A street in Naples' Spanish quarter. Picture: Bron Sibree

Love it or hate it, Naples is not an easy city to get to know. Despite its sweeping views over the Bay of Naples, it doesn’t flaunt its beauty like Rome or Florence. And it merely shrugs at its perennial bad rap for a surfeit of rubbish, graffiti, superstition and crime.

So how best to discover the secrets of a city that has tethered its chaotic existence to the slopes of Vesuvius, the world’s most notorious volcano, for more than 2500 years? A sprawling, somewhat dilapidated city of four million people that has 21 distinct quarters or districts.

For me, the answer lies not in its famous museums or monuments, or in the usual tourist enclave of hotels clustered around the Bay of Naples in the up-market neighbourhood of Chiaia but in the Centro Storico, the historic centre. Three parallel Roman streets — and the network of narrow, dingy alleys that run between them — form the heart of this crowded city centre, and still go by their Roman name, the Decumani.

A stroll along the longest of these, Spaccanapoli, is an obligatory introduction to this UNESCO World Heritage site which, along with pizzerias, pasticcerias and shops selling presepe — the sculpted nativity scenes unique to Naples — is richly studded with the architectural detritus of 25 centuries of continuous habitation. Bourbon palaces, Byzantine mosaics, Roman foundations, Greek-era columns and churches galore. Given there are 400-plus heritage-listed churches in this city, you could spend all your days marvelling at Gothic splendours such as the Duomo, where thousands flock each year to see the blood of the city’s patron saint, Januarius, miraculously liquefy.

I fall for the glorious mix of Gothic and baroque artistry that is the church of San Domenico Maggiore, soaring towards heaven on its Greco-Roman foundations — not least because it is directly opposite the city’s “cathedral of desserts”, Scaturchio. This 100-year-old pasticceria is a popular local hangout and its baba, sfogliatella and gelato are a must. Another must, down a nearby alley, is the awe-inspiring sculpture of the veiled Christ, housed in the magnificent baroque chapel of San Severo.

To traverse parts of the city deemed potentially hazardous for tourists, I call upon the services of local photographer Giorgio Cossu, whose Naples Photo Walks are shaped to fit any preference or interest. There is no better way to understand a place and its spirit than with an informed local, and Giorgio proves to be an inspired guide both to photography and to his beloved city. From Castel St Elmo high on the hill of the prosperous Vomero quarter — home to the city’s best vistas as well as Villa Floridiana, one of the neoclassical glories of 19th century Naples — down through the vibrant street markets of the historically disreputable Spanish quarter where the influence of the Camorra remains strong, he guides us not only to a Naples off limits to the risk-averse but to an appreciation of some of its lesser-known rituals. Like the way a certain restaurant in this quarter has no name but is recognised, indeed revered, for its culinary art because it goes by the ancient Roman signage, a single bay tree, at its entrance. Or the way contemporary graffiti artists are reappropriating images of the Madonna. But most of all, he leads us to a greater appreciation of Naples’ fabled “cult of the dead”.

From the small shrines to the dead that proliferate alongside those of the Madonna in every corner of the Centro Storico to the myriad death notices plastered on its walls, there is a potent sense that Naples’ character derives from its singularly close relationship between life and death. But nowhere is this sheeted home to me more potently than in Fontanelle cemetery in Rione Sanita, or Sanita district, a once grand quarter of the city now plagued by poverty and organised crime. A necropolis during Roman and Hellenic times, it became  home to the Naples aristocracy in the late 16th century and remains studded with ancient catacombs, notably San Gennaro and San Gaudioso, as well as Fontanelle, a cave which has housed the remains of those who died in epidemics since the 1500s. Here the cult of “anima pezzentella”, the practice of “adopting” or caring for an abandoned skull which represents the abandoned soul (pezzentella), in return for favours, has continued for centuries, despite attempts by the Catholic Church to stamp it out.

Another good reason to venture into Sanita, which some insist is the “real Naples”, is the National Archaeological Museum. Housed in a massive Bourbon-era palazzo and home to an extensive collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, including the “secret cabinet” of erotic artefacts from Pompeii, it’s been a magnet for tourists since the days of the Grand Tour. But just around the corner, in Via Stella, I find a living museum and local treasure in the form of Mauro Squillace, the last glove maker of Naples.
“The story of glove making in the Sanita district is the story of Naples itself, which was once the richest capital in Europe, but went into decline after Italy’s unification,” Mauro says. He conducts tours of his glove factory, Omega, for small groups by appointment to foster a greater appreciation of the traditions of Neapolitan artisanship.

During the Bourbon era, Naples was renowned worldwide as a city of artisans and the traditions of glove making in the Sanita district date back three centuries. But the advent of mass-produced leather goods from China in recent times, along with the lure of organised crime, has put most of Sanita’s artisans out of business. Mauro has survived, even flourished, by refusing to compete on price, instead adhering to the traditions established by his grandfather.

For him, glove making is nothing less than an art that begins with the leather, which is processed locally so that it resembles the texture of silk. Then each piece for each glove is cut by hand, before being sewn on Singer machines from the 1900s that don’t rely on electricity. “You need to read the leather like a book,” insists Mauro, who exports 90 per cent of his annual production of 60,000 pairs of silk and cashmere-lined gloves as well as creating gloves for Dior and Hermes.

He employs about 80 people in his factory along with another 80 in their homes, where about 25 different tasks from cutting to stitching and finishing are performed, mainly by women whose average age is 70. His endeavours to recruit younger workers have earned him an anti-Mafia tag in the local press.

“For young people it’s easier to start Mafia life to have easy money; we don’t have easy money but the Camorra never touch us because we give work to the women in the neighbourhood.” Leaving Mauro and his “artists”, as he calls his workers, is surprisingly something of a wrench. His parting gift, a gorgeous piece of soft, silky leather, is something he gives to all factory visitors, he says — “not just to remember us but because I believe just to touch this leather can relieve stress”.

Mauro’s other gift is enabling us to see dilapidated, neglected Sanita and indeed Naples itself, in all its ruined beauty, in a different light. For his passion, drive and generosity speak of the unique spirit of a city that is unmatched in all of Italy. Despite its abundant historical, architectural and artistic wealth, or perhaps because of it, Naples remains ultimately unfathomable. But a single taste of that famous Neapolitan spirit will leave you hankering for more.

FACT FILE

For information on Omega Gloves, visit www.omegasrl.com.

Find details on Naples Photo Walks at walkandphoto.com.

The West Australian

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