Benjamin Taylor on 'Naples Declared'

A photomechanical print of Via Partenope Street, Naples,

A photomechanical print of Via Partenope Street, Naples, Italy, published between 1890 and 1900. (Credit: Library of Congress)

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After a brief visit to Naples decades ago, I spent a week recovering on the Lipari Islands.

What a stressful city this is: Vesuvius looming in the distance, disappearing garbage collectors, crumbling monuments and a hydra-headed mafia. Once a must-see city on the Grand Tour of the cultivated gentleman, Naples could use a few more friends these days.

"Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay," an engaging travel history by Benjamin Taylor (Marion Wood / Putnam, $26.95), brings out the darkness and light of a death-defying city glinting under the grime. I was happy to visit vicariously.

We spoke a few days before Taylor was off to France to start a book on Marcel Proust.

 

Say I want to go back to Naples. What's your favorite hotel?

I often stayed at Grand Hotel Parker's, which was the headquarters of the German high command.

A more famous hotel on the water is the Excelsior, which is in many movies, like "Dodsworth." You can see the smoking volcano in the background as he drives along the via Partenope.

 

What about the Nazis?

They decided not to fight for Naples but to leave. A specific order came from Berlin to destroy the medieval archives, and the Germans sent a detachment to burn these documents in the last days.

As so often in the Third Reich, there was a passionate attention to symbols.

 

It reminds me of Hitler's order to burn Paris -- the vindictive obsession to eradicate the past if you can't own the future. Yet Naples was badly destroyed.

Yes, by the Allies, though I never heard any local utter a bitter word.

 

What's your first memory of Naples?

Like so many, I came to go elsewhere: to see Pompeii and Capri. Then, I met the author Shirley Hazzard, who said: "What's the most interesting is what is hidden here." That intrigued me.

 

And what was that?

These are a people for whom the tragic nature of history is simply a given. Events are not favorable to you. In a sense, it's the opposite of what it feels to be a fortunate American. I was impressed by the deep civilization inherent in ordinary people.

 

Yet for a long time, Naples was considered one of the great cities of Europe.

The second city of Europe after Paris. The Grand Tour culminated here. Then, with the unification of Italy, the standard of living doesn't change in the south. But the north has a different trajectory.

 

I liked the cameos, whether of the repulsive Tiberius or the strangely chic opera lover, who turned out to be a cross-dresser.

She was treated as if she were mentally ill. The south is more conservative in our sense.

 

La Camorra. Is it visible?

Invisible but everywhere. The shops, the hotels, all are paying protection. The Camorra controls the political economy. I think the Camorra accounts for one-third of the southern gross domestic product.

It's sophisticated and internationally ambitious. They take their ill-gotten gains and put them into legitimate companies.

 

So they are behind those periodic garbage strikes?

They are not exactly strikes, but a demonstration of power. It is announced that "the receptacles for garbage are full." They are not.

The Camorra is misunderstood as a family like the Gambinos. It's a network of several hundred families with spheres of autonomy and interest and occasional turf wars. It's involved in all forms of trafficking, including bodily organs.

You see the young members in the restaurants. They're profoundly influenced by the "Scarface" movie and love to go tanning and wear their pants high. They're repulsive.

 

Were you ever scared?

Not for a minute. But I wasn't writing about crime in Naples. I was there to sing the song of praise to its immense antiquity.

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