This week’s post is by Penny Ewles-Bergeron, a British artist living in Naples since 2005. You can see some of her work on the Saatchi site. She blogs at Italiannotebook.com and tweets as @ABrushwithItaly.
We all think we know Naples by reputation – noisy, chaotic, corrupt, lively, messy, menacing, beautiful, under threat, under rubbish and overpopulated. It’s the perfect setting for a film noir with lashings of silver nitrate glow or a classic crime novel with local colour. These days it’s often a place to sprint through on the way to Roman ruins further round the bay.
It was in 1787 that Goethe noted a local expression in his Grand Tour journal: ‘Vedi Napoli e poi muori!’ – ‘See Naples and die!’, evermore to be misinterpreted as a pronouncement on the likelihood of surviving a visit to the city. What he meant, of course, was that seeing Naples was the summit of a lifetime of rich experiences and I must say I concur. It’s impossible to be bored in a city where so much beauty, history and natural street theatre jostle for your attention.
I’ve lived on via Monte di Dio for over six years. From my balcony looking right I can see the 16th century Castel Sant’Elmo on top of Vomero hill; to my left at the end of the street is the Nunziatella academy, which by coincidence was founded the year Goethe came to town. That makes it the oldest military academy in Europe. Twice a year cadets parade by in their beautiful uniforms on their way to ceremonies in nearby Piazza del Plebiscito.
In just two minutes I can be in that piazza facing the Palazzo Reale. San Carlo opera house connects to the palace at the rear on the left. Santa Lucia (cue that song) with the deep blue sea-view and the vast cone of Vesuvius is to the right. Of course, when I go there I walk at street level, but this is a city with an underground dimension because Neapolitans have always carved chunks out of the volcanic tuff rock. The rock provided building materials; Roman water systems channeled water to the city and beyond. Fast forward to the 1840s when King Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies, looked around riot-torn Europe and decided he needed an escape route from his palace should the population become too lively. He commissioned a tunnel giving him access from his palace towards the sea and allowing soldiers from the nearby barracks to rescue their monarch at the double. So in 1853 work began; enormous ingenuity was required to complete the tunnel since it intersected water channels, wells and cisterns constructed in the 17th century. Poor Ferdinand never saw the benefit; he died in 1859 and his kingdom was tidied up into a unified Italy a few years later.
Today, thanks to a courageous team of cavers and volunteers, visitors can walk through most of the Bourbon Tunnel, inspecting the arches and stonework and marvelling at the sad evidence of WWII human habitation – thousands of people sheltered from bombs here in the last war. I’m sure the tunnel runs directly under the palazzo where we live. Just another layer of this extraordinary and captivating city I’m happy to call home.