Magazine

Saving one of Italy's oldest cities from crumbling away

A carved skull and bones set in the wall of a building

Many of the historic buildings in the Italian city of Naples have fallen into a crumbling state of disrepair. Millions of euros have been promised for renovations but is this enough to restore the heart of the city and make the most of its past?

What you noticed first, was the human skull. Shining white in the sun, it sat on two crossed bones. It wasn't real. It was carved out of stone.

But still, it wasn't what you'd expect to find on the front of a church.

And what a building it was. Its facade was brick red but running up the centre was a thick green stain.

A slimy-looking fungus was feeding off some leaking pipe buried in the bricks. Along the roof, vegetation flourished - thick clumps of grass, nodding against the blue of the sky.

And the air of neglect and decay was accentuated by a pile of rubble. Perhaps something high on the facade had come plunging down - shattering on the cobblestones.

The skull and bones over the entrance were a sign that in centuries past, this church was also a cemetery. Down in the sacred earth beneath its walls, there would have been vaults where racks of human bones were stored.

To go in and explore the old place would have been grimly fascinating and it ought to be drawing in visitors. But that's not possible. The church's blue doors were bolted, and probably hadn't swung open for years.

And that bitterly frustrates the man who was showing me round the alleyways of old Naples. Gabriele Casillo was born and raised in the city centre, and he's rightly proud of its history.

It's one of the oldest continuously inhabited locations on Earth. There are traces in its stones of the Greeks who arrived centuries before the time of Christ. And Romans and Byzantines and Normans and Spaniards all came and went.

But for Casillo not enough is being done to preserve and promote the city's extraordinary legacy. For him the sad plight of the brick red church of the skull was a case in point.

He'd showed me three or four other churches that seemed similarly abandoned. One of them had been burnt out in a fire. Now it stood lost behind a rank of huge garbage dumpsters.

I watched a middle-aged woman stop on the street, and as she slowly smoked a cigarette, she stood and stared into the church's ruined, dark depths, trying perhaps to glimpse a little of its splendid past.

Of course Casillo argued that none of this was good enough for a Unesco World Heritage Site. He represents a group of activists who are pressing for change but he fears no-one is really listening.

The mayor of Naples would certainly argue that that's not true. He's just announced plans to pour 100m euros into projects to enhance the historic centre.

And for all the gloom of those who worry about the place, Naples has so much to offer that is magnificent. I'm not only talking about its grander, monumental buildings and museums.

I stepped into one of its countless, lesser known churches - a vast place that's witnessed more than 400 years of worship. Columns rose to a painted ceiling, where a riot of angels seemed to be riding a cloud that was wheeling through the heavens.

From the dome, shafts of sunlight flooded the altar, gleaming on a golden cross, and in the pews towards the front, a lone figure in a dark coat sat motionless.

The church was part of a monastic complex. For generations monks would have lived and prayed and worked around its cloistered courtyard. Later it became a textile factory.

It produced uniforms for the royal guard of the Spanish, Bourbon kings who once ruled Naples. In more modern times the building was battered about by a range of less glamorous little businesses.

One of them demolished a pillar just so that the courtyard could be used to park a van. But the monastery is now being restored.

A group of artists is turning it into a craft and cultural centre. As they worked, an area of plaster high on a wall came away, and an image was suddenly revealed.

It showed a figure on a white horse leading soldiers in armour. They were all advancing on a lone woman.

The man on horseback is supposed to be a pagan, Roman emperor and the female figure is St Catherine. Legend has it that she was put to death - martyred - for refusing to marry the emperor, preferring instead to devote her life to Christ.

And those restoring the cloisters hope that as they peel away more of the plaster more of these fine, Renaissance artworks might appear all around the courtyard.

It's just one more small example of the richness of the past that lies in the bones of the buildings in the historic heart of old Naples.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30

Listen online or download the podcast.

BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

More on this story