[ 00:16 monday 26 november – via carrozieri alla posta, napoli ]
i write from an enormous room on the top floor of a crumbling eighteenth-century palazzo, behind the architecture school in the centre of town, tended by two grand napolitan ladies who appear to be equally ancient. there is no heating so i rely upon layers of heavy bedclothes to keep the chill night air at bay. adjoining my bedroom is a still huger salon, crammed with mismatched furniture. i am here as a result of a tip from my friend gabriele in palermo. otherwise i should probably have ended up somewhere sensible and ordinary.
it is almost exactly a decade since i last stayed in this city. the former occasion, in the middle of december 1991, was also my very first foray into italy. at that time i was studying at cambridge and managing a choir composed of my fellow choral scholars from st john’s college. financed by the banco di napoli and the british council we flew over here, gave a ticket-only charity performance in the british consulate, then a proper concert in the chiesa santa chiara in front of an audience of about 4000. after a self-indulgent programme comprising most of my favourite repertoire (josquin, gombert, poulenc, stravinsky…) we encored with mel torme’s “christmas song”. to my chagrin the crowd left us in little doubt which part of the programme they appreciated. the front two rows were composed entirely of diplomats and politicians and on this occasions at least their feelings were entirely representative of the wider population. afterwards the british ambassador took me to dinner with barone barracca who showed us his collection of antique guns. slightly overwhelming for a fresh-faced undergraduate.
despite all this i came away thinking napoli rather an ugly city, wondering why people made such a song and dance about it.
i travelled over from stromboli last wednesday determined to return with a codice fiscale, the tax registration one needs in order to open a bank account, subscribe to a phone service, view billing information online, buy a packet of crisps, &c. i first tried to obtain one in milano last summer but after a couple of weeks circulating between half a dozen offices in different parts of town, invariably closed at whatever time i chanced to arrive, i gave up. this time, despite another campaign of iterative misinformation, i persisted and am now the proud possessor of a smudged computer print-out bearing the precious chain of figures and letters.
during the struggle i have become completely intoxicated with napoli. for most of my life i have acknowledged myself a devout ruralist, viewing cities as splendidly diverting places in short bursts but essentially dehumanising and awful. now my credentials are in tatters. somehow this place has cast a spell on me. there is a precipitous excitement on the streets, a vividness and immediacy of living. it is an unruly, messy, passionate place. the narrow winding canyons of back-streets, decorated everywhere with washing, are continually interrupted by sumptuous obelisks and churches. law is something which emerges from a kind of wild consensus, all that is prescribed from above is contemptuously ignored. when an entire population takes this stance it is difficult for any authority to prevail. napoli is the triumphant example of a city sprung from humanity in all its shades, not from mechanism or rational organisation. nobody would ever plan napoli. it is a dangerous place, corrupt, decadent. dark and light elements are so tightly intertwined here that they cannot be disentangled. the city is a vast mega-celled organism; breathing, seathing, pulsing with an intelligence of the seasons of man and earth.
santa chiara is just around the corner from me, a massive mediaeval structure flattened during the war by an american bomb intended for the port and rebuilt immediately afterwards with unperturbable hauteur. i look on it with different eyes from those of 1991. walking back from an arabic cafe on piazza bellini (where i had been writing my journal and reading a powerful old history of the jackson presidencies of the 1830s) i entered piazza gesu nuovo to find it thronged with young people; cars and scooters arrayed at crazy angles around the edges, a bonfire blazing on the far side. to many this would appear a scene of urban collapse, a source of fear. such people i would urge to observe the details more closely; to see the intricate maneouvers negotiated between drivers to enable vehicles to come and go, notice how the fire is kept in place with the occasional nudge to avoid damage to surrounding buildings, witness how the crowd manages itself and how rapidly incipient scuffles are subdued. what i see is a celebration of civilisation, not its absense. what is see is a community occupying and using its city in a way i have not witnesses elsewhere. in napoli i feel tremendous optimism.