Ah, Naples. Something to see at every corner. Reluctantly leaving the Spanish Quarter, we returned to the Via Toledo. Another time, I promised myself. I will return to Naples and spend days exploring here.
A little further along the Via Toledo, opposite Dante Square, is the Bar Mexico – the best coffee in Naples, and possibly the best I’ve ever had in Italy. The name – I don’t know why. The Bar Mexico looks an unassuming place, marked only by its orange awning and the row of vespas outside. We stood at the bar alongside a few elderly men having their morning fix (there is no seating). For the price of 1 Euro, a barista in his pristine white jacket and cap pulled us a glass of sparkling water (as if it were a beer) whilst another created a magical shot of espresso.
Refreshed, we reached the Museo Archeological Nazionale shortly after it opened. One of the great archeological museums of the world, the place was virtually empty. Amongst its galleries is the Farnese Collection, one of the major collections of Greco-Roman works, created by Cardinal Farnese in the 16th C (later to become Pope Paul III). There are also sculptures and artworks recovered and restored from Herculaneum and Pompeii, as well as an extensive Egyptian collection.
Indeed, theMuseo Archeological Nazionale houses so much artwork, it makes me wonder just how much there must have originally been in ancient times, for this much to survive. Surely a workshop must have been busy on every corner, and every house decorated.
One of the prize works is The Farnese Hercules, which depicts a victorious but weary Hercules leaning on his club (draped with the skin of the Nemean Lion). Standing at over 3m high, Hercules towers over the room. A copy of the original made by Lysippos in 4th C BCE, it was sculptured by Glykon for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in the 3rd C AD. A combination of tension and flow, emphasised with different textures, it seems impossible that such a marvel could be created. Interestingly, the legs were lost for many years, and a student of Michelangelo’s was entrusted to make the replacements. When the originals were uncovered in the 1800s, the fashion of the time preferred the fake legs (displayed on the wall behind) – the original were criticised for being too muscular.
Upstairs is the Pompeii collection, as well as works from Herculaneum, dating from around 2nd C BCE to the late 1st C AD. The incredible array of household products, with amazing detail and workmanship show Pompeii to have been a wealthy city. So much of what is on display is delicate, sensual, and obviously personal. I found the frescos particularly alluring, with a freshness, individuality and perspective not rediscovered in the West until Giotto.
I could easily have come back every day for a week, there is simply so much to see and absorb here. Even the toilets, down in the bowels of the place, are exquisite, with the window opposite looking onto a collection of spare statues.
Summer heat had filled the day by the time we left. From the museum it’s a short stroll to the Duomo. Unlike Florence, the cathedral is completely built in by surrounding buildings, with no vast piazza outside, and only one person hassled us to buy postcards. Built in 550AD, the Baptistery is the oldest in the Western world (and the surrounding mosaics date from the same time). Inside, the building was light and spacious. With no one around it was also quiet, in the way the Duomo in Florence, or St Mark’s or St Peter’s can never be. And, in the summer heat, cool; a quiet place to contemplate all we had seen.
Almost opposite is the Pio Monte di Misericordia. Founded in 1601, its mission was not only to aid and give shelter to the poor and ill, but also to free Christian slaves in the Ottoman Empire. (It still functions as a charitable institution.) The altarpiece of the church is Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Seven Acts of Mercy. The entrance is a five-arch loggia, where pilgrims often found shelter. From the first floor of the museum (the Pio Monte Collection) is a private box – il coreto or little choir – which looks through into the church and straight onto the altar, giving a private viewing of Caravaggio’s work.
This is probably the best way to see the work, which at eye-level becomes almost overwhelming. It is a dynamic piece, yet filled with negative space. All the figures draw the eye toward the centre of the work, where there is nothing. There are few colours in the work, just variations of tone and shade. The church is octagonal in shape, with a different work in each alcove. Although the other paintings are technically brilliant, Caravaggio’s work is simply alive and compelling in comparison.
Mentally exhausted, we needed nourishment. We chose a nearby restaurant, which opened onto a charming piazza. We began with sparkling water, and an antipasto plate which included zucchini flowers, eggplant done 2 different ways, and a ham and cheese toastie to die for (I have no idea of the Italian name). Then came a pizza to share – we could barely move afterwards.
By now, the heat was rising from the footpaths – there would be many sunburned and exhausted tourists by day’s end. Fortunately, the port (and our boat) lay downhill. A day in Naples could never be enough, but we left with more then a promise to return.
To read Walking in Naples Part i), please click here.
The Literary Traveller
In [easyazon_link identifier=”B00CJRHR26″ locale=”US” tag=”aharrison20-20″]The Ancient shore: Dispatches From Naples[/easyazon_link], the Australian writer Shirley Hazard pens her love of Naples. A collection of essays, they date from when she first moved to Naples in 1950s. Her writing resonates with the history of the city and the region, from the time of the Ancient Greeks to the aftermath of WWII. Other writers make an appearance in her works: Goethe, Byron and Henry James, to name a few. Perfect for reading over a macchiato, or maybe a glass of local red and a plate of antipasto.