron saint, San Gennaro, hosts his own miracle in the city's Duomo, where two phials of his blood miraculously liquefy each May, September and December. When the miracle works, the city considers itself safe from impending doom. When the miracle failed in 1944 Mt Vesuvius erupted, and when it failed in 1980, a catastrophic earthquake rattled the region the same year.
Though Naples' fate seems constantly in the balance, its culinary reputation is not. Everything seems to taste that little bit better here; the epic pizzas at Gino Sorbillo (Via dei Tribunali 32), the rich espresso at Caffe Mexico (Piazza Dante 86), or the buttery sfogliatelle (cinnamon-infused ricotta pastries) at off-the-radar Attanasio (Vico Ferrovia 1-4). To savour the local flavour (with a generous side of Neapolitan attitude), take your taste-buds to Nennella (Vico Lungo Teatro 103-105), a spit-and-sawdust trattoria deep in the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarter). Add your name to the door list and wait to be called in boot-camp style. Inside, roguish waiters shout orders across the floor as the regulars tuck into simple, sublime casareccio (homecooking) classics like spaghetti con lupine (spaghetti with lupin). In this part of the world, cooks remember what their mammas taught them: keep it simple, seasonal and fresh. Lips licked, amici made, and your wallet a mere 10 euro lighter, do not be surprised if you too find yourself thanking Gennaro for safeguarding Italy's raucous southern drama queen.
Frequent daily rail services connect Naples to Rome and other Italian cities. Naples' Capodichino airport (NAP) offers connections to most Italian cities, several European cities, and New York. British Airways operates three daily flights to/from London Gatwick. Easyjet has flights to/from several European cities, including London, Paris, Berlin and Geneva.
The article 'Naples: Italy’s southern drama queen' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.